My aim in this paper is to present an approach to understanding the ‘public sphere’ and its role in contemporary politics. I will proceed by first offering a generalized ideal before going on to apply this conception to concrete historical situations. In the process, specific aspects of the public sphere will come to light which will help to develop our understanding of what the public sphere is, and what role it can play in contemporary politics.
The Ideal of the Public Sphere
Let me start by giving a provisional definition of what I mean by the public sphere: a public arena, sanctioned or at least tolerated by the government, wherein private individuals can come together to present or discuss positions and ideas which do not necessarily conform to the official line. In other words, a universally inclusive space wherein opposition, questioning and deliberation can take place before a public of addressees. This definition represents an ideal whose feasibility we will examine in relation to particular historical contexts, including our own contemporary situation. Now, rather than begin with a situation which exemplifies our definition, I want to look at one which fails to fulfil its every condition: communist Czechoslovakia from the Russian invasion of autumn 1968 until the publication of Charter 77 in 1977. I have chosen to begin with the Czechoslovak case because it presents us with a society which had more or less excluded all opposition voices from participation in the public transmission of opinion and information; that is, it lacked a functioning public sphere. By looking at what was not possible in a society without a public sphere, we will hopefully be able to see what is possible in a society with one.
The Czechoslovak Situation
My claim that Czechoslovakia lacked a functioning public sphere during this period is based on the fact that all channels of public address (television, radio, newspapers etc.) were restricted to the promotion and propagation of the official party line. In response to the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s liberalization attempts during what is commonly known as the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, Russian forces had invaded in the autumn, leading to the standard Soviet tactic of party purges, forced emigrations, unjust imprisonment, and oppressive surveillance of opposition figures. Czechoslovakia in the 1970s was a state in which there was no plurality of voices in politics; that is, a state lacking a public sphere in any meaningful sense.
The Public Sphere and the Institutionalization of Conflict
In his discussion of modern democracy, Claude Lefort presents one of its essential features as the ‘institutionalization of conflict’ (Lefort, DPT, p. 17), and the Czechoslovak situation is an example of what happens when conflict is entirely excluded from the internal politics of a state (the only conflict in a totalitarian state being with the external enemy and his agents within the state). It could be said that political conflict arises in the attempt to answer the question of the ‘common good,’ the fundamental question of politics: How can we live together as humans? All ideologies, political theories, and political systems attempt to deal with this question in one way or another, and in the Czechoslovak situation we see what Lefort recognizes as the paradigm response of a totalitarian regime: there is only one answer to the question of the common good, and we, the people in power, know it. There is no need for discussion of this basic political question in a totalitarian state such as communist Czechoslovakia because the party claims to have all the answers. What Lefort sees as the defining feature of genuine democracy is that it preserves the indeterminacy of this question of the common good, and indeed the indeterminacy of politics in general (Lefort, DPT, p.16). The true challenge of a modern democratic society lies in this indeterminacy, i.e. in the fact that the most basic questions of the common good need to be asked again and again without a final response ever being found. The place where these questions are asked and where answers to them are proposed is precisely the public sphere. Only in a society which has all the answers to such questions, or which wants to maintain the illusion that it does, could there be no need for a public sphere. What we see in the Czechoslovak case is what Hannah Arendt refers to as the complete victory of the ‘communistic fiction’; the conflict-free rule of a faceless bureaucracy, the rule of nobody (Arendt, HC, p. 44-45). No oppositional form of politics is required because the question of the common good has been definitively answered in the dominant ideology and politics is thus reduced to mere nation-wide housekeeping (Arendt, HC, p. 28).
In a totalitarian state indeterminacy and conflict are avoided, and public debate is therefore unnecessary, because the ultimate exercise of power lies in the hands of the party and its incontestable ideology. In democracy, on the contrary, there is no one person, party, or ideology with unassailable power; as Lefort puts it, the locus of power is empty (Lefort, DPT, p. 17). It is only for a fixed and limited period that any party or individual can fill the position of power in a genuine democracy, and even while they occupy such a position there is an elaborate system of checks and balances (parliaments, senates, trade unions etc.) designed to limit the arbitrary use of political power. Here we come upon another aspect of the public sphere: the limitation and rationalization of the exercise of power. In order to illustrate this aspect of the public sphere I will turn once again to Czechoslovakia, but this time to January 6th, 1977: the launch of Charter 77 and its attempt to establish a public sphere.
77 and the Rationalization of Power
Despite the Czechoslovak state’s best efforts to stop any form of opposition from organizing itself, a roughly interconnected group of opposition figures had managed to coalesce. This collection of people, who came to be known in the West as ‘dissidents’, was made up of Catholic priests, anti-communist playwrights, excommunicated pro-reform party members, phenomenologist philosophy professors, and politically radical housewives, to refer to just some of its members. In no sense were they united by a common ideology or political vision; the only thing which they all had in common was that their voices were utterly excluded from the public realm. It was this group of dissidents that came together in 1977 to try to establish a space of dialogue between the public and the government; a public sphere. Charter 77 was a petition to the Czechoslovak communist party with a deceptively simple demand: to uphold the commitments it had made in signing the Helsinki Accords to respect the basic human rights of its citizens. Czechoslovakia, along with the USA, Russia, and most European states, had signed this set of agreements in 1975. Amongst the accords was a set of agreements demanding each state to respect the basic human rights of its citizens, an agreement which the Czechoslovak state had flagrantly broken on an almost daily basis since it was signed. By establishing a public space for the appearance of a plurality of voices, Charter 77 would try to engage the state in a process of legitimizing its use of power before a public audience with the hope of establishing an institutionalized check on its activities.
