Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How Mass Media Distort Social Change: From the 1960s to Occupy and Beyond [longer essay]

© Edward P. Morgan

          For a time at least, 2011 seemed one of those historic turning points when grass-roots struggles ignite and spread throughout much of the world.  From Arab Spring to the Wisconsin protests to anti-austerity campaigns in Europe and South America to the rapid spread of Occupy Wall Street, the groundswell of sustained protest demonstrated that much of the world’s population was no longer willing to put up with the destructiveness of the neo-liberal world order or the autocratic regimes tied in to that system.  The tensions that came to the surface continue to fester.
          While the initial occupation phase of the Occupy movement ended, participants in Occupy have continued to organize and carry out a range of political actions, largely under the radar of mainstream mass media.  At the same time, of course, activists continue to mobilize against manifestations of the planet’s deepening ecological deterioration produced by world capitalism, and there is growing public opposition to the latest expansion of American militarism, drone warfare.  It remains to be seen if these movements can converge in a mass movement capable of effectively challenging both the ideology and reality of the world historic system we live in while ushering in a far more democratic future.

I would suggest that much may hinge on whether or not these movements can learn from history and from the role the corporate mass media have played in ushering in and sustaining the neo-liberal world.  Along with the social movement literature, my own work on 1960s-era social movements points to two crucial factors contributing to the rise and spread of mass movements: sharpened contradictions between the world as it is and the world as people want it to be and a sense of possibility or hope that things could be different.  A range of factors —the catalytic example of activists challenging the status quo, political events, inspirational  leadership, and the like— can help to awaken a sense of possibility, as other factors –police violence, a political reversal, or a government or corporate action that violates public sensibilities— can provoke an acute sense of outrage that demands action.  Collective action, in turn, can unleash exhilarating feelings of empowerment and solidarity, as well as generating hope that change is possible.  Media images and stories have played a significant role in these dynamics.
Outside of the brief but massive surge of global protest against the impending U. S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it could be argued that the last time massive global protest erupted with profound implications for the globe’s future was in 1968.[1]  As Immanuel Wallerstein has argued, 1968 “was one of the great, formative events in the history of our modern world system, the kind we call watershed events.”[2]  Others have made more explicit reference to that year’s rapid-fire spread of youth-oriented revolt.  Mark Kurlansky wrote, “At a time when nations and cultures were still separate and very different – there occurred a spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world.”[3]
Particularly in the United States, the events of 1968 grew out of the trajectory of the “long 1960s,” the era of awakened activism tracing back to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-6 and continuing forward through the rise of women’s liberation, the early environmental movement, and the end of the U. S. war in Vietnam.  Following five consecutive “long, hot summers” of urban uprisings and the debacle at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the election of “law and order” candidate Richard Nixon in 1968 proved to be a significant step in a progression of campaigns that fed off public disenchantment with 60s turmoil to move the nation’s political agenda to the right.  Capitalism’s crisis of the 1970s triggered a concerted, well-oiled campaign to rescue the economy from what the Trilateral Commission termed the democratic “excess” of the 60s era.[4]  Persuasively combining the rightist rhetoric of resentment with an attack on what came to be labeled a “Vietnam Syndrome” of public resistance to U.S. military interventionism, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 ushered in the neo-liberal regime that persists to this day.  Comparable patterns of public unrest in 1968-1972 were followed by rightist, neoliberal regimes in Britain, France, and West Germany.
What role have the corporate mass media played in this history?  I would argue, first, that the public disenchantment with 1960s-era turmoil that proved so central to electoral campaigns from the Right was to a significant degree a response to the images the public encountered in the nation’s media, particularly as these were defined and explained through the media’s discourse.  Second, I contend that the combination of two structural traits of corporate mass media – an ideologically boundaried discourse and commercially-driven attention to imagistic drama— produced a media dynamic that, along with state repression and the U. S. war in Vietnam, influenced the trajectory of the era’s social movements towards an increasingly “expressive politics.”  Finally, I argue that the media images, personalities, and stories produced via that dynamic became the raw material that has long been exploited by both commercial and ideological media to distort the past and usher in and reinforce the neo-liberal world.[5]
Somewhat tempered by the spread of social media, these same mass media dynamics exist today.  Because mass media are the vehicle through which mass movements can inject themselves into a society’s common discourse, and because media images can be potent means of engaging wider audiences’ sympathies and spreading agitation, the mass media remain a highly significant force affecting the political efficacy of mass movements.  Indeed, I argue, in part through interaction with mass media, the Occupy experience replicates many of the dynamics that occurred in the 1960s era.

