Speculative Activism

This post is in response to a funny thing that happened a couple days ago on Facebook. Gerry Canavan comments on it here:  throughout the day, “thousands” of Facebook users posted a pro-health care-reform message as their ‘status update’ in  a sudden outbreak of ‘viral activism.’ The whole thing peaked when Obama himself joined in. Watch the virus spread here.

As Gerry puts it:

We saw the same phenomenon early in the summer during Iran’s so-called Twitter Revolution, which had two overlapping and sometimes conflicting modes: the use of Twitter by people within Iran as a organizing and news-distributing tool and the use by people *outside* Iran for the purposes of vicarious participation in political struggle. Then, as now, the important thing is to signal you’re on the right side of a fight in which you are otherwise just a spectactor — then by tinting your Twitter avatar green and now by posting a shared slogan as your status update and then leaving it altered for the rest of the day. We could go back to 2008 and 2004 elections, or to any number of other charged moments, and find similar memes at play.

The question posed by this sort of thing is clear enough: should it count as ‘real’ activism or is it just a mass twitch  in the general direction of utopia, a show put on for the official media and for ourselves.

Any answer has  to start by considering it as quite literally a form of consumerism. It’s a full step further in that direction than the email activism of organizations like MoveOn, which rely on the recipient to take some sort of minimal action, like making a phone call, writing a protest email, signing a petition, which MoveOn transfers directly to its prearranged target, usually a professional decision maker. These older forms are carried onto Facebook as well, but they’re weaker on this platform, easier to ignore, and require different techniques to get them to work. A ‘status update’ or a ‘tweet’ can superficially seem more democratic — after all, no institution is telling the user what to do. But in practice this ‘act’ is identical to the ‘choice’ of the market.

That our very existences on social networking sites are commodities is an often overlooked fact. Given an existence wholly circumscribed by a virtual marketplace, everything we do, everything we post, is potentially a commodity by virtue of its link to ‘us.’ In ‘viral activism,’ by reproducing a more or less homogeneous message (a ‘meme,’ one of the few instances where the word actually refers to something), a population makes itself available as a single commodity for use by others in exchange for  individual use of the same message as a ‘status update’: an advertisement that promotes a certain identity to their ‘friends’ (and to themselves). The only difference between this and any other Facebook content is that this ‘mega-meme’ is produced ‘from the ground up.’

These are not simply semantic distinctions — they have consequences.  Virtual activists do not organize themselves in the way real activists do, i.e. form permanent or temporary political units such as parties, mobs, parades, whatever, directed toward a specific set of goals. Even when activists remain law-abiding their actions are intended to stage a confrontation, to disrespect boundaries that may not be acknowledged by the law. A social division is made, exchange relations dependent on certain forms of equivalence are foreclosed (i.e. politeness, personal space, a traffic intersection, etc.). As long as it’s part of a larger strategy from the beginning, this is true even of petition-signing. Virtual activists on the other hand are always responding to/initiating various types of interpolation from within an institutional setting (the site’s apparatus) that automatically neutralizes all it touches,  like ‘interactive’ television. A Facebook group is just a passive ‘tag,’ another identity accessory for the individual user and a commodity that passively awaits outside use (a social ad). As long as their virtual existence  is immanent with that institution (they remain members), all actions are wholly included within it, with zero remainder.

What are social ads good for? By aggregating the many status updates into a single product, they provide something for the bigger blogs and journalists to ‘report’ on (really just an outgrowth of tagging), and  from which a political meaning can be derived or invented. First and foremost they generate conversation, and since most of it will refer to Facebook if not occur on its platform they also indirectly generate more Facebook use and more prestige, a ‘status update’ for Facebook itself. Whether or not any of this can ‘make a difference’ is dependent upon how these commodities are employed by others.

The effects of this latest capture of the social reflect how our tiny plots of spectacular real estate turn us into micro-celebrities, where even to contemplate ‘action’ forces us into a narcissistic obsession with our public image, no matter how inconsequential it may be. Celebreality shows and the higher profile of porn stars in recent years show us that has-beens and nobodies fighting for table scraps will play the game of recognition even more ferociously than Hollywood royalty. The public face of this private complex is when celebrities, politicians-as-celebrities, or now you-as-celebrity endorse certain causes, ultimately all responsibility rests on YOU to act, even as the possibilities for action of the relatively elite YOU being addressed (the YOU who can be expected to take Them seriously) are increasingly observed, micromanaged, routed into narrower and more regulated pathways.


