Matthew W. Martin
The Internet has been used for the organisation of protests, notably the J18 protest that took place in the City of London on June 18, 1999 and the protests against the World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO) that took place on November 30, 1999.
Three aspects of organisation can be surmised with regard to the use of the Internet for such purposes:
1. Ease of communication.
2. Participation in organising – not something which is left to an elite group of organisers.
3. The organisation was performed transparently.
These three threads are consistent with the principles of leaderless resistance or “disorganisation” to which Reclaim The Streets (RTS) aspires (see: www.gn.apc.org/rts/).
The Internet is used to disseminate information. This includes rapid reporting on activist-run web sites of activities. The use of web sites has allowed those participating in protests to express their views and experiences via a medium not subject to misrepresentation.
Why is traditional media prone to misrepresentation? According to Herman & Chomsky’s propaganda model a number of framing conditions provide built-in bias to reporting. These include:
1. Concentration of ownership,
3. Sourcing of news items,
4. Flack (accusations of bias),
5. The enemy (Communism, rogue states, terrorism, drugs, etc.).
Clearly something that may spark debate about the merits of consumerism verse alternatives is not in keeping with the requirements of advertising. Such a topic does not lend itself to the generation of a buying environment.
The sourcing of news items is important. Activists have made their view points and personal accounts available on the Internet. Yet these go unused by the mainstream media. This may be the result of reporters not being used to accessing this type of source. The regular sources of news – official press releases from companies, PR agencies and government departments are much more familiar.
Aside from the framing conditions identified by Herman & Chomsky there is active black propaganda. For instance, in 1993 the London Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times ran stories purporting police finds of weapons. Detailed descriptions of booby traps were also included in these articles, such as spiked pits. The London Evening Standard even compared environmentalists to the neo-Nazi group Blood and Honour.
Misrepresentation is more the rule than outright black propaganda. For the J18 protest organising and discussion ahead of the protest took place openly on the Internet. Yet the Daily Mail reported that activists actively used military level security to prevent e-mail being read. This is for the most part untrue.
The disorganisation preferred by groups such as Reclaim The Streets typifies an attitude towards power and indicates their origins. Its is also an attempt or represents a strategy of avoidance towards the intervention of power. This is not organisation into some cell-like structure of underground resistance. To come to such a conclusion would be to misunderstand. It is a reflection of the fragmentation of society. Further, it provides a strength, allowing flexibility and an openness for others to join in activities without need of membership, on a spontaneous, adhoc basis. Information about how to organise a protest has been made freely available, encouraging others to become involved. The Internet readily lends itself to such aims and approach.
While road protests may target local issues about traffic congestion, good planning and pollution, global issues are also at stake. Clearly pollution is one such global issue. Another is participation. Often planning decisions are taken by bureaucrats many years in advance without public knowledge or consent. This has reached its height with the World Trade Organisation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and World Bank. Such global super-quangos are an indicator that power has moved to a global - or transnational - level.
Here it is useful to differentiate between the terms globalisation and planetisation. Globalisation refers to the global interdependence of economic phenomena. Planetisation indicates that the system has reached its limit in space, that is the whole planet. There is no longer any space that is not systemic.
This situation has given rise to resistance that is global, such as the global street parties held last year in more than thirty cities, aimed against global conglomerations of power, such as the protests in Seattle on November 30, 1999.
These acts are clearly symbolic. In order to examine the nature of such symbolic acts I will draw upon the work of Alberto Melucci, the Italian sociologist and psychoanalyst.
Melucci sees an increasing proportion of our experience as “nth” degree experience, being increasingly constructed by information broadcast by the media and internalised by individuals who interact. This leads to a spiral transforming of reality, becoming ever more involved with signs and symbols. Symbols are an important resource, but only once basic material needs have been met.
Symbols have their material basis in the human ability to construct autonomous symbolic systems. These symbol systems retroact with material reality feeding the spiral. In order to exercise control possession of the code – that is the means of interpretation – is required. Only the code makes streams of information meaningful.
Code inscribing the possibilities of language are designed and spread by agents who are often invisible, unknown or extremely difficult to locate. This gives rise to new forms of power, less visible and more dispersed than before.
These new forms of power are at work, attempting to impose codes that structure the very way individuals make sense of their actions. The naming of reality becomes all important. Formulation of expression determines what questions one is able to ask and how our actions are informed. In the absence of a code that is outside the control of power, autonomy is not possible.
