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The New Authoritarianism and the Structural Transformation of the Mediated Public Sphere I

Reviewing the work of Jurgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt with an assist from Nancy Fraser

It’s been two weeks since my return from Wroclaw. I am getting over the shock of teaching about the rise of the new authoritarianism, as the Polish parliament, The Sejm, seemed to be hammering the final nails into the coffin of Polish democracy. It turned out to be a little better than that. As I noted in the postscript of my last post, President Duda refused to sign the crucial legislation, and Polish democracy seems to have some sort of reprieve. Poles are living now very much in between their authoritarian and democratic pasts and their uncertain future: a common global situation.

What happens in the coming days and weeks will decide a great deal. The grounds for optimism are not solid. Our discussion about mediated public life, I think, can offer some insight, not only into what is happening in Poland and beyond, but also what needs to be done by committed democrats. The challenge was clearly articulated by Alex A. Renoire, a participant in the seminar, when she responded to my last post by asking: “…do we know any methods of bridging different sorts of publics? Of bringing them together and making to reconsider their relative positions?”

At issue is the bifurcated sphere of publics that is characteristic of our times. In Poland, it is divide between “real Poles” and “Poles of the worst sort,” as Jarosław Kaczyński puts it. In the U.S., it is between the red and the blue. And the same sort of public bifurcation is evident from Venezuela to Turkey. I think, indeed, this bifurcation is the sociological grounds of the new authoritarianism.

In our class, I attempted to demonstrate this by critically examining our understanding of public life and its mediation, reading a wide range of materials (for the syllabus, click here), focusing on a review of Jurgen Habermas’s account of “the public sphere,” along with Hannah Arendt’s account of “the public domain,” showing how a sociology of media can help us apply their accounts to an analysis of the problems we now face, and serve as a guide to intelligently address the perennial question: What is to be done?

I will review our deliberation making three moves. Here a brief summary of our examination of Habermas’s and Arendt’s approaches to the question of publics, informed by Nancy Fraser’s critique of Habermas. This will set the stage for two posts, in which I will review our discussions of mediated publics and their transformation. And then, I will address Alex’s question.

We reviewed Habermas’s account, with a heightened appreciation of the role of media in the constitution of publics. The discussion was critically informed by Hannah Arendt’s thesis in the The Origins of Totalitarianism about the disintegration of the public domain, the loss of political capacity in her sense. She thought that totalitarianism was predicated upon the destruction of a free political capacity. He thought that the public sphere rose and fell with modernity, as mediated deliberations emerged but then declined, becoming more and more defined by consumer exchange. He later qualified his most pessimistic prognosis.

Habermas illuminated a key component of modern social life, left unappreciated by those who focus on the development of the state and the economy. With the development of the rational legal state and the capitalist mode of production and social formation, a systemic zone of relatively autonomous public deliberation developed, a liberal public sphere, with important interrelationships with both the polity and the economy.

His approach has been criticized: there were other publics developing that he overlooked, not only his bourgeois public sphere, but also a proletarian one, and one for women, to mention two prime examples. Further, his conception of the public life and deliberations is overly rational, making it seem more like a graduate seminar than the zone of contestation that characterizes actually existing public life. We discussed Nancy Fraser’s particularly telling critical analysis of these points. She emphasizes that a deliberative model of public life, such as Habermas’s, masks domination, as the more powerful overwhelm the less because of inequalities (think the U.S. Supreme Courts decision of equating money with speech). She also underscores that public life is not a matter of a singular public sphere, but of multiple public spheres, and argues that this is a good thing.

When around the seminar table we agreed with this critique, I suggested that we turn to Arendt as we try to address it. Fraser’s notion of multiple publics is compatible with Arendt’s thought. Arendt believed that a free public domain appears any time a group of people come together, as equals in their differences, committed to common principles and to their freedom. In public, people can speak and act in each others presence, and develop a capacity to act in concert. This capacity Arendt understands as the power of politics, which she maintains is a stark contrast to the power of coercion. We read selections from The Human Condition and The Origins of Totalitarianism, along with a group of her essays, “What is Freedom?” “What is Authority?’ and crucially, “Truth and Politics” to understand Arendt’s position. In fact, each session included an Arendt selection.

We noted that Arendt’s is a more dramaturgical account of public life, not only deliberative. (Thus, my work on linking Erving Goffman’s sociology to her political thought in The Politics of Small Things.) She understands better than Habermas the embodied nature of the public interaction, and her approach based on antiquity, ironically, more readily illuminates the sphere of publics in the age of electronic communications, i.e. radio and television, and also all that happens through the world wide web.

We can extend Arendt’s approach, noting that people meet each other and form publics not only face to face, but also through different media. They can speak, listen, observe and act together in publics. They appear and become visible as individuals in one public or another, but also together as a public, and as a public they interact with other publics. Thus, independent multiple publics acting with each other (say in a progressive coalition of feminists and socialists) and against others (for and against traditionalists and other hegemonic publics and powers): this is what I think Fraser and other advocates of multiple publics imagine. And also independent publics interacting with other publics as they may form larger publics, i.e. publics as they are revealed and formed in broadcasting systems and national print media. The chant “the whole world is watching,” the chant heard during the infamous police riot at the Democratic Party’s Nominating Convention in Chicago in 1968, used by Todd Gitlin as the title of his book analyzing the relationship between the media and the New Left of the 1960s, in fact describes how media worked to relate publics in the age of television.

In my next post, I will analyze this directly: how television played a role in holding the sphere of publics together, how it provided a platform for groups to articulate and pursue common and conflicting ends, and how with the demise of television as the dominant media form, the bifurcation of the sphere of publics threatens such pursuit and with it a democratic public life.

Jeffrey Goldfarb

  • andrew gitlin

    This is an important conversation . But this largely liberal view with its romantic sensibilities does little to challenge the growth of popularism and authoritarianism . To present a different rake I make 3 very abbreviated points: 1) space as Lefebvre reminds us is both subjective–living–and a product. As such it can never be completely separated from capitalism. 2) On the other hand, it can never be completely consumed by capitalism and therefore agency is always part of the living nature of the space. And finally while there are surely multiple spaces, public social spaces, none of these spaces operate totally independent from other factors such as capitalist. Given these 3 points, it is difficult to understand how an influential scholar and activist who has made a difference in Poland at the level of practice chooses to say: “Habermas illuminated a key component of modern social life, left unappreciated by those who focus on the development of the state and the economy.”

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