The Public Sphere of Occupy Wall Street

I keep returning to the public sphere as Habermas originally described it as I think about progressive political movements of today: Occupy Wall Street and its global dimensions, Anonymous and its more theatrical and political wing LulzSec, and progressive and independent cable television news network Current. Internet activism, television news punditry, and street-based social movement each work together implicitly or explicitly to constitute a larger public sphere. As scholars we need to resist the temptation of excluding one form of resistance as being inconsequential to social justice or to analysis and instead see all three as working together in a media ecology.

It is widely acknowledged that Habermas idealizes the era of 18th century bourgeois Europeans inhabiting markets and coffee houses deliberatively dialoguing on the future of the nation, markets, religion, and the species. Those halcyonic days quickly gave way to our present situation where the public sphere is colonized by corporate media, where our dynamic and eventful two-way chatter about the fate of the planet is replaced by the one-way monologue from the culture industries. This is our present day inheritance, and, according to Habermas, all networked communication technologies are tools of capital propaganda. Yes, the notion of the public sphere is monolithic and universalizing; ignores counter-publics of gender, ethnic, and class minorities; and has little to say about the specific affordances of contemporary networked communication technologies. The ‘political sphere’ should certainly be a plurality of spheres and publics.

One thing Habermas did get absolutely right was that in the context of culture, power, technology, and the public sphere there is transformation from open to closed systems, to borrow a perhaps reductive idea from Tim Wu. I want to discuss three cases in regards to the two stages of the public sphere. I will conclude by attempting to show how future theorization of the public sphere and of social movements need to consider the media ecologies that consist of social media, cable television, hacktivism, and grassroots activists sleeping in solidarity in city parks.

Habermas uses the unfortunate term bourgeois to describe the class of the people in his ideal public sphere.  Occupy and Anonymous both would likely detest this term to describe the methods of their political action, but Habermas saw the bourgeois against the specter of feudalism and monarchism. To him, the bourgeois were a uniquely liberated people, who braved ostracism to speak freely. If we must discuss Occupy and Anonymous in Habermas’s terms we might do well to think of these “bourgeois” activists resisting corporate feudalism. In a fascinating interview ending with him walking off stage right, Occupy activist and journalist Chris Hedges describes the financial “criminal class” as involved in “neofeudalism.” His is such an excellent example of cable television functioning, against Habermas’s dystopic views, as a public sphere that I typed it out for you:

Those who are protesting the rise of the corporate state are in fact on the political spectrum the true conservatives because they are calling for the restoration of the rule of law. The radicals have seized power and they have trashed all regulations and legal impediments to a reconfiguration of American society into a form of neofeudalism.

Habermas use the term “refeudalization” to describe how the public sphere was colonized by corporate propaganda. The point is that Occupy is an attempt to defeudalize what remains of the middle and working classes through modeling a laterally-organized direct democracy in their General Assembly. Here is an excellent video of the General Assembly using its structure to discuss the role of hierarchy in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

An article describes anthropologist David Graeber’s work at Occupy establishing the horizontal General Assembly as opposed to the vertically organized leader-based organization:

A ‘general assembly’ means something specific and special to an anarchist. In a way, it’s the central concept of contemporary anarchist activism, which is premised on the idea that revolutionary movements relying on coercion of any kind only result in repressive societies.

A “GA” is a carefully facilitated group discussion through which decisions are made — not by a few leaders, or even by majority rule, but by consensus. Unresolved questions are referred to working groups within the assembly, but eventually everyone has to agree, even in assemblies that swell into the thousands.

Occupy’s General Assembly is not unlike how Anonymous and LulzSec make their decisions on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) systems. The IRC process is a bit more chaotic but similar to the GA in that both are laterally organized, allowing for leaderless deliberation and action. Direct democracy is a messy practice; one that has confounded mainstream consolidated news media looking for a dominant agenda. But as we shout in the streets: “This is what democracy looks like!” (I am one who believes there is a single issue perfectly described in the included photo above I took at Occupy LA.)

