One of the collaborative research projects we are developing with Fudan University concerns the alienations and structural limitations of the public sphere. That sphere is supposed to be where ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are found, where people can express their opinions without hindrance, where new possibilities emerge, and so on. The problem is that the public sphere is anything but that, for here the alienations and exclusions of bourgeois democracy are found (Hegel, Marx, et al).

A telling example is the role of the ‘free press’, which is touted as one of the crucial elements of the public sphere. You know the story: the press should be ‘free’ from government interference so that it can criticise governments, uncover corruption, keep the bastards honest …. A good example of how the ‘free press’ really works is the recent reporting on the Ukraine. Instead of seeking careful analysis and assessment of the situation, as well as criticising the various government stances on Ukraine, the ‘free press’ with one voice took a particular line. That is, peaceful protestors sought to oust a dictator imposed by Putin, all in the name of freedom and democracy. Afterwards, Putin took another step in seeking to expand the old ‘Soviet empire’ by ‘invading’ Crimea and then ‘annexing’ it to Russia.

I am not so interested here on whether this content is true or false (mostly the latter), but rather by the way it illustrates the limitations of the ‘free press’ and thereby of the public sphere. That is, one may be part of the club only by accepting a certain language, by agreeing to particular presuppositions. Anyone who does not do so is excluded. And that exclusion may take the form of language (although it also takes other forms). Other presses are thereby ‘state-run media’, which are really just propaganda organs for some ‘regime’ or other. So also with the public sphere: it is always a limited zone with ever-shifting boundaries. This means that all the talk about expanding the public sphere to include new (and often religious) voices is simply hot air. Sure, some of them can be included, but only if they agree to the rules of engagement. Obviously, most are simply excluded. This pattern of exclusion is not some dreadful plot by the gate-keepers of the public sphere, but part of the very structure of the public sphere itself.