If global civil society is to have a mission at this historical moment of humanity it would be to recapture the power of language and to regain its ‘civilising’ role, providing a forum for deliberative democracy, re-rooting legitimacy in civil society and highlighting the importance of the politics of presence, not merely representation. The fact that after 9/11, and in the midst of the launch of the war on terrorism, dialogues took place across boundaries, and scholars from the American and the Muslim sides (neo-conservatives and Saudi intellectuals) exchanged statements, even if they were confrontational rather than conciliatory, contributes to the expression of conflicts through words rather than bombs. Intellectuals in Germany and France issued statements against the war in Iraq in which they defended and clarified the concept of Jihad and just war in Islam, and detached it from terrorist acts. There were also many micro and macro inter-cultural and inter-faith debates that emerged and developed rapidly (Blankenhorn et al. 2005; Boase 2005). This circle of global civil society activities was often overlooked because anti-war demonstrations and other marches and campaigns attracted more attention, again due to their visual or even screen-cyber ‘spectacular’ nature.
Should the West, Russia, China, India and Islam enter into discursive relations explicitly seeking new principles of coexistence, for example, re-zoning declared areas of decency, regionalising public–private divides, finding minimum entitlements? Are these matters solely for bilateral civilisational negotiations? Is civil society the arena where the new principles with emerge, or will it descend into violence transcending states? Amartya Sen (2006) argues that the politics of global confrontation should be wrested from civilisational partitioning of the world in favour of recognising the choices open to persons in their multiple identities. Civil society is the arena where such identities could be negotiated.
The reality is more complex. In many cases, one NGO’s solution may be another’s problem. Their autonomous and largely closed communication networks make it easy for the rhetorical temperature to rise. Once unleashed, the blogs of war quickly create distrust among contending networks. As a result, direct confrontations, in print or in person, resemble a slanging match more than the rational deliberation and respectful dialogue so dear to many theorists of national and international democracy (Risse 2000; Habermas 2001; Dworkin 2006). Often these controversies serve important purposes for the protagonists: stoking attention to their issues, mobilising their base of support, demonstrating their fighting skills, and securing their organisational leadership. Because activists seek to influence policymakers, rather than making authoritative policy decisions themselves, most have few incentives to restrain their demands or compromise with their foes. At best, political realities may sometimes compel moderation. But with promulgation of new policies and evolving power relations, the opposing sides continue their dueling indefinitely.
The current communication environment is frequently characterised as one that lends itself to alternative voices finding a platform, an audience and an organisational network capable of creating communicative power. Some of the limitations of such an environment have been touched upon above, but four key areas of civil society activity to improve the public sphere, through and with media, should be outlined.
New technologies and the fragmentation of the public sphere
The Internet has created a limitless matrix through which ordinary people can exercise communicative power, establish shared spaces for discussion and dialogue, and where tapestries of communication between old and new media, traditional and twenty-first century communication networks are constantly rewoven.
Never before have new territories for claiming (and possibly confining) public space emerged as rapidly as they have over the last two decades, with the emergence of the internet, and the allied technological revolutions of mobile telephony, satellite broadcasting and communication, and the host of other applications (blogs, vlogs, wikis etc.) that make up what is termed Web 2.0. These issues have been discussed in previous editions of the Yearbook (see Castells et al. 2006; Naughton 2001) and elsewhere in this publication; here attention will be paid to the links between new and traditional media in opening public spaces and enhancing communicative power.
Later this chapter explores the many limits, constraints and setbacks of the media liberalisation wave of the 1990s, as well as many countervailing forces, but it should be acknowledged that, for much of the world’s population, the last decade of the twentieth century and since witnessed an unprecedented inflation of the public sphere.
