A monthly note from our editors with some thoughts on theory, dilemma, and the next big thing.
Past Letters Entries
The Downward Spiral
To The Swamp
Make It Through
Too Close to Call
This Is Make-Believe
Must Have Slipped My Mind
Letters by Hanna Hurr
Shortly after the video clip of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face went viral, publications like The New York Times and Teen Vogue began publishing articles explaining anti-fascism and black bloc tactics. At first, we were excited.
Just like when Occupy forced mainstream publications to cover riots sympathetically, the trending “punch-a-Nazi” mashups forced magazines to grapple with Antifa to remain relevant. In the weeks following the inauguration, thousands of people around the country rushed to block airports in protest of the Muslim ban. While having trouble falling asleep one night, we reached for our laptop to find something to stream. An ad popped up for the new TV show Guerrilla, which tells the story of a couple in 1970s London that start an armed revolutionary city force. It felt like the energy of rebellion was everywhere.
But then, something changed. With each new article citing anti-fascists and anarchists as the moral compass of the Trump era, that collective feeling waned. The message threads into which we excitedly shared ideas about what we could do next – how to seize upon the moment – became disjointed, and each message further apart. Each time we were overwhelmed by hopelessness or antsy for confirmation that protests were still going on, we turned to social media like some bag of Doritos. Images of people revolting against the state spreading in this way once seemed like a pipe dream – the hyperbolic stuff of insurrectionary zines and wheat-pasted riot porn we earnestly hoped would shake people from complacency. Now that it’s happening all around us, we can’t help but wonder: are we ready for this?
When Baltimore erupted in 2015, then 19-year-old Allen Bullock jumped onto a cop car and smashed its windows. It happened in front of hundreds of cameras, and since he wasn’t wearing a mask, it was easy for the police to find and arrest him. Afterwards, he barely escaped a nine-year prison sentence.
Most everyone we know who calls themselves an anarchist (or whatever) found those politics through an older generation, seasoned people who were already involved in some kind of organizing. Or, perhaps, through news footage from the WTO in Seattle or the other mass protests that characterized the anti-globalization movement. Later, they’d stumble upon Anarchist News, CrimethInc., infoshop.org, or Indymedia. On those sites, the articles were usually written by the very people who were engaged in the struggle as it was documented, and their websites would redirect to similar projects unfolding locally. But time’s have changed.
In terms of publishing radical perspectives, sites run by anarchists and activists still outweigh the mainstream press, but they certainly don’t reach the mass audiences on Facebook and Twitter the way major publishers do. And so people who are newly interested in these ideas and actions may have their conversations primarily on social networks, skipping the living room, collective spaces, and online communities whose servers were once owned by radicals themselves.
This concerns us for several reasons. For one, if the FBI sends out a warrant for someone’s personal information, Facebook has promised to oblige. But also, even though social apps have connected like-minded people at an unprecedented scale, these networks contribute to a collapse of direct care and intimacy. Not to say that radical communities before the internet were perfect utopias (by any means), nor do we mean to deny that the internet has produced new forms of intimacy. But the growth of mass protests coupled with the wider acceptance of radical ideas seems to have produced a harder, lonelier reality for all of us.
In the past, identifying as an anarchist often meant being part of a diverse radical community populated by many different, and sometimes contrary, political perspectives. Besides political work, members of those communities spent a lot of time together socializing in person, making meals, doing housework, raising children, doing repairs, growing food, and distracting ourselves with mischievous pranks (ahem). A culture of care and collectivity provided the backbone of the time spent together arguing in meetings, doing actions and fundraisers, and protesting. If there was a person in our community that we had a problem with, sooner or later we would find ourselves standing next to them over a pile of dishes, thinking “shit, I have to do dishes with this asshole.” If someone was openly critical of something we said at a meeting, there were often other people in the room who would mediate or negotiate the conversation for everyone’s benefit. If someone in one of these communities was arrested or sent to prison, they’d have the mutual, unconditional support that comes from connecting struggles in this way.
These communities still exist, especially in smaller cities and rural areas. But in cities like New York, they are hard to maintain and even harder to make available to newly radicalized young people. People who are radicalized on the internet spend more time alone, on their computers and phones.
On February 16, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg published the statement “Building Global Community,” addressed to “our community.” The letter outlines Facebook’s commitment to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” The civic issues it touches on are so all-encompassing and widespread that it almost reads like the platform of a political campaign – or for a new party all together.
Reading this manifesto, it’s hard to believe that in 2005, Zuckerberg saw Facebook as merely a utility, a tool for connecting classmates and finding out information about them like, is this cute girl in my philosophy lecture single? Facebook grew faster than anyone could have predicted and released site redesigns and features updates faster than its user base was comfortable with (you can still read the many apologies and condescending statements Zuckerberg put out in response to those updates). In 2008, it reached 100 million users, and Facebook’s mission statement shifted to making “the world more open and connected.” As Anna Lauren Hoffman describes, by 2010, “a revisionist history of Facebook emerges in Zuckerberg’s language,” when he begins describing Facebook as having always been “focused on achieving [the company’s] mission of giving people the power to share and making the world more open and connected.”
