Social Movement Media, Democracy, and the Question of Time-Frame

December 23, 2011

John Downing, vice-president of IAMCR and editor of the newsletter is introducing a new feature to the newsletter – a series of brief reflections by IAMCR members on intellectual issues relevant to the Association’s work. In this issue John looks at 'Social Movement Media, Democracy, and the Question of Time-Frame'. IAMCR members are invited to send their ideas for future newsletters to John at news[AT]

Stretching back over the past two centuries, the planet has seen a remarkable widening of the expectation that the public at large has a perfect right to assert itself, to generate its own laws, to reshape those rules if and when circumstances change, to debate openly the need for change, to elect its government leaders and to remove them from power.

The results over those two centuries have clearly been mixed. Women have only very gradually been officially defined as a full part of 'the public at large,' the first national entity to do so being far away New Zealand in 1893. Campaigners for women’s right to vote did not necessarily campaign for the same right for people of colour, or vice versa. In polities shaped according to Leninist principles the single party claimed to be all workers’ and farmers’ authentic democratic voice. In Europe in 1914 elected parties, including parties identifying themselves as socialist, overwhelmingly voted for their governments to raise mammoth funds to enable the unimaginable carnage of World War I.

In the USA and increasingly in other countries the quantities of hard cash required to run successfully for major government office are simply astonishing, and far outside the reach of – shall we say, conservatively? – 99% of the public. The competition among political parties in the postwar era has increasingly become one of celebrating High Masses to free market forces while simultaneously tightening the screws of state surveillance and repression. Is then the PRC regime the global democratic future? Let us hope, rather, that perhaps Kenya is, with its recent successful constitutional revision perhaps marking a constructive milestone.
Against this backdrop, we are compelled to question, in my view, the assumption that the structures of liberal democracy are sufficient to their stated purpose. It should be obvious from the foregoing that I am not covertly arguing that dictatorship is equivalent, let alone preferable. Nor, I trust is clear, am I arguing that gains historically achieved under a democratic umbrella – gains in labor rights, in women’s rights, in civil rights, in environmental protection laws – are mere wisps of smoke. Nor am I trying to echo the resigned conservative fatalism of Winston Churchill’s claim that democracy is the worst form of government, other than all the others that have been tried.

But when Guantánamo persists through three presidential administrations, along with rendition, drones, military interventions in oil-rich dictatorships, and when the savage repayments for disastrous economic decisions taken at the top are socialized at the bottom – then we cannot avoid seeing the precarious qualities of liberal democratic structures as instruments for the common good or anything approaching a strong democracy. The 'democratic' refusal to take climate change seriously may prove to be the ultimate proof of what I am arguing.

This is the scenario of the 'democratic deficit', but I suggest the scenario is crucially different in most of the planet from the deep disillusionment with democracy as such that emerged during the 1930s Great Depression. The mood in many places demands more effective and responsive democratic structures, not to see them abolished. So is there a feasible answer to the demand for democracy? And which constructive roles may the media we can make play in the process?

The upsurges over 2011 in a number of Arab countries, the ones which heralded them in Greece, Iran, Thailand and elsewhere, and the recent transnational Occupy movement, all suggest the answer may be a cautious Yes.

So I want here to focus on the historical contribution of social and political movements to forging a stronger democracy. And of those movements’ media projects.

Not all movements – think of fascism, think of the contemporary anti-immigrant and anti-refugee movements in a slew of liberal democratic and other countries– are shining and lovely. But labor movements, movements for women’s suffrage, feminist movements, civil rights movements, the anti-apartheid movement, antiwar movements, antinuclear movements in both peace and energy arenas, Indigenous peoples’ movements, the environmental movement: these and others have undoubtedly contributed and continue actively today to realizing the claim that other worlds are possible. (Not just another world – the Soviets laid claim to a single future, and we need never to go down that path again.)

The historical place of social movements in strengthening democracy is then, I would argue, at least as important as the emergence and growth of liberal democratic procedures. But to begin properly to acknowledge this reality has implications for a very common flaw in current discussions of both social movements and democracy: the assumption of a foreshortened time frame.

And this meshes with a further problem: most research studying social movements has skipped along without a backward glance at their forms of public communication1. Similarly, there has until recently in the Anglophone research world, been very little media research engaging with social movement questions. So we are on rather poorly mapped terrain.

Let me conclude nonetheless by rapidly tracing out my argument in favor of reconceptualizing these interconnected issues of democratic process, media and time-frame assumptions.

Events in 2011 and years preceding them should prod us into endorsing the democratic necessity of vigorous social movements, namely those with pro-democracy agendas. Or, if you like, with firmly anti-authoritarian agendas. But the time-frame for delivery of their results cannot be measured inside a routinized political election cycle of two, four, five, seven years. For a small highly localized movement addressing an issue particular to its neighborhood, maybe. But for the movements which have won serious social gains, we have to be thinking in decades and centuries, and today in continents too.

Liberal democratic elections, however, pivot in significant measure on the assumption that a small pocket of years in one country will be politically crucial. As the Thatcher/Reagan/Bush-Cheney periods in office, or January 1933 in Germany indicate, that assumption has an important purchase on reality - but on negative potential, not the chance of achieving enduring social gains.

By contrast with the orderliness of election timetables, social movements are messy, chaotic, occasional, unpredictable, fluctuating in strength. How can you achieve anything reliable based upon such flux? And as for their media – badly spelt crudely produced flyers, demonstrations (will people never learn that demonstrations are a waste of time?), disorganized community radio stations, blogger-millions addressing the void, little sectarian rags – who can conceivably take them seriously?

And in the end, the Greek government still survives despite its ruinous austerity measures, Ali Khamenei is still Iran’s Supreme Leader, Hafez Assad’s son still is Syrian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh is Yemeni president. In Egypt and Tunisia much of the entrenched power bloc is still in place.

All this matters, evidently. But unless our preconceived time-frame for strong democratic advance is measured in short election cycles, then the ongoing flux of tweets and whispers, of blogs and short videos, of popular songs, of slogans, of clumsily handwritten placards, of phone texts, of the multiple communication modes of social movements today, all represent the painful, contradictory, long-drawn-out, start-stop-start-stop-start communication for change process that liberal-democratic procedures in and of themselves will almost never deliver. Each one of these media projects may indeed be trivial in and of itself. Viewed over decades and longer, each anthill can be part of the history written in our bones.

Part of the problem is that far too many people, whether social activists in liberal democratic processes or movement activists, also have a foreshortened time frame. They want desperately to see the results of their social change activism in their own lifetime – if at all possible in the very next decade! So we see quite often the burn-out phenomenon, prompted initially by sincere recognition of the desperate urgency of significant social change to the benefit of most planet inhabitants, but then rechanneled over time into political exhaustion or political cynicism.

My argument then is for extending our analytical and psychological time frame, a strategy based on both the urgency of change and the political longue durée. This then enables us to grasp both the pivotal place of social movements and not least of their multiple nanomedia of communication, in generating constructive social change based on strong democracy.

John D.H. Downing (*)
October 2011
* These are my personal reflections for comment and reaction from any IAMCR members who wish, they are not to be attributed to IAMCR or any of its elected leaders.