Talking About Class in the Internet Age

Fifteen years ago, lefty commentators enthusiastically trumpeted the Internet’s new-found organizing capacity. The Zapatistas’ website was the poster child: the sexy image of a masked Subcommandante Marcos being beamed out to every secret suburban radical. Set at the backdrop of new, revolutionary usage of list serves and discussion groups to organize the Seattle WTO protest and similar demos against the IMF and World Bank, it seemed that the Internet’s organizing potential was boundless.

Since then, the enthusiasm has waned, to say the least. While one hears murmurs, some exaggerated, about the use of Twitter in Egypt and Tunisia, Americans have done very little over the last fifteen years. For the most part, the Internet has descended into an incoherent cloud of Facebook posts, tweets, blogs and Youtube clips. The ADHD generation, which grew up on a steady diet of 30-second commercials, now expresses itself in similarly crude and disjoint snippets. Isolationism has reached an apex, as interaction occurs not in a social context, but in a contrived digital universe, wherein genuine human interaction is minimal.

It would be nice to see more of this information synthesized and given some coherency. The question is why the left is not providing the synthesis. Why are we not morphing existing social philosophies into a format that is digestible by the aforementioned ADHD generation? I specifically mean to suggest that we should recognize the Internet’s inherently “rhizomatic” structure, and embrace the democratic potential of this model.

The Rhizome Model

“Rhizome” as a philosophical concept has its roots in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s  Capitalism and Schizophrenia project. A rhizome “has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.”  The rhizome model rejects the inherently linear nature of traditional philosophy and history, and insists that culture morphs into available space, with no marked beginning or end.

This model of information flow suits the inherently non-heirarchical and non-linear nature of the Internet.  Oliver Froehling describes this model as such: “No central facility organizes communication; rather, each server is connected to a number of other servers, so connections between two servers are often routed through a number of intermediate computers.” 1 As there is no general arbiter of information, particularly in the preponderant social networking sites, information flows from a nearly infinite number of sources, and is not dictated by a few perspectives. Linda Carroli describes:

The Internet acts as a terrain in which the public/private distinction is deconstructed and in which those who engage in online social   interactions are not necessarily inscribed according to this set of   oppositions. In questioning the legitimacy of the public/private distinction in Internet-based social groups, the use-value of other relational sets of oppositions is also opened for interrogation: individual/community, subject/object, self/other. 2

The “rhizomatic” structure is inherently at odds with the idea of a global community, because “community” is understood as too fixed an idea for the chaotic flow of information inherent to Internet use. That is unless it is a “community of strangers,” according to Carroli. Because the rhizome is constantly changing direction and conforming to sophisticated situations, it has the propensity to create temporary contacts between strategic acquaintances. She quotes Noelle McAfee:

The foreigner presents an opportunity and not an abyss. By being shaken loose from the “they,” this self sees the radical strangeness of others as the continual possibility for being a subject, a split subject whose mirror is always partial. 3

Within the impersonal context of the Internet, subjects can use each other without the social awkwardness of being strangers. They can overcome the need to assimilate to an overarching cultural norm and combat generic molar qualities as a partially united unit.

In practice, the “community of strangers” amounts to having Facebook “friends” that aren’t truly your friends in the traditional sense; i.e., you have not physically met them before. You might come together with others through a common Facebook “group,” “cause” or “event,” but have not had to navigate the process of actually becoming acquainted with the individual. While seemingly convenient, I would argue that this process negates the important social element to progressive organizing, whilst promulgating the inherently destructive element of social isolation. Meanwhile, this model of social organization also furthers the “identify politics” dilemma, wherein people relate to politics based on concepts of self, rather than rigorously developed sociopolitical constructs.

Some would argue that we have entered an era where the traditional sociological cleavages of class and religion are less significant than identity politics of race, gender, sexual orientation and so forth. The class-orientated left is often viewed to be anachronistic and simplistic in their analysis. The argument goes that we should embrace the Internet’s rhizomatic model because it best reflects the inherently fractured and complex nature of modern society.

This analysis misses the point. As liberal society has opened its doors to an increasing array of identities and permitted the expression of a greater set of minority rights, class has not passed into irrelevance. In fact, class is as significant a determinant of one’s social and cultural status as ever. In a country where the top 1% possesses greater than 95% of the wealth, I do not see how one can reasonably argue otherwise.

