Flowers of the Mind 14

Journalists write the first draft of history. So they say. It is the misleading draft that historians abandon to begin the real story.

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The Marxist-Leninists believed in the science – scientific socialism, the scientific laws of interpreting history that they also called historical materialism. They followed the science into the Gulag. The progressives of today are doing it again.

The term scientific socialism, I recall now prompted by some quick research, came before Marx, from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who stood in the traditions of Saint-Simon and Comte to articulate a nineteenth-century progressive idea of scientific government. In What is Property? he wrote:

“Thus, in a given society, the authority of man over man is inversely proportional to the stage of intellectual development which that society has reached; and the probable duration of that authority can be calculated from the more or less general desire for a true government, — that is, for a scientific government. And just as the right of force and the right of artifice retreat before the steady advance of justice, and must finally be extinguished in equality, so the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of the reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Today the progressives wish society to yield to the sovereignty of public health. But they are discovering the cunning of society evades them.

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The public sphere is the grounds for modern liberal democracy. The idea was founded by Jürgen Habermas in 1962 who defined the public sphere as “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state”. This lebenswelt (lifeworld as articulated by Husserl and the phenomenologists) of the public sphere made possible the open society, public debate, deliberative assembly and free speech traditions that liberal democracy stands in, even if today they are like the ruins of the classical world reimagined in the Renaissance. The public sphere emerged from the coffee houses, salons, early newspapers and periodicals, intellectual or scientific societies, reading groups and debating societies of 18th century Enlightenment Europe. It is the firm terrain that the idea of the “fourth estate” and the free press lays claim to, even if today’s news media long abandoned these lands for the gossipy corridors of power

This public sphere has been shattered in our post-democratic society. The lebenswelt of an open society, genuine inquiry and free discussion could not survive the explosive pressures of manipulated media, professionalised politics, degraded education and the illusions of control through “behavioural science”. But the political authorities and the regime media still laying claim to be the fourth estate erect their own illusion of communication. They project a hologram of a public sphere over the shattered glass of Habermas’ ground for democratic communication. They believe the hologram is true. But the people see democracy is broken, and the post-democratic society has arrived. Now the

But society is experiencing another reassembly of its lebenswelt – new salons, new coffee houses, new forums for free discussion, new societies of genuine inquiry, new modes of speech, new journals of real news. Now the old representatives of the enlightened public sphere, the entrenched speakers for public opinion appear as the bankrupt clerics of a corrupted Church allied with the state of an Ancien Régime. Many things may emerge from these post-democratic spheres of communication – some will be good, and some will be appalling. But they will not make a single public sphere ever again. It will be irrecoverably plural. The dream of public opinion shaped into popular will is dead.

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Emmanuel Todd, French anthropologist and sociologist, wrote:

“The choice for advanced societies does not lie between elitism and populism, between openness and closure, but between negotiation and disintegration.”

Lineages of Modernity: A History of Humanity from the Stone Age to Homo Americanus

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History is a moral art. It tries to bring together beauty, or at least imaginative narrative archetypes, with truth. It commits to an open encounter with the world as it is and as it was. This encounter demands setting aside the silencing perceptions of the ideological categories and concepts we might bring to the past. It demands mindful observation of the ruins and traces of the past. It asks for a deep, trusting, adventurous conversation with the lives and surprises of the past. The encounter is a meeting of I and thou across the abyss of time. But this encounter is a gift. There we sit face-to-face with an ever-present reality, a dynamic complexity, a once-living spirit that can live again through this conversation.

Image Credit: the young Jurgen Habermas photographed in 1956 as he was forming the idea of the public sphere from the Journal of the History of Ideas blog

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