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Politics and Governance in Democratic Societies Towards General Good: From Laski to Habermas.


We have been taught by long experience that the part played by reason in politics is smaller than we have been content to suppose……Our task, assuredly, is to give reason the largest possible place in the conduct of affairs; either we must plan our civilization or we must perish

                           - Harold Laski

‘What is real ought to be rational’; so held Hegel. Since at any time in history, the real lagged behind the rational, the real had to be made rational; this being the implication. This was also Hegel’s dialectic which had such a major influence on the left Hegelians and particularly on Marx. The present paper re-invokes this idea, the spirit of which will permeate it. In these post-modern times, this could be intellectually and ‘politically’ incorrect. If this is so, the present paper will sail against the current.                                                     


The present times have been characterized not only as the end of history, the end of ideology, etc but also as the end of politics. More than three decades ago, Habermas agonized on the disappearance of politics in advanced capitalist societies. According to him, the state was increasingly playing the role of a manager. A techno-managerialism had come to inform the role of the state, this perhaps the only politics it was supposed to be characterized by (the dominant classes / capitalism).Consequently,  Habermas posits a crisis of legitimation that capitalist states undergo periodically, and even perhaps, essentially. This aspect will be dealt with subsequently.


The issue therefore has been not only ‘good’ politics but the disappearance of politics itself. Under the Hegelian – Habermas scheme-of-things, the ‘good’ can be construed as the real being made more and more rational. ‘Good’ politics, further, needs the appropriate ‘good’ context and situation; an ‘ideal-speech situation’, for instance. This process of rationalization is understood to be continuous. There is no final state of arrival. While the process of rationalization can be perceived in terms of the dialectic, the agency for this process are the people / citizens themselves accessing and impacting the state directly and through the public sphere. Both of these can be possible only in rational democratic societies. This has to be striven for. This point would be discussed subsequently.


Therefore, the ‘good’ state is characterized by ‘good’ politics. In an in-equalitarian state, for instance, there cannot be ‘good’ politics. There can only be good management , the dominant classes and groups being shareholders or even stakeholders and the state being a manager for them, the latter also certifying whether the state is being a good manager or a bad one( for a good study and critique of the Managerial State, see John Clarke and Janet Newman (1997)). Indeed, the grammar of politics is changing. Take the case of the ‘stakeholder’. Can a vagrant, a destitute, etc be considered a stakeholder? Do such persons have any rights? Even social sciences particularly economics, till recently treated them as non-subjects. They are non-persons, lumpenized by the social process and of use for ‘bad’ politics; for politics of murder (for instance) and murder of politics.


On the other hand, there can be ‘good’ governance concurrent with ‘bad’ politics or even no politics. This phenomenon can happen on two occasions. The business interests investing in a hinterland area which resists ‘development’ can demand ‘good’ governance on the part of the state. For, is the state today not a ‘facilitator’ state? Is it not its imperative to create a ‘conducive’ environment for business by stamping out dissent, manufacturing consent and thus clearing the area for capital accumulation? There ought not to be the scaring off, of investment even if that means scaring off the people and turning them into refugees in their own land. Thus is an ‘investment-friendly environment’ created by the state; even if the victors proceed to finish off the actual environment. Capital takes care of itself and the state, and the state takes care of the people. An academic colleague of mine recently wondered: why can’t there be clever governance?! In these days of ‘liquid modernity’ (Zygmunt Bauman) when everything is ‘liquidy’ this may also come about soon; when “all that is solid melts into air” (Marx and Engels); in these days when “car goes to clinic and man goes to workshop” (Vavilala Gopalakrishna).


The other occasion can be when only a mechanical governance is expected from the state, by all citizens who ‘matter’. This is mainly as regards the bureaucratic (departmental) and judicial functions and duties of the government. This is another form of techno-managerialism. Efficiency is the central idea here: the efficient functioning of a public hospital, efficient rail and road operations, efficient banking, etc are some of the expectations. The stakeholders here include the techno-manager-bureaucrat whose flights arrive on time and, on arrivals and departures he flies over the heads of people (on flyovers) to reach his destination. Basically, an efficiency in terms of the provision of services and removal of techno-economic irritants to the business class. In fact, corporate governance is a corporate cousin of the idea of governance in the state sphere, in a contemporary sense.