A final comparison to opinion polling is helpful in getting at the ideological function of social activertising. Unlike polls, the opinions of users don’t appear as already existing truths, dependent on the work of experts on ‘real’ demographics, but those truths actively expressed. Where a poll is employed in speculation — what x group ‘really thinks’ at a given moment is valuable as evidence for what actions they might take in the future — a wave of status updates or green-tinted Twitter profiles appear to assert themselves as political facts. No research or fact-checking need be done to evaluate truth claims when the phenomena is just the free and unsolicited manifestation of truth, like votes or sales figures. These ‘actions’ thus merge the legitimacy of a poll with the immediacy of activism. Virtual activism is more real than statistics (which are ‘always’ rigged), more legitimate than protests (which are ‘always’ dangerous).

Jonathan Singer (see link above):

While the vast majority of the political organizing I see on Facebook tends to come from the same names — friends working in politics on a full time basis — what is remarkable here is that these status updates containing a strong and clear message in favor of healthcare reform are coming not only from the political community but also from those whose lives are not immersed in these fights. These are regular young people, all around the country, speaking out in favor of reform. This movement is impressive and surprising, and, at least from this vantage, quite newsworthy.

This is what everyone said about Iran, the rhetoric directing us to understand these movements as made up of “everyday” people, free of the supposed dangers and ‘biases’ of ‘professional’ activists. Of course there is a selection process for which ideas can ‘filter up’ from the social network ‘netroots’ and what kinds of users can do what that tends not to be acknowledged. This selection process is, broadly speaking, class-based.

Here is a great article on one example of how class manifests online, the great divide between Myspace and Facebook with some very illuminating (and horrifying) quotes from teenagers. Facebook has clearly won the PR battle, easy to do when the New York Times’ reporting staff and most of its readership is made up of Facebook users. Facebook is the appropriate platform for politics, just as Myspace is the appropriate platform for your ex’s rock band and various sex offenders. This doesn’t even count the selection process for who gets to be on the Internet to begin with. And yet, through the magic of social networking, it is the Facebook community which is quickly establishing itself in the 24-hour image universe as the new legal-utopian definition of ‘the people.’ The obvious impossibility of this fantasy doesn’t mean it won’t have certain effects.

For a demonstration, let’s put on some ruling class spectacles and look at some pictures. Isn’t this:


infinitely preferable to this?


See? You didn’t even have to think about it.


40 Responses to “Speculative Activism”

  1. Buck Swash Says:

    ‘By aggregating the many status updates into a single product, they provide something for the bigger blogs and journalists to ‘report’ on’

    That’s important, you know. Love it.

    ‘For a demonstration, let’s put on some ruling class spectacles and look at some pictures.’

    I couldn’t figure that out at first.

    ‘See? You didn’t even have to think about it.’

    Just too fucking clever for me. I couldn’t take the Facebook, of course, even if it meant I had to be out in the other one, becoming an activist or something. You didn’t choose a ‘real life’ one that was noisome enough. So that the second could just be like a crowd gathering around an auto accident in which nobody was necessarily injured. It ends up seeming like ‘local colour’, because unclear if there are any real tragedies going on from just what you see in the photo alone.

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    “unclear if there are any real tragedies going on from just what you see in the photo alone”

    seems you didn’t have the spectacles all the way on. if enough people of a certain type gather in any numbers, evil is assumed to be afoot. say palestinians, the people in the photo, or black new orleanians. it doesn’t matter what they’re doing. tragedies can be invented as needed (the alleged snipers and hordes of black post-apocalyptic hooligans post-katrina come to mind). facebook is imagistically, rhetorically, the polar opposite of all this. of course there’s a lot in between but i’m just trying to get at the extremes that tend to be reflexively relied on to characterize everything else. the point is they’re both fictions. it’s probably good that you didn’t ‘get’ the second one.

  3. Buck Swash Says:

    No, I knew what you were getting at, of course. I just meant that this patriculat photo might not definitely say that if you didn’t know, have it pointed out to you. I did notice what might be a body lying in the background and one mask, and thought it was Palestinians, but it’s the same with all virtual versions. They’re both fictions in one sense, could be that the virtual one has more effect on the real thing? or does that matter? Naturally, when push comes to shove, the ‘ruling class spectacles’ are going to want the insulated one, less stress and discomfort, but just looking visually at these, one of which is more within the same domain as this blog, aesthetics comes up, which isn’t the point but might obscure the point, even if one is not interested in it, as, for example, I’m interested in it for the ‘wrong’ reasons. Not very likely also that ‘post-apocalyptic’ popped into anybody’s mind except on the ‘live-blogging’ discussions that were going on during the hurricane, etc. So yes, the virtual does neutralize even this, but that might be temporary; these things tend to develop some quasi-organic sensation that sets off ‘fear of evil’ after awhile. Otherwise, the whole goal could be said to be that the ‘neutralizing process will lead to what is least ruling-class-threatening.’