Mass Media and the Trajectory of 1960s-Era Protest:

          Long documented by the work of Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman and others, political discourse within the national mass media is confined to a range of “legitimate” views expressed by “credible sources.”    While Democrats may spar with Republicans, liberals with conservatives, and doves with hawks, all perspectives that are taken seriously by the mass media embrace foundational beliefs about American political and economic institutions along with the mythologies of American exceptionalism.  In his well-documented study of media coverage of the war in Vietnam, Daniel Hallin distinguished three “spheres” of media discourse about the war: a sphere of consensus reflecting those beliefs not regarded as controversial by journalists, politicians, and much of the public; a sphere of legitimate controversy covering the range of debate among those credible sources within the consensual framework; and a sphere of deviance in which the media make reference to those “actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society regard as unworthy of being heard.”[6]
          The rise of television in the 1950s and 60s greatly strengthened a second structural trait of news media, namely the attention to drama, evocative imagery, conflict and colorful personalities as a vehicle to attract and hold the attention of media audiences.  Indeed, the drama of political events in the 60s era was an important catalyst not only for the spread of protest activity but for the increasing centrality of imagery, drama, and celebrity culture that now dominates mainstream news media.
          Because protest generally arises when a group’s grievances are not being addressed by conventional political institutions, protests are themselves a form of deviant activity in the eyes of much of mainstream media.  As Taylor Branch wrote of media coverage of the Southern civil rights movement, the media “stressed non-partisan calm as the essential pre-condition for racial progress –much like the clergymen who criticized [Martin Luther] King in Birmingham.”[7]  Typically, protesters become the story –what they look like, how they act, and how many of them there are –not the issues the protesters raise.  Beyond this media reflex, moreover, movements that challenge the sphere of consensus find that their views are reflexively dismissed or mistranslated by mass media speaking what William Gamson and Gadi Wolfsfeld have called “mainstreamese.”[8]  Outside of a few protest signs, sound bites, or chanted slogans, protesters’ arguments and the kinds of evidence they present to support them— are essentially excluded from mainstream discourse.  They are ideological outsiders in the nation’s political conversation.
In effect, then, mainstream media exclude serious consideration of the views of outsiders at the same time that media cameras invite the kinds of colorful or expressive behaviors they seek out.  Mass media substitute being seen for being heard, thus creating a kind of “exit and voice” dynamic for protest movements.  Angered by their exclusion and perhaps radicalized by the system-sustaining boundaries of mainstream discourse, protesters seek out convivial communities of other like-minded outsiders, often creating their own alternative media.  Yet, for those committed to agitating for change, protest behaviors become vulnerable to the pull of expressive deviance or militancy as the latter becomes the only form of “radicalism” recognized by mainstream media.  Police violence and state repression only sharpen protesters’ level of anger and militancy, as did continued escalation of the U. S. war in Vietnam during the 1960s.  Throughout this media dynamic, powerful forces with favored access to the media denigrate the movements by equating them with the most extreme behaviors visible in the media.
          In sum, then, mass media during the 60s era helped the era’s social movements spread and grow, while at the same time they helped to shape, marginalize, and ultimately contain protest movements and the threat the 60s posed to the established order.
          Media imagery played a particularly significant role.  Since image meanings often reflect a degree of subjective interpretation, media images convey different meanings to different viewers, potentially transcending the meanings given to events by mainstream reporting.  For example, while media discourse about the war in Vietnam was invariably framed in terms of the United States “defending” the people and “nation” of South Vietnam against Communist “aggression” from North Vietnam, images that conveyed sensory realities of the war suggested the opposite meaning to some American audiences, especially once the war was being contested throughout much of the culture.  Similarly, while protest images could provoke hostile responses from some quarters, they also evoked sympathetic responses from other audiences.
