The overarching theme of this blog is the rise of the public and crisis of authority, propelled by a reversal in the information balance of power. When applied to actual events, these generalities bump into a paradox: a riddle. The public is an invertebrate animal, a creature of the dawn, of the mist. Clarity weakens its will to act. The public feels tormented by the status quo, but begins to disintegrate the moment it abandons a vaporous egalitarianism for sharp-edged structures – organizations, ideologies, programs – to replace the established order.
I want to add precision to our understanding of the public then turn to the story of the indignado movement in Spain to penetrate deep into the heart of the riddle.
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What do I mean by “the public”? Not “the people,” an abstraction signifying the citizenry of a nation. Confusion is natural because the public in action invariably wraps itself in the mantle of the people. Occupy Wall Street, for example, though never able to muster more than a few thousand demonstrators, aims to represent “the 99 percent.”
The public isn’t the government, of course – more like its opposite. It is born of the perceived failure of government. Nor can the public be found among lobbyists or NGOs. Those are professionals, people paid to promote an interest or a cause: and the public, by definition, is composed of amateurs.
Not the people, not the government, not professional influencers: what’s left? In the old days, nothing. In the wake of the Fifth Wave, a vast sphere of linked networks, firmly in command of the means of communication, and thus able, potentially, to mobilize in large numbers.
My description of the public hews close to Walter Lippmann’s in The Phantom Public: “The public, as I see it, is not a fixed body of individuals. It is merely the persons who are interested in an affair and can affect it only by supporting or opposing the actors.” The public are people who share an interest in something. For Lippmann, facing this fact represented a bitter defeat. He had hoped to find in his subject something akin to “the people,” or at least the active equivalent of a passive mass audience. Such an organism never existed.
The bulk of the public is not fascinated with government. To a political thinker like Lippmann it appeared inert, a “phantom,” but it is not. It is interested in something, and it acts, constantly and vigorously, in the enjoyment of its interests. The latter may include family and religion, music and sports, a successful career and fun with the opposite sex. The number of potential interests is infinite. Around each gathers a community, for the public, being human, is sociable.
The public dwells in communities of interest: some fleeting, some permanent, some serious, most of them trivial. This is its historic habitat, warped and obscured by twentieth-century attempts to forge mass movements and audiences. Overlay, on this fractured landscape, a global information sphere suffused with irreverent values – about which, more in a moment – and digital platforms commanding the means of communication, and we are brought to the edge of a revolutionary transformation. Communities of interest have become online networks. The public now shouts back to rulers and experts. A serial uprising against every form of authority has scarcely yet begun to gather force.
It was the inability of the public to forge a political will that troubled Lippmann. But we know the public can achieve critical mass for political action. It can overthrow brutal regimes. Recent events have proven this. The interesting question concerns mechanisms: how multiple networks can act with a single will.
In search for an answer, let’s consider the example of the Spanish protests.
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Objective conditions in Spain paralleled those which sparked a revolution in Egypt. After decades of prosperity, the country had been battered by the economic crisis and a collapse of the national real estate market. Unemployment was highest in Europe: among the young, it touched 45 percent. Housing was scarce despite the fall in prices. The socialist government, elected for its opposition to the Iraq war and concerned mainly with social issues, seemed out of its depth. Politicians, bankers, experts – all appeared detached from reality. Their proposed solutions entailed more pain for the population. In the distance, Germany and the EU demanded austerity.
The May 2011 protests of the indignados – “the outraged” – also mirrored the Egyptian pattern, but this was no accident. Faced with the need to orchestrate a multitude of self-directed networks, the organizers consciously followed the tactics of Wael Ghonim and Ahmed Maher in Egypt. They succeeded to the extent that tens of thousands took to the street, attracting the attention of the global media and further unnerving Spain’s political establishment.
The protest’s leading spirits belonged to the same demographic as Ghonim and Maher: young, university educated, extremely adept at navigating the pathways of the information sphere. Lenin would have labeled them the vanguard. We would call them early adopters. They planned demonstrations on Facebook and Twitter, but more importantly these rebels were people of the web, reconciling a meticulous egalitarianism with the sense that they had become more highly evolved than their opponents. An instinctive rejection of authority, of existing structures, of the past, allowed them for a time to believe they had transcended political parties, even ideology: that their revolt rested on some universally accepted standard of justice.
Some of us consider ourselves more progressive, others more conservative. Some are believers, others not. Some of us have well-defined ideologies, others think ourselves apolitical… But all of us are worried and outraged by the political, economic, and social landscape we see around us.
Damning ideology and partisanship attracted many to the protests: sheer indignation, hostility toward the status quo, became the shared point of reference around which revolved groups and individuals espousing mutually inconsistent ideals. But after the crowds and the occupations, the point had been made. Hostility was manifested. The next logical step was change, and for change something more substantial than anger seemed in order. Enter the riddle: what now?
