Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Is Twitter anarchy in action?

Anarchists, eh?  If they’re not burning down carpet shops or spray-painting “GIDEON IS A WANKER” on the side of the Treasury, then they’re being kettled when they should be at lectures. 

Well, that’s the stereotype, the misrepresentation born of years of lazy (or maybe deliberately misleading) journalism which has seen the true meaning of anarchy replaced by a colloquial definition inextricably bound up with hooded thugs hell-bent on riotous disorder.  However, in reality the word anarchy literally, as Jamie Redknapp might say, means “without ruler or government”.

Anarchists are anti-state believing that it is not just desirable but possible for society to organise itself without government and it was this that led to the split between Karl Marx and leading anarchist Mikhail Bakunin at the Hague Congress of the First International in 1872.

The Marxists believed the working classes should take control of the state and that to facilitate this the First International should become a political party while the anarchists, on the other hand, believed that the state was the problem arguing that the First International should remain a decentralized collective of workers’ groups.  Bakunin was expelled with a prophetic warning that if the Marxists came to power they would be end up being just as bad as the ruling class they were fighting and anarchism was cast into the political wilderness.

He's not an anarchist, he's a very naughty boy
Fast forward a hundred years and the British political theorist Colin Ward published his seminal work Anarchy in Action arguing that far from being a “speculative vision of the future” anarchy is a mode of human organisation that is and always has been in existence.  It is not, he argued, about a lack of organisation but about an absence of authority.  He wrote, however, that because anarchist philosophy is so at odds with society’s received view of political thinking, most people simply can’t see this.

The best way to overcome this hurdle, Ward went on to suggest, is to draw on common experience which is what he did in his book. The cardigan-wearing, avuncular Ward was neither writing a call to arms nor an invitation to revolution but merely pointing out that there are many examples in which anarchism - in the true sense of the word - has occurred in modern society.

The postal service is one.  You might not have sent one of those old-fashioned letter things for years but back when you did you could post one in Sunderland, for example, knowing it would get to, say, Norway or Thailand despite the fact there is no international postal authority, just freely arrived-at agreements between national postal services.

Another example of anarchy in action is the mass squatting campaign in 1946 which saw the large-scale seizure of disused army camps by homeless families up and down Britain.  By October of that year some 45,000 families had moved into more than 1,000 camps.  They had little in common other than their homelessness yet acting on their own initiative they worked together to create all kinds of communal services from laundry to nursery facilities.  The Daily Mail praised their “robust common sense” but given that 13 years earlier the paper had been saying something similar about Hitler that was hardly the highest of praise.

Ward talks about the state (and all state institutions) being pyramids with “a small group of decision-makers at the top and a broad base of people whose decisions are made for them at the bottom”.  Anarchists, he goes on, don’t want us to invert the pyramid, they don’t want us to change the names of the people at the top, they want us to climb out from underneath the pyramid and create extended networks “of individuals and groups, making their own decisions, controlling their own destiny”.  But he was writing in 1973, that was eons ago.  What relevance can his work have today? 

Well, as far as anarchy’s concerned, Ward’s writing is very similar to that of contemporary Spanish academic Manuel Castells.  Castells suggests that while anarchism’s problem has always been how to reconcile personal or local autonomy with the complexities of modern life, modern technology is enabling people to disassociate themselves from the state and create the very networks Ward was talking about.

All this leads us to Twitter.  What could be more anarchic?  It is, figuratively (not literally, Jamie) a world in which everyone is equal, it’s a freely entered into co-operative, it is organised but there is no authority - no one is in charge. I tweet; you tweet; we all tweet together.

But here’s the thing, Twitter - in just six years - is already beginning to resemble the established state's pyramid shape with a small powerful elite at the top and the masses at the bottom.  What do I mean?  Well, talk to a sociologist and they’ll tell you this small Twitter elite have accumulated significant amounts of cultural capital.  Talk to anyone normal and they’ll tell you this small Twitter elite have a lot of followers, and followers equal power.

Last year a couple of Australian academics, Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess, researched the structure of communities in the Australian Twittersphere by looking at who had the most followers, whose tweets had the most responses and whose tweets were re-tweeted most often (arguing that this demonstrated greater impact than someone with few followers who sent a lot of tweets, none of which might get read).

What they found was that during the Christchurch earthquake the New Zealand Herald was a ‘key’ feed as were those of the Government and emergency authorities.  Their conclusion is clear, even on Twitter the accounts of ‘official’ or ‘mainstream’ organisations can quickly establish themselves as the most authoritative and this despite a history of errors, self censorship, political partisanship and, well, lying, from both the media and governments.

The media is also at the forefront of a landgrab on Twitter - an attempt to gain cultural hegemony in this new media sphere.  Only last Sunday The Observer gave us its list of “Twitter feeds you need” (without actually explaining why you need them) in which 50 “top Tweeters” (again this status was not explained) were asked for their three favourite follows. 

What could have been quite an interesting list had any real thought gone into it was in fact a tiresomely predictable parade of celebrities recommending their chums.  First on the list was Gary Barlow who recommended Richard Branson, Phillip Schofield and Jonathan Ross.  Next up was Ruby Wax recommending Stephen Fry, Kathy Lette and Jennifer Saunders.  Need I go on?

A right pair of tweets.
It would have been laughable if it wasn’t so depressing.  Worse still, celebrities are already hawking their star status on Twitter to the highest bidder with the likes of Kim Kardashian, Snoop Dogg and Charlie Sheen being paid tens of thousands to endorse products in their Tweets.  Like just about everything else in life, Twitter power has been commodified.

Ward argues that the individual is powerless in the face of the state not merely because the state has accumulated power, but because individuals have surrendered power to it.  He wrote: “It’s as though every individual possessed a certain quantity of power, but that by default, negligence, or thoughtlessness and unimaginative habit or conditioning they have allowed someone else to pick it up, rather than use it themselves for their own purposes.”

Remind you of anything?  Twitter is an arena in which the individual still has a certain quantity of power - the ability to choose who they follow.  Think about it: there’s nothing more powerful than unfollowing someone (or consciously not following them in the first place) – it denies them a voice; it denies them the opportunity to frame and influence opinions.
Yet through the very "unimaginative habit or conditioning" Ward identified all those years ago people are giving away the power they have on Twitter by default.  This is how someone like Piers Morgan ends up with 2.2m followers while numerous other people who have far more interesting things to say are widely overlooked.
In conclusion Castells argued that with capitalism running out of control and socialism ‘settling into retirement’ there was a space for a new ideology: neo-anarchy.  He’s right, and Twitter is one of the opportunities to put it into practice however, the chance is already slipping away because while all tweets are equal, some are becoming more equal than others.

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