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Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere


The Political Functions of the Public sphere

Summary The Political Functions of the Public sphere

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.


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.

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