If Facebook were a Nation

With 1.35 billion active users (3rd qt. 2014), Facebook is now as big as China. If we include other social media, such as Twitter, Goggle+, YouTube, Instagram, etc., we seem to be witnessing an unprecedented migration into a networked social sphere that demands rethinking of topics such as globalization, transnational publics, global governance, and international relations. It will be objected that these topics have to do with real politics, with economics, war, terrorism, ecological threats, and issues of justice. However, it would perhaps be too hasty – considering the role that social media have played in political initiatives throughout the world – to assume that global communities of social media users are not also concerned with these issues and do not make a difference in the world of real politics. Traditional political theory is going through a crisis. Politics has always been the prerogative of sovereign nation states. Only citizens of a constitutional state were thought to be capable of political action, that is, participation in processes of deliberation and decision making with regard to the common good. Politics belongs in the domain of what Habermas called the “public sphere.” The public sphere is that social domain in which private individuals come together to freely and equally deliberate matters of common concern. In democratic societies the better argument and not violence or coercion legitimates governance. If legitimate and effective governance is only possible within the boundaries of a constitutional state, where rule of law and democratic procedures are established, what happens to the public sphere in a global network society? Globalization means that almost all important problems go beyond national borders. It means that the “emergence” of supra-national moral obligations such as Human Rights and global governance institutions such as the UN place the traditional idea of state-based politics in question. Globalization leaves the public sphere, it would seem, without a home.

This has prompted efforts to “transnationalize” the public sphere (see Nancy Frazer, Transnationalizing the Public Sphere, Polity Press, 2014) or to “rescue” the public sphere (see Pauline Johnson, Habermas – Rescuing the Public Sphere, Routledge, 2006). Frazer points out that democratic political order implies both bottom up and top down communication. Bottom up communication means that there must be a public whose deliberations can be considered to legitimate governing institutions, whereas top down means that there must be formal institutions that are effective in transforming public opinion into binding law. No public without institutions and no legitimate institutions without a public. Globalization, however, means that national borders no longer play a decisive role. Without national borders who can be considered a citizen? And without national borders which institutions may be held accountable to them? In a global society citizens are not clearly identifiable, inclusion cannot be guaranteed, free and reasonable debate is unrealizable even if one knows what counts as a reasonable argument, and formal institutions are absent. Nonetheless Frazer still claims that Habermas’ public sphere can be globalized. Frazer tackles the problem from the bottom up and focuses on the question of inclusion. A public is only then legitimating, when all citizens are included. How are we to know who should be included in the global public? The solution, according to Frazer lies in asserting that all who are “affected” by a problem should be included in a public sphere capable of deliberating on that issue. But who is not affected in some way by climate change, by international financial crises, by terrorism, etc? In a global situation, inclusion on the basis of affection can only mean everyone. The result is that inclusion becomes an empty word, since there is no possible exclusion. The same can be said of Frazer’s second criterion of inclusion, namely, all who are “subjected” to global governance institutions. Here again we ask, who is not in some way subjected to decisions by the UN Security Council or the World Bank etc? And of course, anyone, even if this may not be apparent to others, can claim to be either affected by or subjected to and thus claim a right to be included in a transnational public. Who could adjudicate such claims and with what legitimation? Pauline Johnson tackles the problem from the top down and supports Habermas’s own solution of developing democratic global governance institutions which effectively prove their ability to integrate a global public by means of welfare regimes helping to make the global losers also into winners.

Both attempts to save the public sphere do not question the public vs. private distinction as well as the cosmopolitan rationalism that lay the foundation for Western modernity. The founding myths of Western modernity in which free, equal, but schizophrenic individuals manage to subject their innate egoism to an also innate reason that places the common good above private interests − whereby private interests are assigned a place in capitalism and rationality or critical theory claims for itself the political field − are taken for granted when it comes to understanding both the problem and the solution. The idea of a public sphere constituted by private individuals who freely come together to rationally discuss the common good and achieve a consensus that is implemented into law by representative institutions may indeed be the best idea that the West has, but this doesn’t mean it is universally true. It is one interpretation in a global conflict of interpretations. It is the conflict of cultures, basic values, and worldviews that has to be shifted into the domain of communication and not merely the problems arising from the selfishness of homo economicus. In order gain a global perspective on what politics and economics might mean beyond Western modernity it could be useful to consider what would happen if Facebook were a nation. Quite apart from whether social media users can be considered to build a global community in the sense of sharing a common culture (see The Culture of Connectivity, Jose van Dijck, Oxford, 2013 ), it can be argued that the affordances of new media create common forms of communication and common values and norms. There is reason to assume that based on new media a global socio-sphere is emerging that strongly influences global civil society (see John Keane, Global Civil Society?, Cambridge University Press, 2003) and whose political status can not and should not be understood in terms of Habermas’s concept of the public sphere.