Skip over navigation

Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas

The Political Functions of the Public sphere

Social Structures of the Public Sphere

Bourgeois Public Sphere: Idea and Ideology

Summary

The political public sphere first arose in Britain at the turn of the eighteenth century, when an assembly of estates turned into a modern parliament. Why this occurred earlier in Britain is uncertain. The literary public sphere became political on the continent only when the capitalist stage of production advanced more. Conflict emerged in Britain between the expansive interests of manufacturing and the restrictive interests of finance capital. In post-revolutionary Britain, this conflict involved wider strata because the capitalist mode of production extended further. The founding of the Bank of England in 1694, the elimination of censorship and the first cabinet government were important to this development. They increased the importance of capital, allowed rational-critical debate to thrive, and increased the role of parliament in state authority. The English press developed. The Tory and Whig parties were very adept at forming public opinion. Comment and criticism about the Crown and Parliament became an institution called the Fourth Estate. It transformed a public authority that was now called before the public. Parliament's response to this criticism was to make its votes and discussions secret. The first reform bill of 1834 made Parliament an organ of public opinion, not a target of its comment. English constitutional development made the continental revolutions superfluous.

Critical public opinion followed events at Westminster, regardless of whether people could vote. The minority that did not get its way in Parliament could appeal to public opinion outside it. From the eighteenth century onwards, people distinguished between the "sense of the people" and election results. By the nineteenth century, public involvement in the critical debate of political issues broke the exclusivity of Parliament.

A public arose in France, but not until the mid eighteenth century. Before the revolution, censorship, underdeveloped political journalism and a lack of estates assemblies prevented it becoming institutionalised. The revolution enshrined the right to free communication and created what had taken 100 years of slow development in Britain. In Germany, something like parliamentary life emerged only briefly after the July Revolution.

The actual function of the public sphere can be understood only in relation to a specific phase in the development of civil society, where exchange and labor were largely freed from government control. The public sphere as an element in the political realm was given the status of an organ for the self- articulation of civil society according to its needs. Its preconditions were a liberalized market and the complete privatization of civil society. It was a domain separate from public authority, but subject to mercantilist regulation. Commodity owners gained private autonomy from the expansion of this sphere. The concept of the private developed from the concept of free control over capitalist property, and is evident in the history of private law. The Continental process of codification developed a system of norms to secure an entirely private sphere. But private law remained part of state authority; it took a while for the freedom of labor and property to come in to effect.

According to civil society's idea of itself, the system of free competition was self-regulating. There could be no external intervention in the market if it were to secure everyone's well being. A society governed by the free market presented itself as free from all coercion. The free market was protected from the state by legal safeguards; intervention was dangerous and unpredictable. The bourgeois constitutional state established the political public sphere as an organ of state to ensure a link between public opinion and law. But there was a contradiction, because the law involved both will (and therefore power and violence) and reason. The rule of law aimed to abolish all domination.

The bourgeois idea of a law-governed state aimed to abolish the idea of the state as a dominating instrument. Because critical public debate is noncoercive inquiry, a legislator who listened to public opinion could claim not to be coercive. But legislative power had elements of domination in it. Public opinion wanted to be neither a check on power nor power itself. The domination of the public attempted to dissolve domination. Public debate was supposed to transform will into a reason that was a public consensus about the common interest.

The functions of the public sphere were often spelled out in legislation. Basic rights were established; they concerned critical debate, individual freedom and property transactions. Basic rights guaranteed the public and private spheres, the institutions of the public sphere (press and parties) and the foundations of autonomy (family, property). The order that "all power comes from the people" shows the character of the constitutional establishment of the political public sphere as an order of domination. Generally, constitutional states pretended to ensure the subordination of public power to a private sphere free from domination.

The public sphere of civil society depended on the principle of universal access. No group could be excluded; but the public assumed a specific form - the bourgeois reading public of the eighteenth century. Education and property were the two key criteria for entry. Restriction of the franchise did not imply a restriction of the public sphere; it could be seen as the legal ratification of status acquired in the private sphere. Universal accessibility must be determined by the structure of civil society. The public sphere was safeguarded when economic criteria gave everyone an equal chance of admission. Classical political economy laid out these conditions, which were not fulfilled in the nineteenth century.

