Paper first given at the Anarchist Studies Network ‘Making Connections’ conference, 3rd September 2012.
Keywords; Collective Action, Social Movements, Digital Communications
The Network Society, Private-Public Sphere(s)
and the ‘Soviets of the Multitude’
This paper will claim that changes in ICT have fundamental implications for the private/ public distinction in contemporary social life, rendering such a distinction increasingly permeable. As a consequence of such permeability it is contended that the issue traditionally understood as that of the ‘Free Rider’, a central problematic in collective action theory since Mancur Olson (Olson, 1965) no longer necessitates organisations in expediting contentious collective action in order to engage with other actors for public goods. Instead this paper claims that such permeability opens up the possibility for something akin to a non-state mediated public sphere, different to that articulated by Habermas which is understood as an interlocutor between private relations and the state apparatus (Habermas, 1962). Consequently it is claimed that the work of Paolo Virno in particular (Virno, 1996) offers a meaningful lens to understand ICT-mediated public space which moves beyond existing categories and engages with new realities observable in numerous examples of contemporary collective action. Such change in collective action, while not inherently ‘emancipatory’, does offer a set of possibilities for political action that transcends traditional theoretical frameworks and methods of practical organisation, while embodying political practices adverse to delegation, representation and the arbitrary imperative of ‘command’. To conclude, the paper will argue that it is increasingly this new IT-mediated public space that is the site of political action as understood by Hannah Arendt, while the traditionally understood Habermasian sphere is increasingly rendered one of ‘information war’ (Arquila and Ronfeldt, 1996) and biopolitical control (Foucault, 1979).
Jurgen Habermas claims that the public sphere mediates between the private sphere and the sphere of ‘public authority’. Such a private sphere comprises civil society in it’s most narrow sense - that of commodity exchange and social labour (Habermas, 1962). While the sphere of public authority is understood as ‘the state’ and those institutions through which the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence is maintained (Weber, 1919). For Habermas the public sphere is conceptually distinct from the state in so much as “…it [is] a site for the production and circulation of discourses that can in principle be critical of the state”. Furthermore this Habermasian public sphere should be seen as something that striates both the private sphere and the sphere of public authority acting as a conduit and interface between the needs of the former and the means of the latter. As Habermas writes it is ‘…through the vehicle of public opinion (that) the state (is) in touch with the needs of society’ (Habermas, 1962). The primary objective of this public sphere is to render the political power of the state ‘a rational power’ that meets the needs of society (ibid.)
For social movement scholars, as well as political theorists, such a distinction between private and public characterises the nature of political action. Since antiquity, the relationship between intellect, praxis and poesis has been understood as one of publicness, with political action being a public performance, or a collective conflict of interests with others in a public space. Contentious collective action and social movement mobilization is itself contingent upon shared grievances identifiable within a particular population; the reflection on the shared nature of such grievances and their subsequent collective expression are by nature ‘public’ acts. When Olson (1965) refers to collective action as a transformation of ‘latent’ groups to ‘actual’ participants he is describing the crossing of the boundary between the latency of privacy and the apparency of ‘public’ collective action.
Bimber, Flanagin and Stohl (2005) have written of how they believe that traditional understandings of collective action, embodied within the Resource Mobilization School, rather than being simply ‘wrong’, should instead be understood as limited to conditions in which private-public boundaries are firm and relatively impermeable, such that individuals’ efforts to cross them are characterised by discrete calculations of free-riding in the context of high costs.# When it is costly, such boundary-crossing adopts the form of a discrete decision: should I bear the costs of expressing myself or acting in order to enter the public domain in pursuit of a particular public good? It is under such circumstances that the question of the ‘free rider’ problem should then be understood as a relevant theoretical construct (Bimber, Flanagin, Stohl, 2005) and an emphasis on formal organisations to broker public forms of participation is entirely sensical. RMT-oriented scholarship, focused as it is on the issue of the free rider and the necessity of formal organisations can thus be seen as an adaptation to conditions of a firm and impermeable private-public boundary, premising the conditions of collective action upon such a basis.
