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Does Blogging Do Anything?

A profounder liberal criticism is made by those who say that the health of the western empire is shown by the extent of dissent against [the Vietnam] war. They maintain that only the traditions of the West make such dissent possible and that the possibility shows us the essential goodness of liberal society. This argument turns on a judgement of fact--an extremely difficult one. Does this dissent in the West present a real alternative of action, or is it simply froth on the surface which is necessary to the system itself as a safety valve? I am not sure. I lean to the position that dissent on major questions of policy is impotent and that the western system has in truth achieved what Michels called "the bureaucratising of dissent." ~George Grant, "Canadian Fate and Imperialism," Technology and Empire

When I read this the other evening, blogging immediately came to mind. (Grant would likely have viewed the entire phenomenon of the mass Internet with some dread, seeing in it further encroachments of the "religion of progress" on normal, sane life. Blogging would be an ultimate expression of that encroachment in some sense.) But on the more specific point of dissent, Grant would likely see political blogging as precisely this sort of release of built-up pressure into harmless diversionary channels, irrelevant samizdat for the allegedly "open society" in which the range of debate extends between two (or possibly three in a really exciting society) alternative methods for achieving the same bland, inhuman goals of the managerial social democratic and state capitalist structures. Unlike printing samizdat, blogs do not operate as a genuinely alternative source of news and information in direct opposition to official news outlets, but rely heavily on "the MSM" that we bloggers all love to hate and end up generally replicating the patterns of that media and feeding off its information for our own. It is only to the extent that blogging provides a venue for genuinely alternative or opposition voices that it can be a forum for generating moderately effective resistance to any given policy.

Most political blogs, certainly the most influential, become online outposts for their preferred political party. They may dislike the current leadership of the party, or they may love it, but they are as committed to the success of that party as anyone. This does not mean that they necessarily become reflexively party-line in their views, but there is a strong tendency for this to happen. The smaller bloggers then take their cues from the major sites, and thus the party's hold on its activists is secured. Blogging quickly collapses into predictable alliances (indeed, the creation of blogger consortia like Daily Kos is the only way for bloggers to leverage any kind of influence online).

Prominent bloggers of either party become more or less reliable auxiliaries in controlling and shaping information to the benefit of their "side," playing the role of sentries with respect to the other "side" and something like parliamentary whips when it comes to people in their own "camp." This tends to harden and reconfirm the preexisting political allegiances and patterns, divert the most active dissent against any given party line into safe virtual storage compartments and drain off popular opposition to government policy into the margins where it can stay safely ineffective and powerless.

A strong argument can be made that providing the illusion of a voice and the illusion of influence to everyone, which blogging seems to offer in theory, succeeds in further distracting and entrapping citizens in a new kind of spectacle of their own making that satisfies them with some sense of their own participation and importance. Every blogger must recognise with some embarrassment how bizarre and pompous it sounds in normal conversation with non-bloggers to use the phrase, "That reminds me that the other day I was writing on my blog..."

That it often caters to those most interested in questions of policy, and possibly even more to those well-educated citizens who might form some kind of practical opposition, suggests that it is the perfect mechanism for eliminating articulate dissent from the real public square. Rather like engaging in the process of voting, it is possible for an informed citizen to feel as if he has done his bit for self-government if he contributes to a public debate by way of his blog. Perhaps if he writes well enough and makes enough sense, what he has to say will circulate more widely and even change a few minds, but even as he does it the blogger knows that, like his vote, his blog will not change things one iota. But he keeps on dissenting because he feels as if he is supposed to take his stand when the government does something egregious or unjust or illegal (which is quite often, so opportunities are not lacking), knowing full well that in taking his stand he has accomplished nothing practical. Isn't blogging just a bad citizen's idea of civic responsibility?

Because of the narrow range of permissible debate in all other media, this dissent has been forced to find outlets on the Internet where it has considerable reach and yet has virtually no impact. However, the narrow range of debate has not been slow in catching up with blogs and quickly reestablishes itself. In the end, this is not entirely a failure of blogging, which is only as good as the society that created it, but a failure of republican self-government and the collapse in quality of political discourse. If blogging cannot entirely escape the choking and stifling of relatively free-ranging discourse, it is because fewer and fewer people in the real world are terribly interested in inquiry and discourse, just as fewer and fewer are interested in republican self-government.

In the end, political blogs may help to a small degree in forging connections between dissenters, reactionary radical or otherwise, across the country. They may serve as a forum for ideas on how to oppose the managerial system in the various forms that a small but not inconsiderable group of people across the spectrum find ruinous. But political blogs could only accomplish this if political bloggers do not satisfy themselves with only the sort of recording and commentary that most of us, myself included, have been doing for years.

Daniel Larison | May 27, 2006



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