  4. Buck Swash Says:

    Just mean that I think the ‘ruling class’ (I have no idea what that is) might decide after while that even the Facebook version is really threatening! I know I’ve suffered this sorry plight, and it’s often referred to as ‘ruling class paranoia’. But still, yes–there’s a delay before we of the, is it ‘ruling class’ you said? know that this Facebook business is just as threatening to our interests, but…since we’re complacent and jaded, we’ll take the momentary illusion of the Facebook’s benignity, even though it is subtly working its way through our deep corruption and unfairness!

  5. anxiousmodernman Says:

    Hey, traxus.

    Great post. Random thought: for clarity and political purposes, I think we should refer to real world consumerism as “status updates” instead of trying to force the notion of “social networking identity management” = “consumerism” online. We wouldn’t really lose any critical edge, and we’d have a really flexible noun (‘status update’) that can refer to commodities both digital and physical.

    Advertising Example: Two friends bump into each other on the street. Friend A notices Friend B is wearing a new sweater.

    Friend A: “Wow! Where’d you get that cute status update?”
    Friend B: “The Gap. On sale.”

    That ghostly strangeness of commodities has been contemplated by Marxists (and others) for some time, and there is even a commonsense understanding that consumption is linked/tagged to “status” (to display markers of class/race/culture).

    I think that the term ‘status update’ very elegantly names the referent of that ghostliness, the tag, that circulates effortlessly from the sweater on Friend B’s body, to the digital photos posted online of Friend B wearing the actual sweater, photos which will stay tagged to Friend B’s identity long after the physical sweater gets ruined in the wash.

    In fact, I’d be surprised if – very soon – we do not see advertisers paying Facebook users nominal sums for posting sufficiently sexy/looked-at photos wearing their products, tagged and linked to corporate websites, of course. The business model is not hard to imagine, really. If any Mad Men are reading this, I release my idea 2 the world under a Creative Commons license.

    But back to discussion of terms. Even for someone as steeped in Marxist theory as myself, I have to jump through a few mental hoops to find the equivalence between “consumption” and “updating my Facebook”, even though the chain of equivalences is totally valid. But if our goal is to communicate this equivalence to the masses and raise their consciousness, why not just use this amazing new term ‘status update’ to refer to consumption both physical and virtual, both cash-exchange-based and spectacular?

  6. anxiousmodernman Says:

    Herbert Marcuse, from One-Dimensional Man:

    “If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population.”

    Today we could add that if Obama and the masses are a member of the same Facebook group, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes…etc.

  7. Buck Swash Says:

    If any Mad Men are reading this, I release my idea 2 the world under a Creative Commons license.

    No thank you, we’ve got enough material by now. We do appreciate your business.

    Friend B: “The Gap. On sale.”

    Friend A: “Yeah, that’s what it looked like. Those Working Class Hero Sweaters never hold the cologne that well”.

    “we’d have a really flexible noun (’status update’) that can refer to commodities both digital and physical.”

    Especially for digital microwaves.

  8. Buck Swash Says:

    btw, AMM, it occurs to me that, in your unrivalled recycling ingenuity, you might know how I might upgrade my status update of ’email barrier’ to ‘physical email barrier’? I’ve heard they don’t keep out every kind of reptile, but as traxus has so adroitly proved–to the point at which even I was unable to resist the logic–that, just because the Facebook activism has an ugly appearance, we have not with that enough to make us fear the way a REAL public disturbance might! Having got to the point of rejecting something safe and secure based purely on aesthetic reservations, we were surely on our way to the more risky post-online-activism realms. And what would be there through our ruling class spectacles? Surely the need to figure some means of suppressing Facebook petitionry–because it is bound to be understood as threatening!

    While you work this riddle out, I hope (but dare not suggest too strongly) that traxus has a Suggestion Box that you may use, as I won’t be available for direct confrontation until the evening. For the nonce, I have installed a Digital Email Guard while I watch my Deborah Kerr movie…

  9. hi amm, thanks — i think we DO lose our edge by reducing the enclosed web and other forms of relation to a common vocabulary based on more or less class-specific slang. it’s like the term ‘meme.’ by using it for everything (this blog is a meme, ‘status update’ is a meme, hegel’s Geist is a meme, etc.), it treats all thinking and all culture as always already reified, as if facebook had already taken over the universe but in some instances its takeover was only ‘hauntologically speaking,’ a flickering preview of inevitable capture.

    i’m trying to say that on facebook (and other social networking sites) social relations really are all commodities, in a technical sense. treating relations that are not commodified (compliments on someone’s sweater) as if they were is i guess a baudrillardesque mimetic strategy of acceleration — based on his ‘conviction’ that “the cycle of seduction cannot be stopped” — but it’s not one i would endorse. to me this attitude is just what the time cover is selling.

    i think being able to tell the difference between these spheres is useful and important. if i figured it out and you figured it out it can’t be THAT arduous, can it?

