chapter  6
28 Pages

The internet and radical politics: Natalie Fenton


The capacity of the internet to build and mobilise political networks of resistance to counter dominant power structures, both nationally and internationally, has been well documented (e.g. Diani 2001; Downey and Fenton 2003; Fenton and Downey 2008; Hill and Hughes 1998; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Salter 2003). This is a literature that goes beyond the habitual day-to-day communicative realm of the internet that focuses on the individual (albeit the individual in a connected world), and speaks to the radical collective possibilities of online political mobilisation. Many of these forms of radical oppositional politics emerge out of complex social and political histories wherein politics itself has shifted from a traditional focus on institutions processed via formal, organised systems to a concern with more disparate social movement alignments (Hardt and Negri 2004; Loader 2007) that operate via informal networks and resonate with a politics more loosely connected to issues relating to lifestyle than social class. This shift has challenged traditional forms of political representation while responding to the changed social, political and technological conditions and circumstances under which political citizenship is enacted. This chapter considers the claims made for the internet and the revival of

radical oppositional politics, in both domestic and international contexts, under the organising themes of multiplicity, interactivity and autonomy that sum up many of the assertions made in relation to the radical potential of the internet. In doing so, it tackles a literature that points to an emergent sense of the political that resides in multiple belongings (people with overlapping memberships linked through a myriad of networks) and flexible identities (characterised by inclusiveness and a positive emphasis on diversity and cross-fertilisation) that is, as yet, barely appreciated. These claims are then considered in relation to the counter-arguments

by those who interpret multiplicity not as political pluralism but as political dissipation and fragmentation (Habermas 1998) and interactivity as illusive rather than deliberative (Sunstein 2001). In other words, rather than the internet signalling a newly vital oppositional political culture, we are witnessing an era of

easy-come, easy-go politics where you are only ever one click away from a petition; a technological form that encourages issue drift whereby individuals shift focus from one issue to another or one website to another with little commitment or even thought; where collective political identity has a memory that is short lived and easily deleted. Both assessments are incomplete. The former, more excitable and often

exciting approach focuses on passions stirred and protests realised, yet fails to take account of the prevailing conditions and particular contexts of power and control. The latter, more sober and frequently cynical approach fails to take account of the felt experience of real and potential political solidarity and the desire for a democracy that is yet to come. Whichever way you look at it, the internet is at the heart of radical politics in

the digital age: it has galvanised local campaigning and facilitated transnational political movements. These activities combine collective action and individual subjectivities, mixing personal expressions of political allegiance with public debate in an online context that has enabled the spaces of action and debate to expand from local/national configurations and terrestrial media to ‘global’ counter-summits and the internet such as the European and World Social Forums.1 One of the striking differences between a transnational radical politics and the counter-politics of the nation-state is the former’s lack of a common political identity and a rejection of broad, unifying meta-narratives of organisation such as socialism or communism. Rather, these forms of radical politics are characterised by their multiplicity and inclusivity as a network of networks, a politics of non-representation, where no one person speaks for another and differences are openly embraced. The use of the internet for such radical oppositional purposes is described as a

mediated activity that seeks to raise peoples’ awareness, give a voice to those who do not have one, offer social empowerment, allow disparate people and causes to organise themselves and form alliances, and ultimately be used as a tool for social change. It is the ability to form networks and build alliances at the click of a mouse that is felt to be conducive to the building of oppositional political movements that can spread across national borders and merge a variety of topics under broadly common themes, though the themes may be subject to frequent change. Sometimes such radical politics takes the form of new social movements that

are themselves often hybrid, contradictory and contingent and include a huge variety of voices and experiences. At other times, the oppositional politics on display is better described as an alliance of groups, organisations and individuals with a political affinity that coalesces at a particular moment in time. The differences within and between individual approaches to a radical politics and the collective response to a common cause or concern often raise many political dilemmas for activists. They are, however, intrinsic to understanding the vibrancy of a form of politics that prefers to operate with a variety of positions and perspectives and often from a highly personalised approach, as opposed to a

The internet has another characteristic that is well suited to radical politics – it is a medium that is more readily associated with young people (e.g. Ester and Vinken 2003; Livingstone and Bovill, 2002; Loader 2007); and young people, in particular, are increasingly associated with disengagement from mainstream politics (e.g. Park 2004; Wilkinson and Mulgan 1995) and engagement with the internet (Livingstone et al. 2005; Ofcom 2010). The extensive literature that discusses young people and politics falls largely into two camps: one that talks of a disaffected youth and the other of citizen displacement (Loader 2007). In the former, studies speak of the decline in the number of young people voting

in conventional national party-political elections as indicative of extensive alienation of young people from society’s central institutions, and warn of the long-term dangers this may have (Wilkinson and Mulgan 1995). In the latter, an engagement with traditional politics based on a sovereign nation-state is displaced: ‘Young people are not necessarily any less interested in politics than previous generations, but … traditional political activity no longer appears appropriate to address the concerns associated with contemporary youth cultures’ (Loader 2007: 1). Rather, civil society or certain parts of it become foregrounded as alternative arenas of public trust, information and representation. It is argued that politically motivated young people tend to look to non-mainstream political arenas, often populated by non-governmental organisations and new social movements – alternative forms of political activism that work at the margins of the dominant public sphere (Bennett 2005; Hill and Hughes 1998; Kahn and Kellner 2004, 2007). It is further claimed that these forms of political engagement better fit the experience of social fragmentation and individualisation felt by citizens (Loader 2007), as well as being directly compatible with the structure and nature of communications via the internet – a medium that young people are commonly well acquainted with. The combined elements of technology, youth and counter-traditional politics –

each conducive to the others – mark out the internet as particularly suited to contemporary (transnational) political activism. The dual characteristics of the internet – of multiplicity and interactivity – are frequently assigned with radical liberatory potential. These acclaimed characteristics also speak to the nature of politics online, which is frequently associated with protest rather than a long-term fixed political project (Fenton 2006) – a bid for involvement and voice, along with a refusal to determine or even presume a singular policy or direct political outcome or end-point that may signal exclusion and/or hierarchy within any grouping or alliance. To some extent this is nothing new. Radical politics has always been at the forefront of mobilising protest and demonstration. A willingness and desire to participate in such political activism is one of the defining features of ‘being radical’. What is unprecedented is that this is now happening on a transnational basis and at high speed, resulting in ever more complex networks of intensely expressive and often highly personalised forms of oppositional activism. The nature of these new struggles resides in the political explicit

contention to resist the perceived dogma of political narratives within traditional leftist politics believed by some activists to be the harbinger of outmoded understandings and values.