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Habermas and the Rise and Fall of Bourgeois Public Sphere




Jurgen Habermas' the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is a significantly rich and influential work that has had main influence in a range of disciplines. It has also received comprehensive assess critically and promoted enormously fruitful discussions of liberal democracy, civil society, public life, and social changes in the 20th  century, among other issues. Small number of books of the second half of the 20th century has been so critically discussed in so many dissimilar fields and continues, almost forty years after its initial publication in 1962, to generate such productive controversy and insight. While Habermas' thought took several crucial philosophical twists and turns after the publication of his first major book, he has himself provided detailed commentary on Structural Transformation in the 1990s and returned to issues of the public sphere and democratic theory in his immense book Between Facts and Norms. Hence, concern with the public sphere and the necessary conditions for a genuine democracy can be seen as a central theme of Habermas' work that ought to has respect and critical theory.

In this paper, I will explicate Habermas' concept of the public sphere and its structural transformation in his early writings and then will note how he discuss about the rise and fall of bourgeois public sphere.

Habermas, Frankfurt school and Critical Theory

Jurgen Habermas, born in 1929, is probably the most prominent and widely cited German philosopher of our time. He is recognized worldwide as one of the most productive contributors to contemporary philosophy and the social sciences. His work draws upon a variety of disciplines, and has equally returned new impulses back to them: psychology, sociology, political science and, of course, philosophy. 

Habermas is known for his background in the Frankfurt School, a widely used reference to the philosophy that sprung out of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research) in Frankfurt Maine, Germany.(Wiggershaus, 1995) Founded in 1923, the institute’s theoretical foundations, which from the start were firmly grounded in a new line of non-dogmatic Marxian thought namely critical theory), were laid by its earliest members, such as Friedrich Pollock, Leo Löwenthal, Carl Grünberg (first Director), Max Horkheimer (second Director), Henryk Grossmann, Karl August Wittfogel, Franz Borkenau, and Julian Gumperz. (Bottomore, 2002)From around 1930, others like Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Karl Landauer, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, A.R.L. Gurland, Paul Massing, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Mirra Komarovsky, among many others, were affiliated with the institute.(Bottomore, 2002) These are often referred to as the first generation of the Frankfurt School. A second generation, which began to develop in the 1960s, with Jurgen Habermas as the leading figure, includes Alfred Schmidt, Oskar Negt, Albrecht Wellmer, and Karl-Otto Apel. While a further description of the Frankfurt School regrettably is outside the scope of this dissertation, it should be recognized as an influential and still thriving school of thought, which Habermas represents and draws his roots from.

Habermas uses a liberal framework for his deliberative democracy theory, with the rule of law and constitutionalism as key tenets but, unlike Rawls, he grounds constitutionalism and law on communicative reason.

He outlines a more inclusive theory of deliberative democracy, where political deliberation is not restricted to political elites, and both the public and private spheres play a part in the political process. Before moving on to the procedural elements in Habermas’ theory, the discussion begins with two concepts that form the ‘nuts and bolts’ of Habermas’ work on deliberation: first, the public sphere which hosts political deliberation; and second, the ‘Ideal Speech Community’ that outlines the conditions under which a political community can reach consensus.

The notion of public sphere

During the late 17th and 18th centuries, a phenomenon namely the bourgeois public sphere became apparent. The public sphere emerged owing to various societal changes that were evident in the bourgeois society after the Enlightenment period. The bourgeois society was industrially advanced and represented the welfare state. Jurgen Habermas developed this concept in his book the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere(1989)where he embarked on the journey of a historical and sociological analysis of that period. He described the public sphere as the conceptual space between the public, with its enclosed institutions and organizations, and the circle of the private life. In this space, private citizens came together to deliberate issues in an environment that was absent from the influence of government, the economy and other relevant institutions and organizations. This was the area where political deliberation took place and where public discourse, association and debate lead to the formation of public opinion as well as political movements and parties. With this theory, he presupposed reason which included critical and discussion debate and he claimed that this type of communication would weaken prejudices, increase the extent and power of the public sphere and ultimately strengthen the democracy. Habermas realized that the quality of a democratic society was dependent on private citizens’ capacity to communicate and deliberate. The development from opinion to public opinion and its necessity in the democratic society was explored by Habermas (Habermas J. , 1989, pp. 1-3); (Dahlberg, 2005); (Boeder, 2005, pp. 2-3).

