Action 2.0

I am coming to see that Marshall McLuhan’s mantra, “the medium is the message,” is true today in a whole new way.  In his day, the mass medium showed the world as a global village that one could only watch. Big broadcasting nailed home the message that people are passive bystanders and that the only action that could change that was mass action that might or not be picked up by mass media.

The first generation of the Internet did little to change that.  There was more opportunity and ways for individual one-to-one communication (email) or one-to-many communication (corporate web sites) but only e-mail listserves allowed for many-to-many communication, but only for the group subscribed.

Beginning in about 2005, Web 2.0 — with social media software as well as software for blogging and creative production (music, art, magazines) — exponentially increased space for many-to-many communication.  It also brought new conceptions of production and action.  Anyone could be a producer; no intermediary stood in the way (unless your web site gets hacked or blocked).  The new norm is that anyone can initiate action.

That translates into a different conception of citizenship, civic agency that doesn’t have to wait on authority, whether the authority of a group’s elected officials or the authority of a vetter.  This morning’s NYT’s piece on the new “literary cubs” perfectly illustrates this phenomenon.  Rebuffed or turned off by the literary establishment, they started their own venue, offline and online, creating a space for their own work and a new audience for it.  The Occupy Movement has worked along the same lines with activists acting on their own authority to take over a park or block a government building.

The key thing here is they act on their own authority, much as the real meaning of citizenship conveys: a citizen is someone who can call a meeting.  If you have to ask for permission, you’re not a citizen.

Many in my generation just don’t get this.  They still have libidinal relationships with their leaders (see Vamik Volkan’s Bloodlines), whether love or hate, and seem to think that any independent action is a political rebuke.  In a way, it is.  But it’s not a rebuke of the legitimacy of leaders; it’s a rebuke of the idea that members, citizens, people should wait for permission to act.

Many in my generation criticized the Occupy Movement for not having a plan, a list of demands, more central lines of authority, as if the power of the movement is the power to push back.  They miss the power of collective action to create a space of appearance, a “who” that is we imbued with the message that we can act.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Interesting post!

    While the medium is obviously new, I don’t think this approach to organization and activism is new. De Tocqueville, Dewey, and Luxemburg all called it democracy, Young called it insurgency, and in the jargon of our day it’s called grassroots organizing. I like to call it something like `participatory democracy’. (That distinguishes it from more passive, citizens-as-consumers, bureaucratic sorts of democracy.)

    What Web 2.0 technology has done, I think, is make mass participatory democracy seem more legitimate. My undergrads almost all seem to think that the way to solve social problems is to introduce an appropriate bureaucracy. (They disagree about whether this bureaucracy should be corporate or governmental.) Our discussions of Occupy this semester, though, seem to have gotten a few of them to start questioning that bureaucratic assumption. I’m going after this assumption explicitly next semester — we’ll be reading Young’s chapter `Insurgency and Welfare Capitalism’ a week after we read Rawls — and I’m really excited to see what students will have to say.

  2. Dan, I thoroughly agree and would add Arendt to the list. Through most of the 20th century most people equated democracy with representative democracy and seemed to forget the civic republican strain that Tocqueville had noted. Even deliberative democracy has been seen as a way to translate public will into something that representative may, or may not, act upon.

    New technologies seem to be teaching lost political practices and conceptions of agency. At least I see a glimmer of that. I’m glad you’re seeing a bit of the same.

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