Pondering Information and Communication in Contemporary Anti-Capitalist Movements

Pondering Information and Communication in Contemporary Anti-Capitalist Movements

Steve Wright

What follows are some thoughts about the role played by information and communication technologies (ICT) within current movements against global capital. These reflections are prompted by my own passing involvement in a number of such online projects from the mid-nineties onwards. Is the nature of information and communication something self-evident, or instead might they be too often taken for granted, and perhaps deserving of broader discussion?

Mass actions by networks that identify themselves as anti-capitalist have prompted both extensive mainstream media coverage and broad public interest in recent years. Nor has all of this attention been drowned out by what Matthew Fuller (2002) calls the current 'war over the monopoly on terror'. As is proper, the anti-capitalist potential (or otherwise) of such movements has been widely debated. Amongst other things, this have involved assessment of their engagement (or otherwise) with contemporary class composition, and the risks within many of them of particular understandings of political practice: above all, the 'activist' syndrome (see, amongst others, Aufheben 2002; RTS 1999). Even making sense of the terrain and parameters of these movements is not always an easy task. Whilst formally constituted organisations play an integral part within them, in certain cases these movements' experience of '"organising" may not take the form of "organizations" but of an ebb or flow of contact at myriad points'. Indeed, some have argued that their very confluence may lend a number of today's movements an anti-systemic edge, to the point where 'current struggles for particular changes are linking up into a collaboration whose impact may wind up being much larger than the sum of the individual influences' (Cleaver 1999).

An earlier article by Harry Cleaver (1993) points out that a primary means by which movements against capital communicate within and amongst themselves is through the circulation of struggle. By this term he understands

the fabrication and utilization of material connections and communications that destroy isolation and permit people to struggle in complementary ways "” both against the constraints which limit them and for the alternatives they construct, separately and together (see also the interview with Cleaver in De Angelis 1993).

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (2000) state in their book Empire that one of the most distinctive aspects of the anti-systemic movements in the decade before the Seattle days of 1999 was their inability to establish such a circulation of struggle. From Tianamen onwards, social movements emerged in dramatic circumstances while 'fail[ing] to communicate to other contexts'. This, Negri and Hardt contend, was due to the absence firstly of 'a recognition of a common enemy against which the struggles are directed', and secondly of a 'common language of struggles that could "translate" the particular language of each into a cosmopolitan language' (Hardt & Negri 2000: 54, 56, 57). Only with Seattle, Negri has since asserted, has a new cycle of struggle truly emerged, albeit one different in nature to that captured in Marx's metaphor of the 'old mole' (Cocco & Lazzarato 2002).

In reality, the picture is not nearly as simple as the one painted in Empire; indeed, in one important case "” that of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas "” Hardt and Negri are completely mistaken (Cox 2001; Dyer-Witheford 2001). In part, this inability to pay full heed to the communication between anti-systemic movements before the events of Seattle 1999 may well stem from an undue emphasis placed upon the most spectacular, visible aspects of the circulation of struggle. Criticising Negri on this score, Sergio Bologna has argued that

Conflict as the moment of identity, as 'the' moment of constitution, of politics, of class constitution ... this for me is a forced understanding. Amongst other things, this conception still attributes great value to visibility. The 'other', in order to be such, must be visible, manifest, and the more clamorous the conflict, the greater the identity it confers ... This is the back door through which the traditional logic of politics is returned to play. I prefer the image of beams eaten from within by termites, I prefer a non-visible, non-spectacular path, the idea of the silent growth of a body that is foreign to the sort of visibility that leaves you hostage to the universe of mediation (Borio, Pozzi & Roggero 2001: 14).

