The Phantom Public

One of the most interesting and least well known issues in politics and social science is what it means to talk about 'we'. In the sense of groups of people (groups, societies, organisations), rather than individuals. Or the 'public', a term most of us use quite a lot, and which seems relatively unproblematic.

Which it is if you're just using it as a name for a collection of people. Although even then does it include the government? And how about the military? Or the clergy? Once you get into it there seem to be many publics. And stick with it a bit and you soon realise that the idea is about insiders and outsiders, the public usually being the excluded (usually large) group on the outside of some other group (of insiders).

The public is a bit strange. We're all members of the public in one way or another, but does us any of us actually have a sense of being in that group? We don't share much in common with a helluva lot of other people in this public. We don't really do anything much together as a group, except vote and watch some of the same TV shows.

Walter Lippmann, a journalist, and John Dewey, one of America's most famous philosophers, debated the notion of the public in the early 20th century. It wasn't much of a debate in that they seemed to agree on more things than not. Both agreed that the notion of a public as some sort of super organism with aims and goals and intention was a myth, or to use Lippmann's words, a 'phantom'. Both were dismissive of the general ideas about civic education as somehow equipping the public with extensive knowledge and skills about how a country works, so that they could somehow guide the nation in their collective wisdom.

In short they both realised, and this has obvious links to the stuff about scale I've written about here before, that the public is not a macro thing while we are all micro things. There are no micro and macro things. Scale is a relative term, always and in all things. Whenever we form a public we each lend it support for our own reasons, for our own purposes, for as long as it serves a purpose we want it to. At which point it dissolves and we move onto other publics. It doesn't exist above us in some way, it is always less than us, it's created and sustained by some small subset of specific intrerests we and others have that need some form of expression and action. So we each lend just a bit of our weight to therse provisional collective things.

Practically Lippmann and Dewey showed that there isn't a public, there is a public specific to each issue. They showed that a public emerges with each issue, and usually emerges because nobody and no group can solve the issue. For example in modern times climate change escapes the power or knowledge of any human or human group to deal with, so it has become a definitive public issue. Very different to the usual idea of a public overseeing all issues in some (never explained) way - democracy works not by everybody having a say in everything, but in everybody hardly ever having a say or clue about anything, except when some issue is so complex that nobody else can deal with it.

To go back to what this all meant for the average citizen, Lippmann and Dewey would make most committed democrats gasp. They agree that individuals and groups are only ever good at some specific thing or things, and that no person or no group can ever even get close to knowing enough about everything to govern everything. All attempts to equip people through schools and elsewhere with 'general' knowledge to help make them good citizens is a complete waste of time. A waste of time based on a complete misunderstanding of what the public and democracy actually are, in practice. Neither Dewey or Lippmann were surprised in the slightest at the often noted apathy of the average voter - to them this was a sign of the health of democracy. Our notions of democracy, where we're each some sort of omnipotent busybody, is so unrealistic it's a bit surprising we don't see it.

Getting to understand these ideas about collective things is very liberating. It removes so much of the angst modern people feel about the world being a big, complex place that they don't understand. Nobody understands it. Each person and each group understands some specific things, and nothing more. And when some problem comes along that they and nobody else can solve, they lend some weight to some provisional collective enterprise that they hope will be able to solve it in some way. After which (or during which) they just get back to doing the specific things they know about and enjoy.


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