  10. no one said anything about ‘rejecting’ facebook, patrick. i haven’t deleted my account. it’s just that there are features that should be taken into account when considering its political utility.

    anyway, you’re not a member of the ruling class — i know, what a relief, right? but we can empathize, maybe.

    i mean i guess facebook could look politically volatile at some point, but right now it seems pretty well self-policed. it’s scarier to me than i imagine it would be to (for instance) someone not on it but involved with selling stuff to its users. anyway it seems sort of silly to think the difference between exhibit A and B can be deconstructed that easily.

  11. and tying it all together with the marcuse quote, facebook is one way we learn how to empathize, “the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population” where underlying population is just whoever meets the material criteria for being open to interpolation by facebook.

    it’s not everyone, that’s for sure.

  12. anyway, you’re not a member of the ruling class — i know, what a relief, right? but we can empathize, maybe.

    Then you could say I come from ruling class but ‘descended’ without entering the working classes, nor being abandoned by the ruling classes, who have always supported me when I didn’t. The definition is difficult, but you can work or not work and be in either class, and it doesn’t always have to do with amount of money. I’ve had lots of money to play with sometimes in my life, but usually have lived simply. But that was by choice and/or laziness.

  13. anxiousmodernman Says:

    No, not everyone is on Facebook. And not everyone is a consumer in the postmodern, Western sense. Many (probably most) relations and things are outside of these, thank goodness. And I would not endorse the Baudrillardian strategy (yet). The Friends A and B example was meant to be a mock advertisement, not a narration of a real conversation.

    What I mean to say is that consumption, high-brow, low-brow, mass-produced or niche, digital or physical is like tagging and status updating for the (real) individual. I see a useful metaphor there, not another reduction of everything (or all relations) to some always-already reified state.

    If you want to communicate the idea that someone’s Facebook profile is a commodity, you’re going to run into some objections. What might they be?

    1) “A commodity? But Facebook is free to the end-user.”
    If we bracket the “material conditions” that allow only us rich first-worlders on the Internet (or, hell, that gives us enough time to read books), Facebook is free to the end-user due to corporate advertiser subsidy. This will seem different to the average person that the cash-exchange necessary to buy other commodities.

    2) “A commodity? But my profile isn’t a real thing.”
    Again, bracketing the computer networks, the electrons, and the complex series of tubes, it doesn’t seem like a real thing. What is the “what” being consumed, independent of the thing, independent of cash exchange?

    To respond to 1) and 2), might it be useful to flip the equation and say that the ‘act’ of consumption is a lot like the ‘act’ of tagging something onto your identity? The sweater keeps you warm, but the commodity tags you as able to spend $60 on a sweater, tags you as hip with the latest trends, and helps you manage a narcissitstic self. The Facebook profile conveys useful information, maybe even helps you coordinate a political action, but for the most part it seems to be a more efficient means of organizing those tags.

  14. Buck Swash Says:

    Perfectly accurate would therefore be upper-middle-class, not upper class or aristocracy. i’m often called by the bloggers a ‘faux-aristocrat’, but that’s because of my so-called ‘elitist tastes’. Ruling class is ‘propertied and wealthy’. well yes, that’s the original, some multi-millionaires but no billionaires, I think Mlle. knows what I mean, she’s from that too, although has more herself than I do personally. Point is, if you come from those people, you do carry on with a lot of their perectpions, even if you tried to identify with the working classes when you were younger, and be more equality-oriented, etc.. I’m not being frivolous, I think it’s an important matter. If it’s just a pose, then that is when it is a ‘fake aristo’, but if you end up reverting to type in many ways, it won’t necessrily mean you’re rich. So it’s almost always, I think, that it is a ruling class that can ‘keep’ some ‘weirdo artiste type’ like me and think that’s just fine, although public opinion definitely does not agree with them about doing it. That’s a ruling class attitude, though–not paying much attention to public opinion. I know that this won’t win me any ;popularity contests, but I think some of the distinctions are important that I’ve given, esp. since I KNOW what socio-economic class I’m from. I could frankly live with it being upper class, but it’s not.

