Digital activism and the anti-cuts agenda

Outrage at the Coalition's austerity programme and the capacity for digital networked communications have given rise to a new activism. The common anti-cuts agenda is clear, but will new forms of communication, deliberation and organisation give rise to more radical objectives?

This article launches OurKingdom's debate on the Networked Society.

The combination of moral outrage and the capacity for digital networked communications has given rise to something new in the UK over the last few months, or at least something new in its level of intensity. That is, large-scale digitally-mediated activism. It has been emerging on different scales and intensities around the world over the last ten years or so, including Zapatista support networks, the alter-globalization movement and manifold others. In the UK, this recent wave of activism has largely been in response to the massive spending cuts planned by the Conservative-led coalition government in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and bank bailouts.

At the heart of this reaction is a raw sense of injustice at the reality that those who caused the crisis are not the ones having to pay for it – precipitating the appearance of groups like UK Uncut, Coalition of Resistance, False Economy and the Education Activist Network. Likewise, the outrage of students, lecturers, sixth formers and school children at the trebling of tuition fees and the slashing of higher education funding has been another catalyst for dissent against this programme of austerity that is, in reality, a sharp dose of labour discipline and the reinforcement of a neo-liberal ‘shock doctrine’.

Recognition Networks

What characterises this digitally mediated activism? I describe in my recent book ‘@ is For Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture’ a particular form that I refer to as a ‘quasi-autonomous recognition network’ (QARN). The idea conveys the patterns that modern digital networks enable in the forms and practices of activism, and that I believe have been very much in evidence over recent months. By using the Internet to communicate and organise, activists are able to leverage two of its key features: its distributed architecture and its scale-free topology.

Firstly, distribution refers to the anyone-to-anyone, or many-to-many, horizontal communications protocols that the Internet is built upon, and which support its openness and robustness. There are hierarchical elements that present points of vulnerability, such as the domain name system, but so long as the network is not decapitated this is not an impediment to the experience and routes of distribution. Secondly, the Internet is a scale-free network, which means there are no limits to the number of nodes that can connect to each other. This means that despite its general horizontal character, when certain nodes become connected enough they can function in ways not dissimilar to a broadcast medium, but without being restricted to a central point of broadcast.

However, digital networks are not simply parsing binary code, but are enabling communication. The Internet’s two-directional, or rather multidirectional, digital flows are entwined with dialogical human communications via text, image and sound. All natural language contains sets of validity claims that are invoked in acts of verbal communication. Claims to truth, truthfulness, rightness and comprehensibility are raised in most speech acts. These claims pertain to all manner of statements, all of which are directed at interlocutors with the aim of convincing them as to whether a claim about the world is true, the speaker is being honest or if an imperative to act is justified. In accepting, or rejecting, any particular proposition, speakers and listeners, or writers and readers, inherently recognise the validity, not only of their claims, but also the rights of each other to make them, to accept them or act on them.

To put it bluntly: we speak, we discuss, we decide and we act – in so doing, we form bonds of recognition, both in terms of what we agree about and in the recognition of our differences. This is what Jürgen Habermas describes as communicative action. It is therefore also inevitably imbedded in the flows and exchanges, the links and connection, of digital networks. When we put communicative action and distributed networks together, opportunities to engage in dialogue, to come to agreement and to act necessarily scale up. Because of the size of the Internet you are much more likely to find someone who does agree with you than if you are harassing passers by on a street corner. And of course, online, the more people who cluster together in agreement, the more likely they are to attract others who agree with them, exponentially.

This is how I imagine a recognition network: I say quasi-autonomous because the actors, while bound together with agreement on certain things, will disagree on others, so clusters will be identifiable with particular agendas, but will still be transversally connected across the network as a whole – these networks are somewhat autonomous, but only in relative terms. The QARNs are not limited in scale, or by orthodox or formal structures or institutional constraints, but they operate in and through the dynamic flows of communication constitutive of digital networks. In operating ‘across borders’, so to speak, they are also augmenting and supplementing concrete relations, given that the Internet is now so interwoven into everyday life to be largely inseparable from it.

UK Uncut

It strikes me that UK Uncut is an example of just such a network. Indeed to call UK Uncut a movement, or a party, or even really an interest group, is actually rather inaccurate, in that it exists outside many of the standard definitions for a social movement. Neither, however, is it a militant particularistic bunch of NIMBYs tying to protect a nice view – but rather a concerted response to a general assault on the welfare state. Its narrative is by now well known: formed initially by a group of friends in a pub frustrated by what they perceived as a lack of outlets to respond to an unjust spending cuts agenda, it is rooted in a gut reaction to something that is just downright wrong. This necessarily makes, and also rests on, a claim about broader social justice: that is, a basic fairness principle. It is a claim that is easy to grasp but deeply rooted and straightforward to match with specific cases.

