Notes on Civil Society – John Dewey, “The Eclipse of the Public”


A major theme in Dewey is that economic change occurs more rapidly than political change.  “American democratic polity was developed out of genuine community life,” he notes (133), but “we live and act and have our being on a continental nation state” (135).  The unity of the nation state is due to the revolution in communications.  But the quality of this unity is lacking:  “The creation of political unity has also promoted social and intellectual uniformity, a standardization favorable to mediocrity” (135).  In all of this, however, the pubic seems lost.  Political participation is organized through political parties, which are really political machines.  The rise of the machines occurs in response to the eclipse of the public:  “bosses with their political machines fill the void between government and the public” (137).  Parties do not govern directly; rather important policy decisions are made without having been mandated in some sense by a previous election.  There is a disconnect between public opinion and political outcomes, which testifies, once again, to the virtual absence of the public from the political life of the country.  If the public has indeed been eclipsed, then how does governance occur?  Dewey’s answer is through the role of experts.  Indeed, the principle of technocracy – the rule of experts – seems to have overtaken De Tocqueville’s rule of associations.  But Dewey does not want to let the matter stand there.  He hopes for a revival of the public and this revival would have to occur with the context of the vast economic changes that have transformed America into an urban, industrial mass society.  There is no going back, in other words, to De Tocqueville’s world of small communities with many associations that engaged people in the work of self-governance.  What Dewey anticipates, instead, is the rise of the great community within the context of the great society.  He wants, in other words, to see community transposed to the level of the nation state (140). 


Reasons for the scant presence of the public:  1) the decline of leisure.  This was the basis of citizenship in the Ancient world, as we have learned from Aristotle; it was also the basis for much political participation in the early republic:  gentlemen farmers with time on their hands could turn their attention to politics.  Today, however, people are oriented toward work; indeed, the more successful they are, the more they work.  The accelerating demands of the work place sap political energies.  2)  Politics also faces stout competition from various new forms of entertainment – from mass culture, which engages most of people’s interest with whatever leisure time they have.  Amending Aristotle, Dewey notes that man is not only a political animal, but a sportive and a consuming one as well. (141).  3)  The very dynamism of the economy undermines the emergence of an effective public – as Dewey notes, changes in production mean changes in the organization of society:  old skill sets become antiquated; people experience structural unemployment and are forced to respond to the new economic conditions by moving.  In Dewey’s day, the great transformation was the movement of people from rural livelihoods to urban ones.  In our own day, the constant movement of people continues as corporations constantly restructure themselves, shedding employees and obliging people to move in order to keep pace with an ever changing market place.  People move every 5-6 years.  How can a public form in these conditions?


Of course, all of this poses the question of what to do?  Should we repress the dynamism of the market place in order to achieve a more settled, and perhaps more satisfying way of life?  Dewey does not suggest this.  The problem for him, once again, is the construction of a great community that will be congruous with the great society.  And this is (pay attention you communications majors) essentially a problem of devising the right form of communication and would bring the public into this great community.  Here is how Dewey puts the problem:  “We have physical tools of communication as never before.  The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence not common.  Without such communication, the public will remain shadowy and formless, seeking spasmodically for itself…Communication alone can create a great community.  Our Babel is not one of tongues, but of signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible” (143).  So what would animate life within the great community?  Dewey’s response is quite clear:  “The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy” (145).   Communication must be practiced so that this consciousness can emerge.  Only thus can “…a scattered, mobile and manifold public may so recognize itself as to define and express its interests.”  (144).  


Dewey expands on the connection between democracy and community:  liberty and equality, two essential political values, can only take shape within the context of the community; outside this context, these values are essentially drained of meaning. (145)  So community is obviously important, but under what conditions does it come into being?  According to Dewey, community is closely tied to the contemplation of consequences.  “But ‘we’ and ‘our’ exist only when the consequences of combined action are perceived and become an object of desire and effort” (146).   This is a call for a particular kind of group life:  “Interactions, transactions, occur de facto and the results of interdependence follow. But participation in activities and in sharing in results are additive concerns.  They demand communication as a prerequisite”  (146).   And the results of communication?  “…there is generated what, metaphorically, may be terms a general will and social consciousness: desire and choice on the part of individual in behalf of activities that, by means of symbols, are communicable and shared by all concerned” (146-7).  The point that Dewey is getting at here seems obvious:  community is built through communicative practices through which people are able to recognize themselves a members of the community.  One might think here of De Tocqueville’s discussion of the newspaper as a basis for common activity:  “hardly any democratic association can do without newspapers,” concludes De Tocqueville – and Dewey would certainly agree with this.


