Book Review: Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann (1922)

According to Price (2007), the concept of ‘public opinion’ came into use in the 18th century, with the creation of the printing press and expansion of literacy, leading to the creation of a ‘public sphere’ (Habermas, 1962/1989) which evolved around discussions of philosophies of freedom and a general articulation of a critique of monarchy and the absolutist state. With the rise of democracy, this idea of public opinion constituted a source of legitimacy for this new way of organising society which moved away from the authoritarianism of monarchy, and also provided a system of ‘checks and balances’ to prevent any such authoritarianism taking place. The achievement of the Enlightenment theories of civil democracy was

To transform the classical assembly of the people—in Athenian democracy a physical, face-to-face forum—into a mass-mediated, fictive body constituted by newspapers bringing people together, not in physical space but in shared stories and conversations at a distance. (Peters, 2007, p. 12)

Thus ‘public opinion’ was a creation coming out of the attempt to reinvent the ideal of classical, or Athenian, democracy for the modern world. The public sphere arising out of the combination of the printing press and new forms of social interactions of the emerging middle classes in the cafés and salons of Europe were a vital part of the this attempt to transform society.

Walter Lippmann, however, in his hugely influential 1922 book Public Opinion, was extremely sceptical about the viability of this idea within 20th century society. Lippmann was generally critical regarding the possibility of democracy in the modern world, leading him to be dismissed as a democratic elitist, or in extreme cases an anti-democrat (reference). For Lippmann, it is not clear even if a perfect democracy could be conceived that people really want to rule themselves, considering it ‘extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered, or would take the time to form an opinion on ‘any and every form of social action [a quote from G. D. H. Cole, late 19th century advocate of ‘guild socialism’]’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 314) Lippmann also believed that every form of organisation, whether socialist, democratic or otherwise, would require some hierarchy to be established, in order to deal with unexpected and pressing problems that didn’t have time for public deliberation, or just becaue human nature dictated that people liked to be near charismatic and powerful people, and that a group of insiders would inevitably appear around such people (Lippmann, 1991, p. 227)

Aside from these well-worn dismissals, however, Lippmann put forward some very interesting arguments, or perhaps it is better to think of them as challenges, to the idea that public opinion could be the basis and guarantor of democracy. Firstly, Lippmann challenged the idea that the media could act as what we might now call the ‘fourth estate’, that is as a watchdog of political power and a provider of truth to the public, effectively fulfilling the function that ‘public opinion’ was supposed to have in democratic theory. This is perhaps where Lippmann’s work remains most influential, and his reflections on the economics and sociology of the press were well ahead of its time. According to Lippmann, ‘we expect the press to supply truth, a ‘picture picture of all the outer world in which we are interested’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 321), but due to the financial constraints placed upon the press to provide news that will appeal to the largest possible cross-section of the public at the smallest possible cost and the social constraints of having to do this quickly (an interesting example of ‘market failure’), which in most cases means according to tired conventions, this expectation is unrealistic and ultimately not possible for the press to fulfil.

Furthermore, the news, for Lippmann, is already ‘shaped’ as news before it is even subject to these structural limitations. Reality must present itself to journalists as news – the world must jump out as significant, as an event, or disaster perhaps. This is how journalists know what to report, and a good journalist can see an event before it reaches this point of climax. But to see and report an event is not the same thing as providing truth:

The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile, is that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished. The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts and set them in relation to each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 358)

At best, the media can provide an accurate collection of facts, gathered from authoritative sources such as government reports, first-hand accounts, statistics, etc., which must then still be interpreted in order to construct a true ‘picture of reality’ which can provide the basis for wise action. It is the latter which constitutes ‘public opinion’, not the former.

More disturbingly, for Lippmann, in modern society the press is increasingly manipulated by government and business interests. Aside from the structural limitations posed by market forces, the content of the media is more and more decided by the consumer market that advertisers, who supplement or in some cases replace the income provided by readers, wish to sell their products to. Advertisers also in some cases have veto power over content if this content is seen to jeopardise the market that advertisers are selling to. Governments, on the other hand, tend to ‘manufacture consent’ through the media by manipulating ‘symbols’, which in turn manipulate our emotions and loyalties (Lippmann, 1991, p. 248). Here Lippmann relies on a crude behaviourist conception of human psychology, in which emotions can be roused and then transferred onto other triggers, so for example we may be shown images of images of terrorist atrocities and then the feelings of fear and outrage can then be transferred onto ideas of security and surveillance which can be in turn used to pass repressive laws or win conservative elections (Lippmann, 1991, p. 204-5).