No break between man and citizen existed for the private person as long as man was the owner of property that he protected as a citizen. Class interest was the basis of public opinion, but public opinion was still close to general opinion. If it had not been, it would have become power. The dominant class developed political institutions that embodied their own abolition. The public believed itself to have an ideology. Ideology perhaps only exists from this period on. The origin of ideology was the identification of the property owner with a human being as such, and the identification of the political public sphere with the literary public sphere. The developed public sphere of civil society was bound up with complicated social preconditions. But they changed, and the contradiction of a public sphere institutionalized in a constitutional state applied. A political order was founded in order to make domination superfluous.

Analysis

Habermas analyzes the structures and operation of the political public sphere. The first part of this section, however, takes a historical approach. Habermas attempts to explain the unusual nature of English politics in the eighteenth century. Once again, he argues on the basis of socio-economic developments.

Certain political and structural changes occurred in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that particularly favored critical public debate: the end of censorship, and economic and political changes favoring capital and parliament. It is important to remember that opinion differs amongst historians about when exactly the first "cabinet government" was, and that censorship was not entirely abolished in the eighteenth century. Indeed, it had in fact been completely abolished forty years before, during the Interregnum, only to be reinstated at the restoration of Charles II. Even if Habermas is not exact about these historical details, his general argument still holds.

The development of the press is part of the process Habermas describes. The press in eighteenth century England acted as a channel for public opinion, but also as a way of forming opinion. Habermas believes that the English press institutionalized a tradition of critical public debate. Public opinion and its influence on politics grew steadily in England, far outstripping developments in Europe. The relationship between Parliament and public opinion was complex, because parliamentary parties in the nineteenth century actively began to appeal to the public, just as it became more powerful and important.

An important gap existed in the public. The public was divided between those who critically used reason, and those who could vote or sit in Parliament. Habermas sees the English reform bills of the nineteenth century as attempting to remedy this gap, but also as evidence of the public asserting itself. Similar processes operate in France and Germany to institutionalize the public, but their development is initially slower. According to Habermas, the French Revolution takes the rapid approach to institutionalizing the public, whereas English social structures developed more gradually. The French revolution secured the place of public opinion within the French state, but it also relied upon appeals to an idea of the public to push through reforms. In all respects, however, England led the way.

Habermas now moves to a more generalized treatment of the operation and function of the political public sphere. He repeats and extends his arguments about the social and economic preconditions for its existence. This time, however, he establishes a link between civil society and the public sphere. A chain is established. The public sphere depends on civil society, because it articulates its interests, and civil society depends on a liberalized, free market. Civil society in this period is free from government intervention, but is regulated by its own laws.

There is a strong association between freedom of trade or the free market and political freedom. The private individual's freedom is linked to property, and trade in the market requires that market to be free. Like private property, the eighteenth and nineteenth century market has to be protected from state intervention. This is not a simple process, and requires a complex legal system, administered by the state itself.

The bourgeois constitutional state is the next key historical development. In many ways, it represents the state's response to the development of the public sphere. Its response is to institutionalize the public sphere as part of the state apparatus. In a previous section, Habermas argues that the public aimed to be the source of the authority of general laws. The bourgeois constitutional state achieved this aim by linking the public sphere to the idea of law.

By linking public opinion to law, legislators made a clever move. Habermas's analysis points out that law involves both reason (which formulates and justifies the law) and will (which enforces it). This definition of law establishes a value judgment. Will is a form of power that leads to domination, and is therefore undesirable. Public opinion, on the other hand, is associated with rational-critical debate. By linking it to the most powerful aspect of the state, one could legitimate the claim that the state was not a dominating force.

The constitutional state therefore used the public sphere as a way of legitimating its own power. In return, the functions of the public sphere were protected by legislation that established "basic rights". Habermas see the rights that form the basis of most constitutional states as protecting different aspects of the public sphere. He will go on to show how the public sphere does and can act as a real check on domination.

Habermas then returns to the idea of universal access. How can the public sphere be truly public if not all people are included? This is a central problem that continually resurfaces. The nineteenth-century answer to the problem was that restricted access to the public sphere could be justified if it resulted from conditions in civil society. If the economic conditions of civil society in theory allowed everyone the chance to own property and so participate in the public sphere, then no problem was apparent. As civil society was rigorously separated from the state, the state itself could not alter these conditions. This argument, which can be reduced to the idea that those too poor to vote are not disenfranchised but unfortunate, is not acceptable in a modern democracy. However, Habermas's argument rests on the fact that the bourgeois constitutional state was very far from the modern state. Habermas ends this section on the verge of another transition. The contradictions within the bourgeois constitutional state foreshadow its demise.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us