Melucci argues that there is a trend here. Investment of resources into the neurosciences (especially motivational systems) and genetics indicates that in the not too distant future further levels of control will be sort. This conclusion is simply a logical extension of a tendency towards increasing control, which not everyone wants.
At times power clearly has a eugenics-like attitude. For example, the Battle of the Beanfield, where a convoy of hippies was attacked remorselessly by police. Lord Cardigan upon whose land these events occurred was outraged and was eventually forced out of the Conservative Party after a brutal press campaign slandering him as insane. Every now and then such heinous acts occur. What use then may future technologies be put to if no challenge concerning moral codes is made?
From Modernity we have inherited the individual conceived by self as individual. Today equality may be stated more in terms of access to resources of individuation, with the apparent potential for everyone to access these resources. New forms of power seek to control access to resources of individuation. Denial to some leads to conflict.
Where meaning is formed is the primary nexus for conflict. This is not a psychological level but a level of social life increasingly located in the inner experience of individuals. It is into this level that power now extends through control of the code. This cross-over between the social space and inner space of the individual makes traditional terminology imprecise.
A further development is the disembodiment of the logics of domination. Where conflicts are no longer fixed to specific actors or locations but move planet-wide. Thus conflict occurs in repeating patterns around the globe and on a global scale. People in disparate locations face similar challenges to their local environment. Yet also, the stage is planet-wide.
An example of the disembodiment of power on a global scale is the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). This was a treaty of great significance, providing Trans-National Corporations (TNCs) with a legal status not far from that of Nation States. The effects would be global. Yet the MAI was negotiated without public knowledge at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) headquarters in Paris, until a group of activists got hold of a draft copy and published it on the Internet. Nick Mabey of the World Wildlife Fund who had been working with the OECD for many years had never been informed about the MAI despite the impact for environmental legislation. Mabey only found out about it after the draft version was published on the Internet. He commented that, “This is the final part of a global economic constitution”. Perhaps an overstatement - but not a great one. The MAI has since been officially shelved in the face of massive resistance in France. It became too embarrassing for the French government, especially when the future of the French film industry appeared threatened and that industry threw its weight behind the campaign to stop the MAI. The MAI was officially shelved. But in reality its now being negotiated under the auspices of the WTO. That the MAI is little known outside of France is an indicator of how little the public are informed.
Some in the protest movement, especially fractions of RTS and also anti-road protestors, are influenced by the Situationist Guy Deboard. In Deboard’s Society Of The Spectacle society is portrayed as being lived one removed. The double meaning of the word “representation” being both representation of ourselves by politicians and a representation of politics which we do not actually participate in – nor are we shown everything. The image mediates our experience. Embracing such an idea is consistent with a rejection of an invasive power that seeks to control codes and thus the means of internal representation for the individual. It is a useful strategy for maintaining a position of true independence. Similarly, Baudrillard points out the spectacular nature of present day society with his progression of simulcra.
Some campaigners have steered away from the calculated production of a media image because this would simply be absorbed into the larger spectacle, becoming a tool of power. Swampy may be sited as an example of the absorption and sucking dry of a protest image by the spectacular nature of the image. Swampy may be seen as a protestor who became a media personality and ended-up drawing attention away from the real issues (giving rise to the term Swampification). This demonstrates the difficulty in maintaining control over representation once the arena of the spectacle has been entered. A direct approach, attempting to bypass spectacle, is often sort since then individuals can feel that they are maintaining control over the meaning of their actions, at least for themselves. Others prefer to generate spectacle in order to gain attention.
The question is how do we deal with this? Do we forsake all images in seeking a better, simpler life? Or, do we embrace the image as liberatory, processing the streams of information and retransmitting in a form of our own by taking control of the codes - at least for ourselves? Perhaps it will be here that the Internet comes into its own, since free exchange of information will allow those with sufficient awareness to decide on the code that they use for themselves. This may spread in a reflexive manner. But to think that other forms of media will cease to have an influence would be naive. Who controls the codes wins the war.
Baudrillard, J.; Simulations; Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series; (1983).
Debord, G.; The Society Of The Spectacle; Zone Books; (1995).
Herman, E.S. & Chomsky, N.; Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy Of The Mass Media; Vintage; (1994).
Melucci, A.; Individual Experience and Global Issues in a Planetary Society; Social Science Information; 35(3); pp485-509; (1996).
This essay was written in the Summer of 2000 following a presentation made at the Living In A Material World 2000 (LIAM 2000) conference, hosted by Coventry University. The essay was published in a collection of essays resulting from the LIAM 2000 conference.
Matthew W. Martin.