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Connective action: the public’s answer to democratic dysfunction

Hong Kong’s digitally connected protesters are mounting a thoroughly modern campaign for democracy, but the state too has updated its mechanisms of control and surveillance. EPA/Alex Hofford

In the closing decades of the last century, many political and business elites were swept up in a global wave of policies favouring free markets, deregulation of business and finance and privatisation of public goods and services. Accompanying this updating of classical liberal thought (termed neoliberalism), public discourses focused on private lives organised around consumerism as a defining element of individual freedom.

Economic globalisation dating from roughly the 1970s also produced dramatic shifts in social organisation and citizen orientations in most post-industrial democracies. Most notably, memberships in civil society organisations and loyalties to parties and political institutions – particularly among younger citizens – have been eroded.

In most OECD nations, the largest groups of voters under 30 are now either apolitical or independent. These trends appear to be generational shifts.

Collateral damage from these changes includes the graying and fragmentation of audiences for serious journalism. Commercial print media are in crisis nearly everywhere. Public service broadcasting is looking in vain for formulas that attract news audiences under 40.

Electoral politics succumbs to marketing

Under these circumstances, electoral politics has become less ideological and more personalised in ways that resemble consumer marketing and branding. Voters need to be resold every election.

The result is that the costs of conventional politics have soared in nations such as the US. Election spending has grown nearly exponentially as parties and candidates send more messages to relatively small numbers of hard-to-reach middle voters. And they suffer sensory overload and general disdain for the political process.

The legalised flow of money into politics has introduced elusive forms of corruption that undermine popular representation and discourage citizen trust.

To fill in the picture of democracy in the 21st century, I should add the following observations. Inequality is on the rise, led by the two neoliberal pioneers, the US and the UK, but rising in most OECD nations, including Australia. Neo-nationalist and racist movements have sent disquieting numbers of representatives into national and EU legislatures. Some scholars are asking whether the term democracy really any longer fits former standard-bearers such as the US and if plutocracy is a better term.

As if this were not enough, economists are telling us that global economic growth since the Second World War was unprecedented in the history of market economies. These growth rates are unlikely to be repeated.

The environmental crisis further undermines the prospects for sound economic recovery. It also threatens rising sea levels, as well as safe energy supplies, food and water, and other essentials of human security.

All of this strains against the capacity for creative thought and effective action in the neoliberal power centres of Beijing, Washington, London or Canberra.

Popular frustrations with politics find another way

With conventional politics in a state of drift, popular frustrations have fed protests. These are challenging the legitimacy of governments that are perceived to be corrupted by business interests and unable or unwilling to represent broader publics. However, just beyond the horizons of most national capitals is a thriving sphere of public engagement and concern.

The past decade has seen the largest organised protests in the histories of many societies. Large transnational networks are forming to deal with critical issues such as climate change (and related problems of food, energy and water), human trafficking and models for more sustainable economies.

Some protest networks have emerged rather spontaneously using social media. We saw this in Tahrir Square, the Spanish indignados and Occupy in 2011, and in the flash mobs of Chinese environmental and corruption protests.

Other large networks are enabled by the growth of issue-advocacy NGOs, along with hybrid organisations like Avaaz, Getup! and Moveon. Such groupings use online organisation to mobilise people around issues they care about personally.

These emerging forms of public mobilisation differ from conventional models for aggregating support and mobilising participation. Once this involved joining groups, forging collective identifications and marching under common banners. Citizens coming of age today tend to seek personally expressive modes of action about problems they can share with others via personal communication media.

Those others are less likely than their cohorts from past eras to be assembled via connections to party, union, church or club. They are more easily joined through social networks, friend circles, trusted recommendations, media sharing (photos, videos, mashups) and technologies that match demographic and lifestyle qualities.

The result is that political partners and activities align across loosely tied, opt-in/opt-out networks. While these personalised, networked politics are often scattered, disorganised or ineffective, they can display remarkable capacity to get things done.

