Simulated Democracy?

Democracy today is instrumentalized, making it on one hand more manageable and secure, on the other, more suspect and irrelevant

I will call it the principle of instrumentalization. Social practices emerge as a genuine effort, implying risk and uncertainty, and no one questions their authenticity. At the next stage the technique starts to be mastered, so that control and predictability rise. But in the same time the practice loses its aura, suspicions emerge as to hidden interests and strategies, so that finally—at the zenith of its technical excellence—the practice starts to decline strangely. Thus Greek art was gradually emptied of its existential depth in the Hellenistic period, royal court intrigues become routine and obsolete during modern era, communist rituals degenerate into wooden language.

I will argue that democracy today has instrumentalized, too, making it on one hand more manageable and secure, on the other, more suspect and irrelevant. It used to be a battleground during the first modernity, having cost many human lives, and the freedom of opinion was certainly one of the most important issues, censorship prevailing more often than not. Sometime in the 80s (earlier in the US, later in Eastern Europe) democracy became stabilized around a specific type of instrumentalized public debate, due both to the decline of radical ideological alternatives and to the proliferation of private media, where opinions are skillfully promoted and juxtaposed without putting the system at risk.

Let me note that for me the principle of instrumentalization does not imply any conspiracy or even class interest (Bourdieu): it is the effect of some sort of “invisible hand” private actors, on one side it is the media, striving to attract audiences under the conditions of growing competition, on the other, personal vanity and political self-promotion. A major role in this was played by liberalization that fragmented the public scene (from “we against them” towards “all against all”), a process that was pushed to the extreme by digitalization. Media had passed from political or communitarian regulation, implying various degrees of censorship, towards a state where every single voice can make it into the public sphere. A regime of information shortage, where the heroic citizen fights to get his/her message published, was replaced by one where all voices are ever easier heard, so that the goal now is to get noticed in the generalized tumult. This change reminds of the implosion of reality described by Baudrillard—media no longer refer to conflicting positions in the social world; reality simulated by the relation between signs within the plane of representation itself. Political conflict has violence and death as its ultimate referent; relation between signs is a technique. Old-fashioned dictatorships still exist using the old-fashioned repertoire of censorship and manipulation; what I am talking about here are the perverse effects of freedom itself.

The following is an analysis of some of these unexpected results of an over-competitive media market. To start with, there are no longer unwanted events (say, protest movements) that can be hidden because they go against the interest of the owners and the establishment. If one decided not to cover them for some ideological reason, hundred others would chose to inform about them, stealing off audiences. Thus every single fact having the potential to attract attention tends to be over-represented: with pros and cons, by experts and passers-by, from the left and from the right, rationally and emotionally. Let me call it the principle of avalanche. The event has an ever shorter expiration period, it will be thus exploited to the utmost while it is edible. Completely new media appear on the marketplace on the occasion of a concrete scandal, as it was with the French online Mediapart that acquired its fame in 2010 with the revelation of obscure financing of Sarkozy’s campaign, or the Bulgarian OFFnews, a former automobile forum, that became a national information site by covering on an hourly basis the protests of 2013.

Resulting from the avalanche-like organization of the information flow is the tendency to occupy all possible positions in any public debate. It is as if opinion has been liquefied, if not gasified, and tends to fill in all pockets of a given volume. There are the mainstream opinion leaders and their followers; but those provoke others to take the radically opposing positions, be it on Milošević, September 11th, or Putin’s militarism, and they also have their suites of followers. Then, there is the niche for alternative opinions that challenge both camps, e.g. Putin is neither an aggressor, nor champion of peace, he simply has lost control of his military. All possible conspiracy plots that logical thinking allows for are usually constructed, especially by bloggers; someone would take up the role of the information-blasé inviting us to talk about other things; there is the “follow the money” reasoning, as well as the down-to-earth ad hominem argumentation (Putin wants to impress his new wife). And so on, and so forth.

Self-promotion has taken the place of public debate as the Habermasian utopia had imagined it, where a shared view on public good and the ways to attain it is painstakingly elaborated. In older democracies, there are still centers of authority like parties, traditional media, prestigious universities, etc., around which the fragmented opinions consolidate. In new democracies with no traditional legitimacy of elites like Bulgaria or Romania, the all-imaginable-points- of-view principle undermines not only public debate, but also the very capacity of the audience to understand what is happening and hence to take action. For instance, the Bulgarian debate on nuclear energy has been going on for years, ranging from geopolitics to environment, from poverty to national pride, from expertise to referendum. And yet, citizens do not know until this day whether the country’s economy needs more power or not. More and more often public discussions end in such aporiae. Were the elections of 2014 falsified? Was the biggest bank destroyed by unwise management or by the intrusion of the state?