However, underlying all these other challenges, which are interesting in their own right, lies an original and difficult to answer epistemological critique of democracy that has found its way, now somewhat submerged and opaque, into the world-view of neoliberalism. This critique says that the public, the agent of public opinion and democracy, has not got direct access to the knowledge required for self-rule. For Lippmann (1991, p. 402), this knowledge must be provided by an elite of ‘intelligence men’, who have ‘the skill to sort out what is real perception from what is stereotype, pattern and elaboration’:

The outsider [i.e. the private citizen], and every one of us is an outsider to all but a few aspects of modern life, has neither time, nor attention, nor interest, nor the equipment for specific judgement. It is on the man inside, working under conditions that are sound, that the daily administration of society must rest. (Lippman, 1991, p. 400)

It is true that at times Lippmann, as in this quote, can sound like a straightforward elitist. In other places he claims that the majority of people, more people than we may like to admit, are ‘illiterate’, ‘feeble-minded’ grossly neurotic, ‘undernourished’ (I assume he means intellectually) and ‘frustrated’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 75). Yet, if we can ignore these outbursts of disdain for the masses, his argument at root is more subtle than.

Lippmann claims that in daily life we perceive the world through ‘stereotypes’. Like the news, we do not perceive the world in its raw, unmediated fullness, reality comes to us ‘already defined for us’, we perceive what has been ‘picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 81). Here ‘stereotype’ is not a positive or negative thing, but an epistemological pre-condition of being able to cope with modern existence. Lippmann identifies two reasons for holding stereotypes: ‘economy of effort’, which is to say we need stereotypes to be able to get about our daily lives quickly and efficiently, to see ‘all things freshly and in detail’ would be exhausting; and ‘defensiveness’, by which Lippmann means the comfortable familiarity that things and ideas we are used to have for us, to the point where if challenged, we feel attacked and often react harshly (Lippmann, 1991, pp. 88-103) Stereotypes are both the material for and the product of our cultural ideals and traditions, and theories can become stereotypes when they become generalised enough to absorb the desires and feelings of society as a whole – for example how the theory of evolution became generalised into an idea of progress in the late 19th century (Lippmann, 1991, p. 104).

Stereotypes, for Lippmann, are a condition of the modern world. Like never before, much of reality is invisible to us, hidden from view, happening far away and often at unimaginable distance.

The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined. Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time is but a few moments of insight and happiness. (Lippmann, 1991, p. 29)

What this means is that we live in what Lippmann calls a ‘pseudo-environment’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 15)– a kind of hazy mixture of direct experience, based on what we see and know in our immediate environment, but which we still don’t necessarily understand, and mediated experience which we gather from a variety of sources, but increasingly from the media, which we already know is unreliable. Mostly what guides the average person is ‘fiction’, not knowledge. This is the crux of Lippmann’s criticism of liberal theories of democracy, that citizens come ready-made with knowledge of the world and are supposed to somehow ‘spontaneously’ formulate a ‘public opinion’ which would form the basis of self-determination. All that is needed is the freedom to communicate. However, for Lippmann, this grossly over-estimates, and this is ultimately an unfair expectation (like we have of journalists), the capacities of ordinary people. Knowledge should be left to experts, the ‘intelligence men’, the researchers of the emerging modern university, who will provide policy makers, journalists and ultimately the public with the knowledge required for wise political action.

But Lippmann seems to confuse the epistemological argument that people see the world through stereotypes with normative argument that experts should be in charge of knowledge – nowhere does he explain why ‘intelligence men’ seem to be able to transcend this epistemological limitation, or why, if stereotypes are not judged to be good or bad, ordinary people are somehow more susceptible to the limiting effects of their ‘pseudo-environments’. The implication seems to be that the vocation of science, in terms of training, time and commitment, frees the ‘intelligence man’ (sic) to be able to see the world in a disinterested and therefore more objective manner – the ordinary person is far too wrapped up in daily concerns to be able to achieve such a perspective (here Lippmann seems to be arguing by analogy from the limitations of news consumption). At the end of the book, Lippmann even makes recommendations that such ‘intelligence work’ should be based on ‘tenure for life, with provision for retirement on a liberal pension, with sabbatical years set aside for advanced study and training’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 387). However, epistemologically, no justification is provided for Lippmann’s suggestions for a benevolent technocracy.

