Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left
University of Illinois Press, 2014
The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement
Oxford University Press, 2015
After the din of protest dies down come the works of social science. Activist-academics Todd Wolfson and Michael Gould-Wartofsky take as their research subject the social movements they were embedded in as participant-observers: Indymedia and Occupy Wall Street, respectively. Digital Rebellion and The Occupiers are their attempts to understand the movements’ rise and fall.
Both Indymedia and Occupy arrived suddenly on the scene and rapidly rose to prominence, their reach extending beyond the usual activist circles, only to suffer a swift decline. For all intents and purposes, Indymedia is dead. NYC Indymedia — which this paper was once part of — is no longer and the global Indymedia website hasn’t been updated for over a year. (Full disclosure: I was once a member of the editorial collectives for both). And Occupy was scattered to the wind with the forcible eviction of Zuccotti Park and its sister encampments. Seeds such as Occupy the Hood and Occupy Sandy briefly took root, but have since withered.
Nonetheless, the immediate results of both movements were significant. Occupy brought questions of economic inequality to the fore, making them a major political issue. And Indymedia played a leading role in the rise of citizen journalism, now a staple of political protests, while also serving as a precursor to contemporary forms of crowd-sourced media.
Both authors were deeply involved in the movements they study. Wolfson immersed himself in the world of Philadelphia Indymedia as a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania. And Gould-Wartofsky became involved in Occupy as a doctoral candidate at New York University. He photographed its protests, took notes about meetings and marches and conducted 80 interviews of activists in New York and across the world.
Social movement theory emerged as a distinct subfield of sociology as the remnants of the New Left sought refuge in the academy, trying to figure out what went wrong while trying for tenure. The resulting work is often neither fish nor fowl, caught between serving the two masters of disinterested scholarship and activist agendas. The best of the genre, however, manages to bridge this divide, using the toolbox of social science to get under the skin of social movements and see what made them grow and die, in the process informing future generations of organizers about which strategies succeed and fail in working for a better world.
Digital Rebellion straddles this divide uneasily. While Wolfson’s descriptions of the inner workings of Indymedia are informative, they have the feel of a monograph. On the other hand, while his positions on issues that divided the network, such as how activist journalists should relate to social movements, are supported by his empirical research, they seem to be more rooted in his participation in intra-network disputes. And, finally, while his grasp of academic debates is sophisticated, his discussion of social theory may leave the more practice-oriented bored.
The most compelling part of the book is Wolfson’s critique of the limits of the purely “horizontal” and online organizing that was characteristic of Indymedia. What resulted was a digital version of the “tyranny of structurelessness,” elevating the voices of the usual (white, upper-middle-class) suspects. As a consequence, local Indymedia collectives often maintained a parochial focus on mostly white activist groups and intra-left squabbles, ignoring broader-based social movements and failing to play a role in organizing efforts. Philadelphia Indymedia dealt with this problem by working with Jobs with Justice and local unions to cover issues that would otherwise go unreported by the mainstream media, helping train working-class participants to “be the media,” but they were the exception and not the rule.
The Occupiers is more successful as both a work of scholarship and a study guide for organizers. It is not only compulsively readable but also impressively synoptic. Gould-Wartofsky weaves a rich narrative tapestry, charting the rise and fall of Occupy without romanticizing it or giving a one-sided account of the ideology of its participants. He carries out an ambitious research agenda, studying the social origins of the occupiers, their politics, how direct democracy actually functioned and how Occupy interacted with “the established institutions of social and political life.” And he is sensitive to how his role as a “white guy in a blazer” affected his interactions, and to how issues of class, race and gender informed — and deformed — organizing efforts. This is as close to a definitive account of Occupy as has been produced thus far. Perhaps most intriguing is his tracking of the occupiers into exile and speculations on the potential of Occupy to be a mere opening act in a prolonged struggle over socioeconomic inequality.
Cycles of social movements often take decades to play out. Wolfson and Gould-Wartofsky convincingly argue that both Indymedia and Occupy emerged from and in reaction to previous social movements, but also mark the opening of a new phase of struggle. For Wolfson, Indymedia embodied a new form of horizontal, digital organizing of social movements that has subsequently been embodied from Athens and Tahrir Square to Madison and Zuccotti Park. And for Gould-Wartofsky, Occupy marks the potential emergence of a new subject of struggle (or a “class-for-itself”) and a return of the issue of inequality to the center of political struggles.
It is too soon to say what the ultimate import of Indymedia and Occupy will be. But if they are ultimately to give birth to more transformative social movements, it will be due in no small part to the ministrations of activist intellectuals like Wolfson and Gould-Wartofsky who seek to understand these movements and their shortcomings from the inside. Both authors occupy a position of engaged critique, making no secret of their sympathy with the social movements they were a part of without pulling their punches. In reconstructing the reality of Indymedia and Occupy, they bring out their contradictions, showing how the practice fell short of the theory and demonstrated its blind spots.
In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx wrote that “[t]he tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” He described how the revolutionaries of 1848 conceived of their struggles in terms of the imaginary of the French Revolution, adopting the costumes and roles of their forerunners. Armed with Digital Rebellion and The Occupiers, future generations of organizers will be better equipped to learn from the failures of their predecessors and build on their work rather than simply emulating it.
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