Show Hide image

Revolts don’t have to be tweeted: Laurie Penny on a force bigger than technology

There is a lot more to the recent uprisings than just the knock-on effects of social media.

An extraordinary thing has happened. In Egypt, a million-strong movement forced the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's government, even though the state had pulled the plug on the internet. After over a week without reliable access to their Facebook profiles, the people of Egypt did not abandon their revolution. They have forced concessions from the government and sent shock waves through the region - without firm help from Twitter. What on earth is going on?

Despite what you might hear on the news, there's a lot more to the recent uprisings than just the knock-on effects of social media. As the world's press has struggled to retain control of the narrative, it has seized on how many of the dissidents are - gasp - organising online.

In what appears to be dogged unwillingness to recognise the economic brutality of governments as the root cause of popular unrest, news people everywhere have boggled exhaustively over the way in which protesters in Cairo, Tunis, Paris and London are using the internet to communicate. What did they think we were going to use - smoke signals?

Of course, technology has been a shaping force in these uprisings. The internet is a fascinating and useful tool, the best we have for organising and sharing information.

The low cost of participation in digital networks allows protesters to circumvent the sometimes arthritic hierarchies of the old far left and to organise horizontally, while the instant dissemination of camera and video footage and reportage from citizen journalists means that the truth can travel around the world before government propaganda gets its boots on. This has allowed the protests to grow and evolve faster than anyone expected.

At times of crisis, human beings have a reassuring tendency to use the best tools at their disposal to steal a march on the enemy, especially if native fluency with those tools gives us an edge over our oppressors. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that young protesters and their allies are organising on Twitter and Facebook.

Capital punishment

The internet is a useful tool, but it is just a tool. HTML does not cause mass uprisings any more than a handgun causes mass murder - although, for people of a certain mindset, the mere proximity of the tool is enough to set dangerous thoughts in motion. The internet isn't the reason people are getting desperate and it isn't the reason things are kicking off. Things are kicking off for one reason and one reason alone: there is a global crisis of capital.

The writing is on the wall, with or without the web. Across the world, ordinary people - including a huge, seething pool of surplus graduates without employment - are finding their lives measurably less tolerable than they had anticipated. They are realising that they are not suffering alone, or by accident, but because the capitalist classes have consistently put their own interests first.

The writing is on the wall, and it would still be there if we had to paint it on with mud and sticks. Technology is defining the parameters of global protest in 2011 but it is a crisis of capital that has set the wheels of revolt in motion.

 

Laurie will be speaking on the politics and new media panel at the Progressive London conference this Saturday.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

Getty
Show Hide image

However Labour do on Thursday, Jeremy Corbyn's still the right leader

When the Blairites talk about winning by appealing to the country, what do they mean?

Commentators have spent the last few weeks predicting exactly what will happen on Thursday and, more importantly, what the results will mean. One thing is certain: no matter what the Labour party achieves, Jeremy Corbyn’s position is safe. Not only is the membership overwhelmingly supportive of the leader, but also Blairites would be foolish to launch an attack with the European referendum just over a month away.

So whatever happens on Thursday, Jeremy Corbyn’s position will be as secure as it is at this exact moment in time. I want to go further than explaining simply why whatever happens on Thursday will not spell the end for the Labour leader by arguing why, in any case, it should not.

Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party with an astonishing mandate. Paid-up Labour party members, Labour supporters and Labour affiliates gave this to him. Polling consistently showed that the ability to ‘win’ elections was not the reason people voted for Jeremy. I don’t think that the Labour leader’s opponents are accurate in suggesting that this is because Labour supporters are self-confessed losers. In many ways we are the realists.

I am perfectly aware of the current political ground. The country is largely opposed to accepting more refugees. People who rely on state benefits have been stigmatised. Discrimination is rampant within our society. A majority of people are found to oppose immigration. So when the Blairites talk about winning by appealing to the country, what do they mean exactly? I’m sure that even Liz Kendall would not have mounted an election campaign that simply appealed to the way issues were seen in the polls.

Jeremy Corbyn inherited an uphill battle; he didn’t create it. Anyone who suggests so is shamelessly acting so as to discredit his leadership. Labour’s message is of equality and solidarity. Our party proudly stands as an institution that seeks to pull down the barriers that bar the less privileged from achieving. But when the nation is gripped by the fear of the ‘other’ and man has been pitted against woman in a war of all against all how can Labour’s message break through?

The answer is time. Labour needs time to rebuild and assess the situation on the ground. Labour needs time to talk to people. Labour needs time to change the frame of the debate and the misleading narrative that the Tories are proud to spout because it wins them votes. The Labour party is better than that. We have to be better than that. If we are not then what is the point in the Labour party at all?

The idea that Jeremy Corbyn could possibly change the entire narrative of the nation in 8 months is laughable. But he has started to. People have seen through the Tory lies of helping those in work get on. People have seen the government cut support for the poor while giving to the rich. At the same time they have been fed lies about the Labour leader. Jeremy Corbyn is an extremist. Jeremy Corbyn is too radical. Jeremy Corbyn is a friend of terrorists. Jeremy Corbyn wants to disband the army. Jeremy Corbyn wants to talk to ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn hates Britain. And so on.

In such an environment how is it surprising that after just 8 months Labour may not make huge gains across the country? It is likely that people will call for Jeremy to resign. When they do, ask what Andy, Liz or Yvette would have done differently. They would have needed time too.  

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.