This is where Lippmann’s own theory of stereotypes can be productively used against him. It seems that Lippmann was victim to his own elitist stereotypes, bolstered by contemporary theories of crowd psychology and mass society (Reicher, 2001), which lead to a ‘blind-spot’ concerning his own prejudices about mass democratic society. Lippmann criticised Aristotle for being able to justify slavery on the basis that some people are ‘naturally’ slaves, thereby projecting a social fact onto nature. ‘This is the perfect stereotype. Its hallmark is that it precedes the use fo reason, is a form of perception, imposes a certain character on the data of our senses before the data reach intelligence.’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 98) In Lippmann’s case, he projected his anxieties about mass democracy, prevalent at the time, onto the theory of stereotypes, which was in itself actually an important contribution to the debate. What Lippmann couldn’t see due to his fear of the masses was that his theory of stereotypes in no way logically or epistemologically entailed the elitist conclusion of rule by experts, but in fact, due to its devastating critique of liberal ideas of representation, opened up a much more radical possibility.

The real ‘blind-spot’ in Lippmann’s critique of democracy was the possibility of what could be called a ‘citizen social science’ to generate knowledge, and through it, public opinion that would inform and guide self-rule ordinary people.

Lippman, W. (1991) Public Opinion. Chicago: Transaction

John Dewey’s ‘intelligent populism’: beyond Brexit, Trump and post-truth

Donald Trump with supporters. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Originally published on OpenDemocracy:

Neoliberalism channels vast wealth upwards, in turn supplying the financial, social and cultural capital necessary to maintain power despite enormous global economic, social and environmental instability. The 2008 financial crisis, the biggest since the 1920s, did not bring neoliberalism to its knees, it in fact strengthened its resolve. Banks in the UK and US demanded to be bailed out by the government and the ‘austerity’ agenda spread across Europe. After a period of stunned disbelief, the establishment convinced the public that it was in fact the excesses of social democracy that caused the public debt incurred as a result of this bailout.

Philip Mirowski calls this the ‘double truth doctrine’ of neoliberalism. The real cause of the crisis can be traced back to neoliberalism itself: Thatcher and Reagan’s radical deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s, for example. But cleverly, this double truth also played on the fragmentation on the left caused by the death of ‘actually existing communism’ and the defeat of militant unionism in the UK. After what Francis Fukuyama called the ‘end of history’, academics retreated into postmodernism and revolutionaries either gave up or returned to Marxist canon to find the right theory of why everything had gone wrong.

We are now living through what Colin Crouch has called the “strange non-death of neoliberalism”. Even IMF economists now agree that neoliberalism has been ‘oversold’. I won’t retread the history of neoliberalism here, but we should use the IMF definition, as it represents a somewhat shocking revelation, since all along they have been denying neoliberalism’s existence:

“The neoliberal agenda – a label used more by critics than by the architects of the policies – rests on two main planks. The first is increased competition – achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.”

Neoliberalism’s double-truth, uncovered first by Michel Foucault all the way back in 1978, is that it was founded on a realisation that ‘laissez-faire’ doesn’t work. This is the doctrine that the law of supply and demand should be left alone to do its work in organising society. Early neoliberal theorists realised that the law of supply and demand does not work ‘naturally’ in society, it must be actively created through the re-structuring of society. The perfect market does not already exist in the structure of nature, which is merely uncovered in capitalism, it must become the end of all economic and public policy reform.

Populism is a consequence of the double-truth doctrine. We have been socialised into seeing our identity in nation states, and have been convinced that neoliberalism will bring prosperity for all. Yet within globalised neoliberalism, the nation state has been ripped apart, sold off to multi-national corporations, and wealth has remained with the wealthy. The middle class, forever chasing the neoliberal carrot, wins nothing but clinical stress, anxiety and depression. The working class is lumped with insecurity and social fragmentation, while being at the same time demonised as a class of ‘chavs’and ‘scroungers’.

