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Revolt of the Gadgets


It’s a sweltering midsummer afternoon in Ismailiya, a city of 700,000 people that lies on the west bank of the Suez Canal halfway between Port Said to the north and the city of Suez in the south. Two hundred striking workers, some dressed in company coveralls, rally at a traffic circle on the edge of town. Several dozen soldiers, wearing camouflaged fatigues and combat helmets, form a cordon along the roadside, isolating the boisterous picketers to a patch of sunburned public park. Shade is scarce; the smell of sweat and dust drifts among the crowd.

One of the strikers, the head of the local mechanics’ union, tells me, “Nothing has changed since we overthrew Mubarak. The regime is still in place and they are all against us. They stole from our nation for decades; now we want a share of the Canal’s wealth, but it’s like there is a counter-revolution going on.” His fellow workers crowd in and nod.

These workers were part of the wave that in 2011 brought down Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt for the preceding thirty years. During the uprising that toppled the government, they walked off their jobs, delivering a clear message to Egypt’s political hierarchy—and the world—that the protests were more than some passing expression of youthful discontent.

These laborers build and repair the ships that cross the canal each day. It’s hard work that forms the backbone of the $5-billion-a-year Suez Canal economy. Without them, the ships would remain dry-docked; the infrastructure of the waterway would crumble. The canal workers’ pay rarely tops $100 a month, though, so they are demanding a wage increase and the removal of the Canal Authority’s executive, a holdover from the Mubarak regime. And when these workers took to the streets, so did their fellow workers in Port Said and Suez, the two other centers for Canal industries.

Look beneath the surface of the Egyptian uprising and you see thousands of other workers like the strikers in Ismailiya: textile and agricultural workers, professors on university campuses, and public sector employees. The protests that ousted Mubarak were, in part, spontaneous—sparked by the example of the so-called Arab Spring. But, in Egypt, the revolt reflected the organization, political sophistication, and clearly-articulated demands of the trade unionist movement.

American observers, however, did not see it that way. When viewed from Washington and New York, the overthrow of Mubarak obviously was the work of awesome new technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones.

“New technologies have lubricated the mechanisms of revolt,” Nicholas Kristof bleated in the New York Times just after Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak’s departure on February 11, 2011. “Facebook and Twitter make it easier for dissidents to network. Mobile phones mean that government brutality is more likely to end up on YouTube, raising the costs of repression.”

That political change naturally follows from technological innovation is a dogma beloved by the American media because, for one thing, it allows them to avoid the tough business of political analysis and reporting. It reduces puzzling events in faraway lands to advertising slogans for familiar products. Facebook: it liberates. The confusion of political power with marketing is not new to liberalism, which exaggerates the importance of public opinion. But today, the growth of social media and the disappearance of class from the consciousness of media commentators provoke a near-reflexive substitution of tech-hype for political analysis.

“These days,” Kristof wrote last December, “Chinese traders, cellphones, DVDs, and CDs are already common in border areas of North Korea, doing more to undermine Kim’s rule than any policy of the United States.” Two months later, North Korea executed a flawless patrilineal succession and Egypt marked the one-year anniversary of its revolt with a fresh volley of bullets and tear gas.

Kristof, undaunted, turned to the tale of fourth-grade students in Massachusetts who used a website to petition for a plot change in a Hollywood movie. This banal tale, presented as the moral equivalent to government brutality, showed “how new Internet tools are allowing very ordinary people to defeat some of the most powerful corporate and political interests around—by threatening the titans with the online equivalent of a tarring and feathering.” Beware those fourth graders! “They’ve already shown that the Web can turn the world upside down.”

For American pundits like Nicholas Kristof, new technologies didn’t merely amplify protest in Egypt, they were the protest, the devices without which the grievances of millions would go unheard, unseen. The theme was well-nigh unanimous. The computer keyboard, handheld device, and Web avatar are the seeds from which human liberty arises. As Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington Post:

Rarely has a generational schism been so vivid. The guns and old hardware of Mubarak’s regime versus the new software and nebulous nature of a digitally inspired revolt. Even speculating on what might happen next was beyond our primitive ken. Who knew what the next tweet might suggest or what wave of human movement it might inspire?

There was the inevitable Thomas Friedman, who wrote that text messages, Twitter, and Facebook “finally give [Arab youths] a voice.” There was the peerless Maureen Dowd, who just knew that Twitter and Facebook were “revolutionary tools.”

