This week at the Community Media Makers Zoom Drop-In we’ll be chatting about how we can support a socially democratic model of media based on liberal, democratic, socially responsible and ethical forms of media engagement.
Concern about how our lives and our society are shaping out are ever present. From time immemorial we have often wavered between despairing Armageddon and a sense of hopeful renewal. However, in recent times, and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, among other things, many of us are once again feeling an upswing in apocalyptic thinking. This feeling leaves many, myself included, with a pervasive and nagging sense of social dissolution. Something is in the air. It intimates that things are falling apart (again), and that we can do little about the impending collapse about to befall us. As W.B. Yeats famously remarked, the ‘centre cannot hold’!
It’s as if we are losing faith in our ability to come together to agree what the most pressing problems facing society are. Similarly, we also seem to have an inability to determine those issues we must address most urgently, with any kind of coherent and meaningful plan. Climate crisis, ecological collapse, economic inequality, technological automation, globalisation, are just some of the many factors contributing to what Paul Gilding has called the great disruption.
Time is running out, Gilding points out, for a world economy based on consumption and waste, and from which we have lived beyond the means of our planet’s ecosystems and resources. We are entering, as Gilding argues, “‘a period of economic stagnation, geopolitical instability, and ecological chaos, during which we will need to both cope with all of that and begin the process of reinventing the global economic and political model under which we operate” (Cited in Fisher, 2016, p. 106). The Great Disruption, then, forms the background of both a geopolitical and an existential drama that is continually being played out, not only across our media, but in our psyche as well.
For many, myself included, we can’t help but feel that we are being pummelled by social forces that are adding fuel to the burning coals of destruction. Precipitating the potential collapse of our entire social order. We are experiencing an amplified and acute sense of social anxiety, which is leaving us with a dislocating feeling of polarisation and despondency.
It’s as if we no longer have a common sense of collective purpose, or that we are able to draw on a common set of social resources, based on a virtuous collective character, from which we can focus the will to meet the demands of this age. Michael Walzer suggests that
“Men and women in liberal society no longer have access to a single moral culture within which they can learn how they ought to live. There is no consensus, no public meeting of minds, on the nature of the good life, hence the triumph of private caprice, revealed for example in Sartrean existentialism, the ideological reflection of everyday capriciousness” (Michael Walzer in Etzioni, 1995, p. 55).
Vivien Burr similarly describes how it is possible to see that the foundational precepts of economic individualism are leaving us ill-prepared to meet the challenges of this disruption. Burr notes that we are
“Invited to place value upon the lone, self-contained individual who is capable of making his or her own decisions regardless of the opinions of others, a person whose sense of morality is firmly located within his or her own mind and is not susceptible to outside influence, a person whose sense of himself or herself comes from an internally located, stable and integrated identity, and who does not have to fall back upon the regard of the group for his or her self-esteem” (Burr, 1995, p. 110).
So why do we feel that we are no longer sufficiently grounded in a shared sense of purpose? We continually bemoan the loss of a sense of community, and yet we still act in selfish and short-term ways. Fuelling property speculation about investment in the civic realm for example. We are, as Brian Eno describes, at risk of becoming trapped in a story of despair of our own making, leaving us asking “is there any way out of the mess we are in?” (Brian Eno in Alexander & Conrad, 2022, p. 1).
Many put this sense of dissolution down to our media, and the postmodern disorientation that contemporary market-driven mass-communication forces us to endure. We have spent the best part of the last seventy years hollowing out our social institutions in the name of the free market, leaving only an empty shell from which little of lasting value is being drawn. Universities are skills-factories. Churches are wellbeing stop-gaps. Foodbanks proliferate. No wonder we feel unable to trust the wisdom institutions that are supposed to shape our social coordinates. As a result, we are increasingly prone to deconstruction and dissolution.
In considering the vicissitudes of modern life – what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’, in which nothing is fixed – Bauman notes that the “responsibility for resolving the quandaries generated by vexingly volatile and constantly changing circumstances is shifted onto the shoulders of individuals – who are now expected to be ‘free choosers’ and to bear in full the consequence of their choices” (Bauman, 2007, p. 4).
