“The right to free speech conceived as a positive ideal, rather than as a necessity granted because one fears the consequences of refusing it, presumes a constituency in which real debate is possible. That constituency cannot, therefore, be composed of lunatics.”
The broad remit of this project is public philosophy. At the risk of self-parody, ‘public philosophy’ is a linguistically ambiguous description. On the one hand, there is a desire to cast open the doors of the shady offices and seminar rooms where philosophy is conducted in its raw form. In this sense, it represents the desire to expose abstract professional philosophy, and its terse and formal language, to a general (and sceptical) audience.
In reality, what is signified is a diluted form; public philosophy as a direct analogue of public science. Public science, as conducted by Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Jim Al-Khalili and others, is comprehensively divorced from academic and professional science. The general assumption is that the public in general have neither the interest nor the aptitude for data harvesting and manipulation as a craft, nor algebraic formulations as an art.
Though plausible, this assumption does little to address the problem. Thus, ‘public anything’ comes to signify the stupefied, dumbed-down and accessible, and a great many other patronising ascriptions. This attitude breeds contempt for a consumer class, tolerated and included only because their sufferance, and money, is necessary for the continuation of worthy academic endeavour.
The lunatics Gaita describes are not mundane cranks and trolls, visible all over the underbelly of the internet. Such marginal characters, or simulations of them, are unavoidable. Instead, they are that class of participant in the public sphere who has a fleeting and flimsy relationship with recognisable reality. Anti-vaxxers. Holocaust deniers. Truthers of all stripes. Those who have consciously rejected any common normative framework within which to coexist with their peers, and whose narratives and discourses are unrecognisable to their political community.
Thus, the three classes of agent in the public sphere are revealed, not as they exist, but as each perceives the other to exist. The first is the Intellectual Elite, whose hegemony of wealth and power is now sufficiently sociologically established as to be a fact independent of Marxist or Materialist analysis. The second is the body of the political community, broadly held in contempt as a Lumpenproletariat, with a diminished intellectual appetite and aptitude, and a miniscule attention span. The third is the Other; terrorists, trolls, truthers, the people who swarm round your car at six thirty in the morning at a car boot sale. Lunatics, with whom no general relations are describable or conceivable.
How, then, did relations between the three groups become so fractious and fraught with angst and mistrust? How did a general condition of mendacity bordering on outright hostility come to exist between them? Indeed, is this condition materially novel or different, or is such a supposition merely anchored in some anachronistic sehnsucht or Hiraeth for an idealised past that never was?
One kind of answer, peculiarly American in disposition, holds that the consumer class are blameless victims of the deliberate depoliticisation of that which is Public. Huntington, Fukuyama and Putnam may diverge politically (within the narrow realm of acceptable divergence in American politics), but all broadly agree that individualism, the demands of international capital and collective political participation are mutually exclusive to some degree.
Commercial interests reject political risk, and antagonism creates political risk. Thus, by colonising lobbying groups and news media in sympathetic private hands, two political visions become possible: the general body of the populace can be excluded from the public, kept uninformed and powerless in a narrative stream of seemingly unrelated and inexplicable events, or participation in the political and the public can be narrowed to internet polls and radio phone-ins, allowing critical voices to disseminate and the elite to conduct the business of governance (or governance-as-business) in relative peace.
A European perspective, particularly after Jurgen Habermas’ noted contribution to the definition of the public, finds the same consumer class both active and culpable in its own cultural evisceration. An old quip has it that at the opening night of Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro, Robespierre was sat in the front row taking notes on its hostile satire of the aristocracy. The historical reality is that such satires were an ever-present facet of even the most provincial theatrical productions, and widely dissected in salons, town squares and letters for a good while afterwards.