  15. I don’t know about this, Traxus. We’ve seen over the last decade that the street theater of protest is about as tired a form as the Broadway musical. It might feel like activism, but going out and marching on the white house or at the convention did about zip. And in fact, that kind of demonstration, when it worked, was definitely the spawn of tv – the rise of the civil rights and antiwar movements and the rise of network television are interlinked, as you know.

    It seems rather odd to quote Marcuse about tv, and then talk about Palestinians and New Orleans, when our affective images of them are all through the commodity machinery of tv, newspapers, and the internet. Nobody in Minnesota would be protesting about, say, Palestine, if it wasn’t for this vast media machine. It is one thing to be aware of the limitations of the commodity, and quite another thing to use commodification as a status term for a game of who is purer.

    The machine, when properly hooked up, can still work – I mean, the teabag protests of this spring, with excellent backup by Fox, had everything to do with the town hall protests that seem to have worked really well, probably impeding the lukewarm public option for at least another decade. That is what I call well timed and timely use of the internet, tv, and classic mau-mauing. These aren’t people who worried that if they used facebook, they’d be commodifyin’.

    I don’t think the right question is: how can we find ways of looking down upon silly facebookers. I think the question is – how to hook things like facebook messages up to things like tv and newspapers to small strategically planned things in selected venues. But that is not going to self organize, and it won’t organize at all if the facebook population – affluent young liberals – are considered dupes and gulls vs. thoee authentic activists who have a record of defeat going back to the early nineties, so let’s follow them. Back in the sixties, or forties, or thirties, one of the things that was impressive about civil rights leaders or union leaders is one felt like, in different situations, these people had organizatonal knowledge. The could run the things they protest against if they so chose. But as organizational knowledge got displaced by attitudinal knowledge, confidence in that being the case has withered.

  16. traxus4420 Says:

    ok amm, i think i’m still not sure exactly what your objection is. your hypothetical objections 1 and 2 seem like they could just as easily be asked of television. “what do you mean tv shows sell me to advertisers?” and so forth. the what being exchanged is your attention, and it is measured and used to value products.

    the sweater example seems like post-purchase it could only be said to generate further commodities if the brand was visible. just telling someone about the sweater doesn’t by itself create a third commodity-object. it seems to me that the ability to monitor, record, and transfer these these social anecdotes (“where’d you get your shirt, etc.”) changes them, internalizing them in the value chain in a way they weren’t before. i’m not saying it doesn’t give us a new way of understanding conspicuous consumption, but what seems more important to me is that it’s organized it in a new way that allows for more intensive value extraction, and which is not yet ubiquitous.

    i have to admit i’m just not clear on what strategy you’re proposing.

  17. traxus4420 Says:

    roger, hi, thanks, etc. —

    so it seems i’ve failed to communicate once again. i don’t want this to be about “looking down on silly facebookers;” i am a facebooker, as are most people i know.

    you use the teabag and town hall protests as positive (!) examples, but as you say they were carried out on all fronts – TV, internet, live street marching, other forms of political theater. they weren’t worried about facebook owning all their bases, but nor were they worried that carrying signs and courting sexual innuendo would make them look silly.

    the things i’m picking on in the post are of the sort of ‘spontaneous’ actions that are limited to an internet platform or two. the iran twitter revolution would not have mattered (or have even happened) if people didin’t take to the streets in iran, and this health action, or the limp blog-based attempt to boycott whole foods, won’t matter if they’re online-only. i’m pointing out that these internet actions seem to be considered more ‘true’ (in the sense outlined above) the less likely they are to succeed or have any effect outside punditry. they are not ‘doing something’ in the same way that the spontaneous street actions in greece were, for example, before expending themselves.

    i feel like this is a pretty common sense point and that we’re fundamentally in agreement, i’m just trying to get at exactly what the limits to this sort of action are, just as there are limits to the street as a medium for action.

  18. okay, Traxus. I agree with that comment. I am just disturbed when the activism is judged on whether it is commoditized or something, instead of: is it successful? Which is why I quoted the teabaggers – looking past their bat shit insanity, their strategy was excellent.

    I think the liberal activist groups have let down the side, big time. Firedoglake had a great post about that: http://campaignsilo.firedoglake.com/2009/09/06/van-jones-a-moment-of-truth-for-liberal-institutions-in-the-veal-pen/. The conventional wisdom is that the dems problem is that they are all over the place, instead of being disciplined. That isn’t true: the problem is that liberals equate being disciplined with giving away everything they supposedly stand for.

    I’m not, of course “giving up” on Obama cause he has had a bad streak, but I am concerned that his genius insight – that he didn’t have to campaign like Clinton, and engage in rat a tat with his enemies – has hardened into a dogma. All along, I’ve thought Obama appointed the worng people, starting with the vice president. Man, I’d love to see Hilary as VP right now. He has the only queen on the chess board, and what is she doing?

