‘Not Ready for Democracy:’ Social Networking and the Power of the People--The Revolts of 2011 in a Temporalized Context
Issue 15, Spring 2012
From sierragoddess under a Creative Commons license
This essay argues that the rise of social networking is to the detriment of the democratic processes that come to us from at least the time of the Enlightenment. Analysed from the perspective of temporality, the essay argues that liberal democracy has its own indelible rhythms and temporal processes, based fundamentally upon the technologies of writing and on the print culture they created. Postmodern neoliberalism and the revolution in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has created a ‘destabilization of the word’ that traditionally gave rhythm to democracy—and to society more broadly. The digitalized word has accelerated economy and society to the extent that it has left the slower rhythms of democracy in their wake. Social networking, as an outgrowth of the neoliberal information society, has propelled political action into this accelerated digital domain. From this perspective, it is argued that the revolts sparked in North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011 were a dramatic example of a postmodern political process that has no roots, no ‘strong tie’ links, and leaves no time for the development of a programmatic politics of the traditional kind. Social networking, in short, creates a political vacuum into which forms of power, potentially less democratic than ‘people power’, will invariably flow.
Breaking the chains of servitude?
More than a few observers have argued that early 2011 may go down in history as the Middle Eastern equivalent of late 1989 in Central Europe. Political scientist Mary Kaldor, for example, sees 2011 as the culmination of that East European democratic impulse (Kaldor, 2011). In 1989, millions of ordinary people in cities from Prague to Bucharest via East Berlin toppled their indigenous Communist Parties in a vast wave of change that still reverberates powerfully today—in many largely unexpected ways.
In 2011, from Morocco in the Maghreb, due east to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, and further still into the Syrian Levant, millions of people suddenly engaged themselves in another spontaneous ‘great refusal’, or an unspecific unwillingness to continue their lives as usual. An apparently cross-class agglomeration from these predominantly Arab societies decided that they had had their fill of the old regimes. A line from the opening passages of John Buchan’s 1916 Greenmantle became a much-quoted epigram to illustrate the Arab upsurge. It reads: ‘There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark’ (Hitchens, 2011: 290). And so it seemed. From the liberal democratic perspective, especially, the sudden conflagration was seen as a good thing. The BBC World Service radio and BBC World television, for example, endlessly played footage from correspondents in Tahrir Square in Cairo, or on a hotel balcony in Benghazi, where their private views on what they were witnessing seemed to be obvious; the uprisings were viewed in similarly positive terms further to the political Left, as exampled by Kaldor, and from the more radical Left by intellectuals such Slavoj Zizek, who thought the events in Egypt in particular to be both a ‘miracle’ and ‘sublime’ (Zizek, 2010).
For all the media excitement about Arabs finding their feet at last, and the praising of their undoubted bravery in inaugurating, possibly, a wider democratic phase across the world, where authoritarianism and the archetypal strongman was at last on its way to history’s dustbin, it is evident that these portents actually say something else; something different from Kaldor’s identification of the new-found ‘power of civil society’ or what Zizek sees as the ‘breaking [of] the chains of servitude’ (2011). Yes, the events of 2011 do say something positive and important about a universal thirst for fundamental democratic principles. And yes, these principles of justice and freedom and dignity have at least been seen to be more than the preserve of Euro-America—and more properly the entitlement of every human being. However, the comparisons with 1989 are flawed and misleading.
Much of the talk in print, television and the blogs of ‘revolution’ and ‘people power’ is reflective, fundamentally, of the comfort-zone thinking that most of the Left remain unwilling to abandon. As I will show, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the tumult that preceded and followed it was the acting out of the final historical scenes of a system of politics shaped by its classical Enlightenment-inspired mode. This was a politics of a form and quality that reached back to at least 1789. It was a politics of ideas that had their own history and their own traditions; a politics of ideas that had institutions and organizations that promoted political programmes that (at least in theory) represented the way forward for a particular interest group or class.
We live in a very different time, politically, in our post-Cold War age. The British intellectual Perry Anderson put it bluntly:
Ideologically, the novelty of the present situation stands out in historical view. It can be put like this. For the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositions—that is, systematic rival outlooks—within the thought-world of the West (2000: 17).
We live in a neoliberal-dominated world, where the market (and the market mechanism of competition) is seen as the only workable way to organize and develop the economy—and society too. In a sense, then, Francis Fukuyama was onto something when he argued in that fateful year of 1989 that liberal democracy (a neoliberal democracy) has triumphed and that the ‘end’ of a particular stream of ‘history’ had come to pass (Fukuyama, 1989). Politics, and political conflict and tumult of the kind witnessed in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, thus represents a post-Enlightenment turn, the contours of which are at present difficult to make out clearly. But these do not augur well for the promotion of the normative forms of democracy that have come down to us from Enlightenment-age Europe and North America. To get some insight into the nature of this negative development, we need to appreciate the role and function of temporality in our modernity, together with the effects that networked information technologies are having on our relationship with time.
The rhythms of democracy in a networked society
In 1989, as the storm of revolt was breaking over the heads of apprehensive communist elites struggling to figure out what it all meant, the West was undergoing its own upheavals—and had been for over a decade by that time. These were economic as well as political. Economic globalization (of which the revolts in Europe were undoubtedly a part (Harman, 1990: 3-94)) was forming a worldwide grid of capital flows that was intended to free business from the alleged constraints of the nation state and its stultifying bureaucracies. Neoliberalism led the charge. Globalizing capitalism was also becoming a networked capitalism, forming an increasingly close interlinking of markets and the societies that sustain them to create a ‘time-space compression’ (Harvey, 1989). An important ideological element that took hold at this time was that the neoliberalized political institutions—parties and government bureaucracies—began to abrogate their historic role as the ‘leading actor’ in society—ceding it to the abstract dynamics of market-centred competition (Sassen, 1998)
Vitally, this process was also technological. Globalization could not have evolved in the way that it did had Harvey’s ‘time-space compression’ not been made real by information technologies. And information technologies, in their turn, could not have had the developmental trajectory that they have enjoyed since the early 1980s without an unrestricted free-market competitive impetus which made them more powerful, more comprehensive in their range of application, and much, much faster. The intended effect was to make markets and production more efficient (and hence cheaper). But an unintended (and still largely ignored) effect was to make society and social relations accelerate temporally. Life became faster, in other words, as economic relations sped up exponentially (Castells, 1996; Rifkin, 2000; Gleick, 2001; Hassan, 2003).
This speeding up of many elements of human social relations has a fundamental political problem associated with it. Politics, as sociologist Hartmut Rosa reminds us, is a social ‘“institution”, a term whose Latin root indicates its static, durable character’ (2003: 44). It is a temporal point illustrated by French philosopher Jean Chesneaux who wrote that ‘Speed has become one of the paramount values and requirements in our modern societies. Yet democracy needs time, as a major pre-condition for political debate and decision-making; it cannot surrender blindly to speed’ (2000: 407). Building on these temporalized perspectives, William Scheuerman in his Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time argues that liberal democracy has become de-coupled from economic and social life, and in effect has become too slow to function (democratically) in a ‘high-speed society’ (2004: 26-71).
The arguments of Rosa, Chesneaux and Scheuerman may be dismissed as describing simple common sense. It could be stated, moreover, that of course we know that political decisions should not be taken in haste, and that the political process itself should be as reflective and slow as is necessary to each particular case. But this knowledge does not get us very far; it does not get us to the root of the problem, the cause of our desynchronization from democracy, which is—perhaps counter-intuitively—the displacement of writing and reading in our networked society.
The temporality of the word and of politics