Erikson and Tedin (2006, p. 8) define public opinion as “the preferences of the adult population on matters of relevance to government”. It is thus the collective view of a significant part of any public. The members of a genuine public in a democracy are free to associate, converse, organize and express themselves on all subjects. Government is fully accountable to the will of the public as a whole (Erikson & Tedin, 2006, p. 7); (McQuail, 2005, p. 565). Public opinion is a key term applied to theories of democracy because it denominates the relationship between the government and the people. Public opinion also represents the will of the public with regards to political decision making by the government. Thus, public opinion is seen as a normative concept that describes the ideal process through which informed citizens achieve rational judgments well grounded in goodwill and for the greater good of society (Marx Ferree, Gamson, Garhards, & Rucht, 2002, p. 230).

The concept of the public sphere is translated from the German term Őffentlichkeit. This is an artificial translation because there is no adequate translation of the German term. Őffentlichkeit is derived from the French adjective publicité meaning public. This term was only developed in the 17th century because the phenomenon did not exist prior to this period.

The public sphere emerged in Germany as part of the civil society, the realm of commodity exchange and labour governed by law (Habermas J. , 1989, pp. 2-3), (Kleinsteuber, 2004).

In order to further discuss the concept of the public sphere, it is necessary to firstly clarify the notion of the public. The public can be seen as a group that enjoys commonalities. According to McQuail (2005, p. 565) the general meaning of public refers to the collection of all free citizens of a specific society or equal space. Here he calls upon freedom and equality which are distinct characteristics of a liberal democracy. Thus for the citizens of a functional public in a democracy, freedom of association and converse as well as the freedom to organize and express themselves freely is “accountable to the will of the public as a whole according to agreed procedures(McQuail, 2005, p. 565). Dewey (1927, p. 15) narrows the definition and states that the public not only refers to the collective body of citizens, but rather includes “all those affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (Dewey, 1927, p. 15). Then public is therefore seen as the dialogical representation of these consequences and the political dimensions within a civil society (Johnson, 2006, p. 5).

The public stands in contrast to the circle of the private life. The public sphere is seen as the social space between the state, as public institution, and the private sphere of family life and economic relations where open and rational debate takes place to form public opinion. The state as public institution should pursue the interest of the public whereas the other pursues the interests of private citizens, families as well as businesses. It is also very important to note the distinction between publicity and privacy. Publicity involves conveying private relationships into the public domain via exposure in various forms of media. These media include, amid other forms, television, radio, newspapers and the internet. Privacy calls upon the private citizen’s right to non-exposure. Thus the relationship between the public and the private sphere is dynamic and complex and with the modern society, the boundaries between the two are often blurred (Habermas J. , 1989, pp. 1-2); (Sheller & Urry, 2003, pp. 109-113)

Finally, Habermas in (Calhoun C. , 1993, p. 272) recognizes the private realm as the area that provides the individual citizens with the identity and support to represent the actors who are active in the public sphere.

In his initial conceptualization, Habermas identified the public sphere in two dimensions: empirical and normative. In the empirical sense, the public sphere was a distinct, institutionalized system of verbal and written interaction. The normative definition refers to the public sphere as a forum in which people with no official power came together and “readied themselves to compel public authority to legitimate itself before public opinion”

(Habermas J. , 1989, pp. 25-26)(Hirschkop, 2004, p. 50). This empirical definition has however received a lot of criticism and thus the normative definition received more credence. With the analytical difference, academics do not always agree on whether a public sphere has ever existed or even currently exists. Many argue that the public sphere has not yet been achieved, but that the concept of the public sphere – when taken in its normative dimension – is a very helpful and useful term at present as the term often connotes the realm of the media, politics and opinion processes in a general descriptive way (Dahlgren, The Public Sphere and the Net: Structure, Space, and Communication, 2005).

The Rise of the Bourgeois Public Sphere

Perhaps the most essential of Habermas concepts is that of the Public Sphere, which originates from his Habilitationsschrift from 1962, "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere:  an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society" (Habermas J. , 1989). The two major themes of the book include analysis of the historical genesis of the bourgeois public sphere, followed by an account of the structural change of the public sphere in the contemporary era with the rise of state capitalism, the culture industries, and the increasingly powerful positions of economic corporations and big business in public life. On this account, big economic and governmental organizations took over the public sphere, while citizens became content to become primarily consumers of goods, services, political administration, and spectacle.

