The constitution of ideas

Aristotle said that unequal access to information supported all kinds of inequality elsewhere.

    The constitution of ideas
    Aristotle knew that, in an assembly-focused democracy, skilled rhetoric gave important advantages [GALLO/GETTY]

    London, United Kingdom -
    The great works of constitutional theory were written when the political world was much smaller. Aristotle's Athens was, by today's standards, little more than a market town. Two thousand years later, revolutionary America was a patchwork of self-governing townships that were, for the most part, little bigger than Athens.

    Citizens knew one another and knew their representatives. The normal business of life brought them much of the political information that they needed and the rest could be supplied in face-to-face assemblies or occasional pamphlets. The exclusion of women, slaves and men without property further reduced the size of the political nation.

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    The modern, democratic nation-state operates on a vastly different scale. Whereas, in 1688, the English electorate numbered fewer than half a million, more than 45 million people were entitled to vote in the British General Election of 2010. The centres of political decision-making can be hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from the areas affected. The citizens of Los Angeles send their elected representatives more than 2,500 miles to Washington DC. Their compatriots in Hawaii are 7,000 miles from the US capital.

    Not only that, central government has become far more powerful, relative to local and regional jurisdictions. In the United States, for example, the federal constitution was intended to ensure that self-governing communities retained as much power as possible. But in the era of large standing armies and powerful federal agencies, the states and municipalities have steadily lost ground to Washington.

    Population growth, geographical expansion and political centralisation have all reduced the relative importance of face-to-face communication. Daily life no longer gives us much in the way of politically relevant information. We rely on the media to tell us about the faraway world where politics takes place. Therefore, the mass media, and the technologies that underpin them, have become matters of deep constitutional significance.

    A 'media regime'

    Of course all this has long been recognised in political practice, if not in constitutional theory. As Bruce Williams and Michael Delli Carpini note in After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy and the New Information Environment, communications systems are political achievements, in the sense that they depend crucially on state subsidy and regulation. Until recently, broadcast news and a handful of large newspapers dominated political communications in the United States. This was a "media regime" that depended on "a relatively stable set of state institutions, norms, processes and actors that shape the expectations and practices of media producers and consumers".

    These media enjoyed considerable power to determine what we knew about other publicly significant institutions and about each other. They could highlight or downplay corruption and other forms of criminality. More generally, they could decide what should be debated and what should be left undisturbed. In this they held a quite decisive power. Consider, for example, the workings of the economy. As long as the broadcasters and the newspapers stayed silent about the growth of economic inequality and the associated expansion of credit, most of the population in Britain and the United States were left to make decisions about their lives in something approaching perfect innocence.

    "Radio - and, later, television - became channels through which central authority could speak to a largely passive national audience."

    Over the past two centuries, new technologies - the telegraph, the radio, television, innovations in printing and so on - have disrupted established communication systems and the political arrangements they underpinned. Businessmen and politicians have done what they could to minimise this disruption and retain their power to shape the sum of what was generally known. Though optimists hailed the potential of new media to improve public deliberation, their hopes were often frustrated. Radio - and, later, television - became channels through which central authority could speak to a largely passive national audience. Those who control also understand, and are well placed to ensure that change serves their interests.

    The internet and other digital innovations are forcing a new round of changes in the political economy of the media. Old business models are failing and the "media regime" of broadcast news is fraying. As Jeremy Hunt, Britain's culture secretary, noted in a memo to the prime minister in 2010, the big media operations are now looking to establish themselves as multi-platform media operators, "available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad".

    Social media, with its associated market intelligence and education, with its state subsidies, are also emerging as key areas of interest. Twitter and Google are joining the rest of the telecommunications infrastructure as "essential elements in support of US national security policy and strategy" (the phrase comes from a National Security Council Directive written in 1983).

    Crossing the media Rubicon

    A new media regime is being constructed, though you could be forgiven for missing it, given how rarely it is discussed. And the corporations are well aware of the political, even constitutional, implications of what they are doing. News International has helpfully dubbed its plans for cross-platform integration "Rubicon". Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in Italy marks the conventional end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire. The crassness of the analogy is eloquent of a certain swagger.

    "Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in Italy marks the conventional end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire. The crassness of the analogy is eloquent of a certain swagger."

    That said, there is nothing inevitable about the shape that the new media regime will take. The current patterns of state-corporate cooperation might not survive. The breakdown of old patterns of authority and prestige opens opportunities for far-reaching debate about the kind of media we want and need. As Williams and Delli Carpini put it, "ideas matter during these transitional periods". And there are other reasons to reject fatalism.

    Though it is important not to exaggerate the reach and significance of independent digital publishing, there are new opportunities to challenge the versions of events that the major media provide. Digital technologies in general, and social media in particular, have an ambiguous quality. On the one hand they allow companies to harvest private data on an unprecedented scale, but on the other they allow individuals and groups to communicate and coordinate with unprecedented ease.

    Furthermore, thousands of people who want to work as journalists cannot find jobs in the print and broadcast media and will have no place in the new regime that the large conglomerates are eager to establish. These would-be journalists may yet change attitudes to the media, by explaining how the media is structured and how it might be reformed to facilitate democratic self-government.

    Public subsidies for news journalism are inevitable. The current recipients of these subsidies want to keep quiet about them. A handful of journalists and broadcasters can therefore be relied on to insist that the public aren't interested in the media and have more important things to worry about. It is a description of reality that is also a celebration of the old regime's power to estrange people from consequential matters. But most journalists have little to lose, and much to gain, if they argue instead for a transparent system of subsidy that supports democratic and accountable media.

    Who knows what

    Perhaps most significantly, the breakdown of the old media system is taking place against the background of a much wider political and economic crisis. The assemblies of recent years have usually been discussed by the broadcast and print media in terms of protest. But they are also opportunities to communicate outside the circuits of speech controlled by those same media. The lived experience of debate between equals cannot help but highlight the aridity and artificiality of politics as a mediated spectacle. And as the political struggles intensify, the shortcomings of the established media will become harder and harder to ignore.

    "Political philosophy has always been preoccupied by the question of who knows what."

    Political philosophy has always been preoccupied by the question of who knows what. At the beginning of the Ethics, Aristotle explains that politics "ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn, and up to what point they should learn them". As Aristotle well knew, in a democracy organised round assembly, those skilled in rhetoric had important advantages. Unequal access to information supports all kinds of inequality elsewhere.

    The distribution of knowledge is still central to the conduct of politics. It still determines who really wields power. But the media and communications systems in large nation states play an indispensable role in establishing who knows what, and to what extent. They determine what becomes widely known, and what remains the preserve of a privileged or marginalised few.

    The current organisation of the media leaves public opinion in private hands and reduces democracy to a sophisticated fraud. In the midst of noisy controversy, the fundamentals of social organisation remain obscure. The systems of communications are integral to the operations of modern politics, and remain inseparable from the current dysfunction. As we turn our attention to constitutional reform in the years ahead, it is important that we bear this in mind.  

    Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year's winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize. 

    Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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