In search of the public

A public is an aggregation of individuals and groups behaving to some purpose outside institutional structures.  Thus no company, however large, and no government, however democratic, can constitute a public.

The public in a private capacity achieves a social impact.  This apparent paradox dissolves at once on reflection.  The public, as public, lacks any formal authority, power, or office, and while it can associate and persuade it can never compel.  It has no formal standing.  That’s the meaning of private, a word derived from the Latin privatus – a person deprived of government office.  Even the President of the United States, when he goes to the theater, loses his authority and participates as a private person.

This private public acts to some social effect.  That is its organizing principle, the reason it exists.  The effect can be as minimal and short-lived as a person buying and drinking a bottle of beer, or as significant and lasting as a large group undertaking a political revolution.  But without the social dimension, there can be no public.

Every public behaves in both an active and reactive manner, but the proportion of each at any period of history wholly depends on the structural options available.  TV viewers in the Fifties, for example, could only react as consumers to three channels, by either watching or tuning out.  For obvious structural reasons, members of that public were unable to develop their own TV programs.  They could not act.

Our age is characterized by a great shift along this spectrum:  from a public which was almost entirely reactive, to one which is highly active and intrusive.  I believe the serial uprisings in Arab countries exemplify this transformation in the public’s behavior; in our country, the same can be said about the nomination and election of Barack Obama, and the rise of the “Tea Party” movement.  While opponents in each case use conspiracy theories to explain these events, they were in fact sudden eruptions into political life of a public organized around a pressing demand.

The effect everywhere follows a predictable pattern.  As the public awakens from its reactive slumber and acts, powerful institutions, long accustomed to control, betray anger and confusion, totter, and not infrequently fall to pieces.  I would posit this to be a ruling principle of our times:  To the extent the public intrudes on events, established institutions will go into crisis and face dissolution. The principle holds true whether the object of contention is New Coke or power in Egypt.

The public has found its voice and its battering-ram against authority in the changed structures of communication, which have opened up a vast landscape of possibilities for persons deprived of institutional standing.  With a cell phone videocam and access to YouTube and Facebook, a Tunisian political activist can now develop the equivalent of his own TV programs, spread his message to target audiences, and spark an uprising against the regime.  This connection between new media and a rebellious public has been the object of much comment, including by me; we can safely give it a pass here.

A less remarked problem concerns the character of the public.  Here we enter the domain of world view, ideology, programs and policies, social and political organization:  these have not been probed at any depth, possibly because, to many, the very concept of the public remains murky.  Yet the effects are clear.  The rise of this mysterious monster has already generated a shattering instability, with worse to come.  Pillars of modernity – from the daily newspaper to national governments – will find their authority eroded, their statements mocked and corrected, their very existence questioned.  Much that is today solid (to paraphrase Marx) will melt into air.  The public’s expectations about how to fill the void, and the success or failure of these expectations, will define our turbulent future.

I believe we can put forward three general propositions characterizing the newly active public.

In the normal state of affairs, there are many publics.  The existence of a single mass audience was a fiction of the industrial age, perpetrated by political and economic forces which found it convenient to their purposes.  The reality has been described in Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail:  people invest their energy in small communities of interest, with topics ranging infinitely, to include cute cats, computer games, and Islamist jihad.  Some of these communities are content to remain on the margins; others nurse big dreams.  Within the fragmented public, there is always an enormous amount of tension and dissension.

On rare occasions, however, a point of reference spreads to many communities, and acts like an attractant, a magnet toward which dissimilar ideals, goals, and perspectives become oriented.  The result can be as sudden and startling as the phase shift of water into ice.  Out of insular and eccentric communities a powerful public is forged, energized by the shared point of reference:  say, the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and his regime.  The tenacity of this public in pursuit of its objective approaches the heroic, but beneath the surface the old tensions remain.  Solidarity is maintained by a lack of clarity about goals and values outside the common point of reference.

