June 27, 2003

bloggers as active citizens

In his great article on blogging and democracy Tim Dunlop makes a link to bloggers as active citizens. But he skates over what is meant by citizenship. Tim says:

"John Dryzek, an Australian political scientist, once wrote that "one might argue that political education, participatory action, and successful social problem solving could together help constitute a community fully capable of steering its own course into the future. The distinction between citizen and expert would lose its force.

What I am saying is that there is a strong overlap between the idea of a "public intellectual" and an active citizen, and if we stop concentrating on "the" intellectuals and think instead about intellectual practice, then the distinction between the two melts away, loses its force - or at least thehard edges somewhat ease.

I'm not saying that this means "we are all intellectuals" in some Monty Python sense. But I am saying that the distinction between "the" intellectuals and the citizens is often overstated and tends to be anti-democratic, assigning the vast mass to the passive role of spectator in most societal debates.We see this form in most conferences.

And here's where blogging comes in. Blogging changes all that to an extent that wasn't imaginable even a year ago. What Tim understands is that, in giving an increasingly legitimate forum to anyone who can hold the attention of an audience, blogging has provided at least one of the technical means of dissolving the division between intellectual and citizen.

What sort of citizens are these? Tim does not say apart from indicating that they are active and not passive, and by explictly linking bloggers to the new citizenship in the subheading of his article. What is the new citizenship as distinct from the old citizen? Again Tim does not say. Are we to infer that the new citizen is active as opposed to the old citizen being passive? If so then the argument is circular.

I want to open this up a bit by saying the new citizens are republican citizens. The core of the republican tradition can be found here (courtesy of Legal Theory blog), whilst an account of classical republicanism can be found here

Why turn to republicanism? The answer is simple. If political liberalism is primarily a theory of rights, then republicanism is primariiy a theory of citizenship. See here For those who see politics through the eyes of aesthetics this is useful.

The first point. Despite the apparent circularity of Tim's 'bloggers as active citizens' argument he is on the money here. There is a good reason to connect bloggers to active citizens because this is what is actually happening on the ground. A good example is provided by their contribution to, and their being a part of, the Reynolds+Ryan/Windshuttle fabrication of history debate. This continues to circulate through the public sphere as well as in history circles in academia.

For the recent round in Australia, see my post on writing history; Christopher Shiels guest post on Road to Surfdom here; Ken Miles post here on Lyndal Ryan's responses to Windschuttle's criticism of the inferences of her footnotes; Gummo Troksty's posts on Windshuttle's philosophy of history ; comments on Stuart Macintyre's paper On 'fabricating' history" at "Troppoarmidillo. There is a summing up by Christopher Shiels here. For outside Australia, see Erin O'Connor and Henry at Gallowglass.

That's being pretty active even, if there are limitations of coherence in this blogging debate. What we get here are bloggers being active in the affairs of the community--a public spiritedness--- whilst retaining a commitment to individual liberties and idiosyncracies.

So how can republicanism help us to spell out this new active citizenship? If we put the constitutionalism and federalism to one side, a key idea in the Standford Encyclopedia is the idea of the state in a free republic (an independent and self-governing people) being required to promote freedom as non-dependency of its citizens. The state should arrange things so that citizens are not exposed to a form of political domination that makes them unfree.

The Standford Encyclopedia post is written by Philip Pettit I would add that republicanism holds that the state should also act to ensure the conditions that enables citizens to use their autonomy to participate in public debates on matters that are of concern to them. Preserving and facilitating the prerequisites of citizenship means not only ensuring that each citizen has the means to live, work, and think freely, but is also encouraged to actively take part in the political process through deliberation and political activism. We are free when we are participating as autonomous members of self-governing political communities.

J.G.A.Pocock summarizes this classical republican idea well. He says:

"What makes the citizen the highest order of being is his [sic] capacity to rule, and it follows that rule over one's equal is possible only where one's equal rules over one. Therefore the citizen rules and is ruled; citizens join each other in making decisions where each decider respects the authority of the others, and all join in obeying the decisions . . . they have made."

This activity of ruling and being ruled, the life of politics, is a distinctively public activity. Autonomy means both thinking for oneself, participating in political life, and shaping our own lives. According to the classic republican tradition freely participating in the shaping of civic life is what it means to be fully human.

The low costs and the low technical knowledge required to run a weblog facilitates this autonomy, as it gives us ordinary citizens our own medium. Though this still has the form of being a virtual soapbox in the park that is linked to other soapboxes, the weblog does address an important problem of inequality. The inequality here is some individuals having a greater voice in politics than others. This inequality results not just from varying inclinations toward political activity, but also from unequal access to vital resources (such as education) and political participation depending on contributions of money rather than contributions of time.

Republicanism holds that this autonomy of citizenship is used to enhance the common good of the republic (ie., the interests citizens hold in common as an independent and self-governing people). Hence freedom has a positive as well as a negative aspect. So there is concern with civic virtue (the capacities and practical knowhow of citizens) and its fragility. This civic republicanism highlights an impoverished legal vision of citizenship in Australia, and it points to a liberal democratic political system that does not articulate a public philosophy that deals with civic virtue.

The best we get in Australia is the idea of social capital as volunteerism without connecting Australian democracy to civil society. What does not resonate here in Australia is Alexis de Tocqueville's idea of citizen's involvement in family, school, work, voluntary associations, and religion having a significant impact on their participation as voters, campaigners, donors, community activists and protesters. What is elided in Australia is the central issue of involvement: of people coming to be active and raising the issues that concern them.

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Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at June 27, 2003 08:20 PM | TrackBack

We do seem to be stuck with an ascendant logic that says there is only the private interest. Else the claim that the price mechanism is the best determinant wouldn't make any sense.

And ever more stratified education, ever busier workers, and ever more alienated non-workers, and ever more of of our symbolic order bent and gutted by PR - well, it doesn't bode well for res publica ...

I really don't know how to get there from here, Gary. Just that ya gotta go with what ya have, and hope a public is still out there to be part of.

Posted by: Rob Schaap on July 1, 2003 01:00 AM

Just briefly, I'd tie it more to deliberative rather than republican citizenship, though there is obviously overlap. But deliberative democracy needs deliberative institutions and I see blogging as a rather nice voluntary example of that sort of institution building. Though of course, this sort of civil society practice needs to be able to convert into political action which requires some sort of means of influencing the bureacracies of the state. You end up with the paradoxical requirement of needing the energy and broad, non-technocratic nature of the civil society being incorporated into the instruments of the state to pretty much force the state, the elected representatives, to take note of it. James Bohman is pretty good on this stuff, I reckon, at least in outlining the problem if not the solution.

Posted by: Tim on July 1, 2003 03:42 AM


Could we not connect the two? Active republican citizens who deliberate about matters that concern to them.

But I take your point about needing deliberative institutions to nurture a public dialogic reason in civil society.

I'm not so sure about the incorporation. The polticians do not take much notice of the bureaucrats. They take notice of the way the issues are played out in the media.That is where the political debate is being had---newspaper headlines commentary & television news.

Bloggers are not really a part of this yet. They have to get picked up by the big media and so they have no political impact.

An exception in Australia is the model worked out by Crikey.com It cannot be dismissed as a political gossip site at all. It has political influence.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 2, 2003 12:26 AM

nope it does not bode well for res publica. I am far more pessimistic than Tim.

Nor do I know what to do. Often I fell like chucking the public opinion weblog in and go back to writing the(couple of unfinished)books that no one will read.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 2, 2003 12:31 AM
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