Habermass Concept Of Democracy And Public Sphere Media Essay

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Habermas is one of the most influential philosopher and cultural theorist in late-twentieth-century Germany. Throughout his life he focused his scholarly writings with a broad range of disciplines, including philosophy, social theory, anthropology, linguistics, ethics, educational theory, and public policy. Through his work, he basically tries to focus on the foundations of social theory, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics, particularly German politics. Throughout his research and wide range of publication he tries to find out the solution for various questions of like, what is "the public" and what kinds of power does it have in a representative democracy? How does "public opinion" shape political power and policy? How is the system of political power maintained in a democracy? [1] 

Although influenced by American pragmatism, action theory, and post structuralism, many of the central doctrines of Habermas' thought remain broadly Marxist in nature. He is also widely influenced by the Kantian ideology who believes in ubiquity of argument as the most valuable kernel of bourgeois public sphere. According to Kant, public sphere is the platform where rationality of arguments, not statuses or traditions was to be decisive. But what Habermas disagree with Kant is the exclusion of the quality of participation from the public sphere discourse. So, Habermas's social theory is often interpreted as moving over the years from a Hegelian-Marxist orientation to a sort of Kantian orientation. [2] 

Through his widely acclaimed book- "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere", Habermas has produced major works on the development of public discourse, the relation between radical theory and political practice, the conflicting influences informing human understanding, crises of legitimacy in the modern state and capitalist society, social evolution, and communicative social action. Habermas' main thrust to write this book was to expose what he thought the deceptive nature of free institutions in the West. Habermas argues that the coming of the capitalist stage of development marked the appearance of the public sphere. The growth in newspapers, journals, reading clubs, saloons, and coffeehouses in 18th century Europe, marked the gradual replacement of "representational" culture with the culture of participation. He argued that with the rise of the mass media, there occurred a public space which was outside of the control by the state, where individuals exchanged views and knowledge. Aristocrats played the most decisive role in the early bourgeois public sphere. The members of the bourgeois public started seeing themselves not just as the object of the state actions but as the opponent of public authority. Habermas argued that the institution created by these bourgeois is not just a set of interests and an opposition between state and society, but a rational-critical discourse on political matters.

Habermas, since inception was against "representational" or "monarchical" culture where only one party was active and the other passive. On the other hand he promoted the culture of public sphere which was characterized by a dialogue as individuals either interacted through conversation, or exchanged their rational views via the print media. This is the starting point of critical reasoning which entered the press during the later 18th century, supplementing the news with research articles, and later transformed into a new genre of periodicals.

Public sphere and Democracy

Democratization, According to Habermas is linked with emphasis on direct political participation which is the core of a democratic society and as an essential element in individual self-development. Habermas saw Britain as the most liberal country in Europe, where the culture of the public sphere emerged there first around 1700, and also remained over most of the 18th century in Continental Europe. He is also widely inspired by the French revolution which caused the collapse of "representational" culture, and become the starting point for the establishment of public participation and democracy

In his book "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere" 1962, Habermas contrasted several forms of an active, participatory bourgeois public sphere in the heroic era of liberal democracy with the more privatized forms of spectator politics in a bureaucratic industrial society in which the media and elites controlled the public sphere. [3] He argued that a "re-feudalization" of the public sphere began occurring in the late 19th century where the democracy was renamed with elite politics. This transformation involved with private interests assuming direct political functions, as a result of powerful corporations coming out to control and manipulate the media and the state. Habermas also identifies a simultaneous deformation of the public sphere through the advance of social welfare, the growth of culture industries, and the evolution of large private interests. Large newspapers aiming at profit, turned the press into an agent of manipulation. "It became the gate through which privileged private interests invaded the public sphere". [4] On the other hand, the state moreover started playing a more fundamental role in the private realm and everyday life, thus wearing away the difference between state and civil society, between the public and private sphere. So as the public sphere declined, citizens became consumers, dedicating themselves more to passive consumption and private concerns than to issues of the common good and democratic participation. [5] 

Habermas describes this era as a transition from the liberal public sphere which originated in the 18th century Europe through the Enlightenment and French Revolution to a media-dominated public sphere in the current era of what Habermas calls "welfare state capitalism and mass democracy." This historical transformation is grounded in which giant corporations and mass media have taken over the public sphere and transformed it from a sphere of rational debate into one of manipulative consumption and passivity (George Ritzer, 2004). Through the transformation, public opinion moves from rational discourse emerging from participation, debate, to the private opinion of polls or media experts. According to Lewis Edwin Hahn, rational debate and consensus has been replaced by managed discussion and manipulation by the of advertising and political consulting agencies. [6] To solve such problems, Habermas suggested that "a critical publicity brought to life within intra-organizational public spheres" might lead to democratization of the major institutions of civil society. [7] 

Habermas through his research tries to find out various concepts of democracy that prevailed in the human history, starting from Greek democracy to the forms of bourgeois democracy in the 18th century to current notions of democracy in welfare state capitalism. He contrasted the participatory democracy of the Greeks and radical democratic movements with the representative, parliamentary bourgeois democracy of the 19th century and the current attempts at reducing citizen participation in the welfare state. Habermas defended the earlier "radical sense of democracy" in which the people themselves would be sovereign in both the political and the economic realms against current forms of parliamentary democracy. Hence, Habermas aligns himself with the current of "strong democracy" associated with Rousseau, Marx, and Dewey. [8] Habermas throughout his life was in favor of principles of popular sovereignty, formal law, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and civil liberties which are regarded as part of the progressive custom of bourgeois society.

