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Book Reviews: 'Digital Revolutions', 'This Boy', & 'Why Nations Fail'


Digital Revolutions: Activism in the Internet Age, by Symon Hill. New Internationalist Books

The title of the book is self-explanatory, unlike the chapter titles such as Chapter 4 ‘We are Next!’ It focuses on a short period but in comprehensive detail. The back blurb explains that the book ‘takes a detailed look at the uprisings that have rocked the world since 2008 and looks at the part that the new media have played in their unfolding.’ There is a degree of presumption about the reader’s politics (and a whiff of reformism) when early on it reads, ‘In 2008, an economic crash exposed the truth of a system in which the wealthy benefit and the rest of us pay for it,’ and ‘corporations have continued to wield unaccountable power,’ and later on ‘something was very wrong … bankers had gambled with money that they did not own.’

The main crux of the book is a riposte to both digital luddites and digital utopians (who Hill labels extreme and ‘two ridiculous arguments’), aiming to strike a balance between the two. To the digital utopians Peter Tatchell, writing in the Foreword, observes ‘Digital Revolutions do not make social revolutions in and of themselves.’ Symon Hill writes, ‘There are cyber-utopians who attribute the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and anti-austerity campaigns and other global movements entirely to technology … with little, if any, reference to the economic factors and human complexities that have triggered unrest, protest and change.’   ‘At the other extreme of the debate are those who think that the internet has made no difference at all … Some even argue that the internet is undermining activism.’ Click ‘Like’ if you agree, presumably.

Ironically, Hill fails to mention, it’s the digital-luddites who are a newer phenomenon than the digital-utopians. Twentieth-century digital-utopians argued that the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe would topple the Soviet dictatorship, or that satellite TV would topple post-Cold War dictatorships.

Hill, associate director of the leftwing Christian think tank Ekklesia, writes ‘The core principle with which I have approached the book is not a belief about the internet but a conviction about power. Liberation comes from below and never from above.’ Why social change does not come from above could be an interesting discussion, but convictions need no explanation: ‘This book does not focus on presidential campaigns or Wikileaks, important though they are.’

To his credit, he goes on to acknowledge that power from below has in the past and can in the present and future challenge unjust and oppressive systems. He first mentions the printing press and its effect in the 17th century, but throughout, there is care taken to argue that the cause has been economic, not technological. He even goes so far as to agree with another writer that there is no causal link between social protest and communications technologies.

He refers to Tim Gee's model of counterpower, in which movements can use 'Idea Counterpower', 'Economic Counterpower' and 'Physical Counterpower' to challenge the power of ruling elites and argues that the internet is relevant to all three forms. One might be inclined to agree with the digital luddite Evgeny Morozov (writer of The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World) who argues that the internet is counterproductive for building physical counterpower. Hill does not overstate his case, quoting critics of net utopians who thought cameraphones would reduce police brutality.

Some obvious advantages are pointed out, for example the ability to rapidly organise and assemble via Twitter using locations revealed at the last minute without requiring leaders to issue instructions, an ability which favours non-hierarchical horizontalism networks with no ‘ringleaders.’  Although all 145 UK Uncutters who occupied Fortnum and Mason were arrested and locked up overnight, Pussy Riot have been imprisoned for much longer.

In fact, you begin to suspect problems with the organisation and the politics (irrespective of the internet) when you read passages such as this, that after police had responded with water cannons and tear gas ‘... the Tahrir protesters met to talk about their demands. Some seasoned activists [thought that] things should be taken in stages … Socialist [sic] campaigner and blogger Gigi Ibrahim explained ’but the people around us in Tahrir Square, the majority who didn't belong to any political group, were chanting for the removal of the regime. So we knew at that moment that we couldn't ask for less … Several hundred activists are thought to have been killed.’ This was all back to front, taking action first, then establishing minimum (not maximum) demands afterwards.

The interests of powerful minorities have always been opposed to democracy and equality. ‘Astroturfing’ refers to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are designed to mask the sponsors of the message to give the appearance of coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Although Hill is critical of astroturfing's success, with questions over the Arab Spring and the closure of London Indymedia, one can't help wonder whether the internet as a tool still favours the powerful. Hill uses Marx's class analysis favourably, to ‘go beyond clicktivism (online activism)’, which is touching on the real cause of social change, class struggle.



From proletarian to prat

This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson. Bantham Press, 2013.

When former Home Secretary Alan Johnson told Prime Minister Tony Blair that he was married with three children before he was twenty years old, Blair replied 'You really are working class'. Alan Johnson is one of those rare things, a member of the proletariat who climbed the greasy pole to reach high political office.

This Boy tells of his childhood in the 1950s and 60s, growing up in North Kensington in London W10 in 'a street whose buildings had been condemned in the 1930s'. The Johnson family were abandoned by their father, and their lives were filled with a 'grinding poverty' which comprised second hand clothes from 'the Lane' (Petticoat Lane market), debts, outside lavatories, no television or labour-saving devices, buying groceries 'on the tick', hiding from the 'tally man', and free school meals. In 1959 Macmillan said the working class had 'never had it so good'.

