The significance of the “no” vote at Fiat Chrysler


2 October 2015

The tentative contract announced just over two weeks ago by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams and Fiat Chrysler (FCA) CEO Sergio Marchionne has suffered a landslide defeat at the hands of autoworkers in the US. On Thursday, the UAW officially announced that the deal had been voted down by a 65 percent margin, though at many plants the percentage of “no” votes was significantly higher.

The vote is a milestone in the development of the class struggle in the United States. It is the first time that autoworkers have rejected a national contract in 33 years. Workers have overwhelmingly defied the combined efforts of the auto companies, the UAW and the corporate media, using lies, threats and intimidation, to push through a contract that expands the hated two-tier wage system, initiates a major attack on health care for current workers, and paves the way for a further downsizing of the US auto industry.

The “no” vote is the beginning of a counteroffensive against relentless attacks that have spanned decades, from the first Chrysler concessions contract in 1979 to the Obama administration’s forced bankruptcy and restructuring of the auto industry in 2009. During this period, the organizations calling themselves unions have abandoned all pretense of organized resistance and ceased to carry out even the most basic functions with which they were traditionally associated.

Since the late 1970s, the trade unions as a whole have worked to eradicate any open expression of opposition to the dictates of the corporations and the government. Contracts have become synonymous with givebacks. Any connection between rising productivity and improved wages and benefits has been completely severed. This has been a major factor in the devastating decay of living conditions for the working class throughout the country.

Workers in the auto plants have known nothing but concessions. The mounting anger and frustration have engendered a growing mood of resistance.

The shift in consciousness has ignited the wildfire of opposition at Fiat Chrysler. So complete is the alienation of the unions from the workers that the massive “no” vote took the UAW leadership entirely by surprise. Following the rank-and-file rejection of the agreement, the union and its allies in the media are treating the debacle as a question of public relations—a failure to communicate.

A persistent theme in the media commentary is fury over the role of “social media,” by which the commentators mean the widespread discussion of the contract among rank-and-file workers, a process that was facilitated by the WSWS Autoworker Newsletter. Over the past two weeks, the Newsletter has been followed on a daily basis by several thousand autoworkers. It has told the truth about the contract, countering the lies of the UAW and exposing the union-corporate conspiracy against the workers. It has provided a platform for the workers themselves to speak out. Its call for the formation of rank-and-file factory committees independent of the UAW has found a substantial response.

Now that the contract is defeated, the auto companies, the UAW and the Obama administration are engaged in intense discussions over how to respond to the workers’ rebellion. Regardless of the workers’ vote, they intend to push ahead to achieve their aims. Under these conditions, the question of an ongoing struggle, organized and coordinated by rank-and-file factory committees, assumes immense importance.

More than 75 years ago, Leon Trotsky, the co-leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Fourth International, explained the significance of factory committees in the development of the class struggle. Deeply critical of the conservatism of the trade unions, even during a period in which they were involved in major class battles, Trotsky called for the formation of such committees in every workplace in the founding document of the Fourth International, written in 1938.

“The prime significance of the committee,” he wrote, “lies in the fact that it becomes the militant staff for such working class layers as the trade union is usually incapable of moving to action.” Factory committees “open the doors, if not to a direct revolutionary then to a pre-revolutionary period—between the bourgeois and the proletarian regimes.” That is, they open the doors to a struggle by the working class against the capitalist system.

Since these words were written, the unions themselves have undergone a colossal degeneration, particularly over the past four decades. These organizations, which even in their heyday worked to subordinate the working class to the capitalist system, have responded to the globalization of production and the decline of American capitalism by integrating themselves ever more directly into the framework of corporate management.

The UAW and the AFL-CIO as a whole can no longer be termed workers’ organizations. They function as a labor police force, which seeks to impose the demands of the corporations while pursuing the interests of the privileged upper-middle class stratum that controls them.

The WSWS and Socialist Equality Party anticipated that the development of a struggle in the working class would inevitably assume the form of a clash with the trade unions. The call advanced by the Autoworker Newsletter for the formation of rank-and-file factory committees is aimed at overcoming the dictatorship of these organizations on the shop floor and developing in every way possible the independent initiative of the workers themselves.

