(the) Political, Dewey-Lippmann Debate, Internet

The Phantom Public is Anonymous

Apart from the – nevertheless interesting – fuzz about electronic democracy and the overthrowing of political power through the internet, there is one perhaps even more interesting thing going on with regard to the current hacking tendency that followed the arrest of Julien Assange. With its existence it is modifying the famous debate between John Dewey and Walter Lippmann in a rather ironic way; although the ‘public’ is no longer unknown, it is most definitely Anonymous.  

The 250.000 classified documents put online by WikiLeaks on the 28th of November make vivid the importance of objects in democracy. Of course, these documents do not appear in a similar way as the technical objects invoked in the Lippmann-Dewey debate. In the 1920’s Lippmann developed the argument that due to the presence of an excessive amount of technical issues and objects – factories, railways, radio, daily press etc. – public affairs have become so complicated that they threaten the ideals of democracy. That is, when citizens do not have the capacity to fully understand all these issues, there arises the danger of experts taking over. (This resonates with Ulrich Beck’s ‘expert paradox’; the experts are, in our times, the ones who confront society with all sorts of complex scientific and technological issues, but they are, at the same time, the only one society can turn to in order to deal with these) Dewey argued that precisely these objects, these complex issues enable public involvement in politics. Although, as Marres points out, factories, trains and the like do not immediately strike us as  insurmountably complex, we could easily substitute ‘train’ by ‘plane or, more importantly, ‘radio’ by ‘internet’.

To be sure, the documents published by WikiLeaks manifest themselves both as a threat and a possibility for democracy. That these are not contradictory, because apparent in the fact that they are seen as a threat mostly by politics itself and in a much lesser degree by the people responding in the media and on the internet. We have here a situation in which the visibility of the possibilities of doing politics is characterized as making politics impossible. Or, stated differently; the making public of the undemocratic aspects of democracy are condemned as making democratic politics impossible.

We can, without a doubt, witness the public involvement as a result of the publication of the documents in the now globally active hacking activities of the sites of companies who first supported WikiLeaks but have now retained from doing so. What is happening here is that a public has come into existence. But, and herein lies the irony with regard to the Lippmann-Dewey debate, this public actually has a name; Anonymous. The internet has shown its major contribution to an intensification of democratic engagement (on the fringe of the law, to be sure), but, quite contrary to the publics arising due to complex issues in Dewey’s view, the public is here inherently anonymous. According to Lippmann it was, and is, the failure of existing social groups to settle an issue, which sparks public involvement. In the case, there has arisen a community has taken up the issue, but we can’t grasp it; it is really, in a strange Deweyian Sense, a ‘community of strangers ‘. Quite contrary to Dewey, in order to deal with the issue of the WikiLeaks documents and the reaction of politicians, Anonymous has not turned to the state, has not become a political community as such, and is not re-making the state; it is to a large degree attacking it, by claiming to enlarge democracy.


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