Crisis and Critique: A History of Media Participation in Times of Crisis

Crisis and Critique: A History of Media Participation in Times of Crisis

by Anne Kaun


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Innovations in media inevitably have a profound impact on methods and forms of protest. Drawing on the work of key theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Raymond Williams, Crisis and Critique looks specifically at changes in media practices within the context of major historic economic crises. Anne Kaun uses richly detailed case studies from three different economic crises—the unemployed workers’ movement during the Great Depression, the rent strike movement of the early 1970s, and the Occupy Wall Street protests following the recession of 2008—in order to provide an in-depth analysis of the cultural, economic, and social consequences of media technologies and their role in shaping resistance to capitalism.
At a time when scholars and commentators are increasingly recognizing the immense impact of media and communications technology on society, Kaun provides a necessary historical contextualization of this crucial dynamic, while offering the first book to explicitly examine the relationship between media studies and economic activism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783607365
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 09/15/2016
Pages: 241
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Anne Kaun is a visiting postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and a lecturer at Södertörn University. Her previous books include Being a Young Citizen in Estonia.

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Crisis and Critique

A Brief History of Media Participation in Times of Crisis

By Anne Kaun

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Anne Kaun
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-737-2


Crisis and critique

What role do crisis situations play for critique and how can critique further crises towards progressive social change? Before exploring protest time, protest space and protest speed, it is necessary to define crisis and its relationship to critique more extensively to develop an understanding for the backdrop of the protest movements and their relation to media technologies more broadly.

Economic crises are critical junctures and potentially mark a state of exception and potentially enhance crucial change. Robert McChesney discusses critical junctures as 'rare, brief periods in which dramatic changes are debated and enacted drawing from a broad palette of options, followed by long periods in which structural or institutional change is slow and difficult' (McChesney 2007, 56). He argues further that critical junctures in media and communications occur under the following conditions:

• There is a revolutionary new communication technology that undermines the existing system.

• The content of the media system, especially the journalism, is increasingly discredited or seen as illegitimate.

• There is a major political crisis – severe social disequilibrium – in which the existing order is no longer working, dominant institutions are increasingly challenged, and there are major movements for social reform.

Critical junctures could hence be considered as a period of opportunity for directing social change through different actors. Crises such as the Great Depression, the economic crisis of the 1970s (often labelled the oil crisis) and the Great Recession are examples of critical junctures. At the same time, capitalism confines infinite critical junctures in different sectors of society that are related to each other but might appear in slightly different periods (Foster and McChesney 2012). Identifying critical junctures as such becomes an ontological and epistemological question. Economic crises that appear in conjunction with social, cultural and intellectual crises are important points of crystallization in the analysis of change in media and communications, too. They potentially fill a discursive void enhanced by the crisis through new media practices (Koselleck 1973/1959). Consequently, media become arenas as well as objects in the struggle of directing social change during critical junctures (McChesney 1993). Following Raymond Williams, means of communication are also means of production, which is particularly true in so-called information-based societies nowadays. Williams argues:

(...) the means of communication have a specific productive history, which is always more or less directly related to the general productive historical phases of productive and technical activity. It is so, second, because the historically changing means of communication have historically variable relations to the general complex of productive forces and to the general social relationships which are produced by them and which the general productive forces both produce and reproduce. These historical variations include both relative homologies between the means of communication and more general social productive forces and relationships, and, most marked in certain periods, contradictions of both general and particular kinds. (Williams 2005/1980, 50)

Taking major economic crises as a starting point for the analysis rather than defining distinct conditions of critical junctures in media and communications also suggests a non-media centric approach that puts the social and economic circumstances rather than technological changes into focus (Couldry 2003, 2012; Toynbee 2009) and follows the approach of Graham Murdock and Peter Golding (1973) in conducting an historical analysis of the general industrialization in order to understand changes in the media landscape. At the same time, major developments of capitalism from organized, industrial capitalism in the 1930s to the beginning of neoliberalism in the early 1970s and current, full-bloom neoliberalism of fast finance capitalism are linked to the transitional points of crises, namely a development from the New Deal of the 1930s and the OPEC crisis of the 1970s marking the development from Fordist to post-Fordist organization of the economy (including principles of outsourcing and deindustrialization of the capitalist centres in the West) (McGuigan 2014). The three crises are three distinct stages of change towards the neoliberal capitalism in its current form. Media technologies are both influenced and drivers of this economic system.


