Mass Exit and the Internet
Schools teach, or merely assume, that the Roman Emperors built the Empire. In fact, Imperial Rome added only one new province: Britain. Before this came four hundred years of radical Republicanism: a teeming, torrid and assembly-based polity characterised by mass public decision-making and noisy argument. The expansionism of their armies was an expression of this internal dynamism. It was the citizen soldiers of Republican Rome, meeting in their huge debating fora, electing their own generals, passing laws and allocating resources to massive engineering works that took over the ‘known world’ – not the Emperors.
The crucial moment in the empowerment of the plebs was 494 BCE. It was here that they first deployed a particularly creative and sophisticated tactic of resistance: the entire plebian class of Rome walked out of the city and camped on a nearby hill. The calm passivity of this tactic turned out to be so effective that it became a regular weapon of the plebs, serving to check the patricians’ power and force concessions from them. This Mass Exit achieved a high water mark of constitutional reform that fueled the dynamism and expansionism of the Republic. The Secessio Plebis of 494 BCE exploited the numeric advantage of the plebs, but also their capacity to communicate and coordinate public actions. They achieved this through a complex network of interconnected mass meetings in which political, economic and military decisions were made in public.
Today, we cannot hope to maintain such an intensity of face-to-face interaction, but the current state of our information revolution does allow the rapid coordination of mass withdrawal. We can, therefore, expect it to be used more systematically, with greater strategic focus and increasingly devastating results. Mass Exit is a terrifying prospect for even the most powerful of corporations. Certainly, when we inspect this ancient act alongside our current situation, we can observe certain similarities of concern, circumstance and capacity.
Our Internet is absurdly primitive, yet it now enables instant and overwhelming mass withdrawals. Such a degree of action coordination brings the numerical advantage of plebs, consumers and citizens to bear on political decision-making. This degree of concerted disapproval can build on the long history of consumer boycotts and mass labour strikes. Conceptually, such actions mirror a consumer’s exit from a market interaction. Consumers do not say why they are leaving. They just leave, taking their business elsewhere.
In the modern world, Emperors, Kings and electoral dictatorships are bloated by capital, barely masking their penetration by multinational corporations. Citizens have no means of political expression, no way to challenge incumbent power and little apparent appetite for revolutionary change. But when Starbucks is caught avoiding tax and offers £100 million to prevent a socially-networked consumer boycott that has not yet occurred, we realise that the plebs have again stumbled upon a way of terrifying dominant elites. If only for a moment, a specter is indeed haunting Europe – and the rest of the globalised world, the specter of digitised mass and instantaneous public secession.
Class war is all about numbers. There are always more serfs than masters, more privates than officers, more workers than capitalists. One of the many mysteries of human history is thus the chilling regularity with which the few oppress the many. Although remarked upon by almost every political thinker in every tradition of political thought, the question of how elites are able to dominate their more numerous subordinates received its starkest articulation in the work of Étienne de La Boétie in 1553. A close friend of the essayist Michel de Montaigne, La Boétie died young and broke his friend’s heart. But behind him he left an extraordinary document. Entitled ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’, it argued that elites could only oppress when the people in some way colluded in their own domination. Their ‘servitude’ was thus, in a sense, voluntary; they came to dominate themselves. To recognise this is not to lessen elite responsibility for oppression, for their grim rapaciousness remains a prime mover of history. Nor should we slip into blaming the victim of that oppression. Yet La Boétie’s point cannot be avoided: there are, and always have been, more of us. Why, then, are we unable to avoid oppression?
The implication here is that there really is such a thing as systematic deception, an ideology out of sight, a set of ideas that serve the interests of elites and helps ensure subordinate compliance. Marx, following Rousseau, unpacked the element of oppression that derives from this apparent collusion and stressed the emancipatory power of membership of an oppressed class. To feel part of a collective, to be aware of that membership and thus able to act together, this would change history. When the truth did not in fact set the workers free, critical theorists of the Frankfurt School began to look for still deeper forms of collusion, reaching for psychoanalysis to help them explain the failure of Marxism and the apparent triumph of Fascism. Sociological studies of racism and social psychological research on in-group and out-group preferences confirm the careful manipulation, by elites and often beneath their own awareness, of differences between citizens. Subsequently, Foucault revealed still more subtle mechanisms by which the internalisation of the oppressor occurs.
All such accounts highlight the necessity, for oppression to be effective, of keeping people isolated, preventing them from sharing their experience with others and dividing them so they can be ruled. Above all, oppression of the many by the few rests on preventing the many from acting together. When elites go too far and accidentally mobilise the many, problems occur. Examples range from the Servile Wars of Imperial Rome through the Revolutions of the Twentieth Century. Where citizens associate and act together, they have overturned the most powerful and horrific of tyrannies.
Just this occurred in the ‘conflict of the orders’ in the early Roman Republic. Class war here took the form of a struggle between plebians and patricians. Because all citizens undertook military service, where they enjoyed membership of a variety of interconnected decision-making fora in the army, the plebs were able to exchange, share and create their collective outrage at patrician policies. Again, in 494 BCE, the entire plebian class of Rome walked out of the city en masse to camp on a nearby hill. There, according to the Roman historian Titus Livy, ‘without any officer to direct them,’ they ‘stayed quietly’ (2.32).
