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Todd Wolfson

The Cyber Left:
Indymedia and the Making of the 21st Century Struggle

There is growing consensus across the social sciences that the last thirty years have bore witness to seismic shifts in the configuration of the global economic order (Bell 1973; Mandel 1972; Touraine 1971; Harvey 1990). In response to the long rebellious 60’s and the subsequent collapse of the Fordist pact between labor, capital and the state, a new course was navigated prioritizing flexible over fixed capital , facilitated by new technologies that compress time and space creating a globally integrated, yet geographically uneven market. Driven by a neoliberal logic, which maintains that market exchange is an ethic in and of itself capable of acting as guide to all human action, profit making practices have circulated out beyond the factory floor pervading all corners of society. Put in practice, this new economic philosophy, which Bourdieu and Wacquant coined the “new planetary vulgate” (2000) has increased the reach and sway of financial transactions bringing all profitable activity into the domain of a real-time economic system with planetary reach (Harvey 2005).

The fundamental changes in the operations of cyber-mediated neoliberal capitalism have similarly cultivated massive transformations in the cultural logic of the 21st century reorienting basic notions of self, society and state. Scholars across the academy have endeavored to map these shifts, focusing on the changing character of sovereignty (Sassen 1996; Hardt & Negri 2000; Aretxaga 2003) citizenship (Ong 1999; Hall 2002; Lukose 2005), identity (Castells 1996; Laclau & Mouffe 1985) the neoliberal subject (Rose 1990; Cruikshank 1999; Fairbanks 2005) as well new divisions of labor that undergird this system (Harvey 1990; Tronti). Curiously, while there has been a flood of scholarship on the nature and effects of neoliberal globalization, there has been a paucity of work examining the manner through which cyber capitalism has shaped and been re-shaped by the nature of socio-economic resistance in the 21st century. My research speaks to this fundamental gap, as I look at the current of struggle that travels a parallel complex circuitry to global capital, weaving diverse autonomous anti-capitalist movements into a distinctive formation. Reminiscent of Frederic Jameson’s words, “whatever its other vicissitudes, a postmodern capitalism necessarily calls a postmodern Marxism over against itself” , the changes in a cyber based capitalism have in part generated this a new distinctive modern day “cyber left” , of which indymedia is emblematic.

“Welcome to Indymedia. The resistance is global”

This message, written on the eve of the 1999 WTO ministerial meetings in Seattle, was the first citizen-journalist message posted to the website of the what has grown to be the largest alternative media network and one of the fastest growing social movements in the world—the indymedia movement. The drafters went on "Prepare to be swamped by the tide of activist media makers on the ground in Seattle and around the world..."

During the subsequent days of what later became known as “The Battle for Seattle” the first Independent Media Center or IMC went public, recruiting well-over 500 volunteers, producing hundreds of articles and reports, countless hours of radio programming and 5 documentary films that were broadcast via satellite around the nation on public access stations. Further, the new IMC website received over 1.5 million original hits, outpacing CNN for the same amount of time, and citizen journalist coverage of this fin-de-siecle uprising was so wide-ranging and successful that mainstream news organs such as the NY Times and The Washington Post were forced to turn to indymedia citizen journalists for up-to-the-minute coverage, and a more thorough understanding of the global uprising. This energetic inauguration presaged a new period of local-cum-global grassroots citizen journalism and media activism, which has grown far beyond what anyone could have imagined five short years ago. Today's global Indymedia Network (IMN) includes self-published news in at least 30 languages and over 200 local autonomous media centers on six continents around the world.

As a paradigmatic movement of the 21st century cyber left, the IMN is reliant on the new information and communication infrastructure that developed in the first instance to decentralize US military intelligence and capabilities in case of nuclear attack (Castells 1996; Virillio), and in the second instance to facilitate the instantaneous flow of global resources under cyber capitalisms new flexible mode of accumulation. Indymedia is embedded in this technological infrastructure of cyber capitalism, riding on the web of information and communication technologies and reappropriating them in innovative ways. As such, indymedia’s configuration mirrors that of the Internet it so saliently re-appropriates. It is a horizontal, rhizomatic network comprised of over 200 local nodes, or collectives that are usually based in cities, such as Philadelphia, Jakarta and Baghdad.

