The conservative dilemma

October 23, 2011

Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at New York University wrote about the Arab Spring and the role social media played in helping spread the message of protesting movement. His comments about conservative (government) responses to these movements is particularly interesting given the police crackdown against the various Occupy X events in Melbourne and Sydney.

Disciplined and coordinated groups, whether businesses or governments, have always had an advantage over undisciplined ones: they have an easier time engaging in collective action because they have an orderly way of directing the action of their members. Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination. The anti-Estrada movement in the Philippines used the ease of sending and forwarding text messages to organize a massive group with no need (and no time) for standard managerial control. As a result, larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns, that were previously reserved for formal organizations. For political movements, one of the main forms of coordination is what the military calls “shared awareness,” the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too. Social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks. The anti-Aznar protests in Spain gained momentum so quickly precisely because the millions of people spreading the message were not part of a hierarchical organization.

…This condition of shared awareness — which is increasingly evident in all modern states — creates what is commonly called “the dictator’s dilemma” but that might more accurately be described by the phrase coined by the media theorist Briggs: “the conservative dilemma,” so named because it applies not only to autocrats but also to democratic governments and to religious and business leaders. The dilemma is created by new media that increase public access to speech or assembly; with the spread of such media, whether photocopiers or Web browsers, a state accustomed to having a monopoly on public speech finds itself called to account for anomalies between its view of events and the public’s. The two responses to the conservative dilemma are censorship and propaganda. But neither of these is as effective a source of control as the enforced silence of the citizens. The state will censor critics or produce propaganda as it needs to, but both of those actions have higher costs than simply not having any critics to silence or reply to in the first place. But if a government were to shut down Internet access or ban cell phones, it would risk radicalizing otherwise pro-regime citizens or harming the economy.

The conservative dilemma exists in part because political speech and apolitical speech are not mutually exclusive.

Welcome to Melbourne #occupymelbourne

Welcome to Melbourne (via @pacific_justice)

I’m under no illusion that the Occupy Melbourne and Occupy Sydney events will have the longevity of the Occupy Wallstreet (99 Percent) movement. Although we are in early days, the key challenge for the Occupy X events is to transition from events to organisation.

In any case, the phenomenon I observed with Occupy Melbourne is that many, many progressive people who were dismissive of the event in its early stage, were “radicalised” when it became clear that the police were planning to violently evict the occupiers from City Square. Awareness of the event was generated by mayor Doyle’s decision. Sympathy was created towards the occupiers when they were subjected to unwarranted police brutality. “Mainstream” progressive people who had stood at arms length made the decision to stand by the more fringe progressive elements who had made up the Occupy X events.

A similar thing happened for the Occupy Wallstreet movement when police broke up a march across the Brooklyn Bridge and their other hard-handed attempts to break up the occupation. Non-radicalised people, sympathetic to the notion that corporate America has run amok, came out to support the occupiers. It is also worth noting that the Occupy Wallstreet movement was born from the Adbusters group — and thus benefited from considerable organisational infrastructure and experience from its early participants.

While Shirky’s comments are mostly directed at totalitarian regimes focused on stamping on middle-class revolutionary movements, there are at least some parallels in how people respond to censorship and crackdowns in Industrialised nations.

Where the similarities break down is the role of those movements providing political leadership. In the successful cases, the people protesting in Egypt or Tunisia provided genuine class leadership. They were made up of the middle-classes and regime technicians. They possessed at least some legitimacy.

The US 99 Percent Movement is growing that legitimacy as more and more “serious” groups start to support the movement – the environment groups, labor unions, progressive think-tanks, and Democratic politicians — all of whom provide a counter-hegemonic shield. The organisers of the movement are more in tune with their progressive constituency. They lead (through their occupation) but not too far ahead (most occupiers want to influence Democratic politics like the tea party influences Republicans).

The Australian Occupy X events have yet to evolve into this more advanced state. Of course, it is early days. The 99 Percent Movement in New York was largely ignored for weeks before it broke into the mainstream. Can the Occupy X events continue? How much stamina do the protesters have? Can they tap into their allies and break into the mainstream?

The conservative dilemma remains for the various State Governments — the more they act against the Occupy X events, the more they increase the legitimacy of the protesters and radicalise their supporters.


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