Generalizing from developments in Britain, France, and Germany in the late 18th and 19th century, Habermas first sketched out a model of what he called the "bourgeois public sphere" and then analyzed its degeneration in the 20th century. As Habermas puts it in the Preface to the book: "Our investigation presents a stylized picture of the liberal elements of the bourgeois public sphere and of their transformation in the social-welfare state" (Habermas J. , 1989, p. xix). The project draws on a variety of disciplines including philosophy, social theory, economics, and history, and thus instantiates the Institute for Social Research mode of a supra disciplinary social theory. Its historical optic  grounds it in the Institute project of developing a critical theory of the contemporary era and its political  aspirations position it as critique of the decline of democracy in the present age and a call for its renewal -- themes that would remain central to Habermas' thought.

 This work(Habermas J. , 1989) gives a historical-sociological account of the formation, brief flourishing, and demise of a public sphere based on rational critical debate and discussion. Habermas stipulates that, due to specific historical circumstances, a new civic society emerged in the eighteenth century. Driven by a need for open  commercial areas where news and matters of common concern  could be freely exchanged and discussed - accompanied by  growing rates of literacy, accessibility to literature, and a  new kind of critical journalism - a separate domain from ruling authorities started to evolve across Europe. “In its clash with the arcane and bureaucratic practices of the absolutist state, the emergent bourgeoisie gradually replaced a public sphere in which the ruler’s power was merely  represented  before the people with a sphere in which state  authority was publicly monitored through informed and critical  discourse  by the people”(Habermas J. , 1989, p. xi)

Habermas argues that the formation of the bourgeois public sphere was a peculiar, unprecedented historical event that occurred in several nation states in Europe during the early modern era (Habermas J. , 1989, p. 26).Existing political structures were strained by pressure from a rising civil society fuelled by the growing wealth of the middle classes through trade and capitalist activity (Habermas J. , 1989, p. 14). These pressures led to private people within the respective nation states coming together to form publics, which then took control of the public sphere from the authorities of the time, and used it to engage those same authorities in debate over the rules governing the sphere of commodity exchange and social labour (1989, p. 26). However, the political function of the bourgeois public sphere so formed evolved from a communication sphere in the public domain that was in existence even before the public took control from the authorities. Communication in this, the literary public sphere or sphere of letters, was focused on cultural activity and was the ‘training ground’ for the critical faculty exercised in the public sphere in the political realm (1989, p. 29).

The emergence of the bourgeois public sphere occurred subsequently to what Habermas refers to as ‘representative publicness’ of the medieval era where decisions were made by the ruling nobility and merely presented before the populace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, an increasing differentiation of society took place. This was particularly evident in Germany, Britain and France. The increasing differentiation was seen in the separation of political authority from domestic life which was constituted through the centralization of political power in the national state; by the separation of the church and state; and by the differentiation of public norms. Finance and capitalist systems also emerged and the tax burden imposed upon individuals by the state was enhanced by military activities. These factors lead to an increasing demand from the citizens for accountability. The social conditions provoked and facilitated conditions where middle class men, the private citizens, united to engage in reasoning over various issues that were of mutual concern and interest.

The pressure asserted came from publics which were formed by private citizens who acted as agents yearning accountability with the purpose to impose some form of control on the state and governmental structures (Crossley & Roberts, 2004, p. 3); (Dahlgren, 1991, p. 3).

The formation of publics realized against the background of a new form of privatization within the society where the self and subjectivity were central. The formation was a process of collectivization where the public spheres emerged and mediated between the state and the individual agent. The private sphere thus functioned as an area where privatized citizens and subjectivities could take shape and where attention was focused on the process of self cultivation. The public sphere offered the private citizens the possibility to organize themselves collectively and engage in discussion where they used critical reason to debate upon issues at hand ((Dahlgren, 1991, p. 3); (Crossley & Roberts, 2004, p. 4); (Calhoun C. , 1993, p. 272)

It is very important to note that the self cultivation of the private citizens was initially pursued through literature, philosophy and art. During the 18th century there was an increase in the private consumption of these works. This occurrence supports Habermas’ idea of privatization and subjectivity. People came together to deliberate literature, philosophy and art in places such as coffee houses and salons which materialized in the major urban centers all through the 18th century. These places acted as areas of debate and established the infrastructure that Habermas referred to as the political publics where a shift away from literature, philosophy and art as popular topics of debate gave way to discussions over politics and economics. It can thus be said that the literary debate contributed to the public sphere as it contributed to the cultural resources which was necessary for critical and rational political debate. Thus the accessibility of information needed for debate on these issues became a wanted ‘goods’ itself. There were, however, other factors that also contributed to the emergence of the public sphere. These included improvements in printing technologies and the surfacing of popular newsletters and journals. Media also acted as sources of information and were used as the point of departure for public debate. Thus enlightenment ideas were manifested by the private citizens seeking knowledge and freedom in the abundant and different media and milieu. These factors played a significant role in the mid-19th century and lead to the climax of the public sphere (Crossley & Roberts, 2004, pp. 3-4); (Dahlgren, 1991, p. 3); (Dahlgren, 2005, p. 272).     

