Political agency and the public sphere

17 September 2020

From one country to another the persistent negation of meaningful and collectively validating forms of political participation highlights the necessity for new forms of political action and for inspired and resourceful forms of political agency

Allan Siegel

What happens next? What emerges from the ordeals of a massive social melt-down? What happens to our sense of normality and the familiar routines of daily life? What follows from the blurring of institutional structures and expectations in the wake of COVID-19? Being an optimist these days is difficult as we speculate about the possible patterns of post-pandemic life (whenever that may appear).

At the moment, in the forefront of our concerns are the capacities of our healthcare networks and institutions to manage the consequences of the pandemic. In parallel with these priorities is the challenge of deciphering official pronouncements relating to the re-opening of schools, places of employment, and acceptable and safe forms of social practices. The inconsistencies and contradictions in the deluge of official statements, news bulletins and social media noise has often increased public dismay, provoked anger, and added a layer of malaise along with the routines of daily life.

Despite all this, can the pronounced visibility of the often-grotesque underlying inequities that have surfaced during the pandemic be addressed? Inequities that include institutionalised forms of racism, gross inefficiencies within public agencies, the corporate assaults on healthcare systems, and the restructuring of economic models that perpetuate these and other social grievances.

Are there any harbingers in the dying days of summer 2020 that signal any cause for optimism? If we scrutinise governmental and public responses to the crises of this past year, what knowledge can be harvested from the signifiers and recurring sub-texts that have threaded their way into the cycles of daily life? What can be extracted from the scenes of a distended normality?

Flocks of theoreticians, political activists and pundits assiduously confront the difficulties in ascertaining and implementing strategies that empower publics to go beyond broadcasting the ephemeral manifestations of widespread disenchantment with the political status quo. Despite demonstrations and protests, the myriad of think tank forecasts, studies from focus groups, etc. the possibilities for substantial change seem deadlocked in calcified institutional structures and bureaucracies.

Those in power often continue to operate from entrenched positions based on long-term interests and ideological positions; any superficial divergencies are just speed bumps on the highways of neoliberalism. This gallery of unflappable machtfiguren plow ahead undeterred by renewed forms of political activism and a fragmented opposition unable to articulate a comprehensible radical vision of society that unmasks the mythologies of neoliberalism. Consequently, outpourings of outrage are necessary and defensible but if they have a short shelf-life they do little to change the structural barricades that protect the status quo.

To examine the social and political landscape that I have just highlighted I want to look at the interrelationships between three areas of public activity: knowledge communities, their manifestation within different public spheres, and the manner in which social media and other sources of information can substantiate and support realisations of political agency.

The diversity and vastness of these areas of investigation appear to be overwhelming and with such a range of differences that any conclusions we can draw might be simply irrelevant. Such a presumptive conclusion ignores some easily discernible characteristics of our communications landscape, including: social media platforms that are transnational and potentially enfranchising; the accessibility of devices and means of communication that are both instantaneous as well as discursive; and, a tool box of communication practices that enable perspectives on diverse social and political realities.

Arrogantly, and with an imperious posture, despite persistent public discontent, governments are intransigent in their policies, and are often determined to ignore disapproval of their unreliability or to admit to costly strategic mistakes. Instead, money continues to be filtered into the pockets of the wealthiest 1% while ministerial elites barrel ahead instituting new forms of corruption.

In the UK we see, without normal appraisal and bidding procedures, the awarding of contracts to companies that are incapable of fulfilling their requirements, i.e. the procurement of medical supplies and software that are ineffective. Just one example is a phantom company called TAEG Energy. It “has earned more than £52 million in Government deals for the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the Coronavirus pandemic. However, Companies House records show that the firm has just one director, Matthew Gowing, and has been dormant since May 2017.” Dominic Cummings has been especially adept at fostering these insider contracts.

In the US meanwhile, one prominent aspect of the nexus of corruption emanates from the nepotism of the Trump familial network which disperses and condones new forms of amorality whereby government contract compliance inspectors are dismissed or sidelined and environmental standards are randomly cancelled; all this in addition to taxpayers being charged for the extravagances that benefit Trump cronies and corporations.

These forms of corruption and nepotism are not just endemic to the UK and the United States; these practices are globally widespread. What is disconcerting is the presumption that these two countries are, supposedly, exemplars of modern democracies; yet, they have casually shredded the protocols and basic principles that are central to democratic processes and social wellbeing. This atmosphere of whitewashing, ineptitude and a roster of political crimes has become an aspect of the new normal.

Impending political events will unfold within the above situations: next November, voters in the United States are scheduled to elect a new president. In January 2021 the United Kingdom, despite the yawning gaps in current mediations, will sever trading ties as well as research and educational agreements with the European Union. Sometime this year Belarus might have a new regime. And, Scotland might be galloping towards independence.

To dig into these questions further, let’s deconstruct some current political realities. The process may seem simplistic but, for me, it is a possible route for analysing the turbulence that is buffeting societies. If we look at Brexit we see various threads of economic self-interest motivating Brexit activists but there is an ideological envelope that binds these elements together; it emanates from collective memories that are connected to a past that atrophied or no longer exists. These memories are based on a yearning for a social cohesiveness and economic formulas that are divorced from issues of trade, globalisation, immigration, etc. In short, a definition of a society without all its current complexities. The linearities and power relationships that defined the global landscape prior to World War Two has been reorganised into a post-colonial world; the disintegration of the Soviet Union has rearranged Cold War hostilities; in short, the highly visible political rivalaries and conflicts that were the hallmark of the 20th Century have been displaced by the more opaque economic enmities and related issues that are at the forefront of the present historical moment.