While the national mass media largely reported on the civil rights sit-ins of 1960 through a narrowed frame focusing on the immediate conflict between two parties asserting their rights to lunch-counter service, photographs and television footage evoked a powerful visceral response among some viewers in the North.  Viewing the sit-ins from his home in New York, Robert Moses observed, “The sit-ins, when they broke out, just grabbed me.  The pictures of the Southern students .  What I became aware of looking at them was they looked how I felt.  And I responded immediately to that.”  Moses, of course, went South to join the struggle and soon became an inspiring leader in the voter registration drive in Mississippi.  And as Bronx high school senior Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) later recalled, when he first read of the sit-ins, he found them “politically inconsequential,” but “Of course, I would completely change my mind the first time I saw on TV young Africans calmly sitting at a counter while racist abuse, blows, and the contents of ketchup bottles, full ashtrays, and coffee cups were dumped on their heads.  That made a believer of me.  Instantly.”[9]
          Much of the Southern civil rights movement was framed around “legitimate” constitutional values of equal rights.  Yet it still took a handful of potent visual moments in the national media to convey the full force of the movement’s transformative meaning to a much wider national audience.  Two protest events, in particular, stand out as signal examples of effective 60s-era direct action protest: the desegregation protests in Birmingham in 1963 and the aborted march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.  In each case, dramatic violence by Alabama police against non-violent protesters was captured by still or television cameras, with a wide impact on national opinion.  Indeed, both cases –the use of police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham and the attack by club-wielding state troopers in Selma— epitomized the guiding principle of nonviolent direct action: protest audiences felt more sympathetic to the protesters than to the protest target: state authorities using violence to maintain Jim Crow segregation.  Both cases compellingly revealed to Northern audiences the sensory realities of life in the Jim Crow South.  As Birmingham businessman David Vann later commented of the 1963 protest, “It was a masterpiece [in] the use of media to explain a cause to the general public.”[10]  Birmingham and Selma provoked public responses that ultimately led to passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
          To the degree that the Southern movement aimed at eliciting enforcement of national norms in the deviant South, the movement’s meanings were comprehensible within the boundaries of legitimate discourse.  The remaining movements of the 60s era –community power in the inner cities, Black power, Latino & Chicano, student, antiwar, women’s, American Indian, and gay rights movements— all targeted national phenomena, and each contained radical critiques of the institutions of American life.  Each movement, then, approached the media from a place clearly outside the range of legitimate discourse.
          Yet, at precisely the point around mid-decade when several of these movements were beginning to stir, the mass media landed on a frame for understanding the spreading national activism.  The first clue came when northern students volunteered to travel south for the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign in 1964.  Seeking to understand this new phenomenon, the national media seized on distinguishing characteristics of a new generation of post-war youth.  Again and again, mass media attributed the impulses behind activism to alleged characteristics of the baby-boom generation.  It wasn’t long, in fact, before the generational theme was picked up and popularized, especially as the counterculture became more visible in mainstream media.  It was also seized upon by those who attacked the social movements with wild assertions about the permissive upbringing, lawless nature, government-dependency, or even mental illness of youth.  What disappeared from this discourse were the institutions these movements targeted, unless and until those targets could be re-translated into liberal reformism by the media’s “credible voices.”
