Anti-war politics after the public sphere

by Craig Willse

I. Narrating politics

For some time, extragovernmental political activity has been narrated as a practice of what is called “the public sphere.”  Protests, mobilizations, direct action and media campaigns all have been said to breathe new life into the space of the public, a space understood as ailing, in decline, in a state of cooptation, or otherwise insufficient.  Two general views of such “public sphere politics” take hold.  The first suggests activism, such as a mass mobilization, expresses the public sphere.  The second view positions activism as constitutive of a public sphere; in this sense, a mass mobilization is said to reclaim a lost territory (the streets, or the media) towards building a force of public opinion.  Both these views take for granted the existence of the public sphere, and absorb into it various activist practices.  Meanwhile, many postcolonial, feminist and psychoanalytic critics have questioned whether the public sphere ever existed in a state other than nostalgia.  This particular critique understands descriptions of public sphere politics as expressions of a Western universalizing discourse of liberal modernity.  They point to the mechanisms of exclusion (hierarchies of gender, class, race, ethnicity and nationality) on which the public sphere depends and question the underlying assumptions of reason and agency within public sphere discourse.        

These rich critiques offer much from which to draw, and they indicate something of what gets glossed over when political activism is interpreted in terms of the public sphere – including the persistence of exclusionary or oppressive hierarchies (sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and ableism come to mind) within activist movements.  In this essay I am interested in questioning the efficacy of narratives of public sphere politics, motivated in part by how describing activism as “public sphere politics” insufficiently addresses the limits of who is included and excluded from political publics.  I want to suggest that narratives of public sphere politics elide many of the troubling, compelling, significant, and challenging details of activities such as recent anti-war protests in the United States and across the world.  In this sense, I understand the public sphere not so much as a material space or set of practices, but rather a framing device used by activists, journalists and political commentators to order and make meaning out of the disparate elements that comprise any day of protest, not to mention larger, long-term movements. In the case of anti-war protests, these disparate elements might include protestors, organizers, police, placards, horses, barricades, weather patterns, traffic grids, city governments, local laws, sentiments, thoughts and actions. While these elements might at times comprise what gets called a public sphere, they do not naturally constitute public sphere politics. Narrating them as if they do enacts important and dangerous erasures.

My understanding of how narratives of the public sphere operate is influenced by Hayden White, who explores how historiography treats the world as an already-existing text that the historian simply translates into written form.  White argues that historians mask the process of constructing historical narratives, presenting the inclusion of some events and not others, the order of those events, the centrality of some figures and exclusion of others, and the end-point of the history as natural and given facts. White suggests that a historical account is considered true insofar as its conclusion makes sense, and that its ability to make sense depends on the coherence provided by the inclusion and exclusion of selected elements.  We must be given all the information necessary for the conclusion to seem natural, and information that troubles that logic must be left out.

It is easy enough to think about basic lessons taught in U.S. schools to understand how a narrative of something like “The Boston Tea Party” relies on the processes that White outlines.  If we take the actors, their actions, and the outcomes, we can understand how endless possible permutations of these subjects are reduced to a story of a cohesive set of people with a singular motivation in an event with a direct link to the colonists’ revolt against Britain.  For White, historical texts are a “standing-in” for actual events that claim to faithfully mirror reality but which actually orders and limits what counts as history.  What else took place at the harbor the day of the tea party?  What unexpected results at micro levels did those actions set off that cannot be absorbed into a story which offers the moral summation of people tossing off the shackles of unfair taxation?

Following White’s lead, I wish to examine how journalistic and activist accounts of activism rely on a public sphere framework to make sense of something like anti-war organizing.  Narratives of anti-war protests, as either proving or providing the existence of a public sphere, stand in for the actual activities; providing order and coherence in terms of principles such as communication, unity and morality. I wish to consider what other frames might order or disorder activist practices, not to reveal their truth, but to draw attention to their various, non-linear and often incoherent, possibilities and limits.