This perspective has received a powerful confirmation. The middle class and pseudo-left organizations that have insisted it is impermissible to challenge the authority of the unions stand politically exposed. The WSWS is routinely denounced by these organizations as “sectarian” for refusing to work with the union apparatus and the Democratic Party with which it is aligned. What they mean by “sectarian” is fighting for the political independence of the working class, which is possible only by breaking the stranglehold of the unions over the workers.

The rebellion of autoworkers is one expression of the reemergence of class struggle in the US. This has profound international significance. The American ruling class, with its aspirations for global dominance, is confronting at home an increasingly angry, hostile and revolutionary social force. It is a process that must, and will, take on an increasingly open political form directed against the foundations of class rule and the capitalist system itself.

Joseph Kishore

Obama’s hypocrisy over Ahmed Mohamed, the boy who brought a clock to school


By David Walsh
21 September 2015

The handcuffing and arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed for bringing a digital clock to school in Irving, Texas, a Dallas suburb, was a repugnant act that smelled of racism and xenophobia. Irving’s mayor, Beth Van Duyne, made a name for herself in right-wing circles last year by suggesting that Muslims were attempting to circumvent US laws and identified herself with the reactionary “American Laws for American Courts” bill introduced into the Texas state legislature.

Ahmed’s humiliation in front of his classmates and interrogation at the hands of the Irving police evoked widespread outrage. On the day following the incident, #IStandWithAhmed was getting 2,000 tweets a minute. By Friday, Ahmed’s own Twitter account, set up by his older sisters, had 1.2 million followers.

Various right-wing gutter politicians, Sarah Palin and the like, weighed in, defending the police, who arrested the boy after determining that the object was a clock, and the school, who suspended Ahmed for three days. That is entirely predictable. These elements are continually working the political ocean floor, attempting to stir up everything vile and backward.

The response of HBO’s Bill Maher, talk show host and alleged comic, was also predictable, given his history of anti-Muslim bigotry. In October 2014, Maher proclaimed that Islam was “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will f***ing kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.”

On his program Friday, Maher defended Ahmed’s arrest, asserting it was justified “Because for the last 30 years it’s [Islam] been a culture that has been blowing s**t up over and over again.”

Maher is a self-satisfied, reactionary moron. One “culture” has indeed “been blowing s**t up over and over again” for the past several decades … and that is the US military, CIA and White House. American imperialism is directly responsible for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, and indirectly for vast suffering in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. There is no force on earth that remotely compares with the US for destructiveness and mayhem, all in the pursuit of its selfish geopolitical interests.

The chief organizer and perpetrator of this massive global violence and plundering at present, much of it occurring in the Muslim-dominated and oil-rich countries of the Middle East, is Barack Obama.

This did not prevent Obama from tweeting: “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”

The hypocrisy is extreme. In the first place, the Obama administration, like its predecessor, has done its best to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment, as part of the effort to justify predatory wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. White House programs like “Countering Violent Extremism” are aimed at encouraging Americans to be on the alert for “suspicious” behavior. The fact sheet for the program warns that “Violent extremist threats can come from a range of groups and individuals, including domestic terrorists and homegrown violent extremists in the United States, as well as terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL.”

In remarks delivered in April 2014, “Countering Violent Extremism and the Power of Community,” Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa O. Monaco commented: “What kinds of behaviors are we talking about? For the most part, they’re not related directly to plotting attacks. They’re more subtle. For instance, parents might see sudden personality changes in their children at home—becoming confrontational. Religious leaders might notice unexpected clashes over ideological differences. Teachers might hear a student expressing an interest in traveling to a conflict zone overseas. Or friends might notice a new interest in watching or sharing violent material.” This is the new form of McCarthyism, celebrating the informer and stool pigeon.

The foul atmosphere in which someone like Ahmed Mohamed could be handcuffed and jailed for his clever invention was generated by the American political establishment as a whole, starting with the president and his cabinet.

Second, the blood of countless Arab, Central Asian and African children are on the president’s hands.

One might begin with one of the most prominent murders, by CIA drone strike, of 16-year-old Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, in October 2011. Abdulrahman, who had no connection whatsoever with terrorism, was killed while eating at an outdoor restaurant in Yemen. He was in Yemen searching for his father, Anwar al-Awlaki, also a US citizen, who had been killed in another drone strike two weeks earlier, without charges having been filed against him or any judicial due process.

