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Further Reflections on the Public Sphere Essay

The text is about relationship of state and civil society, the origins of and prospects for democracy and the impact of the media. A kind of rethinking of Habermas’ first major work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere published in 1962 and translated into English in 1989 which describes the development of a bourgeois public sphere in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as well as its subsequent decline. Habermas admits, his theory has changed since then and he reminds readers of these changes.

1.The Genesis and Concept of the Bourgeois Public Sphere

The public sphere (Öffentlichkeit ) is an area in social life (standing in-between private individuals and government authorities) where individuals can meet to freely discuss public matters, exchanged views and knowledge and through that discussion influence political action. A vibrant public sphere serves as a positive counterweight to government authorities (are out of the state control) and happens physically in face-to-face meetings in coffee houses and public squares as well as in books, theatre etc.

The public sphere emerged first in Britain and in the 18th century in Continental Europe. The newspapers, reading rooms, freemasonry lodges and coffeehouses marked the gradual emergence of the public sphere.

Habermas mentions Geoff Eley’s objection to his earlier depiction of bourgeois public sphere is an idealized conception. Habermas admits now the coexistence of several competing public spheres and groups, that were excluded form the dominant public sphere – the so called „plebian“ public sphere (like Jacobins, Chartist movement). Habermas influenced here by Guenter Lottes and greatly by Mikhail Bakhtin, who opened his eyes to the culture of common people as a violent counter project to the dominant public sphere. Habermas now views quite differently the exclusion of women as well.

Habermas asks himself – were women excluded from the dominant public sphere in the same fashion as the common people? He answers himself with „no“ – the exclusion of women had structuring significance, as it was happening not only in the public sphere, but also in the private sphere.

At the end of this chapter Habermas summons up: his bourgeois public sphere was formerly conceived too rigidly. In fact, from the very beginning a dominant bourgeois public collided with a plebeian (and female) one. As a result, the contrast between the early public sphere and the today’s decayed public sphere is no longer so deep.

2.The Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere: Three Revisions

This chapter traces the transition from the liberal bourgeois public sphere to the modern mass society of the social welfare state. Starting in the 1830s, a transformation of state and economy took shape. Clear borderlines between public and private and between state and society became blurred, as a result of interventionist state policies. The increasing re-integration and entwining (mísení se) of state and society resulted in the modern social welfare state.

In the subchapter 1 Habermas deals with the impact of these developments on the private sphere. Civil society was formerly totally private, there was no difference between social and family life. This changes with the emancipation of lower strata (workers), a polarization of social and intimate sphere arrives. Habermas describes a dispute among two schools in the 1950s, that of conservative Carl Schmitt school (and Ernst Fortshoff) and Marxist Wolfgang Abendroth, that influenced his considerations at that time, though today he distances himself from his approach.

In the subchapter 2 Habermas is concerned with changes in the structure of the public sphere and in the composition and behavior of the public. The infrastructure of the public sphere has changed due to changes in media, advertising and literature that has become oriented to new social groups (workers) as well as due to the collapse of the liberal associational life. Since the 1960s, when Habermas book was published, the opportunities for access to public communication became even more difficult.

The public sphere is today dominated by the mass media., which turned the critical public into a passive consumer public and caused a decay of the public sphere. Nevertheless, Habermas says his old concept of a unilinear development from a „culture-debating to a culture-consuming public“ was too simplistic and pessimistic. Habermas explains this by general situation of media effects studies at that time – he relied on Lazarsfeld’s behavioristic research and had no information brought later by Stuart Hall (audience does not simply passively accept a text).

Subchapter 3 deals with the legitimation process of mass democracy and two diverging concepts of public opinion – an informal, nonpublic opinion and a formal quasi public opinion (made by mass media), that often collide.

3.A Modified Theoretical Framework

The mass democracies constituted as social-welfare states can continue the principles of the liberal constitutional state only as long as they try to live up to the mandate of a public sphere that fulfills political functions. It is necessary to demonstrate how it may be possible for the public to set in motion a critical process of public communication. Habermas asks himself, weather there can emerge a general interest of the kind to which a public opinion can refer to as a criterion. Habermas could not resolve this problem before. Today he is able to reformulate the question and give an answer.

The ideals of bourgeois humanism function today as a utopian vision, which makes it tempting to idealize the bourgeois public sphere too much. Therefore Habermas suggests the foundations of the critical theory of society be laid at a deeper level and beyond the threshold of modern societies.

In the 1960s Habermas believed that society and its self-organization was a totality (celek) controlling all spheres of its life. This notion has become implausible today – e.g. economic system of a society is regulated independently through markets. Later emerged his dual concept of society – the internal subjective viewpoint of the “lifeworld” and the external viewpoint of the “system”. The aim today as he sees it is to erect a dam against an encroachment (narušování) of system on the lifeworld, to reach a balance between the social-integrative power of solidarity (lifeworld) and money + administrative power (system).

Communicative action serves to transmit and renew cultural knowledge, in a process of achieving mutual understandings. It then coordinates action towards social integration and solidarity. This can be met in traditional societies. Less often in posttraditional societies with their confused pluralism of various competing forms of life. Habermas criticizes Rousseau for his utopian concept of the general will of citizens in a democracy as a „consensus of hearts rather than of arguments“. Habermas sees the solution in the process of public communication itself.

Therefore democracy is rooted in public reasoning among equal citizens. State institutions are legitimate only when they establish a framework for free public deliberation (debata). Such a rational debate is the most suitable procedure for resolving moral-practical questions as well. The question remains how such a debate can be institutionalized so that it bridges the gap between self-interest and orientation to the common good (between the roles of client (private) and citizen (public)). Such a debate must meet two preconditions: presumption of impartiality and ability to transcend initial preferences. These conditions must be guaranteed by legal procedures (institutionalized) and they themselves shall be subject to the law. New institutions should be considered, that would counteract the trend toward the transmutation of citizens into clients (i.e. toward alienation of citizens from the political process).

Democracy shall be not restricted only to state institutional arrangements. They shall interplay with autonomous networks and groups with a spontaneous flow of communication, that are the one remaining embodiment of the altogether dispersed sovereignty of the people. Democratic public life cannot develop where matters of public importance are not discussed by citizens. However, discourses do not govern – the responsibility for practically consequential decisions must be based in an institution.

4.Civil Society or Political Public Sphere

Political public sphere is characterized by two processes: 1) the communicative generation of legitimate power 2) manipulative power of mass media. A public sphere need more than just state institutions – it requires a populace accustomed to freedom and the supportive spirit of differentially organized lifeworlds with their critical reflection and spontaneous communication – voluntary unions outside the realm of the state and the economy (church, independent media, leisure clubs etc.) They are not part of the system, but they have a political impact, as was seen in totalitarian regimes, e.g. in the communist states of Eastern and Central Europe. In Western-type democracies these associations are established within the institutional framework of the state. Habermas asks himself the question, to what extent such a public sphere dominated by mass media can bring about any changes. This can be answered only by means of empirical research.

He concludes with reference to a study No Sense of Place by J.Meyrowitz, who claims that electronic media dissolve social structures and boundaries (like in primitive societies). Habermas disagrees – new roles and constraints arise in the process of using electronic communication.

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