II. The Habermasian public sphere and some inassimilable fragments of conflict

The work of Jurgen Habermas offers a useful starting point. He gives expression to a common understanding of public sphere politics. For Habermas, in the public sphere citizens come together as a public and, through rational debate, arrive at a consensus about their common interests.  As Habermas writes, “Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely.”  The public sphere is the place of informal public control of state institutions through the formation of public opinion. Collectively and rationally arrived at public opinion serves to moralize the state, or to bring its policies closer in line with transcendental ideals like freedom. Though state power is public, insofar as it serves the general good of a population, the public sphere stands distinct from institutionalized forms of representing the public such as legislative bodies.  The public sphere, “through the vehicle of public opinion,” puts “the state in touch with the needs of society.”

For my purposes, the most important aspects of narratives of public sphere politics are the following presumptions: that individuals can coalesce as something called the public; that as a public individuals can engage in rational debate through which public opinion about “the needs of society” can emerge; and that public opinion can be an effective means of tempering and directing state power towards what Habermas understands as universal moral goals that serve the general good.  Looking back to media coverage of the protests of February 15th, 2003, indicates the prevalence of public sphere narrative in such accounts.  In fact, the rallying name of that day of protest – The World Says No to War – offers a salient example.  My point is not to dismiss the effectiveness of that phrase as a mobilizing tool, nor to suggest it does not accurately convey people’s understanding or experience of those protests, I want to draw attention to its operative terms: the world in the subject position, and speech as its primary activity.  The idea of a world speaking out against war only makes sense insofar as “the world” functions as a stand-in for a public and we comprehend protest activities as primarily constituting a communicative action.  Do the people of the world speak in one voice?  Is the range of activities at February 15th protests best described as a form of speaking?

Writer for The Nation Jonathan Schell offers another example of how the public sphere rubric was used to organize and order the February 15th protests.  In his reflection on those demonstrations, Schell wrote:

The UN delegates are still not elected, and the public is still not invited to sit at their councils, but now they have the wind of public opinion at their backs.  They are “representatives” in a way that they have never been before.  For the first time in the history of the institution, the “we the peoples of the United Nations” invoked in the UN Charter is not an abstraction.  The “we” has spoken – not through its governments but directly to its representatives in the international body.

Again, I want to point to how this passage invokes a “we” and describes the public opinion of that “we” as a force that could overwhelm the institutions of state government. I want to note its consolidation of the incredible range of activities that took place on February 15th into one speaking voice.  As with the phrase “the world says no to war,” it seems that assumptions that February 15th constitutes public sphere politics grants coherency to Schell’s statement.  While we might understand it as hyperbolic or metaphoric, those figures of speech operate because they unfold within a narrative of how the public can come together to morally persuade state powers.  “The other superpower,” as some describe this global public, simultaneously is made understandable by and makes sense of narratives of the public sphere.  The moral conclusion of this story, that the people have spoken, and are morally just, derives from public sphere discourse.

As a narrative framing device, the public sphere only allows some details of protest activities to enter into discourse, record and memory.  To take just one aspect of this rubric, “the people”; we can question how the assertion of a commonality to all participants dismisses important or interesting differences, disjunctions, inequalities, ill-wills, and dissonances.  In painting all protestors as members of a general public (one characterized in liberal pluralist terms as a diverse people with diverse politics and opinions), February 15th participants come to embody a moralizing mass unified in an opposition to the war.  But “the people” here is a stand-in for a much messier mass.  Divisions between people who only oppose the war if not backed by the UN and people who oppose all forms of US military intervention are downplayed and a projected commonality that constitutes a united public is assumed.  Opposing a violation of U.N. policy and opposing imperialism are not the same ideological position, and I’m not sure the varied and contradictory rhetoric expressed on February 15th can be understood as rationally synthesizing into a consensus.

