Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part V)


Yes, Yes, and Yes!!! I really find this approach very generative. So far, in mapping the ethics of participation, we have, at this moment of crisis, focused on anti-democratic and even fascistic players, seeking to recognize ideals and norms through their violation. But I wonder if we might reverse the lens for a moment and try to define what participatory leadership looks like. I know from our earlier conversation this was a key theme for you and it is something I am thinking about more and more. This brings me back to the figure of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the ways that she is disrupting conventional political rhetoric in order to create conditions that encourage participation by youth, women, and people of color within the political process. Here's a recent video she released about the Green New Deal, which seems particularly rich in terms of the ways it constructs, top-down though it may be, a model of what a more democratic/participatory society might look like.

First, I would note that her work is consistently pedagogical. She understands that if those who have been excluded from the political process (either formally through voter repression or informally through the ways established politicians talk) need a certain background to be brought into the conversation. We saw in the work I did for By Any Media Necessary that many young people felt the language of American politics was broken, both by partisanship and policy wonk rhetoric, both of which turned away first time voters. Here, she explains this potential set of policies in clear, vivid, and concrete terms. In this case, she's using animation and storytelling to illustrate both how we got to the current state and what a future alternative might look like.

Second, and tied to the first, she constructs an aspirational future -- not just telling us what the problem is but daring us to imagine, together, what alternatives might look like. And there are various explicit appeals here to participate, to get involved. She constructs herself as a model of a young person who has been able to become part of the most diverse group of congresspeople "so far" and she offers a model of a young Latinx girl who will grow up and replace her someday. She maps the transition between participatory or expressive politics (outside the formal system through protest) and institutional politics -- the ability to actively contribute to the decision-making process. Many young people say that they are never invited to participate in the decision-making process, never encouraged to vote, to petition, to protest, etc. and research shows that such direct appeals often make a difference.

Of course, the appeal is most effective when given by someone who plays a direct role in the young person's life. And that's why it matters that AOC's content is so damn spreadable, that she is actively encouraging people to circulate it through our everyday social networks, and thus her political speech goes where the people are rather than pulling them into uncomfortable, unfamiliar, spaces of formal politics.

I really value the ways that she embraces the civic imagination, that she dares to propose approaches that would be outside what the political establishment deems possible, given current constraints. She's pushing past what Stephen Duncombe calls "the tyranny of the possible." But at the same time, she does not mean for us to take this vision, literally, as the only possible way forward or the only way to achieve her goals. In the end, we do not have a utopia (problems persist) nor do we have a blueprint which is closed off from popular interventions. We have a provocation which encourages a continuing process of asking questions, proposing alternatives, and working to achieve them on the local, national, and global level.


Finally, if you look closely, you will see that she did the video in collaboration with Naomi Klein, best known for her book, No Logos, but more to the point, the author of a new work, No is Not Enough. This book makes the case that resistance is not enough to change what's wrong with global democracy, that we need to be willing to put effort into describing what alternatives look like, regardless of whether we yet have the means to achieve them. She describes work taking place in the environmental justice movement in Canada, which involves bringing diverse stakeholders together, to talk through problems and develop plans for alternative futures. The fact that these are considered alternatives (not THE answer) creates a space for people to participate in the process and contribute their own ideas.

There must be young leaders like AOC (or elders like Naomi Klein) all over the world who are working not just to resist authoritarian impulses in their cultures but to articulate and actively perform what an alternative might look like. Are there examples you might point to in Cyprus or the various European countries where you have been doing your work?

Our own Civic Imagination workshops are on a modest level trying to do something similar. We go into communities across America and elsewhere in the world to create temporary spaces where people can imagine the future together. Through our participatory process, we surface points of agreement as well as points of disagreement, helping communities to identify shared values and visions, as well as to recognize and pay respect to those things which differentiate their experiences and perspectives. Surprising things emerge -- a discussion of religious freedom in Beirut, a discussion of the need for national health care in Kentucky -- which do not fit our assumptions or mental categories of how such groups constitute themselves. We certainly hear some conservative perspectives, but we are also seeing people agree on things that set them apart from the institutional political leadership. It is through such a process that people may become awakened to and inculcated into the kinds of ethics of participation we have been discussing.


What does participatory leadership look like? How does it help to create conditions and provide resources that support the kinds of expansion of opportunities to participate you described in your last post? Too often, we talk about flat organizations and leaderless movements, terms which undervalue the importance that good leaders can bring to democratic processes. I am struck by the difference in the ways AOC represents herself and the ways that Trump does. Consider a news story today about the ways some servicemen wore badges on their sleeve which signaled their allegiance to Trump rather than to the American Constitution, badges which look pretty damn much like the kinds of iconography that surrounds other fascistic states. No wonder AOC has received such attacks from the alt-right -- she embodies the exact opposite of their vision for the future of American society.


Yes, I agree that leadership matters, and significantly matters, in the debates about participation, and in the debates about the protection of democracy. Where I would like to start is that participatory processes are affected by how leadership, expertise and ownership are defined and performed. Authoritarian forms of leadership disable participation, as they are contradictory. Authoritarianism is grounded in the centralization of power, while participation is based on its decentralization. The same point applies to expertise and ownership, that, depending how they are defined and performed in a particular context (and not only politics), can increase or decrease participatory intensities. Actually, there is quite a lot of mid-20th century literature in the field of leadership studies (e.g., Lewin and Adorno) that tries to think through these issues, for instance, by distinguishing between democratic and authoritarian leadership. That kind of literature can be re-interpreted and extended, to capture how participation and leadership interact, in constructive and destructive ways.

