Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left

Reviewed by Mat

Todd Wolfson, Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press 2014), 248 pp., $30 paper/$90 cloth

Social media, youth activism, global capitalist crisis and the prospects of the Left are all hot topics today. In the wake of the Great Crash of 2008, tyrants have been deposed, new parties or coalitions have emerged – in some cases even being elected to government – and the concept of the 99% vs. the 1% has entered popular consciousness to an extent none could have predicted when Occupy Wall Street first made headlines. Social actors of such diversity have entered the arena of political struggle that it is difficult to say what, if anything, binds them together as a social force, except perhaps an aversion to the System’s – or humanity’s – worst depredations. In this context Digital Rebellion is a salutary effort to summarize recent developments as well as providing tools for analysing their defining features. Grounded in what the author describes as “cycles of resistance,” “a new figure of resistance, a new socio-political formation” has arisen. This is the Cyber Left. This new formation bears certain traits, i.e., creative use of new media/social networks, desire for democratic participation and the physical and virtual occupation of space by mainly young people facing uncertain futures.

Beginning with periodization as defined by John Patrick Diggins in his book The Rise and Fall of the American Left, Wolfson focuses his study on one such period, namely the “after” and “before” of contemporary political struggle: after the “collapse of communism” in 1991 and before the Great Crash of 2008. As Wolfson puts it, “Digital Rebellion is an attempt to map the underlying logic of this new figure of resistance as it has materialized across the world. I undertake this mapping exercise through a historical and ethnographic analysis of the Global Social Justice Movement from 1994 to 2006, with a particular focus on the indymedia movement.” This is far from an arbitrary choice. Starting with the January 1, 1994 appearance of the Zapatistas on the world stage and the simultaneous and related development of the internet, Wolfson establishes the links that made these two events not only coincidental but interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

By focusing on two apparently disparate phenomena – the Zapatistas and Indymedia – Wolfson brings to light a vital connection which, in terms of popular opposition to triumphant capitalism, defines the period in question historically. The story of the Zapatistas is not only a struggle against NAFTA, transnational capital and the Mexican State; it is also the story of the birth of the internet as a site of resistance and mobilization. This was, in fact, originally articulated by the Zapatistas themselves and was by no means the invention of “techies” in the Global North. The details Wolfson provides are reason enough to read this book. The other interlocutor in this global dialogue, however, is the Cyber Left, as Wolfson describes it, and though closely connected at its birth with the Zapatistas and inspired by them, the Cyber Left was always more than a support group or media outlet for struggles in the Global South.

Young activists who acquired the technical skills to use computers and the internet, seized the opportunity to create alternatives to corporate media. It is no exaggeration to say that the software developed by Indymedia pioneered use of the internet in ways that are not only commonplace today but were in fact co-opted and corrupted by giant corporations such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook. Indeed, many of the claims these corporations make regarding “their” innovations are fraudulent. They merely stole the ideas (to use their own reading of Intellectual Property law) and actual inventions made by Indymedia and others, not to mention the interest in the internet as a medium of communication, which to a large extent was developed by online activists in the early 1990s.

Again, the details Wolfson provides are enlightening, especially for those unfamiliar with the way current technology was actually developed. The most important aspect, Wolfosn makes clear, was not principally technological but political. From the outset the developers of the software and related machines were altruistic young people seeking to change the world. This brought them into close proximity – physically and “virtually” – with diverse social movements in many parts of the world, of which the Zapatistas were the outstanding example. Furthermore, the development of Indymedia was itself the outgrowth of efforts to mobilize resistance to the WTO, specifically, the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle.

Wolfson charts the growth of Indymedia, as a worldwide network of “citizen journalists” and movement-building activists, into the much-heralded Global Social Justice Movement that confronted the WTO and other institutions as well as helping to build the World Social Forum. While much of Digital Rebellion is thus devoted to recounting this history, the book’s key contribution is its critique of the Cyber Left

What characterizes the Cyber Left, in Wolfson’s view, is a set of contradictions wherein technophilia collides with class and ethnic oppression/resistance in a dynamic constrained by opposition to centralized leadership (or leadership of any kind) and the concomitant incapacity to build organizations and make collective democratic decisions. In an effort to present contending views, Wolfson writes in a calm, even-handed manner, arriving only in the final pages of the book at what are his central criticisms. These, to my mind, form a good basis for continuing debate but are not, in and of themselves, conclusive.

