Blog post

How the internet has failed as an organizing tool

Jonathan Crary argues that there are no revolutionary subjects on social media.

Jonathan Crary14 April 2022

How the internet has failed as an organizing tool

By the mid-1990s, the destabilization of work, intensifying economic inequality, dismantling of public services, structural creation of indebtedness, and many other factors required new ways of maintaining political docility. Limitless digital diversions were a deterrent to the rise of anti-systemic mass movements.

Part of the optimistic reception of the internet was the expectation that it would be an indispensable organizing tool for non-mainstream political movements, leveraging the impact of smaller or marginal forms of opposition. In reality, the internet has proven to be a set of arrangements that prevent or close off even the tentative emergence of sustained anti-systemic organizing and action. Certainly, the internet can function instrumentally transmitting information to large numbers of recipients, for example, in aid of short-term, single-issue mobilization, often linked to identity politics, climate marches, or transient expressions of outrage. Also, it should be remembered that broad-based radical movements and far larger mass mobilizations were achieved in the 1960s and early ’70s without any fetishization of the material means used for organizing.

Accounts of the internet as an egalitarian, horizontal field of “public spheres” have deleted any class-based language or advocacy of class struggle at a historical moment when class antagonisms are as acute as ever. Indeed, the internet complex has never been deployed with even minor success in furthering  an anti-capitalist or anti-war agenda. It disperses the disempowered into a cafeteria of separate identities, sects, and interests and is especially effective at solidifying reactionary group formations.

The insularity it produces becomes an incubator of particularisms, racisms, and neo-fascisms. Identity politics, as Nancy Fraser and others have argued, has been crucial to the strategies of “progressive” neoliberal elites: to ensure that a potentially powerful majority cannot recognize itself, being split into separate and competing factions from which a handful of representatives are allowed conspicuous entry into the meritocracy. The internet carries this strategy of highlighting diversity and encouraging compartmentalization to a new level of effectiveness. At the same time, the fact that social media can circulate only the most easily packaged ideas dilutes and domesticates potentially radical or insurgent programs, especially those which do not produce immediate results, or which might require long-term engagement.

Communication theorists have identified ways in which forms of media become “steering mechanisms” serving to limit, shape or redirect public debate. The internet has become the most infinitely nuanced and powerful of such steering mechanisms in the history of mass media. It would be difficult to find an ongoing “conversation” that has not been shaped by increasingly efficient mechanisms for orienting online exchanges and intervening in their content.

Numerous activist groups have recognized the trap of social media after experiencing forms of sabotage, disruption, and surveillance, as well as a weakening of trust and camaraderie among real world communities of face-to-face participants. To take one of many examples, the Florida group Dream Defenders, formed in the aftermath of the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, suspended and subsequently marginalized their use of social media because of its deleterious impact on their organization and its goals. In the words of one of their organizers:

All the fighting that happens on social media is indicative of the fact that people really don’t know each other. Social media provides the illusion of deep relationships. So long as people don’t really know each other, the work is never going to go that far. This is doing the work of COINTELPRO in the sense that you see people calling each other out online, and you see all these rifts being created. Social media is doing that to us. Stepping back from all that is really important right now. We’re in a really critical time where all of this could actually kill the movement . . . Being off social media is an opportunity for us to really understand how it’s impacting us, how it’s being used to manipulate us by our oppressor.

An electoral politics based around involving people through internet solicitation, as some center-left parties in Europe have attempted, inevitably produces a de-politicization of those whose participation is the ostensible goal. “Politics” becomes continuous with the same gestures and keystrokes, the same recourse to surveys and opinion polls that strengthen one’s integration into the routines of consumerism and self-administration. The result is one step forward, three steps back. Unless the difficult task of creating new cooperative and communal forms of living becomes a political priority, all kinds of online activism will continue to occur innocuously, without attaining any radical or foundational changes. Demonstrations, protests, marches take place but, simultaneously, there is a re-immersion in the atomizing separation of digital life. The bonds that seem to have blossomed in the midst of action evaporate. Even in the actual event of marches, occupations, liberated zones, and mobilizations of all kinds, group solidarity is reduced by the critical mass of individuals who are also elsewhere, clinging to their devices and to the self-promotional resources of social media.

Despite a small uptrend in openness to the possibilities of socialism in the US, it has mainly led to debate about candidates for electoral office and stand-alone economic initiatives. Missing has been the understanding that socialism cannot simply be implemented on the level of governmentality and economic policies but that, more importantly, building toward it requires changes in consciousness and everyday activity. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many anarcho-socialists practiced ways of living and connecting with others that would prefigure or anticipate a larger social world of mutual support.

During those years, especially in Europe, the flourishing of communal groups and workers’ organizations provided foundations for de-privatized forms of coexistence and sharing of resources. For the German revolutionary Gustav Landauer, “socialism is the continual becoming of community in human- kind”; it is action that carries its ends within itself. The capitalist state, he wrote, “is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” Landauer recognized the necessity of becoming new kinds of subjects, of making the difficult transition to prioritizing responsibility to others over the mirage of individual autonomy. Such a transition will never happen online: the internet overwhelmingly produces self-interested subjectivities incapable of imagining goals or outcomes other than private, individual ones. However, for the minority committed to social change, the idea of a radical transformation to modes of living is rarely prioritized over the sheltered habituations of online activity. As long as one panics at the idea of sharing and cooperating with others as a way of life, one is incapable of revolt and remains dependent on existing institutions. The truth is irrefutable: there are no revolutionary subjects on social media.

- the above is excerpted from Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World by Jonathan Crary, out now.

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]

In this uncompromising essay, Jonathan Crary presents the obvious but unsayable reality: our ‘digital age’ is synonymous with the disastrous terminal stage of global capitalism and its financialisation of social existence, mass impoverishment, ecocide, and military terror. Scorched Earth surveys the wrecking of a living world by the internet complex and its devastation of communities and their capacities for mutual support.

Scorched Earth
Selected as one of LitHub's 38 Favorite Books of 2022Finalist for the 2022 Big Other Book Award for NonfictionIn this uncompromising essay, Jonathan Crary presents the obvious but unsayable reality...