Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Effects Of Platform Social Media On Politics And Identity Politics

newleftreview |   The reputation economy undergirded by platform capitalism has played an important role in the growth and mutation of the politics of recognition since the financial crisis. This is not simply to blame ‘the internet’ for identity politics, but to highlight how a new type of rationality has penetrated the social and cultural sphere, turning the distribution of esteem into a type of inter-capitalist competition. Controversies about the supposed threat to the liberal public sphere emanating from universities and the left often ignore a more structural transformation driven by Silicon Valley.

Cultural-political arguments in the Anglosphere frequently turn upon the question of free speech, and the need to rescue it from ‘identitarians’. In the uk, the Johnson government is intent on legislating to force universities to uphold ‘free-speech’ norms. While these allegations are often made in bad faith and on slim evidence—not to mention the accompanying crackdown on any free expression of Islamist views—the task should be to provide a more accurate diagnosis of the decline of liberal norms, not to deny that anything has changed. This requires paying close attention to the capitalist business model and the interfaces on which civil society and the public sphere increasingly depend. Arguments about censorship and ‘no-platforming’ of speakers are often driven by the quest for reputational advantage—on the part of institutions, individuals and social movements—and a need to avoid reputational damage. This is how the politics of recognition is now structured.

As Gramscian scholars have long argued, a capitalist business model does not only determine relations of production, but is mirrored in the mode of political and cultural activity that accompanies it—potentially providing a foothold for critique and resistance. Debates around Fordism and post-Fordism posed questions of what cultural and political analogues they facilitated, and of what new modes of organization and collectivism might emerge. For Jeremy Gilbert, similar questions need to be asked about the type of political-party mobilizations that might or might not be available through the template of the digital platform.footnote19 New technologies and economic relations also reconfigure the processes of political and cultural life, beyond their own immediate application.

This perspective tends to emphasize positive opportunities for new political strategies, but the negative outcomes also need to be identified. Platforms represent a watershed in the moral and cultural contests of modernity. They not only transform relations of production, but re-format how status and esteem are socially distributed. They are refashioning struggles for recognition no less decisively than the birth of print media did. At the same time, their logic is such that their principal effect is to generalize a feeling of misrecognition—heightening the urgency with which people seek recognition, but never satisfying this need. One effect of this process is the rise of groups who feel relatively deprived, to the point of political insurrection. In terms of Fraser’s perspectival dualism, one of the main questions raised by contemporary politics is how and why many people who are both economically privileged and culturally included can end up feeling like they are neither of those things.

Two paths of critique have opened up in this context, an internalist and an externalist one. The internalist path follows the example of pragmatist sociology in urging political movements to work with the grain of the speculative reputation economy, so as to sabotage centres of power. On a small scale, this might simply mean the mobilization of memes and trolls to build the capital value of a political insurgent or to undermine that of an incumbent power. This type of reputation warfare was notoriously used by the Trump campaign but is widely deployed on the left. Organizations like Greenpeace have worked to attack brand value through graphically disrupting the art galleries and museums that receive oil-industry sponsorship, for instance. Feher advocates a kind of ‘investee activism’, which posits the principal class conflict within neoliberal capitalism as a financial one, between investor and investee. In this perspective, resistance should take aim at the market value of company stocks and operate via debtor strikes that threaten the interests of finance capital and banks. Optimistically, Feher calls for the left to mobilize its own quasi-financial vision of a good society for investment: ‘Creditworthiness is worth vying for, lest we leave it to investors to determine who deserves to be appreciated and for what motives’.footnote20 The very volatility of the moral-economic marketplace offers an opportunity to compete politically over the future.

The externalist critique focuses on the platform itself and its inherent injustices, both for its exploited workers and its users. Srnicek’s approach shows how Marxian political economy can identify the underlying structural conditions of this extractive business form and the variations that it can take. A materialist assessment and critique of the platform business model is a necessary starting point for rethinking the position of organized labour within the gig economy, in which employees are legally reconfigured as ‘contractors’. It is also the starting point for the real-utopian analysis and activism envisaged by Erik Olin Wright, which seeks to establish platform cooperatives and other forms of digital civic infrastructure.footnote21 Resistance to Amazon and Uber could involve inventing alternative means of mediating civic life that would not be dedicated to the extraction of rents. And yet, as Seymour’s critique of the ‘social industry’ reminds us, there are other aspects of platform technologies—their addictive, gamified qualities, which exploit and perpetuate our anxieties—whose very function is to suck the life out of social existence.

The challenge for social movements is how to update Fraser’s perspectival dualism for an age in which the platform is becoming a dominant distributor of both reward and mutated forms of recognition. Few movements can afford to abstain entirely from the reputation economy. A lesson from Black Lives Matter is that social media’s accumulation of reputational capital can be harnessed towards longer-standing goals of social and economic justice, as long as it remains a tactic or an instrument, and not a goal in its own right. Campaigns may trigger or seize reputational bubbles that spread at great speed—#MeToo is an example—and potentially burst soon after, making a political virtue of the ability to shift movements into other spaces, including the street. The quest for recognition is more exacting and slower than that for reputation, and appreciating this distinction is a first step to seeing beyond the cultural limits of the platform, towards the broader political and economic obstacles that currently stand in the way of full and equal participation.