The literary public sphere was a necessary precursor to the political public sphere in the public realm, for it formed the bridge between the ruling nobility and the bourgeois intellectuals (Habermas J. , 1989, p. 30). The literary public sphere came into being in various institutions within the nation state, varying according to the composition of those who attended, andthe scale and climate of the debates. However, they all had three common features (Habermas J. , 1989, p. 36).

The decline of the bourgeois public sphere

In the second part of the Structural Transformation, Habermas argues that a systemic attack of the bourgeois public sphere started in the late 19th century. Private interests gained political roles, while powerful companies more and more came to control and manipulate the state and media. Meanwhile, the state began to play a stronger role in the private area, thus corroding the previously clear difference between state and civic society. As the public sphere declined, citizens were gradually reduced to passive clients, dedicating their attention more to consumption and private concerns than to issues of the public.

In the altered public sphere of welfare state capitalism, public opinion is increasingly administered by political, economic, and media elites. According to Habermas (1989, p. 176), the “public was largely relieved of” its tasks “by other institutions: on the one hand associations in which collectively organized private interests directly attempted to take on the form of political agency; on the other hand by parties which, fused with the organs of public authority, established themselves, as it were, above the public whose instruments they once were”. Further (loc.cit.), “[t]he process of the politically relevant exercise and equilibration of power now takes place  directly between the private bureaucracies, special interest  associations, parties, and public administration. The public as such is included only sporadically in this circuit of power, and even then it is brought in only to contribute its acclamation.”

Habermas thereby describes a transition from the liberal public sphere, which originated in the Enlightenment movement, the American and French Revolution, into the current era, which he labels as "welfare state capitalism and mass democracy." In it, the public sphere is dominated by the media and special interests. This historical transformation is firmly grounded in the Frankfurt School’s (Horkheimer and Adorno) analysis of the culture industry, in which giant corporations take over the public sphere and transform it from a sphere of rational debate into one of manipulative consumption and passivity. Public opinion shifts from rational consensus emerging from debate, discussion, and reflection to the manufactured opinion of polls or media experts: "Publicity loses its critical function in favor of a staged display; even arguments are transmuted into symbols to which again one cannot respond by arguing but only by identifying with them" (Habermas J. , 1989, p. 206). In this context, it is interesting to note what central role Habermas gives the mass media (Habermas J. , 1989, p. 188): 

Whereas formerly the press was able to limit itself to the transmission of the rational-critical debate of private people assembled into a public, now conversely this debate gets shaped by the mass media to begin with. In the course of the shift from a journalism of private men [...] to the public services of mass media, the sphere of the public was altered by the influx of private interests that received privileged exposure in it [...]. 

After thirty years, Habermas still sticks to this description, and adds (Calhoun, 1992, p. 432): The public sphere, simultaneously pre structured and dominated by the mass media, developed into an arena infiltrated by power in which, by means of topic selection and topical contributions, a battle is fought not only over influence but over the control of communication flows that affect behavior while their strategic intensions are kept hidden as much as possible. The initial bourgeois public sphere has thus, according to Habermas, fallen victim to imperatives of money and power.

This tendency is, in Habermas’ own terminology, commonly known as “systemic colonization of the life world”. While the life world (a term apparently borrowed from phenomenology) represents the inter-subjective platform of opinion- and will formation (as culture and social relations), the system corresponds to opposing, non-linguistic, and instrumental imperatives of money and power. Hence, the life world carries and maintains traditions of the community, and is the foundation of socialization, whereas the system, in contrast, refers to seemingly “natural” forces within human society.

Colonization occurs when elements from the life world get subjected to systemic pressure (represented by governmental administration and capitalist interests), thus weakening its autonomy and ability to preserve itself. This brings us to two types of rationality that influence the respective domains of system and life world.

