The Public Sphere of Occupy Wall Street

Adam Fish October 30, 2011
8 minutes

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.