Across the ocean we see a similar scenario; the political concept that defines the Trumpian notion of the future is built on the populist slogan: “Make America Great Again.” The continuous seamless morphing and propagandising of this idea are the bedrock of Trump’s tenuous endurance and the manner in which he has been able to gut crucial aspects of government regulatory infrastructures and global alliances.

The slogan provides a rhetorical smokescreen that negates any traces of America’s colonial adventures or internal inequities and mines a colouring book of propagandistic and chauvanistic images; embellishes the U.S. role in post-war global politics and builds upon tropes pieced together by government publicists; a mixed bag of falsifications rigorously constructed after the demise of the Soviet Union. In these formulations the United States reigned as the global SuperPower able to dictate economic policies and the content of international alliances. The Trump political machine fabricates and draws on this vein of collective memories; feeding them to a volatile seemingly disenfranchised mix of demographic profiles in order to bolster a hegemonic political agenda.

In this context, fragments of the American collective memory provides the glue that enables the various targeted segments of society to adhere to a common jingoistic vision of America; it not only shapes a fixed comprehension of the past but also shapes the tools with which people interrogate the present and define their future social prospects. However, a society’s collective memory is not a unified monolithic assemblage of reminiscences, events or cultural artefacts but rather a diverse library of memories formed over time by different segments of society.

Excerpts of a collective memory fuelled the scenario now facing the UK in its quest to exit the governing structures of the European Union. In contrast to some of the pro-Brexit fictions of a reborn UK, Labour and other pro-Remain forces offered no effective contrasting vision nor were they able to draw on or transform commonly understood collective memories to substantiate the arguments for remaining in the EU and refuting the Brexit agenda. Rational arguments did not win the day nor did they score any game changing goals.

Like the Trump electoral apparatus, Brexit propaganda machinery, put together an electoral brew with ingredients gathered from collective memories, social uncertainties and the economic quagmire caused by years of austerity and globalisation. What arose from this nationalistic oven of British neoliberalism was a phantasmagoria of phantom publics propelled by slogans and promises designed to foster images of a reborn United Kingdom. The Brexit campaign operated in a manner similar to the Trump crusade; and, it is more than coincidental that there were overlapping strategies and operatives deployed from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

In her discussion of ‘phantom publics’ and knowledge communities Noortje Marres , helps us to further untangle aspects of our current political plight. The concept of phantom publics was promoted by Walter Lippmann who also, coincidentally, was a brainchild of neoliberalism. For Lippmann the public was a fabrication; the average citizen useless in wielding the various tools of a functioning democracy. However, utilising the various advertising and public relations strategies, the consciousness shaping machinery that was fast becoming intrinsic to consumer societies, improvised ’publics’ could appear as an appealing mirage; their identities as portions of the electorate would coalesce around spurious assertions or ideas; these phantom publics could be the engines driving politicians and electoral campaigns. Within our current globalised digital media environments, these phantom publics also draw upon nebulous communities of knowledge that further disseminate fallacious ideas and information.

There are many definitions and characteristics of communities of knowledge. They can be small as in a friendship group of writers or a team of scientists; or larger as in various educational settings; religious institutions exist as communities of knowledge. A Community of knowledge represents a framework within which ideas and information can be exchanged; it can activate educational processes, scientific research as well as proselytise unproven ideas or theories. They are both formal and informal; conscious and unconscious; they are the incubators or sites of various forms of political activism and exist as forums in which social concerns are articulated, validated or rejected.

Communities of knowledge are critical ingredients of a functioning democracy; the durability and textures of our diverse democracies are dependent on not simply the capacity of a society’s citizens to participate in decision-making but, crucially, on the formation and evolution of the diverse communities of knowledge that enable meaningful forms of participation to occur.

From one country to another the persistent negation of meaningful and collectively validating forms of political participation highlights the necessity for new forms of political action and for inspired and resourceful forms of political agency; the recognition of real, not phantom, publics enervated by a well-defined menu of social and political issues. In this framework, political agency is realised across different vectors or centres of activism. One might be a political party, another an NGO or community organization. Political agency can also occur spontaneously as in the movements emerging in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis; but, decisive forms of political agency arise from sustained practices linked to specific communities and organisational practices.

Despite often differing objectives, these forms of activism are outgrowths of communities of knowledge that feed on flows of information and ideas that originate from multiple sources, transparent and opaque networks, and from a diversity of publics propelled by social inequities, local necessities, and political ideals. In various forms and intricacies they have existed for centuries. Today we are confronting political and social crises that necessitate forms of political agency that trigger political coalitions and new strategies of collaboration. Coalitions and strategies not confined to one isolated public sphere; but, reflecting the broad emancipatory possibilities of political agency motivated an inspired, inclusive, social consciousness.

1. Examples of articles about no-bid contracts: [*Desperate for coronavirus help, California spending billions on no-bid contracts with little accountability*](https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-07/coronavirus-california-contracts-billions-accountability); [The £5.5bn PPE scandal that goes to the core of government incompetence – and that’s just for starters](https://www.thecanary.co/uk/analysis/2020/07/11/the-5-5bn-ppe-scandal-that-goes-to-the-core-of-government-incompetence-and-thats-just-for-starters/); [Government Procurement Scandal Continues with£43.8 Million PPE Contractfor Dormant Firm](https://bylinetimes.com/2020/09/02/government-awards-43-8-million-ppe-deal-to-dormant-firm/); [Firms ramp up prices on coronavirus PPE gear by up to 1,000% pushing care homes towards collapse](https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8175049/Firms-ramp-prices-coronavirus-PPE-gear-1-000.html)
2. Public (Im)potence, Noortje Marres, Hybrid Space, November 1, 2006