Since the 1990s, consumer activists around the world have directly pressured business sectors to clean up their acts and lift environmental, labour and product safety standards. In recent times, Icelanders pressed for a new constitution, Egyptians overthrew a corrupt government, Spaniards opened a discussion about democratic legitimacy, and Occupiers the world over sparked a discussion about inequality and democracy.

How is this different from past protest movements?

The question is how well these actions articulate with government reform and public policy change.

The issues championed by technologically networked publics may resemble older movement or party agendas in terms of topics such as environment, human and labour rights, women’s equality, or economic justice. However, the shifts in underlying social structures and communication processes have undermined old political mechanisms for spreading ideas and organising action. The networked society favours more personalised expression and connection than the old organising basis of social group identity, party membership, or ideology.

People still join actions in large numbers. The identity process, though, is built through inclusive large-scale personal expression rather than more exclusive group or ideological identification. Driving the shift away from formal organisations are digital media technologies and social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

The author’s The Logic of Connective Action explores the emerging forms of democratic mobilisation. Cambridge University Press

My colleague Alexandra Segerberg and I have termed these emerging forms of democratic mobilisation “connective action”. We elaborated on them in our book, The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics.

When enabled by the often-dense layers of communication technologies, crowds can display remarkable levels of persistence, agenda-setting and issue-framing. They employ flexible political targeting as opportunities and official reactions change the arenas and conditions of action.

Most conventional collective action relies on centralised coordination, community organising and broadcast media campaigning. Connective action operates on a different political economy. It is based on voluntary self-expression, which is shared and recognised in the process of forming large social networks.

This sharing economy often takes hybrid forms. Organisations use different communication logics to organise publics along different citizenship styles.

Thus, NGOs such as Oxfam may still engage those comfortable being formal members on issues such as the world food crisis by using conventional methods of issue education involving one-to-many communication. Younger social network-oriented citizens may be engaged more effectively by enlisting celebrities such as the rock band Coldplay. They activate fan networks sharing much more personalised understandings about food and world hunger.

We have explored how these hybrid forms of connective action may work across societies as different as the US, Australia, China and Egypt.

Many democracies have experienced declines of civil society membership organisations as unintended byproducts of neoliberal policies. Authoritarian regimes have actively policed civil societies to weaken independent citizen organisation. The ironic result is that civil societies have become more atomised and personalised in both systems.

And where social technologies have become relatively available, the processes of connective action look remarkably similar.

Can connective action prevail in the modern state?

The Chinese and Egyptian governments have learnt to take much more seriously the political uses of personal media. Heightened surveillance and censorship restrict networked publics and popular mobilisations. With the revelations of US National Security Agency spying on the personal communications of citizens in many countries, one wonders if an open networked public sphere is even safe in the democracies.

The commercialisation of internet access and many technologies used for political organisation adds to worries about the future of connective action.

Whether surveillance and commercialisation will undermine the potential for connective action remains to be seen. However, many of the above examples have been criticised as mere “clicktivism” that is unlikely to have the same impact as old-fashioned movements and parties. While connective action may have less of a public policy impact than old-fashioned collective action, many critics fail to note the changes in social and political structures that shift the foundations for political organisation.

The rise of neoliberal regimes has limited political responsiveness to many progressive causes. If conditions for political mobilisation and government responsiveness have changed, then the basis for understanding and evaluating emerging forms of organisation and action must also change.

What remains clear is that for meaningful action to be taken on the environment or sustainable energy and economic policies, governments must be open to political reforms and new policy directions.

It is far too simplistic to assume that if majorities of citizens really wanted such changes, then governments would follow. Majorities in most nations are waiting for effective government actions on a host of pressing problems.

At least while they wait, they have access as never before to communication media and strategies for using them. This connective action helps large national and transnational publics discuss important issues, discover their voices and take action.

This is an edited and condensed version of a public lecture delivered at an Australian Political Studies Association plenary session at the University of Sydney on September 29, 2014.

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