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Recovering the Political Commons

Well, it's mid-November, so this must be Lisbon. I'm at the European Communication Conference (ECREA), which starts today with a double plenary session, followed by our QUT Social Media Research Group paper presenting the latest version of our map of the Australian Twittersphere (now based on 2.8 million known accounts).

But before we get to this, the first plenary speaker is Natalie Fenton. She begins by noting the need for scholarly work to have a tangible impact beyond the academy, especially in the current climate of austerity; how can we live decent academic lives that contribute to the flourishing of humanity, that enable a good political life? If Thomas Piketty's analysis of contemporary capitalism is correct, and wealth is increasingly concentrated amongst a small and shrinking elite, how do we address that astounding, damaging inequality?

This damage is not only socioeconomic: it is unsustainable, destroys communities, and wrecks the environment. The media are caught up in this as well, placing them out of reach of democratic oversight and regulation. So where does power come from, in this system? How do we evaluate power and the political; how do we translate these concepts to each other? We need to understand both as concepts as well as as practices – if we don't, we're simply caught up in them.

We must be careful not to be obsessed with developing digital methods and tools, with a new descriptivism, which forever delays the moment of explanation. We face a critical disjuncture in a deep crisis of our representative political systems, already weakened by economic globalisation and the decline of the trade union movement; the shift towards the neoliberal ideology has meant that what once were seen as sensible critiques are now positioned as radical and 'ideological'.

Identifying and interrogating power is key to this; it is impossible to discuss communication for empowerment without critiquing the move towards political power, but too often we fail to do so and end up with political absences. Changes to the academic environment mean that the grand vistas we once explored have gradually receded, and we need to work to explore again what democracy, what society could be, rather than merely what it is.

Political systems no longer work for the ordinary people, and this is reflected also in our ideological imaginations. Basic principles and institutions of democracy are becoming nothing more than ideological shells concealing their opposites. Processes of valuation by the logic of capital are now predominant, and values such as collectivism and the common good are undermined; free trade agreements are being negotiated in private to remove trade barriers that were put in place in order to protect society.

Such power occurs completely behind our backs – publics no longer hold a fundamental legitimating role in democracy, and are frequently entirely ignored by the powerful or act as a distraction from real power. Much digital content also provides the space for such resistance against the powerful, but the question remains how the commons that support such expression are constituted, come together, and can exert any influence on power. The micro-optimism of the commons is combined with the macro-pessimism of social theory.

The commons is not necessarily synonymous with equality, but the latter should be a crucial underpinning for any commons; the health of society and democracy is truly dependent on its equality. Communication for empowerment starts with equality, but inequality is especially also found, still, in online environments. Does the digital age further the tendencies towards inequality? To empower others, we need to address such inequality.

Mutual recognition and cooperation are similarly crucial to a functioning society. Recognition speaks to the symbolic: to what is present and absent, to the abuse of power in the construction of symbolic representations. This requires and acceptance of diversity and difference, but cannot mean a collapse into meaningless relativism, which can evade the political.

Power cannot be produced from thin air, especially when it has already been given to corporations. It must be wrested from those who already have too much, and vested in those who have too little. We must pull together new sources of collective power and turn them into feasible political systems. Surely the point of our analysis should be to seek to understand how radical political change can come about, and to promote that change; we must not shy away from mixing analysis and activism.

Our current docile approach does not serve us well: we must recognise the ideas that have a seed of life in them, and nurture them; we need empirical sociological analysis, and use such analysis to effect change. We must recover the political commons.