This is a chapter from the book:
The Democratic State

Chapter 10: Public Opinion — Pluralism — Tolerance

The state periodically calls on its citizens to vote for their leaders, i.e., to refrain from influencing the conduct of the affairs of state, while at the same time passively putting up with the corresponding effects. It can therefore keep functioning democratically only if it manages to maintain the disappointment of its citizens as a positive basis for itself, as the desire for a democratic state. It takes the teeth out of the inevitable comparison of its performance with citizens’ expectations by permitting all social interests to be articulated. In this way, conflicting demands offset each other and can be rejected as being not simultaneously achievable. A citizen’s interest is degraded to an opinion. The state charges it with being just one particular viewpoint by confronting it with all the other competing interests. It therefore acknowledges the wish only as a wish, with no legitimacy. It welcomes the individual comparisons of wishes with political reality as a theoretical exercise, expanding its ideology about balancing interests into the propaganda of tolerance and the diversity of opinion.

The state promotes these ideals by charging the public news institutions with the task of eliciting all private interests in the form of proposals for the common good. The professionals who cater to the need of citizens for news and analysis are obligated to represent all actions of the state as services for the people, only more or less successful, and to reinterpret every sacrifice as an alternative state policy. In addition, the state addresses the public as an agitator itself, permitting itself certain media privileges or directly running media institutions as public firms.

The principle of bourgeois public opinion, which the democratic state takes some trouble to institutionalize and utilize, is therefore this. The victims of state power allow their interests to be degraded into opinions, separating the interests from any action to promote them, and thereby give up the truth of their needs in favor of illusions about the state. The consolation is that their false thoughts are at least free.

a) The right to discontent

The democratic state demands more from the majority of its people than that they merely make themselves useful as material for exploitation. They are also required to concern themselves with shaping the power that gives their exploitation its dignity. Democracy is not content that everyone simply submit to state power. It constantly reminds the people that this act of submission is their own self-surrender. Those citizens who are forced to want the state and are continually disappointed in their calculation of being able to make use of the state they need, are in for a special treat. Discontent becomes their right, and failure becomes a component of their free will. Despite the limits set by the state, their will remains intact because it treats the objective obstacles to its fulfillment as its own subjective nature. “You can’t always get what you want!” The state plays off the agreement with its existence implicit in citizens’ politicized demands against their dissatisfaction with its administration of the common good. Its decisions, being the final word, not only deny citizens’ expectations but refute them. At the same time, it never misses the chance to misrepresent its obvious goals as helplessness in the face of so many terribly worthy causes.

b) The difference between interests and opinions

The free will that denies itself by determining itself only relative to state actions is the distinguishing feature of a citizen who wants to remain one despite all his disappointments with his state. He has not simply given up his interests, but worked his way to a theoretical attitude toward them. He does not want to achieve his desires but would like it if they could be achieved within the framework of the democratic order and its necessities. His anticipation of the state’s negative reply and his resigned acceptance of it not only transforms his will into one which is not exercised, hence theoretical (so that in bourgeois society every wiseacre takes it for granted that “theoretical” means the same as “impossible”). It also makes the certainty of his needs, the consciousness of what he wants, a conditionally valid matter. The citizen has an opinion about what he is entitled to. If he does not manage to stamp everything he says about his interests with the mark of relativity, his fellow citizens will point out that he is only expressing his own opinion. Strictly speaking, discussions in bourgeois public life make use of only one supposed argument, namely that no opinion counts since other opinions also exist! The state teaches everyone how to play this game by cutting down everyone’s opinions while demonstrating that its own opinion is always valid. The state has the power to prove that it is in everyone’s objective interest to disown their “merely” subjective needs.

c) Tolerance

Tolerance is the ideal of political power, directed against all citizens, who each want this force directed against everyone else. In the well-guarded spheres of public opinion the state sees to it that diversity of opinion prevails. Genuine polemics has died out, being only feigned in debates over who is the better democrat, etc. However, in the spheres where the state is not immediately present, people quickly realize that their differences are not merely ones of opinion. In the intimacy of their family or favorite tavern the voicing of an interest is still cause for a fistfight. That illustrates exactly what the state codifies with its freedom of speech, namely the prohibition to treat opposing interests in any way other than as differing points of view. Opinions must be allowed to be voiced so that they remain opinions. This is all freedom of speech is. And since there is always the danger of citizens taking seriously opinions criticizing the state, and drawing practical consequences from them, every democratic state puts limits on the freedom of speech and press. When it sees fit, a democracy does not hesitate to equate an opinion with a real intent. In all these cases, of course, democrats complain that this threatens the submissiveness of citizens, which also gives away the whole secret of democratic public opinion.