          These circumstances created a formidable challenge for movements seeking to convey their grievances to a wider audience through the mass media.  Black power was almost reflexively treated as “anti-white” power, if not as an expression of black supremacy.  Inner-city conditions that reflected both racial concentration and profound class inequality were ignored by the mass media until the explosions of rage that began in 1964.  From that point on, of course, the images and narrowed range of media interpretation provided an enormously distorted, and often frightening, picture of the inner city.  Indeed, the early Harlem “riot” in 1964 became a significant foil in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign.  Goldwater attributed the unacceptable “lawlessness” of the inner city population to the “disrespect for law” allegedly fostered by the civil rights movement’s reliance on civil disobedience.  Although Goldwater was swamped in a national landslide for Lyndon Johnson, his pitch began the party realignment that ultimately produced electoral victories for neoliberalism.  For the first time since Reconstruction, four Southern states voted for the Republican candidate.  Class inequality has, of course, remained outside the boundaries of mainstream media discourse; indeed, the dominant media meaning of “class warfare” refers to those who object to class inequality.
          The antiwar movement was grounded in moral revulsion at what became widely viewed as an American war of aggression against the Vietnamese people –the very opposite of mainstream presumptions about the war’s purpose.  Yet the movement was profoundly challenged in conveying its argument on the distant war to the wider society.  In the early years of antiwar activity in 1965 -1966, when only about a fourth of the country expressed doubts or criticisms of the war and the mass media and virtually all political officials reflexively cast the movement in disparaging terms, frustrated individual activists sought symbolic ways of expressing their sharp alienation from the war.  The first Viet Cong flags began to appear in the fall 1965 protests in New York and San Francisco, and they soon became a common feature at national mobilizations against the war.  Needless to say, movement detractors and the mass media in general had a field day noting how the flags were the expression of an “anti-American” movement, and not surprisingly many Americans drew the same conclusion.  As public opposition to the war grew, so, too, did public hostility towards the antiwar movement.
          Finally, the women’s movement faced enormous obstacles in engaging the sympathies of a wider audience steeped in sexist presuppositions about gender.  For a long time, much of the media responded to the fledgling movement with ridicule and reductive stereotypes.  Eventually the mainstream media began to grasp the anti-discriminatory claims of liberal feminism, while more radical critiques of the structure of gender and its ties with a range of social, political, and economic institutions lay well outside conventional discourse.  Instead, these critiques were reduced to the most inflammatory meanings, often extrapolated from protesters’ appearances, slogans, posters and the like.  Angry attacks on male sexism or patriarchy meant feminists were commonly labeled “man-haters,” while critiques of the structure of domestic life were taken to mean that feminists rejected motherhood and were “anti-family” –two of the many labels that over time became received truths for younger cohorts of women who embraced the values of liberal feminism while rejecting the feminist label.
          Each of these movements was highly decentralized, producing wide-ranging tactics and often spontaneity at the local level.  Reflecting in part the mass media dynamic, protest became increasingly expressive.  Not surprisingly, over time both the black power and antiwar movements became increasingly militant.  Not only did the unceasing horror of the war in Vietnam continued to escalate despite growing public antipathy, but the mainstream political agenda was shifting from the social welfare focus of Great Society liberalism to one of law and order reaction.  Furthermore, the experience of police violence often spawned counter-attack.  In addition to these influences, the mass media themselves encouraged militancy as it was the only way “radicalism” was recognized within mainstream discourse.
          Protest militancy was, and is, a double-edged sword.  It clearly alarmed public officials, and there is good evidence that antiwar militancy may well have added to the pressures that hastened the end of U. S. sponsored carnage in Indochina.[11]  As Jack Weinberg noted of Berkeley’s “Stop the Draft Week” in 1967, “We were becoming much more alienated from society and much more willing to be disruptive of that society, and basically we began moving to the view that we wanted to make the cost of [the government] pursuing the war abroad the ungovernability of the society at home.”[12]
          Along with the spreading visibility in mainstream media of a youthful counterculture, however, protest militancy was simultaneously useful to those who sought to mobilize a public backlash against the movements of the 60s.  Indeed, one can discern in mass media discourse in the later 60s a dynamic play between commercially-driven media responses to 60s-era agitation and ideological attacks on the social movements –a dynamic that over time became more generalized and helped to produce the prevailing political discourse of the neoliberal world.

