2. Theoretical Overview
Democracy along with its multiple variants (representative, deliberative, participatory, direct, radical, discursive, etc) has been the most sought after, the least accomplished and the excessively abused aspiration of each and every epoch. So has been the role of media as its profound ally. Why shouldn’t this be the dominant narrative of our times as well, particularly when we are located at the edge of a transnational communications revolution? Building a conceptual and analytical framework of this new paradigm calls for radical re-alignment and critical synthesis of social theories. According to Foweraker (1995) theory is always informed and shaped by social and historical context of a specific reality (p2).
Theories on social movements, democratization and the role of media go back in time over three decades of debate and history of knowledge creation. Although it is important to be mindful of a rich tapestry of theoretical perspectives encompassing the scope of our topic, it is not possible to theorize, reflect and triangulate multiplicity of paradigms that speak to media, democracy and new social movements due to constraints of space and critique. I shall, therefore, strictly limit my focus to those segments which are fundamentally necessary, more recent and relevant to communications paradigm while maintaining an interdisciplinary approach to the study.
It is also important, at this point, to understand that the World Social Forum is not a one-off event, but a process of individual, multiple and heterogeneous events that emerge from various trajectories and converge into the open meeting space provided by the Forum. Like any other anti-globalization movement, the WSF is a meshwork of movements that creates social behaviour beyond the immediate reality of the movement (Escobar, 2004: 354). Therefore, the three-tiered model of ‘micro’, ‘meso’ and ‘macro’ level of communicative activity in response to the vertical hierarchy of globalization offers an appropriate matrix for locating and analyzing theoretical axes of our inquiry for building realms of associational dynamics within the WSF. Given these starting positions, I now move on to summarize trends in relevant theoretical debates leading up to my idea of ‘new media cleavage’ hypothesis.
In this case, it is most appropriate to begin with the second generation of Frankfurt circle of philosophical thought where the works of Jürgen Habermas offer a relevant entry point. Habermas’ theory of bourgeois ‘public sphere’ (1989 originally published in 1962), his study of social formations in Reconstruction of Historical Materialism (1976) and his later rendition of post-Marxist approach in his seminal work titled as Theory of Communicative Action (1984) combine important frames of reference to anchor any theoretical debate in media, democracy and new social movements. While taking lead from Habermas, I will aggregate relevant variations and innovations of other viewpoints on similar theme, in order to render a conceptual framework for the subject of my inquiry.
For Habermas the 18th century’s print media, salons and coffee houses were sites of plural spaces that fostered necessary conditions for rational-critical debate and democratic communication, activating a bourgeois public sphere of an enabling civil society. Later on, Habermas laments the dissolution of the bourgeois public sphere under structural changes brought about by capitalism. However, the same hegemonic structural transformation that dissolved the public sphere also created necessary conditions for the rise of social movements in the 18th century as a result of ‘new forms of association, regular communication linking center and periphery, and the spread of print and literacy’ (Tarrow in Keck and Sikkink, 1998: 43). This shows the interconnected and intertwining nature of social movements and mediated environments which becomes more intense in the wake of the contemporary information communication repertoire.
Habermas further develops in the direction of social movement theory through his concept of four types of ‘social formations’ (1976), whereby he defines a ‘postmodern’ social formation as a ‘formation of the future’ (Ibid). His organizational principle for the ‘postmodern’ formation is ‘communicative action’ based on the variables of rational communication, consensus and communicative mind. Habermas’ final synthesis on the progressive role of new social movements gets articulated in his Theory of Communicative Action. This theory is based on the concept of ‘communicative rationality’ as an ultimate ideal of ‘free speech position’ whereby a communicative community, involving pluralism of actors and autonomous civil society engenders a public sphere of rational argumentation and consensus through mutual negotiation and communication (Mitrovic, 1999: 220-221).