Yet, as Baudrillard observed, no longer. The political spheres of the West are now characterised by furtiveness and reclusion; idiots in a shadowy Idiocracy (a word which deserves to transcend its common misuse as merely corrupt democracy, and mean only ‘governance by self-interest’). The sharing of critical insight has been subsumed by the trading of crude and unformed opinion. Political elites, unable to communicate with the constituency in a complex way are thus reduced to the reflection of such opinions wherever they congregate in politically useful numbers. Memes, slogans, soundbites and engineered publicity stunts become the only methodology for simulating political representation.
What is most interesting in this latter is that the lunatics, the marginalised Other, are the only rational participants. If the political and public is a mere simulation of political community, deliberate and conscious reclusion or outright rebellion are the only rational reactions.
What should be immediately apparent is that whichever of these two analyses is preferred, there are no longer any incentives to play by the rules of the political game, and few disadvantages to breaking them. The exercise becomes one of apportioning blame in an attempt to provoke contrition and resolution on the part of the culpable agent. In the meantime, political, financial and intellectual elites have both the opportunity to lie and manipulate without consequence, and an audience eager to be lied to.
“Alternative Fakten” has just been named “non-word of the year” by an independent German panel, who called it for what it is; a euphemism for reckless lying. Thirty years ago, the euphemism of choice was Sir Robert Armstrong’s “economical with the truth”, and later, the overused “spin” of the Blair years. What has changed in that time is that politicians no longer lie to the press, but now let the press lie on their behalf in exchange for access and favour. Where previously the aim of the exercise was to manipulate public sentiment, the object now is to disperse public sentiment, to avert sustained censure and divert public scrutiny. Whether the lie is believed, or indeed believable, is no longer salient.
The third theoretical case is concerned with endings. It is an easy conclusion to come to in the present circumstances that something is drawing to a close. The theorists of the Alt-Right increasingly suggest the age of globalisation and multiculturalism. Those on the Left see the prophesied collapse of capitalism and the Bourgeois state. A philosophical centrist might see the preconditions for revolution, the irascible unrest that will finally express itself in a spontaneous demotic impulse.
It is tempting to ask how the public sphere can be repaired. The answers are straightforward. Firstly, private commercial interests are unhealthily embedded in everything the public as an ideal represents, from politics as praxis to the normative framework of society. This state extends far beyond mundane qualms about neo-liberalism or commercialism, and to the core of questions about the compatibility of doctrinal individualism and the demands of collective action.
By way of example, recent events in Catalonia are either cast as an oppressed nation against a tyrannical authoritarian power, or a legitimate sovereign government against a self-serving Bourgeois land-grab. Whichever perspective an interested party took, sufficient media reflecting that perspective was made available. While public opinion waits on the establishment of an authoritative series of facts, a great many events can go unnoticed.
Of course, those two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. A government in Barcelona could be equally as corrupt and self-interested as one in Madrid, given time and opportunity. Private interests change the objectives of the game, and in the process, introduce good reasons to break the rules. In so doing, they reduce the participants to lunatics, increasingly divergent from reality. Such a description is equally apposite for Paul Dacre, Katie Hopkins, Boris Johnson and Rupert Murdoch, yet no mechanism for reducing or removing their influence exists.
This is because freedom of speech is not conceived as a positive ideal in representative democracy; the right to participate is granted solely as a concession, a ward against insurrection, at a minimally sufficient level. As Pericles put it, “one who has no business in the Assembly we do not regard as harmless but useless.” Representative democracy is designed to exclude the public, to reduce their participation to expressions of preference, rare and vague.
Sadly, the complexity of the political sphere has increased as well. Thus, whilst it is tempting to seek to increase the quantity of democracy in the public sphere, the quality achieved by doing so will not noticeably improve. Only scaling back the influence of private interest can reintroduce reliable and verifiable information to the public sphere.
