Return of the Public? Interview with Dan Hind

In Interviews on 15 August 2011 at 5:23 pm

The public may well have made its return to the political stage but the real question is whether it can come back in its own right rather than as the docile invention of a financial elite?

Photo by Nina Power

STIR: The title of your most recent book is ‘The Return of the Public’. Do you think this is a ‘return’ of the educated voter who is concerned with regulation and policy or do you think that we are seeing the emergence of a new public?

DAN HIND: The title is ambiguous, and deliberately so. The public as a political agent returns in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Having been told for a generation that private actors in markets can be trusted to deliver public goods, we suddenly learn that, actually, the public action by the state is necessary to save the economy from collapse.

So, the public is already back. But it has been conjured up by political and administrative elites to bail out the banks. The public is this dumb brute with a cheque book.

In the book I want to describe a more substantial notion of the public—to describe what a sovereign public would look like, what institutional resources it would need, and so on. In the process I try to show how, historically, two ways of talking about the public have alternated—the market account, the public as consumers, if you like, and the public service account, where the public exists as the object of enlightened administration.

Both of these notions are obstacles to the emergence of a properly democratic system of government, which accounts for their continuing appeal to those who have power.

Now, I’ve got nothing against the educated voter as an ideal. But I would argue that he or she depends on an infrastructure for exchanging intellectual products that is not subordinated to profit—and not subordinated to the state. The arrangements we have are a kind of a con—we are encouraged to take an interest, to become informed. But the main avenues of intelligence, in JA Hobson’s phrase, are hopelessly unreliable. And they are unreliable in virtue of their profit orientation or in virtue of their integration with the state bureaucracy.

UKUncut activists glue their hands to the window of a Vodafone shop in Nottingham to protest the company’s alleged £6bn tax avoidance. Photo by UKUncut

S: One of the characters in George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma claims “All professions are a conspiracy against the laity” and it seems that one of the main consequences of the financial crisis has been a serious distrust in experts – those whom, as Lacan pointed out, are ‘supposed to know’. Is it this realization that has grounded the subsequent revival of the public’s confidence in itself?

DH: Well, I am not sure how much of a revival there has been in public self-confidence. Certainly the financial crisis should have been a crisis for the media that missed it, for the politicians who allowed it to happen, for the economic model adopted in Britain, Ireland, the United States and elsewhere. But though the personnel have changed in some instances, the governing principles are pretty much intact.

Governments have introduced austerity, they’ve badmouthed their predecessors, they’ve made gestures to reform while working hard to put the system back on track. There are signs that the wider population doesn’t like what’s going on. But I am not sure how confident we feel about ourselves, still. I mean, understanding what went wrong in 2007-8 requires rejecting the version of events offered by the major political parties, and the major media. It means declaring independence from the most powerful institutions in society. Plenty of people do that. But it isn’t a decision that leaves us feeling full of confidence, necessarily.

Things can change very quickly, of course.

S: The reason I ask this is because when academic and activist Naomi Klein recently visited Transition Town Totnes she said, ‘What’s most striking to me is just how decentralised this process is and the sense of ownership that so many people have over it. There isn’t that “no I can’t really talk about it”, there’s a tremendous amount of people that have enough confidence to talk about it’. If this is not the case for most of the public, what can we do to regain the authority to speak about things that have a material impact on our lives?

DH: Well, there are plenty of exceptions. One way that people have sought to assert control is through local initiatives, where the issues are clear and people feel that they can make a contribution, and that their point of view is legitimate.

But the rule of the expert is, in many fundamental respects, still unchallenged. The circumstances in which we find ourselves are shaped elsewhere by processes that are obscure, if not flat-out mysterious. Changing that will require that we change the nature of the media on which we rely. We live in complex societies where there are very large social distances between people who make decisions about, say, interest rates and the people who are affected by those decisions. The key question is how we deal with that through the communications system. In the absence of direct experience, how can we secure the information we need?

S: You have written that the ‘long, drowsy years of apathy and inaction…are over’. How important has direct action by groups such as UK Uncut been and how does it differ from previous popular mobilisations against government cuts and austerity measures?

DH: Well, in one sense it is too early to say. Direct action has been incredibly successful, certainly. It has broken the almost complete silence about the politics of tax and the offshore system, for example, in a way that shouldn’t be underestimated. The student occupations were an important moment, too – an education in self-government, one might say.

On the other hand, we should be careful. The student protesters and the activists are relatively small in number. The question is whether they can close the gap between themselves and the rest of the population, whether what they are saying about the Coalition can reach people who aren’t on Twitter, who rely on the BBC for their news, and so on.

The issue is mainstream opinion—how the majority understand what is going on, how they think their views relate to the views of other people, and so on. The major political parties (in England, at least—I can’t speak for Scotland and Wales) aren’t talking about an alternative to the Coalition’s agenda. Labour is, at the moment, trying to hold on to the Blair-Brown model, for a number of reasons. Media coverage reflects this deep consensus in the political class. What we loosely call a movement—can this movement articulate an alternative and reach the wider population with it?

Dan Hind was a publisher for ten years. In 2009 he left the industry to develop a program of media reform centred around public commissioning. His journalism has appeared in the New Scientist, Al Jazeera online and Lobster. He is the author of two books – The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. Return of the Public is the winner of the 2011 Best Book of Ideas prize at the Bristol Festival of Ideas.


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