As the Habermasian model makes clear, understanding February 15th protestors as “the public” positions them outside the state and its interests.  By drawing a clear line between a public and its government, a model of public sphere politics ascribes moral innocence to the citizens. Though this model allows for some conflict to exist within the public (conflicts we could imagine includes moments of moral shortsightedness among its members) it is assumed that the public ultimately reaches a moral consensus that serves the good of all. How then, to account, for alliances of action and thought between protestors and state governments? The public sphere model cannot account for something like racism and white supremacy within activist practices, organizations, and movements, and how those racisms can collude with state projects of disenfranchisement and discrimination.  In other words, narratives of public sphere politics neglect to describe the ways in which “the public” is not simply a counterpoint to the state, but can in fact line up with state agendas. I am thinking of how, in the organizing preceding February 15th in New York City, predominantly white-led groups with predominantly white bases of support failed to work in solidarity with local grassroots groups with predominantly people of color leadership and bases.  This failure in ally politics consisted of a marshalling of resources including permits, the privilege of calling mass actions, media exposure, and funding. White-led groups dominated control of these resources thereby marginalizing work done by grassroots organizations representing communities of color, inhibiting their capacities to succeed.  Though many grassroots groups and lots of people of color did participate in February 15th, it was an orchestration of “publicity” that by no means emerged from consensus; but in fact developed from within a terrain of conflict – conflict among protestors as well as between protestors and the state.

When we consider the analysis of the war on Iraq as an instance of racism and imperialism, as many radical people of color-led organizations have done, we can then interpret the anti-war activism that perpetuates racist inequalities as co-extensive with, not counter to, the racisms of the Iraq war.  When a coalition of people-of-color community-based groups named “Operation Homeland Resistance” called on white activists to support their actions targeting the treatment of immigrants in the U.S., it demanded an end to “the war at home and the war abroad,” and focused on exactly how structures of racism impact both foreign policy and political activism.

III. Some politics of feedback and emergence

Can we take the bodies of protestors and narrate them as something other than a public?  One way to do so might involve a turn to complexity theories of evolution such as feedback and emergence, as articulated by physicists, cyberneticians, biologists and philosophers of science.  These models offer a framing of anti-war practices that allow for the discontinuities and conflicts that a public sphere narrative submerge.  I don’t think such models offer a more true account, but another account that supplements our capacity to describe and theorize effective political activism.   Complexity theories are not inherently more liberating or less racist but they do allow for elements, such as racism within activism, to be considered in a way that a model which assimilates conflicting members into a unified public, defined by its shared interests, can not.

What do feedback and emergence have to do with anti-war protests? By feedback, I intend dynamic processes of interaction and change in which the affective capacities of various interactive elements reconfigure one another and those capacities.  Many of us have heard of feedback in terms of the amplification of sound, as in the unexpected and uncontrolled eruption of noise that occurs when a microphone picks up its own projected sound waves from a speaker.  Emergence, on the other hand, designates the notion that a composite of elements is not a mere aggregation, but possesses characteristics of its own that do not derive directly from the elements themselves.  A popular expression of this concept might be “the sum is greater than its parts.”  Social scientists debate emergence when they argue about whether or not institutions can be explained only by looking at the human composition (or roles) within the institution, or if the institution itself exerts some force with which to reckon. 

Manuel De Landa provides a helpful example of a possible relationship between feedback and emergence in a discussion of the evolution of sedimentary rock at the bottom of a sea.  If we imagine a river running through a landscape intersecting a body of ocean water, we can think of pebbles carried along by that flowing river and deposited at the bottom of that ocean.  If a theory that assumes the river to be the active element of this story also assigns passivity to the nature of the pebble, a feedback theory will remind us that the pebbles themselves impact river currents.  The force and direction of river water changes based on the shape and weight of the very pebbles it carries: currents are slowed down, redirected, or sped up, for example. So the water does not simply act on the pebbles, but the pebbles affect those currents that affect them.  Furthermore, as the results of these feedback loops accumulate, pebbles deposited alongside one another at the bottom of the sea begin to sediment.  In other words, the pebbles form a composite entity we call sedimentary rock.  As De Landa writes, this is a “new entity with emergent properties of its own, that is, properties such as overall strength and permeability which cannot be ascribed to the sum of the individual pebbles.”  De Landa’s interest, like my own, is not only in describing geological processes, but in looking for similarly non-linear dynamics elsewhere, such as in politics or social stratification. De Landa references the “engineering diagram” as proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to suggest that we might find similar processes in organic and social entities as in geological ones.  For De Landa, this means no longer examining the dominance of global capitalism as having one unified history that describes its expansion in progressive, rational terms. Instead, capitalism is understood to be a patchwork effect of various, and often unrelated, developments that coalesced in ways under the direct control of no one group, regardless of whether it best serves that group’s interests.  Capitalism, like the sedimentary rock, depends upon an endless amount of unpredictable coincidences (weather patterns and pebbles) to take its shape and develop its strength.