The age of the public is not identical to the triumph of democracy.  While the public in action favors bland generalities – “justice,” “democracy,” “hope,” “change” – these expressions indicate a fear of fragmentation rather than a coherent program.  The public wants what it wants, but a shared objective isn’t an ideological or programmatic commitment.

Similarly, the space available for organization gets squeezed between the operation of the power law and the demands of a pervasive anti-authority ethos.  The power law appears inherent to all complex human arrangements:  a very few do the work for the very many.  At the top of the power law chart stand individuals like Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook group was instrumental to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.  Such spontaneously arising leaders, however, are nullified by the public’s identity as a public of freely acting private persons.  Ghonim himself preached this collective ideal:  “There was no leader,” he said.  “The leader was everyone on that page.”  When online activists demanded that Ghonim give up interviews because he was becoming the media “face of the revolution,” he acquiesced.  Under such leveling pressures, the public in action is able to coordinate but not organize in any meaningful way.

Event-driven objectives create a single big bang.   Programmatic objectives may have a lasting impact. In flexing its political muscle, the public has gravitated to event-driven objectives – the election of a president, the toppling of a dictator.  Such time-limited goals tap into the massive energy and communicative power which are the public’s great strength, while minimizing the problems created by its lack of organization and fractured composition.  Aimed at a big bang event, public action can prove irresistible.  Once success is achieved, however, the space conquered by the public becomes difficult to defend against the advance of more cohesive, better organized groups.

Hence the rise and fall of President Obama’s popularity.  The coalition which elected him encompassed divergent values and ideologies, united by the personality of the candidate.  The Obama campaign adroitly focused on the failures of the past while avoiding programmatic prescriptions for the future.  Once in office, however, any action by the president was bound to alienate some of his followers, and shatter the coalition.  New political forces rushed in to fill the vacuum – leading to the disaster, from President Obama’s perspective, of the November 2009 elections.

A parallel process appears to be taking place in Egypt, where sectarian and ideological divisions were subsumed in the struggle against the old regime.  After Mubarak’s fall and the disbanding of State Security, the Egyptian public has begun to disintegrate into its component parts.  The Washington Post records a “bitter debate” about the future between Egyptian activists – aborted power law leaders on the Wael Ghonim model:

“Who are we?” one member demands. “A resistance group? Civil rights organization? Lobbying and pressure group?”

“Should we even exist anymore?” another asks. “We accomplished our mission. Mubarak is gone.”

The ability of these young Hamlets to mobilize the public is already on the wane.  Behind them, ready to occupy center stage, stand tightly hierarchical groups like Egypt’s military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

One exception to this pattern may be the Tea Party movement.  In most respects, the Tea Party is typical of the public in action:  energetic but leaderless, disorganized, and a hodge-podge of fractious conservative and libertarian groups.  However, there’s an apparent deviation from the norm, and it holds interesting consequences.  While the  original drive to action was opposition to President Obama’s fiscal policies, the emotive focus has been less on elections than on programmatic objectives such as lower taxes and a reduction of government debt.

A programmatic approach opens the door for established politicians to connect with a highly energized public by adopting its objectives, thus providing the leadership and organization necessary for a lasting political impact.  This, to put it mildly, is a volatile combination.  Politicians will try to tame the public.  Movement purists will reject any compromise with reality.  The proof will be in the doing.  If the Tea Party has hit on a formula to project the public’s influence beyond a big bang event, this will be demonstrated by its continuing success, beginning with the 2012 elections.  The alternative is a splintering of identity resembling that of the Egyptian public.

In either case, the ruling principle of our times holds true.  An aroused public will continue its assault on established institutions.  The basis of legitimate authority, in knowledge no less than in political power, will be placed in dispute.  The remaining question concerns the physics of this principle:  whether a disorganized but highly charged public can become a continuing force, or is capable only of single-event eruptions to the ultimate advantage of more structured groups.

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One Response to In search of the public

  1. Pingback: In search of the public | the fifth wave | Midia Social

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