Theater of Cruelty

Structural changes in the public sector

A new structural change in the public sphere?
HABERMAS II / The policy is marketed via advertising and propaganda and not through discussion. The audience is affected by echo chambers and filter bubbles. And what does globalization mean for today's public?


The German sociology journal Leviathan published an anthology two years ago, a 500-page thematic issue about the public's new structural transformation. The article by Jürgen Habermas became the starting point for the book The new public (reviewed in previous issue of MODERN TIMES). It has just appeared in Cappelen's unpopular writings, translated by Anders Dunker with an afterword by Pål Veiden.

The anthology understands the public politically as a mediation between state and civil society. Idealistically formulated, political publicity is "the process by which society enlightens itself". The 20 contributions analyze the public's structureendring in three areas: how globalization weakens national publics, the effect of the increasing commodificationone of the social, and the development of digital Freedomst.


The necessity of a globalized public is perhaps the easiest to understand, but the most difficult to do something about. The American philosopher Nancy Fraser (b. 1947) has set the tone in the discussion of a globalized public. But when you don't even have a European public, how are you going to solve global problems such as climate change, pollution, wars and migration? The UN is an example of a global governing body, but not a global public. The organization has proven powerless when it comes to stopping wars. At the same time, national governance in a globalized economy is weakening (cf. the financial crisis).

The interaction between cultural and political public opinion is barely touched upon in the anthology. If you want a European public, it is a good measure to send 18-year-olds on a train journey in Europe through DiscoverEU. This is how international contacts are built from below. In Norway, the Bologna process for European student exchange has unfortunately failed; the number of Norwegians studying abroad has not increased since the turn of the millennium.

Politics as a commodity

The commodification shows itself in the language: The expression 'to sell politics' is only 40 years old in Norway. Neoliberalism has privatized and liberalized capital movements and the labor market. Economic thinking has penetrated culture and politics. Politics is governed by the market, not by popular will. Citizens are transformed into consumers. Private PR agencies have grown over the past 20 years. It has also become more common to sell oneself, people have become their own entrepreneurs. Singularized self-realization can threaten the common good and the political public (cf. interview with the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz in the anthology).

Several of the contributors actualize the term 'refeudalisation' from Habermas' Civil public (1962). In the feudal public, the prince told the people what to do. Commercial control over the media likewise governs what the people should think, and stifles the private interests of the owners. Voters become consumers and politics a sales product. The policy is marketed via advertising and propaganda, not through discussion.

In 2020, 68 per cent of Norwegians used Facebook daily, 45 per cent Snapchat, 37 per cent Instagram and 24 per cent YouTube.

But the distinction between manipulation and dissemination of politics has never been absolute, something normative theories of democracy à la Habermas tend to overlook. Slogans such as 'Safety in the community' and 'Ali coffee cures gruff' are similar. When Finance Minister Vedum appeared on Dagsnytt 18 some time ago, I quickly stopped listening to what he said, and started counting the number of times he repeated the word 'safe'. Instructed by a communications advisor? The magic word 'safe' was obviously supposed to cure 'gruff' like rising electricity prices.

Digital surveillance capitalism

Digitization can support commodification through algorithms that collect information from search engines and websites you have visited. The data from this public serves private financial interests, such as Shoshana Zuboff has shown in his book about surveillance capitalism (2017). The notion of the fragmentation of the public through echo chambers and filter bubbles is well known, but not as easy to document empirically. Democracy requires that citizens share a minimum of common beliefs and experiences. In 2020, 68 per cent of Norwegians used Facebook daily, 45 per cent Snapchat, 37 per cent Instagram and 24 per cent YouTube. Sociologist Hartmut Rosa (b. 1965) emphasizes that there are fewer common points in culture since people orientate themselves from different platforms. To counteract this, some suggest strengthening state media and allocating more to a unifying, non-commercial public.

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Deliberative democracy

Deliberativ democratiteori gained increasing popularity after Habermas' Civil public was translated into English in 1989. The theory emphasizes the balancing of arguments as central to democracy. The word comes from the Latin pound – a scale for weight or balance. The weighing of arguments and their quality is more important than participation as a condition for the legitimacy of democracy.

But how factual is political discussion? Doesn't the concentration on argumentation lead to an expertocracy, an elitism in which only the educated and eloquent are allowed in? And the elite also have prejudices: the debate room is characterized by different assumptions than those being discussed. This can often be invisible to the participants, but often becomes noticeable afterwards.