To solve the problem of representative democracy, he tries to develop a normative concept of democracy which he could use as a standard for an "immanent critique" of existing welfare state democracy. Habermas believed that both Marx and the earlier Frankfurt School had underestimated the importance of principles of universal law, rights, and sovereignty.so a re-democratization of radical social theory was a crucial task. [9] 

Habermas, through his work of "Theory of Communicative Action" (1981) has expressed optimism about the possibility of the revival of the public sphere. He was optimistic towards the future where the representative democracy reliant nation state is replaced by a deliberative democracy reliant political organism based on the equal rights and obligations of citizens. To create such a direct democracy-driven system, Habermas argues that "Public sphere" is the only way to debates on matters of public importance and as well as the mechanism for that discussion to affect the decision-making process.

Habermas suggests that public sphere consist of an open discussion of all issues of general concern in which discursive argumentation was employed to discover general interests and the public good. This public sphere emphasized with freedoms of speech and assembly, a free press, and the right to freely participate in political debate and decision-making. Habermas suggests that After the completion democratic revolution, the bourgeois public sphere is institutionalized in constitutional orders which guaranteed a wide range of political rights, and which established a judicial system that was to mediate between claims between various individuals or groups, or between individuals and groups and the state.

Summery and Critics

In a nutshell, Habermas's concept of the public sphere defines a space of institution and practices between the private interests of everyday life in civil society and the realm of state power. The public sphere is the mediator between the domains of the family and the workplace where private interests prevail and the state which often exerts arbitrary forms of power and domination. [10] So the Habermasian bourgeois public sphere consists of social spaces where individuals gathered to discuss their common public affairs and to organize against illogical and oppressive forms of social and state power.

Overall Habermas tries to explain three basic stages where the society has passed through or the three stages of democratization process. The first stage starts with the formation of democratic system just after the English and French revolution in the West where for the first time people started to take place in the public affairs and the affairs of the state. The second stage is the period of degeneration where a small number of elite and corporation controlled the state and mass media. This stage is described as the stage of "representational democracy". The third phase is the phase of transition where Habermas is talking about the process through which the 'representational democracy" is replaced by "full democracy" through bourgeois public sphere. Success of bourgeois public sphere is the way for the success of a democracy. Marshall Soules describes that the success of the Habermasian public sphere depends upon: [11] 

the extent of access (as close to universal as possible),

the degree of autonomy (the citizens must be free of coercion),

the rejection of hierarchy (so that each might participate on an equal footing),

the rule of law (particularly the subordination of the state), and

the quality of participation (the common commitment to the ways of logic).

The last point is critical. According to Habermas the bourgeois public sphere required as preconditions of entry an excellent education and property ownership - which correlated to membership of the upper classes. This becomes one of the most critical parts of his work. Many thinkers argued that Habermas's work is invalid since the public sphere was limited to upper-class strata of society and didn't represent most of the citizens in these emerging nation-states. Habermas's critics argue that he idealizes the earlier bourgeois public sphere by presenting it as a forum of rational discussion and debate when in fact certain groups were excluded and participation was thus limited. Mary Ryan notes that not only did Habermas neglect women's public spheres, but marks the decline of the public sphere precisely at the moment when women were beginning to get political power and become actors. [12] Although he is not a Marxist one, but this explanation shows his inclination towards Marxian ideology where the democracy is attained through class struggle, or through certain class of people which is not possible in this globalized world. So Habermas can be called as one of the Marxst-plus scholar. There is also another criticism like; Habermas excluded private concern to be discussed in the public sphere which is not avoidable now days. John B. Thompson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge has pointed out that Habermas's notion of the public sphere is old-fashioned due to the spread of mass-media communications. [13]  

But many defenders and critics of Habermas's notion of the bourgeois public sphere fail to note that the thrust of his study is specifically towards that of how the transformation took place in the public sphere from a space of rational discussion, debate, and consensus in the 18th and early 19th century in the West, to a dominion of mass cultural consumption and administration by corporations and dominant elites. Indeed, from the beginning of his career, Habermas's work has been distinguished by its emphasis on radical democracy, and this political foundation is an important and often overlooked. [14] 


Despite the limitations of his analysis, Habermas is right that in the era of the democratic revolutions a public sphere emerged where for the first time, the general masses could be able to participate in political and public discourse, organize, and fight against their authority. Habermas's studies of structural transformation also reflect another important function, i.e., the role of media in politics. One thing for sure is that he is the one of the pioneer in propounding the concept of public sphere and especially popularizing to such an extent so that his criticism can be undermined. For his contribution in various fields especially in philosophy and sociology, He is considered by a poll of the top 100 intellectuals to be one of the leading intellectuals of the present.