  19. thanks for the article, roger – i think i saw hamsher on tv defending van jones, though a fat lot of good it did. obama’s cabinet just made me think he didn’t want to make good decisions. i agree hilary was the best one, and he puts her in the absolute last place i would want her, in foreign policy.

    all partisan griping aside, when internet activism happens it’s treated as something more than what it is by liberals. as a fetish object it represents a certain fantasy about what politics is or should be. i’ve been reading reinhard koselleck’s Critique and Crisis lately, whose anti-utopian c. 1956 attitude is unexpectedly refreshing, and is giving me a better idea of what that fantasy is.

  20. I did a post about Kosseleck. Hmm, where is it? I looked, I can’t find it. I need a better search engine for my site!

  21. traxus4420 Says:

    i looked too, i think before you did.

  22. The minutemen and town hall were also successful because they had an incredibly popular TV news station stumping for them 24/7. If you look at the numbers from the Town Hall protests, you see that there were significantly more pro-health care people present at the meetings, but the disruption caused by the protesters caught media attention, and skewed our perception of public opinion. The fact is, the “liberal” media doesn’t care about health care reform: they’re lukewarm at best. The conservative media are fully-armed and constantly in attack mode. This leaves bloggers and facebookers, who have a hard time being noticed because, contrary to the inflated claims made about these media, we don’t have the machinery to wage a full-scale media war. The right has been building their media weapon for a long time now, and what do we have? MSNBC? ThinkProgress? Al Franken? Oliver Stone? The fact that, despite Obama having a congress, despite him having “the bully pulpit,” we’re getting our asses handed to us on health care, and political officials are being kicked out of office for signing petitions, shows that the right controls this fucking game. We don’t have a media machine, and this is what we get. Right wingers try to paint these evil pictures of the all-powerful MoveOn and Acorn. God what I wouldn’t give for something remotely as powerful as NewsCorp on the left.

  23. traxus4420 Says:

    alex — i think it’s tempting to build up the right as an invincible media opponent, but it seems sort of self-defeating (as if they weren’t defeating us enough already). when has the white house actually tried to fight the opposition party on anything? the dems just cave before any mud has even been slung. you can’t expect anyone to back you if you throw every fight.

    all those assets you named on the liberal side (and more) would be enough to get results if their party were on their side. but this is the problem: it’s not.

    as a party for the people, the democrats are an empty shell whose legitimacy is entirely dependent on an activist base they seem addicted to betraying, to corporate interests as well as their own cowardice.

    and so the only totalizing and all-powerful specter i feel it makes sense to blame is the form of capitalism we’ve been living under for the past 30 years or so. as a test of resilience in the face of its own systematic failure, one must admit it’s pretty impressive.

  24. While I agree that the right is probably not invincible in the U.S. (in Latin America, the right is clearly vincible; but they’re much more entrenched here), I’m not sure I agree that the problem is our senators and congressmen selling us out. Republican senators and congressmen are just as lukewarm when it comes to the policies that the hardliners in their camp consistently push. However, because the hardliners on the right have a large media force, and because, for whatever reason, people seem to take that media force seriously (people actually watch Glenn Beck, unlike Olbermann), they have a force that we don’t. In many ways, televised media still hold the reins in this country, if for no other reason than that it’s a very effective mobilizer of people (and I have yet to see Keith Olbermann try to get demonstrators out in the streets). Why did so many people on the right attend town hall meetings and the tea party? Leading up to it, they had constant advertisement from Fox News. Universal health care shouldn’t be a difficult thing to get, even in a capitalist country like the U.S. We’re now one of two OECD nations that doesn’t have some form of universal healthcare. Of course, I’m not going to discount the efforts of insurance companies to kill this bill: they fund the bloody media campaign. But, to me, that means that we need to really figure out this media thing: how to fund it, how to run it, how to make it competitive with NewsCorp.

    I also don’t think that seeing the right-wing media as an essential problem in this fight is defeatist. Viewing the enemy as all-powerful capitalism seems a far more intractable problem in the short term than right-wing media.