However when boundaries between private and public domains are porous and easily crossed, people’s negotiation of the boundary typically involves less intentionality and calculation (Bimber, Flanagin, Stohl, 2005). Moreover, formal structures designed to broker the public-private transition become seemingly less crucial. ICT-mediated sociality permits such conditions with boundaries between the two being increasingly easy to cross, frequently on an unintentional level (McDonald 2002, Bennett and Segerberg, 2011). The result is that boundary crossing in connection with public goods takes on forms not so readily recognizable in the traditional terms of the logic of collective action - as a result the basic ontology of collective action and its relationship to the private/ public distinction is challenged.
By way of a few examples. If someone shared a photo on Facebook of a police officer assaulting a student in the 2010 UK student movement with a critical comment was this participation within the aforementioned movement? If not was it a declaration of public or private support? Does such a definition depend upon intentionality or reception? What of someone making very critical comments on Twitter, arguing against against tuition fees on a hashtag that might be seen by tens of thousands? These may seem like flippant and trivial examples but it is undeniable that the distinction between private and public speech act is becoming increasingly blurred. It was precisely these kinds of action with little private/ public distinction which permitted an impressive episode of collective contention within the UK student movement between November 10th 2010 and December 9th. On November 24th some 100,000 children participated in school walkouts across the country, without any school student union, with the event being set up by a few organisations such as the NCAFC and the EAN with few or no meaningful organisational resources of which to speak. A few weeks later on December 9th, a demonstration of some 35,000 FE and HE students, along with education workers and other member of the public, mobilized in Westminster in scenes described by the then Sargent-of-Arms as the ‘most intimidating experience in her parliamentary career’.
Once more the demonstration, simaltaneous with others across the country was not organised by the official national union of students (NUS) but was instead ‘called’ by a network of organisations and individuals with little or no formal organisational resources. While the grievances of a 300% increase in fees, the removal of EMA and the parliamentary betrayal of the Liberal Democrats were all particularly large for certain elements of the population (primarily working class students in FE and HE students who had voted Liberal Democrat in the previous election) such a response was entirely unexpected. Least of all by any activists involved.
To return though to the claim that the essential ontology of collective action and its relationship to the private/ public distinction is challenged. Such a claim is not made lightly. One might argue that the implications of such change are potentially transformative for our understanding of the mutual relationships between praxis, poesis and intellect as constitutive of political action. Furthermore, such a claim challenges assumptions made by those within the RMT camp, among others about the efficacy and necessity of political organisations and the potentially changed contexts in which such organisations are advantageous or even necessary. Whereas for Olsonian rationality such organisations are a necessity in permitting and brokering private concerns into shared public grievances, within ICT-mediated forms of collective action this no longer appears to be the case. Costs of entry for the individual, especially in those countries which pertain to broadly liberal democratic norms are increasingly low and the realisation that large numbers are of a like-minded position to oneself, thereby legitimating one’s position and potentially emboldening it, no longer requires permanent organisational bodies. That is not to say that political organisation no longer has a role to play, but rather it is a changed one, and certainly not one that is central in mediating private frustration into forms of public political antagonism or performance. Whereas previously the semiotic space for such public critique or in Habermas’ terms ‘the site for the production and circulation of discourses that can in principle be critical of the state’ frequently required a political organisation or costly initiative such as a publication of some kind, this no longer appears to be the case.
It is not surprising then that within such a context no other question seems quite so ‘enigmatic to answer’ as what which asks what it means to act politically (Virno, 1996). It is within such a context that it is imperative to elaborate, therefore, a model of action that will enable praxis to draw nourishment precisely from this changed reality to render the interdiction we face into a laissez-passer (Ibid.)
