- Publicity and the Canadian State: Critical Communications Perspectives ed. by Kirsten Kozolanka
Appropriating Edward Bernays’s ideas (originally developed as the foundation for the emergent public relations profession), this collection examines the “modern Canadian ‘publicity state’” from an impressive range of critical angles. It consists of fourteen chapters (divided into three parts, each accompanied by a short introduction) written by leading commentators on political communication in Canada. The first part deals with how political communication has evolved; the second with the “intensifying publicity practices used by governments”; and the third with “how media reform and activism can challenge the power of the publicity state.”
A major leitmotif of the volume is the extent to which democracy—as bound up with citizenship—has been threatened and compromised by a panoply of factors, institutions, and practices. This theme undergirds the contributions in the second part, with particular attention given to the changing media environment, government communication and advertising, the depoliticization of public life, the impact of the neo-liberal agenda, the ideological framing of public opinion research, the branding of the Canadian nation-state, the increased management of information, and the eroding of privacy protection for citizens. The contributions to the second part explore how this anti-democratic trend might be countered and corrected through the activation of “mobile partisans,” the revivification of counter-hegemonic media, and the wide-scale reform of media institutions and practices. [End Page 306]
The volume is both comprehensive in scope and coherent in its treatment of Canadian political communications at the federal level. Sharing a common interest in the emergence of the “new right” as a political force within Canada and a concern with the extent to which citizenship has been commodified into a form of consumerism, the chapters in the collection relate to one another in a synergistic fashion; they allow the reader to connect the dots they provide, thereby gaining a sense of the depth and contours of the emergent publicity state. Yet, for all its information and insights, the volume promises more than it delivers; it will disappoint those who are looking for a rigorous treatment of the communicative practices of the Canadian state, particularly in light of developments during the last decade.
Kirsten Kozolanka’s introduction, drawing on the thought of Antonio Gramsci (as inflected by the writings of neo-Marxist writers such as Nicos Poulantzas, Leo Panitch, and Bob Jessop), provides a richly suggestive account of how the emergent publicity state in Canada might be conceptualized, with particular attention given to the state’s exercise of hegemony (involving the interplay between coercion and consent), as well as its embeddedness in class relations and the capitalist accumulation process. Consistent with the importance assigned to the state as a vital adjunct to contemporary capital, Kozolanka suggests that it should not be confined to a government but should refer to “the entire apparatus of government,” including the bureaucracy, public corporations, the military, and the judiciary. For the most part, however, the chapters in the volume make no reference to this framework, nor do they base their analyses on the copious vision of the publicity state that the introduction adumbrates. Rather, they tend to deploy a more conventional approach, examining how recent Canadian governments have sought to curry favour with the electorate through communication practices involving the media. In doing so, the chapters are largely unable to go beyond a few scattered sets of bullet points in their attempts to trace the communication propensities of the recent Conservative regime.
To be sure, the chapters in the volume do underscore the extent to which “permanent campaigning” has come to undermine democratic processes. But they largely fail to consider how the efforts of the leaders of the Conservative Party to transform this organization into the “natural governing party of Canada” have had disastrous consequences not only for state institutions but also for the makeup of civil society. It remains to be seen whether the recent change of government will lead to a departure from this long-standing peculiarity of Canadian party politics and...