Abdulrahman’s grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, told the media: “I never expected, you know, that a small boy who was born in America, who was a citizen of America, would be killed by the United States government, his own government.”

One could also take the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, who was captured by US forces at 15 on the battlefield in Afghanistan and held, abused and tortured for 10 years, first, at Bagram Air Base and then in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Among others, the United Nations denounced the prosecution of a minor for “war crimes” by the US military and the Obama administration.

Drone warfare was sharply stepped up by Obama when he took over the presidency in 2009. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2,500 and 5,000 civilians have been killed in Pakistan alone in drone strikes since 2004. Approximately 200 of them have been children. Dozens more children have been murdered by the CIA in Afghanistan and Yemen.

In November 2014, 13-year-old Uzair and 15-year-old Suleman Qudoos were killed in a drone strike in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. They were the sons of an alleged Al Qaeda official. A doctor was killed in the same strike.

The first reported drone strike of 2015 “killed three people travelling in a vehicle in central-southern Yemen. A child was reportedly among the dead.” The US military, as is its practice, identified this “child” as a militant. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “It subsequently emerged [Mohammed Taeiman] al Jahmi was a child. He was reportedly either 12 or 15 years old. … Yemeni rights group the National Organisation for Drone Victims (NODV) said Taeiman was ‘a normal kid’. He was in the sixth grade at school and had recently received treatment in hospital after being kicked by a camel, the group added.”

Obama, according to a May 2012 New York Times report, presides over “kill lists” every Tuesday, containing the names of those who have been condemned to die by the CIA and the US military. The Times explained what one Tuesday’s targets looked like: “This was the enemy, served up in the latest chart from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties. The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.”

The names of the vast majority of the hundreds of children killed by US drone strikes have not been reported.

Bernie Sanders: A “socialist” promoted by the US government


By Patrick Martin
10 September 2015

A remarkable profile of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was published Tuesday on the web site of the Voice of America, the official news service of the US government. The report was headlined, “Bernie Sanders Surge Reflects US Shift on Socialism,” and it described his campaign in largely favorable terms.

“Sanders is experiencing an unexpected wave of popularity,” the article stated, “and is drawing some of the largest, most electric crowds of any presidential candidate so far… Sanders is now running a solid second to the Democratic frontrunner, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. In some polls, he has even taken the lead.”

The VOA report focuses on the question of Sanders’ “self-identification as a socialist,” calling it “a rarity for politicians in the United States, which, unlike most other Western democracies, does not have any sort of significant socialist presence represented on its political left wing.”

The article continues: “Since the Cold War, the term has become something of a dirty word in US politics: a phrase used not just as a description of a political and economic system, but as an insult used by conservatives in an attempt to tarnish the reputation of their left-leaning rivals.”

The VOA then asks the question, “Does Sanders’ newfound mainstream popularity suggest Americans are changing their views on socialism?” Its response is, “For many younger Americans, that appears to be the case.” The article goes on to cite a recent Gallup poll showing that 69 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 would consider voting for a socialist presidential candidate, compared to a figure of 47 percent for all ages.

The report concludes by identifying the politics of Sanders with social democratic reformism of the Scandinavian variety, and cites, among others, Noam Chomsky, who characterizes the Vermont senator’s politics as those of “a New Deal Democrat.”

There is nothing original or surprising in this promotion of the Sanders campaign—except its source. The Voice of America is the official media organ of the US government for addressing foreign audiences, funded by Congress for 75 years. It originated as the Office of War Information during the Second World War. It was then renamed VOA and largely focused on Soviet bloc countries during the Cold War.

So notorious were the lies spread by the VOA during this period that it was formally banned from broadcasting back to the United States, in the name of protecting the American people from government “propaganda” (as well as concealing from the American people the lies being broadcast as justification for the wars and coups sponsored by American imperialism around the world).

In the post-Cold War period, VOA has been retargeted to the Muslim countries of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, where it has served as an apologist for the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the regime-change operation in Libya and the ongoing drone warfare throughout the region.

The question that arises is why such an agency, dedicated to spreading propaganda for American imperialism and covering up its crimes, should adopt such a friendly tone towards a US presidential candidate claiming to be a socialist. The answer is obvious: this “socialist” is not an opponent of American imperialism in the slightest.

