The Decline of Participatory Democracy in an Age of Interactivity



Perhaps cancer is too strong of a euphemism to describe Australia’s declining political legitimacy? For political journalist Guy Rundle, cancer is the manifestation of an Australian citizenry frustrated at the lack of meaningful political participation and the inability to conceive how it can be bettered.  Political apathy is cancerous. But how did Australian politics get to this point? How, in an age of interactivity, with the possibilities and promises participatory media bring, are we met with such a chasm in the name of deliberative democracy?

The answer is twofold: the tendency for interactive media to reinforce rather than challenge existing power relations and the declining effects of deliberative democracy within this paradigm of interactivity. One way we can see this at work is by problematising the paradoxical effects of political satire, rather than just celebrating it. We must think critically of interactivity’s bespoken abilities and discern how the unreflective critique of political satire can turn on itself. How, in the words of Mark Andrejevic, we can ‘extricate it from this impasse’.

Contrary to its intentions, political satire serves to foster an inert cynicism that does not translate into meaningful forms of political action. Zizek once described ideology as a naïve consciousness because it disavows what we already know. We are presented with the inclination to be interactive, to participate and feel empowered, yet it obscures interactive media’s ability to reinforce power structures akin to previous eras. There exists a distortion between this reality and our false consciousness of it. This is why Zizek advocates against simply ‘throwing away the veils’ that hide true reality. This only leads to cynical reasoning, of which Zizek claims to be ‘the paradox of an enlightened false conscious’.  Aware of the discrepancy between reality and the ideological mask, the cynic chooses not to renounce it, but instead, insists upon embracing the mask.

Parallels may be drawn between the cynic’s response and the aporetic effects political satire has upon its audience. Satire, armed with its arsenal of irony and ridicule, represents the dominant method of rejecting contemporary politics and political culture. Its goal is to undermine the claims to power and legitimacy of the ruling political ideology by subversively harnessing the language and rhetoric it purports to challenge. Viewers are invited to take perverse pleasure in being in the know, of seeing how naive the political process and its actors are and proliferating on this failure, while being rewarded with the knowledge that they are not being duped.

The savvy viewer, whilst able to see behind the ‘window of the world’ of politics, is nonetheless unable to see a way in which things can be different. This is where the paradox of satire lays: it neither empowers nor simulates political action, but rather positions its viewers to recognise the interests behind the ideological mask and find reasons to retain it in what Teurlings calls a state of ‘political apathy’.

(Image from The Australian)

(Image from The Australian)

So how are we meant to translate this political apathy into meaningful forms of political action and democratic deliberation? The task, as Andrejevic explains, is to realise the politically empowering potential of interactive media, rather than accepting the claim that it already has empowered. Pre-critical assertions emphasising interactive media’s inherent democratic capabilities are relics of an outmoded paradigm. Although audiences have now become more active participants, this does not entail that the Internet has fueled the broadening of the public sphere, nor the distribution of political influences previously closed to them. While the Internet has increased political knowledge amongst the already informed, it has had little affect upon those apathetic to the political discourse.

For true participatory democracy to occur, citizens are to engage in direct and open dialogue amongst one another, simultaneously working to expand the public sphere and allow for further deliberation.  What is of concern is that the Internet poses both formal and informal barriers that hinder this potential. Participation becomes mythology. Of the small amount of voices heard online, the large majority of these are vastly underrepresented and thereby non-reflective of the wider constituency.

julia finger

Of the available politically satirical blogs in Australia, there are three that gain frequent reviews or recommendations: Henry Thornton, Ben Pobjie’s Wonderful World of Objects, and A Bit of the Other: News, But Not Really. All three blogs are written by white, middle class males from various professional backgrounds including a corporate multimedia communicator, a former political advisor and a well-acclaimed journalist for an independent current affairs site. . Does online opinion truly present an alternative to elite media in what is an industry monopolized by a small group of white, male, highly educated professionals?

Already, we can see how the online blogger’s attempt to challenge the discourse of the media elite is premised upon the very power structures it sets itself to subvert.  The Trouble with Government, an article written on Ben Pobjie’s blog presents a satirical and cynical rendition as to how out of touch the incumbent government is with its people, which he suggests is the cornerstone of their demise. Whilst Pobjie’s satirical piece provides insight into the shortcomings of the political process, it does not lead to an understanding of how it can be organised differently, or ways citizens can deliberate on this. Indeed, Pobjie implies that as politicians have never had the same jobs as ordinary Australians, they will never understand what issues are important to them. Viewers are left feeling apathetic towards the political process, knowing the system is flawed and that any desire to change it is futile. But let’s not ignore their newly found savvy political disposition, right?

We must work to overcome the shortcomings of the political process not by satirically condemning the way it operates, but instilling the desire to challenge its parameters.

Online satire must be created with consideration of the political apathy it produces, and how to extricate it from this. It must accompany the possibility to imagine a better politics and encourage its audiences to insist upon not wearing the ideological mask. But most importantly it must not simply assume that the interactive media in which it is produced negates the need for increased citizen participation. Political apathy is cancerous, but it is curable.

 – By Roxy Chaitowitz

onshore processing mainland