On the other hand, as a tool of political communication texting has a serious limitation: it allows short messages to be copied and distributed quickly and widely, but it permits very little editing or elaboration based on the original message. It is suited for simple coordinating messages such as specifying the time and location of a gathering and what to wear (black clothes, in this case). However, it is highly insufficient for civic deliberation. With SMS, the messages were ‘mechanically augmented but semantically unaltered … producing a “technological revolution” that sets the question of social revolution aside’ (Rafael 2002: 409–10). ‘Texting is thus “revolutionary” in a reformist sense’ (Rafael 2003: 410). If a real revolution were to take place that fundamentally altered a social structure, it would most likely involve other media, including not only the internet, which has been accompanying the cell phone in most political mobilisations, but also traditional mass media and interpersonal communication.
At times, the role of global civil society is to incubate an idea or initiative until the intergovernmental moods shifts into a supportive mode. This occurred in relation to criminal accountability for political leaders. Governments gave the initial push after the Second World War at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, but then backed off. This commitment to accountability was kept alive in America and Europe by activists during the cold war who relied on this framework of laws to oppose wars of aggression and improper weaponry and military doctrine and tactics. And then in the aftermath of the cold war, with the break-up of former Yugoslavia and the brutalities of the conflicts in Africa, a new intergovernmental set of initiatives revived the idea of accountability, even leading, against some geopolitical objection, to the formation of an International Criminal Court. In relation to UNEPS, it may also be necessary to push the idea and then wait patiently until a propitious conjuncture of happenings engages political forces throughout the world.
Communicative power and the public sphere
There is a substantial literature on notions of communicative power and communicative action, most famously developed in the context of Jurgen Habermas’ argument around the development of the public sphere (Habermas 1983, 1987, 1988, 1989). This chapter, which is more concerned with trends and actions than concepts, leaves discussion of the many debates around Habermas’ and others’ work on the public sphere to other contributors to this edition (see for example, the Introduction). However, it does argue that these debates are increasingly relevant in the context of twenty-first century events and trends.
This chapter will explore how civil society and democratic engagement is mediated through the media and communication technologies, how this is changing and what is driving those changes. It will focus on the efforts – including those of various global civil society actors – to engage and challenge the media by creating alternative forms of mediated communication, and engaging with existing mainstream media. It will also describe how rapid changes in the media present new opportunities for communicative power and action, as well as many new obstacles to a democratic public sphere.
If, as Neera Chandhoke argues (Chandhoke 2002; 2005), civil society is the public space in which people meet, discuss and engage with politics and public policy, then the media is an essential determinant of the success of civil society as a creator of public spaces, and of how effectively people’s voices can be heard. Manuel Castells argues that ‘media have become the social space where power is decided’ (2007: 1).
A space, by contrast, has no leaders. It is just a place, basically horizontal, like the earth’s surface, although undulating. Like a square, it has no owner – if the square has an owner other than those who use it, it becomes a private territory. Squares are generally open spaces that can be visited by all those with any kind of interest in using them. They have no other function than the function of squares, offering a specific kind of service to those who frequent them. The longer they last as squares the better for those who make use of them to achieve their respective aims.
Although the family forms an important element in Habermas’s account of the transformation of the public sphere, so distinguishing Habermas from many contemporary writers on civil society, feminist thinkers such as Joan Landes, Mary Ryan and Nancy Fraser have challenged the normative ideal of a (bourgeois) public sphere as open and accessible to all. Joan Landes (1988) argues that gender became the main axis of exclusion in the new republican sphere in France through discursive practices that belittled women’s participation in political life. Mary Ryan (1998: 195–222) challenges Habermas’s depiction of a decline of the bourgeois public sphere by documenting the movement of North American women into politics from the early nineteenth century onwards. In doing so she subverts the masculinist, bourgeois concept of a single public sphere and highlights the profusion of counter-publics that were neither liberal, nor bourgeois, nor necessarily male. In defence of the normative concept of public spheres in actually existing democracies, Nancy Fraser (1997:136–7) argues that any adequate conception of the public sphere has not only to bracket social differences such as gender but also to eliminate social inequality.
