The Wakeup Call for Everyone to Assemble on Public Streets

The pandemic is a wake-up call that markets do not regulate themselves. Overall, neoliberalism failed to deliver what was promised and led to disappointing results on many accounts. It became clear that marketization does not always translate into a better life for society at large. The overwhelming majority of Americans and to a lesser extent the other industrialized economies, are left exposed to the sudden fluctuations in the market that feeds financial insecurity. Remember millions of people lost their jobs and property after the mortgage crisis while government could do nothing but bail out big business and the rich with taxpayer money. Traditional policy tools failed to revive the economy. What we were never told was that the fix was in. We were always condemned to lose. Cities were deindustrialized and fell into decay, wages declined – the working class became impoverished. Today the elements of a decent middle-class life are elusive – reliable jobs and careers, adequate pensions, secure medical care, affordable housing, and college that doesn’t require a lifetime of debt. 

Donald Trump, given the political, economic, and cultural destruction carried out by neoliberalism, is not an aberration. He is the result of a market society and capitalist democracy that has ceased to function. The pandemic exposes this fraud giving people a reason to march. With the increased alienation and poverty, people rise up against these forces of modernization, driven by a primal fury to destroy the technocratic world that condemns them. This rage is expressed in many forms during the George Floyd protests – Black Lives Matter, proto-anarchists such as Antifa and boogaloo, along with those expressing a need to reform policing policies. But the various forms of resentment spring from the same deep wells of global despair. The problem is that these forms of resentment may actually be fueling a further turn to authoritarianism and creating confusion by giving precedence to the suppression of “bad” ideas rather than to the development of good ones through uninhibited debate.

The proponents of globalization promised to lift workers across the planet into the middle class and instill democratic values and scientific rationalization. Religious and ethnic tensions would be alleviated or eradicated. This global marketplace would create a peaceful, prosperous community of nations. All we had to do was get government out of the way and kneel before market demands, held up as the ultimate form of progress and rationality. Neoliberalism, in the name of this absurd utopia, stripped away government regulations and laws that once protected the citizens from the worst excesses of predatory capitalism. It created free trade agreements that allowed trillions of corporate dollars to be transferred to offshore accounts to avoid taxation, and jobs to flee to sweatshops to China and the global south where workers live in conditions that replicate slavery. Mishra notes, “The new horizons of individual desire and fear opened up by the neoliberal economy do not favor democracy or human rights.

Kleptocracies, such as the one now installed in Washington, brazenly steal from the public. Democratic idealism has become a joke. We are now knit together, as Mishra writes, only by “commerce and technology”, forces that Hannah Arendt called “negative solidarity”. An angry and alienated underclass, now making up almost half of the US population, is entranced by electronic hallucinations that take the place of literacy. Many of these folks take a perverse and almost diabolical delight in demagogues such as Trump that express contempt for and openly flout the traditional rules and rituals of power structure that preys upon them. Economics drives support for Trump, especially in swing states: Relative deprivation – the experience of being deprived of something to which one believes they are entitled, is a driver. It is the discontent felt when one compares their position in life to others who they feel are equal or inferior but have unfairly had more success than them.

Social media is an undeniable force in today’s world. What makes social media spread faster? The “power-law” of social media, a well-documented pattern in social networks, holds that messages replicate most rapidly if they are targeted at relatively small numbers of influential people with large followings. The elderly, the young, and the lesser educated are particularly susceptible to fake news. It is partisan at the political extremes whether, liberal or conservative, who are most likely to believe a false story, in part, because of confirmation bias. This bias is the tendency in all of us to believe stories that reinforce our convictions – and the stronger the convictions, the more powerfully the person feels the pull of the confirmation bias. “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge”, observes Daniel J. Boorstin. On a personal level making it a habit to question evidence that you believe supports your opinions is a direct way to counter confirmation bias.

It was not a term many people used four years ago, but “fake news” is now seen as one of the greatest threats to democracy, free debate and the Western order. As well as being a favorite term of Donald Trump, it was also named 2017’s word of the year, raising tensions between nations, and may lead to regulation of social media. To be most effective, fake news needs to be spread through social media to reach receptive audiences. Social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) have become home to millions of social bots that spread fake news. They reside on social media platforms, created by someone with computer programming skills, comprised of nothing but code, that is, lines of computer instructions. So, bots are computer algorithms (set of logic steps to complete a specific task) that work in online social network sites to execute tasks autonomously and repetitively.

Bots simulate the behavior of human beings in a social network: interact with other users, and share information and messages. Because of the algorithms behind bots’ logic, bots can learn from response patterns or input values how to respond to certain situations. That is, they possess artificial intelligence (AI). Artificial intelligence allows bots to simulate internet users’ behavior (e.g., posting patterns) which helps in the propagation of fake news. For instance, on Twitter, bots are capable of a number of social interactions that make them appear to be regular people. They respond to postings or questions from others based on scripts that they were programmed to use. They look for influential Twitter users (Twitter users who have lots of followers), and contact them by sending them questions in order to be noticed and generate trust from them and from other Twitter users who see the exchanges take place.

In a time of sharp political polarization, protest is a notable way that citizens attempt to communicate their views on key issues. Protest is partly a response to citizens’ concerns that they are not being represented well by governmental institutions. Social media are often thought of as the new ground for political and social activism. Controlling information flow grants power, which is the idea behind how digital technologies are transforming social movements and collective action. In practice, protest communication networks are fragmented in ways that hamper information diffusion. Online networks are not always effective mediators of collective action efforts. Effective protest requires not just the right of the people to gather, but accessible public spaces in which gathering is possible and citizens who understand what those rights are. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1939 upheld the right to assemble on the public streets, striking down a municipal requirement that such gatherings require a previously obtained permit.

Digital technology has opened up unimaginable worlds of access and connectivity, but it has also brought into question its own role in undermining the foundations of governments built by people, for people. The realities of face-to-face contact and in-person mass protests, the tools of centuries of struggle for full citizenship and rights, have become even more essential to grounding us as we navigate through a new era of humans’ relationship with technology. Nonviolence resistance proves to be a potent weapon for those seeking change. Harvard Professor Erica Chenowith has identified key elements required for driving social change. This includes: a movement requires large and diverse participation that is sustained. The movement needs to enlist loyalty shifts among security forces, along with other elites. Campaigns need to have more than just protests – there needs to be a lot of variation among the methods they use. 

The pandemic is a wake-up call for a major shift in public opinion; politicians will face the challenge of countering an entirely legitimate disappointment with the current system. Nonviolent civil resistance is far more successful increasing broad-based change than violent campaigns are. When campaigns are repressed – which is basically inevitable for those calling for major changes – it is pivotal that they don’t either just descend into chaos or opt for using violence themselves. A key factor of importance is the overall number of participants in non-violent campaigns. The TEDx Boulder talk (2013) informs us that a surprisingly small proportion of the population guarantees a successful campaign, just 3.5 per cent. In the United States this would amount to 11.5 million people, or three times the size of the 2017 Women’s March. Unless we see such a movement succeeding, we will likely see people expressing their grievances with the prevailing system in more radical ways.1

1 Michelle Nicholasen. (4 Feb 2019) Nonviolent resistance proves potent weapon https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/02/why-nonviolent-resistance-beats-violent-force-in-effecting-social-political-change/

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