This essay, “How Anger Took Elites by Surprise,” by Chrystia Freeland for Reuters, is well-written and full of a sense that the protests of 2011 have accomplished the important tasks of showing elites that the world is not asleep while they take advantage of their power. However, Freeland is, I think, misreading Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote (and who, I’ll admit, I never thought I’d be defending) in the New Yorker that “the revolution will not be tweeted” to make the point that, ultimately, physical confrontation and gathering will always be necessary.
And what we’ve seen this year backs up that claim, I ‘d say. While it’s true that enormously powerful social movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy were magnified and sped up by the use of social media, they would never have been as effective had they not consisted of people meeting in physical locales. I think that most people involved in the Occupy movement would agree that physical space and face-to-face confrontation was absolutely essential for the movement to emerge and grow–after all, what is the General Assembly without a public location for people to come together, or without the people making hand signals, speaking through the human microphone, getting emotional, fending off detractors, and seeing each other face-to-face as unique individuals? Meeting on Twitter, on the other hand, creates what Gladwell calls “weak ties”–your “friends” on Facebook are the same thing. These are virtual relationships, and therefore, simply are not as powerful as the real thing.
The urban theorist Andy Merrifield is saying something similar in the January 2012 issue of Harper’s, where he explains in an essay called “Here Comes Everybuddy” (yes, a reference to Clay Shirky) that protest in the post-industrial age is not necessarily a working-class revolution as Marx had hoped, but rather an encounter of diverse subjects with varying class interests. “We who encounter one another, who find affinity with one another, are not so much class-conscious as collectively conscious of an enemy; conscious of a desire to do something about that enemy, of wanting no truck with that enemy’s game.”
Citing another venerable Marxist sociologist, Marshall Berman, Merrifield writes that what unites protesters against economic injustice these days is not so much that they are working together in a factory, but rather that they all need to “sell their labor in order to live,” waking up everyday wondering, “now what have I got that I can sell?” The precariousness described here is something that working-class folks have lived with for a long time; what’s different now is that the neoliberal era has brought the middle-classes into the throes of debt and lack as social good like health care and education have become increasingly privatized, and speculative capital has replaced investment in actual human capital.
The space where this meeting happens is ultimately urban space–where people can reclaim something of the commons, in the form of public squares or, in New York’s case, privately-owned public spaces. Merrifield sees this reclaiming as a “politics of the encounter,” which
“utters no rights, voices no claims. It just acts, affirms, takes back.” It’s worth considering that there is no black-and-white answer to the question of social media’s efficacy here. When we lack a common space to come together and act politically, through what David Graeber calls “prefigurative democracy”–creating a microcosmic society based on what might an ideal society might look like–then virtual space fills in that void.
In another vein, we might consider that, per Gladwell’s argument that we are “a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro” where sit-ins sparked the civil rights movement, the target of today’s social movement is more removed and abstract than it was a few decades ago. The housing crisis and recession were brought on by a labyrinthine system of financial institutions, and the closest that protesters have been able to get to any lunch counters has been Zuccotti Park.