Reinhart Koselleck and Michaela Richter (2006) trace the meaning of crisis from its Greek origin in legal, theological and medical discourses until the present. They conclude that the term has always had very specific, discipline-bound meanings. However, the diverse ways of using crisis share the understanding of a period of life-changing alternatives 'meant to answer questions about what is just or unjust, what contributes to salvation or damnation, what furthers health or brings death' (Koselleck and Richter 2006, 361). In this decisive moment, judgement, reason, decision and reflection is needed to resolve the crisis. The authors show the different ways to understand crisis, which range from a unique, historical moment to a recurring experience, especially in the case of chronic illness, and illustrate the flexibility of the term. 'In this way, the concept of crisis can generalize the modern experience to such an extent that "crisis" becomes a permanent concept of "history"' (Koselleck and Richter 2006, 371). Koselleck and Richter find the roots of the term mainly outside the economic field. Only starting in the mid-1800s and after the revolution in 1848 and the global economic crisis of 1857, there was a broad application of crisis for the economy. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels describe crisis as the time period when economic cycles are turning. Crisis theory has – based on Marx – discussed crises as an integrated part of capitalism. Christian Fuchs (2015), as well as John Foster and Robert McChesney (2012), argue that capitalism constitutes itself as a constant, never-ending crisis, while there are outstanding moments of deep crisis. Even free market supporters have suggested crises as integral to capitalism and redefined them as periods of renewal and so-called creative destruction (Florida 2005). In the Marxist tradition crises are often linked to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which is explained with changes in productivity based on technological innovation. Accordingly, machines would replace workers and increase productivity. However, additional value can only be produced through labour. Consequently, the increased output based on automation has less value and the profit rate tends to fall, according to Marx. Discussing the crises of the 1970s in the USA, Castells proposes that the tendency of the profit rate to fall potentially explains why crisis is an integral part of capitalism. Throughout capitalist production, the profit rate necessarily falls as there is a tendency for monopolies to emerge and the composition of capital becomes less diverse based on less competition. Competition leads to increased exploitation of workers in terms of working hours, payment and working conditions. With falling salaries, consumers have less opportunity to participate in the market. Less consumption leads to overproduction of commodities as demand is massively restricted. At the same time investments decline, which results in an over-accumulation of capital (Castells 1980). This description of the tendency of the profit-rate to fall explains the economic reasons that Marx and Engels identified why crises are necessarily part of capitalism. The constantly worsening of the economic and therewith social conditions would lead to a proletarian revolution, which is linked to the critical potential that is set free in times of extreme crisis. Instead the Western world has experienced a transition from market-oriented to market-manipulated society (Castells 1980).

Although Marxian theories and the like seem to imply that crises are single or a series of events, they are also discursive and material complex formations that are constantly under negotiation. Social actors are, hence, constantly in an interpretative struggle about the meaning of crisis and its consequences. I consider capitalism as being constantly in crisis, but producing accelerated moments of deep crises that are frequently discussed as economic crises or crises in the economic cycle. Consequently, I ask for the role of media technologies for protest movements to use these transitional moments for potential social change.

The 1930s Great Depression

The first transitional moment considered here is the Great Depression, whose narrative predominantly starts with the 1929 crash of the stock market that had extensive consequences for broad layers of the American society. Naturally this story starts much earlier with the economic growth during the progressive era and the roaring 1920s, which rested on shaky grounds (Smith 2014). The 1920s were characterized by a fundamental economic change in spending shifting from traditional sectors, including textile and steel, to new sectors including mass-produced automobiles, household appliances, processed foods, tobacco and the expansion of the service sector. However, the process of change was still in full swing and the newer production areas were not big enough yet to compensate for the extreme losses in the traditional ones. At the same time, speculation took over at the stock market and increased buying of stock on margins pushed up stock prices rapidly, creating a financial bubble. This speculation was supported by the 'small' government installed during the progressive era with almost no regulation of the banking sector. During the era of the roaring twenties inequalities increased dramatically. John Scott Smith (2014) points out that the income of the wealthiest 1 per cent grew by 53 per cent between 1920 and 1929. The rest of the population did not experience such a growth in income, which constrained the purchasing power.

With over 100,000 businesses closing between 1929 and 1930, the GNP dropping by 31 per cent, 30 per cent of unemployment of the nonfarm workforce and between 400,000 to 2 million people becoming transient travellers, the Great Depression lasted between 1929 and 1941 and became the longest and most severe recession of the twentieth century. This, of course, had crucial consequences for the everyday life of the American population. Many became homeless, malnutrition led to illnesses and suicide rates increased exponentially. The suffering materialized in the daily picture of bread and soup lines where the unemployed were queuing for food from charity organizations, while social relief and government support was non-existent. Hooversvilles – named after the president Herbert Hoover – in the outskirts of many larger cities symbolized the economic downturn and daily suffering of the people gathering the homeless and unemployed in small camps (Feigenbaum, Frenzel and McCurdy 2013). The politics of 'small' government only changed after Hoover left office and Franklin D. Roosevelt instigated the New Deal, including certain measures for social relief.