Two additional concepts of Habermasian model of communicative action deserve brief acknowledgment. First is the idea of a ‘life-world’, identified as part of a system that integrates direct symbolic interactions amongst actors through mutual understanding and orientation towards shared interests and norms. Various conditions for cultures and traditions that constitute the communicative system of a society hold its life-world together. The life-world is understood through a hermeneutically-driven understanding or in other words it needs a systems thinking approach. For Habermas, life-world is always constituted through communicative action which is a form of linguistic interaction of mutual rapport. There are two variants of communicative action within a life-world. One is norm-conformative action, understood as habitual and unnoticed shared norms. The other is discourse which is subject to reflexive understanding through rational interrogation that offers conditions for discursive democracy. Habermas’ second idea of ‘legitimacy-crisis’ is the concept where norms are questioned and contested when the political apparatus of a system fails to deal with it, preventing public participation in a political system (Crossley, 2004).
Habermas’ articulation privileges the ‘macro’ level site of the three-tiered model of the emerging scale of transnational communications, primarily in relation to the role of the Internet vis-à-vis WSF, where participatory concepts of symbolic mobilization, e-mobilization, etc are important elements to unpack. I will come back to this in the analytical review later. For now, the critical appraisal of Habermasian model views it as a perfect ‘laboratory situation with idealistic worship of the roles of rational discourse and communicative action’ (Mitrovic, 1999: 222) which is seen by critics as one of the vulnerabilities of Habermas’ model of communicative action. Habermas seems to deprive the communicative community with real life situations of vernacular pluralism. However, referring back to my opening invocation, sometimes search for perfect scenarios (such as Habermas public sphere) privileges identification of latent sociology of absences and emergences (Santos, 2004). Hence this frame of reference accords a fair amount of respect.
Stepping down mid-way from the Habermasian model to encounter ‘meso’ level axis of communications, I would now turn to Nancy Fraser’s model of multiple spheres of actually existing democracy which offers a response to Habermas. For Fraser (1999) and many of her peers such as Benhabib and Eley, Habermas’ model of public-sphere is a direct negation of identity politics and respect for differences, an instance where Fraser also finds affinity with Melucci (1986) and Laclau & Mouffe (1985). Furthermore, Habermas model of public sphere is located outside the domains of ‘domestic or familial sphere’ (Fraser 1999: 110) and therefore deserves critical interrogation and reformation to accommodate the ‘limits of actually existing democracy’ (1999: 111). In doing so, Fraser addresses the fragmentation paradigm of communicative activity opening up spaces for the entry of ‘nonliberal, non-bourgeois, (and) competing public spheres’ such as occupied by Karl Polany’s (2000) ‘counter-movements’ and Antoni Gramsci’s (2000) ‘organic intellectuals’. In other words Fraser offers a platform to the subordinate positions of the subalterns. As opposed to Habermas’ model of deliberative democracy, Fraser offers a more radicalized version of ‘participatory democracy’ constituting multiple spheres of public expression for the ‘subaltern counterpublics’.
Fraser’s model tends to incorporate our ‘meso’ level actors, networks and activists also identified by Keck and Sikkink (1998 ) at an intermediate, multi-tiered social formation of communicative activity, which in many ways constitute a ‘new (diasporic media) of collective action’ (Calderon et al, 1992: 23)
Stepping further way down the trajectory, we can now encounter the sphere of ‘dwarf stars’ (Ibid: 26), which also ‘teaches us that “small” does not amount to “insignificant,” that small can be beautiful, terrible and extremely complex’ (Ibid: 27). This is the scheme of plural, radical and small media, theoretically configured by Downing (2001) which offers a model of ‘micro’ level communicative activity of participatory community media.
Summing it up, Jürgen Habermas, Nancy Fraser and John Downing offer a logical chain of theoretical analyses to formulate the inquiry on macro (Internet), meso (networks) and micro (small, radical media) levels respectively to understand the role of alternative media and counter-hegemonic formations in relation to democratization paradigm at the WSF.
The next section is a quick insight into the ‘new media cleavage’ hypothesis. While the above-mentioned models are targeted at defining the pluralizing role of alternative media technologies in cultivating inclusive spheres of participatory and radical democracy, I set out to underline the gaps, fissures and pathologies in instituting an enabling sphere of communicative paradigm in the laboratory of the WSF. This hypothesis is further propelled by a salient gap identified in the Habermas-Fraser-Downing paradigms of scholarship which leans heavily on analyzing causes and benefits rather than consequences of participation through alternative media.