d) The media

The democratic state looks favorably upon the freedom of speech because it politicizes citizens. The press and other media perform a public function by accustoming citizens to correct their own materialism by submitting to the state, to the point where they start quarreling with each other as idealists of the state. It becomes a public pastime to turn every need left by the wayside into a failure of those in office, so that politicians come in conflict with their own media agitators. Political parties therefore compete not only in their own organs, as they do in Europe, but above all for the possibility of media exposure. This means fighting over who gets how many minutes on public broadcasting stations. On the basis of their joint interest in the state, reporters visit politicians and politicians invite in reporters to tell each other what they think. This boring routine is regularly punctuated by injunctions, libel suits and legal actions for damages with large sums at stake (it’s a matter of honor!) And since the mere dissemination of a fact sometimes damages a politician’s reputation as much as a malicious interpretation of his political misdeeds would, thereby shaking the people’s trust in the state, or even gives spies something for free, many a politician considers the free press a subversive mafia. In retaliation, reporters measure every state and its representatives by the respect they show for the freedom of the press.

The conflicts between politicians and journalists are based on their common interest in producing harmony between state and citizen despite all discontent. Politicians would be happiest if their propaganda troops concentrated on glorifying their responsibilities, the hardships of office, their dilemmas, their tightrope walk between this and that, their energy, their expertise, their passion, their objectivity, their integrity, and so on ad nauseam. In short, they want to be praised just for being politicians and for having accepted the thankless task of dealing with the problems which society drops at the state’s doorstep. They wish reporters would limit their state propaganda to moral exhortations and lectures about citizens’ duties. Although journalists do everything their public function requires (at difficult times unanimously regurgitating the free opinion of the official government spokesman), they cannot help touching on the reason for their profession, namely the antagonism between the state and the majority of its citizens. In their concern for promoting the most effective state they are always finding fault with their audience, while admonishing the statesmen for not doing their jobs skillfully enough, at the right time, in the right style, and so on, and thereby shaking people’s trust in the state. They are proficient in all the forms of loyal criticism mentioned in Chapters One through Nine, and pick out some party line to support as being best for the state. This treatment of the competition between parties is a source of discontent among politicians, who see a need to supplement or correct the products of their agitators by appearing in the media themselves (arranging “sound bites”) or even making their own products (conducting legislative debates on radio and TV and waging their election campaigns).

It is therefore no accident that the lively squabbles between the professional representatives of public opinion and those who need them are a favorite topic for newspapers and radio stations. Journalism always involves methodological discussions about itself because of the contradiction it is based on. The news is always a democratically twisted interpretation of the sacrifices the newest state measures call for. But as agitation it has the flaw that it constantly has to mention what it wants the majority to abstract from, their damaged or neglected material interests. Not that democratic journalists fear this might lead to revolution. Far from it! For as long as they warn that clumsy political decisions might radicalize the mob there is not much danger of that. Their problem is that their commentaries about the pros and cons of political alternatives are not appreciated enough by the people, who have other things to worry about than turning their abstraction from their needs into political involvement. The willingness to obey and to vote for a gutsy guy for president is just not the same as a passionate preoccupation with the fine points of democratic efficiency.

This too is taken into account in the bourgeois media. After all, the “ordinary guy” is by no means an apolitical person. He is called “ordinary” because he has acquired all the necessary accouterments for scraping through, without any need for anything more fancy. He knows very well when to be polite and when to be the boss, when he has to prove his worth as a worker, and when to brag about the drink some big shot bought him. A person like that does not need the complicated agitation of highbrow newspapers and political magazines. His politicized mind only has room for confirmation. Anything else annoys him. This principle is taken to heart by the section of the media which caters to the common man. This kind of press is fascist in nature because it reduces every suggestion of a democratic ideal to its real political essence, the necessity of state order. It doesn’t bother dwelling on the problems of a particular procedure adopted by politicians, or the relationship between a new law and social justice or the constitution. Here, battles between the different wings of a party are signs of either good health or communism. There is nothing in between. Common sense reigns, along with good taste, which has the opportunity to expose itself since the fascist mania for justice even regards entertainment as a chance to fulfill the function of forming public opinion:

1. When the masses have a positive attitude toward state power while being dissatisfied with the politics practiced, they are on the right track. Their newspapers have the task of telling them who to blame. In the most diverse corners of society one can find people who only want to harm the community. This includes a lot of politicians, who give away credits for free, make deals with communists, mess up the budget, suck up to the unions, give student grants to criminals, etc. Unmasking this rabble gives the readers the consolation that they at least are worthy citizens. The moral of this political reporting is that every decent citizen should not let up being decent, i.e, in favor of the state and intransigent toward its enemies and parasites.

