Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere


The Transformation of the Public Sphere's Political Function

Summary The Transformation of the Public Sphere's Political Function

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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