Representative democracy, hollowed out by neoliberalism to leave a choice between variations on a neoliberal theme, leaves the public with only a protest vote to express their anger and frustration. Brexit and Trump are votes for change, votes against the establishment, votes against neoliberalism. The establishment were subsequently shocked to discover that there is a limit to how far you can hollow out democracy. The middle class were shocked to see the ugly face of fascism always ready to pounce as the edifice of capitalism crumbles.

Populism and the public

The American philosopher John Dewey had a unique explanation for all this. In The Public and Its Problems (1954), Dewey makes a functional distinction between private and public actions and their respective private and public consequences, in order to explain the origin and meaning of ‘democracy’. All public action produces indirect consequences, which are consequences “that affect others beyond those immediately concerned”. ‘The public’, as an organised body of people, comes about through consciousness of indirect consequences and co-operative activity to control them. ‘The state’ is created as this co-operative activity becomes more organised, eventually being detached from the public as an institutional body. For Dewey, democracy, as an historical form of the state, is a technology of the public.

Democracy is a particularly well developed expression of this function of the state. As Marx and Engels argued in The Communist Manifesto, the capitalist economy outstripped the political system within which it developed. The emerging and expanding middle class needed a political system that would represent their interests over that of the aristocracy. As Dewey argued, liberalism was at this point a radical political philosophy designed to gain popular support to move society beyond medieval feudalism. But once the new middle class achieved power, this radicalism was betrayed and democracy reduced to its most minimal expression.

Democracy, therefore, served a series of functions: (1) to liberate the emerging middle class from the authoritarian church state; (2) to gain populist support for this cause from the lower classes; and (3) to institutionalise the interests of the middle classes once it gained power. This last function the system of abstract rights connected to the rule of law. But the alliance with the lower classes within the ideology of liberalism and democracy opened a can of worms that the new ruling class (‘the bourgeoisie’) have struggled to keep shut since the American and French Revolutions.

For Dewey, the public is always waiting to re-assert itself as the ‘raison d’etre’ of government and state institutions. From the beginning of history, revolutionary movements have understood the power of the public in bringing about social change. As Foucault pointed out, there is only so much oppression that the public can take before revolting. Twentieth-century social philosophers such as Gramsci, Foucault and Habermas have rightly focused on the way that modern social systems rely on legitimacy rather than force for their reproduction. Therefore, in modern societies, the boundaries of legitimacy can be pushed too far.

Neoliberalism ends up undermining its two key ideological foundations, liberalism and democracy, that sustain its legitimacy. The contemporary marketisation of ‘big data’, for example, which is the mass of personal information generated as a by-product of our digital activities, has created understandably acute levels of anxiety regarding the misuse, surveillance and manipulation of such data. The inexorable march of privatisation through public services destroys what little protection the state offered against the indirect consequences of capitalism: unemployment, poverty, sickness. As the ruthless logic of neoliberalism runs its course, its public façade also gradually disappears, leaving only naked and cynical exploitation in its place.

Intelligent populism

There is good populism and bad populism. But these forms of populism cannot just be mapped on to left and right ends of the spectrum. Both left and right populism use the anger of the public for external ends, namely to gain power for whatever political party that is pitched against the ‘establishment’. As already argued, this has been the case throughout history: the public are called into being whenever a revolution is needed, and then betrayed as soon as they have served their purpose. Both left and right populism are based on a low opinion of public intelligence, an assumption, incidentally, shared with neoliberalism.

Dewey, on the other hand, thought that intelligence was based in an everyday process of problem solving. Experience is problematic, in that our routine existence regularly resists our purposes, breaks down when we try to get things done, and throws up dilemmas that we can’t ignore. Most of the time these are just hiccups that can be overcome by adjusting our habitual behaviour, but sometimes we need to reflect, to consciously create and weigh solutions. All forms of inquiry that human beings have developed – science, education, morality – have developed out of this fundamental process of reflection within ordinary experience.

Democracy was also once a form of inquiry, now forgotten through its institutionalisation and co-option by neoliberalism. For Dewey, the public was invented through the co-operative, reflective activity of groups of citizens, who aimed to reconstruct and control the indirect consequences of social life. Ancient Athenian democracy was an early and very successful attempt by the Greeks to harness the power of social intelligence to adapt to a rapidly changing world. That this experiment failed, and more importantly failed to include women and free slaves to become citizens, did not undermine the potential power of democracy as a technology of the public.

