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Activism in America: Public spaces online and off

My last article for Global Comment explored how we have lost our common architecture of activism that created and guided mass movements of the past. I argued that the individualistic modern world makes it difficult to create broad-based activism because our detached and self-referential modern pose means that we have few cultural symbols around which to rally masses of diverse people.

I want to build upon that today by looking at Internet organizing within the context of changes in public life and public space. The architecture of activism has suffered because people have left public spaces for the privacy of their homes. Creating Internet communities has overcome some of the consequences of people’s retreat into privacy. But Internet organizing has its own limitations which prevent it from developing the broad-based activist movements that created progressive change in the past.

Pre-World War II society forced us to leave the home and engage with other people. Progressive campaigns grew out of these interactions. Face-to-face meetings with organizers and friends who appealed to you to join up took place in the union meeting, the immigrant fraternal organization, the college classroom, the church, the Grange hall, the workplace, and the prison.

During the mid-twentieth century, Americans began fleeing public spaces for the inner sanctum of the home. Robert Putnam’s influential 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community demonstrated the decline of social interactions and suggested that the lack of personal communication threatens American democracy.

Technology has played an on-going role in the decline of public space. Commentators first began worrying about these issues with the rise of radio in the 1920s and then again with television in the 1950s. In recent years, the atomization of technology into niche products has exacerbated these trends. The rise of the Internet, video games, home movies, and other technologies have helped complete our alienation from traditional notions of the public sphere.

One of the most important technologies pulling us into the home in recent years is the Internet. But social networking has created new kinds of public spaces. Individuals may not know each other, but they form bonds around common interests. The growth of social media formed new outlets for political organizing, to some extent overcoming how the decline of traditional notions of public space hurt the ability of people to organize.

Activists quickly discovered the potential of the Internet as an organizing tool. There are obvious reasons for this: it allows people from around the world to create activist communities, spreads information rapidly, and has greatly increased our access to knowledge. The Internet opened up the possibility for relatively unknown movements in the developing world to gain allies and raise money in the developed world. Blogs created an opening for new progressive voices to challenge the corporate dominated media and entrenched editorial writers who had few new ideas.

Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and then Barack Obama’s successful run for the Oval Office in 2008 demonstrated the incredible possibilities of Internet fundraising and creating very real political communities in virtual space. Moreover, the Internet has allowed historically marginalized groups to contact each other under the cover of anonymity. Particularly in the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender communities, Internet chat rooms, blogs, and email lists created safe spaces for isolated individuals to discover people they could talk with about their lives. The Internet helped spur the relatively rapid rise of the GLBT movement over the past fifteen years.

Despite these real and important successes of Internet organizing, real issues remain. The demographics of Internet activism reveals much about what kinds of issues have and have not flourished online and who can participate in these conversations.

As people have retreated out of the streets and into their homes over the last century, mass media have played an increasingly important role in organizing. Politicians and organizers of all stripes used the radio to reach millions of people in pre-World War II America. By the 1950s, television became the dominant medium of communication; activists since that time forward have understood the necessity of creating a public spectacle to receive television coverage.

Today the Internet has become the primary technology for mass communication. But whereas all one needed for the radio or television was to own one or know someone who did, Internet savvy comes in different levels. Young and well-educated people can usually keep up with the new developments. On the other hand, many older people find computers intimidating and might at most have an e-mail account. This means that the latest innovations can only touch those who have the requisite technological comfort and computer knowledge.

With age, education, and class barriers to who can play a role in the conversations, it is not surprising then that class issues have gained almost no traction among the netroots. Even progressives who participate in Internet communities tend to be whiter, better educated, and wealthier than the general population. These are not people with a vested interest in challenging global capitalism’s status quo. Despite the efforts of writers such as Nathan Newman, it has proven virtually impossible to get the netroots interested in labor issues, and particularly in promoting labor unions.

On the other hand, the netroots has created incredibly vibrant communities for progressive social and foreign policy issues that do not challenge the economic status quo. Powerful GLBT and feminist communities have developed. Opposition to the war in Iraq manifested itself as the blogosphere exploded in 2004 and 2005.

So while Internet organizing has constructed an architecture of activism for issues that appeal to wealthy white liberals, its limitations mean that we need to find ways to overcome the decline of public space in order to create campaigns across a diversity of incomes. The demographics of Internet users have helped define the progressive movement as one that avoids class politics. Labor unions always say that you can’t have a progressive movement without labor. They are right; no one can get out the vote like the unions. Yet the so-called progressive movement with its online home ignores working-class issues.

We need a class-based politics in order to create long-term progressive change. Working-class people of all races and gender around the world share much in common. Much of the world’s oppression takes the form of the rich stomping upon the backs of the poor. Yet I’m amazed that the progressive online world so rarely organizes around these issues. Until we start systematically fighting economic inequality, corporations will control our politics, throw us out of work at will, and create a global race to the bottom where a few plutocrats will rule over billions of impoverished people.

Evidently, bowling online isn’t going to produce a class-based politics any more than bowling alone. We need organizing within a truly public space because scared people need the crowd for bravery. Public activism is a courageous act, especially when your job or life is on the line. During the civil rights movement, activists frequently told of coming out to a protest scared but determined to make change. They were arrested. And it was during that time in prison, surrounded by other activists, singing freedom songs, and learning about nonviolence that they became committed activists. Their experience surrounded by fellow believers in racial transformation allowed them to subsume their fears behind a wall of solidarity that only physical contact with others can provide.

Internet activism can provide much, but it has not yet created a space where the poor, the uneducated, and the elderly can participate in mass numbers. The Internet empowers us, but mostly those already empowered by their race and economic status. If we want to expand our community of progressives, we need to add to our Internet organizing with physical contact. Those tangible human bodies, with their emotions, their faces, their voices, and their hands provide an electrifying energy that can really challenge entrenched power.

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