It’s possible – likely! – that Zuckerberg genuinely believes the outcomes of Facebook are net positive. But it’s undeniable that Facebook as a platform has contributed to widespread depression, insecurity, and loneliness – presumably the inverse of Zuckerberg’s stated mission. And it’s not only its users: the “well over 100,000” content reviewers,” responsible for filtering out heinous and triggering newsfeed content deserve to be mentioned. Facebook has profited from harassment and bullying, and has traumatized untold millions of people by incentivizing sensational content and “clickbait.” In fact, it may well have permanently changed the so-called democratic process. It is intentionally designed to be a hypnotic, addictive rollercoaster of emotions; a mirror image (perhaps a projection) of our new digital society.
Facebook’s success may have less to do with the positive impact on the lives of its users than with how perfectly it captivates the volatility of our desires. Geoff Shullenberger writes about this in his work on René Girard, Peter Thiel, and Facebook. A former student of the philosopher René Girard, Peter Thiel has indicated that his early interest and decision to invest in Facebook was because the social network capitalized on the deep-rooted human tendency to seek the approval of others by copying other people. The problem, according to Shullenberger’s reading of Girard, is that mimetic desire is inherently violent, and the more horizontal and universal this tendency becomes, the more erratic this violence becomes. As Shullenberger writes:
Social media platforms [...] are machines for producing desire. Their equalizing structure – what is most widely celebrated about them – converts all users into each other’s potential models, doubles, and rivals, locked in a perpetual game of competition for the intangible objects of desire of the attention economy. By embedding users in a standardized format, social media renders all individuals instantly comparable in simple, quantitative terms. Enabling instantaneous comparison creates the conditions for a universal proliferation of horizontal rivalry. In this situation of universalized antagonism, conditions are ripe for scapegoating. Tensions may be redirected onto (innocent) victims in episodes of bullying that form communities enabled by tools of mimesis: sharing, retweeting, hashtags, and so on.
Zuckerberg may be fully aware of these dynamics. Maybe he really cares about making humanity better, and feels the weight of the responsibility on his shoulders. It’s just as likely that people no longer sharing as much about their personal lives have caused a decline in marginal profits, challenging new entrants, and unforeseen false-positives in the data they sell to advertisers and search engines. Either way, as part of its ten-year plan to build a global community, Facebook has vowed to invest in groups. Zuckerberg’s statement reads:
Most communities are made of many sub-communities, and this is another clear area for developing new tools. A school, for example, is not a single community, but many smaller groups among its classes, dorms and student groups. Just as the social fabric of society is made up of many communities, each community is made of many groups of personal connections. We plan to expand groups to support sub-communities.
We can’t know how this will function, but we imagine that instead of each group being separate, there might be large networks of groups within groups. For example, a group as general as an entire country or political party might contain myriad smaller group being as narrow as a neighborhood committee. Imagine a future in which Facebook brings about decentralized, distributed nation-like networks, on a scale never seen before. Since we clearly don’t get to have a say in these changes, will it even matter what we think? Either way, we’ll be stuck with whatever massive infrastructure projects their employees and researchers think up next, and whatever ways those developments affect the world.
Only a few years ago, anarchists discussed building an independent platform to support a global network of autonomous, decentralized community organization. Now, it seems more likely that Facebook – not any of us – will bring about that reality.
Dystopian ideas of the future come more easily than utopian ones these days, and a future in which even more aspects of our social lives are funneled through Facebook looks bleak. But it’s unclear what resistance could look like, or if we can even afford to try. Every week it seems like a friend’s financial crisis is averted through a crowdfunding campaign, a deportation is blocked thanks to widely circulated posts, or someone in our network needing a place to crash is connected to someone with a spare bedroom. Would any of these efforts be possible without massive social networks? How many more have gone on into hardship alone, without the social capital necessary to crowdsource healthcare or a new business idea? Have we fallen so deeply into our addiction that we don’t remember how to do these things on our own?
Let’s not forget that every struggle of every generation that came before us, by virtue of necessity, did do these things on their own, without the help of the internet, social media networks, or crowdfunding platforms. As part of its Free Breakfast for Children program, the Black Panther Party fed over ten thousand children per day. The Jane Collective in Chicago performed over eleven thousand abortions while it was still illegal. Books Through Bars continues to send thousands of books to thousands of prisoners around the country every year. After the FBI infiltrated a group organizing to protest the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN in 2008, arrested eight of the organizers under conspiracy to riot charges, the Minneapolis radical community launched a national campaign that resulted in the charges being dropped.
We have a lot to learn from people who came before us, and many of those lessons are found on rural mountain trails, far away from the social media highways of Facebook and Twitter. Of course, the world looks a lot different than it did a decade ago, and so too do the challenges we face. The political struggles of those who came before us were successful when they engaged with every level of society: supporting each other emotionally, materially, and spiritually; defying court orders as well as supporting people to become lawyers; employing a diversity of tactics in the streets as well as influencing the political process of government. As the future of the world is determined by and played out on social media and other parts of the internet, it makes sense that we take our struggles onto these platforms. But this can’t come at the cost of receding from the physical world or forgetting how to support and sustain and have fun with each other through real intimacy and trust.
This is the Material Issue, in which we look up from our laptops to stretch our necks and shake out the stiffness of our legs. We make eye contact with others in the room, and contemplate what it means to be in community with each other. Perhaps there is a direct correlation between the depth of our relationships and the societal impact of transgressions like breaking windows during a riot? As the saying goes, be careful with each other, so we can be dangerous together.