In our last episode, the bourgeois public sphere had taken shape as a continuous public discussion among white, male property owners, a discussion where the best idea stood on its own merits and one which penetrated to the core of major economic and political organizations. In the 1700s, this discussion took place in coffee shops, salons and dinner parties, in the reading rooms of private libraries and in the halls of parliament. Modernity promised that an ideal world was possible and that reason was the way to find it. As a result, in all these public and quasi-public spaces, there was a sort of gentleman’s agreement to truly listen, an openness to new ideas regardless of who spoke them. In practice, the bourgeois public sphere was elitist and discriminatory, but whenever it could be held accountable to its own principles, real progress could be made. In the 1800s, in much of Europe and North America, property restrictions on voting were removed. The opinions of working class white men could no longer be ignored. But they were not necessarily respected either.
When compared with feudalism, the workings of the ‘free’ market had seemed rational and liberating. Democratic notions of freedom of speech and economic ideas of free trade had appeared to be two sides of the same coin. But the rise of monopolies and millionaires in the 1800s demonstrated that an unregulated market tended towards inequality rather than equality. In the 1700s, property ownership had been seen as a guarantee of autonomy, a way of freeing oneself from the old social order. The general opinion was that merchants had competing, but equivalent interests, and they could discuss policy as equals. As wealth became more concentrated and economic relationships became more vertical, it became clear that the market was a new social order. Even successful businessmen were dependent on their suppliers and distributors. Today, the average property owner lacks meaningful autonomy.
Ideas of economic and intellectual freedom, which had once seemed so closely linked, were becoming distinct, and perhaps even antagonistic. It was obvious to many that the market was not a level playing field. Some people could not participate properly in the public debate because their parents had been unable to educate them or because they themselves had neither the money to afford books nor the time to read them. For the public sphere to continue to function, it would be necessary to make knowledge equally and freely available to all outside of the market. There was however, a certain ambivalence in early efforts to incorporate the working class into the public sphere. Public schools and public libraries both arose at this time, as ways of ushering new participants into the market and the political conversation. The debate was ongoing and there was much important material to catch up on. As far as the participants in the bourgeois public sphere knew, these really were the best ideas and one ought to know them in order to either acclaim them or disagree with them — but education can be a double-edged sword. With an organized schooling system, certain ideas are amplified by the state and the currently dominant ideas tend to drown out new perspectives. Some of the ‘horizontality’ of the ideal public sphere is lost and, more insidiously, the ‘best’ ideas often justify the current economic and social arrangements — they were, after all, the result of a debate that had previously included only wealthy white men. As a result, in the late 1800s, the existing elite saw teaching these ideas as a useful form of indoctrination. In North America at least, public libraries were seen by many as a way of preserving the status quo and promoting a specific vision of economic and political freedom over the socialist ideas of Karl Marx and others.¹ Joseph Carnegie, for example, prized economic freedom above all else, and saw it as a sufficient method of ordering society (Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth). Competition in the market annointed the best among men as leaders and blessed them with great wealth which they were obliged to use to shape society as they saw fit. The market itself was a sufficient test of intellect and there was little need for public debate. Such a view dismissed the opinions of not only the working class, but even modest property owners. Carnegie chose to invest much of his money in public libraries, not to help the poor to understand and discuss their world, but in order to nourish the minds of the next generation of economic competitors.
Both conservatives who wanted to keep things the way they were and those who truly believed in the superiority of the best idea had reason to share contemporary thought. Schools and libraries were embarking on two somewhat contradictory missions at once. Using the power of the state to amplify and echo the best ideas in the public sphere can reinforce the status quo, but it also spreads the skills and knowledge needed to shape and redefine those ideas to people who might never have been part of the debate at all under other circumstances. As Foucault has said, If power only ever said no, why would we obey it?² In order to understand whether education is truly designed to strengthen the public sphere, we can try to discover whether its promoters expect new readers to pattern their lives upon what they learn or if they are genuinely training new participants to enter into an ongoing debate with their own opinions and perspectives. Those with knowledge should share that knowledge, but they must be careful to listen as much as they speak.
Amidst all this turmoil and difference of opinion about education, the public sphere itself begins to change around the turn of the century. Not all participants continue to play by the same rules. More and more, certain powerful individuals, confident in their own opinions, publicize their ideas not to test them, but simply to make them heard. These people are essentially speaking without listening — a privilege which once belonged only to the king. Habermas calls this the ‘refeudalization’ of the public sphere. Others, seeing money to be made, begin to publish not the ideas that they believe in, but the ideas that the average person wants to hear. Astrology, get-rich-quick schemes, sensational romances — publishers promote these books based on their marketability, not their intellectual or artistic value. This does not mean that popular works cannot also be genuine or valuable, because they can — the problem is that books that have been primarily shaped by economic considerations no longer record real opinions. The food that feeds the public sphere is becoming tainted.
The rise of advertising is obviously significant here, but, for Habermas, the worst offender is the practice of ‘public relations.’ Unlike advertising, which puts biased ideas into the public sphere, PR actively seeks to control and respond to public opinion. PR is an effort to enter the public debate, not as part of one’s personal quest for truth, but in the interest of a specific individual, company or organization. Large organizations circle the wagons and produce positions and statements internally (in their own private spheres) without allowing themselves to be affected by public debate. Pomp and reputation, rather than facts, are once again the building blocks of public opinion. Political parties have done the same — they hire permanent, professional staff and use advertising and PR techniques to make statements about internally-crafted positions rather than forming their policies within the crucible of the public sphere. Habermas is also critical of the caucus system because it draws such a sharp distinction between internal and external debate. In fact, real policy debate has so totally moved within parties that it is necessary for parties and the media to organize a temporary and artificial public sphere for party leaders to debate within in the lead up to each election.
At the height of the bourgeois public sphere, political debate and artistic critique were part of culture and socialization, but that is less true today. Cultural production, which once emerged from private homes in the form of letters or the essays and artistic products of individual artisans, is increasingly mass-produced. Even in science, which was once the domain of amateurs, we see a rise of large laboratories and extensive training regimes. Producers and consumers of culture are no longer on equal footing. As a result, while socialization still revolves around music and books (and Netflix) it is more about consumption than critique. We discuss our ‘preferences’ rather than engaging with artists’ ideas. Habermas’ position on socialization is supported by Robert Snape who has written on ‘leisure’ in the United Kingdom.³ Snape points to a shift from the Victorian (think bourgeois public sphere) idea of recreation — which was about the restoration and improvement of the self — to modern leisure which is about relaxation and defined in contrast with ‘work.’ At first glance, there is no good reason why our hobbies and passions cannot also be active and productive — except our exhaustion. ‘Recreation’ was never properly available to the working class. It may also, however, be that this cultural shift is a rational response to the public’s realization that those with power aren’t really listening anyway. Amateur scientists and armchair critics are not usually well-received. Though the maker movement and some trends within social media may signify a turn for the better.
In our third and final episode, we will take a look at what we can do to revive the public sphere and what role indoor public spaces can play in this project.
1 — For an academic paper on this theme, please contact me.
2 — This is a pretty close paraphrase from Truth/Power in The Essential Foucault, eds. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (2003)
3 — Snape, R. (1995). Leisure and the rise of the public library. London: Library Association Publishing.