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Digital multitude: the multiple that takes over the one

In Belarus, an outdated totalitarian regime of power based on old technologies, faces a new generation of free people relying on a digital multitude.

December 11, 2020 - Almira Ousmanova - Articles and Commentary

Belarusian cyber-partisans Illustration: MKB / Telegram

The digital revolution began several decades ago. The arrival of new media and advancement of communicative technologies accelerated the impetuous transition to the digital age in all spheres of our life. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, however, seems not to have noticed these transformations. However incredible it may sound, the “IT country” has been ruled by a person who has never used the internet and probably does not even know how to switch on a computer (even though the documents which fostered the development of the IT-industry in Belarus have been signed by him personally, as any other significant document endorsed by the state). Until this summer, the dictator probably had been aware neither of the liberating effect of digital technologies nor of the relation between the development of
ICT and societal changes, including the formation of a new political culture, new forms of communication and the emergence of new professional and social groups. This is why he cannot reconcile with the new reality in which he has found himself during this electoral campaign — he still counts on his TV-loyal electorate.

Techno-utopians and techno-pessimists give different answers to the ongoing debates on whether digital technologies improve democracy or pose a threat to it. Indeed, we are witnessing the growing and often uncontrollable use of digital instruments of discipline and surveillance that not only undermine democratic values, but in some cases even threaten basic human rights (such as the freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to privacy).

Needless to say, the application of these tools in authoritarian regimes can lead only to repression, as it makes every individual vulnerable to persecution by the state. The quantity and very character of the violations of basic human rights under the authoritarian regime in Belarus, with the help of old and new communication technologies, will undoubtedly become a special case for not only the legal assessment of these actions, but also the scholarly studies of relations between digital technologies and political regimes. What matters in the case of Belarus is precisely the combination of old and new communication technologies that are used to increase the scale of repression. While paying special attention to promoting its ideological agenda in traditional media (television and printed newspapers), the regime continuously strengthens measures of control over the use of the internet and various digital platforms by ordinary citizens and independent media as alternative sources of information — going as far as a complete internet outage and the restriction of internet-based media outlets (which means the violation of basic human rights) and neglecting its own legislation.

Every Belarusian citizen who takes to the street (moreover, if s/he makes a post on social media) becomes a target for persecution by the state repressive apparatus. The wiretapping of mobile communications, tracing contacts on social networks, video recording each protester and facial recognition with the help of a special software — this is what everyone who dares to express their disagreement in one form or another faces these days. One photo from a protest rally posted on Facebook is enough to get 10 days of detention (this is used as evidence that a particular individual has “violated” the “law on mass events.”

“Can we design technology to be genuinely democratic — to support and facilitate democracy?” In response to this question I would argue that Telegram is certainly a great example of a “liquid democracy” tool which challenges the interpassivity of users and allows to connect and mobilise people on the basis of their feedback and mass involvement in the circulation of information. Belarusian authorities consider this regime of communication an orchestrated top-down (and West-to-East) provocation, ignoring the community-based forms of horizontal communication. This technology revealed its democratic nature in Belarus under very particular, almost laboratory, circumstances, responding to an urgent social demand. It is a great example of what new technological platforms can do when traditional (even though internet-based) media outlets remain under the control of the state authorities. Such initiatives as “Golos” and “Zubr” are other examples of how “technology revolutionises the process of “Rule by the People,” as it enables users “to employ networked technologies to control and delegate voting power”. All the above said, however, does not eliminate the question of who uses even the most democratic technologies, and how the mechanisms of the market economy (the driving force of liberal democracy) may put democratic procedures at risk.

The leaderless Belarusian protests brought to the forefront a new political subjectivity that, in my view, can be understood not as a “nation” or “the people,” but rather as a multitude. According to Paolo Virno, “multitude is the form of social and political existence for the many, seen as being many: a permanent form, not an episodic or interstitial form.” Following Baruch Spinoza, he argues that multitude is “an architrave of civil liberties”. These many “make use of the ‘right of resistance,’” which “consists of validating the prerogatives of an individual or of a local community, or of a corporation, in contrast to the central power structure, thus safeguarding forms of life which have already been rooted in society”. The resistance means “defending something positive,” and the right of resistance aims “to protect something that is already at place and is worthy of continuing to exist”. This is an essential moment concerning the social composition and non-violent nature of the Belarusian protests — people go out to the street or resort to other forms of protest in order to defend their civic rights against the alien state machine, in order to protect their views, values and communal life — something that already exists.

To conclude, I aim to stress two points in contrasting the analog dictatorship to the digital multitude. Firstly, we are witnessing a conflict between an archaic totalitarian regime of power, based on old technologies of communication and governance, and a generation of people, relying on new technologies of communication and choosing transversal, horizontal, non-hierarchical forms of self-governance. The “One against the Many.” The new digital multitude is raising “the political question of what we are capable of”.

Secondly, the analog dictatorship, applying old methods of repression, is unable to suppress the protests which by their very essence do not conform to the classical scenarios of a revolution (as a coup d’état). The peaceful Belarusian Evalution is the protest of the multitude which every day invents politics, constantly changing places and forms of protest using a grassroots form of organisation. The new modes of resistance, ways of self-organisation and support of mutual solidarity calls for new technological instruments (web-based platforms, thematic TG-channels, special applications for smartphones, etc), that respond to the new social demands. This is a molecular revolution (F.Guattari, J.Deleuze, G.Raunig), the composition of which “does not need unification or the representation of a unified (class) subject by leaders, party and vanguard”. This form of revolution also presupposes a gradual, seemingly imperceptible, but every day more and more tangible change in collective intelligence, with which the regime is no longer able to cope.

Almira Ousmanova is Professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Director of MA program in Cultural Studies and Head of the Laboratory for Studies of Visual Culture and Contemporary Art at the European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania).

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