“As matters now stand, every issue is hopelessly entangled in a snarl of emotions, stereotypes and irrelevant memories and associations.” (John Dewey)
I sit down with friends and we discuss matters of various triviality and seriousness. A common theme often makes its appearance: The death of democracy within in the UK and globally. I should say by using the word democracy, people often mean the process by which the public exercises its will though democratic political institutions, most notably by voting, as well as through citizen engagement in the great issues of the day. It assumes informed engagement by citizens and that their decision making at national level is undertaken by their representatives.
I came across a letter from academics who study authoritarianism, populism and fascism. They write:
“While democracy appeared to be flourishing everywhere in the years following the end of the Cold War, today it seems to be withering or in full-scale collapse globally. As scholars of twentieth century authoritarian populism, fascism, and political extremism, we believe that unless we take immediate action, democracy as we know it will continue in its frightening regression, irrespective of who wins the American presidency in early November (2020)”.
As I write this, millions of Americans have either just voted, or are about to vote, for the profoundly anti democratic Donald Trump. Even if Biden wins, the pustule of anti democratic power relationships will continue to fester. But this is not just about the United States, it is global.
Meanwhile, naïve and bourgeois theorists will continue to think that capitalism and democracy are not only bedfellows, but that one is necessary for the other. It was never really true in the past, and it is not true today because those that steer the capitalist ship have returned to having little or no regard for the interests of those travelling in steerage. They may espouse corporate social responsibility, they may sign up for accords to address climate change, and they may argue that their goods and services are designed to promote health and well being. They also have an optimism industry using undeniable facts such as global increases in income and life expectancy to ‘prove’ the unequivocal success of their activities. None of that proves the necessary link between democracy and capitalism. If you want a contemporary example of the disconnect between bourgeois notions of democracy and the potentialities of capitalism, look to China.
Democracy has always been fragile. It is the modern forms of Capitalism that has proven virile. Well, so far in their very short lives.
The Will of the People
People do get passionate about ideas of democracy and the ‘will of the people’ as the Brexit vote in 2016 demonstrated. Warnings were issued about the will of the people being thwarted if we did not ‘Get Brexit Done’. I don’t think the will of the people was actually clearly expressed and I seriously doubt it even exists, it is a chimera, existing only in bourgeois/liberal theories of democracy. There needs to be public spaces in which discussion and decision making can freely take place and I certainly doubt whether these spaces exist.
C Wright Mills referred to the public will in his 1956 book ‘The Power Elite’ especially in the chapter ‘The Theory of Balance’ which should more properly be called ‘The Theory of Bollocks’ for our UK readers and the “Theory of Bullshit’ for our American friends.
The Power Elite describes the seats of power in the 1950s USA and can be dismissed as now hopelessly out of date. I think this would be a mistake. The book’s main ideas have been largely ignored for the past 60 years as the bullshitters of political spin, theory and commentary continue to sell a fairy tale story that many of them actually believe to be true.
This fairy tale tells us that we live in a ‘marketplace of ideas’ in which we come together in informed debate and then choose our representatives who will champion our interests. These people will be accountable to us. No one group has a monopoly on power, each is balanced by other competing groups and claims in a pluralist political system.. The final arbiter is ‘public opinion’, and power is exercised in its name. Sovereignty rests with the people. Populists are apt to invoke this notion, are keen to say they speak for ‘the people’ while at the same time trying to cover for ideological interests. Some may even believe their own rhetoric.
One reason this is bollocks is that we, in many countries, have returned to become a Mass Society rather than a Democratic Public society. The Military-Industrial Complex holds its grip within a wider matrix of the corporate, political and military domains. The internet, with its promises of democratising political discourse, has accelerated the process of creating the Mass Society through the almost ubiquitous and global use of social media. We access and use stories, prejudices, stereotypes rather than engage in objective critical analysis and thinking – a skill beyond most of us. We’d rather watch rather fetching glittery dancers than uncover where the dirty money is and what it is funding. Note the non public reaction across the globe to the revelations of the Panama Papers. “The what?”
I don’t have to outline social media platforms and their content as you see it every day. But why would I say that a technology that on the face of it increases the opportunities for democratic discussion is actually its opposite?
If you wish to know whether a Democratic Public Society exists, rather than a Mass Society, you would do well to consider the following 4 questions (Wright Mills p302):
1). What is the ratio between opinion givers and opinion receivers?
