Todd Wolfson, Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left. University of Illinois Press, 2014.
Review by the University of the Poor Website Team
Tim Shenk, Daniel Jones and Heather West
The Birth of the Cyber Left
Todd Wolfson’s latest book, Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left, is an insider’s hard look at the recent period of left organizing and mobilization; new forms and methods of struggle, organization, and collaboration; and the role of new technologies, in particular the Internet, in these new kinds of movements. The book is as even-handed as it is illuminating, and in it organizers and scholars alike will find clues to pressing questions about how to advance efforts for equality and justice.
Digital Rebellion (University of Illinois Press, 2014) highlights the advances made by activists and organizations in the 1990s and 2000s in their attempts to develop new strategies for confronting the interconnected and global nature of social problems. At the same time, as a scholar and organizer himself, the author challenges what he understands as the largely “celebratory” literature on recent social movements. Describing these new organizations and networks with the term the “Cyber Left,” he analyzes their (and his own) miscalculations and internal contradictions during this most recent period. The book blends the histories of the Independent Media Centers, the alternative/anti-globalization movement, and other efforts in a fresh and compelling way. It is convincing in its insistence that activists and organizers must question ideologies that equate democracy, collective leadership, and good strategy with horizontality and decentralization and, relatedly, examine our over-reliance on technology and optimism about the inherent value of network technologies for promoting a more just world.
The Cyber Left, Wolfson argues, could be a way to characterize a new phase of social movement history in the United States, differentiated from but also emerging out of the “Old Left” and the “New Left.” The Old Left was strongest in the first half of the twentieth century, was strongly tied to Marxism, had its base in unions, and was decimated by McCarthyism and the realities of Stalin’s USSR. The New Left emerged in the 1960s with the civil rights movement. It questioned the centrality of the capitalist-worker relationship to understanding and combating oppression and social problems, leading to the growth of many identity-based movements in the second half of the twentieth century. Both the Old and New Left had their own strategies, structures, and governance, that broadly distinguish them from one another, even if they can’t be considered monolithically. The New Left emerged out of and in response to the gains and limitations of the Old Left, as well as changing economic and political conditions and relationships. Calling this latest phase the Cyber Left, then, is an attempt to define “the novel set of processes and practices within twenty-first-century social resistance that are engendered by new technologies and in turn have enabled new possibilities for the scale, strategy, structure, and governance of social movements” (p.4).
According to Wolfson, each phase of resistance mimics the material conditions in which it was born. Whereas the Old Left developed a hierarchical party structure to combat the structures of industrial capitalism, the Cyber Left has organized itself as a series of global and largely autonomous and horizontal networks, taking advantage of technologies that connect geographically dispersed struggles and applying more democratic forms of information sharing and dissemination in an attempt to take on the new networked/globalized capital.
Wolfson is encouraged by how the development of the Internet has allowed for breakthroughs in the democratization of information. He notes that strong web-based networks make it possible to scale up resistance to the regional and global levels required by the current phase of capitalism. He cites as a watershed moment, the first message on the indymedia.org website on the cusp of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington: “Welcome to Indymedia. The resistance is now global…” (p.71). By creating an open, democratic, participatory way of sharing news, activists attempted to shine a spotlight through the corporate media blackout of social struggles and strengthen networks for social change.
Wolfson documents the Independent Media Centers (IMCs) and other Cyber Left networks efforts in the 1990s and 2000s. His section on the influence of the Zapatista movement of southern Mexico is especially useful, challenging many commonly held notions about the EZLN, its history, and its place as a model for efforts in the US and elsewhere. Where Digital Rebellion really shines, however, is in its clarity of analysis of the current historical moment, and its level-headedness in critiquing a movement in which the author himself is a committed leader.
Many activists saw in the digital information technology revolution the potential for powerful new tools for change. They built independent media networks, most notably the platform indymedia.org, to empower regular people to “be the media,” tell their stories, and connect with others. In retrospect, Wolfson says he ultimately miscalculated the power of technology. In our August 26 interview with the author, he noted that he “overestimated technology in starting Media Mobilizing Project [in Philadelphia]. We still need to do the hard work of organizing, though we bring technology with us to strengthen on-the-ground work.”
In the book, Wolfson takes a critical look at the strategy, structure and governance of Indymedia and other Cyber Left organizations. He delineates the movement’s primary strategy as a “switchboard of struggle” to facilitate an open digital commons where a wide range of people could share stories and discuss strategies for social change.
Wolfson delineates the movement’s structure as a global and decentralized network with autonomous nodes acting within the larger network. The governance of these movements was set up as a non-hierarchical direct democracy with all members having equal say in all organizational decisions.
Wolfson posits that this horizontality in strategy, structure and governance was perhaps an overcorrection of past hierarchies and sectarianism in social struggle. The “switchboard of struggle” model has been hampered by its lack of political clarity and lack of a process for leadership development.
