19 December 2008

The New Mob: The Economist Sketches a Radical Threat for our Times

[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.

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.
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.

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.


Sean Guillory said...

Good critique. Thanks for it. Btw what do you think of Zizek's analysis of the 2005 French riots?

Buster said...

Sean, If I remember right (and forgive and correct me if I don't--I was in the middle of my prelim prep when the French riots went down), Zizek didn't really have an analysis of the French riots. What he had was a combination of nostalgia for 1917 and 1968 mixed up with a stretched psychoanalytic take on "terrorist ressentiment" that was, in fact, based more on interpretations of Hollywood movies than anything like social research on urban youth in France.

In other words, it was Zizek at his typical worst. Generally speaking, I can only stomach Zizek's earlier work or his more recent abstract theoretical work. When he tries to write about actual events, the results are usually so loaded with gaffes and fundamental falsehoods, that I struggle to get past the first few paragraphs.

nadia said...

Was there some turning point where the mob gove way to better movements?

After the London bombing the Economist ran this editorial comparing islamic radicals in Europe to 'anarchist' violence in the late 19th/early 20th century; that one was explicit about the connecting thread being working class immigrants. The guy's conclusion though was basically "that went away on its own, this probably will too, everybody chill balls."

I don't know what my point is either, but wtf.

Anonymous said...

Was there some turning point where the mob gove way to better movements?

I think for Hobsbawm the turning point is when movements of the poor take a "modern" political character, becoming trade unions or political parties, acquiring a national; (not local) perspective, and projecting practical measures to make a better future rather than harking back to mythical Golden Age in the past, under "the benevolent landlord" or "the wise King" who took care of "his" people. Hobsbawm's work on primitive rebels and social bandits is wonderful stuff, and when he's examining them in detail he avoids what Thompson called "the enormous condescension of history," but his overall viewpoint still has a touch of that, I think--Marxian Whiggery or whatever you want to call it.

nadia said...

Thanks that makes sense, it's been a while since I've been in school, I just couldn't tell if there was something more specific than that implied or not.