2). What is the possibility of answering back without reprisals?
3). What is the connection between forming an opinion and its realisation in action?
4). What is the degree of institutional authorities’ penetration into the world of public discussion?
A Public Society is one in which:
a) Equi-directional discourse: As many people express opinion as receive them.
b) Public communications systems allow immediate feedback to any expressed opinion.
c) Such discussions by opinion makers result in action.
d) Authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public sphere of discussions.
A Mass Society on the other hand is one in which:
a) Oligarchical discourse: Far fewer people express opinions than receive them.
b) It is difficult for the individual to feedback immediately or with any effect.
c) Turning opinion into action is the preserve of authoritative institutions.
d) The mass has little or no autonomy from authoritative institutions, rather it is the case that agents of authority penetrate mass opinion reducing the autonomy of opinion formation.
I would best treat the above dichotomy of Public-Mass as an ideal type, to provide analytical and conceptual clarity so that today we may look at our own societies and make a judgment using the 4 questions. Another key point is that I have already pointed out this was published in 1956 in the context of Wright Mill’s analysis of the Power Elite of the three overlapping domains of the Corporate, the Political and the Military. I tend to keep to those three as still being relevant today. However, Graham Scambler has updated this insight to highlight what he calls the Capitalist Class Executive and the Political Power Elite – his ‘Greedy Bastards‘ – in which today men of wealth buy men of power.
Back to Mills and the Mass Society.
a) Oligarchical discourse: Far fewer people express opinions than receive them. What? When millions have signed up for Facebook and Twitter? Surely it is the case that far more people express opinions than receive them than ever before. Well, consider this. On the one hand we have seen the demise of the use of public spaces at the workplace, in schools, on our streets and churches. Importantly decision making based on expressing those opinions in those spaces have greatly been reduced as we have abdicated that role to professional politicians, experts and managers. It is of course true that individuals are still free to express opinion in this spaces – vis Extinction Rebellion – and that billions now do so online. But look at these social media opinions, whose are they really? Are billions of people carefully critical analysing texts, reading philosophy, understanding science? Or are they fed near hegemonic orthodoxy via the newspapers they read, the TV they watch? Fox, Brietbart, The Murdoch Press and of course dark money funded social media campaigns of bots and trolls. Add in the well funded right wing think tanks that feed directly into Politicians mouths and then into popular discourse. Wright Mills, I think, is half correct here. Far more people express opinions online, but they increasingly do not receive them other than from a very few opinion makers. If billions express views such as climate change is a hoax, China created Covid-19 and Bill Gates is ushering in a new world order based on the flimsiest of evidence that to me is not worth the screens they are typed on. This is not a Public Society engaging in discourse, it is a Mass Society open to sharing posts about snake oil and lies. Billions of baseless opinions are created by the few to be regurgitated ad infinitum. Billions are not receiving carefully thought out opinion…they are receiving bullshit. OK, perhaps I need to define the difference between ‘opinion’ and ‘bullshit‘, but for now I think you know what I mean.
b) Feedback – is not immediate or effective. Again….I hear you cry, how can that be? Social media allows instant commentary to opinion. However consider this. How effective is it, and really how is it feedback when we know that most commentary is undertaken with one’s pre agreed social media bubble? It is not the to and fro of discourse, it is shouty sweary bullshit aimed more at scoring points than it is for enlightenment. Feedback to old style media is slow, and as again for social media is an echo chamber mostly. Who really takes notice in any case? We have also abandoned or lost the public forums, public organisations. – such as trade unions – in the public domain in which to engage in feedback to people who might take notice and act.
c) Because the power elites control more and more of opinion creation, they in turn act to bring them into existence. There are victories for non elite opinions, such as the same sex marriage laws, but in truth in most matters political, economic or military, the masses are ignored. Examples? Well, I’ll leave that to you.
d) Have authoritative institutions penetrated public opinion? Habermas is useful here and we turn to his idea of ‘lifeworld colonisation’. The lifeworld is our taken for granted sense of ‘what is’ created out of accepted norms, beliefs and values. It can become ‘common sense’. If powerful opinion makers can get their own world views accepted as common sense, our lifeworld is colonised by views that arise not from our own social milieu. Our personal troubles can become viewed from the perspective of other more powerful people. I think this is why the working class can vote for Trump and Johnson and Farage.