What is missing today is a mechanism that would revive the potential of democracy as a technology of the public. Ancient Athens had the theatre, where the moral capacities of citizens were exercised and politics debated. The emerging labour movement in the eighteenth century had correspondence societies, where pamphlets were read out and revolution fermented. As Jürgen Habermas argued, the ‘public sphere’, a fundamental cog in the machine of early modern democracy, was destroyed through capitalism’s commercialisation of public space and commodification of private life. What is needed is a new form of co-operative inquiry that both reconstructs democracy from within and re-creates the public in the process. What is needed is an ‘intelligent populism’.

Dewey, unfortunately, never realised the direct relevance of his other work on experience, inquiry and education to his theory of democracy presented in The Public and Its Problems. Dewey offered better public engagement with the public on behalf of social science as a solution to the ‘crisis of democracy’. But as John Holmwood has pointed out, populism is not just an expression of anger against the establishment, but also a rejection of technocratic forms of expertise. Right-wing politicians attempt, with more or less successful results, to tap into this: David Cameron’s rejection of ‘state multiculturalism’ in favour of education “in elements of a common culture and curriculum”, and in Trump’s climate change denial.

Post-truth versus intelligent populism

‘Post-truth’ has become a key concept within explanations of Brexit and Trump. Recently being declared ‘word of the year’ by both UK and US Oxford Dictionaries, it is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This phenomenon of the rejection of facts in favour of emotion described by ‘post-truth’ is actually a consequence of neoliberalism; it is the organised confusion that Mirowski described as the ‘double-truth doctrine’. It is an historical phenomenon, not something inherent to the quality of public intelligence. It is what happens when neoliberalism marketises education, privatises the public sphere and turns the mainstream media into propaganda machine.

Contrary to Andrew Calcutt’s analysis, the origins of the concept of ‘post-truth’ lie not with the academic left and postmodernism in the 1970s, but with the origins of neoliberalism in the 1920s. The abstract to an influential article called “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy” indicates this origin:

“The familiar image of rational electoral choice has voters weighing the competing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, calculating comparative distances in issue space, and assessing the president’s management of foreign affairs and the national economy. Indeed, once or twice in a lifetime, a national or personal crisis does induce political thought. But most of the time, the voters adopt issue positions, adjust their candidate perceptions, and invent facts to rationalize decisions they have already made. The implications of this distinction between genuine thinking and its day-to-day counterfeit strike at the roots of both positive and normative theories of electoral democracy.”

This was the conclusion Walter Lippmann reached in the 1920s, which formed the basis of both subsequent forms of ‘democratic realism’ and the neoliberalism of The Mont Pelerin Society. Here we see the same premise that underpins neoliberalism and the debate around populism: the intelligence of the average person is not to be trusted (if it exists at all).

But the left must also recognise that it shares the same low opinion of everyday intelligence. Crude conceptions of ideology and ‘false consciousness’ (which were nevertheless held by very sophisticated Marxists, such as Louis Althusser), state that the truth operates ‘behind the backs’ of ordinary people, who cannot access this truth without the correct theory. It is this assumption, not culpability in developing postmodernism, which prevents the left from formulating a progressive response to populism. We must learn to see the double-truth doctrine at work again here. ‘Post-truth’, and therefore Brexit and Trump, are being blamed on the legacy of postmodernism within the academic left, just as the consequences of the financial crisis were blamed on the excesses of social democracy.

We need a new practice of ‘critical pedagogy’, based on an assumption of the equality of intelligence, not on the inevitability of false consciousness. Through co-operative social inquiry, the double-truth doctrine can be unmasked by ordinary people. As Dewey argued, political activists, academics, community organisers, all have an important role to play in helping to re-create such public spheres of inquiry, but we must not assume we own such inquiry. Intellectuals also have a political task of our own: democratising knowledge production and educational institutions so that the conditions for such co-operative inquiries are improved. Universities, for example, can be transformed into co-operative, worker-student controlled hubs of inquiry that cascade knowledge back and forth along a chain of radical-democratic decentralisation.

