DICTATORS, despots and old-fashioned reactionaries seem to be taking power effortlessly.
In Egypt, the army are mopping up the last crumbs of the revolution and the tyrannical Hosni Mubarak has been released and exonerated of any role in killing protesters during the Arab Spring. He’ll now live out his life as the world’s most privileged old-age pensioner.
Assad, meanwhile, is spraying around chemical weapons like weed killer, and Trump is bombing Syria to the whooping and hollering of liberal pundits who are suddenly his loudest cheerleaders.
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In Turkey, Erdogan has pushed through wild new powers to strengthen his personal grip on government.
It’s an extraordinary turnaround in fortunes for authoritarian leaders. Between about 2011 and 2013, cyber-optimists boasted about “Twitter and Facebook Revolutions” that were putting an end to despotism everywhere.
Internet-savvy youths, we were told, would never tolerate old-fashioned repressive rule. Egypt, Syria and Turkey were the centre-pieces of this new cyber-utopian anti-politics. These countries were meant to prove that no despot was safe in a world where youths held smartphones aloft like Molotov cocktails.
“The old style of revolution was to have a leader,” explained Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive who became a leading spokesperson in the Arab Spring. “But in our revolution, and other revolutions that took place in the Arab world, it was a leaderless movement. Everything was contributing.
“In Revolution 2.0, no one is leader – everyone is leader”.
Ghonim’s metaphor here links old-fashioned revolution, with its political party-building, to web 1.0, while the “new” leaderless revolution 2.0 is like social media, where users create the content.
The internet-native middle-class youth wanted the revolution to be an input system for their content, like Facebook. But in Egypt the vanity of this position quickly became clear. The Army used the division between the youthful, liberal content-creators and the traditional party-building Muslim Brotherhood to squeeze the revolution to death and retake power. Now, Mubarak walks free. It’s a fitting metaphor for our world today.
Sadly, the internet isn’t giving protest movements any obvious advantage over authoritarian systems. Indeed, the opposite may be true. One study, for example, suggests that 70 percent of civil resistance campaigns succeeded in the 1990s, before the current internet age, but the figure since 2010 is just 30 per cent.
In other words, old-fashioned power hierarchies are rather enjoying the age of social media freedom and self-expression.
To some extent, this is simply because authoritarians, reactionaries and big money have learned and adapted. The Tories now spend millions on social media: at one stage, the figure was £100,000 per month on Facebook advertising alone. Donald Trump spent tens of millions of dollars on the same platform. In less liberal states, the government can simply control the network directly. But that scarcely matters, because Facebook is obsessed with generating revenue, and it allows big money to essentially buy space on your wall.
The old politics simply got hipper and smarter. Now social media is working to their advantage, just like the old media, instead of benefitting nimble protestors.
Leftists were sometimes guilty of believing the hype. Certainly, many of us warned about over-estimating the role of social media at the time. We pointed out that pro-democracy and revolutionary movements existed before social media, something the media seemed determined to ignore.
We noted that, at best, social media was a tool towards organising around these goals. And we said the movement needed real demands to unite around. But the media pundits wanted a good story, and nothing sounds hipper than horizontal organising on the internet.
That story became so overwhelming that many people started to believe it, including the pro-Western, English-speaking end of the protest movements.
It also spread to the West itself. Occupy Wall Street drew influence directly from the perceived horizontal model of the Arab Spring. Occupy movements spread across the world with liberating speed. But within months, unable to agree on a programme that fitted everyone’s preferences for self-expression, they had all collapsed.
None of this means social media is unimportant or “bad”. It simply means that it won’t prove to be the liberating force many people expected. Like any medium, its introduction may benefit youthful protestors at first, but eventually it starts to reflect the world around it just like the bad old media. So, in this age of authoritarian, powerful men taking control of the world once more, that’s what we need to be aware of. We need to learn that “clicktivism” just isn’t ever going to be enough, and no amount of tweeting, posting or sharing can ever replace what’s necessary to build genuine counter-hegemonic power.
You can’t just “hack”politics to rebuild democracy. We need to instead rebuild institutions, like trade unions, to protect the weak from the strong. Only by organising – face-to-face, person-by-person – can we hope to build the utopian platform necessary to take on the new tyrannical regimes.