The Public/Mass distinction

Dan Hind was a publisher for ten years. In 2009 he left the industry to write about the public sphere and media reform centred around public commissioning in The Return of the Public (2010, Verso). His latest e-book The Public and the Mass sets out the practical steps necessary to strengthen/restore a ‘community of publics’. He is on twitter @danhind. The introduction to The Public and the Mass is reproduced below.

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A society, a people, a state, will always be irrational. But one can multiply within these bodies the number of people who, as individuals, will make use of reason, and who, as citizens, will know how to seek the art of raving as reasonably as possible.
Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster

The Public/Mass distinction

In his 1956 book The Power Elite the American sociologist C. Wright Mills sketched the difference between a public and a mass. The distinction mattered for Mills because elite rule is shaped by the context in which it operates. An elite that is ‘responsible to, or even exists in connection with, a community of publics’ differs greatly from one that presides over ‘a society of masses’. Indeed, as we shall see, it is not clear that elite rule of the kind that worried him is even possible in ‘a community of publics’.

Mills thought we could grasp the difference between public and mass by paying attention to ‘at least four dimensions’:

In a public, as we may understand the term, (1) virtually as many people express opinions as receive them. (2) Public communications are so organised that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against – if necessary – the prevailing system of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is more or less autonomous in its operations. When these conditions prevail we have the working model of a community of publics. And this model fits closely the several assumptions of classic democratic theory.

At the opposite extreme, in a mass, (1) far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media. (2) The communications that prevail are so organised that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect. (3) The realisation of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organise and control the channels of such action. (4) The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorised institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion.

Mills thought the difference between the public and the mass could best be understood through the characteristic forms of communication found in each, discussion on the one hand, and the mass media on the other. He placed particular emphasis on ‘the ratio of givers of opinion to the receivers of opinion’. Indeed, he wrote, ‘more than anything else, it is the shift in this ratio which is central to the problems of the public in latter-day phases of democracy’. Mills also stresses the importance of the link between communication and political action, ‘the ease with which opinion is effective in the shaping of decisions of powerful consequence’. If discussion affects the composition and conduct of state institutions, including the legislature and the executive, it qualifies as public deliberation of the kind celebrated by democratic theorists. Finally, Mills is clear that publics must be impermeable to state surveillance. No public can survive without privacy.

Mills is arguing that the structure a society takes is inextricably linked to, and is in large part a function of, the sum of communication forms that operate within it. The most democratic constitution in the world will be substantially frustrated if information and the opportunity to reflect publicly on that information are controlled by a relative handful of individuals. This is at once obvious and almost entirely absent from the cyclone of talk that surrounds, and gives spectral substance to, the media, the economy and the state.

The reason for this absence is not hard to grasp. An elite that speaks to ‘an abstract collection of individuals’ can secure far greater freedom of action than an elite that must instead engage in consequential speech with overlapping and independent publics. Indeed, in Mills’ view, conversational and consequential publics present a possibly fatal challenge to elite control:

The idea of a mass society suggests the idea of an elite of power. The idea of the public, in contrast, suggests the liberal tradition of a society without any power elite, or at any rate with shifting elites of no sovereign consequence. For, if a genuine public is sovereign, it needs no master; but the masses, in their full development are sovereign only in some plebiscitarian moment of adulation to an elite of authoritative celebrity.

Edward Snowden wall mural

Elites do what they can to play down the constitutional significance of the communications system, the extent to which their status as elites depends on their ability to speak while others remain silent. And when the nature of the relationship between elite rule and the communications system threatens to become widely visible they will react with something approaching panic, as we saw in the Manning-WikiLeaks and Snowden-Guardian data breaches.

The files that came to us from Manning and Snowden do not reveal isolated instances of state criminality. They set out the substantial integration of the state and the corporate sector, including the major media, around a project encompassing aggressive war, torture and the indiscriminate seizure of private information. By acting as they did Manning and Snowden appealed to the liberal idea of a sovereign ‘community of publics’ that can deliberate privately in possession of the relevant facts and then assert itself on the basis of freely reached conclusions. Meanwhile, most people who are capable of achieving and maintaining elite status know without being told that this independent, conversant and assertive community must be frustrated. Its achievement would mark their extinction.

This is an excerpt from the e-book ‘The Public and the Mass’. Purchase the full e-book.

Dan Hind is the author of The Public and the Mass, The Return of the Public: Democracy, Power and the Case for Media Reform and a number of other essays.

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