And yet the unexpected happened. The virtual consensus in favor of gun control started to be challenged in blogs and websites. A variety of arguments opened up a process of heated discussion. Opponents denounced the approved legislation as a false, simplistic solution to the complex, dramatic problem of violence, arguing that it reduced government responsibility to ensure public safety. Others spoke about risks to individual freedom and civic rights. Blogs and virtual communities were created overnight. Friends and colleagues shared emails about contrasting points of view.Ideas were confronted in an extensive conversation that spread to the workplace and many households. People who usually took stands along clear-cut lines started to defend conflicting opinions. With the opening up of television prime time for both sides to argue their case and with mandatory voting, the debate expanded to the entire population.
In the 1980s Jürgen Habermas’ work on civil society also became quite influential in academic circles. Habermas’ notion of the communicative public sphere envisaged a space where people could discuss matters of mutual concern and learn about facts, events and others’ opinions (Habermas 1996). As opposed to de Toqueville’s vision in which public opinion was treated more as ‘a compulsion toward conformity’, for Habermas public communication had the potential to provide the space in which the general or public interest could be rationally and critically discussed (Habermas 1992: 133). Although Habermas saw this potential in the ideal model of the public sphere, he also expressed concern with the colonisation of the ‘lifeworld’ that undermined the progressive potential of the project (Howell and Pearce 2002: 57). Nevertheless, Habermas went on to search for the emancipatory possibilities of civil society and subsequently triggered a debate, which continues today, about civil society, democracy and conceptions of the public sphere.
First of all, administrative tools and money need to be guided by communication, by debates at local, national and global levels. The aim of substantive democracy promotion is to help create and protect political spaces where projects and procedures can be discussed and negotiated. Bureaucrats tend to favour ‘capacity-building’ and measurable outcomes. Yet the most important role that outsiders can play is facilitating discussions and meetings and responding to local agendas. This may mean less rather than more funding. But it does require more ambitious efforts to create channels through which ordinary people and the associations they form can have access to political authority at all levels.
This is not to say that communication necessarily means taking local advice. Often that advice is conflicting and may involve special pleading. But communication and dialogue are both key to empowering civil society and shaping democracy strategies. Money and administrative instruments can be useful where they are a response to bottom-up demands. But they are less likely to be effective where they are based on exporting particular models of democracy or supporting particular pro-Western factions.
It does seems likely that there are multiple global public spheres when it comes to climate change, partly determined by political boundaries and partly by political predilection, but they do stand in connection with each other. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, may be presumed to penetrate into the different spheres. The subject has in all likelihood gone beyond the level of the attentive public, and begun to impinge on the awareness of what Price calls ‘mass audiences’. While the debate on ‘whether’ is polarised into two camps, the debate on remedies is far more varied, lively, and indeed deliberative. However, participation is very uneven, causing actors in global civil society to do much perilous speaking ‘on behalf of’ potentially threatened populations in parts of Africa or the Pacific islands. It is clear that, probably due to a combination of influential reports and unusual weather, the climate change debate has experienced a sudden elevation to the higher regions of political agendas. To what extent policy and citizen behaviour will be affected remains open.
The climate change debate is an interesting case for the hypothesis of a global public sphere, in that mutual accusations of shutting down debate are an integral part of the debate itself. There is no doubt that the environmental mainstream would in fact like to close part of the debate, namely that part that still questions whether climate change is occurring and whether it is caused by human behaviour, in order to move on to discussing policy and behavourial change. Continuing to give air to the climate change sceptics gives politicians somewhere to hide, and obstructs progress on the latter half of the agenda. But from the vantage point of the public sphere as a form of democratic practice, any attempt to shut down other voices is problematic. What, if any, should be the limits to what can be debated in a global public sphere, and who sets the limits? Holocaust denial is criminalised in many countries, although in Iran it is government policy. But can climate change denial really be likened to Holocaust denial? Climate sceptics see such equivalence as only a first step, and warn darkly of eco-dictatorship, predicated on the notion that human beings will not adapt their consumptive behaviours willingly.