Indian Context: A Glimpse


Pranab Bardhan (2010), considers India ‘a case of bad governance’.


 “Our governance structures are quite dismal in our enforcement of law and order, in our economic regulatory framework, in civil administration (particularly at the urban municipal and rural panchayat level), and even in the private sector at the factory shopfloor level. This is behind our weak implementation of well-intentioned laws, our infrastructural deficit, our relatively low productivity in manufacturing and the poor transmission of the benefits of high economic growth to the majority of people. But nowhere is our governance as atrocious as in the case of delivery of basic social services (public health and sanitation, rudimentary healthcare, primary, secondary education, etc).” (Bardhan:Business Standard: January 20, 2010: 11).


In other words, Bardhan is commenting more or less on the mechanical aspect of governance.


 The reasons for the above tendency are also not far to seek, for Bardhan.


 “Our civil administration is organized in a way that is not performance-based. It is more seniority-based and the rewards for innovative performance are weak, and often not worth the political risks of rocking the boat….There are very few punishments for ineptitude or non-performance. Incentives are misaligned………..our elite is callous about the basic needs of the poor; this may be a reflection of traditional elite disdain for the lower classes and castes. But even when the latter come to power, the issue of basic social services gets low priority in comparison with larger symbolic issues of dignity politics (particularly in North India). A perceived slight in the speech of a higher-caste political leader resented by a lower-caste one will usually cause much more of an uproar than if the same leader’s policy neglect keeps hundreds of thousands of children severely malnourished in the same lower caste. The issue of job reservation for backward castes catches the public imagination more fervently than that of child mortality or school dropouts that afflict the majority in those communities. Thus the demand from below for those basic services is as inarticulate as their supply from above is deficient.” (ibid).


Years ago, in his Asian Drama, Gunnar Myrdal pointed out the central dilemma – the dilemma of inequality. “Efforts to create machinery for self-government, cooperation, and popular participation without changing the basic social and economic structure are essentially attempts to bypass the equality issue. And this attempt to evade the problem of inequality is in large part responsible for the failure of these reform policies” (Myrdal:1968:883). Myrdal also points out another dilemma – the Dilemma of Voluntariness. Fundamentally, the question for Myrdal is, how to induce people to participate and cooperate in remedying all the less satisfactory conditions that make a country underdeveloped. This is in the context of the general desire to avoid compulsion and to work exclusively by means of persuasion and incentives. Myrdal concludes that “there is little hope in South Asia for rapid development without greater social discipline. To begin with, in the absence of more discipline – which will not appear without regulations backed by compulsion – all measures…….will be largely ineffective. In principle, discipline can be effected within the framework of whatever degree of political democracy a country can achieve; in the end nothing is more dangerous for democracy than lack of discipline. But the political and social conditions in these countries block the enactment of regulations that impose greater obligations; even when laws are enacted, they cannot be easily enforced” (ibid: 895).


Myrdal thus arrives at his conception of the ‘soft state’.


 “When we characterize these countries as ‘soft states’ we mean that, throughout the region, national governments require extraordinarily little of their citizens. There are few obligations either to do things in the interest of the community or to avoid actions opposed to that interest. Even those obligations that do exist are enforced inadequately if at all. This low level of social discipline is one of the fundamental differences between the South Asian countries today and western countries at the beginning of industrialization…..considerable laxity, and much arbitrariness, in the observance of the obligations, not least in those countries where the social and economic inequalities were greatest. Cruelty towards the lower strata was accompanied by petty obstructionism and indiscipline on their part and indulgence on the part of the privileged groups in low levels of performance, efficiency and punctuality”(ibid: 896).


It can thus be seen how two social scientists, one writing in the end of sixties of the last century and, the other writing today arrive at the same diagnosis and conclusions. There is a predominant idea of mechanical governance in their thinking. However, mechanical governance can become organic governance only if the nature and character of the state undergoes radical change (towards and in a social democracy). Organic governance presupposes ‘good politics’, good politics presupposes a social democratic state and a social democratic state presupposes a social democratic society.