Rather than investigating Egypt’s history of labor unrest or seeking to understand why millions of Egyptians took to the streets and risked their lives—more than eight hundred died in three weeks—the pundits focused on the eleven-day imprisonment of a former Google executive named Wael Ghonim. Ghonim was educated at a private school, grew up in one of the richest neighborhoods of Cairo, earned an MBA in marketing, and spent countless hours managing Facebook pages from his base in Dubai, and hence it was almost inevitable that he would be elevated to iconic status among Time’s 100 most influential people of 2011. Ghonim made valuable contributions to the uprising, and since the fall of Mubarak, he has pressed Egypt’s political movements to address the economic inequalities. But in the American media, the singular tale of the tech-hero crowded out the names, stories, and collective grievances of those eight hundred martyrs, who have at least as much to teach.

Before Google and Facebook, it was any number of other new gadgets—the cassette tape, the fax machine, the VCR—elevated one after another to the leadership of other peoples’ revolutions. Commenting on the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, Alan Dershowitz attributed it to the fax, videotape, cellular phone, and computer modem: “The real news—and good news it is—is that for the first time, this new technology is being used to further freedom as well as to repress it.” Yong-chuan Liu, writing in USA Today, directed dissidents to “Ready, aim, fax!” Michael Dobbs asserted in a Washington Post op-ed: “Perestroika has become a revolution by fax.” Overthrowing Fidel Castro, according to Jonathan Power, comes down to enabling telecommunications: “Washington should start by opening the phone lines and the fax—remember the catalytic role they played in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.” Garrett Graff of the New York Times claimed: “In Spain in 2004, text messages helped topple José María Aznar’s government after the Madrid train bombings.”

Obama’s presidential victory, the birth of Iran’s Green Movement, the fall of Moldova’s Communist Party, and civilian election-monitoring in Russia were due to Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, to smartphones, digital recorders, or cameras, or some combination, according to commentators including Friedman, Andrew Sullivan, and Clay Shirky.

The Occupy Wall Street protests, too, have had their moment in the gaze of the cyber-utopians. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has proposed that Occupy arose from its use of Application Programming Interface, a type of source code that, he argues, turns the nerdiest of software developers into conductors of mass political mobilization. Remember, this was a protest that punctured the hegemonic narrative of the free market; but, according to Madrigal, the protest’s success can be explained by the way Twitter users can structure information requests.

And the cyber-utopians just love tech CEOs, by the way. Madrigal quotes another journalist’s gloss: “OWS is against Crony Capitalism, not Capitalism. It’s FOR Entrepreneurial Capitalism . . . OWS has splits. . . . But most see Steve Jobs as a hero.” Got that? Occupy’s meaning, per Madrigal, arises not from Americans voicing their outrage. No: it all comes from a mysterious desire to imitate programmers’ code and respect for a corporate titan widely described as a tyrannical asshole.

It’s a wonder no one has thought to attribute the 1848 revolutions to the invention of the daguerrotype.

The notion that information technologies are hardwired to oppose tyranny was stated most forcefully in überbanker Walter Wriston’s 1992 free-market manifesto Twilight of Sovereignty. A legendary former head of Citibank, Wriston was an early figure among economic elites trumpeting the power of technological innovation to transform all social, economic, and political relations. The Information Age, he wrote, has changed “the way the world works in ways at least as profound as occurred in the Industrial Revolution.” Wriston believed that the microchip, personal computer, and World Wide Web tilted automatically against coercive forms of power. And the coercive institution most squarely in Wriston’s crosshairs was the banker’s old enemy, government—any government, that is, no matter its composition or degree of popular support. Why? Because governments tax, they regulate, and they constrain a financial institution’s ability to speculate. More important for Wriston, governments limit the ability of you and I to live an unencumbered life of liberty, which is to say, of consumer choice.

Buy online and you express your opposition to progressive taxation and policy brutality. View a Madonna video and you are voting to end bank regulation. In this way, Wriston founded a form of populism that finds expression through an integrated globalized economy. Put simply, it’s market populism—the weird idea that technology, liberty, and unregulated flows of capital represent the pinnacle of human ingenuity and freedom.

The trifecta of free information, human liberty, and a globalized market came together, Wriston says, in any number of world historical events: the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, brought on by the VCR; the Shah’s flight from Iran, which happened because of the cassette tape; and the collapse of Communism, which came about because of Western television and radio transmissions. No government, Wriston argues, can withstand the pressure of populations with casual access to information technologies.

