In a sense, journalist Gal Beckerman “reveals” to us in The Quiet Avant what we may have already known, that change is slow. A deliberate intermingling of ideas precedes any successful uprising, which the French Revolution had begun long before the Third Estate demanded the formation of the National Assembly at the Estates General of 1789.
But, The Quiet Before is important reading for a different reason. Beckerman devotes much of the book to convincing us of what definitely won’t work, even if it looks like it will. In chapters that lament the futility of Twitter “revolutions” and Facebook “protests,” the author is certain that no matter how viral a cause, the spontaneous outpouring of any demand for change will not hold. Ideas that allow a movement to breathe and kick are debated and chiselled – or “incubated” – away from the spotlight and platforms that offer fleeting engagement. The Quiet Before, however, doesn’t leave such a sure feeling.
It is hard to fault Beckerman for the need for deliberation to reinforce the relevance of an ideological point of view when it comes to pushing for a specific change or change in general. One would also agree that it needs to be under the radar of the establishment, so that the compulsion to change is fully formed and ripe for the masses to taste and digest. But is this gestation really more effective outside of modern means of communication and networking?
The first chapters of the book attempt to argue in favor of a simmering radicalism. From the samidzat (clandestine dissemination of forbidden literature) of Natalya Gorbanevskaya, the Soviet dissident, who was one of the pioneers of glasnost, to the network of letters of Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc in the 17th century which became the foundation of the modern understanding of the difference between longitudes, there are some very compelling examples discussed. But what is difficult to reconcile is the central argument of the book and the Arab Spring, to take an example from the book itself. The Arab Spring, told about in tons of pages by academics, strategists, politicians, columnists and even high school teachers, has been taken over by social media, primarily Facebook.
Of course, not all of the political geographies where the revolt of the masses unfolded in the early 2010s saw the change people had so romantically committed to. But, there were clear positives in Tunisia. And it’s too early to say whether what the Arab Spring has spawned will lead the remaining countries down the path taken by Tunisia. After all, the 1857 revolt against the raj surely laid the foundation for the freedom movement of the late 19th and early 20th century in India. There’s no risk of predicting here, but downplaying, like Beckerman, the fruits of Facebook’s organization is rather fruitless. Similarly, how do we reconcile what The Quiet Before tells us with the Hong Kong protests? Sure, China has crushed it so far, but it’s not dead yet. It has relied on modern media in the past, and if it increases in the future, it will surely do so again.
Moreover, The Quiet Before does not question how the capture of multiple modern media – and, through them, café/salon/salon/chaupal/panvaari deliberations – nurtured radicalism, but not kind of progressive. The Alt Right in America and the Hindu Right in India – and from America and other Western geo-tags – have used internet media to organize and take action. Unity for the Right, the March to the Capitol, all have umbilicals with the Internet – the mainstream and its corners. And in the case of India’s Hindu right, social media and television have become amplifiers of each other, and the change on the ground that this has wrought is there for all to see.
Beckerman is not entirely wrong to support less performative platforms than social media for simmering social change; we would like to see some opposition leaders in India stop being Twitter warriors. But, it is also increasingly true that the first and second Acts of Revolution – in Saul Alinsky’s famous comparison between revolution and a play that Beckerman refers to in the opening pages, to explain “incubation” radical movements – would find it hard to understand. staged privately for a long churn. Because Big Brother might just have gotten the electoral stamp of approval.