Sanders has minor differences with the foreign policy of the Obama administration, but nothing that in any way calls into question his allegiance to the economic, military and strategic interests of the US ruling elite. On the contrary, a major theme of his campaign is a strident economic nationalism, directed primarily against China, which has become the main target for Pentagon war planning under Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”

The VOA profile is not an aberration, but part of a generally favorable treatment of Sanders by the Obama administration, the Democratic Party establishment, the corporate-controlled media and even a section of the “billionaire class” whose domination of American political life Sanders claims to oppose.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest commented on the Sanders campaign at the end of a September 3 briefing. In response to a question, he said, “I think the president has in the past spoken positively about Senator Sanders and certainly his service in the United States Senate. He is somebody who over the last several months, as all of you have noted, has been able to attract large, fired-up crowds of Democrats. That’s a good thing for the party.”

In a similar vein, Vice President Joseph Biden, who is considering a late entry into the presidential race to challenge Hillary Clinton, told a Labor Day rally in Pittsburgh that Sanders was “doing a hell of a job” in his unexpectedly strong campaign for the Democratic nomination.

As for support from billionaires, Sanders has the enthusiastic backing of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (who in the past contributed to Howard Dean, Ron Paul and Barack Obama), and the professed admiration of investor Warren Buffett, a supporter of Hillary Clinton and the second-richest man in America.

“I think Bernie Sanders has been a terrific campaigner,” Buffett told CNBS Tuesday. “I think he’s run a model campaign. He’s not going to get elected, but I admire him.”

These tributes to Sanders are another yardstick for measuring the cynicism and perfidy of pseudo-left groups like the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative, which hail the Sanders campaign as a genuine insurgency against the corporate domination of the US political system.

The most recent such effusion from Socialist Alternative, under the headline, “We Need to Organize Against the Billionaire Class!” appeared on the group’s website September 7, one day before the VOA profile and the praise for Sanders from Buffett.

Socialist Alternative declares, “To win this election, much less fundamental change, the movement behind Sanders will need to rely on its own strength and build an independent political force to the corporate-controlled Democratic Party establishment.”

The statement indicates that if Sanders wins the nomination, Socialist Alternative will support the Democratic Party presidential ticket. If Clinton is the nominee, Socialist Alternative appeals to “Bernie” not to support her, but to “run as an independent all the way to the general election in November 2016 and help to build an independent political voice for the 99%.”

Socialist Alternative issues this statement knowing full well that Sanders is irrevocably committed to support the Democratic Party and Clinton if she is the nominee. Only a week before, he appeared before the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee to offer the services of his “movement” in delivering an electoral victory for the Democrats in 2016.

It is fitting, in a sense, that Socialist Alternative publishes its latest pro-Sanders declaration only one day before his flattering profile by the Voice of America. This organization is just as much an instrument of American imperialism as the paid propagandists at VOA.

The atrocities of ISIS and the US wars of sociocide


26 August 2015

Images posted Tuesday on social media have confirmed the destruction by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of the 2,000-year-old temple of Baal Shamin in the Syrian city of Palmyra. The images show ISIS fighters planting explosive charges throughout the ancient structure and then detonating them, reducing the temple to rubble.

The willful demolition of this site, one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world and one of the best preserved Greco-Roman ruins in existence, followed the savage murder a week earlier of Professor Khaled Assad. The 82-year-old Syrian archeologist had participated in the excavation and restoration of Palmyra’s ruins and had remained there as the head of antiquities for nearly half a century. He was beheaded for refusing to assist ISIS in looting the site.

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural and educational agency, justifiably denounced these atrocities as “war crimes,” adding that “their perpetrators must be accountable for their actions.”

There is no question that those responsible for these acts and for far bloodier atrocities against the Syrian people are criminals and should be held accountable. The obstacle to bringing to justice those principally responsible, however, is the fact that they are the former and current chief officials in the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA.

It was they who laid waste to one Middle Eastern country after another, while working with the Islamist forces that comprise ISIS to carry out their wars of regime-change against a series of secular Arab governments.

The systematic destruction of a cultural heritage carried out by ISIS has a historical precedent in the crimes carried out by the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. This regime set out to erase the country’s cultural heritage, while carrying out a reign of terror and mass murder against the population.