Modes of communication

There are many ways in which social movements communicate both amongst themselves and with the social forces they seek to influence, and if we are to make sense of their use of ICT, we first need to address this broader picture (Diani 2000: 388-91). An easy mistake to make would be to assume that such forms of communication are always either verbal or direct. Take the movement of Italian industrial workers known as the Hot Autumn of 1969, which had its origins in modes of communication peculiar to the work regime of fordist mass production techniques. As Negri himself once noted of that movement's origins in the workplace unrest of the early sixties,

We began to follow a whole series of dynamics of sabotage: in fact no-one had set out to commit sabotage, yet there existed a continuity of imperfect operations such that by the end the product was completely useless ... What is spontaneity? In reality it is my inability to establish an organisational, i.e. voluntary, precise, determinate relationship with another worker. In these conditions spontaneity acts through the very communication which the labour process as such, as a machine foreign to me, determines (Negri 1979: 64-5).

Beyond such subterranean channels, social movements have often relied on corporate and state media as a means of communicating with other sections of society, with all the attendant risks that this reliance brings. Such 'guerrilla tactics' (Fiske 1989: 19) were again demonstrated as recently as the Melbourne S11 blockade of the World Economic Forum in 2000: for example, with the mock adoption of a John Farnham song as the protest anthem, and the media furore that this provoked. At the same time, this attempt to detourn corporate media also indicates a fundamental weakness of the movement itself:

The old media was important in publicising and drawing attention to the new, highlighting the fact that, although the Net is an important new tool, activists still largely rely on coverage in the traditional media and cannot rely solely upon the emerging communications networks (Gibson & Kelly 2000).

More than this, such dependency also offers space for the social ventriloquism of self-defined vanguard formations. While libertarian circles argued the case as to whether, and in what circumstances, corporate media can be instrumentalised,

The tensions within the autonomous networks regarding media representation have allowed for an easy capitalisation by more media hungry and obedient groups (Aggy K and Andrew 2002).

While still modest in scope, movement media has been on the rise in many places over the past few years, in many cases building upon an already existing undergrowth of communication channels, from print to radio (Downing 1984). Nonetheless, opinions differ as to the moment when computer-mediated communication became fundamental for global social movement activities. Cleaver (1997, 1998, 1999) has both written eloquently of the 'electronic fabric of struggle' woven around the Zapatistas, while himself playing a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining that fabric. Peter Waterman (1992) and Eric Lee (2000) have traced the online activities during the eighties of rank-and-file and dissident union members in the West, as well as those of 'official' unions, while others (Frederick 1993, Myers 1998) have sketched out the development of organisations such as the Association of Progressive Communication in the years before the Internet was opened up to a mass audience beyond US defence and academic circles.

If the enthusiastic embrace of ICT has been the norm within the social movements that aim to challenge global capital, its use has not been without controversy. Some, working from a Green perspective, are critical of those who hold that 'technology is "neutral" and could be made to serve social justice' (Starr 2000: 177). Beyond this, the criticisms of the place of ICT within radical politics has been couched in terms of how time and energy invested in the 'virtual' relates to activity in the 'real' world. For example, some participants have feared the possibility of a situation in which 'information circulates endlessly between computers without being put back into a human context' (ECN 1992). In a related manner, others have argued that the unconsidered application of electronic communications may serve to undermine more traditional forms of linkage. In the words of Randy Stoecker (2000), not only is there the risk that 'the Internet is isolating us in front of our monitors, keeping us off the streets', but many of the relationships that are established online will by their very nature remain superficial "” 'faceless one-dimensional stranger to stranger interaction'. Then again, if Mario Diani is right, this risk may be overtstated. Diani (2000: 393-4) makes the point that different kinds of social movement networks use ICT in different ways, consistent with their broader approach to marshalling support and effecting social change. More than this, he suggests that 'the most distinctive contribution' of CMC [computer-mediated communication] to social movements', particularly those premised upon a participatory organisational structure oriented towards direct action, has been 'of an instrumental rather than symbolic kind'. In other words, the use of ICT in such circles has largely been to 'reinforce face-to-face acquaintances and exchanges' (Diani 2000: 397, 391).