Only that can be ‘good’ politics that mean politics for the general good. The ‘general’ good does not mean that there can be no sectional or particular interests in that society. The sectional or the particular are, however, resolved in the light of the general, keeping in view the general interest. It is noteworthy that shades of this idea are also found in ancient Indian political thinking


                       Between individual (interest) and family, prefer the family

                       Between family and village, prefer the village

                       Between the village and the country, prefer the country


The classical sociologist Max Weber spoke of two kinds of politicians – those who live for politics and those who live off politics. “An individual who relies upon his political activities to supply his main source of income lives ‘off’ politics; a man who engages in full-time political activities, but who does not receive incomes from this source lives ‘for’ politics” (Giddens: 1996: 168). Though Weber observes that persons who live for politics are usually drawn from a propertied elite, this does not imply that such politicians will pursue policies which are wholly directed towards favouring the interests of the class or status group from which they originate (ibid). Though this idea is laudable, yet this is essentially voluntarist in nature. It cannot be institutionalized.     


 Politics of and for the general good, as an institutionalized practice, can only be a feature of real social democratic societies. In societies heading for or actually being of that kind, the state would be on a continuum between liberal democracy and social democracy. Such a society and state ought to be constituted; it cannot be self-constituting by a process of determinism. It would be constituted by the people, rational, politically conscious and informed by a moral consciousness and communicative rationality. This is a part of the (unfinished) project of modernity.  


 Therefore, the state is the first consideration followed by the conditions and prospects for good politics and governance. That the latter would be possible only in more and more democratizing societies characterized by rationality and communicative action, is the stand of the present paper.


This question of the state has deeply concerned, among others, two notable European thinkers, one British and the other German; both of whom having one thing in common-they being social democrats: Harold Laski and Jurgen Habermas. The nature and character of the state in capitalist society and democratic possibilities therein concerned both of them. Both can be said to have worked from the premise of the theory of the liberal state. But, both of them, similarly and dissimilarly, developed critical positions and understanding regarding the liberal state. The actually-existing-liberal state in all its versions did not impress them, particularly Habermas who has been, in terms of age, much younger to Laski and who has lived to see twentieth century in its fullness (and the state therein). The actual had to be made rational. Theoretically and ideologically, Laski finds fulfillment in Habermas.


Laski and the State


In his seminal writing, A Grammar of Politics, first published in 1925, Laski raised a fundamental issue – the nature of the state itself. According to him, “there is no avenue of politics into which (this issue) does not enter. The limits of state intervention, the validity of the democratic hypothesis, the place of the executive in the scheme of government, the relation of expert to amateur in the processes of administration and legislation, the nature of law in general, and of international law in particular, the claims of reason in politics, the function of leadership-all these, to take only some outstanding examples, have been found to require reassessment and re-definition.” (Laski:1977: ii).


According to Laski, the title of the state to obedience lay in its performance of three functions: (1) it secured order, (2) it provided a technique of peaceful change, and (3) it enabled demand to be satisfied on the widest possible scale. While this is so, the main ground for attack on the liberal state does not lie in a denial that the state-power secures order. What is argued is that what the order maintained by the state secures does not provide a technique of peaceful change and does not permit demand to be satisfied on the largest possible scale. This is because the coercive power of the state is used to protect and promote in that society the interest of those who own the means of production. The state expresses a will to maintain a given system of class-relations. There may be more or less coercion at any given moment, according as the economic condition of society enables more or less concessions of material well-being to be made to those excluded from the privileges of ownership. Laski goes on to argue that, therefore, any state in which the instruments of production are privately owned cannot, by its inherent nature, achieve either the second or the third objective that he has listed above.


The state cannot provide a technique of peaceful change. This is because, men who have the privileges of ownership seek to maintain them, the more vehemently as they contract; and they are certain to be resisted by those excluded from them as these find their expectation of increasing material welfare disappointed. The only way open to the latter, if they wish to avoid this disappointment, is to capture state-power in order to use it for a re-definition of class relations. Theoretically, no doubt, this can be done peacefully in a constitutional system based on universal suffrage. In fact, historically, whenever an attempt at such re-definition has been made, it has always been resisted by the owners of property who, thereby, have been possessed of state power. The result of the incompatibility of the views of the use to which the state power should be put is revolution. This, in its nature, is essentially a battle for the maintenance or change of the objectives to which the state power is devoted (ibid).


