In the wake of the student movement’s success in stirring up some of the most rowdy street protests and wave of activism witnessed for decades in the UK, the inevitable internecine battles have begun. The division within the ranks has distilled into a war of words between young journalist, Laurie Penny (known for her well written and incisive street reports on the protests), and Alex Callinicos (central committee stalwart and key political theorist of the Socialist Workers Party) — a debate played out primarily on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, along with a meta-debate unfolding across numerous Facebook walls .
Penny’s offending words were an undeniably derogatory comparison between Socialist Worker sellers and cockroaches: “It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.” Consequently, the debate has for the most part centred on whether you need an organized movement in order to effect change, and, as a corollary, whether the print version of a political party’s newspaper is of any relevance for those involved in a networked movement of online blogs, Facebook events and Twitter feeds. In such fashion the question of technology is bundled in with the question of horizontal movement contra vertical, hierarchical direction.
Furthermore, Penny’s more important point, for which the anachronistic image of the dogged SW seller is merely a graphic representation of a much deeper jab at the Party—indeed, all Party structures—is that the ideological battles associated with Partys peddling their own, exclusive, ideologically orientated papers is defunct for contemporary political practice. One could even go a step further and read between the lines of what Penny is really trying to say: the only reason they are their pushing their particular paper, that they have specifically published in a print medium, is in order for them to distribute a controlled message in conformity with the specific ideological prejudices of their own Party. Thus, the SW paper comes to stand for a more sinister attempt to collapse the multitudinous particularity of the student movement—what has provided it with such forward movement and positivity—back into the quagmire of the sectarian politics of the “old left”.
Callinicos’ response was to negate Penny’s tabula rasa presentation of the student movement as an absolute break from the impasses and problematics of “old left” politics, and conversely to highlight the continuities suppressed by fixating on the technological medium used to organize – thereby delinking the question of technology with that of organization to highlight historical continuity. He writes: ”The student protests have in many ways been highly traditional forms of collective action. True, the internet and in particular Facebook and other social media have emerged as very powerful means of communication and mobilisation. But what they have helped to deliver were demonstrations that have confronted both the forces and the symbols of the British state, not in cyberspace, but on the streets.” Subtlety, Callinicos bypasses Penny’s central contention regarding the mediation, or outright vacation, of ideological difference, to focus on the historical continuity of the problem of jointly organizing workers and students to marshal sufficient economic and political clout; and how this still overdetermines any attempt to think ‘outside the box’ or in ‘day zero’ fashion.
On his own re-figured ground Callinicos is certainly right: the problems facing the radical left have not been undone via Twitter; the political continuities rendered invisible in the enthusiasm of youthful narcissism are stickier than anyone may want to believe. However, in another way, Callinicos’ answer serves merely to deflect from a greater underlying issue. It is not necessarily just a Twitter high induced, ahistorical mirage that gives the sense that ideological difference has been pushed aside. If technology is considered to operate in the communicative exchange of the superstructural realm, then it is apparent that it does not fundamentally refigure the structural basis upon which so many of the sectarian ideological struggles emerged. What Penny perceives as the irrelevance of ideological differences is therefore just a de facto repetition of what was previously consciously theorised and centrally determined as a moment requiring a ‘united front’: where said differences are put aside for a temporary defensive measure against a common enemy.
This points to a more basic issue, not touched upon by either Penny or Callinicos — that the character of the movement, and its resulting organizational forms, are a product of its strategic aims. And this requires a recognition that at present the student movement aims for little more than maintenance of the status quo (or in its most radical fringes, abolition of tuition fees introduced in 1998). This is by no means a bad thing given that the novel alternative is so obviously worse. But without a positive vision for reordering education, the economy, society, and so on, it is obviously that ideological differences are unlikely to divide the protest assemblage. Yet the very thing that provides the de facto unity of the movement is at the same time its most problematic limitation. It is increasingly easy to rally people in defence of the status quo, but it remains as difficult as ever—perhaps even more difficult—to win people over to a cause to implement change. For example, the campaign to get Rage Against the Machine to Number 1 was in one sense an expression of people power, but at the same time represented the regurgitation of the familiar and the commonly agreed upon in place of a new musical breakthrough. In ‘Capitalist Realism’ Mark Fisher posits kitsch as the hallmark of the exhaustion emblematic of late capitalism; and could it be that much the same problem — the problems of real abstraction — have subsumed even the internal resistance to the capitalization process.
More than blogs versus newspapers, networks versus Partys, all those concerned with these issues may do well to consider, instead, the conclusion of Nic Bueret writing in The Commune: “Eventually the inspiration of the initial fight and victory will fade, and the content of the revolt will have to stand on its own. If the content of that struggle is only to restore that machine, to defend the freedom to be unequal, failure is all we can hope for.”