It is with projects such as the Indymedia network (www.indymedia.org), however, that it becomes possible to talk of the emergence of a distinctly social movement electronic communications forum. The first Indymedia site was established as part of the Seattle days of protest, where they proved effective in relaying images, audio recordings and written accounts of the mass blockade (Weingartner 2001). Since then, Indymedia sites have been formed across Western Europe, the Americas, and Australasia (Shumway 2001) "” and most ecently, in the Middle East. Powered by 'open publishing' software that allows users both to upload materials and to offer commentaries on the stories, opinions and images provided by others, Indymedia can be seen as part of a broader Internet phenomenon of sites fuelled by 'the creativity of their users, not [by] professional producers as was the tradition with earlier electronic media' (Arnison 2002). At the same time, Arnison has argued, one of the issues presently being debated within the Indymedia network of web sites is precisely 'what to do when they are not covering a major event'. One response to this dilemma has been to mentor new ventures into 'real world media'. In Melbourne, for example, there is The Paper, a fortnightly publication that began around the S11 protests, and has since carved out its own identity independently of the local Indymedia collective.

Information Overload

Is more media always better, even if it is alternative media? Can there be such a thing as too much information? The problem of information overload in electronic environments has been a topic of periodic discussion over the past two decades or so (Valovic 2000; Hiltz & Turoff 1985). With the West's embrace of the Internet, David Shenk (1997: 30-1) sees growing 'data smog' as the dark reality at the heart of today's so-called information society. As the volume of information accelerates relentlessly, 'noise' overshadows 'signal'. Communication may be speedier thanks to the Internet, but it is increasingly coupled with 'bad decision making' (137) that serves only to strengthen existing relations of power (15). Far from levelling social inequities, Shenk concludes, 'cyberspace is Republican' (174). Developing aspects of Shenk's argument further, Tim Jordan (2000: 118) has identified two kinds of information overload: that which arises from excess volume, and that arising from information so 'chaotically organised' as to be useless. Together, he argues, these aspects of information overload fuse together in a 'spiral' (128) that constantly reproduces the existing power relations of the Internet.

The practical implications of information overload for those seeking to challenge the powers-that-be have been clearly articulated by Anne Scott's (2001: 417) reflections on feminist activism:

Expectations are being raised, moreover, in regard to the quantity and quality of information needed before a plausible case can be said to exist. As one respondent noted, people want more and more information before taking action. But there is a point at which one has enough information to act; the acquisition of more information beyond this point can be confusing and paralyzing "” and can actually block the taking of effective action.

Jim Walch (1997: 72) has noted the range of strategies for dealing with information overload that he has observed in activist circles. For the most part, these tend to involve shifting responsibility elsewhere (into electronic folders, onto other people, or blocking certain information flows altogether through the use of filtering software). While conceding that these are understandable coping strategies, he argues that such efforts to 'manage' information flows also carry risks, both in terms of the construction of meaning, and of denying access to 'new and unexpected information and contacts'. Walch's concerns here echo those of Howard Besser, who has asserted that

One of the identifying characteristics of the information age is to get people directly to the information they need without exposing them to tangentially interesting or relevant material (Besser 1995: 70).

Although ultimately inconclusive, a debate on information overload within social movements that took place around the Second Intercontinental Encuentro of 1997 helps throw further light on the question. The First Encuentro, held the previous year in Chiapas, had brought together some 3,000 activists from a range of circles "” above all in North America and Europe "” linked by a sense of affinity with the Zapatistas of Southern Mexico. One of the proposals arising from the First Encuentro was for an international network of communication, able to circulate news and views of the 'One "Nos" and Many "Yeses" opposed to global neo-liberalism, and consideration of how best to achieve this was placed on the agenda for the follow up gathering in Spain.