Following from the Marxian tradition, particularly the heterodox branch which finds itself heavily influenced by the Grundrisse and Italian post-operaist readings of the ‘Fragment on Machines’, I would argue that this IT-mediated space, founded upon the ecology of the distributed network permits a flourishing of what Marx calls the ‘General Intellect’. Increasingly political action will find itself located within this space and it is this general intellect which will increasingly dissolve understandings of political action founded upon the ‘traditional’ distinction between private and public spheres and, as Habermas understands it, the public sphere itself as a conduit between the totality of private relations and the Hobbesian monadity of the ‘Leviathan’ of the state apparatus. This is not to say we are utopians that uncritically prosletyize such developments. As Virno writes elsewhere ‘the symbiosis of knowledge and production (General Intellect) produces an extreme, anomalous, but nonetheless flourishing legitimation for a pact of obedience to the State’ (Virno, 1996). This is understood elsewhere as biopower in Foucault and more recently Negri (Foucault 1978; Negri, 2008) the ‘society of control’ (Deleuze, 1992) ‘protological power ‘(Galloway, 2006) and the ‘cybernetic hypothesis’ (Tiqqun, 2011). Where we see the increased dissolution between praxis, intellect and poesis in post-Fordist forms of production, we also see that the distinction between work and non-work time, as with that between public and private forms of sociality, is likewise increasingly permeable (Bifo Berardi, 2009). However this ‘intermeshing’ between the general intellect and political action also enables us to glimpse the possibility of a non-State public sphere, where any collective action beyond the local level no longer necessitates organisations to legitimize transgression from private dissatisfaction into public grievance. We also see an obverse to biopower within the ICT-mediated sphere with a new realm of non-state, non-market coordinated collective action (Benkler, 2007). Such an obverse space, attendant with it’s own possibilities for political action, is empirically observable within digital culture and it is disingenuous to reduce it to the homogenised and (counter)revolutionary genus of ‘social media. It is observable on Twitter and Facebook but is more widely evidenced in online forums, comment threads to articles, blogs, shared video and audio content and the comments on these digital objects and other digital ecologies such as BBM and even PS3 . With the rise of such digital spaces collective action is not only easier to catalyse and facilitate, particularly for those groups with few organisational resources and who would otherwise not find themselves served by existing institutional actors such as trades unions (Bimber, 1998), but it also permits individuals the ability to know that their dissatisfactions are shared and that their problems are not merely ‘personal’ but instead politically symptomatic and held by much larger populations than they would otherwise be aware of.
Soviets of Multitude
According to Virno, “The Soviets of the Multitude …(counterpose)…to representation and delegation, an operative style that is far more complex, centered on example and political reproducibility. What is exemplary is a practical initiative that, exhibiting in a particular instance the possible alliance between general intellect and Republic, has the authoritativeness of the prototype, but not the normativity of command…For this reason, the Example may be politically reproduced, but never transposed into an omnivorous “general program.” (Virno, 1996).
The possibility of a politics and a ‘republican’ praxis no longer founded upon a basic distinction between the private and public sphere and therefore necessarily mediated by organisations however merits an investigation not only born of theoretical interest but for many of us, political urgency. Such a paradigm appears adverse to traditional modes of political representation and ‘representability’ and seems increasingly to turn on the nexus of the individual ‘singularity’ (Guattari and Negr, 1985). However it is a mistake to think of such change as an erosion of previously meaningful collective political subjectivities or as a move to a world of ‘personalised protest’ which for many sounds inchoate, insufficient and ultimately antithetical to any meaningful notion of ‘collective’ action. In spite of its critics, a ‘politics’ of ambivalent disenchantment subsequent to IT-mediated publicness does not in fact appear to be the case with the major episodes of contention being coordinated within it. Examples of this can be found in the 2010 UK student movement and the 2011 August riots that took place in first London and then across the whole of England. This paper does not contend that digital communications devices and ICT served as an independent variable that ‘caused’ such episodes, far from it - these were caused, as is always the case, by collective grievances - but rather it impacted how such grievances were mobilized and grew to scale in order to become nationwide episodes of contentious collective action where the quantity and qualitative intensity of the repertoires of protest were entirely unanticipated.
This notion of the ‘example’ and the ‘operative style of reproducibility’ found in Virno as opposed to representation and delegation is frequently articulated elsewhere under the rubric of ‘memetics’. In Bennett and Segerberg’s understanding of ‘connective action’ (Bennett and Segerberg, 2011) a paradigm that is in keeping with the one articulated here regarding the changed nature of public and private sociality, memetic reproduction plays a central role.
As anti-austerity struggles progress it seems that memetics appear to offer compelling explanatory power in understanding episodes of contention that are undertaken with little centralised coordination and few generically identifiable ‘resources’. The best example of this hitherto globally is October 15th 2011 when demonstrators rallied across the world in some 951 actions in 82 countries. This major episode of global protest took place with limited resources, in a short time-frame and with minimal involvement from institutional actors.
