Political Identity After Wikipedia
Posted by <Reuben Dendinger> on 2022-10-15
When I was young and becoming politically conscious for the first time, the internet played an invaluable role in my education. In particular, it was Wikipedia – the free, online encyclopedia which anyone can edit, which my high school teachers warned me never to trust – which opened a window into a wide range of historical, cultural, scientific, and philosophical knowledge to which I otherwise may have never been exposed. Shoegaze, MK Ultra, biodynamic agriculture – through Wikipedia I learned what these words meant, and I began to realize just how strange and complex the world really was.
I had already suspected that the historical education I received in school, taught exclusively by sports coaches with next to zero historical training, was at best highly simplistic and politically skewed, and at worst utterly useless nationalist propaganda. Wikipedia confirmed these suspicions.
I also learned that the American political “spectrum” as it was presented on television – liberals on one side, conservatives on the other – far from representing the full range of political ideology, was on the contrary a narrow sliver of possibilities rigorously policed by the media and political class. There were greens, socialists, and fascists in Europe, Marxist guerrillas in the Philippines, the anarchist Zapatistas in Chiapas. Even just on the left, the diversity of ideologies and movements was mind-boggling: social democracy, democratic socialism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, insurrectionary anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism. Discovering this vast ideological terrain was thrilling, and like many others I eagerly set out trying to understand where my allegiances should be placed and where my enmities directed.
Despite its liberatory openness, however, there is a limitation to using Wikipedia as the basis for political education. The problem lies in the nature of encyclopedias, which organize information and ideas in a networked, horizontal fashion. While it remains possible to reconstruct an integrated historical narrative in one’s own mind from disparate entries, the encyclopedic form is inherently disjointed and non-chronological. Entries on “imperialism,” “Frida Kahlo,” or “The Middle Ages” are not chapters in a story, but rather disparate categories mixed together in a vast labyrinthine aggregate of facts. Well-written entries will of course attempt to convey the historical context of their subject, and may even gesture towards its place in a broader narrative, but this does not change the fact of the encyclopedia’s essentially horizontal and associative, as opposed to vertical and narrative, structure.
The form of the encyclopedia lends itself to, and is intensified by, the associative hyperlink and hashtag structure of the internet. On Wikipedia it becomes possible to begin studying the article on sweatshop labor, to follow a link to the page on the Nike corporation, and to wind up reading about the love life of Michael Jordan. Such meandering explorations may indeed be enlightening as well as pleasant, and my point is not to disparage them; what I aim to criticize is how the Wikipediazation of thought has deformed our political sensibility and contributed to the harmful reification of political identity.
On the one hand, the internet has been enormously beneficial in breaking through the ossified psychological hegemony of the ruling class. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this development. On the other hand, Wikipedia and social media have served to reify political ideologies. They have become part of the marketplace of identity, arranged as a decontextualized and fetishized selection of costumes to be picked up and discarded at will, largely disconnected from history, political organization, and class struggle.
In the past, to be a Communist, for example, was to be a member of the Communist Party of one’s home country; to be a member of the Communist Party, in turn, was to commit not just to a set of ideas but to a set of political responsibilities – actions to be taken, orders to be carried out. As a result of the decline of labor unions and the institutional Left in the neoliberal period, the rediscovery of radical thought by Millennials and Gen-Z has largely occurred online. If nothing else than from the simple absence of a mainstream Left organization to join, Left-wing political identity
has become largely a question of sympathy rather than membership. Even if one is a member of the largest Left group in the US, the Democratic Socialists of America, that does not necessarily make one a “democratic socialist” – as a “big tent” organization, DSA has very little in the way of ideological discipline or internal cohesion, and a variety of caucuses within the group promote widely varying socialist tendencies. Therefore it is possible to be a DSA member and to think of oneself as a communist, anarchist, or simply a “progressive” (and these words themselves can and do mean entirely different things to different people). It’s not difficult to find “Marxists,” “socialists,” and “radicals” in the faculty of American universities, but with few exceptions academic Marxism has no organic connection to the labor movement or any working-class political formation. Severed from group membership, political identity becomes something merely self- declared and not tied to any meaningful social relationships or responsibilities.
What, then, does it mean to be a “socialist”? In the context of the widespread theoretical confusion which prevails in the United States today, this question frequently devolves into a moral judgment, an evaluation of whether or not a particular individual, party, movement, or government meets the criteria of some fetishized ideal. Socialism, we know from reading a dictionary or encyclopedia entry, is defined by social ownership of the means of production; that is to say, the abolition of capitalist property relations. Neither the Chinese Communist Party, Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez, Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo, or radical trade unions in Africa, South Asia, or anywhere else in the world have achieved this, even when they have come into power – therefore, they must not be “truly” socialist. For pessimists and the so-called “post-left,” this proves that socialism is indeed impossible, that all attempts at resistance are immediately “recuperated” and neutralized. But even for those who still believe in revolution, the varied and complex processes of anti-capitalist resistance around the world are frequently dismissed for being incomplete, insufficient, and compromised; because they do not resemble the pre-conceived revolutionary ideal as described on Twitter or Wikipedia or YouTube or in the pages of one’s favorite theorist, they are consigned to the ideological garbage heap of “liberalism.” It is as if some on the Left believe that social revolution can come into existence fully-formed, like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus, to abolish capitalism in one fell swoop.
Rather than selecting fetishized ideologies from the marketplace of ideas, what radicals must do is study history, study critical theory, and especially study the history of critical theory, its debates and contradictions and transformations over time. In short, political identity itself must be historicized. Only then will we be able to collectively fashion new forms of revolutionary thought and action appropriate for the current conjuncture. We must begin with a materialist analysis of our situation, with all its positive and negative features, its limits and its possibilities, and from there develop a course of action, rather than starting with a political idea plucked from the pages of the internet and imposing its program on society.
Anti-capitalist resistance is a force of nature. When people are exploited and alienated, they fight back. The point of critical theory is to imbue this resistance with self-consciousness and coherent political identity, so that it may be developed and sharpened into an effective revolutionary project, struggling not just for immediate survival but for widespread social transformation. The construction of a new collective identity must emerge from what Marx calls the “real movement” of history. As Marx writes in The German Ideology:
“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”