Framing the #OccupyWallStreet and other 2011 protest movements in the context of anti-power and counter-power

This essay is not a blanket criticism against anti-power activism. Indeed, in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, the old political class must be removed in order to create spaces for new forms of accountability and participation to blossom. Too often, however, anti-power mobilizations lose their strength and unity once the old political class is forced out. Though “good governance” is not nearly as sexy as revolutionary slogans, anti-power activism must go hand in hand with movements for transparency, constituency building, and smart policy to bring about a truly progressive future.

The following is excerpted from Oso, and argues that the failure of the 2011 movements is due to a counter-productive choice for anti-power strategies. The second excerpt is from Dave Parry, in which, continuing with the main theme, the author asks whether social media, obviously good for short-term mobilization, may be bad for long-term organizational counter-power?

“Strangely, there was one question that all the pundits seemed equally willing to ignore: what happens after all the protests and revolutions? University of Texas professor Dave Parry eventually declared on his blog that social media have indeed proven effective at stirring up revolution, but then he asked, “are they bad for democracy?” What if social media tools incentivize incessant protest rather than the new forms of civic participation and transparency necessary for a functioning 21st century democracy?

The Egyptian activists I met in Beirut were successful at forcing Mubarak out of power, but what will come next? There are still no signs of a functioning government, or plans for new democratic institutions, and yet many of the same protesters continue to raise their fists in Tahrir Square, though their motivations are murky. A 62-year-old homemaker, passing by the broken bottles and stones from yet another clash between police and youth, asked: “What’s this all for? Commodities are expensive; life isn’t any better. What have these youth and protests done for us?” Writing for Al Jazeera, Esther Dyson expressed her concern that Egyptian youth are not yet aware that running a government is not as easy as “running a Facebook group.”

Again, Dave Parry:

While generally I am a cautious optimist when it comes to the question of does social media enable people to resist and coordinate against oppressive regimes, I am far more skeptical on the question of whether or not social media-powered revolutions yield stability. They might be really good in the short term, but the attributes which make social media powerful in the short term, might also be a hindrance in the long term.

To frame the problem, Parry borrows two concepts from sociologist John Holloway: counter-power and anti-power. Counter-power is an attempt to replace one power structure with another. Most traditional revolutionary conflicts have begun this way, with an opposition movement that attempts to replace the group currently in power. For example, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution sought to replace the government of Viktor Yanukovych with that of Viktor Yushchenko, who was seen by the youth as less corrupt and more modern. Or, reaching back even further, Mao Zedong inspired Chinese peasants to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party. Anti-power, on the other hand, aims not to substitute power structures, but rather to undo the current power structure without any notion of what ought to come next. It is easier to build a coalition around anti-power because the framing of resistance rests solely on what’s wrong, not on what ought to be done. “In the case of Egypt, the movement seems to me more constituted by anti-power — get rid of the current regime; and less around any other institution replacing the existing one,” writes Parry. “The protestors were clearly saying no to Mubarak but what kind of power they were saying yes to was less than clear.”

No protest movement of 2011 is more representative of anti-power than the so-called “Spanish Revolution.” “This isn’t a protest against any particular politician or political party,” remarked one protester, “this is a rejection of the entire political class.” In fact, the most commonly cited success of the protest movement is a lack of voter turnout in the May elections.

Spanish discontentment consolidated in 2008 when then-President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero approved a government bailout of the financial sector similar to the bailout approved by his American counterpart, Barack Obama. Soon Spain’s public debt skyrocketed. As journalist Bernardo Gutiérrez recounts, “while unemployment reached record highs in 2010, the 35 largest companies at Madrid’s stock market announced profits of 50 billion euros, 24.5% more than in 2009. Telefónica caused an outcry when the company fired 6,000 workers in Spain while announcing EUR 450 million in bonuses to its executives and 6.9 billion in dividends to its shareholders.” Resentment among Spain’s mostly unemployed youth then turned into outrage when the government passed the highly controversial Internet regulatory legislation known as “Ley Sinde,” which allows for the shutdown of any website without due process. Significantly, Gutiérrez notes that while 92% of Spanish youth are regular Internet users, only 10% of Spanish MPs use Twitter. Networks of activists converged around the online platform “Real Democracy Now!” which called for a massive demonstration against the political class, and for … well, it’s not exactly certain.

If Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was the intellectual fountainhead of 1968, then it is another Frenchman, the 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, whose book Time of Outrage is to be found in the backpacks and iPads of European protesters today. The thin booklet, which calls on readers to get angry about the state of modern society, even topped the Christmas bestseller list in France. Hessel, who was tortured by the Nazis for his resistance during World War II, says that it is time to resist the “international dictatorship of the financial markets” by defending the “values of modern democracy.” But that is essentially where he leaves readers. The French philosopher, Luc Ferry, responded with an open letter in Le Figaro, which admonished Hessel for inciting outrage without offering any constructive suggestions. Indignation, writes Ferry, is a sentiment “that is applied only to others, never to oneself, and real morality starts with demands one makes on oneself.” Prime Minister François Fillon added that “nothing would be less French than apathy and indifference, but indignation for indignation’s sake is not a way of thinking.” In other words, Ferry and Fillon criticize Hessel for encouraging anti-power resistance without offering any constructive proposal.”

2. Dave Parry:

“While generally I am a cautious optimist when it comes to the question of does social media enable people to resist and coordinate against oppressive regimes (more on the side of Shirky on this, less on the side of Morozov), I am far more skeptical on the question of whether or not social media powered revolutions yield stability. They might be really good in the short term, but the attributes which make social media powerful in the short term, might also be a hindrance in the long term, not so good at long lasting stability.

One way to frame this problem is to think of it in terms of counter-power versus anti-power (not my frame I have borrowed this from several authors I have been reading lately). Counter-power is a way of resisting and overcoming a current power structure by opposing it with another sort of power. These power relations might be symmetrical or asymmetrical but what is at stake in this type of conflict is replacing one power structure with another. I think in the majority of revolutionary conflicts we can see this type of resistance, where another group, not the one currently holding power attempts to replace or unseat the current one. This type of power alignment doesn’t even necessarily constitute itself through violent resistance, one can thing of the Democrats versus Republicans, legal battles, or revolutionary conflicts. The notion of anti-power though is slightly different, where the effort is to resist the current power structure not through some sort of affirmative replacement, destroy this with that, replace this with that, but rather an effort to just undo the current system. Anti-power is a little easier to build a coalition around, the framing issue is resistance to the current structure as opposed to counter power whereby a group not only shares the idea that the current power ought to be replaced but a shared agenda of what ought to replace it.

As Joss Hands points out in @ is for Activism the oft cited example of the “People Power Protest II” in the Philippines, the one coordinated and fostered by text message, was actually an example of counter power as it was supported by, enabled by, and encouraged by anti-Estrada members of government. In this case the movement had a clear organizational structure, not only to remove Estrada but to replace him with Arroyo. (I realize the history and story here is more complicated, but I am more interested in the framing that Hands provides.) The point here is that one power structure was replaced by another which had a clear sense of how to fill the power vacuum.

In the case of Egypt the movement seems to me more constituted by anti-power, get rid of the current regime, and less around any other institution replacing the existing one. In other words there was no part of the movement ready to take power once Mubarak was ousted. In the late stages of the protest this struck me as one of the issues, no one person or group or even diverse group of people had the ability to negotiate with the government. The protestors were clearly saying no to Mubarak but what kind of power they were saying yes to was less than clear. Now this kind of frame for thinking about protests is not particular to social media, indeed you could have counter power or anti power via a range of media. But I do think that the speed and organizational structure of social media probably lends itself to being easily used as a force for anti-power, an easy way to organize a massive “no,” but deciding on the next step might be the more tricky part. And again I think this next part, what power comes next, isn’t a unique problem to this media landscape, but I do think it is worth considering the possibility that while social media might be particularly useful for organizing and coordinating people to resist power, acting as a destabilizing force, the very factors that make it so useful in this regard might make it less useful, indeed counter productive to (or at least it might require conscious reworking/re-engineering, for example how to resist the accelerating forces which are good for resistance but an anathema to slow deliberative democracy) democratic organization.

Clearly there are a lot of forces in play now in Egypt, and reducing the current power vacuum and political power struggle to an effect of social media would be ridiculous. But, I do think it is worth considering the ways in which an anti-power resistance movement struggles to reconstitute itself as power. And in the case of Egypt I think we are seeing how this plays out. At the Theorizing the Web panel Mark Lynch made the counter point to this, suggesting that because the younger generation had practice in organizing and utilizing social media tools that in the long term it might actually lead to greater participation and a healthier public sphere. That the young individuals who compromised a significant piece of the revolutionary anti-power might in the first election prove less than organized, without a leader, in the second election cycle they would clearly use the tools, techniques, civic institutions and political awareness to shape that election.

The answers to these questions will only come after the power struggles have played out, and what is happening in Egypt is different from Tunisia. From listening to protestors and the citizens of Egypt there is evidence to suggest that the people are moving away from anti-power and towards forming a stable government, resisting attempts of other autocrats to consolidate power, maintaining the strong political engagement of Tahrir Square.

I do however think it is important to separate these two parts of the question, social media as power resisting platform and social media as power consolidating platform. My suspicion is that social media itself is heterogenous to the way that governments and bureaucratic institutions organize power, thus making it difficult for social media enabled revolutions to fill a power vacuum that they are so good at creating.”

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