As individuals, we are required to fix everything that is wrong with the world simply by making effective choices in the marketplace, through speculation and through chance. Increasingly, however, even this set of economic decisions is being farmed out to technology, and our choices are now set to be maximised for us by algorithms, artificial intelligence and collective networking. If only establishing solid ground for judgement about what constitutes a good life was as simple as giving the decision-making process over to anonymous programmes. As Lene Rachel Anderson reminds us, “analytical tools themselves cannot build societies” (Anderson, 2019, p. 72).
If all this seems overwhelming, then at least we can take comfort that, as Jung reminds us, the fantasy of world conflagration, the cataclysmic end of the world, is one more retelling of the “projected primordial image of the great transformation” (Jung, 1976, p. 438). As Jung points out, resisting the sunset is simply another enantiodromic moment in which we move from life into death, and by extension, death into life.
Vaclav Harvel, the Czech playwright, poet, and political dissident, was himself faced with the challenge of defining what should be built from the old, and what was the purpose of the new, when he took on the role of Czech president after the fall of comunisum. Harvel argued that the change that we need to see, should not just be that which we see in the world, to regurgitate the vacuous cliché of our times! Instead, Harvel was aware of the need to form a revolution from within, founded on a liberal, i.e. a humanistic precept of consciousness, giving us solid ground on which we can form a practical social democracy comprising individual, shared and collective responsibility.
Havel points out that
“Above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the ‘human order’, which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of ‘higher responsibility’, a new-found inner relationship to other people and to the human community – these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go”(Havel, 1987, p. 118).
Social democracy, then, is an undervalued term here in the UK. Our political discourse has, in recent decades at least, avoided any exploration of what is meant in practice by the ‘rootedness’ that Havel describes. Either the market and rugged individualism are called for, and thus dominate the popular political narrative; or nationalism is aggressively combined with ruthless identity cravings and psycho-social communications techniques, leading to a sense of exceptionalism and grievance. All of which have been pitted against nostalgic notions of ideological corporatism from the left-leaning political actors. Each, however, have been projected with some considerable force by and through our media, and have formed the blended diet of political options and choices that have been offered to us. Like convenience food, it is neither healthy nor satisfying, and isn’t really a choice.
Discussion of pragmatic social democracy, however, has long been tainted in the UK, probably because of its association with European standards of civic and political life. Hanzi Freinacht points out, however, that it is certain that we need to entertain certain principles of social development which might just be effective in preparing us for the future. According to Freinacht we “need to make certain that all society is aligned with what is empirically shown to create circular economies and cradle-to-cradle processes.” These socially democratic processes will enable us to “spot and correctly understand environmental threats such as climate change.” However, without a media that is socially democratic, then we won’t have a public that is “well-informed and has the ability to respond reasonably” (Freinacht, 2019). As Frienacht argues,
“The world requires not only new ideas; it requires a kind of spiritual development of the average person. It should hence be a societal goal to develop not only higher subjective states in each of us, but also to help more of us develop and integrate greater inner depths, and – if possible – to develop our ability to think more abstract thoughts, to cognitively grasp and relate to more complex realities” (Freinacht, 2019).
We can only do this in a pluralistic and socially democratic domain that protects and advances the purpose of individuals, while sufficiently instituting collective provision in the form of a public sphere that operates in a way that accords with our future responsibilities. The question is, how can media, here in the UK, be reformed to make this possible?
Anderson, L. R. (2019). Metamodernity – Meaning and Hope in a Complex World. Nordic Bildung.
Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times – Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Polity Press.
Burr, V. (1995). An Introduction to Social Constructionism. Routledge.
Etzioni, A. (Ed.). (1995). New Communitarian Thinking – Persons, virtues, Institutions and Communities. University Press of Virginia.
Fisher, T. (2016). Getting Ready for the Great Disruption. In S. A. Moore (Ed.), Pragmatic Sustainability – Dispositions for Critical Adaptation (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Freinacht, H. (2019). The Nordic Ideology. Metamoderna.
Havel, V. (1987). Living in Truth. Faber & Faber.
Jung, C. G. (1976). Symbols of Transformation. Princeton University Press.
Slexander, J., & Conrad, A. (2022). Citizens – Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us. Canbury.