With the #oct15 and #occupy movements, the tactics of square occupations were memetically reproduced, as were shared forms of collectivity ‘the indignado’ and antagonism ‘against the 99%’. While all groups remained ideologically heterogeneous, as was the case with those groups and individuals involved in the alter-globalisation movement, there were clear genealogies of memetic practice and symbol that can be extricated from Tahrir to the 15m movement in Spain to Occupy Wall Street.
If one accepts the premise that ideas, symbols and practices are culturally disseminated through memes, then memetics may prove to exercise an impact on how successful social movements turn out to be within the distributed networks of digitally mediated public space. If what is required is a shared identity, a shared political antagonism, informal networks and a particular set of protest ‘repertoires’ then it is possible to understand social movements, constituted as they are by these four components (Diani) as memes capable of the ‘reproducibility’ of which Virno speaks.
One can contend that the organisational model of the ‘example’ and reproducibility was at the heart of the 2010 UK student movement (organised around the 56 broadly independent university occupations around the country) or indeed the 2011 riots as they came to spread across England.# This paper’s claim is that such collective action by reproducibility and mimesis finds its basis in a reconfigured relationship between public and private spheres within the Network Society that has fundamental implications for the problem of the ‘free rider’, fundamentally undermining the traditional logic of collective action as advocated by scholars in light of Olson (1965).
What is more, such a newly reconfigured relationship between public and private also seems at odds with any ‘politics’ premised upon representation and delegation (Virno, 1996). This can be opposed to Habermas’ understanding of the public sphere and public opinion which accepts that the power of government must be delegated (Terranova, 2006) and merely wishes to ‘transform political authority into a rational authority within the medium of the public sphere’ (Habermas, 1962).
The current Habermasian ‘public sphere’ as it exists under the subsumption of the mainstream media model should not be regarded as a sphere of mediation between state and civil society, but rather the site of a permanent conflict, informed by strategies of media warfare and biopolitical control (Arquila and Ronfeldt, 1996; Galloway, 2006). It is against this then we see a counter-sphere emerging whose own border from it can be often permeable and unclear. It is however there and it is increasingly this ‘other’ sphere which permits meaningful political action. For Arendt political action is of a new beginning that interrupts and contradicts the automatic processes that have become consolidated into fact, thus, political action has a quality akin to that of the miracle, given that it shares the miracle’s quality of being both surprising and unexpected.
This new sphere with its innovatively configured relations between public and private and praxis, poesis and theory increasingly appears to be the only possible space for such a definition of political action to exist within what is elsewhere an increasingly totalizing biopolitical terrain.
This paper does not contend that such a sphere has yet fully arrived, nor should it be reduced to a single ‘glib’ platform such as Twitter - which as with other corporate social media has it’s own plethora of shortcomings as I have alluded to elsewhere. However, as all information becomes communication and the delineation between public and private life becomes increasingly indistinct we must focus on the need to understand this new terrain - from the French riots of 2005, their Greek and English equivalents in 2008 and 2011, to the 15M movement in Spain, the J14 in Israel, Occupy in many parts of the United States and the 2010 British student movement, these are perhaps glimpses of a politics to come - whose own mechanisms based on example, reproducibility and an aversion to delegation and representability tells us that fundamental shifts are under way.
For both Hobbes and Schmitt - the fundamental theorists of sovereignty and state, the Arendtian miracle is the exclusive preserve of the sovereign, however, as Virno is keen to point out this in no sense runs counter to the idea of political action AS miracle but instead obversely confirms it. For these authors, it is only the sovereign who acts politically. The point then is to not only critiquing such a state of exception in the name of a broader critique of sovereignty, but also to understand what form this exceptionality assumes once political action passes into the hands of the many within this newly constituted public sphere founded upon the general intellect.
Within the new communicative worlds being called forth this is a question of theoretical but moreover practical urgency. Henry Thoreau once wrote ‘Before printing was discovered, a century was equal to a thousand years’ the same will prove true in our own time and the communicative changes of the last decades now combined with an economic crisis without a terminal horizon, may spell a period of political contestation that ends in a spirit not entirely differently to that which inspired Hobbes’ own age. What is certain is that the present categories that underlie the modern rationality of collective action, premised as they are on a Hobbesian/Cartesian rational individualist methodology, no longer add up. It is doubtful they can turn back the clock.