During the student protests in Britain against a ridiculous proposal to raise fees to £9,000 a year in 2010 there was much debate about the impact of the Internet on the movement. It is worth reminding ourselves that the movement saw the largest and most militant student protests in Britain ever. Three large demonstrations (including the biggest student demo ever of around 100,000) ended in rioting. among the ‘highlights’ of these actions; the Conservative Party Headquarters getting attacked and then, on a separate demo, the Treasury’s ‘bomb proof’ windows being smashed, two royals had their car trashed while on the way to the theatre and meanwhile, back in Parliament Square on the same day, Churchill’s statue was redecorated (again!). Moreover, despite losing on the fees issue, the student protests of late 2010 are now seen by many mainstream commentators as an important precursor to the riots of August 2011 which swept through many English cities in the wake of the police killing of Mark Duggan.
One important aspect of the student protest movement which made it so different to many previous campaigns was that it was not controlled by the National Union of Students. The dead-hand of the NUS bureaucracy quickly lost its grip as rank and file students began organising for themselves using social media to subvert the more ritualised and passive forms of protest preferred by their ‘leaders’.
Since 2010 we have witnessed a growing trend internationally of social media based movements coming to the fore. The Arab Spring with initially successful revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yeman; the Movement of the Squares in Greece and Spain; OccupyWall Street and its myriad offspring and most recently; Anonymous doing their thing in up to 450 cities world-wide on November 5th of this year.
Traditionally protests have been organised in a somewhat predictable top-down fashion. A group calls a national demonstration, prints and distributes posters and leaflets. Local branches fly-post and hand out flyers, perhaps organise public meetings and then book coaches and sell tickets. Outside of the context of demonstrations, progressive movements and left parties have had print publications to serve as their main means of communication. With these publications came power as the leadership of any organisation typically retained control over the editorial line of the organisations’ publications and this served to reinforce the political line of the leadership.
By contrast ‘horizontalism’ became a media catch phrase in describing the student movement and subsequent movements. The ‘old’ left were (not for the first time) declared obsolete as activists no longer needed or wanted to wait for the weekly paper or monthly magazine to consume the party line, they could distil their own perspective from hundreds of blogs and twitter feeds and then disseminate their own personal synthesis via You Tube.
One clear example of how the party line (of whatever party you wish to choose) was being undermined by this process, occurred during the recent SWP split when it was noted that Lenin’s Tomb a blog run by one of the party leaderships’ chief critics was getting more hits each week than the website of Socialist Worker.
The influence of social media is not all positive however. There tends to be an element of ‘hit or miss’ about some of the protests organised on-line. For example the London event for the recent Global March Against Monsanto attracted barely 300 people, far fewer than the 750 who had pledged to attend on the respective Facebook page.
More fundamental issues loom when we consider the Internet and all associated social media is owned and controlled by major corporations and government spying agencies track surfing patterns and e-mails that display subversive intentions.
The impact of social media has both complemented and contributed to a left in flux. In Britain, the decline of Trotskyism has left a vacuum yet to be filled but it will not be filled by another tendency selling papers in the street.
So where does this leave those who, like the supporters of this blog, believe that the left still needs some kind of centralised, co-ordinating body to take the resistance beyond militant protest to the overthrow of the system and secure its replacement with something better. What is the role of a central committee or whatever equivalent body in the Internet age?