This was far more than a problem of tactics. The self-evident truths of the web derive from hacker culture. These push individual autonomy to the verge of nihilism, and evince a sectarian distrust of leaders, hierarchies, and programs.
Sectarianism, according to Douglas and Wildavsky, arises in the cultural borders in opposition to the established center. It rejects every form of leadership in favor of a radical egalitarianism, and condemns, in principle, bureaucracies and programs as the roots of inequality. Decisions by the sect demand long debates, which are welcomed because they exemplify inclusiveness, and failure to decide on an issue is less problematic than abdicating responsibility to a leader or politburo. The sects analyzed by Douglas and Wildavsky were small, and could hardly be otherwise. Today, digital platforms have given birth to a monstrous possibility: a global sectarianism.
A favorite gimmick of the Spanish demonstrators was the “silent scream”: to every man his own internal slogan. The misty “priorities” of the “Real Democracy Now” organizers also read like political mutism: “equality, progress, solidarity, free access to culture, ecological sustainability…” The problem of how to organize and pay for these priorities was never broached, and the omission was willful. Every step toward an ideology or program meant the embrace of something old, something hierarchical, something unequal and corrupt. Since the indignados lacked the imagination to articulate a world both sectarian and universal, they vented their rage in silence.
Some of the organizers, however, belonged to the anarchist or Marxist left. It doesn’t require brilliant insight to perceive that the demonstrations shared a distinctively leftist flavor: anti-capitalist, anti-representative democracy, anti-“system”. In the revolutionary jargon emanating from the indignados, the class struggle and the anti-globalist crusades loomed almost as large as the Arab uprisings. These people were not sectarians. They had “well defined ideologies,” a universalist vision, and a program. They found, in the surprising success of the protests, an opportunity to smash a despised political order, and begin a revolution.
People of the web mobilized in uneasy tandem with people of the left. The one provided a persuasive message, the other experience with street protests. Both networks were united in their loathing of the established order, but diverged almost immediately thereafter.
With elections came a moment of fatal clarity. The May protests had been timed to coincide with local elections in Spain, but the organizers’ approach to the vote was, to put it mildly, confused. Fabio Gandara, front man for Real Democracy Now, said he only asked the public to “vote their conscience.” Gandara, a political activist, acknowledged he was going to vote but refused to say for whom, calling it a “private” decision. Others were less timid. The indignados liked to label themselves “neither-nor” to denote a rejection of existing parties and the electoral process. Word got out that a blank or spoiled ballot was the way to endorse the demonstrators.
In the event, election results appeared disconnected from the protests. The conservative Popular Party won overwhelmingly, primarily because of an implosion by the ruling socialists. This trend was exacerbated in the November general elections. The socialists were swept out of office with their lowest vote ever, while conservatives gained absolute control of parliament. Regional and radical parties increased their totals but were powerless in the face of conservative dominance, and the informal spoiled-ballot campaign lacked any discernible impact.
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Spain’s 2011 electoral season ended with the annihilation of the established left and the decisive triumph of the right. How the protests played into this result remains uncertain, although the sectarian “neither-nor” attitude could not have helped the socialists. In the dazzling clarity of a great national reorientation, indignado spokesmen were of many minds. Some felt the elections confirmed the hopeless corruption of the “system” – but were silent about what could or should be done. Some felt that true change could only be achieved by going to the people and creating more democratic social structures – a sectarian dream amounting to political abdication.
The people of the left knew better. They understood the magnitude of the defeat. Their programs had been blasted by the electorate, and the destruction of the socialists ensured conservative rule, essentially without opposition, for many years. Contemplating the wreckage, some reconsidered the wisdom of neither-nor. Calling the socialist party “the same old shit” had been wrong, one of them complained: “they may be a shit, we’d have to discuss it, but it isn’t the same shit…”
Today the indignado movement can head in only two directions, and the probabilities aren’t equal. It can resume street protests, seek to paralyze or even overthrow the new government. That seems unlikely for many reasons – not least the fact that outrage, like all commodities, will plummet in value if oversold. Otherwise the networks will return to their natural autonomy. The movement will disintegrate into its component parts. This seems to be the fate of the public in action, once a threshold of political clarity is crossed.
In Egypt, momentum against overthrew a government, but in the aftermath the fractured public yielded center stage to better organized, more reactionary forces. In Spain, the protests’ only possible effect was to assist in the rise of the conservative party, which could be characterized as the antithesis of everything the indignados sought. The organizers of both uprisings were people of the web, sectarian to the core: able to batter the status quo but unwilling replace it. Their initial success drew them from the foggy morning to the light of day, where clarity engendered an existential riddle they had no wish to answer.