Working people experienced the collapse of their jobs, the reduction in the investments in their local communities and the deterioration of their local infrastructures due in part to both domestic policy and structural changes due to to globalisation. Their lifeworld is one of feeling, as the phrase has it, ‘being left behind’ as they watched other regions prosper and become wealthier. The architects of their experience argue that this is because of migration or global competitors such as China or the EU. Huge sums of money are spent in getting this message accepted often via old media, such as Fox and Breitbart, The Sun and Daily Mail, and new social media. Trump consistently presents himself as saviour of the working class promising freedom, prosperity and for making America Great. Millions believe him.
The Mass is not homogenous in its views, but it is distorted, fragmented and fractured. It is unable to link its myriad personal troubles with wider structural changes, unable to rationally analyse those changes and therefore to suggest or engage in discourse and action to address them.
Against this view is the suggestion that there are millions of people across the globe engaged in what Paul Hawken calls the ‘Blessed Unrest’. There are myriad groups with alternative views on global international relationships, ecological policies, welfare and social security, indigenous rights and a range of other issues. They don’t own old media, they use social media and local organisations. They attempt to link personal experiences with wider structural changes. Yet they are still fragmented, they don’t speak with one voice and compared to the Power Elite they lack financial resources and perhaps the tech skills to match those in the pay of the Power Elite.
Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, was published nearly 100 years ago in 1922. John Dewey, called Lippmann’s book “the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived.” Wright Mills also refers to Lippman’s work (p305 and p313). Lippmann wondered if citizens can achieve a basic knowledge of public affairs and then make reasonable choices about what to do? His answer was no, they cannot. Has anything changed…? I believe we still see the world through images, stereotypes and constructed realities. Both old and new media actively create narratives to fit there own biases and interests and purchase these stories and use stereotypes according to our own world views. These world views are of course ‘colonised’ by dominant discourses that serve the interests of the Power Elites. And because we individually want them to be that way.
A minor example. A YouTube channel promoting the motorcycling lifestyle posted one story about electric motorbikes and climate emissions. After a preamble about the coming technology, the writer lapsed into anti-scientific anti climate change theory and clearly had no knowledge of either. His love of the petrol engine and the understandable desire to stave off of the coming changes are prior biases. This part of his lifeworld accepts the discourses of climate science denial and the interests of the fossil fuel industry. The bias in the piece is clearly seen in the link to a global warming denying post on a website.
Power Elites in the corporate, political and military domains are as influential ever. Old and new media bring mass distraction, distortions and disillusionment. That is not to say there are no facts or excellent journalism, rather that we are not equipped, or can be bothered, to find out. Mass Society faces dominant elites and fragments into progressive activists, authoritarians, proto fascists and the nihilist apathetic fatalists.
Democracy has always been bad, and criticisms have been legion. Is it any worse than 50 years ago? Well, keep a very very close eye on who gets elected and what programmes they initiate. Capitalism does not need the bourgeois ‘Balance Theory of Democracy’ to survive. Its forms are quite as happy in Authoritarian (Hindu) India, Brazil and Russia, in ‘Communist’ China, and now in the Fractured United States and United Kingdom.
And let us finish with Antonio Gramsci:
That aspect of the modern crisis which is bemoaned as a “wave of materialism” is related to what is called the “crisis of authority.” If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only “dominant,” exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
— Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 1930
Lippmann, W. (1922) Public Opinion. Harcourt, Brace and Co.
Lippman, W. (1922) The Phantom Public. Transaction.
Bernays, E. (1923) Crystallizing Public Opinion.
Bernays, E. (1928) Propaganda. IG
Bernays, E. (1952) Public Relations. University of Oklahoma Press.
Le Bon, G. (1896) The Crowd. A Study of the Popular Mind. Unwin
Wright Mills. C. (1956) The Power Elite. Oxford University Press.
Wright Mills. C. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.
Marcuse, H. (1964) One Dimensional Man. Beacon Press.
Ellul, J. (1965) Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Vintage.
Mackenzie, J. (1986) Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Studies in Imperialism). Manchester University Press
Herman, E, and Chomsky, N. (1988) Manufacturing Consent. The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon.
Oreskes, N and Conway. E. (2010) Merchants of Doubt. Bloosmbury.
Edwards, D and Cromwell, D (2018) Propaganda Blitz. How the Corporate media Distort Reality. Pluto Press.
Geogeghan, P. (2020) Democracy for Sale. Dark Money and Dirty Politics. Head of Zeus.