2. This civic morality is also cultivated by paying great attention to crime of all sorts, which proves to everybody how difficult it is for the state to tame human beasts who threaten good citizens, and how much support it deserves. This proof and the one that crime does not pay, are not enough for those out to sharpen their readers’ sense of justice. One must also remember that certain modes of behavior just beg for trouble, that there are good and bad motives, and that anyway some victims just get what they deserve.

3. Thus, a wife cannot expect sympathy if she is stabbed by her husband for cheating on him while he, a dentist, is very popular with all his patients. Since the frustrations of family life give so many people crooked ideas, love is an important matter in and outside the halls of justice. Because of state regulations and their shattering effects, this theme plays a central part on many pages of the mass press. They show naked women along with tips on how to deal with the guy at home.

4. It was already noted in Chapter Five that mass culture is an institution of morality and therefore exhausts the dialectics of love, sex, patriotism and crime. The people who produce this culture need not know anything about what their service for the state actually consists in. They need only follow the taste of their audience, which is their own after all, to illustrate the ideals of the bourgeois world along with the disappointments inscribed in them. The fact that their works of art are rather artless, although they contain the same messages as the greatest of bourgeois art, only goes to show that beauty cannot be had without some truth.

5. What the highbrow and lowbrow levels of political and cultural agitation have in common is that they affirm all the ills and the sacrifices they deal with. The interest of journalists thus coincides with the reason for their existence. Their moral agitation welcomes the harm it wants people to accept. They are virtuosos in applying sociological and psychological thinking (see subsection f below.)

e) Historical remarks

Since the principle of bourgeois public opinion is that all public criticism presupposes a basic consent to the purpose of the state, freedom of speech and press could not and did not exist as long as criticism by certain interest groups aimed at changing the relationship of the state to the classes. This freedom is the last element of the democratic paraphernalia, both conceptually and historically, except in the United States where the point of departure was free competition and not the feudal state.

f) The bourgeois sciences of sociology and psychology

Sociology is just as recent as psychology, even though both branches of bourgeois science claim they go back to Plato and Aristotle. When the Greek philosophers examined the state or the soul they had no interest in dreaming up justifications of bourgeois antagonisms.

Sociology has no real subject matter. Instead of taking a look at bourgeois society or even different societies in order to make generalizations about society in general, it starts out from an imaginary abstract system whose functioning depends tautologically on all kinds of conditions. State institutions have the function of making it possible for individuals to perform their roles, these roles result from norms and the norms result circularly from social expectations of what is normal. Everything people do as economic actors or political subjects is lumped together, regardless of its particular nature, as behavior. Actions, stripped of all intentions, are transformed into functions, into components of a working system. Not surprisingly, actions that are not acceptable as functions are explained as deviant behavior. All real relationships, whether between landlords and tenants, husbands and wives, employers and employees, are transformed into interaction per se. There are no real conflicts, just problems of communication. With its transformation of all social processes into vacuous parts that have no other quality than to contribute to a functioning whole, sociology produces a nice collection of attitudes for living with capitalism. How unfair that it is so often suspected of offering only useless or, even worse, revolutionary theories!

From the beginning, psychology has avoided the charge of being indifferent to the practical difficulties of bourgeois life. It deals with the same problem which the state takes up in its public agitation, namely, how to get the will of the citizen to give itself up. However, it presents this problem as care for human beings. Psychology deals with nothing except the performances which bourgeois individuals (competitors) repeatedly fail to deliver, promising therapeutic aid. In the view of this science, the individual consists of a bundle of mental faculties which have to be used in order to cope with reality. As for those individuals who do not cope, the psychologist comes up with the lie that the fault lies with them. If you can’t make it, with all your faculties for working, thinking, learning and loving, then you have to get normal. All the psychological theories, whether Freud’s or Skinner’s, are therefore nothing but programs to domesticate a reluctant will. It is no coincidence that everything carried out by the psychological community under the guise of helping people is financed by the state in its schools, prisons, courtrooms, and in the military. In the media, the general attitude of psychology against individuality is the daily fare, a collective psychoanalysis for the common man.