The question on many media pundits’ lips as well as those keyed in to Habermas’s revelation regarding the historical transformation of the public sphere is: when will this open, deliberative public sphere of Occupy’s General Assembly or Anonymous’s IRC space of praxis give in to formalization and consolidation? Perhaps the techno-structure of the GA or the IRC prohibits such integration and institutionalization, or perhaps the power of persuasive culture assists participants in resisting leadership and agenda aggregation. I don’t know but I will provide an example of an open, laterally organized corporate public sphere giving way to a non-participatory, top-down corporate public sphere. Yet, despite this, and in counter-distinction to Habermas, I argue, a public sphere perseveres in this example from Current.

The progressive and independent television news network Current originally was founded on the idea of media democratization which they attempted to achieve through creating a lateral network of documentary video producers (Viewer-created content producers or VC2) working through the central hub of Current as a television network that showcased the work, a social media destination used to discuss the documentaries, and a corporation incentivizing participation through payment. While enmeshed within a for-profit media system, Current saw itself as a formal critique of consolidation and the “refeudalization” of the public sphere. Indeed, the network’s chairman, Al Gore was apt to quote Habermas in his book Assault on Reason.

But by 2011, this specific media democratization project was over at Current, replaced by pundit-based, ratings driven news programming led by the return of Keith Olbermann to cable television news. Now it might be convenient to criticize this transformation of the deliberative bourgeois public sphere of the VC2 model to the for-profit refeudalization of what was once a vibrant public sphere. But a wider look at the role played by Olbermann and progressive media punditry exhibits how various elements work in consort to produce the educative conditions for the public sphere. What remains under-theorized and documented in both Habermas and in regards to the social movements of the present, are the ecological dynamics between various constituencies that produce the conditions for a progressive public sphere. I call upon the General Assembly of Occupy Research to empirically document the Occupy movement within its cultural context that includes hacktivists, television newscasters, as well as boots-on-the-ground Occupiers.

For most of us too busy (in our non-market activities) to be sleeping at the various liberation parks around the nation and globe, we know the Occupy Movement as #occupywallstreet, or #occupyla. It is something we know less through the experience of inhabiting a space in protest but more as something known through sitting at home and engaging with social media. For others, we know the Occupy Movement through cable television news–Fox, MSNBC, CNN, or Current. Cable television is a networked communication technology with specific cultures of consumption. Unlike those reading about Occupy through Twitter and its hashtag #occupywallstreet, cable news viewers have few options of engaging with the material through the media itself. Habermas, who correctly prioritizes two-way, dialogic engagement over top-down listening, thinks this form of political mediation expressed by cable news is part of the problem of democracy—passivity and propaganda.

Again, Habermas misses the point of active cultures of consumption and how information can lead to action. For instance, Cenk Uygar of the Young Turks, and formerly of MSNBC, announced in Zuccotti Park the political action committee (PAC) he is forming, Wolf-PAC, with a sole focus of getting a 28th US Constitutional Amendment limiting personhood to people not corporations. Via YouTube and soon via his up-and-coming cable TV program on Current he will continue to encourage political action. While scholars have wondered if the rich dialogue that occurs in the public sphere ever actually leads to democratic action, mainstream cable television, despite lacking two-way engagement, exhibits the conditions of an attenuated public sphere by encouraging political action.

What is the cause for these emergent horizontal organizations? Yochai Benkler, in his new book, claims that humans are essentially selfless and collaborative; the open architecture of the internet is just helping that gene to express itself. It’s a provocative argument he makes with quite a bit of social, psychological, and biological anthropological data. Perhaps, but the point is that horizontal organizations exist as temporal and transitional boundary objects impacted by technology, power, and culture from all directions. Likewise, power, culture, and technology are mediated by forces within the media ecology, some of these forces are laterally while others are vertically ordered—this is the mediated context for the present social movements.