The similarities between ISIS and the Khmer Rouge do not end with their barbaric assaults on culture and human life. In both cases, the preconditions for these atrocities had been created through the destruction of entire societies by US imperialism.

In Cambodia, a US bombing campaign dropped some 532,000 tons of explosives on the country in four years—more than three times the tonnage dropped on Japan during all of World War II. The resulting death toll is estimated as high as 600,000, while 2 million people out of a population of 7 million were made homeless and economic life was shattered.

ISIS and the current bloodshed across Syria and Iraq are the direct products of similar acts of sociocide on the part of US imperialism. In Iraq, the illegal US invasion of 2003, the subsequent occupation and the systematic destruction of what had been one of the most advanced health and social infrastructures in the Arab world claimed the lives of over 1 million Iraqis, while turning another 5 million into refugees. The divide-and-rule strategy pursued by the Pentagon stoked a sectarian civil war by deliberately manipulating tensions between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni populations.

The ramifications of this policy have long since spilled across national borders, with increasingly catastrophic consequences, all driven by Washington’s resort to militarism to advance its aim of hegemony over the energy-rich regions of the Middle East and Central Asia.

To this end, the US has been involved in wars for over 35 years, beginning with the CIA’s orchestration of the war for regime-change against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan, where it allied itself with Islamist forces, including Osama bin Laden and the other founders of Al Qaeda.

Nine months before the last US troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, Washington and its NATO allies launched another unprovoked war of aggression to topple the government of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and impose their own puppet regime over the oil-rich North African country. The destruction of the Libyan state and the murder of Gaddafi plunged the country into chaos and bloodshed that continues to this day. Islamist militias used as US proxies in the Libyan war, along with tons of captured Libyan weapons, were subsequently funneled—with the aid of the CIA—into the civil war in Syria, strengthening ISIS and helping create the conditions for it to overrun more than a third of Iraq.

In the name of the never-ending “war on terrorism,” Washington is prosecuting another military campaign in alliance with the Shia-based government in Baghdad against ISIS in the predominately Sunni regions of Iraq, while in Syria it is stepping up military operations in alliance with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf monarchies, while attempting to find “moderate” Sunni Islamists it can utilize as proxies in the war to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The New York Times Tuesday published a lengthy article reflecting an internal debate within the Obama administration over whether to provide more direct US support to Ahrar al-Sham, a Sunni Islamist militia with multiple links to Al Qaeda. The group already receives extensive backing from key US allies Turkey and Qatar.

The horrific consequences of decades of US wars are now spilling into Europe, with the increasingly desperate flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees—in many cases at the cost of their own lives—from homelands that Washington has turned into killing fields.

Politically and morally, the US government and its top officials, starting with Bush and Obama, are totally responsible for all of the crimes, atrocities and human suffering resulting from the multiple wars of aggression they initiated.

None of them have been held to account. Representatives and defenders of an oligarchy of corporate billionaires, they are not, under the present political setup, answerable to the American people, whose opposition to war they routinely defy.

The task of bringing these war criminals to justice and putting an end to the succession of wars and growing threat of a new world war lies with the working class. It must mobilize its independent strength in a mass international antiwar movement.

Bill Van Auken

Chris Hedges: How Black Lives Matter is Part of a Larger Historic Rebellion

“What we seem to be moving toward in the United States is a kind of de facto apartheid.”

On the second episode of his new teleSUR show Days of Revolt, former New York Times reporter-turned-polemicist Christopher Hedges sat down with long time New Jersey civil rights activist Lawrence Hamm to discuss the current state of African-American rebellion and how it fits into the larger historical continuum. The conversation is very illumnating, and like much of Hedges’ writing attempts to show the intersection between poverty and race.

“Half of the prison population is African-American.” Hamm pointed out. “There’s no father for the children, no husband for the wife, and on and on and on. And it has a rippling effect that just never ceases to stop. Poor black folk live in a daily state of crisis. Daily life is one crisis after another.”

The theme of on-going crisis is reflected in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a broad-based effort defined by urgency and a resistance to typical political structures. For Hamm, the situation is a matter of real democracy vs. race-based illegitimate government — marked by bourgeois white liberals and a “bought off” black middle class working to keep poor blacks poor.

