British Roits, ICTs and Neoliberalism – A Cure Worse than the Cause… or Disaster Capitalism?

Developments in the London riots of summer 2011 are increasingly shifting towards the uncomfortable, confrontational and divisive as authorities increasingly call for and pursue a stronger police presence, draw on technology to identify rioters, and utilise digital communications as weapons to discourage rioters. In short, these riots are igniting a new wave of structural divisions – class warfare through emerging technology. But there might just be more to it.

The actions of authorities are shifting the state towards an Orwellian police state, one in which vigilante justice is justified (if you’re on the right side of the corporate media empire), and one where ‘big brother’ is ever so desperately trying to maintain rigid control of a population that such rigid controls are dividing in the first place.

One might say that social media is helping fuel the flames of these riots. One might even point the finger at social media and ICTs in their roles to provide both bad with the good. But that’s really not the issue here.

Authorities are using technology – in increasingly desperate attempts – to produce tighter control over the actions of people (albeit unnecessarily violent, irresponsible and destructive in this case). While this is discussed in the book in terms of how technology is used to generate social conformity, such a perspective might only offer a brief glimpse of a more important phenomenon: inequality.

Technology is being used widely around the world to tumble existing relations of social power and very unequal wealth distribution. It’s also being used to control society, and affect the decisions and actions people make. Billions of people (including some involved in the unrest in Britain) are using technology in the former role; governments and other decision makers largely continue to use technology in the latter role.

When it comes to inequality, as Christian Fuchs notes, are those rioting the only at fault group?

Unequal societies simply are not sustainable. This is why chapter 7 – Pathological Tendencies: The Health Link – was included in the book. Unequal societies harm everyone, while those at the bottom suffer most. Unequal societies encourage the Joneses to get ahead, or each individual to get ahead of the Joneses. They will disintegrate… they will rebel… they will use the tools and options at their disposal to seek equality and fairness just as those in power will use the (typically far more substantive) tools and options at their disposal to maintain the illusion of fairness and equality.

Yet ICTs enable a more distributed, non-hierarchical, cooperative, sharing world. “Protestors”, “rioters”, “dissenters”, “trouble-makers”, what ever you call them, they’re using these new technologies to galvanize – not define – a new world. One which is equal, egalitarian and sustainable. One which is fluid, dynamic, and void of leadership in the prevailing sense. Welcome to the new world. This is sustainability in the making. Have we reached a tipping point – that all critical point of inflection?

Our leaders, on the other hand, are using the same new tools along with many of the old tools to maintain the past – the rigid, inflexible, hierarchical control structures of power and wealth. Why do the authorities entrench the competitive structurally hierarchical ideologies? Moreover, why does this happen precisely when the opportunity to do away with class divisions, social inequities, unsustainable consumerism and economic growth, and ideologies supported by neoliberal policies is so loudly presented?

That’s not too dissimilar from promoting competition through cooperation. It does, however, have a bursting sense of urgency.

And that might just be the answer. There is a sense of urgency – for the wealthy and powerful elite – with financial foundations crumbling, social media distributing democracies, and ecological and health crises spiraling out of control, to try and maintain the prevailing control hierarchies, the conventional illusions, the sense that all we need do is make minor adjustments to the torque of events, while confronted by social transformations that remain unrecognised by the masses yet threatening to the elite.

But try telling that to those affected in their own communities, the politicians, or the rioters.

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