The state, further, cannot in this context achieve its end of satisfying demand on the largest possible scale. For the demand satisfied in terms of its legal postulates is effective demand; and the nature of this depends upon the system of property in the given society. Where, as in the capitalist state, the essential incentive to production is the making of profit, it follows that in the process of distribution there will not be either (a) an equal claim upon what there is of common welfare or (b) such a rational justification of differences in reward as will relate them to a good in which the welfare of those discriminated against is involved; in a word in such a society the distributive process has no inherent connection with the end of justice. But this is to say that in such a society the coercive power of the state is used to promote differences in relation to the satisfaction of demand which may be unjust. Only the capture of the state, followed by the re-definition of its legal postulates, could remedy this condition (ibid).


According to Laski, men have been asked to accept a formal political democracy as good in itself without taking regard to the complex of economic relationships in which that formal political democracy is involved……The motives to production in a capitalist society are in contrast with the theoretical end a democracy seeks to serve. In a capitalist society, the motive to production is profit for the owner of the instruments of production. In a democracy, the citizen seeks, by the use of his political power, to use the authority of the state to increase the material well-being at his disposal.


But here the difficulties of capitalist democracy come into the foreground. The concern of the capitalist is profit; the concern of the masses is material well-being. When the contraction of the economic system limits profit-making, the results are unemployment and a lowered standard of life. This can be met for a period. But since the masses use their political power to insist, at some stage, in an increase in material welfare, they are driven to attack the class-relations in which they are involved to secure it. Their political power thus becomes a challenge to the economic power of the owning class. The latter has then the alternatives of cooperating peacefully in the re-definition of the legal postulates of the state or of suppressing a democratic system in which their privileges are threatened by the voting powers of the masses. This contradiction threatens the security of the owning class. They begin to see the democratic system in the light of threat to their security. They insist that democracy must conform to the end capitalism seeks to serve.


Such is Laski’s critique of the liberal state. In such a state, the dominant class would have the final say as regards matters political. As regards governance, there would be the governance mainly for the pursuit of the interests of capital as well as mechanical governance. There certainly would be no scope for organic governance. However, he also advances the argument that in a pluralist state, the possibility of avoiding conflicts over property would make for a more meaningful democratic politics. In such a context, one can assume that there could be some scope for organic governance to strike roots and develop, a context which would also be more equalitarian. This context would also find a position in the continuum from liberal to social democracy, as mentioned earlier. This is also, in an essential sense, an anticipation or precursor of Habermas and his much more comprehensive, explicit and expansive theoretical formulations.


For Laski, the objective of Pluralism must be a classless society. The state, in such a society, has no need for using its supreme coercive power. It becomes possible to conceive of a society in which (a) men have an equal claim on the common good and (b) differentiation in response to that equal claim can be so made that the good of those differentiated against is involved in the good of those in whose favour the differentiation is made. In such a society we remove … conflicts based on property. According to Laski, it is these conflicts which render normally necessary the vast apparatus of state-coercion. If the main ground of conflict is thus removed, it becomes possible to conceive of a social organization in which the truly federal nature of society receives institutional expression. And in such a social organization, authority can be pluralistic both in form and expression. The prospect of immense institutional changes comes at once into view.


I now recognize that the Pluralist attitude to the state and law was a stage on the road to an acceptance of the Marxian attitude to them. Only by means of Marxism can I explain phenomena like the state as it appears in Fascist countries. That state seeks the total absorption of the individual within the framework of its coercive apparatus precisely because it is there, nakedly and without shame, what the state, covertly and apologetically is, in capitalist democracies like Great Britain or the United States. To limit its power, as the Pluralist sought to limit its power, we must destroy the class-structure of society; for the state is simply the executive instrument of the class in society which owns the means of production. When a class-society in this sense is destroyed, the need for the state, as a sovereign instrument of coercion disappears;….As that is achieved, both the nature of authority and the law it ordains undergo a fundamental transformation (ibid).


