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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

On The Concept of Public Opinion

Summary

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.

The industry of political marketing emerges when parties feel obliged to influence voting decisions in this way. Political marketing depends on the empirical techniques of market and opinion research. In the manipulated public sphere it creates, an acclamation-prone mood predominates. Appeals to the public are calculated to give predictable results. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to satisfy the real needs of the voters. But the offers made by advertising psychology form a consensus better suited to the needs of an absolutist regime than a democratic constitutional state. If political decisions are made to manipulate voters in a public sphere created for this purpose, they are removed from the process of rational-critical argument and the possibility of voting against them.

The gap between the functions the public sphere fulfils today, and those it should fill in a democratic state are obvious when the transfer to a social- welfare state is legislated. In the first modern constitutions, subdivisions of basic rights are the image of the liberal public sphere. Liberal basic rights protected "private" areas from state intervention. They also guaranteed equal opportunity and participation in generating wealth and public opinion. The liberal state intended to order the system of coexistence in society as a whole. The social-welfare state continued the tradition of the constitutional state because it too wanted a legal order that comprised state and society. As the state took on social functions, it had to work out how "justice" could be administered through intervention. Almost all western democracies have programmatic statements relating to the adaptation of legal institutions of social welfare. Guarantees of basic rights depend on a separation of private sphere and public sphere operating in the political realm not subject to state intervention. Such guarantees are supplemented by basic social rights because the demarcation of areas of non-intervention by the state are not honored. Only if the state guarantees this can the political order remain faithful to the earlier idea of a public sphere. But liberal rights have to be interpreted as guarantees of participation if they are to fulfil their purpose. A guarantee that the state will not interfere is not enough; it needs to interfere actively to ensure participation. What can no longer be guaranteed in relationships between public and private spheres must be positively granted - a share in social benefits and participation in the institutions of the public sphere.

The political public sphere of the welfare state shows two competing tendencies; staged and manipulative publicity and the critical process of public communication. This criticism conflicts with manipulative publicity. The more committed it is to social rights, the less a state will accept that the public sphere is a reality. The extent to which staged publicity prevails shows how much the exercise of political and social authority is regulated.

The extent to which the public sphere can be realized depends on resolving two problems. 1) The expertise of highly specialized experts is removed from the supervision of rationally debating bodies. 2) Modern society raises the possibility of the mutual satisfaction of needs in an "affluent society". Also, the possibility of global destruction has arisen. Universal interest in ending the state of nature in international relations has emerged.

The outcome of the struggle between critical and staged publicity remains open. Unlike the idea of the bourgeois public sphere in the liberal period, publicity regarding the exercise and balance of political power is not ideology. Rather, it ends ideology.

Analysis

Habermas treats the press as a case study of the changes that occurred in the public sphere. His treatment of literary journalism shows how the economic and political functions of the press developed together. Making money and shaping or reflecting public opinion were related in complex ways. The history of the press mirrors that of state and society. The press began as a key private institution of rational-critical debate; it provoked and transmitted this debate, but did not shape it. It was protected from state control because it was privately owned. However, the development of advertising changed this situation.

Advertising is the representation of private interests to the public in an attempt to influence the public. It represents the blurring of private and public, and is a result of the dominance of private interests in the public sphere. Public relations is the less subtle cousin of advertising. It involves the direct manipulation of public opinion. This manipulation is unconscious: people believe that they are being given all the necessary information, and being allowed to reason critically. In fact, they are being tricked into approving of whatever policy the politicians present to them. The increased and manipulative role of private interests in the political public sphere is matched by state, which takes over the techniques of public relations itself. Those who follow modern American politics will find this a familiar story.

Organizations that use these techniques are generally private associations that come from civil society: pressure groups, political parties or even charities. They have great power because they access and control the power of the public. However, they are often unaccountable. They public that they manipulate has lost its power to criticize them. Similarly, parliament is manipulated and sidelined by such large organizations.

The general tendency that Habermas identifies is for the real public sphere to disappear altogether. All that remains is a mass, uncritical public that is manipulated into a sham-public at election-time. It is a shadow of its former self.

Other forms of opinion manipulation exist in the modern "public sphere". Political marketing aims to influence the public at election time. It aims to create a public ready to applaud whatever rubbish the politicians throw at them, and rules out the possibility of rational, critical opposition. Habermas's opinion of modern politics in general is not favorable.

The establishment of the social-welfare state (which is the norm in Western Europe) reveals the gap between the model public sphere and reality. The constitution of the social-welfare state is a complex mix of aspects of the bourgeois state and modern attempts to guarantee a commitment to state intervention in welfare questions.

In the face of such a negative picture of modern politics, Habermas makes several suggestions about what might be done. Reducing the expanded public sphere by restricting the number of people eligible to vote is not the answer, he claims. Rather, the corrupted public sphere needs to reassert its true form. Organizations and institutions need to be subjected to publicity. Their activities and structure must be publicly known and rationally debated.

The new social-political form of domination needs to be rationalized and legitimated by different organizations committed to publicity. Only this procedure can check domination. Staged publicity is no substitute.

Habermas believes that the reassertion of an authentic public sphere is possible and necessary. Its success depends on the ability of the public to engage with and debate new technology and specialized bureaucracy such as the complexities of new weapons technology or public finance. His second problem is specific to the latter stages of a developed capitalist society. Habermas has based his discussion of the modern debased public sphere on the idea that interest groups are bound to compete. But what if economic growth and the expansion of wealth in society could satisfy all these needs at once? Sadly, this question seems less approachable now. A more developed capitalist society than the one in which Habermas lived is still struggling to extract even manufactured consensus in some cases. Habermas's third point, about the possibility of global destruction, seems more relevant today.

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