Welcome to structure vs. agency in media, part II! Part I here.
First let me say this: I am not an expert on Arab politics — I’m not even a dilettante — so I won’t be writing about the specifics of Middle East policy.
Nevertheless, the spate of citizen uprisings across Egpyt, Tunisia, etc. has sparked a lot of discussion and soul-searching among scholars of culture in the United States. Listserves for cultural studies, Internet researchers and political economists are buzzing about what the protests, particularly in Egypt, say about why citizens revolt, what is the media’s (and new media’s) role and what implications it has for the United States — we’re most interested in foreign policy when it affects us! Mark Deuze has a great bunch of links, and some excellent thoughts, at his blog.
I can’t speak to the specifics of another country’s domestic politics. But it seems a lesson from recent citizen unrest could be simple: the revolution will come when it comes.
What do I mean?
First it’s important to understand why US-based media scholars talk about “revolution.” There’s a complicated history behind it all, but the Cliff’s Notes version is this: over the past few decades, media corporations have become increasingly powerful, their interests increasingly appealing to the government (deregulation!) and their ability to own other media ever more easy (Comcast-NBCU being the latest example).
Now, of course, that’s not the whole truth, maybe not even part of it. Talk to anyone working for the mainstream media and they’ll tell you they hardly feel powerful.
Be that as it may, as media solidified its hold over cultural production and as the government de-emphasized regulation and social services, some scholars claimed individuals started looking to the media for answers on how to run their lives or as the ideal profession that would free them from the constraints of ordinary office/worker labor. This is a very brief version of the neoliberalism argument, which, again, is too complicated to go into here. (It’s everywhere in media scholarship over the past few decades; see for starters Chomsky; Duggan; Ouellette and Hay; Hill). What’s the problem? The media isn’t the answer. No matter how often Oprah says “believe in yourself!” that’s not going to stop a factory from up and moving to another country. You can try to become the next Spielberg, but many film school graduates never come close. More likely you’ll be occasionally paid and overworked. Etc., etc., the argument goes on.
But forget media for a moment. The truth is the United States is at a breaking point. Anyone who reads Paul Krugman, even sporadically, knows there’s a growing consensus among economists that wealth inequality in the country is unsustainable. Why? Because the government has favored policies to buttress the rich and corporations in the hope the country to will reap the benefits. Hasn’t happened.
Hence the question, where’s the revolution here in the US? Wealth inequality, the declining power of labor unions to provide support for workers (factory workers, set designers, what have you), the inability of the government to properly regulate corporations (including media corporations), has caused a crisis of confidence for a lot of media scholars, especially those who study political economy. Why, instead of revolting, do Americans seem to not only accept these changes but in fact run the opposite direction, toward a belief in free market individualism?
Well, there are few simple answers. As many know, it’s hard to live every day and work while simultaneously acknowledging the deck it stacked against you. People believe in the system because not believing in a system that is resistant to change leads to depression and defeatism. I experience this every day as a graduate student who knows most graduate students never find an academic job; but I’ve got to get up in the morning!
Second, people do revolt. All the time! It’s not the 1960s, but people sign online petitions, protest, vote and donate money to causes all the time
Still, the question remains: why aren’t we in the streets? I have the answer! We’re just not ready yet, but when we are, academics won’t see it coming.
I’ve been reading the New York Times for my Egypt news, and their reporters (or perhaps just one) are emphasizing an interesting fact: even though Egypt has had an anti-establishment intelligentsia and political underground for decades, this recent revolution took them completely by surprise. And in fact the revolution itself was not started by the aging, liberal elites, but by disgruntled young people (now it appears to be a broad, mass movement). Reports the Times:
Since they erupted Tuesday, the protests have largely seemed spontaneous and leaderless, propelled by young demonstrators with no affiliation to Egypt’s small and largely toothless opposition groups.
Now the older opponents are rushing to catch up. “It was the young people who took the initiative and set the date and decided to go,” Mr. ElBaradei said Wednesday with some surprise during a telephone interview from his office in Vienna on Wednesday.
It’s become a bit of a mantra among older academics that America is a lost cause, that young people have sold out to the system, that they lack a sense of protest and don’t understand the structural constraints to the so-called American dream. Indeed among some academics this is basically gospel: activism and citizen participation is dead, they claim.
Yet the lesson of Egypt — maybe — is that the US intelligentsia is just not listening, or they’re listening to the wrong people.
What’s the lesson for media scholars? When conditions are bad enough, people will take to the streets, and use whatever media and strategies are necessary. As educators, it’s our job to give students and the public as much information about media, policy and culture as we can, but we cannot will a revolution into being — and we don’t need to.
Often mass citizen unrest is tied to very obvious, basic things: unemployment, lack of basic resources, staggering inequality, etc. (Of course there are huge variations depending on what country, political system and cultural heritage you’re talking about. France has a lot: it’s their culture. Hong Kong has one annually, because of their political system and history).
It might just be conditions in the US aren’t bad enough. We can get awfully presentist sometimes, or maybe it’s a negativity bias: “this is the worst it’s been.” Well, maybe not! Look at unemployment across the past eight decades (graph goes to 2005, but fill it in: current unemployment’s around 10%). Look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the past 40 years. I’m not an economist. But it seems pretty obvious: things could get worse. This is why Krugman gets mad so often.
And when they do, you’ll get your revolution. It’ll come, when it comes.