[Source: the eXiled]
Fifty years ago, in a compact little history entitled Primitive Rebels, Eric Hobsbawm wrote:
But with all its faults, the ‘mob’ has been a fact in history. It is perhaps the form of social agitation with the longest record of continuous existence, for it is not too fanciful to recognize its lineaments in the Blues and the Greens of the circus factions of antiquity. And because it has—perhaps only half-consciously—played an important part in the political evolution of the modern world, before giving way to better movements, and other groupings of the poor, the historian must make the attempt to understand how it worked, even though it can rarely rouse his sympathy, like some other primitive social movements.According to Hobsbawm, the historical moment of the mob had come and gone with the evolution of modern social movements that gave voice to the disaffected.*
"Not so fast!" say the editors at the Economist, who inform us that the mob’s back, and now they’ve got Twitter and iPhones. In a bizarre piece on the historical meaning of the new threat that the protests in Greece represent, the editors outline the contours of a new radicalism and their own new reactionary anti-radicalism. They inaugurate this discussion with a most spurious claim:
Every scholar of 20th-century history can tell you about the Communist International—usually called Comintern, and strictly speaking the third in a series of four global fraternities whose aim was to pursue the class struggle all over the world.As someone who writes about the Comintern and who has presented his work to numerous academic audiences, let me assure you that this bit about what “every scholar of 20th-century history” knows is completely false. My life would be much easier if it were true, but that’s really neither here nor there.
So let’s move along to the bee in the editors’ collective bonnet, the "riots" in Greece and the anti-authoritarian protests across Europe that have erupted in their wake (I've bolded the keywords of anti-radicalist rhetoric):
Is it possible to imagine an Anarchist International, a trans-national version of the inchoate but impassioned demonstrations that have ravaged Greece this month? …By definition, anarchy is harder to propagate than rigid Leninism. Whatever is spreading from Athens, it is not a clear programme for a better world.To which Vadim Damier says, “Damn, did I ever pick the right book title!” (See The Forgotten International: The International Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement.) George Dimitrov exclaims from the grave, “Really, the Economist likes me better than old man Berkman? They think my program's all clear and stuff? That’s hot.” And every social historian in history mutters together, “Yeah, it’s pretty rare that large-scale spontaneous protests have a unified program. That doesn’t mean they’re completely inarticulate expressions of anger; do some work, you lazy bums.”
The Economist editors, however, aren't done:
But the psychological impulse behind the Greek protests—a sense of rage against all authority, which came to a head after a 15-year-old boy was killed by a police bullet—can now be transmitted almost instantaneously, in ways that would make the Bolsheviks very jealous. These days, images (moving as well as still) spread faster than words; and images, of course, transcend language barriers.Let’s work on the prose first. We all heard about the Economist’s well-known diction and informed reporting, but “killed by a police bullet?”—even the NRA knows better than to try that kind of evasion. Police bullets don’t kill people, police do. And I know that you are trying to conjure the image of an overwhelming and amorphous threat, but “massive use of text messages” just does not work for me.
E-communications are now a familiar feature in pro-democracy protests against dictators. Equally fast-moving, say specialists, is the role of technology in what might be called “undemocratic protests”: violent acts in prosperous, networked societies.
This became obvious during the French riots of 2005, when teenagers posted blogs that urged people to “burn the cops”—and made massive use of text messages to co-ordinate the protests.
Ignoring the language issues, the bigger problem is this: I have no idea where you guys are going. Is the point that you wish that the Comintern were directing the protests, a la Hobsbawm circa 1958? Or that technology has created a neo-mob animated by a flutter of emoticons and images without ideological content? Or just that advanced technology plus scary primitive mobs is weird and disconcerting? And massive.
(By the way, the subtle introduction of the specter of the banlieue is a classic bit of racializing the threat of radicalism. Here, I truly appreciate your grasp of the conventions of the anti-radicalist screed.)
Maybe the conclusion will help make sense of things:
The spread of sympathy protests over what began as a local Greek issue has big implications for the more formal anti-globalisation movement. That movement has ignored the idea of spontaneous but networked protest, and instead focused on taking large crowds to set-piece events like summits. Such methods look outdated now. Governments are not the only things that networked “anarchy” threatens.Hold up. First you get all tender-hearted over the passing of the Comintern, and now you’re fondly recalling the good old days of Seattle and worrying about its organizers' future?
I can only guess that the demands of the genre wrested control from the editors' senses as logic and historical knowledge gave way to the need to stir a general sense of fear as primitives, technology, and irrational psychological drives conspire to threaten civilization as we know it. Even the civilization of jealous Bolsheviks and backwards anti-globalization protests.
Really, guys, it would be better if you stuck to writing about things you understand. Leave the predictions of doom and anarchy to dudes who've already become really good at it.
*While Hobsbawm’s progressive schema rendered here has been abandoned by most historians, Primitive Rebels is still a worthwhile text; read against the grain, one can salvage an interesting history of protest and political form.