Refeudalizing the Public Sphere: "Manipulated Publicity" in the Canadian Debate on GM Foods *
Magnan, Andre, Canadian Journal of Sociology
Abstract: This article develops Habermas' concept of refeudalization in a critical assessment of the public debate surrounding genetically modified (GM) food in Canada. A recent initiative by the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee, a federal consultative body, is evaluated according to the normative criteria of Habermas' ideal-typical public sphere. In turn, the case study uses Habermas' account of the structural transformation of the public sphere to examine ways in which political-economic conditions under globalization impinge upon the prospects for rational-critical public debate. I argue that external economic pressure associated with the drive for international competitiveness in an increasingly globalized economy has spurred the Canadian state to embrace contradictory roles vis a vis GM food. Given the state's role in regulating and actively promoting the technology, government-sponsored public consultations have taken on the aura of public relations and have risked foreclosing meaningful opportunities for debate.
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A wide-ranging and vigorous public debate seems necessary for realizing the democratic negotiation of contentious technologies such as genetically modified food. As a whole, developments in biotechnology will have far reaching economic, environmental, social, ethical, and political implications for farmers, consumers and citizens. Yet, despite the volume and intensity of the public controversy around GM food, the debate risks being captured by what Habermas calls "manipulated publicity" (1989: 178), public relations work designed to ensure public acquiescence to the positions of powerful actors. This paper develops Habermas' (1989) account of the structural transformation of the public sphere by critically assessing the public debate surrounding genetically modified (GM) food in Canada.
Using as a case study the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC), a prominent government-appointed advisory body, this article develops a two-pronged argument. First, I subject CBAC' s work to a normative evaluation using the criteria for genuine rational-critical debate developed in The Structural Transformation. Here I build upon Parkins' (2002) approach to the study of forest advisory bodies in Alberta, which uses Habermas' notion of the public sphere as an ideal to which advisory bodies can be held in environmental controversies. My case study suggests ways in which CBAC's government-commissioned report on the regulation of GM food has served as "manipulated publicity," tending to generate uncritical public opinion toward biotechnology.
Second, following Habermas' lead in The Structural Transformation I argue that the conditions under which rational-critical public debate can exist must be understood in the context of structural changes in capitalist society. …