We Must Take Back Control of the Public Sphere

The “public sphere” is generally conceived as the social space in which different opinions are expressed, problems of general concern are discussed, and collective solutions are developed communicatively. Thus, the public sphere is the central arena for societal communication. In large-scale societies, mass media and, more recently, online network media support and sustain communication in the public sphere. Jürgen Habermas thinks that the public sphere is important for democracy, facilitating participation in democracy. In its ideal form, the public sphere is “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state”. Through acts of assembly and dialogue, the public sphere generates opinions and attitudes which serve to affirm or challenge – therefore, to guide the affairs of state. In ideal terms, the public sphere is the source of public opinion needed to legitimate authority in any functioning democracy.

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) is Habermas’s examination of a kind of publicity that originated in the eighteenth century, but still has modern relevance. It begins by attempting to demarcate what Habermas calls the bourgeois public sphere. He defines the public sphere as the sphere of private people who join together to form a “public.” He traces the history of the division between public and private in language and philosophy. The most important feature of the public sphere as it existed in the eighteenth century was the public use of reason in rational-critical debate. This checked domination by the state, or the illegitimate use of power. Rational-critical debate occurred within the bourgeois reading public, in response to literature, and in institutions such as salons and coffee-houses. The public sphere was by definition inclusive, but entry depended on one’s education and qualification as a property owner.

Habermas emphasizes the role of the public sphere as a way for civil society to articulate its interests. Before the bourgeois public sphere came representative publicity, which existed from the Middle Ages until the eighteenth century, it involved the king or lord representing himself before an audience. The King was the only public person, and all others were spectators. The public and private realms were not separated. The development of the fully political public sphere occurred first in Britain in the eighteenth century. The public sphere became institutionalized within the European bourgeois constitutional states of the nineteenth century, where public consensus was enshrined as a way of checking domination. The fully developed public sphere was therefore dependent on many social conditions, which eventually shifted. The bourgeois public sphere eventually eroded because of economic and structural changes. 1

The boundaries between state and society blurred, leading to what Habermas calls the refeudalization of society. State and society became involved in each other’s spheres; the private sphere collapsed into itself. The key feature of the public sphere – rational-critical debate – was replaced by leisure, and private people no longer existed as a public of property owners. Habermas argues that the world of the mass media is cheap and powerful. He says that it attempts to manipulate and create a public where none exists, and to manufacture consensus. This is particularly evident in modern politics, with the rise of new disciplines such as advertising and public relations. These, and large non-governmental organizations, replace the old institutions of the public sphere. Advertising and internet have invaded and corrupted the private sphere. The public sphere takes on a feudal aspect again, as politicians and organizations represent themselves before the voters.

Habermas’ concept of ideal speech is a situation in which everyone would have an equal chance to argue and question, without those who are more powerful, confident or prestigious having an unequal say – an important aspect of the cultural dimension of modernism. This activity is oriented towards developing an understanding, and when agreement is reached, it is the knowledge and truth of the situation. The phenomena of blogging and citizen journalist creates challenges investigating the identification of quality information accessible via the web. Habermas claims it is not so much the possession of particular knowledge, but rather in “how speaking and acting subjects acquire and use knowledge.” The sheer diversity of information available today raises a critical question: how do we know which information to pay attention to, and which to discard?2

In response to concerns raised in the 1970s the corporate elite set in motion processes to dismantle the New Deal social compact, clearly recognizing that some people will now do with less to ensure an elite (big business) have more. This response to the crisis in capitalism also included moves to union busting. A key hegemonic claim is that the market provides a natural mechanism for rational economic allocation. Thus, attempts to regulate capital via political decisions produce suboptimal outcomes. This thinking is used to undermine the mechanics of popular engagement in determining policy. The actual individuals – the economic elite – who control the decision-making undermine other associations, like unions, under the rhetoric of personal freedom. Neoliberalism’s nonsense of individual freedom and equality, and its promise of prosperity and growth, are slowly being revealed as fabrications. Economic nationalism serves to distract the working-class from the very real questions about domestic distribution of economic resources by casting dispersion on foreigners.

The Internet was acclaimed as leading to a new age of enlightenment through easy communication and universal access to information. Instead, observers see the emergence of an increasingly polluted information environment. We face torrents of false or at least distorted tweets, video clips, and blog posts. We also observe the formation of many echo chambers, groups that reinforce those groups’ chosen visions, selecting what to accept as true, and amplifying each other’s biases. Public opinion is now manipulative, and, more rarely, still critical. We still need a strong public sphere to check domination by the state and non-governmental organizations. There are deliberate fakes created to deceive the public and then there are misleading images shared, often during breaking news situations, that are entirely unrelated to the story. The Internet is distorting our collective grasp on the truth – many of us have burrowed into our own echo chambers of information.

Neoliberalism has ushered in a new Gilded Age in which the logic of the market now governs every aspect of media, culture, and social life from schooling to health care to old age. Of course, the goal was to weaken the welfare state and any commitment to full employment, and – always – to cut taxes and deregulate. But neoliberalism is more than a standard right wing wish list. It is a way of reordering social reality, and of rethinking our status as individuals. In short, neoliberalism is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made just to support the autocracy. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practice and believe: that the only a way of structuring all reality is the model of economic competition. The economic elite use Internet tools, especially social media, to create distractions to advance this agenda.2

Information manufactured by people and institutions with money supports the pervasiveness of neoliberal thought that allows it to be presented and perceived not as one option, but as the only one even imaginable. In 2008 there was nothing on the other side from neoliberalism, demonstrating its ubiquity and consensual nature that the only way society’s imagination could react to the crisis of neoliberalism was more of the same. We are beholding to Donald Trump for pulling back the curtain and drawing attention to the mechanism of the social repression behind the illusion of minimal government and austerity. He governs like a king – as the only public person – re-enforcing the fact that ‘people’ are spectators with no real input into government decisions. We must begin the process to end big money’s grip on politics to take back control of the public sphere to ensure the ongoing transformation in structures of public communication in order to overcome social repression.

The neoliberal ideological project is geared to making itself invisible – is almost never mentioned in the mainstream political world. Today, the neoliberal state is the extension of the economic elite – propagated by the economic elite and their proxies who can speak no other language than that of the privileged status of capital, and who hold the belief they are serving the greater good. With the dismantling of the social safety nets and the ongoing increasing economic inequality between the wealthy and rest of society the state now becomes an agent of social repression, becoming a protection agency for the activities of the economic elite. Today “public opinion” is created at election time by the media controlled by the economic elite, thus instead of criticizing and examining the government, the manipulated public is meant merely to agree. To prevent the decline of democracy it is necessary to remove the corrupting influence of money to ensure the public sphere once more becomes the public opinion needed for participatory democracy.

1 Jürgen Habermas And The Public Sphere https://www.media-studies.ca/articles/habermas.htm

2 Habermas, Jurgen. Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/public/summary.html

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