Needless to say, the above has implications for politics and governance in that society. Dominant-class governance in the pursuit of capital accumulation would give place to an organic governance by the people.


But here, Laski sounds a caveat. The assumption is that the average man is a political animal, that he can be made to show interest in affairs of state and that such interest may be made to coincide with understanding adequate to the democratic conduct of affairs. Laski is skeptical of such assumptions. Any view of modern society reveals how large is the number of men from whom the sense of the state is absent. They remain obstinately enfolded in a narrow sphere of private interest…….. They view the political conflict as a drama in which they have no part. They show no interest in its actors or its scenes. They ask only that their private affairs remain unfettered by public interruption (ibid:42)..


Laski observes that such a situation might mean one of two things. It might mean that we can discover a body of persons to whom the guardianship of the state might, as a matter of nature, be entrusted. Or, in the second place, it is clear that the private affairs of men have in fact a consistent public connotation; they can be kept unfettered only by attention to politics and not by indifference to them. In a way, Laski is answering Myrdal’s dilemma of the ‘soft state’. Men have to be trained in citizenship which Laski regards as a discipline. Though even in a democracy an aristocracy by delegation can exist, yet, men have to be made to grow to their full stature which will happen only in the environment of responsibility.


In other words, what Myrdal lamented about (the absence), and what Laski exhorted (the presence), was people’s involvement and participation in political affairs in society. If the latter can be taken as an objective or goal in political theory, Habermas provides the means of achieving the same. It is not as if means exist in a prefabricated state which now have to be assembled in accordance with a design (in fact, the ‘engineering’ idea was once very popular). The means themselves have to be evolved along with the activity of the people, through communicative action. The paper presently focuses on this issue. 



It is held that rationality and communicative action are precursors to good politics even in India. This is the chief public intellectual project in India; its anathema being a reactive, emotive, melodramatic mindset that characterizes public intellectuals in India, particularly in the south. This aspect would be touched upon subsequently.  


The capacity of the liberal state to ensure the general good of all people in (capitalist) society was doubted by many a theorist all along. Now, Laski was neither a Soviet Marxist nor a western one. But his observations on the liberal state and, that too, in his time, provide an authentic critique of the state in capitalist society which, arguably, holds essentially good, even in the present period. There have been trenchant critiques even of the liberal state in its welfarist avatar. A notable (left) text in this regard is Ian Gough (1979).


Gough observes that, in the 1960s, radicals and Marxists were analyzing the welfare state as a repressive mechanism of social control: social work, the schools, housing departments………. All were seen as means of controlling and / or adapting rebellious and non-conforming groups in society to the needs of capitalism. Yet in the 1970s, these same groups were rushing to defend the welfare state against the ‘cuts’ and other attacks on it……. So, is the welfare state an agency of repression, or a system for enlarging human needs and mitigating rigours of the free-market economy? An aid to capital accumulation and profits or a ‘social wage’ to be defended and enlarged like the money in your pay-packet? Capitalist fraud or working-class victory? (Gough: 1979: 11).


Gough goes on to advance the argument that it is not the Marxist analysis of the welfare state that is contradictory, but the welfare state itself. According to him, the welfare state exhibits positive and negative features within a contradictory unity. It inevitably reflects the root contradiction of capitalist society: that between the forces of production and the relations of production…….The roots of this contradiction within the welfare state, though expressed within the state and the sphere of politics and ideology, lie within the capitalist mode of production. This is a way of organizing production whereby all individuals are subject to inanimate market forces; what Marx called as the ‘law of value’…….It differs utterly from an economic system which serves to meet human needs…(ibid).


The point is that the liberal state can be effectively used for the general good only by inundating and permeating it with social democratic ideas and practices. This is where Habermas comes in.   


