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The Political Functions of the Public sphere

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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.

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