What might it mean, then, to narrate February 15th protestors through complexity theories of feedback and emergence?  Bouncing off my discussion of how “the public” limits our sense of protestors, we can explore what that gathering of people look like in complexity narratives. We can think of mass protestors as an entity with shifty, unpredictable qualities: sedimentary rock at another timescale, quickly evolving and developing in relation to the contingencies of exterior elements (laws, weather, wars) and internal elements (protestors, their interests and actions), rather than understanding them via the effectiveness of the protestors to develop a moralizing public opinion by rationally recognizing their common interests.   This is to understand a field of political action as criss-crossed in feedback currents, and those currents as constitutive of the mass that acts within and shapes that field.  Anti-war organizers often respond to government/media critiques that mass mobilizations offer no coherent message (having too many contradictory placards, for example), by stressing what protestors have in common – their opposition to war.  But, as I’ve shown, this image of a public consensus breaks down under scrutiny.  Many protestors in New York on February 15th, 2003 undoubtedly participated despite their misgivings about the planning of the day or some of the rhetoric surrounding it.  This strategic move should not be mistaken for true consensus.  Clearly, the organizing body of that event did not actually represent all people present and did not embody a rational synthesis of all their views.  Thus, “the public” might not actually adequately describe the participants, who a complexity model encourages us to instead view as an emergent mass.

To narrate protestors as an emergent mass, we can look to an example offered by Karl Marx in the first volume of Capital.  Though the dialectical model with which Marx is usually associated contradicts the complexity model I’m detailing, I think this example is quite instructive (and perhaps represents a fissure in his dialectics).  Fundamental to Marx’s discussion of class exploitation is the notion of communal labor power.  The power of collective, coordinated labor is more than the capitalist pays for, a power appropriated by capital but belonging to the nature of labor.  Marx’s description of communal labor power calls to mind the sedimentary rock of De Landa’s discussion, although Marx makes a military rather than geological analogy:

Just as the offensive power of a squadron of cavalry, or the defensive power of an infantry regiment, is essentially different from the sum of the offensive or defensive powers of the individual soldiers taken separately, so the sum total of the mechanical forces exerted by isolated workers differs from the social force that is developed when many hands co-operate in the same undivided operation, such as raising a heavy weight, turning a winch or getting an obstacle out of the way.  In such cases the effect of the combined labour could either not be produced at all by isolated individual labour, or it could be produced only by a great expenditure of time, or on a very dwarf-like scale.  Not only do we have here an increase in the productive power of the individual, by means of co-operation, but the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.

Though, as a political economist, Marx emphasized the appropriation of this energy by the capitalist class, his description forcefully suggests human collectivities as emergent compositions.  Collective labor, like mass protestors, possesses energy and force that cannot be accounted for in advance.  Knowing the number of workers in a factory and how fast each can work independently offers no clue to the productive output of a coordinated factory of workers.  Their speed and efficiency are emergent properties of a new entity, collective labor, that is not a sum of its parts (is a rock as strong as the pebbles that formed it?).