Habermas and the State


Habermas’s early analysis of the state in capitalist society, in the mid-seventies, came nearly half a century after Laski’s seminal work. During this span of time, capitalism came to display some features that were not present during Laski’s time. It is no wonder therefore that there is a sharp difference between Laski’s simplistic understanding of the state on Marxist terms and a Left understanding developed by Habermas. According to Habermas, the distinctive features of twentieth century capitalism included the expanded role of the state in the economy; a relatively high standard of living enjoyed by the majority of the population, and not just by the dominant classes; large-scale replacement of the revolutionary politics of the nineteenth century by party politics due to the expansion of democracy and the right to vote; etc (Edgar: 2006: 6). In sum, “ contemporary capitalism is more stable than nineteenth-century capitalism. A managed economy no longer suffers the catastrophic lurches between boom and bust that characterized the nineteenth century free market, and the relative material affluence of the majority of the population secures their continued commitment to the capitalist system” (ibid: 6-7).


Thus, with reference to a major aspect of socio-economic life of the society, viz. the material well-being of the masses, Habermas differs with Laski. However, what is the character of politics in such a set-up? The fact is that in contemporary capitalist society, the state, having become a managerial state, considers itself answerable to the people by managing the economy well. But in times of economic crisis, the efforts that the state makes has to be supported by the citizens (legitimation). The loyalty of the citizenry to the state increasingly gets founded on the managerial capacity of the state. According to Habermas, legitimation has increasingly become difficult as better-educated and thus better-informed and more sophisticated citizens will require rational justification for the state’s and the economy’s actions, and will not be bought off with more material wealth, let alone mere propaganda or rhetoric……….The very improvements that it offers to people’s lives, in terms of better education, greater political emancipation and long-term material security, may provide the grounds for a widespread questioning of the values of capitalism and the continuing political and material inequalities that it sustains (ibid:8).


Thus, the continuing popular protests against capitalism, from the students’ movement of 1968, through ecological and nuclear disarmament protests in the 1970s and 1980s, to the mass protests at G8 summits and the anti-Gulf War protests in the 1990s and in the first decade of the new century, alongside a gradual decline in the proportion of the European population voting, and widespread public apathy and cynicism about organized politics, all bear witness to Habermas’s point (ibid).


In the capitalist, or, for that matter, in a modern industrial society, science and technology are harnessed to the aim of delivering stable and extended economic growth. The scope of politics becomes basically reduced to who can run the economy best – a matter of technical decision-making; the scienticisation of politics. For Habermas however, what others see in the above phenomena as the end of ideology – the draining away of overall values and ideals in favour of pragmatic, technocratic government – ought to be regarded as the very core of what ideology is. “For, politics should concern struggles over just those values and ideals which can make life meaningful for us. The repression of meaning in positivism, in the more technical spheres of philosophy and social theory, has as its counterpart the repression of meaning in many spheres of modern life” (Giddens in Skinner(ed) ).


Despite class compromises in contemporary societies, and the role of the Keynesian interventionist state, class divisions do not disappear. They get displaced elsewhere and reappear in different guise, shaping new forms of oppositional movements. Due to economic life today being administered by governments and big business, economic crises tend to become political crises. For Habermas, these are more threatening to the system because, the technocratic character of modern politics cannot generate deep loyalty to the political order. Politics having become a largely pragmatic affair, the mass of population feels no commitment to the political system, and becomes alienated from it if that system fails to maintain its narrow brief, i.e. To guide sustained economic growth (ibid).


In such circumstances, the political system faces crisis of legitimation. Rather than economic contradiction, the tendency to legitimation crisis is, for Habermas, the most deep- lying contradictions of modern capitalism. Just as class division and economic instability gave rise to the labour movement in the nineteenth century, so this emerging contradiction tends to spawn new social movements in the contemporary phase. These are movements which attempt to inject back into political life the values it has lost; the relations between human beings and the natural world, and human beings with one another. Such relations involve fundamental moral values, and there are limits to the degree to which they can be subordinated to technocratic imperatives. At those limits, oppositional movements arise which fights back, to recover lost values or change existing values; ecological movements, religious revival movements, and so on (ibid).        


The above can be better understood with reference to a few fundamental concepts of Habermas, particularly, System and life-world. According to Habermas, state is a system and power is the medium through which it is guided and organized. As such, it is at odds with the lifeworld through which ordinary people give meaning to their world and formulate their opinions and values…….. Habermas sets himself the task of exploring how social institutions in the lifeworld can be reformed, in order to impose pressure upon the administrative and legal systems, and thus to transform the public opinion that is formulated within the lifeworld into a communicative power that will influence the administrative power of the state. In a just society, the administrative power of the state will thus be grounded in the opinions, values and interests of citizens who are subject to administrative power (ibid:4).