Wolfson accurately portrays the pronounced tendency of the Cyber Left to uncritically assume the emancipatory potential of technology in general and computers and the internet in particular. He describes the excitement of many in the Cyber Left at discovering that millions of people worldwide were suddenly participants, through the new media, in shaping public discourse and mobilizing tens of thousands of activists. This excitement made it possible, for a time, to overlook certain inherent problems. These shortcomings are broken down in the following manner:

  1. A retreat from capitalism and class as analytic and political categories.
  2. Overreliance on technology and the belief that technological tools are the basis of the movement
  3. The logic of horizontalism and an antibureaucratic bias. Thus, “Cyber Left organizations do not ask, what do we want to achieve, and therefore what is the correct organizational form? Instead they begin with the organizational form, with the intent that through building ‘correct’ social structures and social relations, society will change – otherwise known as ‘prefigurative politics.’”
  4. Lack of political education and leadership development, leading to marginalization of the working class, the poor, people of color, immigrants and women.

Wolfson cites other critics of the “tyranny of structurelessness” not only to bolster his argument but to show the range of their views, from those of 1970s feminism to current analysts of the Arab Spring. A striking example is Jodi Dean’s trenchant criticism of the “logic of horizontalism,” which she characterizes as “an outgrowth of neoliberal capitalism and the consequent capture of new information and communication.”1 It hardly bears mentioning that these criticisms are central to current debate in oppositional movements from Podemos in Spain to Black Lives Matter in the US, from Indigenous Peoples’ organizing in Latin America to Open Source Software movements globally.

Wolfson correctly notes that these controversies are rooted not only in the events of 1994-2006 but in revolutionary struggles throughout the 20th century. Wolfson’s effort to situate Digital Rebellion and the Cyber Left in this larger context is among the most significant attributes of his book. But despite his highly critical approach, Wolfson overlooks two important elements germane to his subject.

The first is that many of the shortcomings he describes, especially as regards technology and technophilia, were predicted and critiqued as events unfolded (I myself wrote a number of articles to this effect while immersed in related activities in San Francisco in the 1990s). Far from sideliner nay-saying or a misguided Luddism, objections were raised to embolden oppositional forces and to expose the subterfuge of the prophets of “virtual reality” who were marketing, albeit in a new guise, the same old snake oil. Indeed, the “deification of the digit” was manifestly reactionary, especially as it mobilized a particularly noxious “libertarianism” equating that ideology with anti-authoritarian or anarchist politics. This is an important omission, not because of some after-the-fact moralizing, but because the same forces with similar arguments – radical vs reactionary – remain deployed on the field to this day.

Secondly, as Wolfson writes, there were a cluster of philosophers or social theorists whose thinking disproportionately influenced the formation of the Cyber Left. These include Ernesto Laclau/Chantal Mouffe and Michael Hardt/Antonio Negri. What has emerged in the post-2008 period – especially in contemporary Greece, and perhaps also in the case of Podemos in Spain – is that the theories advanced by these thinkers are flawed. While Wolfson duly notes their influence, he does not make clear how he views that influence, that is, the connection between the theories and failed practice. Very briefly, these thinkers envision a popular will mobilized by other means and along other lines than those associated with class struggle, relations of production or political parties of the Leninist type (vanguard, cadre-based parties of professional revolutionaries). While there are no doubt good reasons to criticize the theory and practice of revolutionaries, especially in the 20th century, issues like who owns everything and who does all the work, or, that the rich will never relinquish control voluntarily, or, that human emancipation has never been attained by parliamentary reform, cannot be “theorized” away. Even if there are promising lines of inquiry proposed by non-dogmatic thinkers, they nonetheless must confront basic facts when it comes to political power and the State.

To his credit, Wolfson does conclude with provocative questions. While acknowledging “important breakthroughs” especially concerning the use of “media and communications,” he does not see these as constituting a viable strategy. Indeed, the Cyber Left has been greatly weakened by its inability to address the very questions raised by its own practice. From this one might get the impression that Digital Rebellion is a discouraging take on what none deny was/is an important oppositional force. Actually, the opposite is the case. Digital Rebellion assumes the difficult task of objective partisanship, the telling of history from the standpoint of a committed participant, while maintaining a critical, indeed self-critical, perspective. This is a much-needed antidote to both the distortions of corporate media and the euphoric hosannas to technology that even many radicals are prey to. Perhaps most importantly, Digital Rebellion is useful as a guide – an insiders’ manual, if you will – to understanding an important dimension of political conflict in the 21st century.

Reviewed by Mat Callahan Author, The Trouble with Music Bern, Switzerland Note 1. Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in Circuits of Drive (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010).