g) Popular ideologies

The state’s public agitation is relentless in its insistence on “constructive criticism,” that its citizens worry themselves silly about the problems of the institution whose leading lights they must select. This agitation itself meets with constructive criticism from those who comply with the demand. The constant praise of freedom of speech and thought is countered by some citizens (and also occasionally by journalists, who get reprimanded) with the pitiful objection that free opinion needs no censorship but should be a matter of responsible and mature use. These critics, who agree entirely with the content and purpose of bourgeois public opinion, get all excited about any formal limitations on mass communication or other form of interchange. It is a scandal when they are not given a chance to participate in a debate although they have raised their hands. The newspapers are all owned by one company. People are only listened to before elections. Communication is too one-sided, people should be transmitters and receivers at the same time. Information is falsified or hushed up, suppressed. In short, there is manipulation everywhere, the people are being misled. This accusation takes the cake for stupidity in view of how clearly people are told in public what is expected of them.

Right-wingers regard anyone who discusses a matter with any sign of commitment as a communist, who has the audacity to interfere with the course of state affairs which is already awkward enough with its democratic procedures. Whole editorial boards are infiltrated, and there is much too much discussion instead of getting down to business.

All this leaves the bourgeois state cold. It repudiates the attacks from both the right and the left by stressing the diversity of opinion prevailing in democracies and comparing it with states in which its critics are in power. It will not be accused of manipulation. In fulfilling its mission to raise up a good crop of citizens, the schools even treat criticism of manipulation as a hot issue. The state sees to it that the media discuss themselves and their public function with their audience, whereby each side castigates the other for imaginary failures. Letters to the editor and musical request programs are splendid additional demonstrations of how much people are given their say.

The only thing that bothers the state sometimes is when citizens form action groups instead of merely wanting to be heard. Politicians then see a need to say they will not, and cannot, bow to “pressure from the street.” When such action groups are successful, it is never due to any “pressure.” Rather, it is because they conjure up the question of the citizens’ trust in the state and occasionally invite the opportunism of a political party if their demands serve an actual state purpose. When protesters think of their protest, not as a demonstration of powerlessness, but as the way to succeed in wringing benefits from the state, they are asking for the police to refute them. They may get their day-care center, but squatting in vacant buildings gets a club to the head or worse. They hardly think twice about “selling out” to politicians, who use them to demonstrate how grass-roots their politics is, even when the state is directly ruining their lives (e.g., by nuclear power plants.)

Someone who “speaks his mind” and at least is proud of not letting anyone take away his humble opinion, since his interests are surely going to be ignored, is a mature citizen. He receives this seal of quality from the highest authorities because he has made himself fit for the democratic exercise of power by proving he understands that freedom means self-restraint. He has learned to accept the necessity of every constraint imposed on him by the state. When confronted with other people’s discontent he takes sides with political rule, taking for granted that national politics must not make itself dependent on any particular opinion, and that politics must serve the economy on which everybody depends. The starting point in Chapter One was how private interests come to terms with an external constraint. It has been shown above how this collision takes the form of a responsible handling of one’s own needs. And the illusion that the state is a means for the citizen to pursue his interests logically develops as the realization that the only way to preserve this means is by exercising self-restraint. Nothing else pays off!

It need not be mentioned for whom the democratic state makes self-restraint worthwhile, i.e., for whom it isn’t one. It will be equally clear that mature citizens are also willing to support “their” country against all the barriers it encounters outside its national territory (even if this means sacrificing their very lives.) Democracy and nationalism (along with its ideals of cosmopolitanism) are anything but incompatible. Democracy and communism are. Every argument communists put forward is immediately identified by the discontented but opinionated citizen as a non-opinion, an uncompromising insistence on the interests of one class with all its consequences for society. The fact that communists make use of freedom of the press and freedom of speech does not mean that public opinion is a means for them to acheive their goals. On the contrary, they are raked over the coals when the rules for the proper use of free speech are invoked, not to mention court judgments outlawing communist parties. Opinions which do not express how relative they are the moment they are voiced thus meet with great hostility. This has also become a permanent institution among democratic leftists, who hurl the accusation of dogmatism. This needs no refutation.