In The Mass Society (from The Power Elite, 1956) C Wright Mills looks at ‘public opinion’ as the mythic seat of democratic power. This is what New Labour’s Gordon Brown deceitfully invokes whenever he bleats about ‘the British people’, whose needs he always knows. Essentially it is ‘an 18th Century idea’ which ‘parallels the economic idea of the market of the free economy’: a world of freely competing actors where price (not value) is formed by ‘anonymous, equally weighted, bargaining individuals’ and opinion arises out of ‘little circles of people talking with one another’. So that autonomy is assumed in both cases and autonomy of discussion in particular is important for the idea of how it legitimates, of how ‘no one group monopolises the discussion or by itself determines the conditions that prevail.’ So that ‘the discussion of opinion is the important phase in a total act by which public affairs are conducted.’
According to the reusable metaphor which Wright Mills then goes on to create out of the birth of British industrialisation, the opinionated public thus conceived ‘is the loom of classic 18th Century democracy’ in which ‘discussion is at once [both] the threads and the shuttle’, tying things together as it were.
And yet, then as well as now, this description is implausible: merely ‘a set of images out of a fairy tale: they are not adequate even as an approximation of how […] power works […] The idea of the community of publics is not a description of fact, but an assertion of an ideal’ which ‘is recognized by all those who have considered it carefully as something less than it once was.’
Writing out of his own particular time and place, Wright Mills develops out of what he finds a notion of a ‘society of masses’ in a way that parallels the identification of the ‘mass worker’ by Italian operaisti. In the latter, not wholly brave new world of post miracular Italy the opinion-forming Estates had either broken down or become irremediably repressive, rather as the unions and the trade and craft distinctions had either come to break down or had become oppressive in the Republic founded on Work:‘Boss, you haven’t fooled us with your creations, with the unions your plans have gone up in smoke, it’s us you’re up against. . And the qualifications, the trade distinctions, we want them all abolished. The divisions are at an end.’
(Alfredo Bandelli: La ballata della FIAT)
Or as an Autonomist slogan put it not long after dear, democratic Doctor Kissinger’s splendid 11 September coup against Allende: ‘In Chile they’ve got the tanks, but we’ve got the unions.’
And so, speculating now, out of this particular time and place, long after we got what we asked for, which wasn’t at all what we wanted (who was it, by the way, who described Berlusconi, friend of Tony Blair and client of David Mills / Mr Tessa Jowell, as the bastard child of Radio Alice?), we can recycle. Indeed Wright Mills’ metaphorical observations seem to need updating only slightly. In the era of cognitive capitalism, of immaterial labour, of precarity, the loom has been dismantled, or possibly repossessed. Instead there are simply small transmitter/receivers bobbing on the surface of the boundless ocean, linked only by the thread of their capacity endlessly, repetitively, to transmit and to receive. This is Negri’s multitude, but before it achieves self consciousness as a social subject. The movement of the ocean is titanic. Events go on ‘elsewhere’. Until the crash. But until then, in the thin and airless little world of the post Fordist polity as a viable public space, presence is everything, so that whilst these devices may disperse and recombine, whilst they float upon it they do not partake of the ocean in any active way, so that the overall effect is (at best) one of empty, mutual advertisement, of our affectless reincarnation as mindless, self documenting emoticons. Cf, for example, the examples of the bishop who would put confirmations on Twitter, as though the act of being formally received into the Church were a sort of spiritual happy slapping, or of Gordon Brown, looking and behaving like a gloomily aspirant Celtic Tony Hancock, over on You Tube. But there are plenty of non Establishment examples of the same sort of thing.
And meanwhile actual or social disappearance, not now the effect either of a real historical iceberg or of a metaphorical one but just a process of slow or rapid withdrawal, of absence, is merely radio silence, over and out, of death amidst white noise.
And we are, most of us, for the most part, still living out that death.