One of the additions that I would like to make is that we are up against a deeply rooted desire for these stronger forms of leadership. Different authors, e.g. Gramsci and Reich, have tried to provide answers to the question why people chose for authoritarian regimes. Without delving too deep into these discussions, I would argue that the fantasy of the ultimate charismatic leader, that manages to fulfill all contradictory demands of the people, and cares for the people as a father/mother figure, is a strong force, that we should take into account. I would also argue that this fantasy links to another fantasy, namely the fantasy of homogeneity, where there is no conflict, no dissensus, and no disagreement. Authoritarian leaders tap into these fantasies, offering to fulfill all these wishes and demands, and offering a construction of the people as the One. However tempting it is to believe that we can safely rest in the caring arms of the Leader, these fantasies are bound to be frustrated, through the heterogeneity of the social, the irreconcilability of demands, and thus the unavoidable presence of conflict.

But, as I argued earlier in our discussion, we are living in the era of the both, and I would argue that there is also another fantasy circulating, which is the fantasy of equality and horizontality. It is the fantasy of the absence of hierarchy. We find this fantasy in many different variations, some of which I would consider benevolent, while others can be deeply troubling. I would argue that when the two fantasies, the fantasies of horizontality and homogeneity, become integrated, the outcome can be deeply troubling. This is actually where populism (or what some would qualify as regressive or reactionary populism, see Mouffe's and Fraser's work) is situated, because of its anti-establishment discourse, that unifies (homogenizes) the people in its wish to remove the establishment that is considered to have betrayed it. In a next move, populism then brings in the (contradictory) logic of verticality, as it presents a new elite to the people (replacing the old established elite) that "truly" represents the people.

I think it is also possible to translate the fantasy of horizontality (and what I would prefer to label equivalence) into social practice without triggering the fantasy of homogeneity, but instead by respecting radical diversity. That is (I think and hope) where my position is situated. And (after this long detour): This is the playing field where I situate participatory leadership, or, as I prefer (to better connect to the existing reflections) democratic leadership. I do not want to articulate horizontality and homogeneity, which also means that I do not believe that we should eliminate leaders (or experts, and even (sic) owners), simply because we are all the same and we should not have leaders at all. I think this would imply the denial of human diversity, ignoring the idea that people have developed different skills throughout their life trajectories, for instance at the level of understanding, argumentation, communication and organization (which are qualities that define leadership).

Instead, we need to respect and cherish these qualities, which brings me to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who seems to have accumulated a number of these qualities, although it might be a bit early days to evaluate this. But more in general, democratic leadership is built on the articulation of horizontality, equivalence and diversity, which recognizes the particularity of individual leadership skills, but which also prevents that these differences (or particularities) harm or destroy the logic of equivalence. Or, in other words, democratic leaders are aggregators, translators and protectors of diversity, that use empathy to connect to the plurality of demands, defend the participatory ethics and avoid the creation of the incontestable 'One Narrative'. To refer to an ancient idea, democratic leaders have to have a little memento mori voice in their heads, which is a permanent reminder that they are mortal, and not divine.

I know that this is a lot to ask from individual leaders, but I think that this re-articulation of leadership is very necessary to protect contemporary democratic cultures (and, by the way, our environment as well, but that is for another discussion). At the same time, we should not blindly trust the authority of leaders, even if, at first, these leaders seem to fulfill all criteria of democratic leadership. We should keep in mind that time plays a role, and that the maintenance of democratic leadership poses a serious challenge, as leaders are exposed to the seductive capacities of power. That is, of course, the main reason why rotation remains a crucial democratic principle. But I would argue that also collective leadership structures, with leadership teams (without having a primus inter pares) instead of individual leaders, should be considered and implemented more.

And even when these more protective scenarios, driven by a structural distrust in the necessarily benevolent authority of leaders, are implemented, I would still argue that we simultaneously need mechanisms that undermine this authority of leaders. Historically, the jester has shown to be a crucial figure, that could speak truth to power. The carnavelesque is a more structural form of this kind of disruptive practice, which has the capacity to undermine authority, even if it is only for a limited period in time. A more contemporary version is political satire, which again has the capacity to desacralize leadership. Of course, political satire has gained a strong position in the US media sphere, but maybe the not-so-exclusive focus on one particular leader (which we now often find in these late-night talk shows) would be more beneficial, however tempting it is to focus on the current US president. And I would like to add that we need a better comprehension of the current transgressions and the enjoyment they create, but we also need to develop counter-transgressions, that strengthen the democratic tissue, instead of weakening it.

The shift towards a different (democratic) leadership model is part of a broader change towards a more progressive politics. There is, of course, paradoxically, the need for democratic leaders to develop an ideological project that elaborates these more progressive politics, including the identity of democratic leaders. In order to move outside this paradox, we need to broaden the notion of democratic leadership, not restricting it to institutionalized politics, but incorporating and connecting democratic leaders from all social fields. That returns us to Gramsci's concept of hegemony, or the creation of a dominant ideological project through a series of political alliances. This does not imply that all progressive forces need to agree on all issues, or that they need to become assimilated into one impossible meta-project. Instead, we need these forces to generate, in a non-defensive way, what Laclau and Mouffe call a chain of equivalence, with the many different progressive groups collaborating in the development of a new progressive ideology for the 21st century, without denying their internal differences.

But we also need a second, much broader, political alliance, with all democratic political forces, conservative and progressive, to protect the idea of democracy itself. I would argue that this is even more urgent, as anti-democratic forces are gaining strength in the West, and there is a strong need to re-hegemonize democracy. This does not mean that this broad alliance, a democratic front, needs to agree on particular ideological projects. They do not even have to agree on what kind of democracy is preferred. The plan to establish more intense forms of democracy, including participatory democracy, in a variety of fields (including media and communication), does not need to disappear from the progressive agenda. But there is a need for a new democratic social contract, that pledges to actively defend the idea of democracy itself. Now is about the time, I would say.


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).