These critiques seem to undermine the possibilities for new democratic forms based on civil society-as-communication. But there may be a rescue from a quarter that political theorists tend to neglect: actually existing global civil society. The ideal of a public sphere, or multiple spheres, of decision making based on communication and deliberation, has escaped from the clutches of the theorists into the real world. Global civil society as-is may not correspond to the ideal of a public sphere where free and equal deliberation takes place between all global citizens. But what one does find in global civil society is some adherents to the ideal, and numerous shaky attempts to practice it.
Finally, even if an ideal-typical public sphere were taking shape in global civil society, one may wonder how it could eliminate the tendency to concentrate power. Instead of the kind of formal equality of access that the ideal type of the? global public sphere requires, what is developing, in Monroe Price’s analysis, are precisely the kind of inequalities of power that correspond to the formal equalities of market capitalism. Everyone going around expressing opinions, even freely and equally, is not enough. A democratic theory must also have something to do with decision making. In Habermas’ conception, public opinion was somehow informing governmental decision making. How this link operated was always a problematic aspect of the theory, but it has not been theorised at all for the messy power landscape of political globalisation.
In Habermas’ ideal public sphere, ‘access is guaranteed to all citizens’ (1989: 136). But access is in fact limited in many ways. First there are those who explicitly exclude themselves from deliberative fora they deem illegitimate. As Iris Marion Young puts it, they typically ‘make public noise outside while deliberation is supposedly taking place on the inside’, although sometimes they ‘invade the houses of deliberation and disrupt their business’ (Young 2001: 673). These disrupters, well-known figures in global civil society, can still be considered as part of the public sphere. They do after all ‘aim to communicate specific ideas to a wide public’ (2001: 676). They do, however, test the limits of the public sphere-related conception of civil society, particularly when the method of disruption is violent (see Albrow and Anheier 2006). Much more numerous are those who cannot participate. First, access to global public spheres is still restricted by governments (see Chapter 5). Beyond deliberate obstruction by states, there is a wider problem with participation. As Ricardo Blaug puts it wryly:
Whether due to there being simply too many of us, to the excessive complexity and interdependence of the problems we face, to a perceived inefficiency of deliberation, or to a perceived lack of ability and motivation on the part of the demos, democratic theorists since Plato have taught us that the people, while being sovereign, require structures that limit their participation (Blaug 1999: 132).
Keane describes global public spheres as:
sites within global civil society where power struggles are visibly waged and witnessed by means other than violence and war: they are the narrated, imagined non-violent spaces within global civil society in which millions of people at various points on the earth witness the powers of governmental and non-governmental organisations being publicly named, monitored, praised and condemned, defying the old tyrannies of time and space … [but] few of these are reducible to the dynamics of rational-critical argumentation about matters of sober truth and calm agreement. (Keane 2003: 169)
Apart from the notes of caution inserted by Habermas and others concerning the application of the ideal-typical concept of the public sphere to reality, the new enthusiasts also tend to miss the fact that for Habermas, and even in the seminal work on civil society by Cohen and Arato (1992), the only imaginable relevant context was the state. Their public spheres end neatly at the border, civil society is national, and the formation of public opinion only relates to decision making by government and parliament. Habermas saw ‘the potential for self-annihilation on a global scale’ (1989 : 235) as adding emphasis to Kant’s call for a ‘cosmopolitan order’, but this was only within the frame of a world of nation states.
The Saddam images fed into a debate that immediately became global. But it has no global institutional locus. Is this the new global public sphere, where a global public opinion takes shape? Do the new communication possibilities realise democracy beyond the nation state or does the very proliferation of media channels result in a fragmentation that undermines any public sphere? Habermas re-centred the issue of democracy in the nation state on the possibilities of full and free communication in the public sphere. We ask whether developments in the media of communication and their use now require us to rethink democracy for global society. If we do now have a global public sphere can we be sure that democracy will inspire its debates? These are our concerns in Global Civil Society Yearbook 2007/8.