Public discourse, privatized

“State and commercial institutions have assumed some of the functions of the public sphere, and political institutions, such as parties, have assumed advocacy roles in support of their patrons.
…. this transformation has led to a refeudalization of the public sphere. Large and powerful organizations such as corporations, labor unions, political parties, professional groups and interest groups bargain with the state and one another — often out of sight or mind of the public — to allocate resoureces, opportunities, and patronage.
These institutions still seek public support and the marks of legitimacy, but they do this through the exercise of publicity or public relations, not necessarily through contributions to rich public discourse.

Siva Vaidhanathan paraphrasing Jurgen Habermas, in the footnotes to chapter 1 of Copyrights and Copywrongs
Based on recent forays into the world of public-interest advocacy, this quote rings true. Advocacy in practice consists of small-group, backroom lobbying, and large-group marketing.
Advocacy pros often react with puzzlement to suggestions about public education. They have the consumer marketing stereotype: people don’t want to think, but will respond to packaged ideas. Which rings false to me, from small-scale first-hand observation. People don’t have infinite time to study issues and form opinions, so they’ll delegate opinion-making to others they trust. But when people care, they learn, and when they learn, they’re more likely to act. (Call me naive, and see if I grow out of it.)
The “lobbying-and-marketing” approach isn’t just an elitist power-grab by special interests. It’s a practical response to a scaling problem. Representative democracy is a solution to the problem of aggregating decision-making power. The “lobbying and marketing” strategy is a solution to aggregating the power to influence decisions. The Sierra Club and the NRA can get hundreds of thousands of people to donate, vote, and contact representatives.
Question of the decade — are there other effective ways to solve the scaling problem?

3 thoughts on “Public discourse, privatized”

  1. Adina, thanks for bringing this to my attention. Your comments are insightful, as always. I think there’s some relationship between the scaling problem and the concept of “emergent democracy” that we’ve discussed, but whether exploration of emergence carries us closer to a solution, I’m not sure.
    The juxtaposition of your comments and David Isenberg’s notes about the new Canadian book Fire and Ice gets me thinking, though, that within the U.S. part of the problem is rigidity of structures founded on authoritarian/conformist behaviors. I.e. perhaps we too readily give up our power, therefore give it to the wrong set of mediators.

  2. social ecologist murray bookchin has proposed a democracy of the municipality which would shift decicion making away from washington d.c. it’s a bit radical really and calls into question our acceptance of the nation state as a required entity. his idea, greatly simplified here, is to think of democracy as beginning in the neighborhood and moving up to the city level and from there to a regional level through a process of confederation.
    it’s interesting to think about in these times when many would argue that citizenship is dead or dying and has been replaced, to a great degree by consumerism. this is a fundamental shift that is not healthy for democratic process.
    what he and others have called for is actually a deep cultural shift as well as a political shift. but the point is that the machine as it currently functions is not democratic.

  3. Bookchin’s point and (to a lesser extent) Bookchin himself are common tenets of the Green movement. I used to be an armchair Green (and still vote that way) but I have to say I can’t see a lot of evidence on the part of bottom-up, “think globally act locally” democracy in the 20 years since I first ran into these ideas.
    Perhaps that’s simply because in all that time globalism has marched onward, leaving the small-is-beautiful crowd in a continual state of opposition. As an opposition, it’s had quite a few successes, from Green power-sharing in Germany to the size of the anti-globalism movement internationally, which may have taken the place of the old left as the biggest opposition movement worldwide.
    But in terms of substantive successes there’s little to point to. For all their talk of bottom-up politics, Greens have not produced the waves of local municipal candidates and officials that they thought would bring about change, and most awareness of their electoral efforts centers on national campaigns. Greens’ ideas about locally-based economics have been similarly limited in practice; for all the neighborhood industries and small co-ops and alternative barter currencies Greens have talked about, it remains large-scale economic trends which make or break people’s financial security. And the breakup of world markets into a million local jurisdictions would bring the global economy to a screeching halt — a good thing from the point of view of radical environmentalists, but tell that to people who just want a paycheck and to buy stuff.
    I say this with some sadness because my heart is still Green.

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