On 28 March, CCPR and CREATe were delighted to host Prof. John Hartley of the University of Sydney for his public lecture: “Present at their own making”: In the era of global-digital media, how do we make a pan-demic class?
Present at their own making’ is a nod to E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. The question now is how groups participate in collective and purposeful action, across global, technological, cultural, economic, and political boundaries. If a class is ‘present at its own making’, the question of how a class is ‘made’ should be on the agenda. This presentation argues that class theory still has cogent insights to offer, but that the nature of classmaking has changed in the shift from industrial to digital culture. Now, classes are organized around the means of their mediation, not simply the means of production, and they are not confined to a particular demographic, country, or economic interest. On the contrary, a ‘worldmaking’ class has emerged. I call this the ‘pan-demic’ class: one that recognizes differences among ‘demes’ or culture-formed groups. Its policy is not to struggle with adversaries. Rather, the ‘pan-demic’ class is organizing to conduct connective-collective action, to confront the challenges of the Anthropocene era at panhuman, planetary scale. A digital ‘popular front’ is emerging with a decentralized but trusted leadership, and a platform that includes everyone. As Greta Thunberg has put it:
Everyone is needed, everyone is welcome, no matter where you live, no matter where you come from, no matter your age or your background. (The Climate Book, 2022)
If the climate crisis is no longer a spectator sport, but everyone’s problem, then the formation, organization, coordination and actions of a ‘pan-demic class’ are urgent policy priorities.
The public lecture inaugurated the ‘Policy Futures for the Digital Creative Economy’ International Symposium with the University of Sydney, itself a first step in the Partnership Collaboration being built between Glasgow and Sydney.
You can watch a recording of the lecture and the response by Professor Schlesinger (UofG) and read a summary of the evening’s discussions below.
John Hartley’s public lecture was a provocative and multi-stranded engagement with themes of class formation and media exploitation in an era of climate crisis. Hartley wove a conceptual narrative around classmaking, worldmaking and policymaking that situated young environmental activists as members of a new ‘pan-demic class’ who are ‘self knowing’ and have risen to ‘digital ubiquity’ through activism against climate breakdown. This class is also ‘pan’ in its digital reach, and therefore implies global inclusivity.
Classmaking was examined initially by way of a particular reading of of EP Thompson’s major work, The Making of the English Working Class, and identified as a ‘discursive-making practice’. The thrust of Hartley’s argument was that symbolic spaces are key to communication across the ‘semiosphere’, where auto-communication and self-representation in digital media are the activities undertaken by the leaderless, decentralised pan-demic class. This applied equally to young climate activists and the far right. Hartley concluded his lecture by making a plea for action premised on cultural activity, stating that ‘creativity was no longer a spectator sport’.
Professor Philip Schlesinger, in his response to Hartley’s lecture, expanded on the theme of classmaking, acknowledging the importance of historical situating to tackle analysis of such topics. Schlesinger suggested that nationhood is also an important component of classmaking, and as such is a further strand in the analytical framework required to negotiate knowledge building around themes of the ‘pan-demic’ class. Schlesinger also made the rejoinder that the political oppression and labour exploitation which Hartley invoked as historic precedents still exist. In essence, within ‘digital world-making’ material practices intersect with the making of culture. There was more than a coincidental relationship between ‘new class’ theories and Hartley’s pan-demic class. Richard Florida’s creative class was a case in point. Notwithstanding ‘digital ubiquity’ there is still a battle over who can operate within the public sphere in an era of ongoing state violence, corporate monopolies, and attempts to nationalise communicative spaces and infrastructures.
In the audience Q&A, an ‘old-fashioned Marxist’, questioned the application of ‘the pan-demic class’ and its formation in the present industrial unrest in the UK, whereby the ‘traditional class movement’ of the trades unions wage opposition to proposed public sector pay settlements. A further engagement with the non-digital world expressed scepticism over the application of ‘love’ as a mobilising concept in relation to the material elements of the biosphere. Hartley invoked love as connected to biosemiotics, wherein ‘life’ is distinguished from ‘non-life’ and the ‘signalling’ systems of natural phenomena are identified.
The public reception of ‘extreme activist behaviour’ was interrogated, including throwing soup at paintings in art galleries. Hartley suggested such harm was minimal and theatricality was strategic. A question was also posed about government backlashes as a key feature of responses to environmental activism. Hartley noted this was particularly salient in China where the government has deployed populist nationalism to counter ecological concerns. A final question invoked the fallibility of platforms as the communicative infrastructure for the ‘pan-demic class’, if states can threaten to close down social media apps considered to be national security threats. Hartley noted cases beyond the USA and TikTok – Ethiopia, India – where ostensibly democratic states shut down internet and/or platform access.
Philip Schlesinger concluded that the session had been a ‘dance between materialism and idealism’, and a thought-provoking engagement with how to theorise engagement with the planet’s most pressing concerns.