After its climax in the mid-19th century, the downfall of the public sphere soon followed. Habermas (1989) stated that the public sphere was effectively undermined by the social conditions, as mentioned before, that lead to its emergence. Accordingly the public sphere in the 20th and 21st centuries has been tainted with contradictions and conflicting ideas. Even though the initial idea of the public sphere stayed intact, its representation in reality was a poor imitation of the Habermasian ideals (Crossley & Roberts, 2004, pp. 2-4). Journalism lost claim and importance and public discourse was victim to public relations. Another intervening factor was that of the ever increasing impact of capitalism and commercialism.

This shaped the operations of media where the public voice became inferior to the compulsion of profit and personal gain and accordingly the domain of rationality diminished.

In the 20th century, Habermas (Dahlberg, 2005, p. 34) emphasized the trivialization of politics which could be seen in the emergence and impact of electronic media, the industrialization of public opinion and the transformation of the public from a discursive to a consuming culture(Dahlberg, 2005, p. 34).

Criteria and Assumptions according to Habermas

In his historical analysis, Habermas points out three so called “institutional criteria” as preconditions for the emergence of the new public sphere. The discursive arenas, such as Britain’s coffee houses, France’s salons and Germany’s Tischgesellschaften “may have differed in the size and compositions of their publics, the style of their proceedings, the climate of their debates, and their topical orientations, but “they all organized discussion among people that tended to be ongoing; hence they had a number of institutional criteria in common” (1989, p. 36)

1. Disregard of status: Preservation of “a kind of social inter course that, far from presupposing the equality of status, disregarded status altogether. [...] Not that this  idea of the public was actually realized in earnest in the  coffee houses, salons, and the societies; but as an idea it  had become institutionalized and thereby stated as an  objective claim. If not realized, it was at least consequential.” (Habermas J. , 1989)

2. Domain of common concern: “... discussion within such a public presupposed the problematization of areas that until then had not been questioned.  The domain of ‘common  concern’ which was the object of public critical attention Remained a preserve in which church  and state authorities  had the monopoly of interpretation. [...] The private people for whom the cultural product became available as a commodity profaned it inasmuch as they had to determine its meaning on their own (by way of rational communication with one another), verbalize it, and thus state explicitly what precisely in its implicitness for so long could assert its authority.” (Habermas J. , 1989)

3. Inclusivity: “However exclusive the public might be in any given instance, it could never close itself off entirely and become consolidated as a clique; for it always understood and found itself immersed within a more inclusive public of all private people, persons who – insofar they were propertied and educated – as readers, listeners, and spectators could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion. The issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate. [...]  Wherever the public  established itself institutionally as  a stable group of  discussants, it did not equate itself with  the public but  at most claimed to act as its mouthpiece, in its name,  perhaps even as its educator – the new form of bourgeois  representation"(Habermas J. , 1989).

In short, these “institutional criteria” state that 1) status was disregarded altogether, 2) that the domain of discourse was that of “common concern”, and that 3) members of all levels of society were included.

Deliberation and the ideal speech community

The public sphere that hosts political deliberation in Habermas’ deliberative theory incorporates many of the elements he identified in the bourgeois public sphere. It requires citizens to have a critical faculty, and the sphere must be both independent of the state and free from state interference. Communication in the political public sphere needs to be rational because irrational communication, such as rhetoric, is less open to critique and consideration. Communication in the literary public sphere, however, does not need to be rational and it is in this segment of the public sphere that individuals develop their critical faculty. The flow of ideas from the non-political segments of the public sphere and the private sphere into the political public sphere is facilitated by individuals who are active in several segments of the public sphere and in the private sphere in different capacities: as citizens, workers, employers and private individuals. In defining the space in which political deliberations occur, Habermas gives only a brief description of the type of deliberation that is appropriate for the political public sphere. He gives a more detailed account of deliberation in his discussion of the ideal speech community.

The form taken by deliberation is as important as the spaces in which it occurs, and in his theory of the ideal speech community, Habermas outlines the conditions under which a community may reach consensus on moral problems and norms without the taints usually associated with self-interest, prejudice, and political affiliation. He utilizes the theories of linguistic philosopher L. J. Austin (1962) to establish that understanding is the end product of human speech. Austin's theories define three distinct speech acts: first, locutionary speech acts are statements of fact or descriptions of the world. An example of a locutionary speech act is 'the mug is blue'. Second, illocutionary speech acts involve an action such as a promise, an order or a question, for example 'Are you hungry?' or 'Get out of bed'. Third, pre locutionary speech acts involve the manipulation of the audience of the speech act into agreeing with the speaker, or being in some way influenced. Examples of pre locutionary speech acts include leading questions in a trial and much of the rhetoric in any speech to a political gathering. Habermas argues that it is through speech acts that meaning is attainable from discourse, and echoes the arguments of other linguistic philosophers (Searle, 1969) that each speech act contains both locutionary and illocutionary elements.