Note that what Dewey has done, thus far, is to elaborate on the idea of community and, in particular, the connections between community, communication, and democracy.  In the last part of the essay, Dewey turns his attention to the emergence of a particular kind of community, the great community.  This is a historically specific form of community that needs to take shape if the public is to reassert itself within the complex realities of the industrial age.  This challenge really speaks to Dewey’s purpose:  how can we create a form of community that corresponds to the new industrial society?  Let’s try to follow Dewey’s reasoning here as closely as possible:


  1. “There can be no public without full publicity in respect to all consequences which concern it” (150).  Note again the emphasis on reasoning about consequences, an important theme in Dewey’s thinking.  Why are consequences so important – because they direct our attention toward the future.  If we can manage consequences, we can shape our future.  But to do this, we must be aware of what consequences arise from our shared existence.  And in this context, our shared existence arises from the complex workings of what Dewey calls the great society.  In our own day and age, these complex workings might be tied to, say, globalization.  In our own day and age, the great community might well be what Marshall McLuhan called the global village.
  2. Understanding of consequences can only be established by means of social inquiry.  And the results of this inquiry must play a central role in articulating the social consciousness of the community.  Thus, says Dewey:  “communication of the results of social inquiry is the same thing as the formation of public opinion” (151).  What does Dewey mean by this?   He suggests that social inquiry provides the material upon which the public deliberates – it, so to speak, sets the agenda for public deliberation.  We might as well hear this from Dewey himself:  “Unless there are methods for detecting the energies which are at work and tracing them through an intricate network of interactions to their consequences, what passes as public opinion will be opinion in the derogatory sense rather than in the truly public, no matter how widespread that opinion is”  (151).
  3. So what does the great community need?  It needs some sense of its location in history – some sense of the context in which new events occur and in which the consequences of these events can be grasped, reflected and deliberated upon, and thus made the basis of public policy.   Dewey:  “News signifies something which has just happened, and which is new, just because it deviates from the old and regular.  But is meaning depends upon relation to what it imports, to what its social consequences are.  This import cannot be determined unless the new is placed in relationship to the old…without this coordination and consecutiveness, events are not events, but mere occurrences” (153). 
  4. So we need an intellectual framework in which to discern consequences and this framework should be embedded in the news – or in the media in general.  Notice, then, how the media becomes the space in which the great community is able to recognize both itself and its world.  How would the media have to change in order to play fulfill this function?  It would have to become more intellectual rigorous:  hence “a genuine social science would manifest its reality in the daily press”  (152).  For an academic, this is an interesting formulation.  It implies an important civic function for the academic disciplines – a direct connection between the work of the disciplines and the capacity of the public to reassert its political presence in American life.  Most academic inquiry is esoteric – at least from the point of view of the public.  The social sciences and the public live in separate universes.  This is a condition that Dewey wanted to see overcome.  Dewey suggests that the social sciences make themselves relevant to the present while the media takes seriously its formative role in helping to create a competent public.  From what has been discussed above, we know what competence means:  capable of engaging discerning consequences and then governing itself by making choices in response to these consequences.
  5. So to conclude, let’s consider the possible future to which Dewey is pointing, if everything goes right:  “The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery  of transmission and circulation and breath life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery, it will be a means of life, not its despotic master.  Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for free and enriching communion.  It has its seer in Walt Whitman.  It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.”  (153)


Note that Dewey wrote this piece in 1927, in the wake of a gigantic surge of economic and technological change that transformed American society. We are living in a similar age of technological and economic transformation.  Is Dewey’s vision still relevant to us?  If it is not, then where does that leave us?