For Dewey, humanising technology was the most pressing task of modern society. As we have seen, technology doesn’t just mean “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry” (OED), it refers to any means for the achievement of human ends. As Alan Hickman has convincingly argued, Dewey’s entire philosophy can be summarised as a theory of ‘responsible technology’. Technology, as inquiry, is responsible when it arises out of problematic situations that are concretely felt (in the sense that all experience is primarily qualitative) by human beings. But more importantly, it can only be fully responsible when the results, values and ends that arise out of such inquiries “are brought back to the situations from which they originated in order to ascertain whether they are appropriate”.

Democracy is a technology of the public that arose out of a need to control the indirect consequences of social action. Neoliberalism co-opts democracy, and its institutions, for the manipulation of the public for private gain, and for the maintenance of power. Populism is the public expression of recognition: that this is happening, and that democracy needs to be taken back by the public. In a Deweyian sense, populism is therefore the first stage of an inquiry begun by the public for the public. Instead of dismissing this inquiry, we should get involved. We need to be a part of this inquiry, help it develop into an ‘intelligent populism’ which would found and maintain radical democracy, replace a dying neoliberalism, and as an adaptive and generative form of social problem solving, maybe even save the earth from environmental destruction.

Book Review: The Phantom Public by Walter Lippmann (1927)

In The Phantom Public, Lippmann returns to the theme of what he considers to be the ‘fiction’ at the heart of liberal democratic theory, that once the barriers to freedom are taken away, an active and intelligent public will spring into action, guiding society from the ‘bottom up’, holding elected leaders to account and engaging deliberatively in all the important decision of the day (Lippman, 1993, p. 67). For Lippmann, this fiction leads to the existence of the ‘disenchanted man’, the citizen who is told that they must have an active role in public decision making but cannot find the time, does not understand the issues, and is frankly not interested. This expectation, imposed by the idealism of liberal democrats, should be abandoned, and a full-blown ‘realism’ regarding the capacities of ordinary people should accepted. Gone is the even the limited optimism of Public Opinion, in which an elite of social scientists could provide a ‘machinery of knowledge’ to offset the ignorance of the masses by providing them with access to a true picture of reality (which the media cannot provide). We should come to accept that democracy is a myth and let rulers rule; the public can only exist as passive spectators watching shadows on the wall, blissfully ignorant of their meaning.

Familiar arguments are mobilised by Lippmann to debunk the myth of the ‘sovereign and omnicompetent citizen’, beginning with the complexity of the modern, globalised world that must necessarily exceed the grasp of not just the average person, but any individual. This leads to a tendency towards centralisation, not just in the governance of society, but also in increasing monopolisation in business and workers organising themselves in trade unions (Lippmann, 1993, p. 179). For Lippmann, centralisation is an inevitable move to cope with complexity, but practically, this undermines any form of democracy, as ‘the more centralisation the less can the people concerned be consulted and give conscious assent’ (Lippmann, 1993, p. 174) Again, it is the fiction of a pre-existing public opinion that leads to this situation, and this fiction is used by ‘special interests’ to claim they are working in the ‘public interest’; however, for Lippmann, as he had argued at length in Public Opinion, there is no such thing as a ‘public opinion’ to inform such an idea of the public interest, and what actually happens is that the public interest is invented by manipulating public opinion through the media. Here we can see Lippmann beginning to formulate his own critique of collectivism and planning (a contribution to a growing literature at the time), a critique that would be developed in The Good Society and would become so influential with later neoliberals.

The problem for democracy, in Lippmann’s view, was how to accept ‘deep pluralism’ and still have any notion or practical possibility of a public that would constitute the idea of ‘popular government’ (Lippmann, 1993, p. 87). In The Phantom Public, Lippmann has dispensed altogether with the idea that knowledge and identity may have a social basis, expressed in Public Opinion‘s concept of ‘stereotypes’, instead subscribing to an epistemology of extreme individualism where no person can understand the point of view of another. This irreducible perspectivalism is combined with the critique of the ‘fact’ of centralisation to form what for Lippmann is both a devastating and novel dismissal of the possibility of democracy:

Critics [of democracy] have usually concluded that there was a congenital difference between the masterful few and the ignorant many. They are the victims of a superficial analysis of the evils they see so clearly. The fundamental difference which matters is that between insiders and outsiders. Their relations to a problem are radically different. Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently a better man but because he is so placed that he can understand and act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome, because he is trying to navigate the ship from dry land. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 140)

What is interesting here is that Lippmann has elevated the social-historical reality of elitism to the level of epistemological truth. It is not that existing power and class relations distort democracy by centralising power and decision making, and also by excluding the public from access to knowledge that might allow them to criticise these decisions and question this unequal structure of society, but rather that the limitations of human knowledge mean that elitism is inevitable.