Habermas refines Austin’s definitions of locutionary, illocutionary, and pre-locutionary speech acts to fit his theory about deliberation, beginning with communicative actions. These he defines as linguistically mediated interactions in which all participants pursue only illocutionary aims (Habermas, 1984, p. 295). He then moves on to validity claims present in speech acts, And as our guideline in classifying speech acts we may take the option open to hearers to adopt rationally motivated "yes" or "no" positions on the utterances of speakers… . With the assertion (1), he connects a validity claim for an announced intention; with the direction (2), a validity claim for an (imperative) request; with the avowal (3), a validity claim for the expression of a feeling; and with the prediction (4), a validity claim for a statement. Correspondingly, with a "no" response, the addressee is contesting the rightness of (1) and (2), the truthfulness of (3), and the truth of (4) (1984, p. 306).

It is the validity claims inherent in speech acts that allow Habermas to connect discourse with ethical considerations. The key to the above statement is that the addressee is rationally motivated. By subjecting the words of the speaker to critical analysis, the addressee is in the position to accept or reject the words and statements of the speaker through assertion, direction, avowal, and prediction. Rational statements point towards consensus, while false, illogical or inconsistent statements do not.

He then goes on to argue that as a medium for achieving understanding, speech acts perform three functions: first, they establish and renew interpersonal relations; second, they represent or presuppose states and events; third, they manifest experiences (1984, p. 308). Habermas refines Austin’s definitions with further points about communicative actions and validity claims. Speech acts move towards understanding, which Habermas assumes is the ultimate function of discourse, by allowing the passage of thoughts and experiences from one individual to another. Critical analysis of the validity claims within a speech act allows the rationality of the act to be determined and the speech act either accepted or rejected. To complete the rational base for his theories of ethical behavior and judgment, Habermas establishes the necessary conditions for acceptance or rejection of validity claims, Communicatively achieved agreement is measured against exactly three criticisable validity claims; in coming to an understanding about something with one another and thus making themselves understandable, actors cannot avoid embedding their speech acts in precisely three world-relations and claiming validity for them under these aspects (1984, p. 308).

If a speaker and an addressee come to a consensus on a speech act, then the act itself must have addressed the three world-relation criteria that are to establish and renew interpersonal relations, represent or presuppose states and events, or manifest experiences. If the speech act does not address one or more of the world-relations, then the validity claims fail. These definitions form the rational structure of Habermas’ Ideal Speech Community, and act as a foundation for his theory and a framework for an ethical system using Kantian moral reasoning.

Effective Inclusion, Deliberation, and the Public Sphere

Habermas developed the concept of the public sphere used in his deliberative theory by conducting a historical analysis of the rise and fall of the bourgeois public sphere during the early modern era between the English civil war and the French revolution. He identified elements present in the bourgeois public sphere, namely a critically enabled political public sphere that is free of institutional interference and a literary public sphere where citizens can develop their critical faculties, as necessary for a properly functioning public sphere that deploys deliberative democracy. To augment his concept of the public sphere, Habermas developed a rational model of deliberation through his theory of the ideal speech community in which he outlines the conditions under which a community may reach consensus on moral problems and norms without the taints usually associated with self-interest, prejudice, and political affiliation. In conjunction, these two concepts- a public sphere free of state interference and consensus-oriented, rational deliberation- form the foundation of his deliberative theory. The discussion will begin with the public sphere, before moving on to the ideal speech community.