The debate began with a long reflective piece penned primarily by Monty Neill (1997a), an editor of the US-based journal Midnight Notes. Following a considered account of the Zapatistas' significance for other movements seeking to challenge global capitalism, Neill (1997b) turned to the specific proposal for a communications network:

Abstractly this is fine, but it begs essential questions: what is to be communicated, by whom to whom? In the "information age," it is all too easy to be deluged with information. This is not helpful unless the information is well organized for some use "” which only raises the question, who will organize the information? The EZLN and its supporters have been marvellously inventive in using networks, but multiply Chiapas by even 10, never mind the thousands needed: how many channels can the mind consider? This is not the individual's problem. Sorting information requires political collectivity. It implies calculated division of labor and aspects of centralization: someone else will decide for you (presumably with your consent) what reaches you and what is the most important information. It also poses the related problem: what struggles deserve what attention, and who decides?

In other words, any discussion of how to process the volume of information circulating within and between the various movements engaged with the Zapatistas immediately raised questions about the nature of the power relations existing within and between the various class forces with which they were associated. For his own part, Neill (1997b) saw no simple solution to the problem; any real answer, he believed, would only follow from a serious exploration of how to challenge the more general problem of 'hierarchy "” of race, gender, nation, work, wages "” within the [global working] class'.

The most detailed response to Neill came from Stefan Wray (1997), who argued that what might at first seem to be political issues were often instead technical problems with software solutions. Criticising one push-based model for a global communications network (RICA 1996) that threatened to bury recipients under what he termed 'a mountain of information', Wray argued instead for a 'user-based information retrieval system'. In his model, e-mail would be deposited at an archive, where automated software residing on subscribers' computers could interrogate it by keyword, selecting only those files identified as relevant to the individual user.

Tim Jordan (1999: 122), at least, is sceptical that technical approaches to information overload do anything more than exacerbate the problem. This is because clearing the decks of unwanted and/or irrelevant information simply provides more space for other sources of information to take their place "” much as freeway extensions or widenings commonly only increase the volume of automobile traffic. In any case, as one participant in the Encuentro debate pointed out, something like the system proposed by Wray already existed in the form of Usenet groups (Kerne 1997). On the other hand, as another list member based in the South reminded everyone, 'Although we are living in a new era, although globalism presents us every opportunity of technology in every country, it is not for every one' (sungu 1997).

Any discussion of global activism and the Internet quickly raises questions about the distribution of resources between the North and South. Here again the volume of information is a pressing issue. As Walch (1997: 55) has indicated, ICT access can be expensive for many living in Asia and Africa, and all but inaccessible for others. Connections to groups elsewhere can bring not only new affinities, but also the risk of 'information dump', with local channels clogged by electronic messages originating from locales where bandwidth may not be an issue. Nevertheless Walch is optimistic about the possibilities of electronic connectivity between social movements, arguing that even as simple a step as linking web sites can enhance the 'inter-organizational transfer of information' (74). Har and Hutnyk (1999) point to the obverse of Walch's problem: that connections to North-based social movements frequently forces 'activists from South East Asia to continuously send information to (careerist?) activists in the west', when that time might be better spent in other activities. While they do not call for the abandonment of electronic communication, Har and Hutnyk (1999) echo Stoecker's (2000) concern that ICT be understood in a properly instrumental way, as a tool that is useful only so long as it facilitates the movement's efforts at social change. They conclude with a call for more reflective moments within activist practice:

the beast of capitalism takes such forms that require more than documentation. The danger would be if the Internet encourages only an information rich, but analysis poor edification. More education is more important than more information.

Can information be managed in social movements?

There is a certain irony in suggesting a need to explore the place of knowledge management within social movements "” particularly within those openly in opposition to global capital. After all, knowledge management as a discourse has commonly concerned itself with how best to 'capture' those insights and abilities that workers have to date failed to surrender to the organisation that employees them. In this respect, it stands firmly within a managerialist tradition that stretches back to Frederick Taylor's time (Braverman 1975; Day 2001b).

