Civil Society According to Habermas and Gramsci in a Digital Perspective

Understanding the civil society for and against the state and the political society is very well demonstrated by Jurgen Habermas and Antonio Gramsci through their articles. Habermas puts civil society in the public sphere outfit in which members of the society come together for deliberation about common concerns for the public. Gramsci, on the other hand, claims that civil society is a part of the political society of hegemony that is constructed through the “manufactured consent” and the civil society should create a counter-hegemony against the state. Although they think of civil society in different aspects, in this paper I will integrate their concepts in the virtual sphere of new digital society. In this paper, I will first look at their perspectives of civil society and then re-model their works, in brief, from a digital way of thinking in the lights of endless interaction of Web 2.0 and the Turkish internet users’ protest against censorship on 15th May 2011.

To start with, it is better to define the concept of public sphere that is drawn by Habermas: “a body of private persons assembled to discuss matters of public concern or common interest.”1 What Habermas claims all the time can be summarized as the deliberative democracy model in simple terms as he is a democratic theorist who is looking for the members of the society to come together and discuss in deliberation. He aims for the parts of society to be in communication with each other to reach a consensus where they construct the public sphere. What he importantly claims is the difference of these parts of the society and the necessity for these parts to accept each other in deliberation. The need for the “dialogue” is the key for all these different parts along with the understanding of equality between each member.

He underlines two prominent points, as I think, which are the tolerance and translation. First one is needed as the society includes different ethnic or religious groups, that are living together, to listen to each other and deliberate for a common ground for a better public sphere.2 Second is about the necessity of communication between different groups in the society for a better deliberation and consensus.3 What they will achieve will be not only the habit for deliberation or the realization of the public sphere, it will also be the continuation of equal freedom for all members. For the public sphere to be achieved, the equality and the richness of freedom of expression are very much needed, but in addition, the achievement of public sphere will make this equality continue in a positive and constructive way.

Habermas draws a sharp distinction between political and public spheres, unlike Gramsci. In Gramsci’s understanding civil society is a serious part of the state which is used as an instrument for to continue the hegemony. On the other hand, Habermas thinks of civil society as the source for criticism against the state where different individuals of the society come together for a civil alliance of deliberation. In addition, Habermas aims for an one and only public sphere where the multiplicity of spheres would create a lack of cohesion. On the one hand, he may be right to theoretically think that the singularity may be a requirement for a more effective public sphere of deliberation in an equally free and but also different in essence. At one point, he is right to afraid that the touch of capitalism in the members’ feel for looking for individual benefits in a multiplicity that can result in a break of deliberation. On the other hand, I will join Fraser here who thinks that the multiplicity of public spheres has greater importance to achieve greater democracy.4 In my opinion, a variety of successful public spheres which are destined for deliberation sincerely would result in a better way of society due to the possibility for members for not being able to efficiently join a single sphere and get used to it.

Gramsci, on the other hand, thinks of civil society not from a constructive way of perspective at first, but rather a part of the hegemony that is created by the state in a multiple ways of interaction. He equates state to the sum of political society and civil society5 where both parts are in touch with hegemony. According to him, political society includes the legal coercion where the institutions, constitutions, police and government are helping the political hegemony to continue. It does not only politically control the society, it also have a control mechanism in the ideological part which is exercised by the civil society actually. Members of the society, while giving consent to the state to carry the responsibilities, are both the reasons and consequences of the civil hegemony with the help of mass media, churches, clubs, associations etc. This is called as “the manufactured consent” by Gramsci where the civil society is the, unintentionally or not, manufacturer and contributor to the political hegemony.

What the state and political society are looking for is legitimacy that is gained by the consent and became sustainable with coercive and ideological constraints which is resulted in a hegemony in the society. It is fed by the popular demand of the societies as the legitimation continue with the popular support of the groups. Although both the civil and political society, the state, seems distinct in definitions, they are in fact in very much integrated formation6. The cultural and ideological codification is used with interaction by the political and civil spheres with the help of consent of the people, some kind of coercion again in a legitimate framework and a juridical support from the system to legalize.

On the other hand, a counter-hegemony is always found possible by Gramsci. According to him, civil society is also the sphere of opposing to hegemony which can be hidden with cultural and ideological discourses and disciplinary methods. He calls it the “war of position” in which the society fight not only against the coercive methods of the state, but also the cultural and ideological codification that is created by hegemony.7 I find this concept very interesting as it is evident that the capitalist society is the source of the disciplinary hegemony in our century which not only creates new methods to pose way of control the society but also to maintain it. All in all, he points out the war of position as the source of revolution against the state which is controlling the civil society in discursive ways not to be placed against itself.