Although it is not uncommon for deliberative theorists to advocate the benefits of deliberation in the public sphere, the focus typically remains on the deliberations that occur within administrative bodies.  The focus upon deliberation in institutional contexts is not unsurprising, particularly when much of the focus of deliberative democracy concerns a process that enables all affected people to make deliberative decisions that have a greater claim to legitimacy.  At the same time, however, this institutional focus overlooks a significant force in democratic theory and practice: the role of the public sphere and the important work that occurs here in terms of the polity’s ability to provide a check upon the power of decision-making bodies.  Sometimes deliberative theorists are ambiguous about the role that the public sphere ought to play.  The justification of deliberative democracy itself is such that deliberants cannot ignore the claims that people make in the public sphere.  This is the case because deliberative legitimacy depends on the ability of the deliberative group to effectively include all people who are affected by deliberative decisions.  People in the public sphere must therefore play a role.  At the same time, deliberative theorists do not, for the most part, pay very much specific attention to the role that the public sphere ought to play in deliberative democracy, preferring instead to focus upon state institutions as the primary source of deliberation and the focus, therefore, of deliberative theory.  Jurgen Habermas argues for an expansive conception of deliberative democracy that gives much more normative weight to the process of communication and to the normative work that occurs in the public sphere.  Although many deliberative theorists expect public sphere deliberation to play a role, Habermas’s discussion of the public sphere stands out.  His theory of communicative action and his discussion of the relationship between communicative power and administrative power depend upon the public sphere.  Whereas many deliberative theorists see the public sphere as an important oppositional space that supports and enriches democratic legitimacy (although they may not be entirely clear about how this ought to work), Habermas attributes a central, constitutive role to it.  Indeed, for Habermas the basis of deliberative democratic legitimacy depends upon the relationship between formal (decision-making) deliberative bodies and the informal discourse that occurs in the public sphere.  This concern for a thick account of inclusion that takes the input of all people in the polity seriously is a very important move for deliberative legitimacy and one that challenges the limited ways that many other deliberative theorists use political communication.  As I set out Habermas’ theory of deliberative democracy I look at the normative contributions that the public sphere makes to deliberative democracy in terms of effective inclusion.  The ideally inclusive Discourse that Habermas seeks to establish is significant because of the way that he tries to balance decision-making with a thick account of inclusion.  However, while this normative argument has value, Habermas’ account suffers from the question of its institutionalization.  Without a richer institutional account of the way that the circulation of power engages marginalized people, his move to establish a thick account of inclusion is unsuccessful. Much of Habermas’ motivation for this attention to the public sphere comes from the context in which he wrote.  Deliberation within the public sphere and its ability to influence formal deliberations are important because for Habermas the basis of legitimacy occurs in the process of communication. The emphasis on the social processes of deliberation is a response to John Rawls, whose discussion of deliberation falls into the first strand of deliberative democratic theory. 

Justifying decisions to other people without their input is not enough, in Habermas’ view, to secure   deliberative legitimacy, and input must come from the people who will be affected by deliberative decisions.  The attention that we ought to pay to the (necessarily social) process of deliberation is one of two criteria that we need to meet in order to engage in the “ideally inclusive” practical discourse that Habermas advocates.  The other criterion is to make sure that the communicative process is one that allows people to protect themselves from unjust exercises of power, which is something that Habermas argues, is only possible if the public sphere plays a strong role in our collective decision making processes and provides a check on administrative power.

Habermas argues for a thicker account of inclusion in the deliberative process as he looks to an institutional solution and balances an autonomous public sphere with a legislative/administrative branch of government.  The connection between these two requires that a communicative exchange take place both within and between the two areas.  As he explains the communicative process Habermas sets out his discourse principle.  The discourse principle deals with the reasons that are acceptable in a discursive exchange and is a way of regulating communication in order to ensure deliberative legitimacy.  The norms that deliberants must work with are, first, ones that have to arise as a result of a discursive exchange (deliberants have to produce them in deliberations and must not appeal to pre-existing norms) and, second, are only valid when they “could meet with the acceptance of all concerned in practical discourse.”(Habermas., 1998, p. 41)  In order to measure these criteria, Habermas offers guidelines for the rational acceptability of statements.  In addition to the requirement that the process must include all who are affected, these mandate that people must have an equal opportunity to participate, that they are sincere, and that the process must be free from coercion.(Habermas., 1998, p. 44)

Habermas locates legitimacy in processes of communication.  To meet the requirement of legitimacy deliberants must be able to do two things.  First, there needs to be an (inclusive) way to determine what it is that everyone would agree to.  Second, we need to ensure that this information influences the decision-making of political institutions.  The first process occurs in the public sphere where he locates social power.  This is where democratic opinion- and will-formation take place.  The public sphere is “‘unconstrained’ in the sense that its channels of communication are not regulated by procedures”(Habermas J. , 1996, p. 314), and this leaves people free to discuss political issues without procedural constraints.

Because everyone can participate in this discourse and because the public sphere is autonomous, this social power is well-positioned to serve as “a warning system”,(Habermas J. , 1996, p. 359) in case the administrative sphere neglects important issues or perspectives.  Habermas argues that we can then take the social power that people generate and transform it, via elections, will-formation, and opinions, into what he terms “communicative power.”  Because only the political system can act,(Habermas J. , 1996, p. 300)people in the public sphere must work to convince people in the administrative sphere to take up the issues that they argue are important.

