The return of the public

The traditional image of a dystopian future is belied by the reaction to the pandemic

ONE of the most fascinating phenomena in modern life is the tension between the widespread apathy about what might be called traditional party politics on the one hand and an increasing engagement with community activity on the other. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that international crises do not necessarily lead to a dystopian society of a war of all against all – to mix popular science fiction and Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, the increasing interest in communal activity and a desire to help out seems to matched by an equal and opposite decline in party politics. People seem to be really engaged as long as you don’t call the activity politics. And yet, if things are to change for the better we need people to be engaged in both politics and community action. So, is there a way of achieving this? According to the pragmatic American philosopher John Dewey there is – and it involves deliberation.

Deliberation is important for democracy, according to Dewey

For Dewey legitimacy was as important in 1927 when he wrote The Public and its Problems as it seems to be today. Indeed, he links the majoritarianism of representative government and deliberation as a way of understanding and justifying democracy, not simply as two ideas that may, or may not, combine. He argues that the fact that there isn’t a conflict after every election so that society isn’t always split into friend and foe, is proof that ‘the governors and the governed’ in representative government are not ‘two classes’ but ‘two aspects of the same truth’. Of course, it may seem to us today that the present state of representative government suggests that there are indeed ‘two classes’ of the governors and the governed and that society really is split into friend and foe. Still, one may hope that this is a temporary state not a permanent one and one that can be tempered by deliberation.

Can deliberation bring us together?

In his introduction to the 2016 edition published by Swallow Press Melvin Rogers writes: “Forming the will of the democratic community, for Dewey, is a process of thoughtful interaction in which the preferences of citizens are both informed and transformed by public deliberation as citizens struggle to decide which policies will best satisfy and address the commitments and needs of the community.” And he adds: “It is no wonder that many see Dewey as an important spokesperson for deliberative democracy.” Dewey himself argues that the very forces that have brought about representative government have also halted the ‘social and humane ideals that demand the utilization of government as the genuine instrumentality of an inclusive and fraternally associated public’ which means that the ‘democratic public is still largely inchoate and marginalized’.

In a moment of pessimism Dewey suggests that his arguments seem ‘close to denial of the possibility of realizing the idea of a democratic public’. Many years before the rise of neoliberalism Dewey writes that ‘one of the many obstacles in the path is the seemingly ingrained notion that the first and last problem which must be solved is the relation of the individual and the social’. According to Dewey, however, ‘an individual whatever else it is or is not, is not just the spatially isolated thing our imagination inclines to take it to be’.

And this ‘demands, as we have also seen, perceptions of a joint activity and of the distinctive share of of each element in producing it’. This does not mean that groups, or indeed political parties, will always exist in harmony and without conflict or that an individual will not have conflicting selves. But what it does mean is that the division between the individual and the social is dissolved. If society can be oppressive it is membership of specific associations that is oppressive not our material and social being per se.

Dewey in a statement which could be the motto of Salisbury Democracy Alliance’s campaign for Citizens’ Assemblies, writes that the essential need ‘is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion’. Further: “Ideas which are not communicated, shared, and reborn in expression are but soliloquy, and soliloquy is but broken and imperfect thought.”

It is difficult not to read into Dewey a plea for more deliberative democracy. His view is that the division between society and the individual is a false dichotomy that can lead to the kind of fallacies that demand that if you are not for us you are against us.

The real question, as this blog has noted before, is how the individual emerges as an embedded but critically engaged citizen – and for that we need the right conditions for such an agent to emerge, an agent that recognises its social being but also helps to shape that social being.

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1 Comment

  1. Why does this seem disconnected from reality? It seems theoretically reasonable. There’s a factor missing .
    All the discussion between individual interest and socially constructive thinking is not in practice an exchange of ideas but between views. Views come from a particular perspective and are expressed with different voices. Voices can be spoken, acted, broadcast, written, printed, texted. But they come from the direction of one perspective and (as at our Democracy Cafe) are heard one at a time. Here’s the problem. They do not have equal effect on the hearer, whether that’s an individual reading the newspaper in the bath, or the mass audience at a political rally. So some voices have more power, for instance, broadcasting stations. And some persons own or control those voices. So some views, which the powerful and rich control, have disproportionate influence.
    Unless this disproportion is somehow reduced or compensated, there is not much hope of progress in the beneficial practice of democracy. This is why I am always so critical of the media in our discussions.
    But there is another weakness in democratic critique: the financial sector. It works rather like a secret society, where the powerful uber rich work together against the Commonwealth of the People, to keep anyone from moving to rationalize the undemocratic unbalance of financial power.
    I wish one could hear some new strong moral voice on these matters. A new Karl Marx for our time.
    Christopher Browne.


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