Every scholar of 20th-century history can tell you about the Communist International—usually called Comintern, and strictly speaking the third in a series of four global fraternities whose aim was to pursue the class struggle all over the world.
Is it possible to imagine an Anarchist International, a trans-national version of the inchoate but impassioned demonstrations that have ravaged Greece this month? (Perhaps because it is easier to say what Greece’s malcontents are against than what they are for, the word “anarchist” is an accepted catch-all term for the anti-establishment rebels who form the hard core of the Athenian protesters.)
By definition, anarchy is harder to propagate than rigid Leninism. Whatever is spreading from Athens, it is not a clear programme for a better world. The malcontents of Greece include ideological class warriors, nostalgists for the protests against the junta of 1967-74 and people (including drug dealers and bank robbers) with a grudge against the police. Relations between police and the counter-culture have worsened recently; the police are accused (rightly) of bullying migrants, the bohemians of dallying with terrorism. A messy scene, with no obvious message.
But the psychological impulse behind the Greek protests—a sense of rage against all authority, which came to a head after a 15-year-old boy was killed by a police bullet—can now be transmitted almost instantaneously, in ways that would make the Bolsheviks very jealous. These days, images (moving as well as still) spread faster than words; and images, of course, transcend language barriers.
E-communications are now a familiar feature in pro-democracy protests against dictators. Equally fast-moving, say specialists, is the role of technology in what might be called “undemocratic protests”: violent acts in prosperous, networked societies.
This became obvious during the French riots of 2005, when teenagers posted blogs that urged people to “burn the cops”—and made massive use of text messages to co-ordinate the protests. The youths that trashed Budapest in 2006 relied on blogs to enlist supporters, and distribute an audio recording of the prime minister admitting government corruption.
Hungarian blogs were also used to aggregate visual evidence of police brutality. There were novel online projects such as an “Interactive Riot Walkthrough”, which superimposed photos of the latest events on a map of Budapest, offering “virtual tours” of the city as it burned.
Already, the Greek riots are prompting talk of a new era of networked protest. The volume of online content they have inspired is remarkable. Photos and videos of the chaos, often shot with cellphones, were posted online almost in real time. Twitter, a service for exchanging short messages, has brimmed with live reports from the streets of Athens, most of them in Greek but a few in English.
A tribute to the slain teenager—a clip of photos with music from a popular rock band—appeared on YouTube, the video-sharing site, shortly after his death; more than 160,000 people have seen it. A similar tribute group on Facebook has attracted more than 130,000 members, generating thousands of messages and offering links to more than 1,900 related items: images of the protests, cartoons and leaflets.
A memorial was erected in Second Life, a popular virtual environment, giving its users a glimpse of real-life material from the riots. Many other online techniques—such as maps detailing police deployments and routes of the demonstrations—came of age in Athens. And as thousands of photos and videos hit non-Greek blogs and forums, small protests were triggered in many European cities, including Istanbul (see picture above) and Madrid. Some 32 people were arrested in Copenhagen.
The spread of sympathy protests over what began as a local Greek issue has big implications for the more formal anti-globalisation movement. That movement has ignored the idea of spontaneous but networked protest, and instead focused on taking large crowds to set-piece events like summits. Such methods look outdated now. Governments are not the only things that networked “anarchy” threatens.