The Web was able to translate a moment of irritation into a proposition aimed at anyone who would listen, and on the Web that’s a possible audience of billions. People agreed and a chain of recognition began to develop. There was a recognition of the rightness of the objection that it is intolerable for big businesses to avoid tax while those hardest hit pay. The claim scaled. People began to respond to the call to action, to take matters into their own hands, in their own ways, in their specific contexts – through self-organisation, but with a shared spine of values and orientations. In this instance, the availability of social media platforms has added another set of capacities.

The push capabilities of social media intensify the interrelations of interlocutors. For example, the time lines we all have in our Facebook and Twitter feeds effectively create personally-oriented trains of thought, dialogue and activity, which are built around an individual, but are enabled by the collective and collaborative exchange of multiple perspectives. As well as intensifying these relations, they speed up the process of interaction and – alongside mobile access – enable real-time coordination and action. It is this richness and speed of data exchange that offers a ‘really’ new dynamic, and which is ideally suited to tactical operation, movement and decision-making. The ‘wisdom of crowds’ thesis says it’s all about averaging out, but here it’s about finding intersections, connections, translations and transverse recognition – which necessitates maintaining differences: not moving to the mean but celebrating the shared.

While strategically social media is limited – it’s difficult to tease out nuanced argument in 140 characters – a surprising amount can still be done with this form. Yet, here the fact that on-line is never just on-line must be taken into account. Social bonds are formed within and through, but also in between, digital connections. In alter-globalization actions, the need for shared spaces of communication have long since been recognised with the forming of ‘hori-zones’ where conversation and strategic planning can occur. This can of course take place online but it’s more tricky, as UK Uncut twitter planning meetings have attested, but networks are part of the broader social fabric and must be understood as such.

Contested Space

This broader social context highlights the continuing significance of space: the need to inhabit it, to occupy it and to move through it at will. Digital activism does not diminish this reality; in fact it highlights just how much space is now processed though the virtual. Here the tactics of UK Uncut are again highly relevant because the immediate aim of all the organising is to disrupt space. To take the apparently banal non-political spaces of consumer capitalism and reveal them to be something other: spaces of coercion created by capital as part of its vast mechanism of class domination. The simple act of sitting down collectively in a ‘Top Shop’ has proven to be of such apparent danger that it requires a phalanx of police to defend the unrestricted flow of consumption with physical force and, at times, CS spray.

The coming together of digital networks and processes of mutual recognition, with the subversion and control of space, has been mirrored by recent student actions in defence of the public university system. In the most recent occupation, started on 21 March 2011, student activists at University College London made this explicit when (where else but in a blog) they announced that ‘[a]s students, we do not have the power to withdraw our labour in solidarity with staff, and so we have decided to occupy in order to fight the current attack on our lecturers’ pay, pensions and conditions.’

Guy Aitchison and Aaron Peters, in their contribution to the OurKingdom book ‘Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest’, examine the collaborative spirit of the student sit-ins during November and December 2010, arguing that the focus of the students was very much on finding rough consensus. The use of collective action, such as occupying space and coordinating sympathetic actions using social media, was supplemented by consensus-seeking deliberation, with mutual respect and horizontal democratic practices. Indeed, they describe the use of consensus-building techniques such as hand gestures designed to aid the process, in which points of agreement are found and strategic aims developed and – as they argue – ‘the emphasis is on finding common ground, rather than defeating opponents’. All this is vitally entwined with what they call the ‘open sourcing of political activism’.

Articulations 

While UK Uncut represents in some ways a conservative set of demands, well within the confines of a liberal democratic state, neo-liberalism has become so radicalised that a previously uncontroversial fairness principle has been unpicked to the extent that it is now a contested ideal opposed to a rampant ‘capitalist realism’. This means that an anti-cuts agenda is increasingly thrown into direct opposition with prevailing power, and as such pushed from being in a position of dissent to one of resistance. As the scale of the assault on the welfare state becomes clear, this necessity of resistance is resonating far beyond the original networks of student and anti-cuts activists and into more formal organisations and institutions. We can see recognition networks working around and through unions and NGOs, pushing them in democratic directions and challenging the limits of our expectations. The coming together of trades unions in protest on 26 March 2011, alongside the first waves of industrial action by lecturers, plus anti-cuts actions designed to augment and coincide with the union protests – promises to intensify these links. The common aim, to highlight and challenge the integrated nature of the cuts agenda, is clear.

While the expectation that the wealthy pay their fair share has been the collective demand so far, a most interesting question presents itself: will networks of recognition expand and find points of articulation with broader rebellious objectives? These are the objectives not just of resistance but of alternatives to capitalist exploitation that lead to enriching the common, not stripping it clean, for example in forms of collaborative and peer-to-peer production and the radical democratisation of politics.

One clear aim already emerging is the model of education as a common resource directed towards general human interests, not the betterment of a narrowly-defined business elite. The springing up of ‘free university’ actions and spaces attests to the nascent potential for participatory forms of social and economic organisation. In short, will we see an unfolding of radical possibilities from within the negative reaction of a crisis? I certainly hope so. 

Joss Hands teaches Communication and Media at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge and is author of @ is For Activism: Dissent Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture.