Jan 22nd, 2007 by ravi
Will the Real Internet Left please stand up?

A minor skirmish has broken out in Bloglandia between the left purists and the “netroots”. The opening salvo was fired by our good friend Max Sawicky, with this bit:

The “Internet Left” is a mostly brainless vacuum cleaner of donations for the Democratic Party.

Congratulations are first due to Max: in a world that lives on and for catchy one-liners, he can justifiably claim to have moved us farther, with this clever aphorism, irrespective of its validity. Second, is it just me, is Max looking pretty slick in that picture (for contrast see the wiser gent on Crooks and Liars)?

The “purists” are the old guard, the textbook leftists, the big thinkers who understand the systemic rot, the root cause dudes who will fix the problem not the symptoms. The “netroots” are a gaggle of bloggers who gained popularity and prominence after the 2004 Dean debacle. Some are just wide-ranging commentators (much as we here at PB are, albeit with a readership that is non-trivial) but for our exercise we can limit the group to a couple of biggies: DailyKos, the mothership of the movement, and MyDD one of whose writers (Matt Stoller) figures in the very first sentences of Max’s assault on the virtual roots.

What is Max’s beef against the young Turks? I am guessing he is unhappy with their apparent attitude that they have the whole leftist enterprise covered (from activism to theory). Instead old Max finds that they are ill-read if at all (and extends that point to suggest that they have little coherent theoretical understanding and analysis of their positions and the things they, or rather the Left, should work against or for), and they are not very left at that (as attested by the unbridled enthusiasm for Democrats — which seems to exceed that of a Democratic convention speaker, Al Sharpton, who memorably quipped: we want to see how far this donkey can take us — and election politics and activism). Further evidence is not hard to come by, ranging from Kos’ attitude towards marches and the activists involved (“boring”, “obsolete”) to Duncan Black on Chomsky (Google it. I refuse to link to random blather!). The “netroots” wants the old Left (the 60s left in particular?) out of their way in a hurry, but as Max outlines, what is the alternative they offer to the many facets of old style organising and activism?

The purists, usually from the Church of Marx, have nothing but disdain for party politics, electoral victories, crackpot realism. It’s all ephemeral, these meagre and meaningless victories … a mistaken identification of the roots with the trees and the trees for the forest. The Democratic Party is the buffer, a parasite that lives off the malcontent of the left, bleeding away its anger while offering no real progress. The destruction of the DP is the first step towards the inevitable and necessary confrontation with the real powers that keep us down! Even the extended discussion of elections, potential candidates and results, is not mere waste of time but a dangerous distraction (aided by the “netroots” which offer the fora and gravitas for such chatter).

Theoretical analysis and such elaborate arias can also be seen as a luxury of those who can afford them. Every bit of change can mean something significant for someone else — the return of Democrats might return funding to medical services in poor nations, alleviate conditions in Iraq (the 2006 GOP electoral humiliation, in itself, has generated a significant number of defections into the camp that questions the Iraqi strategy), a bit more safety for immigrants at risk of landing in Guantanamo, increase in minimum wage, and so on. If a coherent argument is available to demonstrate that these incremental steps have a net negative effect (and a large one at that), I am yet to hear it put forth without resort to magic language.

Another little matter nags: I do not vote on MyDD straw-polls because I believe I am furthering the grand leftist agenda, but because I have nothing better to do. The problem lies in the mistaken idea that the purists and the “netroots” are battling over scarce eyeballs and limited time. I can eyeball both of them and still have enough time to write this silly blog. My problem is not too little time but too little opportunity.

And on that question of opportunity, I return to consider Max’s original point regarding the “Internet Left”, and his own conclusion:

The real Internet left is the Internet of leftists who use the Internet.

Sometime in 1990 or 1991 I was introduced to the term “user”. It seemed an elegantly apt way to describe those who were interested in consumption and not participation (elegant because “user” is also the term to designate a non-technical human using a computer). These were the sort of people who made posts to newsgroups or mailing lists with the preface: please respond to me at my email address, since I do not read this list. I bring this up for a reason. Max is wrong. The real Internet Left is not the leftists who use the net, but the people who contribute to making it what it is. If you need a name, that name would be Richard Stallman. Behind all this noise that they enable is a dedicated community of developers, documenters, testers, bug reporters, and volunteers for all kinds of other roles, who work using the simple philosophy of from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs. The best unsolicited advice that I can offer anyone that faces the problem I bring up above, of the lack of opportunity, is to forget about theoretical frameworks or blog activism, but rather get involved in this thriving actual community (that is by the way, among other things, enabling communities in the so-called Third World), which exists despite (and perhaps because of) the disimissal of it as a serious and important force and phenomenon. Forget the Marxist thesis and the Technorati rank, or rather along with that, write some code, help out with answering questions, get your hands dirty.

A random list of efforts that you could involve yourself in today, directly related to what you are doing now:

  • WordPress — open source blogging software and service
  • Mozilla — open source web browser and email software with ad/spam blocking
  • GNU — extensive suite of tools from the Free Software Foundation
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