In my opinion, the rise of the internet in 21st century can be shown as a concept model for the deliberative public sphere of Habermas. As I mentioned above, the public sphere of Habermas requires tolerance and translation that are needed for a constructive and deliberative communication. These necessities, in fact, also is a sign for the need of interactive communication as most of the communications among large groups of the society does not have a real chance to listen particularly all the members of it. What internet brings to our lives is the chance to broadcast ourselves in blogs and videos and an interactivity between users in return. Forums, urban dictionaries like Ekşi and İnci Sözlük, blogs and social media networks like Facebook or Twitter… There goes a massive number of interactivity among users of internet with the help of the improving technology which can be shown as a model for public sphere of Habermas.

Virtual sphere is not very different with its similarities of unequal treatment or lack of tolerance to differences that are in real life. But in addition to that members of the internet society has the chance to make their voices heard by others and get in touch with the society. Furthermore, internet users have the chance to make people listen or read their content or comments without interruption that can be an obstacle in front of the deliberative model in real life. On the other hand, there is a chaotic way of interaction and information flow on the virtual sphere which can be a real illusion for the members that they can feel to be in deliberation but the reality can be no interaction. Also the users generally use anonymous identities which can be an obstacle for a better deliberation as people can act unlike their real characters. Although these do not change the fact that internet can be an area of deliberation practices which can evolve into an habit of constructing public sphere. Though, it can never replace the public sphere model of Habermas in reality, still both spheres have strong links of interaction as the internet users are also real people living in a real society.

From the Gramsci’s standing, his “war of position” can be modeled with the example of the march that is done by more than 30.000 protestors on last Sunday, 15th of May. What Gramsci claims is that the civil society is surrounded by the coercive and legitimate ways of domination with the disciplinary methods of sustaining consents. Though, he also underlines that a counter-hegemony is possible again from the civil society against the hegemony of the state and civil society as manufactured consent. Last Sunday, thousands of people gathered together to protest the latest decisions of BTK, as association that is charged by the state for internet affairs, which legitimates censorship of hundreds of websites with filter packages that limit the access of users in some way. It was all about the decision-making process of the institution which is not asked to the users in deliberative way like Habermas suggested. It was more like a Gramsci model that an institution uses a disciplinary method to dominate the internet access.

Though, thousands of people joined conversations on the internet through various channels like Ekşi Sözlük, Twitter and Facebook. What they did was a some kind of a deliberation as they exchanged their ideas, beliefs and the things and possible plans to do against the decisions that are taken by BTK. Accordingly a virtual model of public sphere was created, maybe not for a long time but one that can be shown as an example. Then this virtual deliberation and protest turned into an real life march last Sunday which can, this time, be shown as a model for Gramsci’s counter-hegemony. Against all the political and ideological way of surroundings in the political and civil spheres, protestors showed their reactions by walking down the İstiklal Street for more than two hours with bills and flags. I think that this was clearly a model for counter-hegemony that is strengthened by the deliberation in public sphere with the help of multiple interactions and content flow of the internet.

To sum up, throughout the paper I tried to show the perspectives of two different civil society thinkers that are Jurgen Habermas and Antonio Gramsci. While the former is feeling the need for a public sphere that is embraced with communication, translation and tolerance; the latter one is explaining how the civil society became a part of the political hegemony and what if the counter-hegemony happens again with the efforts from inside the civil society. In my opinion, although it has limitations for now, internet communication and broadcasting with the case of the last Sunday’s protest can be shown as great models for deliberation and a road-map for counter-hegemony that are theoretically explained by those two prominent thinkers.

1 N. Fraser 1997Ç Rethinking the Public Sphere (…),” in: Calhoun, C (ed)., Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 58.

2 Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” European Journal of Philosophy 14:1, p. 1-25 (2006). p. 4.

3 Ibid., p. 11.

4 N. Fraser 1997Ç Rethinking the Public Sphere (…),” in: Calhoun, C (ed)., Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 77.

5 P. Anderson, 1976: “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”, New Left Review p. 12.

6 Ibid., p. 32.

7 Ibid., p. 55.

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