The Arab Public Sphere and Communicative Capitalism

One cannot discuss the Arab world without analyzing it in view of the theoretical background of Habermas’ concept of public sphere. But what is the public sphere?

Public sphere is a concept coined by Habermas, a German theorist who belongs to the Frankfurt school. Habermas defines media according to a Marxist ideology which sees it as serving a capitalist system aimed at gaining profit and at commodifying people. Habermas believes that in an ideal society, people should collectively participate in the political life through “rational discussion which is free from the corrupting influences of money and power” (Media, Culture and Society 174). Thus, for Habermas, the public sphere is located between the “realm of public authority (government) and the private realm of civil society which encapsulates commercial relations and the domestic sphere” (Media, Culture, and Society, 174).

Image from Citizendium

Thus, according to Habermas, through the public sphere, citizens would become an active part of the democratic process because their dicussions and views contribute to the political sphere. Habermas, however, believes that the proliferation of communication through mass media and its control by capitalistic corporations have transformed the notion of public sphere as “public culture is deemed to have found itself increasingly squeezed by an expanding state and a drastic growth in the power and reach of industry and commerce” (Media, culture and Society 175).

Because of the monopoly of capitalism, many theorists have started doubting the importance of media in the formation of this free, inclusive public space for public debate. In fact, the main reason for the failure of the public sphere is the process of commercialization, which has transformed this space into one that services the capitalist purchase of goods, instead of one in which a collective participation in democracy takes place. In fact, in her book Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies, Jodi Dean calls this decline of the concept of public sphere as “Communicative Capitalism.” Jodi states that “the concept of communicative capitalism designates the strange merging of democracy capitalism in which contemporary subjects are produced and trapped” (22). She further explains that the commodification of communication has transformed the media from being facilitators of public debate to shapers because they are controlled in the hands of very few commercially motivated media companies. Furthermore, the internet has transformed the public sphere into “talk without response” (24). This means that rather than having the public discussions feed into real political decisions of governments and institutions, it encourages and supports capitalistic cooperation which are concerned about their interests. Thus, the public sphere becomes undemocratic because it only represents the interests of a few people.

Dean discusses three major holds of communicative capitalism: the fantasy of abundance, the fantasy of participation, and the fantasy of wholeness. The fantasy of abundance means that in 21st technological media, the obsession of data has made information lose its meaningful content as what matters is circulation and distribution, not the quality and precision of the content. (26). Thus, it does not matter whether the data is effective, reliable, or insightful; what matters is that the data is constantly flowing in abundance. Fantasy of participation means that we have become also obsessed with being connected. Dean refers to this process as “technology fetishism…in which communicative capitalism communication functions fetishistically as the disavowal of a more fundamental political disempowerment or castration” (33). What this means is that the more we are connected, the less empowered we get. This is what Zizek refers to as “inter-passivity,” by which he means that we are always linked together, but we are actually passive. (31). Finally, by fantasy of wholeness, Dean means that by being connected, citizens feel that they can participate in the public sphere by debates, blogging, websites, text messaging, etc., when in fact, all this is an illusion. In fact, Dean calls it “an empty signifier” or “zero institution” (42).

If we apply the concept of the public sphere to the Arab Spring, we must realize that the Arab Spring is in fact a reflection of the success of the Arab public sphere, which started with a TV program called Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera is a famous Qatari TV station which encouraged the creation of a collective Arab identity through representing discontent against authoritarian rule a common feeling among all Arab nations. Before Al-Jazeera, authoritarian regimes could hide information from their citizens and prevent them from expressing or representing any discontent.

Marc Lynch in his article “Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere” says that “The powerful framing of these popular struggles as a common Arab battle over the course of a decade then manifested itself in the early Arab spring, as protest repertoires rapidly moved from one Arab country to another. The five-way Al-Jazeera split screen showing simultaneous, nearly identical protests in multiple Arab capitals is the iconic image of the Arab spring.” In fact, Al-Jazeera encouraged debate and discussions that fostered a shared sense of identity or pan-arabism. Internet helped further the sense of activism and its coordination. Marc Lynch in fact says that the internet became a public space for public arguments and debates, creating a network of activism across the Arab world. Lynch states that “This new public sphere supported wide ranging debates and generated new ideas, forged new relationships, framed the rush of events within a coherent shared narrative and manifestly drove the regional and international political agenda.” (Marc Lynch, “Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere”).

However, the Arab Spring also showed the idea of communicative capitalism through several ways. First, Al-Jazeera became increasingly shaped by the interests of the media owners, and the content reflected that interest. For example, during the Bahraini uprising, Al-Jazeera did not report the street manifestations of the public because Qatar was supporting the rule there. “The leaders of those Gulf countries used their television stations in increasingly blatant ways in supporting military intervention and fermenting protest against governments in Libya and Syria – a self-defeating exercise of power, as those stations lost credibility through their propaganda efforts.” (Marc Lynch, “Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere”). Thus, the one narrative that initiated a common identity has also created a fragmented public sphere which became colonized by media companies who control what should be shown or what shouldn’t.

There is another aspect which emerged in the Arab Spring protests, which is also linked to Dean’s idea of the fantasy of abundance. A perfect example woulld be the Syrian civil war, where there was an abundance of information that often there would be a contradictory dissemination of information that places doubt on its credibility, as the Arab public sphere became divided between those who support the regime and the opponents of the regime. Moreover, while the public sphere was vibrant at the beginning, it failed in translating the liberal objectives of the people. “Too often, the allure of online presence and the thrill of street protests distracted from the tedious, plebian work of forming political parties or building civil society. Meanwhile, existing well-organized and popular movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, proved far better adapted to quickly prepare for election campaigns and institutional politics.” (Marc Lynch, “Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere”). Finally, the Arab Spring itself can be conceived as being linked to the commodification of communication in that the uprisings have been called “Twitter Revolutions,” putting more focus on the corporate product, rather than the people themselves that use them as tools to express their discontent with authoritative rule. (Mejias, Ulises, “Liberation Technology and the Arab Spring.”)h

Therefore, we can conclude that on the one hand, media technologies may increase opportunities for political participation, creating a space of public sphere and a public expression; on the other hand, they also create inequalities that reflect the preferences of media ownership. This paradoxical aspect lies at the heart of the Arab Spring protests, thus transforming social activism into an empowering agent and at the same time one that makes protestors subordinated to the dictates of capitalism.

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