They can do this “only insofar as they can advertise their interests in a language that can mobilize convincing reasons.”(1996, p. 364)

Communicative power is transformed into administrative power through legislation and “only after it passes through the filters of the institutionalized procedures of democratic opinion- and will-formation and enters through debates into legitimate lawmaking.”(1996, p. 371)

This transformation takes place (and is legitimate) because the beliefs that people in the public sphere put forth are ones that “have been tested from the standpoint of the generalizability of interests.”

The role of people in the public sphere ultimately plays out as influence that is transformed into communicative power and which is consequently able to legitimate the political decisions that occur in the administrative sphere.

 The result, Habermas argues, is an inclusive deliberative process that, by balancing state power and the public sphere, effectively includes all people and is able to meet the requirements of legitimacy.  

Deliberative theorists are finding it increasingly harder to justify processes and policies that do not involve the public sphere in a substantive way.(Dryzek J. , 2006)

Habermas’s argument that the public sphere must play a fundamental role in formal deliberative bodies if we are to take legitimacy seriously is an important claim and one that he gives us good institutional reasons to take seriously.  Similarly, the emphasis that Habermas places upon the communicative process also makes an important contribution to deliberative theory, especially when we consider discursive processes in light of the additional burdens that marginalized people must overcome as they try to influence deliberative decisions.  The attention that Habermas pays to a richer account of inclusion coupled with his desire to counteract uneven power relations by fostering an ideal process and building checks into the circulation of power shows that he takes the problem of effective inclusion seriously.  The step that Habermas takes by engaging people in the public sphere is something that deliberative theorists (who tend to focus upon state institutions) ought to pay more attention to.  While the idea of fostering this engagement in the public sphere is one that I support, the way that Habermas institutionalizes his normative argument does not do enough to secure the kind of rich inclusion that his theory claims.

The institutional mechanisms that Habermas has in place to secure legitimacy depend upon the ability of the public sphere to hold the administrative sphere accountable.  While the way that Habermas structures the circulation of power is good in terms of the value that lies in making the administrative sphere look to the public sphere, the “generalizable interest” that is supposed to emerge from the public sphere occurs without the institutional checks that are necessary to ensure marginalized people’s effective inclusion in the public sphere as it generates social power.  Habermas’s expectation that the public sphere can generate a critical mass that moves their communicative power to influence political decisions takes a great deal on faith: faith that deliberants will adhere to an ideal process and that marginalized people with legitimate claims on the state will be able to use this communicative power to their advantage.  The assumption that people in the public sphere will be able to produce a generalizable interest that fully captures the concerns of all people in the public sphere is very unlikely in practice and this weakens his argument about the benefits of the circulation of power.

The relationship that Habermas envisions between the public sphere and the administrative sphere assumes an ideal process.  There are deliberative benefits that follow from his call for this, notably the continual revision of procedural guidelines that have made deliberative democratic theory better equipped to deal with disagreement and better able to address issues of marginalization.  At the same time the assumption of an ideal process poses a significant threat to the ability of actual deliberative processes (once we try to put his theory into practice) to address the differences in the amount of power and influence that deliberants have.  While the benefits of an ideal speech situation motivate deliberative theorists to pay more normative attention to flaws in deliberative processes – something that we definitely need more of – without ideal processes and speech situations Habermas cannot fully support his argument for deliberative legitimacy.  Although we can make similar critiques about many other deliberative democrats – that their theories are normatively weak as the result of difficulties in translating theory into practice – Habermas is more vulnerable than most.  

 As Young notes (2000, p. 178), inclusive processes of communication are central to deliberative legitimacy.  On her account, deliberation fails to be sufficiently inclusive if “some of the interests, opinions, and perspectives are suppressed, which would otherwise be formulated to persuade others of the importance of particular problems or solutions”, or “if some groups have difficulty getting heard for reasons of structural equality, cultural misunderstanding, or social prejudice.”

Habermas’ account of deliberation depends upon the circular production of power for its legitimacy.  Habermas’ theory works when the transformation of communicative power into deliberative influence takes the concerns of the public sphere (which already may not represent the interests of all people in the public sphere) seriously and because it expects people in the administrative sphere to know how they ought to process this power.  Because Habermas’ way of preventing effective exclusions is to balance the public and the administrative spheres, he does not pay enough attention to effective inclusion within the administrative sphere. 

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