  25. Although, we may be jumping to conclusions about the left losing the health care battle:


  26. traxus4420 Says:

    that quote Gerry has up is revealing:

    While the month of August clearly knocked the White House back on its heels, as Congressional town hall-style meetings exposed Americans’ unease with an overhaul, the uproar does not seem to have greatly altered public opinion or substantially weakened Democrats’ resolve.

    when are ‘Americans” and ‘public opinion’ two different things? when, as you said, newscorp makes a bunch of wackos look like a movement.

    but the fact that people watch glenn beck doesn’t mean they take him seriously — it can’t, most people don’t agree with him. they take him as serious to others, as representing these others who in numerical terms are marginal.

    and you can’t equate the desires of right and left here — the demands posed by progressives are more or less in line with public opinion and the interests of most people. the demands of right-wing hardliners are a reality tv show.

    i do think the right-wing media is an essential problem, i do. but it doesn’t explain away the apparent impotence of so many clear democratic advantages: congress, public opinion, a charismatic president who ran on a blank check for ‘change.’ reality. only the democrats and their activist base can do that. bad media strategy is as much a part of it as being outgunned by newscorp. but this is inseparable from bad political strategy.

  27. traxus4420 Says:

    which is inseparable from cowardice and ‘selling out.’

  28. (linking this discussion to this discussion)

    I steadfastly reject any notion that the right is “invincible” but we have to recognize that they are extremely powerful, and not simply because they have Fox News. Fox News Channel and his cast of crazies is a small part of a poisoned media culture that mainstreams fringe conservatism while obfuscating basic truths with he-said-she-said-style equivocation. In the case of health care, the assertion of death panels is wildly inaccurate to the point of certifiably paranoid — and yet there has been more attention paid to this “question” than anything else. That’s not just because of Fox; that’s because the entire apparatus of the corporate media, top to bottom. We need to take it apart where we can and get around it where we can’t, but that’s a big and large job; this idea that the will to fight would alone be enough overlooks the reality of mass media influence. The polling on the public option really has dropped significantly, not because people’s opinions have changed, but because Obama’s brand has been compromised by baseless smear attacks “journalists” should never have given attention in the first place.

  29. traxus4420 Says:

    the thing with public opinion is that it’s dependent on the questions asked, which depends on who’s asking them. here the results are strong, here not so much. the question of whether the town hall things had any effect seems debatable. there are only two indisputable facts: a) the media paid inordinate attention to anti-health care activists and b) the dems have done a bad job building the plan.

    now you’ll note that the original slant of this post was anti-voluntarist. facebook status update ‘activism’ is the perfect demonstration that the spontaneous expression of the consumerist ‘general will’ alone is not only insufficient but self-serving. there is no monocausal explanation for why a and b are true. there is a context in which they are true, and where networks of power, money, and ownership cross the media/politics divide. so if there is a ‘reality’ that needs to be understood, there is no adequate substitute for this one. it should be our base.

    so we can’t say ‘we’ the democrats and progressives in opposition to ‘they’ the right-wing and/or corporate msm, because the ‘we’ here is not really a team. obama has done much to compromise his own brand. the democrats have done little except sell out their supporters, as the taibbi article sums up. as systematically as the media misrepresents reality. if you’re going to totalize do it right, in other words.

  30. traxus4420 Says:

    what this means to me anyway is that doing anything of importance in this environment demands that we the progressive and/or radical left not start our calculations by accepting the limits of our opponents’ myopic version of reality. whatever your position on the left/liberal/progressive spectrum, if you’re against the right you can’t start by assuming a scarcity of ‘realistic’ opportunities. there aren’t ANY, because no left or leftish position can claim any serious victories in recent memory. obama’s presidency so far is proving to the u.s. progressive left that not recognizing and never taking advantage of one’s power looks the same in retrospect as never ‘really’ having had it.

  31. traxus4420 Says:

    no we don’t have limitless power. but anytime progressives or their alleged spokespeople gain power, instead of experimenting with it, pushing its limits, seeing what it can do, they buckle under to ‘realism’ before the fight even begins. see roger’s link for a good breakdown of the recent history.

  32. But there’s got to be more to it than just “the left are pussies,” i.e., “objective social factors,” right? It’s happened virtually everywhere since the end of WWII: the left gets into power, and subsequently makes massive concessions to the ruling oligarchies: Italy, Brazil, New Labor in the UK (if we can even call them left)… I can already imagine Japan’s new government buckling under the neoliberal pressure.

    Health care, though, shouldn’t be the massive hurdle that it is (except for the insurance co’s). Every OECD nation has some form of universalized healthcare, other than us and Turkey; it’s obviously not some grave threat to neoliberalism if Germany has universal health care.