From the 1960s “Democratic Distemper” to Today’s Neoliberal World:

Whether by favoring expressive youthful protest with media coverage, hyping the generational frame to explain social turbulence, or explicitly seeking to convert the youth culture to a youth market, commercial forces fostered what Lawrence Grossberg has termed “affective empowerment” –feelings of being significant or empowered by virtue of commercial media attention to rebellious youth.[13]  Especially as movement hopefulness began to fade, expressive politics and affective empowerment become increasingly significant, and this was particularly relevant in the relatively apolitical counterculture, as media-hyped events like the “Summer of Love” drew new cohorts of younger runaways into hippie communities like Haight-Ashbury.  As writers like Thomas Frank and Mark Crispin Miller have documented, the worlds of commercial advertising and entertainment media responded to the growing alienation of skeptical youth in the 60s by incorporating irony, “hipness” and self-satire into these respective domains.  As Frank put it,
The Sixties are more than merely the homeland of hip, they are a commercial template for our times, a historical prototype for the construction of cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent….  Every few years, it seems, the cycles of the sixties repeat themselves on a smaller scale, with new rebel youth cultures bubbling their way to a happy replenishing of the various cultural industries’ depleted arsenal of cool.  New generations obsolete the old, new celebrities render old ones ridiculous, and on and on in an ever-ascending spiral of hip upon hip.[14]

In the neoliberal market society, as people feel less and less able to shape their world through civic engagement, the imperatives of advertising and entertainment –as well as the phenomenon of being noticed in the media— lure people into the depoliticized world of affective empowerment.
Market forces also drove commercial media to respond to the fracture of 1950s monoculture produced by newly assertive minorities, youth, and women in the long-60s era.  The growing need to pitch commercials, television shows, and products to distinct targeted audiences produced centrifugal pressures that were eventually accommodated through cable-TV, satellite TV, and digital media (e.g., the internet).  These innovations, in turn, destabilized media markets, reducing predictable media profitability until deregulation at the behest of the industry facilitated both the horizontal and vertical integration of media ownership in huge conglomerates.
For some audiences, these media provided more than enough evidence of a world spinning out of control, thus handing the forces of reaction persuasive foils for their propaganda campaigns.  From the law and order campaigns of Goldwater, Reagan, Nixon, and George Wallace in the 1960s, to corporate backlash in the 1970s and the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, to the so-called “culture wars” and endless echoes on the far Right down to the present moment (e.g., the “socialist” Barack Obama), the forces of backlash created a “populist” pitch to those who felt aggrieved by or left out of the rebellious and liberal 60s (and increasingly those left behind in post-60s capitalism).  Typically, this pitch has contained two elements.  It has typically blamed the offending phenomena in the media on liberalism –Great Society liberalism (“Big Government”), liberal or “permissive” parenting, and/or an elitist “liberal media.”  And it has decried the erosion of social order, valued traditions and institutions endlessly apparent in the mass media –again, blaming these on liberals when they have largely been the product of capitalism’s consumer-driven culture and the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
Together, these forces helped to usher in the neoliberal world of today.  However, they could not have done it without the very conscious and lavishly funded efforts of corporate elites increasingly concerned about the decline of profitability in the 1970s and determined to transform the political discourse.  While Lewis Powell’s memorandum to the U. S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971 laid out an agenda for recapturing public allegiance to the world of business, the Trilateral Commission provided a more thoroughgoing rationale for reviving the world’s leading capitalist economies by reversing the “democratic distemper” of the 60s era.  The Trilateralists argued that the new assertiveness of “previously passive or unorganized groups in the population … blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students, and women,” had produced strains on the economy via a “welfare shift” (away from the post-World War II “defense shift”) and growing public hostility to defense spending and U. S. military interventionism.[15]
The perfect pitchman for neoliberalism was Ronald Reagan who, with the aid of his media handlers, combined folksy nostalgia for an idealized past with three basic themes drawn from the playbook of the Trilateral Commission and a host of newly active foundations and think-tanks funded by private and corporate wealth: liberal (“big”) government was the problem, the market was the solution, and the United States needed to reassert its aggressive “defense of freedom” in the world.  With the Democratic Leadership Council pushing leading the Democratic party into the corporate center, the neo-liberal regime became entrenched.  Financial deregulation and so-called “free trade” agreements restored corporate profitability and generated astonishing wealth for the tiny elite at the top of the economic hierarchy, while American working and lower-middle classes experienced the downward spiral of decline.  Along with mainstream media’s culture of entertainment and affective empowerment and the Right’s pseudo-populist appeal, neoliberal policies by both Republican and Democratic administrations have thus far kept the left at the margins of American politics –despite the increasingly desperate circumstances produced by those policies.