1950s North Kensington was captured in the photographs of Roger Mayne who portrayed the 'squalor and vibrancy of life there' and also the arrival of immigrants from the West Indies who would be exploited by Rachman landlordism. Johnson recalls the 'Teddy Boy' riots in Notting Hill, the unsolved murder (Johnson says he knows the culprit) of West Indian Kelso Cochrane in1959, and Oswald Mosley as Fascist candidate for North Kensington at the 1959 General Election.

Johnson's book features a portrait of his mother who died when he was thirteen. She was a Liverpudlian who admired Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, Liberal leader Jo Grimond, disliked Churchill, and worked as a 'charlady in the posh houses of South Kensington'. His mother and elder sister kept the family going in a period of the Welfare State when benefit entitlements were administered through the head of a family (ie. the man).

Johnson describes his passion for Queens Park Rangers who had a golden era in the 1960s which culminated in winning the football League Cup in 1967. Music was a passion from the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan to the Beatles and Stones and discovering Chicago blues. Johnson details the influential books and authors in his life which included Shane by Jack Schaefer, Mark Twain, HG Wells, Arnold Bennett and George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

Johnson passed his 11-plus and went to grammar school in Chelsea but left school at 15 eventually becoming a postman. He joined the Labour Party in 1971 although he considered himself a 'Marxist in the CPGB style'. He also joined his trade union becoming the CWU General Secretary in 1992. He was the only senior trade unionist to support the New Labour abolition of Clause IV, and a safe parliamentary seat was found for him in 1997. He held various cabinet posts under Blair and then Brown. As Education Minister he introduced differential university tuition fees, and as Home Secretary he sacked Professor David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs who had accused the government of 'distorting' and 'devaluing' research evidence in the debates about Ecstasy and cannabis.



Failure and Success

Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Profile, £10.99

Why do some countries have a higher standard of living for most of their population than others have? The authors’ answer relies on a distinction between inclusive and extractive institutions at both the political and economic level. For further discussion of the book and replies to reviews, see

Politically, inclusive institutions are both centralised and pluralistic. This means, firstly, that they involve sufficient power of coercion in state hands to defend law and order and enforce property rights; this is in contrast to chaotic countries such as Somalia, which lack any true government power (they are sometimes called anocracies). Secondly, power is spread around to some extent rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few, whether a monarch and aristocracy or a dictator and his cronies. Extractive political institutions are either non-pluralistic or non-centralised. Economically, inclusive institutions foster productive activity and innovation rather than (as extractive institutions do) siphoning off wealth for the benefit of a small clique and stifling new ideas and developments as a challenge to the status quo.

There is claimed to be a ‘synergy’ between economics and politics in that inclusive and extractive types tend to go together. But ‘it is politics and political institutions that determine what economic institutions a country has.’ Economic growth is more likely under inclusive institutions; it is possible under extractive ones but is likely to be short-lived, as in the former ‘Soviet’ Union and today’s China (where the authors predict that either the country will become more pluralistic or the growth will peter out). The richer countries nowadays are those that began industrialisation in the nineteenth century, while the poorer ones did not.

The book contains a number of instructive case studies, which we cannot discuss properly here. Let’s just look at a couple. In 1945 the two parts of Korea were pretty similar, but then extractive institutions in the North led to stagnation and starvation, while South Korea adopted inclusive institutions and became an economic powerhouse, home to global corporations such as Samsung. Acemoglu and Robinson accept that the South was not a democracy and had ‘authoritarian presidents’, but they massively understate the extent of the dictatorship there (such as torturing strikers and firing on demonstrators) and also the amount of US support and investment. So there is little evidence from South Korea for the determining force of politics.

The Industrial Revolution is always a crucial issue in such broad-scope histories. In 1589 Elizabeth I refused a patent for a kind of knitting machine on the grounds that the introduction of such technology would lead to wide-scale impoverishment; in fact, she was probably afraid of any resulting instability and its threat to her status. But the Glorious Revolution of 1688 ended this concentration of monarchical power and gave much more say to the rising merchant and capitalist classes. From the middle of the eighteenth century many technological innovations were introduced in Britain as the Industrial Revolution took off. As the authors see it, the events of 1688 created inclusive political institutions, and these underpinned the inclusive economic institutions of property rights and efficient financial markets. But they are well aware that even the forms of democracy were very limited at the time, and that the capitalist class were able to use their new power to have textile imports from India banned. As this last example shows, inclusive institutions can be used to defend the interests of a small class of factory owners and to constrain production elsewhere.

In fact the whole idea of the institution types is not as straightforward as the authors seem to think. It is argued that inclusive economic institutions ‘allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish’. It is hard to see how this fits any version of capitalism, since most people are forced to take dead-end or menial jobs (if they can find them) that make scant use of their skills, and so they have little choice in how they live their lives. Inclusive institutions benefit the capitalist class in general, not those who perform the labour that makes the owners wealthy.