This can be done in a number of ways; a regulatory body with the power to impose fines as originally suggested by the Leveson Report, the mandatory labelling of news media that contain editorials as “Entertainment” (as Bevan remarked, “I read the newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.”) and so on. Mo Udall famously quipped about an interminable Congressional Hearing in the United States, “everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.” The British attitude was reflected by Clement Attlee, when he repeated this old joke, “”Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.” An uncluttered, professional and truly public sphere is as overdue as truly public science and philosophy; reducing the unnecessary quotient of patronising, misleading and untrue background noise can only be positive.
Secondly, societal atomism (the fragmentation of society into ever smaller and more local groups, terminating at the disinterested individual) is at a politically dysfunctional level. That is less a statement of the problem than a normative fact worthy of discussion in the political community. If the public are socially content in disparate and individual pursuits then it is majoritarian representative democracy that will have to go, a prospect that needn’t be as horrifying as is frequently suggested. Indeed, the European Union functions as a relatively benign and transparent technocracy yet still manages a democratic deficit comparable to the bicameral Parliament of the United Kingdom. Otherwise, the United Kingdom could always be disincorporated into the former territories of which it is currently comprised.
If, on the other hand, there is a general recognition that “public opinion” should signify more than the individual opinions, arrived at separately and without discussion, of each member of the political community, then what is required is public space. In some cases, as a great number of urban renewal schemes have dogmatically recognised, these will be physical. In others, they will be conceptual. One thing is certain; the current system of government and predominant mode of life are no longer compatible; the majority cannot be silent any longer.
Lastly, there is the Other. From the fringes of the Far Right and Flat Earthers to the core of the crypto-fascism of Trump, Le Pen and Farage, it must be recognised that there is no explicit right to free speech extended to those whose purpose is to distort, deny or distract from fact. Not even in the unambiguous statement of the Strasbourg Court that the right to freedom of expression under Art. 10 of the European Convention extends to ideas “that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population” is that right regarded as unqualified.
What exists is a deficiency in enforcement and not a deficiency in legislation. As recent cases regarding sexual harassment (in many forms) demonstrate, a class of wrongful action has been facilitated by technology which often falls short of being criminal, yet cannot be economically pursued under appropriate civil law. An independent appellate tribunal for this category would go some way to reacquainting those who recklessly disseminate falsehoods into the public sphere with the consequences of doing so.
For example, the publication of fake news could be heard under the tort of Deceit. Respondents would almost certainly prefer to remain anonymous than to defend themselves, and in the main, be found against in their absence. Thereafter, the question of how to avoid general surveillance yet remove the anonymity on offer through the internet is difficult to answer, but awards for damages outstanding, in sufficient amounts, should be enough to deter the hobbyist troll, and leave only the determined agitator. From that point, a discussion can begin about whether, in conjunction with other measures, the lunatic Other can be regarded as a minor inconvenience, or still constitutes a threat necessitating more severe restrictive action.
It is a cliché of marketing that there is no such thing as bad publicity. This structural lie serves to legitimise coercive selling tactics under the guise of information. It creates publicity of the worst kind, transient simulacra of an ideal that was never realised; the illusion of deliberation and determination that is at least as oppressive as their absence. The reclusion of the public as an entity, and the annexation of the public as a conceptual space, have cast long shadows over the public sphere. Whether those shadows are of a neo-liberal elite tightening their grip on power, a silent majority unwilling or unable to participate, a divisive clade of outcasts seeking to undermine notional unity or some combination of all three is not clear.
What is clear is that a constituency where real debate is possible is the precursor to any political culture. Bevan’s personal motto was “This is my truth, now tell me yours.” In the present circumstances, the title of the Manic Street Preacher’s sixth album, ‘Know Your Enemy’, is more appropriate.
Robin Hill has a First in Philosophy, Politics and Law from Swansea University. He often considers biographies to be a positive inversion of Aristotle’s ad hominem fallacy, and the first step on the road to sophistry.
Baudrillard, J., In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities
Curtis, A., The Power of Nightmares
Brown, R. H., “Social Science and the Poetics of Public Truth”