Walter Wriston’s fantastic view of the future might be dismissed as a time capsule of nineties globalization euphoria—a delusion eventually kicked to the dustbin by the halving of a million 401(k) plans or the disappearance of millions of well-paying jobs, both brought to you courtesy of Wriston’s deregulated financial system.

But no! The great banker’s ideas live on as the unexamined common sense of pundits. Reflecting on the protests in Athens, Cairo, Madrid, Moscow, New York, and Tehran, the New York Times reported on January 25 that “the only consistent messages seem to be that leaders around the world are failing to deliver on their citizens’ expectations and that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools allow crowds to coalesce at will to let them know it.”

When the chattering class ignores the political agency of a society—whether Egyptian, Iranian, Chinese, Russian, or American—in order to claim that Mubarak or any other government was toppled by tweets, status updates, and video clips, they smuggle in an interpretation of events that reclaims those uprisings for Wriston’s deregulated form of turbo-capitalism. You may have been camped out in lower Manhattan, occupying Wall Street, but if you think that the protest was really just a flesh-and-blood API, or a human variation on open source software, in reality Wall Street is occupying you.

In contrast to the perverse view that information technology brought down Mubarak, a 2010 AFL-CIO report authored by Joel Beinin offers a concise history of Egyptian labor activism. The report provides quantitative support for Beinin’s claim that the labor movement formed the backbone of Egypt’s democracy movement, showing that the number of labor strikes and the number of workers participating in those strikes increased at a time when Egypt’s democracy movement remained small and adrift. “My argument would be,” Beinin says, “there was a rising tide of worker protest—not always politically or ideologically naming the neoliberal project—but in one way or another reacting to its consequences before the mobilization around democracy issues.”

Leaf through Beinin’s report and the Egyptian uprising begins to resemble the plain-old social-democratic movements that have rejected the Washington Consensus in Latin America, Greece, Europe, and by fits and starts in the United States over the past several years.

Several polls released just prior to the outbreak of rioting found that Egyptians were less interested in issues related to cyber-access than in those related to the economy. Food prices were on the rise—up nearly 19 percent compared to the prior year, with key staples such as vegetables and bread rising 39 percent and 33 percent, respectively. The unemployment rate was officially 11.9 percent; among young people it was 25 percent, which was significant given that 75 percent of the population is under the age of thirty-five. Twenty-two percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line, another 20 percent hover just above it.

Long before the January uprising, Egyptian workers were seeking to form independent trade unions, to halt the pace of privatization, to improve wages and working conditions, and to highlight the corruption of the regime. In 2007, 24,000 textile workers struck. University professors rose up in 2008, seeking a pay raise. Real-estate tax collectors in 2009 formed the first independent union in Egypt. Indeed, the April 6 movement, a leading democratic force in Egypt since before the fall of Mubarak, takes its name from the date of a nationwide general strike in 2008.

“Workers were the first to pressure the regime for economic rights and freedom of association,” Mustapha Saeed, a representative of the International Trade Union Confederation, told me last June. “After the revolution the first thing the military council did was to criminalize strikes. What does it mean if the revolution doesn’t deliver workers the right to freely associate? Who were the classes that were oppressed under Mubarak? It wasn’t the lawyers. It wasn’t the investors. It wasn’t the upper class. If workers don’t achieve anything, this means nothing has changed. It means we’ve changed the names of the leaders, which means nothing.”

During decades of dictatorship, Egypt liberalized its economy with privatizations, enterprise zones, and a retreat from consumer subsidies, and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the military hierarchy is opposed to reversing this course. Workers, on the other hand, have a newfound energy and are pushing for improvements in wages and working conditions and are openly discussing how to redistribute the nation’s wealth.

They are invisible in the United States because they are not new media activists. As Wael Ghonim writes in his recent memoir, Revolution 2.0, “reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook.” To American pundits, there’s no class divide in Egypt; only dreams of technology’s destiny to transform all social and economic relations. They’re completely wrong, though. “A lot of my friends and people I meet in Tahrir Square have been asking me, ‘What did social media really do?’” Ghonim said in a recent interview. Social media played a role, yes. “Yet this is not an Internet revolution,” he says. “It would have happened anyway. In the past, revolutions happened, too.”