Saturday, November 30, 2013

Beware the Saviour-Industrial Complex

If you've been a bit leery about online "change" merchants like, for example, your caution might have been well grounded.  The Guardian's Oscar Rickett explains there's little real change to be had at the click of a mouse button.

We're living in the age of "change" as an all-purpose concept. What do you want to change? Something. Anything. What matters is that a better world is just an e-petition away and all we have to do is say "Yes we can" and we will. Will what? I don't know – petition sites, enthusiastic high-street drama school graduates and for-profit organisations are selling us the idea of grand change on a small, case-by-case basis. What's the issue? Dude, there are issues plural, across the world and we can solve them all.

We can do it because together, they say, as part of a Facebook group, email action or online petition, we are stronger. If enough people in the west get together they will form a righteous team of Davids and will, with high-speed wifi connections, topple all the Goliaths out there. If enough teenagers really care, then that bad man Joseph Kony will be caught by those good Christian people at Invisible Children and Africa will be saved.

Sites like and 38 Degrees are said to empower people to do anything from fix a road sign to save the NHS., a profit-making operation, claims to have curbed corruption in Indonesia, fought caste discrimination in India, and shut down ex-gay torture clinics in Ecuador. The site may well have helped play a part in all these things but it has essentially followed Facebook's formula, which goes like this: establish credibility before making cash. Last year, its founder and chief executive Ben Rattray talked about "true empowerment" in a company-wide email which was leaked to the Huffington Post. The email set out a change in advertising policy to allow for solicitations from anyone – however unprogressive – who was willing to pay. Rattray's "true empowerment" essentially boils down to being empowered to harness the righteous anger of liberals to build a platform, before, like a good Zuckerberg-style free-marketer, opening up that platform to people with real money.

Earlier this year, the writer Teju Cole tore apart what he termed the "white saviour industrial complex". In one post, he wrote: "The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm." In the next, he said: "This world exists simply to satisfy the needs – including, importantly, the sentimental needs – of white people and Oprah." This banal sentimentality and desire to be patted on the back are behind many of the charity appeals and petition demands we are confronted with today. Facebook pages mean that people don't even have to give money anymore. They can just click "Like" and feel the approval of their peer group wash over them in an awesome wave.

Perhaps these small urges and interest-specific appeals are simply distracting us from bringing about significant societal change. Internet activism is not an extension of resistance; it's an expression of benign idleness. In The Society of the Spectacle, the French theorist Guy Debord wrote of "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing". "Liking" a page or putting your name to an unverified petition is "merely appearing".

Young Oscar makes the point that change, real change, remains a hands-on business.

The recent imprisonment of the Anonymous hacker Jeremy Hammond is an example of this. He has been sent down for 10 years for his part in revealing some of the shady and unpleasant aspects of the corporate intelligence industry. In a statement, Hammond said: "Could I have achieved the same goals through legal means? I have tried everything from voting petitions to peaceful protest and have found that those in power do not want the truth to be exposed."
Like Chelsea Manning, whom he mentions in his statement, Hammond took real risks to expose bad corporate practice and for that he is being rewarded with jail. Signing an e-petition is perfectly understandable and maybe good things occasionally come of it, but Facebook is not going to catch Joseph Kony and we won't tweet our way to peace in Syria. The business of "helping people" has become slicker and slicker but it patronises us, divides us and ultimately benefits the same old elites.

Keep this in mind when the time comes, as it probably will, when we will have to resist the excesses and abuses of our own governments.   Every potential resistor they can get waylaid in social media protests is a win for them.  It's another hundred or another thousand or ten  well-intentioned citizens hived off from what they truly fear - direct confrontation.


Marie Snyder said...

Yes and no. For larger conflicts far from home, clicking a "sign-me-up" button does little to nothing. But for local issues, the ability to craft and distribute a petition on-line is gold. BUT it still necessitates someone taking that petition to city hall and convincing supporters to come along in person. Without that, it's wasted button-pushing. I'm not convinced the Arab Spring protests would have been as significant without social media. It has its uses.

The Mound of Sound said...

Texting and IM communications played a powerful role in the Arab Spring protests - in the context of organization and communication. I don't think that Mubarak was the sort who would have been moved by petitions.

You can't "call in" dissent. You have to get up and be seen and heard, even if that amounts to civil disobedience. Sometimes you have to be willing to fill a jail cell.