In Rome, however, there was ‘something like panic,’ and ‘everything came to a standstill.’ As the days passed, the patricians became increasingly frightened. Unable to conduct business, defend their property or resist the opportunism of neighboring cities, they at last consented to one of the great class-based political innovations of the ancient world – that of the Tribunate. The Tribunes of the People were elected by plebs only, could not be patricians and had the power to veto any policy initiative that that was not in the best interest of the plebian class. In effect, the Tribunes were legally empowered to protect the plebs from the patricians. Conflict was thus enacted through competing class-based constitutional forms.
With the promise of this protection to be enshrined in constitutional law, the plebs returned to the city. In fact, as always, the patricians repeatedly reneged on this agreement, thereby forcing a series of further mass secessions (449, 445, 342, 287 BCE). In his extraordinary ‘Discourse on Livy,’ Niccolo Machiavelli remarks on the real achievements of these secessions, but he also highlights their evident symbolic and educational power. There is debate as to whether the secession of the plebs constitutes the first documented mass labour strike, or was actually a reflection of Rome’s reliance, at that time, on citizen militia. If the latter, an additional lesson to be drawn is that elites need the support of the army to remain in power. No matter. The Secessio Plebis shows that when superior numbers grasp their membership, recognise their collectivity and coordinate their actions, they are without doubt a formidable force. Its exertion need not be violent. Mass Exit can take the form of a withdrawal of compliance, a refusal to play and a demonstration of collective power.
Class war is all about coordination. The interlocking fora of the Roman Republic’s army lowered the transaction costs of information exchange and so enabled mass coordination. Something similar is available in today’s Internet, which similarly reduces transaction costs. Though it cannot yet compete with the synergies of face-to-face argumentation, it most certainly aids the aggregation of individuals into coordinated collectives. Too much can be made of political activity on the Internet, but we must acknowledge the sheer rapidity and scale of informational exchange it enables. This has already provided sudden revelations of elite incompetence and corruption, new opportunities for ‘democracy by disclosure’ and the coordination of massive protest actions. We can at last contemplate what might happen if we all did something at the same time. It also enables tactical Mass Exits, perhaps on a scale the Secessio Plebis, perhaps with comparable impact.
The historical regularity with which elites hate, fear and oppress is awe-inspiring. It suggests strongly that Internet-enabled Mass Exits, and indeed any unmanaged coordination, will be vigorously resisted by all means necessary, certainly with violence. While governments and corporations use the information revolution to bear down on their citizen consumers, the counter-power of Mass Exit is also emerging. Even in the early days of the Internet, the legally sanctioned disposal of the Brent Spa oil platform in 1997 was suddenly abandoned by Shell when it found itself faced with a 60% reduction in sales in 24 hours. There have always been consumer boycotts, but the sheer rapidity and geographic scope of this withdrawal was unusual. More recently, and now in our gathering digital revolution, firms face swarming and instantaneous destructions of their brand, and elites can be named and shamed in ways they do not appreciate. Among those who have already felt the whip of instant visibility are Vodaphone, Topshop, Abercrombie and Fitch and, of course, Starbucks. When one of the big social media sites experiences such a Mass Exit and fails in an instant, we will have the power of this unusual tactic demonstrated yet again. More seriously, governments and bankers, fully prepared to discipline people in crowds, will also endure moments of stillness when they can emerge blinking onto empty streets. There is no commerce in a world where the plebs have withdrawn. No making money. No gratifications of status reflected in the eyes of the other. When the Egyptian and Syrian governments turned off the Internet, they were forced to turn it on again when they realised that doing business had became impossible.
Elites cannot govern alone; they need the people and they need them to be isolated and uncoordinated. The power of the Mass Exit thus derives not so much from a withdrawal of labour as of all activity and all compliance. It is the souped-up digital equivalent of the great mass strikes of the early Twentieth Century, somehow both vigorous and passive, angry and quiet, as though steeled by suffering. But so does it echo the desperation of the Roman plebs in their Secessio Plebis of 494 BCE. They used it to institutionalise a better balance of their class war by founding the Tribunate and using public trials, exile and ostracism to discipline corrupt or incompetent officials.
Voting is a tiny cross in a box that elites use to wage war, torture, cheat and steal. Voting allows them to take from the public purse and to dismantle health and welfare services with impunity. Votes are just preferences, simple and static, arrived at without discussion or adequate information and their coordination functions merely to legitimatise elites. Similarly, as consumers in a market exchange, we are reduced to organisms that either buy or refuse to buy – there is no coordination. Everywhere we are carefully silenced and divided.
Citizens’ acting together is the one great fear of elites, just as the unremitting rapacity of elites has long been the bane of the populace. But when power rests on keeping people separate and can only ensure their compliance by lying, we can withdraw our agreement and we can stop doing, remove our bodies and so terrify our enemies. This kind of coordination is emerging on the Internet, where it takes the form of corporation watch websites, petition sites and ethical consumer rating apps. In this way, we might take a step towards saving ourselves from our tormentors, be suitably outraged by their casual corruption and, in particular, to ostracise and exile their robber bankers. Mass Exit is an old, dignified and powerful weapon, now adorned in lavish digital robes.