Occupy Wall Street and Beyond:

          As the political and media cultures of neoliberalism evolved, so, too, did the approaches and strategies of social protest over a range of so-called “new social movements” in the post-60s years.  These have largely revolved around anti-militarism/anti-imperialism and ecological targets and the concerns of feminists, people of color, and sexual minorities.  While these obviously persist to this day, two social movements have explicitly targeted the neoliberal paradigm –the so-called “anti-globalization” movement that emerged in Seattle in 1999 and mobilized against meetings of global economic elites in subsequent years, and the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread through localities across the United States and around the world in 2011-2012, the latter overlapping with anti-austerity uprisings.  Both movements have exhibited traits and trajectories that reflected the dynamics of movement-media interaction in the 1960s era.
          The Seattle protests in 1999 provided dramatic imagery of diverse groups of people from around the world gathering to protest the World Trade Organization –including potent media-captured “sea turtles and Teamsters” images in a united front challenging capitalism’s “free trade.”   Mass media texts, on the other hand, rapidly narrowed to questions of whether the protest would succeed in blocking or shutting down the WTO meetings.  In addition to fostering fruitful exchanges among activists from all over the world, the Seattle protest also captured public attention because of the brutality of the Seattle “Robocops” and the window-smashing Black Bloc tactics of young black-clad and black-masked anarchists.  As the anti-capitalist-globalization movement spread in subsequent years, “diversity of tactics” and affinity-groups became regular features of mass mobilizations.  Committing to a diversity of tactics while rejecting binding decisions regarding protest tactics created a dynamic which, in Stephanie Ross’s words produced “vanguardism by default” in which “some groups emerge as a self-selected avant garde … by deploying tactics which are not only defined as the ‘radical’ [i.e., militant] leading edge but which, by their very nature make the practice of other tactics next to impossible….”[16]  Over time, the narrow mass media coverage of globalization protests, and those at Republican and Democratic conventions, concentrated on violent confrontations between small groups of protesters and the police.
          The trajectory of the Occupy movement has also echoed dynamics from the 60s era –at least through its first year of occupations.  For the most part, the mass media ignored the initial occupation of Zurcotti Park, although patronizing, disparaging commentaries appeared in outlets like New York Times.  However, once images of two women pepper sprayed in the face went viral on the internet and mass arrests occurred when protesters were entrapped on the Brooklyn Bridge, Occupy Wall Street became a mass media phenomenon subject to all the typical boundaried interpretations.  It also began to spread across the nation and globe bringing together people with a wide range of grievances, mobilized by the intensified contradictions of neoliberalism in the wake of the Wall Street bailout as well as the sense that “something is now happening.”
While this article cannot adequately address all aspects of Occupy and its implications for strategy going forward,[17] I will attempt to draw a few tentative conclusions that I think reflect back on the historical antecedents I have outlined above.  First, the response of the commercial mass media stayed true to the patterns exhibited in the 60s era and in subsequent years.  In mainstream discourse, Occupy was viewed through lenses that ranged from conventional liberal to right-wing “conservative.”  At one pole, Occupy was drawing justified attention to profound inequalities in American life; at the other, Occupy was populated by misfits and malcontents of many different descriptions, all without legitimacy.  Such was the range of legitimate controversy in the media, most of which insisted Occupy needed to generate specific “demands.”
