Blogging: New Commentariat or New Grub Street?



The Guardian on Thursday had an article on the rise of political blogging -in particular on how prominant 'pro-war Left' bloggers seem to be - indeed apparently forming a 'New Commentariat'.

'But what has emerged here is a fully fledged alternative wing of the opinion industry, challenging the primacy of newspaper commentators. All political viewpoints thrive within it, but one has become notably prevalent: the stance generally identified as "pro-war left", of which Harry's Place is an example. It is a line of argument that seems not to have diminished, in stridency or popularity, as the Iraq debacle has worsened.'

As a result most Marxists looking at the 'blogosphere' from outside understandably tend to take the view that bloggers are a bunch of sad, deluded bitter ex-Lefties who sit around on the internet ranting away at the world but doing nothing constructive whatsoever to try and change it. Typical of this viewpoint was this letter in response the next day from Paul Flewers, a Marxist who among other things has edited a collection of essays about the 'Enigmatic Socialist' George Orwell, (which I bought but then infuriatingly almost immediately lost and am as a result still rather bitter about):

'One key feature of internet discussion is just how much of it consists of ignorant and intemperate saloon-bar ranting, as each blogger and respondent rambles on as if he (and it usually is a he) is an expert on the subject and that anyone else's views count for nothing. The weblog phenomenon has done very little to raise the tone of political debate and plenty to lower it.'

Whatever the merits of this argument, and there is a kernal of truth to it, I think it rather misses the main point about blogging - which is that blogging undoubtedly is part of a wider and still ongoing communications revolution. We do not know the consequences of this yet. It is not unfeasible that in the not too distant future almost everyone (in the 'advanced' capitalist countries at least) will have their own blog just as almost everyone has a mobile phone or email address today. Why not? Marxists therefore should not cut themselves off from this wider revolution - just as revolutionaries today do not say, boycott mobile phones - indeed mobiles are essential for the modern revolutionary. How on earth did Lenin and Trotsky manage to organise the storming of the Winter Palace without mobiles?


The creative use of new technology

To me blogging today resembles less a 'new commentariat' (which hints of a new orthodoxy dominated by experts from above) but rather a bottom up led phenomenon which is about the creative use of new technology. A better comparison it seems to me would be to the print revolution that developed in late eighteenth-century Paris and which created what the historian Robert Darnton has called 'Grub Street', the literary underground of the Enlightenment.

This was a world of 'pirate publishers, garret scribblers, under-the-cloak book peddlers, smugglers, and police spies' that emerged as 'ambitious writers who crowded into Paris seeking fame and fortune within the Republic of Letters... instead sank into the miserable world of Grub Street - victims of a closed world of protection and privilege. Venting their frustrations in an illicit literature of vitriolic pamphlets, libelles, and chroniques scandaleuses, these "Rousseaus of the gutter" desecrated everything sacred in the social order of the Old Regime. While censorship, a monopolistic guild, and the police contained the visible publishing industry within the limits of official orthodoxies, a prolific literary underworld disseminated a vast illegal literature that conveyed a seditious ideology to readers everywhere in France.'

In short, there was a profusion of pamphleteering in the run up to the Great French Revolution. There were plenty of dodgy characters around, much of it apolitical and about sex and so on, and most of it was about people trying to just make a living and survive. The comparison with the world of blogging seems to me to be compelling. There are plenty of dodgy bloggers out there, many bloggers seem only too happy to prostitute their blogspace to advertisers and try and make money out of it. Of course, just as there was a lot of money made by publishers out of the explosion in print technology in France at this time - so corporations today are eager to make as much money out of the phenomenon as they can.

Yet, - and this is the point I am trying to make - the new printing technology of eighteenth-century France was used by radical activists to expose and attack the ruling elites of France at the time - just as there are many anti-capitalist bloggers trying to do the same today amid the dross and 'saloon bar ranting'. Marxists should not be afraid of engaging with the rise of blogging - just as radicals in France before the Revolution did not just ignore the potential power of the new print technology. More people reading and writing blogs can only be a good thing in general - particularly if it allows the corporate media to be challenged. In short, the 'pro-war Left' bloggers may well be a new Stalinist style Commentariat. However revolutionary socialist bloggers should see ourselves as following in a different tradition - we should proudly declare ourselves the modern "Rousseaus of the gutter".

For more on Robert Darnton and 'Grub Street', see here, here and here.


First seen at Adventures in Historical Materialism