The above situation presupposes that there is a communicative rationality in society, notably in the public sphere. Communicative rationality makes possible communicative action. The former is considered by Habermas as the approach to the rational resolution of problems over truth and moral goodness. It is characterized by free and open discussion by all relevant persons, with a final decision being dependent on the strength of better argument, and never upon any form of coercion (ibid:23). This in turn necessitates an ideal speech situation: the conditions for free and transparent communication.


The ideal speech situation can be understood as the projection of conditions for a perfect discussion. They entail that there is no imbalance of power between the participants to the conversation. This means that nobody can force his opinions upon anyone else, and cannot exclude somebody from the discussions, or prevent them raising problems or challenges. If such conditions held, then Habermas states that any agreement that the participants came to would be based upon the force of rational argument alone (ibid:65).


Habermas was aware about the above concept being dismissed as Utopian. Initially he saw the concept as a critical tool. It does not describe a realisable set of conditions, but is rather used to highlight the imperfections of actual communication. To some degree, all real communication will be distorted, not least by the imbalances of power that silence some of the parties who should be involved in the discussion, and should have the right to protest against any decision made (ibid).


Ideal speech situation means the presence of a discourse ethics; the normative theory that is implicit in the rules of communication that are presupposed by members of society. Any communication may be challenged as to its meaning, its truth, sincerity of the person saying it, and the person’s right to say it (the four Validity-Claims). It is also important to remember that, for Habermas, speech may also mean action. For example, the person’s right to speak may also be linked to what he can do. On either or both these counts, the person can be challenged and may have to defend one’s position from attack Thus, when ordinary communications break-down, participants resort to discourse. In discourse, the validity of one’s statement (or action) can be challenged whereby one has to defend oneself (or advance or articulate the idea / statement). Thus, discourse ethics arises from the possibility of having to defend the rightfulness of what a competent participant in the speech-situation is saying.    


The above situation ensures that communicative reason / rationality operate in society; the process of problem solving and conflict resolution through open discussion. This gets manifested as communicative power, the influence that citizens may exert upon a state, through the rational discussion of their interests, values and identities in the public sphere. Habermas uses the concept of the public sphere, in particular, to explore the relationship between the opinions of the people, as those who are subject to the law, and the official processes through which laws are created and enacted. In a just society, the people who are subject to the law must also be those who create that law. The law must therefore be grounded in public opinion (ibid:23)


For Habermas, public institutions such as community and educational groups, churches, voluntary organizations and the mass media can ideally act as channels through which public opinion is transformed into communicative power. This, in turn, is transformed by the state into administrative power, so that it can be realized as enforceable laws that will constrain and direct the actions of citizens. In the absence of communicative power, administrative structures of state, according to Habermas, would run according to their own logic.


It would be evident from the above understanding of Habermas that the deployment of his schema presupposes (and concurrent) a society and the state in the process of rationalization. The latter, among other things, implies a movement from ‘what is’ to ‘what should be’. It means subscribing to a project of Modernity and to the central features of that project. It means eschewing the parochial, primordial, ascribed, archaic modes of thoughts, practices and institutions and imbibing a spirit of universalism. Today, this is a very controversial statement to make and a stand to take. This anyway is the central value-premise of this paper.


Laski’s problem was with the actually-existing liberal state, a state whose potential was yet to be realized. Myrdal expressed skepticism about a project that was yet to take-off properly. Yet, his skepticism had a certain basis in the fact that the modern state was being grafted or superimposed on a skeletal structure that had several sub-structures either not in existence, or being in the nascent stage of development. The logic of Habermas however is constant development; of the manifestation of a dialectic, in and through social action. It is social action that can make the liberal state identifiable with the general good. It is social action that is the means for exploring the full potential of the liberal state. A social action that is informed and guided by social democratic values and ideas that are rational, secular, universal and non-divisive. Political practice in such a scenario would doubtless be good, and governance becoming more and more, an organic governance.     







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