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Eric Lee's The Labour Movement and the Internet, The New Internationalism
A book review by Heiko Khoo for WNR, 17 April 1997
This timely book investigates the most important question for the world Labour movement, the globalisation of capital. It shows the need for international information networks serving the Labour movement, charts the steps taken so far and provides a vision of future developments. Lee's book studies the impact of communications on the Labour movement and the various Internationals, from the letters carried on ships between members of the 1st International to the Internet. He traces the immense technological change and it's past, current and possible future effect on the Labour movement.
The concepts of Cyber-Unionism and Cyber-Internationalism, were foreseen by a few pioneer Labour activists. They pushed hard for over 25 years for computer communications to be used as a tool for strengthening the Labour movement and transforming society. Levinson wrote "International Trade Unionism" in 1972 which discussed computer communications for the global movement only 3 years after the Internet was invented and at a time when it was still a state secret.
In the 1980s there were a number of unions using computer communications. However it is the explosion of Internet usage since the 1990s that has created the technological conditions in which the dreams of the past, of an ideal means of communication able to get the workers of all countries to unite, are now a reality. The speed of development of Internet exposes the immense international power of the working class, no longer will it be possible to prevent the workers everywhere from combining at all levels.
Trade Union leaders are suddenly presented with the means to challenge the power of International Capital. If they fail to do so they may be bypassed by informal networks, adding a new fluidity to the battle for ideas within the workers movement. The International Labour movement can and will become conscious of itself, of it's immense power, through complementing it's past work forms with Internet communications. The networked structure of many of the International organisations such as Amnesty and Greenpeace, reveal both the advantages of such a structure of Internet combined sections and the present infancy of the Labour movement's efforts by comparison. The potential however is truly awe inspiring, individual trade unionists, the official national unions and International union federations will establish an internet publication and communication presence.
The publication and exchange of communications at all levels will suddenly reach a critical mass which will transform quantity into quality. Information tools will become information weapons in what may well come to be called The First Trade Union Information Wars. These Information Wars will be fought against the Mass Media, the State and the Multinationals.
The power to defend workers in repressive regimes will be enhanced, as will the power of the workers to exercise control over decisions made by the Multinationals, the State and the Mass Media. World councils of the workers will emerge, firstly collecting data for the defence of their members, then organising collective action. This idea is shown to be technologically possible with the Internet of today. Union solidarity, or the lack of it, that has operated within the confines of the nation state will be challenged, the birth of a new militant International Trade Unionism combined on the Internet is on the order of the day.
More radical Unions worldwide will network together and discover cothinking organisations amongst International Unions with whom they can communicate and act, often far more effectively than fellow Unions inside the confines of the nation state. The relationship between the advanced Informationised nations and those with few telephone lines is also raised by Eric Lee, he raises the demand that the Unions in the advanced countries should campaign for Internet provision in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the former USSR and Eastern Europe. The Unions in the ex-colonial world require an adequate telecommunications infrastructure and training in both Internet and computing. Of course this demand is applicable in advanced industrial countries too, e-mail for all and Internet for every shop steward should now be part of the programme of every workers organisation.
Any book about the Internet is out of date almost as soon as it is written, thus the constant updating of this book on the Web provides an example of another wonder of the net. It is a little disappointing that the full text of the book is not available on the net, as its depth and importance are not fully revealed in the excerpts on the net. The web is obviously a means by which Left wing news and literature can flourish, Mao's famous phrase "let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend" (which was never his real intention) is all of a sudden as nothing, for now we could say a "hundred million" and soon a "billion".
My only criticism of the book, is that the vision is if anything understated, we need sweeping, bold projections about the future. This may be due to the nature of the beast under dissection. Internet cannot be segregated from society, the impact upon education has barely been felt...yet. The entire educational structure of today will face transformation, as should the demands of the workers in relation to work organisation, planning, accounting and administration in general.
Internet is a tool which can lead to the abolition of the distinction between mental and physical Labour, or as now as a tool for increasing that same distinction. Who uses it and for what purposes? That is the question every trade unionist and socialist must ask. The political impact of the increasing level of intercommunication will first be felt in certain nodal points, where high density Internet usage coincides with radical protest movements, for example in Universities, in certain Strikes and in anti-Imperialist struggles.
The Internet allows the Left to affect public opinion in a way unknown in the past, imagine a million youths across Europe networked together, organising protests of thousands in every major city, able to bring their presence to bear on history as a one body. The means for doing this exist already! Multinational Capital and the State have moved with extraordinary speed to adopt computers and communications as at the centre of their global ambitions.
Internet is considered as important for US Capitalism as were the Space and Nuclear Programmes. When Internet is embraced by the Left and the Trade Unions, the balance of forces between Labour and Capital can shift radically back towards organised Labour. Organised Labour can realise its potential, for both in numerical terms and specific weight it has more latent power than ever before.
Eric Lee's Web site address is provided below