Three or Four Theories of Networked Activism

The social dynamics and genesis of inter-networked activist cultures are little understood and the focus of some of our research at UCLAs Part.Lab and a bunch of new business, activism, and pop theory books. Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics through Networked Progressive Media (New Press 2010) by Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke is a strategy guide about how four levels of internet-enabled networks have an impact on progressive journalism, political commentary, and activist organizing: 1) networked users, 2) self-organized networks, 3) institutional networks, 4) networks of institutions. All but the first, networked users, articulate well with the categories and process we devised in Birds of the Internet Towards a Field Guide to the Organization and Governance of Participation to explain internet-based cultural behavior, namely, the self-generating or organized publics assisted in their construction by formal social enterprises. Like our 2011 publication, the book is a field guide designed to identify new species of networked culture, their interrelationships in the emergent media ecology, their diverse communicative practices, and the values they seek to reproduce throughout society. The power of this book lies in the elegance and utility of these network categories and in the suspenseful fast histories of netroots progressive movements.


What are progressives and netroots? Apparently a progressive is someone left of Democrats and liberals. They are “opposed to conservative philosophies that seek to maintain older systems of value and power.” Progressives are into “social change” (Clark and Van Slyke 2010: 3). While progressive values are variously but never concretely defined in this book I would quickly add social justice, social liberalism, civil society, and technoprogressivism. Progressives value “social justice,” or the promotion of the dignity of every human life; “social liberalism,” or the promotion of access, participation, diversity, and democracy; and “civil society”, a contested term that describes an arena for public discourse. Emphases on openness and public cultures overlap in social justice, social liberalism, and civil society. (In addition to the right to be heard and accounted for, the right to privacy is also a value of social justice.)

The progressive brand “Netroots,” a conflation of internet and grassroots, describes a politically coordinated and technology-enabled public. It can be considered synonymous with the progressive blogosphere, the internet-activated and discourse-constructed public sphere. Netroots express the value of technoprogressivism—a promotion of the positive role of technology in achieving progressive political objectives that has its historic roots in computer and countercultural notions of techno-cultural change. Netroots activists focus on the agencies provided by technology. Networks are seen as enabling not limiting factors. Beyond the Echo Chamber is designed to motivate not give a sociologically factual and balanced account of the promises and perils of networked political economy. Much of this idealism is identifiable in this self-interview between the authors. Importing a dose of critical pessimism, that is a focus on overcoming impediments, from the media reform movement might have made this book more believable to academics but not as inspirational to activists.

Networks of Users and Institutions

The four networks go from the most abstract and loose to the most concrete and institutionalized. The first is “networked users” which include “tens of millions of individuals” and analogous to the “networked public sphere.” “Users” is deployed deliberately to define the confluence of “audience member and participant” (Clark and Van Slyke 2010: 34). I like this simple term “user” better than the clumsy neologism “produser” but the authors do not define the “networked public sphere” other than inferring that it is public, big, free, semi-communal, and potentially political and creative. If you hear some of the cyber-utopianism of Yochai Benkler, Henry Jenkins, Don Tabscott, and Clay Shirky in these notions then you are correct, they are cited throughout. Where the authors fail in describing these users is by ignoring the fact that they are networked not by some neutral, natural, or publically-owned infrastructure but by privately-owned or non-profit platforms with their own set of affordances, prejudices, values, and persuasions that limit and provoke certain types of networks that are not simply user-driven but semi-hierarchical, striated, partitioned, unbalanced, and more often then not governed to maximize capital. In their calculation there is an amorphous mass of politically minded people organized but unorganized. In a way, this is like people without culture, without an internalized self-governing structuration.