The problem is that the left is shying away from any mention of class. We shouldn’t pit a class-based analysis of society against a more holistic approach. Instead, we should embrace the “rhizomatic:” nature of the Internet for its inherently democratic potential, whilst injecting a class-based analysis into the discussion.

Talk About Class

For one, I believe that this requires moving away from a dialectical, deterministic analysis of class in favor of one that suits the free-flowing model of modern communications’ technology. Let us admit that we do not know exactly where we are going, or what the ideal political model might look like, but not let this uncertainty cause us to shy away from addressing the grave injustices of modern society.

I also believe that it is pertinent to personalize these matters a bit. I come from a generation, the babies of the baby boomers, which will never be solvent. We average greater than $30,000 in student debt before entering the work force, if we are ever able to do that. Real unemployment for my age range is still upwards of 20%, though this number rises dramatically if you count people in short term contracts, or those who can be terminated at will. Throw in those that lack any form of health insurance and I suspect that we are nearing half of all workers in the 18-35 year old range. I am suggesting that we should see more Facebook posts along the lines of “I am royally screwed. I am currently on unemployment, which ends in two months, have defaulted on my student loans, have no health insurance, and have had a nagging cough for the last three months.”

Instead, Americans are stricken with an unwillingness to admit to the decrepit nature of their existence. Admitting defeat is the last thing Americans are apt to do: this is akin to announcing to the world that you are a wimp or a pushover. The reality is that by not addressing our harsh and unfortunate realities, we are becoming a nation of subservient wimps.

I lived in France during their historic and successful fight against the Contrat Première Embauche (“First Employment Contract”), and witnessed street action that far exceeded anything I can imagine ever occurring in the United States. While your typically smug and macho American might disparage the French as sissies or wimps, this is clearly not the case. It is the American, enslaved to a lifetime of debt by the banksters, lacking anything more than two measly weeks of vacation a year, living in the western world’s most unequal society, that are the wimps.

If we can man up and talk about class, maybe this will change. If we can recognize the potential for the Internet to expedite this change, maybe we will see our actions in Madison spread throughout this country. If we are frustrated by being bombarded with inane and disjoint information flows, let us produce flows that spell out the class elements to our malaise. Let us encourage our friends, be they genuine or digital, to discuss their economic conditions. Let us build a broader understanding of the class dynamics to the great banking and real estate racket that led to the current stage of Capitalism: the Era of Bastardized Finance Capital.

Class never stopped being relevant, so whatever you do: don’t stop talking about class.

  1. Froehling, Oliver. “War of Ink and Internet in Chiapas.” Geographical Review. Vol. 87, no.2. []
  2. Carroli. Linda. Virtual Encounters: Community or Collaboration on the Internet? Leonardo ; vol.30 ; no.5, 1997, pp.359-363.. » []
  3. Ibid. p.362 []

Matt Reichel is a writer currently living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: mereichel@gmail.com. Read other articles by Matt, or visit Matt's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Vic Anderson said on March 16th, 2011 at 3:29pm #

    Well, SINGLE-PAYER first; then a financial overhaul of the Bernanksters’, Wall Streetwalkers’ and BP (Big Petroleum’s) ASHES!

  2. MichaelKenny said on March 17th, 2011 at 10:47am #

    It’s an aside, but Mr Reichel’s point about street action in Europe exceeding anything ever occurring in the United States is a good one to bear in mind. Demonstrations are very common in Europe, particularly southern Europe. France, for example, will usually have 3 or 4 national general strikes per year and larger cities will have 2 or 3 local demonstrations per month. It’s a way of letting off steam. Thus, a word of caution to those who read too much into the various demonstrations arisng from Wall St’s attack on the euro.

  3. xyptol said on March 17th, 2011 at 6:50pm #

    Now you’re talking. We all know , for the most part, what the problems are, and who the bad guys are, and the only question we have to consider now is, what are we going to do about it? The time may soon come where we will either slowly succumb to a slow and painfull death by a thousand small cuts meted out by the powers that be, or get out in the streets and face down the guns and truncheons hired by the economically well situated. The great engines of propaganda have done an astounding job of convincing a large part of the lower class that they are middle class and how they should and should not vote and act and consume. We can fight or die, that is the choice.