Instead of a politics driven by those most affected by the ills of society – the “deprived,” as Wolfson calls them – the Cyber Left developed according to the demands and ideologies of the “discontented.” These two groups orient their organizing differently. Wolfson says:
The deprived aim to get their immediate needs fulfilled and challenge capitalism on the basis of material inequality and oppression. The discontented, however, have their material needs met, as they are integrated into the system, and therefore their challenge to capitalist society occurs on ideological grounds around issues of freedom, power, and the fulfillment of self (p.23).
In developing organizations, this second group tended to underestimate the centrality of building deep connections with groups already working for social change. Wolfson quotes Jeff Perlstein, an early leader in the Seattle Independent Media Center (IMC), who admits, “We did a shitty job of building on-the-ground relationships that were really real, you know, with preexisting community-based organizations.” Wolfson added in our interview that IMCs were at their best when they were strongly grounded to the local community, were working closely with other local organizations, and were able to take advantage of national and global networks from this vantage point.
Though always fair, Wolfson shows his frustration with the core tendencies of horizontalism and openness in Cyber Left organizations like Indymedia. Whereas these principles allowed many people to engage, he argues that it ultimately led to a dilution of the movement and hindered its long-term ability to develop leaders and build power. The horizontal, decentralized structure of the IMC network kept it on the defensive, unable to take proactive steps.
Yet the Cyber Left is larger than independent media activists attempting to use digital communication technologies to further social change. It has to do with how technology has allowed social movement organizations to work, strategize and mobilize on different scales: from the local to the national and global. Looking at today’s global landscape, this creativity and connection across miles and national borders is fast becoming a necessity.
Implications for the Development of the University of the Poor
While many of the efforts of the Cyber Left have been directed towards mass mobilization and mass communication, there are still important implications of this history, and of the conclusions that Wolfson draws, for the work of building the University of the Poor.
Bases of unity
One of Wolfson’s central criticisms of the mode of organization of the Cyber Left is the way it leaves networks and organizations incapable of making proactive moves. These networks have been well-adapted to “swarming” in physical and virtual space in response to crises, threats, and the actions of the ruling class and its representatives – even winning some major concessions and tactical victories. However, the fact that the collaborative effort is based on a shared commitment to horizontalism and autonomism, and not on a shared scientific and moral understanding of society or of who we are and who our enemy is, makes it impossible to take the strategic initiative in the struggle against global capital. While the Cyber Left has focused on uniting forces on the field of battle, the University of the Poor – thinking and planning based on an understanding of the whole war – should be focused on uniting forces before entering the field of battle.
The University of the Poor, if it’s going to serve as a means of working proactively to combat and defeat the forces of global capital, has to be founded not just on a set of shared organizational principles or a commitment to a certain structure, but on an ongoing and shared process of scientific assessment and strategic thinking (i.e., understanding ourselves and our enemy). Fundamental to that is a shared commitment to building the unity and social leadership of the global poor and dispossessed. Our commitment can’t be to an ideology or even just a vision of another world, as with much of the Cyber Left, but to the survival and the victory of our actually-existing class.
This assessment and thinking will need to find expression in art and ritual if it’s going to help produce a living and deeply shared politics.
Online and offline organization
Wolfson points out that the Indymedia Centers (IMCs) were able to work most effectively, maintaining and developing a core of leaders and making a genuine political contribution, when they had strong local bases of operation. Right now, the University of the Poor is organized, at least formally, along thematic lines: political economy, history, and the battle of ideas. Those formal groupings have proved to be difficult to maintain. This isn’t surprising, considering the limits of technologies like video conferencing and collaborative document editing for building and maintaining thick relationships between leaders, along with cultivating a shared identity and sense of collective responsibility. Moving forward, we should think together about how to encourage more locally-based, in-person collectivities – possibly of a temporary and ad-hoc nature.
That isn’t to say that the online collaborative tools we have available to us aren’t important. We have to take full advantage of their uses for real-time communication and collaboration and for archiving information (essays, news articles, books, videos, reports, etc.) and making it available. However, the shared use of technology can’t substitute for either a shared strategic understanding or the deep personal relationships that make collective leadership and accountability possible. Those relationships can’t survive without regular, in-person contact. This is another lesson that Wolfson draws from the Cyber Left and from the experience of the IMCs in particular, about the dangers of over-emphasizing the organizing power and the social role of new information technologies.
 Many of us would say that we are already on the battlefield, waging struggles as the poor and dispossessed in our communities or on the state or regional level. At the same time, we suggest that it’s also important to work at preparing for a united global struggle against the myriad forces of global capital.
 In our August 26 conversation, Wolfson suggested further study of the organizational models being attempted by groups as diverse ideologically as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Bill McKibbin’s 350.org.