We already find this function of the public sphere outlined in the political philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in his Enlightenment idea of the public rationalization of the exercise of power (Habermas, ST, p.102), and this same function forms a central part of Jürgen Habermas’ theory of the public sphere (Habermas, ST, p. 209). In addition to being an arena for the presentation of opposition and the enactment of political conflict, the public sphere can also function as the arena in which the government is called to account for its actions. During the transition from absolute monarchy to the more liberal forms of government which emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, the public sphere had increasingly assumed the function of calling the powers that be to legitimate their actions on the basis of reason. One of the initiatives which grew out of Charter 77 was the regular publication of INFOCH (‘information on Charter 77’), a report which documented failures by the Czechoslovak Communist Party to comply with the conditions of the Helsinki accords, along with other abuses of power. Its aim was to provide publicity of the state’s irrational or even illegal use of power, in the hope that if the population knew about these breaches of legality and rationality, the party might be less inclined to perform such acts. While such publicity may not in itself be enough to curtail government abuse of power, it is surely much easier for such abuse to continue if the public at large are unaware of it.
Nowadays, however, state institutions no longer have the monopoly public power. Large corporations and the various lobby groups which represent them wield significant power over the actions of states. Whether through the subtle influence of funding election campaigns and university research programs, or through the intimidation tactics of lobbyists, private economic interests can greatly influence the actions of governments and mould public policy to suit their ends. What is needed in the 21st Century is not simply a forum which calls the government to account for its actions, but one which calls for the complete transparency of all publicly acting agents, be they government institutions or private enterprises (Habermas, ST, p. 209). Today, the actions of Julian Assange and Wikileaks represent just such an attempt to introduce a broader transparency into the public realm. Wikileaks, by providing a highly protected and anonymous forum through which whistle-blowers can leak documents exposing the illegitimate activities of governments or corporations, perfectly illustrates this potential of the public sphere. Furthermore, the aggressive reaction of the United States to Wikileaks founder Assange, and especially to the high-profile whistle-blower Bradley Manning, provide clear evidence that even in the 21st Century states are still uncomfortable about legitimating their exercise of power before the public.
The Problem of Participation
Despite such noble aims as the legitimation of power and the institutionalization of conflict, historical examples of the public sphere have been criticized on the basis of their openness to universal participation (Fraser, RPS, p.116). In my provisional definition of the public sphere I described it as a ‘universally-inclusive’ space wherein private individuals could reach a public of addressees. But we may reasonably pose the following two questions: How restricted is access to the public sphere, and, just how representative of the entire population is the ‘public’ which it addresses? In relation to the public sphere of 18th Century England and France it is safe to conclude that participation was extremely limited, and, further, that the ‘public’ of addressees was restricted to a fragment of the population which could either read newspapers and pamphlets or attend public meetings. Huge swathes of the population were excluded on the basis of gender, race, or class. Similarly in Czechoslovakia, the texts of Charter 77 were only circulated in small numbers between a limited group of people living in Prague who had direct connections to those from whom they could obtain the illegally published texts. Even in the relatively inclusive, pluralistic societies of the 21st Century, which supposedly lack any formal exclusions to participation, proper access to the public sphere can be restricted by much subtler ‘informal impediments’ such as gender biases and unconscious racism (Fraser, RPS, p. 119)
Not only this, it is also debatable whether all issues and conflicts are capable of solution through public debate. Certain positions, such as those of a catholic priest and an anarcho-feminist on the issue of abortion, will always remain fundamentally irreconcilable (Visker, MDPS, p.11). This is why I suggested that the public sphere should be thought of not as a place where conflict is resolved, but as one where it is enacted, as a place where indeterminacy is preserved. Obviously certain compromises will always be required because political decisions often require that action be taken regardless of the existence of universal agreement. Yet, without a public forum within which these problems can be addressed, there is no hope of increased participation or better mutual understanding.
With the advent of the internet, the public sphere’s potential for universal inclusiveness and accessibility have been greatly increased, although in practice many barriers to full participation still exist. However, if it can remain a space which is self-critical and malleable enough to reshape itself according to changing political realities, the public sphere will have an essential role to fulfil in contemporary politics. Only by eliminating the irreconcilable differences within our societies, and thus falling prey to the temptation of the myth of the unified People-as-One, could we relinquish the need for a public sphere, and thus any meaningful sense of politics (Lefort, DPT, p. 20). As long as we are of the opinion that the fundamental questions of politics do not admit of any simple and definitive answers, it is clear that we will require a public sphere within which to pursue at least the best temporary compromises possible.