Politicizing Digital Space: Theory, the Internet and Renewing Democracy

// Reflections on the book by Trevor G. Smith.

von Rahel Süß

In times of a rise of the post-fascist alt-right, when the internet is increasingly becoming a site of political dispute, Smith assembles an array of perspectives around a fundamental political question: How does politics can be reinvigorated and transformed into something more participatory and agonistic by placing it online?

The current discussions about the internet, its personalised technologies and echo chambers, its filter bubbles, its racist bots and pervasive trolls, reveal the need for a more precise analysis of this question. And yet Smith is mainly interested in the sort of problems and arguments that arise when we seek to be political online. Given this context, Smith’s book can be read as an intervention in both digitizing the political and politicising the digital. What is the role of the internet for political participation? What are the benefits of politicising the digital?

Smith’s approach is a fresh move to politicise the current debate about the internet by drawing attention to the notion of the political and engaging with a number of scholars, from Arendt to Rancière, from Žižek to Mouffe. By doing so, he moves beyond perspectives of communication theory and political economy and asks: how does the use of the internet can bring about more politicisation without turning a blind eye towards its many depoliticising ways? He reaches for reinvigorating the idea of politics by outlining a form of internet-enabled politics that inspire engagement and empowerment, rather than cynicism and alienation. He does so by showing that the online political realm is not simply a space where activists debate issues and organise offline protests, but also an important site of political action itself.

There are several powerful arguments animating Smith’s book. One is that the internet is a useful tool for reinvigorating politics because it can provide possibilities for new beginnings. Another argument is that political theory can help restoring the “poor reputation of politics”, provided it takes into consideration people’s daily lives and their technological aspect (6).

The book is divided in six chapters. After a general introduction, the second chapter deals with the questions of public space and the place of politics: What does appear publicly when someone enters the (online) political realm? The third chapter turns to political subjectivity discussing questions of the “contestation” between anti-political identification versus political subjectivation (43). In the fourth chapter he addresses the importance of political participation in debates and decisions. In the fifth chapter, Smith emphasises the need of participating in conflicts and disagreements. The sixth chapter draws a conclusion by laying down the steps toward the digitalization of politics.

The basic lines of Smith’s argument, that politics can be reinvigorated and transformed into something more participatory and agonistic by placing it online, are structured along five key points. Firstly, he starts from stating that politics does not enjoy a good reputation. This assumption is, secondly, followed by a call for a new and positive conception of politics in an online political realm. In order to elaborate how politics can operate online, as a third line of his argument, Smith claims that politics can be reinvigorated and transformed on four terrains: public space, subjectivity, participation and conflict.

According to the author, all these terrains are spaces of contestation between politics and anti-politics, where anti-politics is defined as a mechanism which attempts to foreclose the emergence of political realms, political subjects, participation or conflict, by keeping everyone in their assigned place. This line of argument leads to another level of analysis. The political subject in an online political realm finds itself in a situation of universal emptiness in which its identity traits are unknown to others and this can cause the improvement of political participation. Finally, he argues that politics can be reinvigorated and transformed into something more agonistic by placing it online, if conflict, as a driver of politics in a pluralistic society, becomes the content of online political debates.

Structural exclusion and other challenges in an online political realm

Smith´s argument that the internet opens up the potential for a political space and political subject formation process that is unavailable elsewhere is a provocative one (129). He seems to draw a blind eye to the challenges which affect both the offline and the online political realm. He tends to elide the crucial question linked to democracy that is the limited access to participation and decision making as a consequence of structural exclusions when he points out:

act of going online can be emancipatory in itself, as a person´s offline
minority status can be obscured, allowing individuals to easily emerge from
their minority position which are used to disqualify them from taking part in
offline politics. When one´s identity is the source of prejudice, to keep it
hidden online makes revealing oneself as a unique individual with unique
thoughts and opinion much easier.” (48)

Smith’s treatment of political participatory issues never pushes the conversation beyond the discussion that individuals get excluded because of others prejudices concerning skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, or cultural identity. As a result, Smith struggles to problematise structural exclusions in the first place. Even worse, there is the risk of reproducing structural discriminations by turning a blind eye towards this issue and therefore to relativise it.

Furthermore, Smith has little so say about post-fascist movements that have also taken shape and operate online. It seems that he remains very abstract when talking about anti-politics. More conflicting examples about how certain social structures get reproduced online are missing. For instance, does he not elaborate on the increased automation of social relations taking place online. Contrary to Smith, for whom the “key to understanding online disembodied subjectivity is that when we use the internet to discuss politics, we are primarily interacting with other people and not with a computer, smartphone, or other web-enabled device” (53),

I do think it is important to pay attention to the social relationships which are pre-formatted by technology which deploys – for instance – filters, algorithms, auto-functions, fake news and bots. These forms of “artificial stupidity” spread through media can be seen as the opposite of what we usually call “artificial intelligence”. These phenomenons must be considered as powerful instruments when it comes to processes of political participation and decision making.

Ideal theory rather than critical activity

The innovative potential of the book lies in showing how an online layered politics might operate. However, in doing so the author reveals the need for a more reflexive approach to the possibilities for its implementations. Smith reflects on the political realm and subjectivity but not so much on political agency itself. Although Smith stresses that the internet provides possibilities to usher a new form of radically democratic politics, he does not specify his notion of “radically democratic politics” (1).

As I see it, his “radical” argument implies the assumption that by placing politics online the idea of democracy as participation AND decision making can more successfully be realized. Although his call for placing politics online is ubiquitous, the offers of his approach seem rather timid. It is not only questionable whether it can provide adequate answers to the big democratic challenges, the upsurge of nationalist governments and right-wing movements and the growing discomfort with liberal democracy, but also to examine their real connection with people’s everyday experiences.

Additionally, the examples used to underline his argument that more participation can be reached by placing politics online are lacking a connection to recent experiments like the political parties Podemos or Syriza. Furthermore, the pool of movements mentioned by Smith, which include the Arab Spring and Occupy, misses current examples such as the anti-austerity movement 15-M, the many occupations of public squares, Gezi Park, Nuit Debout, DiEM25 and the Women´s March. This is surprising considering that Smith refers to present phenomena such as the election of Trump, the victory of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum of 2016 and the rise of the alt-right or post-fascism. To sum up: Smith’s approach seems to be more an ideal theory than a critical activity.

Rahel Süß –  @RahelSuess

(A longer version of this review was first published in the journal triple C, Communication, Capitalism & Critique: http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/939)

Trevor G. Smith’s Politicizing Digital Space: Theory, The Internet, and Renewing Democracy (2017). University of Westminster Press, ISBN: 978-1-911534-40-

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