“What we seem to be moving toward in the United States is a kind of de facto apartheid”. Hamm said. “The United States is beginning to look and will look more and more like South Africa. You will have a white minority, very small minority controlling most of the wealth, and everybody else, including white lower class and elements of the white working class, on the outside.”

Watch the interview below:

Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at@adamjohnsonnyc.

Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?

By Thomas Swann On July 31, 2015

Post image for Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?Social media are monitored and controlled by large corporations. Can they also facilitate the kind of self-organization that defines radical politics?

When I started my PhD in 2011 there was a strong feeling that radical politics was changing. On the one hand, there was more of it. The Arab Spring, theindignados, Occupy: they all made it seem like direct action and direct democracy, were moving out of the ghettos of what remained of the alter-globalization movement. With mass assemblies and a radical DIY (or even DIO: Do It Ourselves) politics, something was changing across the world. In the face of austerity and totalitarianism, an actual alternative was being prefigured.

At the same time, the tools of these protests and uprisings came into the spotlight. Not only the democratic mechanisms of decision-making but also the digital infrastructures that, many argued, were facilitating what was so promising in these movements.

Social media was increasingly seen as an essential element in how large groups were able to organize without centralized leadership. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter were allowing people to mobilize not as hierarchical structures like trade unions and political parties but as horizontal networks. Individual activists and sub-groups enjoyed a tactical autonomy while remaining part of a larger whole.

Almost four years have passed, and now at the end of my PhD the gloss to this narrative has to a large extent worn off. Some elements of the 2011 uprisings have been consumed by the tragedy of civil war and renewed dictatorships, while others have dispersed.

But of course, four years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things, and the examples of Podemos and Syriza suggest that perhaps these movements are in fact evolving and developing new strategies. While the story of mass mobilization and radical social movements is by no means over, what has been disputed perhaps more than anything else in the last four years is the promise that lay in the tools of the 2011 uprisings.

Social media, once held up by some as the very essence of contemporary radical politics, is now seen in a harsher, less forgiving light. A number of experiences have underlined the implicit hierarchies and inequalities that were reinforced by social media.

Others have pointed towards the ways in which social media exploit, for profit, our online behavior. The Edward Snowden saga has shown how vulnerable our online organizing is, as has the repression of social media-based activism seen inTurkey and elsewhere.

But among these critiques of social media, is there something that can be salvaged? Can platforms like Facebook and Twitter be useful in radical politics, and if so how? Perhaps we don’t need to abandon social media just yet. Perhaps it can, in one form or another, still facilitate the kind of organization that was so promising in 2011 and that continues, in many ways, to define radical left politics.

The promise of social media

Social media platforms are often discussed as means of communication, self-expression and forming public discourse. As well as this, however, social media platforms — and communication practices more generally — also act as infrastructures that support the actions we take. They allow us to share information and resources, and to make decisions that can then be enacted.

In this way, communication practices can also be understood as information management systems. This is a concept borrowed from the world of business and management and refers to any system, normally electronic and increasingly digital, that facilitates organization. Work email and intranets are of this sort. They don’t just let people talk to one another but also contribute to getting tasks completed.

What social media might offer when viewed as information management systems, as platforms that facilitate certain forms of action, is a way to make radical and anarchist forms of organization more like the participatory and democratic structures that characterized the 2011 uprisings and radical left politics since at least the Zapatista rebellion, the alter-globalization movement in the 1990s and, even earlier, the radical feminism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Social media can provide the infrastructure for both democratic decision-making and autonomous action, with activists given access to resources and information that may enable them to act in ways that more hierarchical communication structures reduce to command and control processes.

While there are significant critiques of social media from activists and scholars alike (focusing on privacy and surveillance, corporate and state control, the political economy of free labor and the psychology and behavior that is encouraged by the architecture of mainstream platforms), I want to suggest that there is still a potential inherent in social media owing to the nature of the communication practices it supports.

These practices can be described as many-to-many communication. They are potentially built on conversations with multiple actors that reflect some of the necessary foundations of the participatory democracy of radical Left politics. Social media can, therefore, be seen as systems that facilitate radically democratic forms of organization and that can support the kinds of autonomy and horizontality that have in part been seen in the 2011 uprisings.