  33. no, the health care issue is hardly revolutionary. america is special in that way — we have to observe our left politics through a microscope.

    which is why the post-ww2 gov’ts you mention seem like a slightly different issue, in that they involve actual leftists gaining power and then selling out. here we have (to oversimplify) a neolib party and a neocon party, neither of which were ever leftist, and the neolib party can’t budge from its role as moderator. except for nixing the public option (which may have been opportunism to begin with) obama’s acted fairly closely to how he’s campaigned. ‘realistic’ progressives are basically stuck fighting for neoliberal government over neofeudalism. so no one can mention except in passing or as a depressing joke that even the best health proposals work on the same principle as the financial bailouts: save and centralize the corporations, streamline and expand their powers of control, force taxpayers to pick up the tab.

    but yes, this is why i’m frustrated, despite very real ‘objective social factors.’ we can’t even attain the barest level of decency by capitalist standards. it’s scandalously little to ask, and we’re treating it as if we were faced with revolution.

  34. oh, and i feel i should apologize for the incoherence of my last few comments. kind of lost it a little there.

  35. Cornell computer science paper about the news cycle, kind of interesting:


    “We tracked 1.6 million mainstream news sites and blogs over a period of three months with the total of 90 million articles and we find a set of novel and persistent temoral patterns in the news cycle. In particular, we observe a typical lag of 2.5 hours between the peaks of attention to a phrase in the news media and in blogs respectively, with divergent behaviour around the overall peak and a “heartbeat”-like pattern in the handoff between news and blogs.”

    We see that the nightmare image of simply implanting concerns and ideas – “brainwashing” – is impossible on a large scale. But something just as effective is possible. I think this telecom infrastructure is very good for allowing elites to control pacing, to suggest some topics and manage others, just surround and guide whatever spontaneous public energies arise, exploit them, orchestrate a fast crescendo and saturation so that people are bored quickly with the topic and it has an instant feel of tired old yesterday cliché, and it sounds obsessive even to mention it (oh my god, you’re not going to harangue me about national health care again? Enough already! Can’t we talk about something else for a change? oh no you’re not still whining about TARP, that was a hundred years ago!), induce an event-ish atmosphere (“announcing”) for venting, and bringing things to a quick close. This idea of “looking forward” and”moving on” not “playing the blame game” is already very respectable – it was in tribute to this spirit that schwartenegger justified letting enron execs keep $9 billion they owed the state of california – so the quicker you can move events into that sealed past, that spilt milk region, where to examine them can only be pettiness and negativity and avoidance of the hopeful optimistic forward looking american spirit, the better. The statute of limitations on ruling class crime is the news cycle, so the shorter the better. There really is this harrison bergeron thing; its not insuperable obviously but people have to figure out a way to overcome it and for the moment what’s happening instead is a voluntary plunging into the spaces where this is inescapable, where people and the energies that are “public opinion” are best controlled. I suppose the idea is that this technology can be exprorpriated by the majority users against the owners, but the reality is that if ever it got close to being successfully used that way in some manner actually dangerous or threatening to the owners, it is very easily shut down and that would be difficult to prevent; meanwhile a dependency develops.

  36. hi chabert, thanks for that link. very fascinating. seems like there’s another way to read this data, which is that the regular news cycle is simply trucking along as before, and the internet just extends that already attenuated ‘collective memory.’ the psychology of “venting” would still apply. but the public performance of what was already happening in private (the consumption/discussion of the fast news cycle) seems like blogs have both effects simultaneously – intensifier of the regular news cycle and point of departure for other things to develop from.

    seems unlikely any of this stuff would ever need to be shut down unless it became a communications medium for more threatening activity outside of it — if a nasty meme (love that they put the word in quotes btw) develops, a new news cycle can just be manufactured to cover it over.

    the rest of their site is interesting to check out:

    oh, while we’re on the subject, your take on the lehman bankruptcy seems to have been officially vindicated (via distorted):


    “Almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to in Hank Paulson’s old Treasury Department agrees that without the immediate panic caused by the Lehman default, the government would never have agreed to make the loans needed to save A.I.G., a company it knew very little about. In effect, the Lehman bankruptcy caused the government to panic, which in turn caused it to save the firm it really had to save to prevent catastrophe. In retrospect, if you had to choose one firm to throw under the bus to save everyone else, you would choose Lehman.”

  37. seems unlikely any of this stuff would ever need to be shut down unless it became a communications medium for more threatening activity outside of it

    That’s exactly what happens with some of the Jihadi media sources. They crop up, become forums for anti-US forces in Iraq or Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda supporters, etc., and many of them are wiped out in a matter of years or, sometimes, months. The report below is an interesting analysis of the way these media sources work. Interestingly, several of the sources it mentions are no longer around.


  38. By “interesting analysis”, I should clarify: useful to see how the defense people are thinking about this kind of stuff.

  39. I’m a devotee of brilliant writing. I wish to be a weblog writer myself, but it is not easy for me, putting myself out there.
    I feel totally exposed. Do you ever feel the same?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: