The fall of the public sphere
ESSAY: Political elites have denigrated and abandoned the public.
In his autobiographical book American Sniper (2012), Chris Kyle describes a conflict with his wife Taya over a key difference in their moral priorities. His are God, country and family. Hers are God, family and country. It’s a difference in priorities that both can understand, however difficult they find it to live with. The clash plays out around Chris’s wish to re-enlist in the Navy Seals and go back to Iraq. He sees himself as constituted through his freedom to fight for his country. Taya wants him to stay at home to protect her and their two children whom he has hardly seen during repeated tours of duty. Over time he comes round to her position. He starts to recognise himself and his duty towards his family in her need for him as a father and as a husband. In the end, he chooses this role over that of warrior.
The dynamic captured in the experiences of Chris is described by Hegel in his Philosophy of Right: ‘In the child the mother loves her husband, and the father his wife. In the child both parents have their love before their eyes.’ Chris realises his own freedom in his acceptance of his role as father and as a husband and becomes conscious of it. Evidence of this realisation of freedom lies in his breaking his drinking habit and entering into society. He starts an association designed to help other wounded and traumatised veterans find a way back, too. Chris finds freedom in the end through living together as part of a family unit – in love, justice and law – a freedom predicated on individual autonomy, but a freedom dependent on the recognition of others and on the restrictions to his freedom entailed thereby. The family unit is a model of society and public life in this respect; it is the foundation that allows for freedom and is the end of freedom.
The example of American Sniper is apposite when thinking about the question of the public today, not so much because of its story of a lone warrior seeking home – there have been many such stories since The Odyssey – but because of the particular place it occupies in the contemporary American Culture Wars. Although it has been a huge box-office success (already taking well over $300milion and thereby eclipsing even Saving Private Ryan), it was immediately criticised by America’s liberal elites. The Hollywood establishment ensured it didn’t win anything at the Oscars, despite being far and away the most popular film. Michael Moore, America’s most right-on documentary maker and professional handwringer, tweeted: ‘My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes.’ He went on to express discomfort with the way the film uses the term ‘savages’ to describe Iraqis and to highlight the need to remember that Martin Luther King was killed by an American sniper. Left-leaning linguist Noam Chomsky argued that the real savage was US president Barack Obama, whom he accused of masterminding a ‘global assassination campaign’ of drone warfare. Virginia Democrat Howard Dean labelled those who bought tickets ‘angry’ people – no doubt channelling 2008’s Bittergate, when Obama described Pennsylvania bluecollar voters as those who ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them’. People such as Chris Kyle, in other words. What is striking about this debate is that the traditional virtues of the American people, the proud belief in the right to bear arms against tyranny, their faith in one nation under God, their city-upon-a-hill exceptionalism, are now seen by many self-styled liberals as an American vice. What once united Americans is now a source of one of the key tensions in contemporary Western political life, between an ‘angry’ and ‘bitter’ public and their estranged political elites.
Chris Kyle has become a symbol of this divide, one that runs between those who would defend their country against attack and those who would rather attack their country. Or who at least wish that America downplay its heroes for fear of reprisals. It’s a divide between those who still celebrate a traditional belief in God, country and family, and those who reject those who hold such views as rednecks blind to the realities of globalisation, multiculturalism and the politics of respect. It’s The Waltons versus Modern Family. The Waltons was cancelled more than 30 years ago, but when it was running America was still fighting a war in Vietnam. In Modern Family, gay lawyer Mitchell and his husband Cameron have an adopted Vietnamese baby called Lily. And in the Waltons’ home state of Virginia, same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014. So much for old-fashioned family values.
Chris Kyle’s insistence that the best way for people to manage things is to help each other out, rather than get handouts, strikes an equally unfashionable note. It is increasingly rare – even in America, even in Texas – for the state to leave private individuals and private institutions to themselves. On the one hand, there is a relentless pressure on politicians and bureaucrats to connect with people in order to provide themselves with some form of legitimacy and to be seen to be ‘doing something’. But on the other hand, there is a deep suspicion that any private association or club will be practising some kind of discrimination or exclusion unless it is appropriately regulated.
Ideas of autonomy, self-reliance and self-regulation tend to be seen as deeply selfish, if not self-serving and corrupt. Politicians and bureaucrats seem to find those who present themselves as victims much easier to deal with, and those who still believe in the American dream can easily find themselves dismissed as neoliberal wolves of Wall Street. In fact, at times, it can seem as if the entire American political elite is competing to see just how far it can go to distance itself from the American dream, which it increasingly sees as a sham, a trickledown myth that brings only inequality, mental illness and poverty. The rubric of the 99 per cent condemns without trial those it picks out as scapegoats, repainting the most successful individuals in America as dangers to the very social fabric of Main Street. Behind all this, the overall background is, of course, the dominant trend of putting safety before liberty. The very phrase ‘Homeland Security’ tells us that all of America needs protecting, that all Americans are potential victims of terror. Home is no longer the place one creates, the place in which one feels free, the place in which one finds things the way they should be, and the place from which one is able to strike out into the world. Instead, home is a place that is no longer safe unless it is first secured for one by the state. Home is not something we can necessarily rely on anymore. Home should be an actualisation of our freedom. Instead, as we deny our own freedom and become more and more fearful, so we feel less and less at home.
The reason it is increasingly difficult to feel at home with the way things are in contemporary public life is because freedom is on the back foot. Family, country and God were, each in their own way, expressive of freedom. Family provides freedom to its members through the duty and self-restraint that expresses the grown-up freedom of a mother and a father. There’s freedom in the idea of a free country whose independence is worth fighting for, a country on a par with other countries whose freedom also demands recognition. And God is freedom writ large, of course. But the idea of God also expresses freedom of conscience and belief on the part of the citizens of a secular and tolerant society. Today’s intellectual and political elites, however, rarely champion such values. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. The ‘traditional’ family is seen through a glass darkly as a place of authoritarian patriarchy, of domestic abuse and violence. What is lauded today is the ‘modern’ family of multiple, provisional and overlapping parenting in which children are not only seen, but heard, listened and pandered to. Those who insist on being proud of their country are rednecks or little Englanders or Nazis in Pinstripes. As for God, the metropolitan elites neither know Him nor care to allow anyone else to: their idea of a secular society is one in which freedom of conscience is not allowed to stand in the way of state-enforced equality policies and laws which would deny the religious their own institutions, such as marriage or the right to educate their children in faith schools.
Instead, the dominant values, the ‘modern’, twenty-first-century, non-traditional values, are those of the Other. It is the outsider who is championed rather than the ‘insider’: the immigrant rather than the native, the multicultural rather the monocultural, a borderless Europe of bureaucrats rather than patriots. And so in France, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was Marine Le Pen and the Front National who were effectively shut out of the hastily declared National Day of Mourning by French president Francois Hollande. The very idea that anyone might choose to fly the flag and assert French values was condemned as making political capital out of the attack. Hollande said: ‘This was an attack on freedom. We must be ourselves, and we must realise our best weapon is our unity. Nothing must separate us or drive us apart.’ After the Charlie Hebdo-style attack in Copenhagen, the Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was equally sure that Denmark would remain ‘united and strong’. And she also echoed Hollande in her denial that the attack was an act of Islamic terrorism, asserting instead that it was just a terror attack: ‘This is not a struggle between Islam and the West, or between Muslims and non-Muslims. This is a struggle between the core values of our society and violent extremists.’
Both Hollande and Thorning-Schmidt asserted a unity at home that they know does not exist. They are all too aware that it does not exist because they are themselves the products and paragons of a system that celebrates difference in the name of cultural diversity and inclusivity. Unity, however, is based on an exclusion. One is not two; Manchester is not United because there is City. There is only home when one can come back to it. And we cannot return to a home whose values we repudiate. What exactly are the core values of Danish society if they are not those of the West? Multicultural values? Almost by definition, then, they are not core values since they are so open, so porous, that they are both everything and nothing. It is striking that when Western societies are under attack by terrorists who self-identify as Muslims, our leaders choose to recast this reality in terms that can give no explanation or meaning to events. They say no more than ‘we are under attack by violent attackers’; they pretend this has nothing to do with the fact that these are violent Muslim attackers from the banlieues. As a result, the events become meaningless, random, and, as a result, more terrifying than they would be if we were honest about the reasons for the attacks. Would it not be better leadership to let French and Danish citizens draw strength from the actual social and historical values that represent the very bedrock of our Western societies? Universalism? Freedom? Tolerance? Art, literature and philosophy? And would it not demonstrate some level of commitment to truth to be prepared to allow a public debate that was open to points of view – like those of Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage – that argue that these values, and histories, are not those of the enemies of our societies?
When Hollande marches in the front line of a rainbow coalition of Eurocrats, and pretends that we can all – even Jews and Palestinians – just get along, this is more than political naivete; it is bad faith. It is a straight-faced denial that there is a deeply divisive debate within France about what it is, and what it might mean, to be French. It is an evasion of a truth all are aware of, which is that the Charlie Hebdo killers were ‘French’ and remain French. No one wants to confront the uncomfortable truth that these killers were the product of a multicultural capitulation that has allowed – as Frank Furedi has argued in spiked – a ‘Paristan’ to grow up beyond the peripherique, a world in which teachers are too afraid to assert historical truths like those of the Crusades or the Holocaust, and who console themselves with the lie that culture is relative and that they should not ‘enforce’ theirs on others. The deep self-hatred of Western culture on the part of the French intelligentsia and political elites is the real root of the hatred of the Charlie Hebdo murderers and the banlieues. What the Charlie Hebdo killers exposed is the void at the heart of contemporary French society, an existential void that can generate no loyalty in millions of its citizens, no matter how many handouts and bribes it offers them.
The absence of any real meaning to being French is of course one of the most compelling reasons why alienated immigrant youth turn to radical Islam to make some sort of sense of their lives. It is the same impulse that leads teenage girls to abandon multicultural London for Syria. While this is largely a problem of our own creation – the result of our own fearful abandonment of any push for immigrants to assimilate (the appalling consequences of which we can now see in Rotherham) – the reality is that the problem is now real.
And it is now a question of taking sides. One is either for the values of the West or one is not. Only on the basis of such an assertion can any genuine unity be constructed. It is a time for an assertion of the values of home. Rather than the mawkish identification with the victims of these savage attacks – ‘Je Suis Charlie’ – it would be better to go on the attack against the multiculturalism that has led us here, and against identity politics and the taking of offence.
One of the realities that Hollande et al must find most embarrassing and must most want to deny is the fact that these Muslim attackers could fairly be said to be acting as the armed wing of contemporary political correctness. Where, after all, did they get the idea that it is acceptable to attack freedom of speech in Western societies? From their careful study of the Koran? It seems unlikely when it is so much easier to pick it up on Twitter, from the comment pages of the Guardian, from celebrity-endorsed campaigns against press freedom, like Hacked Off, from the oh-so-radical, you-can’t-say-that feminists patrolling every university campus like religious thought police. Where do they get the idea that there’s carte blanche to attack Jews? Just maybe from the Western media’s routine and relentless condemnation of Israel, from the demands to ban circumcision, from those who finger point at shadowy financial cabals supposedly pulling all the strings.
You may not agree, of course. But you must allow this debate to be had out in public. The longer it is suppressed for fear that the public will suddenly throw off its mask of cultural diversity and reveal its true, racist and Islamophobic colours, the more public resentment against the elites will increase, as will contempt for the whole of society on the part of those that would destroy it. A society that has turned its back on and rejected freedom is a society that not only creates, but invites the enemies of freedom to enslave it because it has demonstrated that it is already in the process of enslaving itself. The greatest problem we face is that our leaders fear us more than they fear our enemies and would rather we stay in our place than assert our freedom and independence.
What explains this great fear of the public? There are many reasons, of course. On one level, the fear of the masses is nothing new. It has been one of the driving forces of politics since Plato lamented the radical democracy of ancient Athens. The entire mission of the European Union, born from the experience of the Second World War, is based on keeping the public off the streets and out of politics because of a belief that the masses are just too easily swayed by racism and by nationalism. This is the lesson that German and French elites have drawn from the experience of the Thirties – mistakenly, given that it was in fact the defeat of street politics of any flavour (both communist and fascist) by the German state, backed by the army, that cemented the Nazis in power. Nonetheless, today, Pegida in Germany has immediately been cast as a movement of Nazis because it dared to object to Islamic immigrants changing things in East Germany and gave voice to the concern that Germany increasingly no longer feels like a homeland to many native Germans. This last in particular may be unpalatable to the politically correct, but it does have the virtue of being true for many.
Pegida is something of an exception, of course. Today, the public tends to be gripped by nothing very much at all. This represents a new type of problem for contemporary political elites: a dizzying and vertiginous experience of floating on nothing, with no support, lacking any basis or foundation for being in charge. For instance, there is no mass support for any political party in the UK anymore. Politicians feel out of touch with a public that finds them equally distant and remote. Neither feel at home with each other, as demonstrated by then Labour leader Gordon Brown branding a voter a ‘bigoted woman’ in Rochdale – his own Bittergate moment during the 2010 election campaign. It’s a very uneasy and unsettled relationship in which politicians have to reach out to voters. They still need their votes, however much they may prefer the closed doors of the committee room to the doorstep or the hustings. Where they feel most out of touch is around the issues of nationalism, immigration and racism. Metropolitan and globetrotting elites, lacking any authority or basis to their rule, make a virtue out of a borderless and weightless world.
Indeed, lacking any relationship to the world – our world – politicians celebrate not being tied down, and champion being bound by nothing very much at all. They cannot understand those who still insist on feeling that they belong somewhere and that, by extension, some people belong somewhere else. They caricature all such sentiment as prejudice and racism; they see a bigot behind everyone who defends belonging. Our political and cultural elites see their own publics as a race and a world apart.
Labour, of course, has continued to show just how in tune it is with the people and its native constituency. In 2014 the then shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry had to resign after tweeting a picture of a house with three England flags hanging from it, with the caption ‘Image from #Rochester’. Thornberry’s disdain was all too implicit. Elite thinking across the political spectrum seems to react negatively to any manifestation of old-fashioned Englishness and positively to any immigrant custom or ritual. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, The Economist’s Bagehot admitted that parts of Britain’s Muslim community were quick to qualify their condemnation of the attacks, and noted that Sparkhill in Birmingham is now less than 10 per cent white and 70 per cent Muslim. ‘The Irish pubs and grocers that once dominated the area have mostly closed’, Bagehot noted. But he found this ‘wonderful’. ‘It has made Sparkhill more colourful.’ Wonderful and colourful no doubt, although he went on to note that some 40 local Muslims are in prison for terrorist offences and that the local imams, like many in Britain, are deeply hostile to integration into British society.
It would seem that patriotism was destroyed by the experience of two world wars. Destroyed, that is, as an acceptable topic at London dinner parties. But it is not gone. It’s there, but it’s not there. It now haunts the imagination of a political class who must conjure with it but who dream of its exorcism and banishment. They forget that patriotism is not jingoism. The latter is identity politics writ large. The former is the feeling of being at home and, as such, does not gel with the fashionable politics of the repudiation of home. The elites simply cannot understand that feeling. It brands it as bland and boring at best, reactionary and racist at worst. The state has become the instrument to try to transform the public into something more amenable to the contemporary imagination. It demands that we all get along through the policing of the politics of mutual respect and the censoring of any outburst or expression, no matter how mild, of non-politically correct speech or sentiment. Any number of initiatives talk about restoring the public, building community and big societies, while the reality on the ground is the sanitisation and controlling of public space with CCTV, controlled drinking zones and containment policing. The public is being steadily driven out of public space: an area now largely regulated and colonised by the state and its petty officials.
In the shadow of the silence of God
We still pay lip service to the idea of the public. It is held to be sovereign, we live in democracies, we understand the importance of public opinion and the need for legitimate government. Despite the trend towards reliance on what ‘the research’, or ‘the science’, or ‘the expert’ might have to say, at least on paper we would still agree with Aristotle that in most cases, two heads are wiser than one. We may not share Machiavelli’s conviction that the voice of the people is the voice of God, and that the only way to preserve the freedom of the republic is through the vigilance of armed citizen militias. But nevertheless, since the Enlightenment, there has been a strong and well understood link between the public and freedom.
Kings were overthrown in the name of the sovereignty of ‘we the people’. Universal franchise has extended the size of the public, and every Western leader claims to stand in a proud tradition of freedom and property-owning democracy as representatives of the public. Despite all this, however, the reality is that the public tends to be viewed today more as an object of study than as the subject and motor of history. Even more crucially, there has been a shift in the meaning of the words ‘the public’. For writers such as Habermas, the public sphere still represented an area of social life distinct from both the private sphere and the state, a space of talk and debate between individuals and associations that could influence political action. For Hannah Arendt, it was a world we still held in common, one that ‘gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other’. Today ‘the public’ is more likely to reference ‘the public sector’ than coffeehouse society: the state has moved centre-stage to confront individuals directly without the mediation of the public sphere. That world in common has been hollowed out by the collapse of ideology and the end of class conflict. It has also been attacked through most of the twentieth century by the left as a sham, a ‘bourgeois’ public sphere, a thin veneer glossing over capitalist oppression.