This is the promise of social media. And it is a promise that may yet be fulfilled. If social media present opportunities for horizontal, conversational communication, and these types of communication are consistent with the ways in which we try to imagine non-hierarchical social relationships and decision-making structures, then social media can be considered as having at least the potential to be a part of a radical left politics.

Internal and external communication practices

As part of my PhD research I interviewed a number of activists involved in the Dutch radical left and anarchist scene. The pictures they provided of the communication practices of the groups they were involved in can be used to work through some of the ideas around many-to-many communication, its relationship to radical politics and the promise of social media.

Internally, the radical left groups in question all more or less conform to the many-to-many communication model. Much of this communication is done through face-to-face meetings at which members aim to reach consensus on the topics being discussed and the decisions that need to be made.

In terms of social networking technologies, however, activists spoke of the email listservs and online forums that have been common to radical left politics at least since the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the beginnings of the alter-globalization movement.

While none of the groups used newer, mainstream platforms like Facebook in their internal communication practices, one of the groups did use the alternative social networking site Crabgrass as a core part of their discussion and decision-making infrastructure. Crabgrass was developed by people connected to the RiseUp collective that provides secure email addresses for activists. It aims to facilitate social networking and group collaboration with a specifically radical, left-wing bent.

Externally, many-to-many communication practices became much rarer. While most of the groups use Facebook and Twitter, they use them primarily as extensions of their websites, which in turn act mainly as extensions of their printed newspapers.

The three exceptions to this highlight the abilities of both mainstream and alternative social media platforms to play this role. One group, involved in community organizing, was active on Facebook not only in sharing articles and announcements but also in responding to comments and engaging in discussions with other users.

Another made use of crowd-sourced mapping in a way that reflects the scope of many-to-many communication to support autonomous action. The third example of using social media in line with this participatory ethos came from one group that printed comments and responses from Facebook and Twitter in their newspaper, facilitating some level of conversation between the group and those outside it.

Institutionalizing autonomy

The many-to-many communication social media facilitates, insofar as it allows for conversation rather than merely the broadcast of information (or even orders), is intimately connected to a radical left and anarchist vision of organization. If prefiguration, the realization of the goals of politics in the here and now, is taken as one of the core concerns of radical social movements, then a commitment to many-to-many communication might need to be seen as just as important as the commitment to democracy and equality.

It has the potential to empower activists to take autonomous action and the bedrock of participatory democracy. In this way, social media platforms can contribute towards freeing activism from the top-down structures of political parties and trade unions.

But is there another way of looking at these types of organization and of the structures suggested by social media and many-to-many communication? I mentioned at the start of this article that social media and the examples of the 2011 uprisings have lost some of what made them so attractive at the time. Activists are, it seems, increasingly (and perhaps rightly given the limitations) wary of both networked organization and networked communications. In the last year or so, however, radical politics has shifted somewhat.

In place of social movements that are completely opposed to, and autonomous from political parties, the rise of Podemos and Syriza, and indeed the surge of support for the Greens in England and Wales and the Scottish National Party in Scotland, might point to a return of the mass party as an element of radical left social movement strategy.

Podemos and Syriza, by many accounts, have become the institutional articulations of mass social movements. They haven’t replaced them and are clear that they aim to act as parliamentary wings subservient to those movements (although the current tensions in Syriza suggest that this is much more problematic that some might make out).

In the case of Podemos, this has meant a continuation of the radical, direct democracy of the 15-M movement and the party has relied on social media and many-to-many communication not in getting its message across to voters but in defining the very content of that message and of its policies.

Social media might continue to have a role in radical left politics after all. The many-to-many communication practices it supports can be, at their best, prefigurative of the goals of radical politics, of democratic and participatory decision-making. As information management systems, facilitating concrete action, the examples of the radical left groups involved in my PhD research point towards this conclusion.

Both mainstream social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and alternative platforms, such as Crabgrass and n-1, can be an important part of radical left politics, whether in the form of mass social movement mobilizations or the articulation of those movements in more democratic political parties.

Thomas Swann is a PhD student in the University of Leicester School of Management and member of the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy. His research focuses on radical left organization, social media and organizational cybernetics. Follow him on Twittter via @ThomasSwann1.