Here I want to follow Marx’s lead and suggest that protestors can likewise be understood as constituting a mass whose properties cannot be known in advance.  Whereas designating protestors “the public” assigns to them a prescriptive role in politics, people who must rationally come to consensus, to see them as an emergent body suggests they possess a force which cannot be fully directed or controlled by the state, certainly, but neither by themselves as well.  I don’t mean to suggest chance as a positive or liberatory impulse (our unpredictability keeping us one step ahead of the state, for example).  I only mean to suggest that abandoning narratives of public sphere politics might provoke a useful re-reading of those same elements of, for example, February 15th protests, drawing thought and attention to what a Habermasian model must incidentalize or neglect.  In the framework I propose, the dissent and friction among protestors becomes dynamic feedback forces that give rise to unexpected affective mass bodies.

To narrate the events of February 15th through a complexity model, we must refuse to assimilate difference and discord to sameness and consensus. Knowing this signals that effective political theories cannot gloss over something like racism within mass protest movements in favor of an assumed unity that trumps those internal forms of violence. Rather, I suggest suspending moral conclusions about political activism (what those activities must add up to, in order to be valid) and pausing to consider the dynamism and volatility of everyday emergent practices. This might involve suspending the moral conclusions that Hayden White argues give coherence to linear narratives of history, and allowing elements into the story that don’t make sense.  If protestors are moral and good, then how can they also practice racism?  When we free mass mobilizations from the constraints of a narrative requirement to prove something like the triumph of “the people” over “the state,” we can begin to account for political change (like De Landa’s capitalism) as both unpredictable and out of control.  Though abandoning grand narratives of dialectical revolution means giving up a script of the right activist practices, it might also make a political and narrative priority of confronting how conflict and racism deeply impact the capacities of mass actors, or the emergent evolution of mass bodies.  Rather than insist that we must put aside differences and come together as a unified public to oppose the war, and then tell stories to ourselves that confirm that we have in fact done just that; complexity narratives of politics might draw attention to those elements (of violence, inequality and racism within activism and then broader society) that a public sphere narrative forces out of the frame, beyond consideration.

Many commentators of media activism employ this second trope, describing the internet as a new public sphere, or culture-jamming as a take-over of a corporatized public sphere.  See, for example, Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York: Picador Press, 2000); Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner, “New media and internet activism: from the ‘Battle of Seattle’ to blogging,” in New Media & Society, vol. 6(1); Mark  Dery, “Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs,” markdery/culturjam.html; and Mark Poster, “Cyberdemocracy: The Internet and the Public Sphere,” in Reading Digital Culture, ed. David Trend (New York: Blackwell, 2001).

I am thinking here of a number of writers including Jane Flax, Thinking Fragments (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Pheng Cheah, “Violent Light: The Idea of Publicness in Modern Philosophy and in Global Neocolonialism,” Social Text, no. 43 (Fall 1995); Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. by Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15(2), 2003; and Renata Salecl, (Per)versions of Love and Hate (New York: Verso, 2000).

Hayden White, “The value of narrativity in the representation of reality,” in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

Jürgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere,” in Jürgen Habermas on Society and Politics: A Reader, edited by Steven Seidman, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 231.

Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 31.

Yates McKee explores the idea of the globe in protest imagery in “Cosmopolitics on What Grounds? Notes on February 15th and the (Un)securing of the World Picture.”

Jonathan Schell, “The Will of the World,” The Nation, March 10, 2003.  Another interesting line of argument would pursue how Schell and other commentators recapitulate a Gramscian notion of collective will, and how this expressive will materializes as the public opinion of the public sphere.  “We – that is, we, the peoples of the earth – have examined the case for war against Iraq and rejected it.  We have stepped forward onto the streets of our cities and looked at ourselves, and have liked what we saw.  We know our will.  Now we must act. We can stop the war.”  I am thinking of Gramsci’s discussion of a national-popular will in The Prison Notebooks, particularly pages 123-130. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith,  Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci  (New York: International Publishers, 1971).

Manuel De Landa. A  Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 60.

Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Ernest Mandel (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 443.