If we recall, Habermas sees no clear distinction between public and private in feudal society. Dignity was a blending of power and culture and the force that made ideas ‘true.’ The court was a form of government, but it was also a cultural show performed for the lower classes. This was a public space, but behaviour was tightly scripted, leaving little room for individual opinion and personality. ‘Private’ individuals were initially those who had no position in the state. These merchants gained economic autonomy and shaped their opinions in the privacy of their homes. When they emerged from their homes and encountered each other as equals — debating art and policy in coffee shops and salons — the modern idea of public space was born. Equality was easy to maintain as most participants in this public sphere came from the same class and were collectively seeking to wrest dominance from the aristocracy. Once the aristocracy was dethroned, maintaining and expanding equality became more troublesome. Now that ‘private’ individuals had real power, many of them wanted to hang on to it.
For Habermas, some aspects of contemporary culture resemble the feudal world more than they resemble the autonomous debate of the bourgeois public sphere. Companies are internally hierarchical and work to manipulate public opinion through ‘public relations’ techniques. Political parties are closed off within their ‘caucuses’ and display their leaders to the public through campaigns that are more about image and symbolism than policy and ideas. Publicity, which once rose up from the diversified interactions of thousands of private homes, is “generated from above to create an aura of good will for certain positions” (Habermas, 1989, p.177). This is the meaning of the ‘refeudalization’ of the public sphere. As with the medieval onlookers gathered outside court festivities, “the public as such is included only sporadically in this circuit of power, and even then it is brought in only to contribute its acclamation” (Habermas, 1989, p.176). We can applaud our politicians, but we never get to tell them what we think. For Habermas, the key question is whether public opinion is a force that shapes policy or an object being manipulated by powerful organizations.
So how can we revive the genuine public sphere without making it once again the exclusive domain of elites, as it was in the 1700s?
I see at least three specific, but intertwined, requirements here:
- We need new sites of cultural production which are accessible and diverse and untainted by economic considerations. Social media holds some potential, but it too could easily be ‘refeudalized’, populated as it is by marketers, PR experts and ‘astroturfers.’ Furthermore, social media ownership is very concentrated, unlike the newspapers, cafes and salons of the early public sphere.
- We also need a shift in the character of socialization away from passive consumption and towards debate, critique and the formation of opinions. When we talk about politics, we need to talk about policies, not about politicians engaged in some kind of horse race. Don’t ask who won the debate, ask which ideas were useful. When we talk about art, we need to talk about its message and meaning, not just how awesome it is. We have to be willing to engage coworkers and new acquaintances in meaningful discussions, rather than just making small talk. Fundamentally, we need to use our free time to form opinions about art and politics, together and alone, rather than just to consume entertainment produced by large companies.
- Perhaps most importantly political parties and large organizations need to choose genuine public deliberation over public relations. If the shift towards debate as the prime form of socialization is strong enough, political parties will have to play along in order to get votes. More likely though, if there is progress here, it will be a two-way street, as politicians take deliberation more seriously, the public will see more value in participating and as the public becomes more involved it will produce ideas that are more complex and valuable as actual policy.
I am interested in indoor public spaces because they are so important in forming a public sphere. Community centres often focus on leisure and exercise, rather than ‘recreation’ in the active and productive sense. In Toronto, in the breakdancing community, practices are open sessions where everyone can create new movements, rather than learning the movements of experts. I know that in Toronto’s community centres it hasn’t always been easy for dancers to explain this process to managers who expect their employees to teach lessons. In the public library, we can read about politics and art, but there is little opportunity for us to engage other people in discussion or collectively produce any kind of statement or publication. We need public spaces where we can produce, instead of just consuming. Focused spaces like churches, though they sometimes make space for meaningful discussions, are at risk of forming internal debates which are not continuous with the broader public debate. We also need spaces that are open to all people, spaces where people have meaningful interactions with members of other classes, religions and political parties.