[EM] The structuring of power and the composition of norms by communicative assent

Michael Allan mike at zelea.com
Sun Jan 18 08:16:51 PST 2009

Juho Laatu wrote:

> What would be a typical case where you
> recommend public votes to be used?

Where the voting system is intended to be in the public sphere, and to
serve as the voice of the public - but in that case, there's no
alternative.  Public opinion can only be expressed in and through the
public.  As far as votes are part of that expression, the votes must
also be public.

Habermas relates this anecdote, from history: ^[2]

  The exclusion of the public from the parliamentary deliberations
  could no longer be maintained at a time in which "Memory" Woodfall
  was able to make the Morning Chronicle into the leading London daily
  paper because he could reproduce verbatim sixteen columns of
  parliamentary speeches without taking notes in the gallery of the
  House of Commons, which was prohibited.  A place for journalists in
  the gallery was officially provided by the Speaker only in the year
  1803; for almost a century they had to gain entry illegally.  But
  only in the House of Parliament newly constructed after the fire of
  1834 were stands for reporters installed - two years after the first
  Reform Bill had transformed Parliament, for a long time the target
  of critical comment by public opinion, into the very organ of this

It subsequently lost that role, as mass democracy took hold.  It
wasn't just the publication of the votes that mattered, but the
debates leading up to them.  The debates retreated into private
negotiations between the parties, and the votes in the house were
whipped.  Parliament became a theatre once again, with lots of critics
and a disinterested audience.

> I believe the practice/principle of having
> secret votes also often implies interest
> in allowing people to vote as they
> privately think. Difference between public
> and private opinions is thus often seen to
> mean some sort of unwanted pressure that
> makes people vote some other way than they
> really would like to vote.

If private and public opinions differ, then which is the manipulated
one?  Consider state electoral systems that are based on private
voting.  Every 4 years or so, the state must legitimize its authority.
So it takes a poll, sums up the private votes, and presents them as
"public opinion".  But despite being expressed *in* public, the
resulting synthetic opinion is not an expression *of* the public.
It's not clear who it belongs to (in its aggregate form), but it seems
closer to mass opinion, as characterized by C. W. Mills: ^[4]

  In a public, as we may understand the term, (1) virtually as many
  people express opinions as receive them.  (2) Public
  commununications are so organized 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 thus more or less autonomous in its

  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 organized that it is difficult or
  impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any
  effect.  (3) The realization of opinion in action is controlled by
  authorities who organize and control the channels of such action.
  (4) The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary,
  agents of authorized institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any
  autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion.

> > You and Kristopher went on to discuss how you might solve this
> > problem [of coersion] by precluding the possibility of public
> > expression entirely (as far as votes go), and falling back to a
> > medium of private expression.
> Yes. Or at least by keeping the lowest
> layers secret.

Even if that design path were a good one, it wouldn't be open to us.
We may certainly *allow* for private voting at the perhipery.  Some
people will want it (maybe many), I agree.  But we cannot force it on
everyone.  We cannot force anything in the public sphere.  The most we
can do is *omit* to facilitate.  But where we omit, others will come
along to make up the shortfall.

> I don't see how secret voting would
> particularly limit public participation.
> Public voting maybe automatically
> forces/encourages public participation but
> secret votes allow that too. People are
> also free to tell how they voted even if
> their vote was secret. One limitation is
> that the voter can not prove to the
> candidate that she voted that she really
> voter for her. But that also does not
> limit public participation.

It's true, private voting imposes no effective limits.  And mass
democracy allows us complete freedom.  What's crucial is not what it
imposes, but what it omits to facilitate.

We can make up for some of its shortfalls by adding a voting system to
the public sphere.  A well designed voting facility will:

  a. reveal the fact of agreement (and disagreement) on issues - what
     other people are agreeing to

  b. report the quantity of agreement - for and against - in definite

  c. characterize the *quality* of agreement, especially the concrete
     options under discussion - exactly what people are agreeing to,
     and how the consensus (and dissensus) is distributed

  d. open participation to everyone in the community, with no formal
     restrictions on age, mental ability, citizenship, etc.

  e. help newcomers to join in the discussion by revealing the
     existing participants, and showing easy points of entry at the

  f. keep the proximal scale of discussion to a humanly mangageable
     size, by organizing it in a tree structure, like the votes

  g. promote consensus without forcing it, or limiting it

  h. provide assurance of ultimate action - a conduit for consensus
     votes to cross into legislative assemblies and general elections

> I guess there are also other more
> common reasons to why people do not
> actively participate in public sphere
> (lack of time, lack of interest, risk of
> disagreements with others, not knowing
> enough, higher interest in some other
> areas).

True, it's a complex equation.  But history's found a couple of
solutions already, so there's probably more out there.

[1] Jürgen Habermas.  1962.  The Structural Transformation of the
    Public Sphere.  Translated by Thomas Burger, 1989.  MIT Press,
    Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[2] above, p. 61-62.

[3] above, p. 249.

[4] C. W. Mills.  1956.  The Power Elite.  New York.  p. 303-304.  As
    quoted in Habermas^[3]

Michael Allan

Toronto, 647-436-4521

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