We cannot understand users without their correlating structuring principles. On the internet this means looking to cultures of production and collaboration that aggregate around issues, tools, and practices–these can be named by brands or parties–but the point is they can be named. And that is what indeed the authors do as they provide several examples of networked users by referencing the users of the brands YouTube, progressive television Link TV, ethnic magazine Colorlines, citizen video journalism nonprofit The UpTake, etc. So what they are really referring to when they discuss “networked users” is not the unincorporated masses, which doesn’t exist, but their second category, self-organized networks.

If our research or disciplinary paradigm as anthropologists and sociologists cannot affirm the existence of “user networks” we do however observe evidence of the remaining three categories. These include self-organized networks, which we call organized publics or OPs. Organized publics develop without the formal economic or infrastructural assistance of institutions or what we call formal social enterprises. Jenkins is key to assisting the authors’ speciation of these self-organizing networks by providing them the concepts of pools, webs, and hubs. Self-organized network form pools around common projects, create webs around social communities, and aggregate around brands or hubs. Clark and Van Slyke’s concept of self-organizing networks is an excellent example of the formation of organized publics in the realm of progressive media. In our research we’ve gone a step further by adding a temporal input to the concept of the self-organized network or organized public by showing that in all likelihood such organized publics become institutions through time. This brings us to their third category.

The third category also coordinates with our analytical distinctions. The author’s concept of the “network organized by institutions” is akin to the relationship between the formal social enterprise, or what they simply call an “institution” and the organized public, or what they call “self-organized networks.” Institutions such as the Sierra Club, National Organization for Woken, and the ACLU provide internet infrastructure to publics in order to seed activism. They did not spend much ink on “network organized by institutions” but with the examples provides by Clark and Van Slyke we can reasonably conclude that within the progressive media sector the FSE-OP relationship is present.

Finally, the forth category is one Ive written about before in regards to progressive media organizing and I would like to expand upon. I am not sure if it falls exactly within the rubric we’ve set out to test at Part.Lab, that is, the development of OPs and the relationships between FSEs-OPs, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to isolate FSEs from other FSEs. Clark and Van Slyke’s forth category, “networks of institutions,” explores the lateral relationships between institutions, or what I previously called, collaborations. The key example comes from The Media Consortium, a 2005 journalism meta-organization both authors are intimately involved in that serves as a nexus for meetings, conference calls, and email lists that coordinate messaging and projects across a number of progressive groups.

The Media Reform Movement and Network Neutrality: A Case Study

How do these netroots networks synergistically interact and self-generate? Examples come from the rise of Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004, Ned Lamont’s 2006 primary victory over Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, and Virginia Senator George Allen’s 2006 resignation over the viral video of him calling an opponent’s aide “macaca.”  A more elaborated case comes from the media reform movement’s work on network neutrality. And yet based on their evidence I can recognize three distinct networks but not “networked users.” Clark and Van Slyke (2010) might argue that the 1.6 million people signing a petition for network neutrality is an example of networked users but weren’t these users’ signatures aggregated by institutions and thus an example of their term “institutional networks?” Or perhaps these publics constituted a self-organized network, also one of their categories? (In this movement there certainly was a strong “network of institutions” with 850 organizations constituting the Coalition.) It may seem like a small point but to really concentrate on what I am vaguely calling publics or what Clark and Van Slyke call “user networks” means to begin to understand the origins of social motivation.

Beyond the Echo Chamber confirms our suspicion that networked environment can incubate organized publics and facilitate the interactions between institutions and those publics. The book also wrestles with but ultimately misunderstands that earliest and vaguest moment of genesis of networked users. This is understandable; we don’t quite get it either, hence the research into it. The difficulty is understandable; within convergence culture clear lines demarcating consumers from producers and this networks from that network are difficult to define. We have at our disposal excellent examples of organized publics developing out of Wikipedia, open source software development, and the anti-corporate globalization movement. But if such radically transformative events such as the Arab Spring are to be ethnographically and historically understood then we may begin to grasp the transformation of isolation to belonging and apathy to activism.