With the rejection and deconstruction of this avowedly bourgeois public sphere, all that is left is the state: the old ties of family, nation and religion have all been dissolved and attacked as the oppressors of women, homosexuals, foreigners, atheists and so on. In some cases these attacks were thoroughly deserved, but the end result has been the destruction of a world in common. There has been no new public sphere created. Rather, we are now more thoroughly divided and separated by identity politics than we ever were by class conflict. In the absence of that world in common, we have entered a dog-eat-dog world in which the only explanations we can find for what happens are based on ideas of Social Darwinism and individual greed: society is now seen as a zero-sum game of individual winners and losers, hence the obsession with inequality and social mobility. And hence the calls on the state to regulate society: to regulate what we eat, drink, buy and generally live. The state has become the arbiter of our liberty and it acts under the banner of public safety. Freedom is told it must take second place, at best. We exist effectively as wards of the state, and are treated like children.
Without that individual, ‘bourgeois’ freedom, however, there is no basis for a vibrant public sphere, since a vibrant public sphere depends precisely on the freedom of private individuals and associations to disagree and debate in public. And without that public sphere as a way of mediating the relationship between the state and the people, the result, as Hegel argued in The Philosophy of Right, is that individuals are ‘contrasted with the organised state’ and are thereby ‘presented as a mass or heap, as unorganised opinion and will, or as a mere collective force’. Or, as Marx would put it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, we now live together as a public, ‘much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes’. A public in reality, maybe, but not a public conscious of itself as such and not a public such as it could be. A public that can take on a passive and fatalistic aspect in which its choices do not seem to matter (a public for-itself, in Hegel’s terms) or a public that can morph overnight into a Twittermob, believing that it can act out its desires (a public in-itself). But not a public in-itself-for-itself, not a public which achieves independence and actualisation through recognition that its social institutions are the ones that it should have because they are the ones that it has both inherited and created, institutions in which it finds itself at home. Today, we the people lack that comfortable and homely feeling: we feel a divide between the private and the social aspects of our personalities and lack any communal bridge between them. Society is necessary for full human freedom and we live in society because we are driven and drive towards a fuller human freedom. Our individual freedom should, but fails to, find itself at home in society.
The reconstitution of the public?
There is no easy solution to the problems we face when it comes to the question of finding a way to root oneself in a society that today seems set on being anti-social, that has turned the face of the state and the state’s hangers-on and lackeys against the public itself. Wishing for new social movements is either an abstract or a dangerous pastime. The public can only self-constitute through acting in-itself-for-itself. And that can only come about if individuals self-determine, through freely choosing to do what they think is right, and, in the process, recognise others as kindred spirits, and come together in associations of the like-minded; associations that express our very sociability – our ongoing pursuit of solidarity.
Today, it can seem very difficult for individuals to know how to act. Society provides few easy-to-follow signposts. We claim to be unsure of what our values are. But, nevertheless, when push comes to shove, if we are honest with ourselves, we do know what is right. What we lack is the courage to throw off our excuses and take the plunge: to say what we think and to say it in public. The more that individuals are willing to take that risk and experiment in public, the greater the chance we have of surviving this current existential crisis. Such displays of civic duty and public spiritedness will meet with resistance and conflict, but that is only to be expected. In a genuinely public sphere, and not some sanitised, bureaucratised softplay version of society, resistance and conflict are healthy. Grown-ups say what they think and make friends and enemies. Being grown-up means they can cope with others disagreeing with them. In fact, they welcome it because in disagreements and conflicts, they see a reflection of their own freedom. The first step is for individuals to have the courage to act in public and to be held responsible – that is, to demonstrate their freedom. That will mean a recognition of those who are like us and those who are not. It will mean making a distinction, a value judgement, between the way our society is constituted and the way others are. We may not choose to view the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ exactly as one between the civilised and the savage, as did Chris Kyle – but being willing to stand up for the things that bring us together, things like family, country and even God, is simply to acknowledge the reality of that three-fold division of the human world into the private, the public and the sacred. A division that we can find authority for in the Western tradition as far back as Aristotle’s Politics.
Angus Kennedy is the author of Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination, and convenor of The Academy, which will be examining the theme of the public over three days in July this year. Early Bird tickets are on sale until March 4, on the Institute of Ideas website.
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