The widespread interpretation of the indymedia movement is that it’s a reaction to the mass media’s “colonization of the lifeworld” and the loss of the 4th estate in democratic governance. One of the foremost scholars of the indymedia movement, Dorothy Kidd argues it is a 21st century fight against the enclosure of the media commons (Kidd 2002). Other analysts similarly have argued that indymedia is an effort to reclaim public space and develop a democratic media source to offer voice to the silenced (Anderson 2000; Morris 2003). These interpretations recognize indymedia as a contemporary iteration of the new social movements of the 60’s. Theorists of these new social movements (NSM) or the New Left, argue that the explosion of identity based struggle was a response to the coming of postindustrialism. With prospects of increased production, NSM theorists argue, new left formations recognized that economic exploitation was no longer the central cause of concern and instead focused their energy on identity and pre-figurative politics, while struggling for collective control of symbolic production and the definition of social roles.

While this captures a component of the indymedia movement, as I will argue in greater depth later in the paper, this is a partial reading. Indymedia is self consciously animated by the Zapatismo slogan, “One NO to neo-liberal capitalism, many yeses”. The slogan lays out the two fundamental principles of indymedia: 1) there is no central actor or political protagonist in 21st century struggle, indigenous movements, feminism, ecologism and labor are all vital, at the same time however, 2) what these autonomous movements share is common resistance to globalizing capitalism because as one commentator puts it, no other form of oppression,

has succeeded in knitting the planet together into an integrated, coordinated system of interdependencies. This is what capital is doing today, as, with the aid of new technologies, it globally maps the availability of female labor, ethno-markets, migrancy flows, human gene pools, and entire animal, plant, and insect species onto its coordinates of value.” (Dyer Withford 1999).

Indymedia embodies the Zapatista slogan by using innovative strategies including the speed and the flexibility of media and new information and communication technologies to ally the multiple distinct movements, harnessing them in a common challenge to the destructive nature of cyber capitalism.

Indymedia then, is not merely a particularistic struggle against the consolidation of the media system, it is a switchboard of social movements conducting notions of shared struggle across the varied movements weaving them into a unified front that converges on the central exploitative nature of global capitalism. As I will demonstrate, the central purpose of indymedia is to become the sinew that connects across contemporary social movements

(1) As Harvey (1990) details, in the late 1960’s, Fordism and Keynesianism could not contain the contradictions of capitalism. The primary problem was fixed, rigid long term investments in mass production systems that disabled the flexible flow of capital and depended on growing consumer markets. This along with other pressures including those of the welfare state and importantly strike waves led to inflationary waves. Flexible accumulation confronts the rigidities of the Fordist system and rests on flexibility of labor markets and processes, products and patterns of consumption.
(2) Cyber capitalism was coined by James Lexer (1998), however he does little to define his term. I use cyber capitalism to mark that contemporary forms of accumulation have become dependent on new information and communication technologies, this formation has a distinctive focus on knowledge and information as commodities. The vital advances in information and communication technologies include microelectronics, computing, telecommunications/broadcasting. I do not argue however that Cyber capitalism means an end to industrial capitalism. Quite the opposite the movement of industrial zones outside the developed nations is exemplified by the import processing zones that reside outside the developed core, which is enabled by these new technologies that ease the flow of capital and labor.
(3) I call it the “Cyber Left” because the central component that makes it distinctive is the use of new information and communication technologies as well as the organizational mode, strategies and governance structures this facilitates. However, this is not to unquestioningly argue, like political guru Joe Trippi (2005), that Internet democracy is transforming every aspect of American life by evenly distributing power. Rather it is the mixture of the use of cyber technologies and old methods of on the ground organizing that make ICT central to the new stage of social movement building. Accordingly, the internet in and of itself is not necessarily a tool for increasing democracy or creating a progressive community. Throughout the history of new communication mediums we see that there is great excitement about their revolutionary capacity. However, in each case, the Printing Press, Radio and TV to name the major mediums, by and large they become appropriated by larger social forces for profit making.
(4) Scottish Historian Thomas Carlyle first used the term 4th estate to illustrate the vital role media play in governance.