At the same time, images played a highly significant role throughout the Occupy experience –whether these were mass media photographs or those generated through social media.  Violence, unusual participant appearances or behaviors, and dramatic signs and symbols were magnets for mainstream cameras.  And often the images selected revealed mainstream preoccupations.  Thus, for example, after police violently evicted people who had occupied an abandoned building in Oakland in January 2012, anarchists fought back with Black Bloc tactics.  In a virtual echo of 60s media fare, the next day’s coverage in the on-line L.A. Times featured two photographs on the front page: one showing a coterie of police lined up to defend a graffiti-covered building, the other showing a few protesters who burning an American flag.  Contesting mainstream imagery, protesters photographed or videotaped acts of police violence, with the pepper-spraying of seated protesters at U. Cal. Davis perhaps being the most widely disseminated example.
Second, in addition to generating a fresh sense of popular empowerment, Occupy produced two significant counterfoils to the neoliberal regime of the last 33 years, and both are relevant to longer-term movement building.  As reflected in increasing mainstream attention to inequality and documented in a Pew Research Center poll, “the issue of class conflict has captured a growing share of the national consciousness” in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street.[18]  Occupy’s symbolism of the 1% vs. the 99% clearly penetrated the media’s legitimate discourse, possibly even playing a role in the 2012 election, yet, equally clearly, political institutions have been singularly unresponsive to the issue of inequality.
In addition, while many have decried Occupy’s lack of an explicit political agenda, as an opening salvo in a longer-term movement Occupy revived two foundations of a democratic culture that have become largely eviscerated in today’s neoliberal world: it reclaimed public space and its general assemblies revived the art of democratic conversation and consensus-building.  Both are crucial to the long term feasibility of building a radical democratic future, particularly in a society in which class solidarity has been so effectively fractured by, among other things, the propaganda of pseudo-populism.
Yet, going forward, affective empowerment remains a potent obstacle to building an effective movement for radical change –whether people feel empowered through the seductions of consumption, entertainment, and privatism via the internet, social media or more traditional institutions, or whether that feeling of empowerment comes from street violence as an act of symbolic resistance.  Mass media culture continues to acculturate the young in the affective empowerment of immediate gratification.  As Barbara Epstein wrote in the aftermath of the violence in Occupy Oakland,
[I]t has been so long since we have been able to achieve any concrete goals that radical activism has ceased to be oriented in this direction.  The aim of radical movements has come to be understood as resistance rather than social change.  The two follow different logics.  Resistance, as measured by the intensity of opposition, calls for drama, performance, spectacle; change, measured by what opposition accomplishes, calls for thinking about how to get from where we are to the society we want, or at least to one that is more livable and sustainable than the present.  It seems to me that the latter question deserves more attention than it gets from the radical left.[19]