'Sharing everything' on social media is not necessarily socialism. On the contrary, it can strengthen surveillance capitalism.

The American sociologist Richard Sennetts settlement with the 'tyranny of intimacy' is not mentioned by any of the contributors. habermas his criticism of Sennett in the new preface to Civil public from 1990 is incorrect. When Sennett emphasized role-playing in public, he is said to have confused bourgeois public with the prince's appearance to the public! Habermas' claim that Sennett used the wrong method is incorrect: Rhetoric and theatrical performance are not reserved for the prince's display of power, but have always been part of politics. Although all Enlightenment philosophers from Hobbes to Kant disparaged rhetoric, dozens of newly written rhetorics appeared in Europe in the 1700th century. The philosopher Jon Hellesnes has pointed out that the first Norwegian rhetoric of Jakob Rosted (1810) was eagerly studied by several representatives at Eidsvoll in 1814 (cf. Basar 4-1980). None of the contributions in the German anthology discuss the emergence of the bourgeois public from historical sources.

Lack of spotlight on the private

Nor does anyone in the anthology actually discuss what the private is and should be in relation to the public. Speaking for one's private interests is simply defined from the public understood as a political institution. Hartmut Rosa writes, for example, that "a political preference cannot be understood as public opinion, when it is formulated as private interest". Example: The person who wants to abolish the protection for the tenant cannot justify this by making him richer, but must claim that it is in the community's interest. This is an area with a lot of masquerading and cocky monks where the 'hermeneutics of suspicion' is not only allowed, but required! Cultivating one's own private interests in politics can further lead to disqualification and corruption. Just ask Trettebergstuen and Borten Moe!

The American political philosopher Raymond Geuss (b. 1946) has i Public Goods, Private Goods (2001) divided the private into three: 1) the private related to the feeling of shame and what is decent social behavior, 2) the private as property: Should the railway and post be run privately or publicly? 3) the private as privacy: The individual has the right not to be monitored, the thought must be free! If these three levels are mixed, it leads to confusion, according to Geuss.

But any private problem can turn out to have a political dimension. Obesity problems can be solved in other ways than through exercise: For example, Else Kåss Furuseth demands a sugar tax and an increased price of snop.

Family policy and 'fear of missing out'

The privatization of the public and the publication of the private, which Habermas already claimed in 1962 was the core of the decay of the public, has celebrated triumphs in family politics. In the wake of 1968, we have received a number of regulations regarding maternity leave, equality, abortion legislation, acceptance of sexual minorities, etc. Regulation of parts of private life is politics. Feminism broke taboos and redrew the boundaries between private and public. The public of Habermas in 1962 was manequal, general and rational, while women, body and emotions were excluded.

Although much in private life may have political implications, this does not mean that the private just like that is political, or that it is 'radical' to abolish the distinction between private and public. Walking around naked in the living room in the summer heat is a private matter. The same behavior at Karl Johan could lead to prosecution for exposure. Streaking, running naked across a public space, was particularly popular in the 1970s. And the press ethics rules mention a number of things one should be careful about mentioning publicly, for example someone's suicide. But the tendency is that more and more people are "coming forward" with their illnesses, marital crises and depression, and the front pages of the newspapers are overflowing with health advice to avoid heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The openness steals energy and turns us into zombies.

The ecstasy of communication can lead to FOMO, 'fear of missing out'. The openness steals energy and turns us into zombies. Publicity becomes not only a condition for democracy, but a techno-cultural ideology that can create indifference. The new openness is also of course directed, from beautiful family photos on Facebook to revelations of the grief over a deceased spouse in novel form.

What effect the new exhibitionism or shamelessness has on the right to privacy and the valuation of private property is impossible to calculate. This also applies to the effect on the political public. But 'sharing everything' on social media is not necessarily socialism. On the contrary, it can strengthen surveillance capitalism. And exhibitionism is not liberation, but a feeling of shame turned to the opposite. Therefore, the blotter is not ideal either.

Chancellor's stamp German

500 densely written pages in German social science will not be public reading. Most of the articles are written in top-heavy, chancellery-tinged German with few examples, not unlike Habermas' own murderous bureaucratic German. This is unnecessary even in such a rigid and formal country as Germany – one can only think of the linguistic idleness of Brecht or Enzensberger.

This publication has nevertheless become an important reference work. Libraries in the university and college sector should know their visiting hours.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author.

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