Not surprisingly, then, few studies to date have attempted to ascertain what, if anything, social movements might usefully learn from knowledge management as a discipline. One such attempt, by Karen Nowé (2001), argues that knowledge management itself has too often concentrated on technological fixes when trying to think through information flows within organisations. Noting that social movement organisations are typically poor in terms of finances and physical resources, she adds that they face the additional problem of peaks and troughs in membership and activity as a consequence of the very ebbs and flows of cycles of protest:

It is important that the knowledge ... can be kept alive through the periods of low activity. How do social movements manage that? It is clear that this has more to do with cultures and people than with simple information technology solutions.

In other words, Nowé returns us to the same problems raised amongst others by Neill (1997a and b), Har and Hutnyk (1999). Like them, she freely admits that for now, such problems remain unresolved, while arguing that information flows within social movements that aspire to self-managed organisational practices may well conflict with what knowledge management as a discipline would deem to be 'a rational decision making procedure'.

I'd like to end with a few questions worthy of further reflection. The first concerns the nature of information itself, which has been talked of in a fairly unproblematic way throughout these notes. In many ways, the circulation of information has indeed been one of the success stories in social movement use of ICT to date. As Cleaver (1999) has pointed out, ICT has been used with effect:

1. 'to obtain accurate information on a given situation and then circulate it widely'; 2. to facilitate 'the circulation of interpretation and evaluation' of such information through 'discussion and debate', so as 3. to enable 'various kinds of off-line activities'.

Just the same, perhaps Har and Hutnyk (1999) are correct in arguing that more thought needs to be paid to our understandings of the nature of information itself. After all, the standard metaphor of the communication of information via value-free 'conduits' (Day 2001a: 38-46) is unable to grasp that

Not everything can be collapsed into the realm of representation and transmission. Some 'content' cannot be expressed, some will always be misrepresented because of inequalities and interpretation (Har & Hutnyk 1999).

Seeking a critical "” that is, self-reflexive, historically specific "” definition of information, Ron Day (2001a: 120) has offered the following:

Information is the quality of being informed. But this is a highly ambiguous "” 'theoretical' and affective "” state of affairs, one that leaves the nature of knowledge, as well as of the world and the subject, still to be formed and discovered.

Day's definition suggests rather more than 'transmission', and is far away from notions that see information as indifferent to its medium. At the same time, it also provides a useful starting point for making sense of the ways in which information is handled in organisations and movements that claim commitment to participatory decision making processes.

Another relevant point concerns the possibility of a 'cosmopolitan language' (Hardt & Negri 2000) able to facilitate the circulation of struggles between social movements. How might such an entity be formed? And can such a project begin without wrestling with the problem of translation, and all that this implies for the generation of information and knowledge? (Day 1994) For as Walter Benjamin (1969: 69) pointed out long ago, 'any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information "” hence, something inessential'.

This touches in turn upon some arguments raised in an interview that Anita Lacey and I recently conducted with another Melbourne comrade, as part of a small, ongoing enquiry into the use of information and ICT in local anti-capitalist politics. Active in a network that seeks to open up space for an ongoing dialogue between environmental and workplace activists, Colin defined useful information as 'what can facilitate the process of building bridges and crossing borders'. Sceptical of the notion that trust "” 'the most important question' "” could be established 'through the screen', his biggest concern was that the enormous quantities of information available online may blind us to the knowledge and wisdom available from face-to-face encounters with those who have experienced and learned from earlier struggles against capital and the state.

Broaching the question of trust in this way means thinking through the whole purpose of communication within and between social movements. As Cleaver (1997) has noted,

One of the great lessons that the Zapatistas have learned within their communities and which they have shared first with other Mexicans and then with the world is the fundamental importance of listening. Of listening, and understanding, before you speak.

If we take this requirement to listen and understand 'before you speak' seriously, then maybe we need to rethink our understanding of the process of communication itself. Perhaps then we'll also find the need for some new starting points in grappling with the meaning and utility of information, as part of our reconsideration of those with and from whom we aim to be informed.

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