Thousands of citizens walking on the streets, sloganeering, asserting their democratic right of free expression, demanding change, provoking the power, create an emotional and passionate spectacle. The whole idea of organizing people on the basis of an idea, making them feel confident about coming together and speaking up, sounds fascinating. However, the question which remains unanswered is – what after that?
In today’s time, politics has become a capital-intensive business, which is devoid of reality and disconnected from the public sphere. Also, the rapid technological advancements and radically networked societies have left behind the institutions of the state with respect to their design, functions, and even legitimacy. With that, the forms and modes of exercise of power are also changing, and have changed in fact. In this context, the question ‘what after that?’, and the role of activists who organize people around an idea, requires a collective attention of everyone, especially those who are concerned about future of Democracy.
The anxiety and haste of activists, to gain the attention of the media and a large number of people quickly, exposes their desire for spectacle, and little concern for systemic change. A social movement requires an alternative idea, a class of people whom it affects, a leader, and a strategy. What generally happens with the young activists of today is that they have some half-baked ideas, social media following in the name of a class of people, a crowd gathered on the street in the name of strategy, and, ‘a’ person, who is ambitious, in the name of the leader. Any alternative idea requires a deeper understanding of the issue which is being dealt with. It is true, though, that the normative discourse cannot sustain without the specifics backed by an action agenda. Yet, normative discourse can also not be left as a post-spectacle agenda. When young activists, face this paradox, they tend to completely sideline the normative discourse as something which is a hurdle to the plan of action.
How then can the activists be considered different from a conman, also called as politician these days? If activists too have the desire for a spectacle alone, then how are they custodians of the public sphere? The designs of spectacle and their surgical execution by those in power have diminished the importance and power of public sphere. Activists who do not think about the systemic change viz. policy alternatives, design and processes of implementation, and monitoring and assessment of outcome, as part of the ‘grand strategy’ of social movement, do nothing but tread the same path as those in power. This failure of activists might not be deliberate but it surely needs to take centre stage in their thinking when there are no actual political alternatives left.
If one were to organize people for demanding the state to provide common public education system, could it only be done by people gathering on the street? Which political party today is ready to accept and promote the idea of the common public education system? There isn’t any. Here, common public education system is just taken as an example of an alternative idea. It highlights that there aren’t any political alternatives. Then the question arises, who would carry forward the momentum created in the form of public opinion, perhaps political consciousness as well, (in favour of a certain idea) to its manifestation of a real change in the policy, its implementation, and ultimately in the lives of the people. Hence, the question ‘what after that’ is important and inevitable at the early stages of the social movement.
The role of social media, actually over-dependence on it, in context of social movements, also requires a reassessment. In his popular Ted Talk, Wael Ghonim highlights the five critical challenges that social media faces today. He talks about rumours, echo chambers, online angry mobs, hardening of opinions and shallow comments on deep conversation. The last point among others is of utmost relevance to the social movements today. The social base of these movements is shrinking and the solidarities of various similar thinking groups are weakening. There is no doubt that social media plays the role of a catalyst in social movement, but without a solid base of people on the ground, it remains a self-gratifying activity. Given the context of challenges of social media, could it be trusted as a primary strategy to organize people? It is an open question. Simultaneously if a formal organization of people is not built with some structure and ideology, could the movement survive?
One can look for an example of failure of a social movement in India Against Corruption (IAC) movement. Where does it stand today? What happened to its ideals, leader and strategy? With the benefit of hindsight, one can ascribe a motive to the team of people involved in it, other than fighting against corruption. Naturally, a social movement of this large a scale has multiple forces working with it and it ultimately creates also multiple forces. But, could this movement answer the question of ‘what after that’, perhaps, no. Even after the passage of Lokpal Bill, India has not got a Lokpal. Corruption and crony capitalism are rampant, going on even at the larger pace. What went wrong? One thing which can be concluded without any doubt is the desire for spectacle in the team of people involved in the movement.
The aim of this article is not to present social activists in a bad light. In fact, it tries to pose in front of them some critical thoughts and questions about the future of activism, with which future of democracy is intrinsically linked. The three key points discussed in the article are a changing environment with respect to technology and power, thoughts about real alternatives and the implementation, and, the role of social media in building a real social base.
Going forward, the new movements and their leaders would definitely want to reflect upon their ideas and strategies. Believers in Democracy understand that social movements and such organizations are necessary for strengthening the public sphere and increasing its power, where the actual decisions should be made. That is the power of participatory democracy!