In this sense Lippmann’s ‘realism’ regarding democracy is actually a sublimation of a deep pessimism towards the capabilities of the public. For some reason, ‘insiders’ can both know and cope with the complexity of modern life, and it is their job to deal with problems regarding the public, not the public like you might think. If you collect the comments Lippmann makes about the average person who is the ‘outsider’ to the management of public affairs, the barefaced elitism of this position becomes much clearer (and the epistemological basis less convincing). For Lippmann (1993), the public ‘consists of busy men reading newspapers for half an hour or so a day’ (p. 109), ‘will arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece’ (p. 54) The average member of the public must be conceived ‘in the lowest terms’: they ‘will not be well informed, continuously interested, non-partisan, creative or executive’, and must be assumed as ‘inexpert’, ‘intermittent’, slow to be aroused’, ‘quickly diverted’ and ‘interested only when events have been melodramatised as a conflict’ (p. 55).

The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 145)

Little doubt remains by the end of The Phantom Public that Lippmann has succumbed to the elitism and fear of ‘the masses’ typical of the age, encapsulated in such Nietzschean descriptions of the latter as the ‘bewildered herd’. The public’s ‘exercise of its own powers’ is severely limited to two questions: is rule or a particular rule defective? If so, how can we recognise who can make it better? (Lippmann, 1993, p. 98). Notice that the public is never expected to understand how or why a system of government is failing, only to find someone who might sort the problem out for them. Lippmann (1993) suggests some way that the public might do this: they could stage a debate between competing parties and see if anyone betrays a special interest (p. 104 – even though all people are expected to follow special interests and not public interests, one of many contradictions in the book); they could demand an independent inquiry and see if those in power were willing to take part in such an inquiry, although the public wouldn’t be expected to understand what was in the inquiry (p. 122); or they could just be vigilant and see whether generally people are assenting and conforming to current system of rule, if not this is a clear sign that someone else should take over (p. 144). To sum up, the most the public can be expected to do is:

Support the Ins when things are going well; to support the Outs when [the Ins] seem to be going badly, this, in spite of all that has been said about tweedledum and tweedledee, is the essence of popular government. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 116)

Lippman, W. (1993) The Phantom Public. Chicago: Transaction

Jacques Rancière and Critical Pedagogy

Ranciere Seminar 2016 JPEG

Image: Copyright David Ridley 2016

Stephen Cowden and I organised a very successful conference on Jacques Rancière last Friday, which will be followed up by a book. Here is the blurb:

While the work of the French social theorist Jacques Rancière is increasingly acknowledged, his contributions to the field of education and Critical Pedagogy are still largely unknown in the English speaking world. The purpose of this event is to explore the significance of Rancière’s critique of the traditional pedagogical enterprise and his ideas about the centrality of ‘equality’ in education. The conference seeks both to examine the social and political context in which Rancière carried out his work on pedagogy, as well as to consider the relevance and application of this within the contemporary ‘neoliberal’ university.

And here are the podcasts, as promised:

First Panel:

Dr Jones Irwin (St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra): ‘Alternative Genealogies of Resistance – Affinities and Disaffinities Between Lyotard and Rancière’
Mark Howard (Monash University): ‘A Question of Knowledge: Radical Social Movements and Popular Pedagogy’
Discussant: Jeremy Lane (Nottingham University)

Second Panel:

Sarah Galloway, Caroline Pelletier
Discussant: Sarah Amsler (Lincoln University)

Third Panel:

Oliver Davis (Warwick University): ‘Lessons from Rancière-Jacotot for a Critical Pedagogy of Neoliberalism’s Double Text’
David Ridley (Coventry University): ‘Flipping for Equality: A Rancièrean Critique of the Flipped Classroom’
Discussant: Stephen Cowden (Coventry University)