Quite clearly, resistance remains an important strategy in a world in which global capital and militarism are so destructive of human well-being and so ecologically erosive.  Yet, as Epstein puts it, the logic of resistance is also the logic of mass media –dramatic, performative, spectacular.  This doesn’t mean resistance can’t reflect thoughtful awareness about impacts on wider audiences, but that it remains highly vulnerable to actions that may well be counterproductive to social change.  As 60s-era movements and Occupy have demonstrated, the same vulnerabilities apply to other forms of direct action that aim at raising sympathetic public consciousness about the targets of protest; either they may spin into counterproductive action or they may pass relatively unnoticed in the wider media.
There remains an additional, related protest path that involves the collective withdrawal of participation in institutions that require that participation–what Piven and Cloward have called “defiance.”  Labor strikes or collective boycotts have been two of the most common forms of defiance.  One spin-off of the Occupy movement has been Strike Debt, an effort to build public solidarity in opposition to a variety of forms of individual debt –student, household, medical, and mortgage debt— as well as, potentially, forms of institutional debt that distort the public responsiveness and agendas of the respective governing bodies–e.g., municipal, school system, and developing nations’ debt.  While there are obviously formidable strategic obstacles to organizing collective defiance around debt, the effort to do so offers three strategic advantages: 1) its targets are the creditors –banks and other financial institutions, and more symbolically the 1%-- and as David Graeber’s recent study suggests, it is potentially counter-systemic;[20] 2) it offers the potential for building solidarity across the divides of our fragmented neoliberal polity if students, homeowners, the elderly, and credit-card-dependent families come to recognize they are being exploited by a common adversary; and 3) if collective defiance proved possible, it would necessitate a response from the powerful creditors, and at least to that extent it begins to empower the protest movement, providing a foundation for broader empowerment.
Inevitably, global capitalism will continue to generate opposition and resistance around the world.  In fact, it is possible to imagine the current moment as one in which a wide variety of forces are gradually coming together to give birth to a new global paradigm –one that will not only allow human life to continue but will liberate humans in ways that allow them to connect and engage with each other to create a more livable world for everyone.  In the struggle ahead, it behooves us to be attentive to the myriad of ways the mass media divide us from each other.

Edward P. (Ted) Morgan is Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University where he teaches classes on Social Movements and Legacies of the 1960s; Propaganda, Media and American Politics; and Organizing for Democracy.  This article draws on his What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 2010) and his earlier interpretive history of 60s-era social movements, The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons about Modern America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).

[1] In making this leap back to 1968, I don’t mean to denigrate either the so-called “anti-globalization” movement that took off with the Seattle protests in 1999, or the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 80s –both of which were significant social movements which influenced the course of anti-systemic activism around the world.

[2] Immanuel Wallerstein, “1968, Revolution in the World-System,” Theory and Society 18 (1989), 431.

[3] Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (New York: Ballantine, 2004), xvii.

[4] Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York: New York University Press, 1975).

[5] While I map out the argument here, I document the media-protest dynamic and the post-60s reconstruction in What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 2010).

[6] Daniel Hallin, The ‘Uncensored War’: The Media and Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 116-7, emphasis added.

[7] Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 49.
[8] Gadi Wolfsfeld and William A. Gamson, “Movements and Media as Interacting Systems,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 528 (July 1993):  119.

[9] Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Scribner, 2003), 139, emphasis added.

[10] Quoted in Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (New York: Penguin, 1988), 191.

[11] As Immanuel Wallerstein has argued, “What those in power most feared was not the moral condemnation of the movements but their ability to disrupt the political arena by mass mobilization.”  Immanuel Wallerstein, The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 24.

[12] Jack Weinberg, quoted in Mark Kitchell, Berkeley in the 60s (VHS; New York: First Run Features, 1990).

[13] Lawrence Grossberg, “Rockin’ in Conservative Times,” in Dancing in Spite of Myself (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 257.

[14] Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 235.  See also Mark Crispin Miller, Boxed In: The Culture of TV, 3rd ed. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989).

[15] Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy, 61-2.

[16] Stephanie Ross, “Is This What Democracy Looks Like?  The Politics of the Anti-Globalization Movement in North America,” in Socialist Register 2003: Fighting Identities: Race, Religion, and Ethno-Nationalism (Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publications, 2002), 281.

[17] For more on this, see Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber, Socialist Register 2013: The Question of Strategy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).

[18] Rich Morin, “Rising Share of Americans See Conflict between Rich and Poor,” Pew Research Center, January 11, 2012, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/01/11/rising-share-of-americans-see-conflict-between-rich-and-poor/ (March 14, 2013).

[19] Barbara Epstein, “Occupy Oakland and the Question of Violence,” in Panitch, Albo, and Chibber, Socialist Register 2013, 81-2.

[20] See David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011).

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