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Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas

The Transformation of the Public Sphere's Political Function

The Social-Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

The Transformation of the Public Sphere's Political Function, page 2

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The shift in function of the principle of publicity is based on a shift in the functions of the public sphere as a special realm. This shift can be seen clearly in its key institution - the press. The press became increasingly commercialized. As the press developed, a political function was added to its economic one; papers became leaders and carriers of public opinion. Only when the bourgeois constitutional state developed could the press concentrate on making a profit. The advertising business was important in this development. The original basis of publicist institutions was reversed. In the traditional public sphere, the institutions of the public engaged in rational-critical debate were protected from the state because they were in private hands. Now they were complexes of societal power. The press began to shape critical debate, rather than transmitting it. As the press is affected by advertising, private people as owners of property affected private people as a public. Habermas charts the history of the advertising business.

Economic advertising achieved an awareness of its political character in public relations work. Public relations directly attempts to manipulate public opinion, and to engineer consent by making people believe that they are critically forming an opinion. Publicity once meant exposing political domination: now it means an uncommitted friendly disposition. As companies make consumers feel like they are citizens when consuming, the state has to address its citizens like consumers.

A second apparatus developed to meet the publicity needs of the state and other institutions. The state bureaucracy borrowed the techniques of opinion management, and societal interest groups took over some bureaucratic functions. When private interests assumed political form, the public sphere became an arena in which conflicts must be settled. Political decisions became a form of bargaining. Responsibility for compromise moved from the legislator to the bureaucracy or parties. Such special-interest associations are private associations with great political power. They manipulate public opinion but are not controlled by it. There are similarities with old-style representative publicity. The refeudalized public sphere contains large organizations that manage and propagate their positions. Today the public sphere has to be created; it no longer exists.

Habermas discusses changes in German political parties. In modern parliaments, the interlocking of organized interests and their official translation into party machines makes parliament a committee for representing party lines. Publicity is an uncritical, staged display.

Any attempt to restore the liberal public sphere through reducing its expanded form will only weaken its remaining functions. The public sphere commanded by societal interests can perform political criticism, but only if it becomes a public sphere in the true sense. Publicity should be extended to institutions like the mass media and parties. They need to be organized according to a principle of publicity that allows public rational-critical debate. Today, publicity can be achieved only as a rationalization of the exercise of societal and political power under the mutual control of rival organizations committed to publicity. This is very different to staged publicity that aims at public acclamation.

Citizens entitled to services adopt an attitude of demand towards the state. In the social-welfare state, the political interests of the citizens are reduced to claims specific to certain branches and organizations. Whatever is left over is appropriated by parties for a vote. The degeneration of the public sphere is shown by the parties' need to generate one. But the democratic arrangement of elections still needs the liberal fiction of a public sphere. Parts of the liberal public sphere are preserved in the social composition of modern voters. Modern political discussions are restricted and often involve confirming previously-held views. The voting constituency is not a coherent public; different parts of it are influenced by different factors.

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