The 1970s Oil and Fiscal Crisis

Similar to the Great Depression, the Oil Crisis of the 1970s is considered to have a clear starting point, namely the increased energy demand caused by exponential industrial growth in Europe, Japan and the USA. This growing oil demand was met with pressure from the OPEC countries delaying and completely stopping oil delivery, which caused serve delays in the production process of the industrial nations leading to decreasing profit rates. Of course the story of the crisis goes much further back and is discussed extensively by Manuel Castells (1980). He sets out to demystify the narrative of the oil crisis by pointing to a crisis in the mode of production that is deeply rooted in class relationships. Castells relies on Marxist crisis theory of the law of the profit rate to fall in order to explain the economic crisis of the 1970s. The main factor in his eyes was the changing composition of capital and the relationship between dead labour of machines, buildings and raw materials and living labour, namely workers. When living labour is increasingly replaced by dead labour the profit rate has to necessarily fall as living labour is the only source for value production. These deeply unequal class relationships have been fundamentally questioned by the social movements of the 1960s. Castells argues that the economic crisis did not cause massive social disruption, but that the social disruption of the 1960s fundamentally questioned the structure of social relationships in capitalist societies. Either way, the economic crisis became a crucial point of transition, enhancing forms of social critique that were already put forward by the 1960s social movements such as the civil rights movement, student revolts, anti-war activities, public workers' struggle, women's liberation etc.

Besides the oil crisis, the local communities of New York were faced with a fiscal crisis that led to tremendous budget cuts including lay-offs in the public sector, particularly of police officers, teachers and fire fighters. This caused a precarious situation for vulnerable groups in the city having to live with less income and social welfare in an increasingly polarized cityscape that allowed housing speculation through market deregulation. Especially low-income housing became a scarcity, with landlords abandoning around 38,000 units per year with the argument that low rents would make the maintenance of the buildings as well as water and electricity supply impossible. In that context, more and more tenants were organizing in order counter the developments that were further supported by the relaxation of rent control policies in 1970/71.

The 2010s Great Recession

The narrative of the Great Recession generally starts with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Besides Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Wachovia, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG and later the Citigroup, Bank of America, Northern Rock, UBS and many more international financial institutions went bankrupt in 2008. Christian Marazzi (2011) points out that the collapse of Lehman Brothers was not a single episode, but marked the crisis of the whole global banking sector and had its roots in the earlier subprime market crisis. The Great Recession has often been described as the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression when it comes to intensity, length and breadth (Reinhart and Rogoff 2009), with an unemployment rate rising by 7 per cent in four years. Obama's stimulus programme of 789.5 billion USD was not even remotely enough to fill the gap between outputs of goods and the rapidly diminishing consumer spending as well as business investments.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky (2015) complicates the picture further and identifies three interlinked crises: the immediate financial crisis at Wall Street that became obvious with the bankruptcy of Lehman brothers; the social crisis that went hand in hand with the financial crisis including unemployment, underemployment and foreclosures; and the crisis of representative democracy. To illustrate the consequences of these crises, he states that 'over 17 trillion of household wealth was wiped out during the Great Recession, much of it in the form of home equity and savings. As a consequence, Americans' median net worth fell by 39 per cent from 2007 to 2010, with the greatest pain felt by "younger, less-educated and historically disadvantaged minority families". Between 2007 and 2010 more than 9 million homes went into foreclosure, 2.8 million of them in 2010 alone' (Gould-Wartofsky 2015, 19). This identification of a threefold crisis situation resonates with Castells' (1980) analysis of the 1970s, when he argues that the crisis is not only economic but also linked to political and ideological crises. This multiplicity of crises is, however, characteristic for the expansion of advanced capitalism.

The explanations for long-term causes for the crisis are varied. John Foster and Robert McChesney (2012) argue that the main issues were structural problems of market capitalism, namely overaccumulation on the global scale that is based on the monopolization of multinational corporations and the financialization of the accumulation process that is largely based on speculation and fictitious capital. Similarly, Christian Marazzi (2011) suggests that the economic crisis of 2008 should be understood as a consequence of financialization that is a vital form of capital accumulation rather than a malfunction of the economic system; it is the outcome of the dominantly cognitive production of value nowadays.


Excerpted from Crisis and Critique by Anne Kaun. Copyright © 2016 Anne Kaun. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents


Introduction. Protest and the media
Economic crises and protest movements
Protest times
Protest spaces
Protest speeds
Protest technologies

1. Crisis and critique
Crisis: capitalism in a permanent state of exception?
Critique: filling the void?
Protest movements’ media practices
An archaeological approach to media practices
Archiving critique: archiving protest movements?
Overview materials
Conclusion: critical junctures as histories of media participation

2. Protest times: the temporality of protest media practices
Mechanical speed: unemployed workers’ movements
Perpetual flow: tenants’ movement
Perpetual flow of the 1970s television
Digital immediacy: the Occupy Wall Street movement
Conclusion: digital immediacy in the age of social media

3. Protest spaces: the production of space in events of contention
The National Hunger March of 1931
Housing Crimes Trial, 6 December 1970
The OWS March on Brooklyn Bridge, 1 October 2011
From space bias to hyper-space bias

4. Protest speeds: resynchronizing fast capitalism
The speed of fast capitalism
Protest movements’ re-synchronization: adaptation, abstention, attack and alternatives
Conclusion: the speed of Quadruple A

Conclusion. Protest technologies: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will
Historical trajectories: media regimes of time and space
Notes on technological determinism
Futures of protest media

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