The Public Good

Want to get depressed? Read Chris Hedges’ piece over at TruthDig entitled “The Idiots Who Rule America.” His article resonates with me in part because of my interest in what Jürgen Habermas calls “the public sphere” (hell, my most recent book, Blogging America: The New Public Sphere even sites him in the title). Hedges writes:

Our elites—the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools—do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good.

The course of education in America laid out by John Dewey, in other words, has been sidetracked into an elitist shaping ground.

One of the things that long ago led me to dismiss a great deal of what passes for economics is the concept of the “rational consumer,” the idea that people will ultimately act in their own best interest. History shows, over and over again, that this is nonsense. But it certainly is useful when one desires to ignore (or forget) the needs, desire, or input of T.C. Mits (The Celebrated Man In The Streets—thanks, Lillian Rosanoff Lieber): if people do ultimately act in their own best interest, there’s no need, really, to bother with them.

The result?

We may elect representatives to Congress to end the war in Iraq, but the war goes on. We may plead with these representatives to halt Bush’s illegal wiretapping but the telecommunications lobbyists make sure it remains in place. We may beg them not to pass the bailout but 850 billion taxpayer dollars are funneled upward to the elites on Wall Street. We may want single-payer, not-for-profit health care but it is not even discussed as a possibility in presidential debates. We, as individuals in this system, are irrelevant.

According to Habermas, the public sphere, where real debate takes place and people (not elites) contribute, was squeezed nearly out of existence by corporate forces in the nineteenth centure. My argument, in both my last book and my earlier The Rise of the Blogosphere is that we now have a chance for it to come back, thanks to the Internet and unfettered access to it. The reactions against the blogs, I think, are reactions against the people, against the idea that we can decide for ourselves, without gatekeepers, without elites telling us what to do.

Hedges takes what is essentially the Habermas concept in a different direction, writing of “the public good,” a necessary corollary to “the public sphere.” He say, and I agree:

We will either recover the concept of the public good, and this means a revolt against our bankrupt elite and the dynamiting of the corporatist structure, or we will extinguish our democracy.

Democracy, after all, is by the people, not simply for the people. Unless we regain sight of that, the divide between the elite and the rest of us will only continue to grow—and our country continue to weaken.

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