A sub-genre here is the ping-pong discussion, where participants express not only mutually excluding ideas, but also state facts in open contradiction, whereas the presenter turns his/her head from one to the other, happy to moderate a vigorous democratic debate. On one of the big private Bulgarian TV stations, there even was a show where such debates were staged inside a boxing ring; and social networks adore sharing videos of angry politicians in Ukraine, Italy or Venezuela throwing things at each other, live. Democracy can be fully experienced in a spectacle of free, passionate people defending their point of view, without any authority trying to interfere. But there is obviously nothing democratic about all that, as the result is not the formulation of a public opinion, but an outburst of passions, divisions and finally civic impotence. The private interest of the media is not to reach some minimal consensus, but on the contrary, to maintain divisions and thus accumulate clicks on their ads.

The very role of the mentioned presenter— the journalist managing public debates—is not neutral. He/she is, by definition, not specialized in the topic, and even when having chosen an aggressive style, they do not impose their point of view on the debating citizens, politicians or experts. The aim is to operate an identification between the eye of the camera or microphone and the audience—those laypersons who are supposed to be shocked, amused, intrigued, or outraged by the discussion. What is the implication of such sort of staging? Democratic battles are deployed before us as a fascinating spectacle that we need to watch, evening after evening. Rate, vote, take sides, send messages, win prizes. In short, the citizen becomes a consumer of the political show.

The last example is linked to the Web 2.0 revolution. It seems that democratic participation is finally reached as the citizen comments, forwards, rates, and criticizes whatever he/she is given by the professionals. What else could we have wished for? But again, getting what you want may be even worse a tragedy than not getting it, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. Instead of consolidating public opinion and enabling resistance, social networks fragment and disorganize the debate even more, transforming the average user into a member of what they call the chattering classes. I will not enter here the decade long discussions as to whether there ever has been such thing as a public sphere and whether the Internet has not actually created it by democratizing the debate (Poster, 1995). I am focusing my attention of how such sphere is created, and what role the liberalization of the media market and the development of technology may have played.

It has been noted that fragmentation is only one side of the problem: in fact, public opinion nowadays is aggregated more effectively than ever. Millions can enter an information site the second a president is supposed to confess his unfaithfulness, millions circulate petitions and posters. The new thing is that aggregating of opinions is done through the algorithm of the machine (Geiger, 2009), and that is not always transparent to the average consumer. The new communication industries compete not only in offering information, but also in designing new forms of togetherness: sites, social networks, forums, bookmarking services, even online games. Instead of simply bringing together the citizen to discuss matters of common interest, those enterprises offer such services as choice, filters for unwanted contacts, speed, multimedia options. You may want a quiet echo-chamber, but you may prefer a room with view over the enemy; only politics or only sports; be visible or invisible.

The new machines of social contact are, in fact, machines for the mass production of opinions: they put the person under constant pressure to react to topics that would normally not concern them. It is not the same thing to see a text in the newspaper and to have it sent to you by a friend. In the second case you are personally challenged to react and thus maintain the link with your group. The result is a constant generation of passions, irritations, conspiracy explanations on every possible topic, in every possible way. It is not the citizens that act and hold power in check; it is corporations that offer them the experience of participating, expressing opinions, being critical… and they, in that way, make money on the communication flow.

Simulated democracy is thus a spectacle (Guy Debord), transforming citizens into passive consumers of safe democratic experiences. The consumerist turn of the political process is crucial. Producers necessarily have some sort of group belonging, as the work process supposes rules, principles, and loyalties. The consumer is free: he/she can walk away after paying and never again to see the seller. Consumers gather spontaneously over a specific topic, then disperse re-aggregate under a different constellation on another occasion. By transforming the participation in the public debate from a battle fought by the citizens into an experience offered to consumers, democracy is reduced to a simulacrum, making it possible for societies to be governed by shady groups with dubious legitimacy.

Ivaylo Ditchev

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, Bulgaria. He has been teaching abroad, mainly in France and the USA. He is also an editor of the journal for cultural studies Seminar BG.

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The idea of citizenship has its roots in the Roman Empire. Governments these days are more often perceived as a mere service provider. New technologies allow for the use of government marketing and communications while using segmentation methods common in advertising. As citizens, we should not grow accustomed to being treated as customers. Or should we?

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