Civil Society and the Political Public Sphere


Jurgen Habermas



Summary By



Habermas is seeking to understand how the public sphere influences political decision making. He first examines, and critiques, several theories about pluralism, interest groups, and political power that over-emphasize egoistic rational choice over public interest or systems over agency. He is interested in how contemporary society can include public discourse on political issues in such a way that people are educated about the issues, engage in debate and discussion, and arrive at thoughtful, informed opinions that reflect an interest in the general public good. He is interested in not mere public opinion, but rather the kind of informed, thoughtful public opinion that can only emerge from good discourse. He focuses on the idea of civil society, which is a key channel for influencing political decision-making, especially during (real or perceived) crises. Civil society must first penetrate the media in order to penetrate the political agenda. Healthy functioning of civil society depends on a liberal (as opposed to totalitarian) political system with certain constitutional protections, and in turn, civil society helps reinterpret the constitution for contemporary circumstances.
  • * *
Recent sociological theories of democracy conceptualize an autonomous administrative apparatus of the state being influenced by organized interest groups, and normative considerations are not addressed. Habermas sets out to develop a theory in which the “constitutionally prescribed… circulation of power” is affected by an autonomous civil society to the extent that civil society succeeds in moving issues to the political “center” (330).
[Note: below I follow Habermas’ section numbers and headings. All italics within quotation marks are his, not mine.]
8.1 Sociological theories of democracy
In the pluralist model, social power is converted to political power through first the legislative process, from there to the administrative process and implementation. Normatively, “the decisive assumption is that social power is more or less equally distributed among the relevant social interests” (331) so politics responds to a broad array of interests. The decreasing room to make and implement policy (“legitimation deficits and steering deficits,” 333) has led to a split between systems theory (which eliminates agency and sees society as “a network of autonomous subsystems,” the political subsystem being just one among many, 334-35) and economic theory of democracy (in which politicians exchange policies for votes cast in “more or less enlightened self-interest,” 333)—but both of them abandon normative considerations. The systems theory approach sees each subsystem as separate and closed so that it’s hard to see “how the political system should be able to integrate society as a whole” (336). Both approaches “screen out the internal relation between law and political power” (336).
Here Habermas considers how Elster, a rational-choice theorist, adapted his theory to explain why there’s not more opportunistic behavior and to reflect that preferences are not given but rather are shaped by “information and arguments” (336). Elster added “norm-regulated” action (alongside “strategic” or rational action). However, “normativity and rationality exclude each other” in Elster’s framework and it’s too “empiricist”(338). For Elster, the political process has both bargaining (based on threats and promises) and argumentation (moral reasoning). For Habermas, this means that Elster “must acknowledge a rational core to norms and value orientations and correspondingly enlarge his concept of rationality” (339). In Elster’s study of the making of the U.S. and French constitutions, it comes out [I’m not sure what’s Elster’s thinking here and what’s Habermas’] that certain aspects of the way the debates were structured had the effect of promoting ethical and moral norms:
“For example, not all interests can be publicly advocated. Hence the publicity of political communications… in connection with the expectation that proponents are consistent in their utterances… already exerts a salutary procedural force. Under this condition, concealing publicly indefensible interests behind pretended moral or ethical reasons necessitates self-bindings that either on the next occasion expose a proponent as inconsistent or, in the interest of maintaining his credibility, lead to the inclusion of others’ interests” (340).
This means that “practical reason” can be embodied in “forms of communication and institutionalized procedures” rather than in actors’ heads (341).
8.2 A Model of the Circulation of Political Power
Habermas here begins a critique of systems theory of politics, which “exposes communicative power as impotent” (341).
In Willke’s systems theory, since each subsystem (including the state) is closed and has its own code, there is “no longer any place where problems relevant for the reproduction of society as a whole could be perceived and dealt with” (343). The problem of legitimation of the state is made moot; there is “inadequate integration of the whole of society” but the need is for “attunement” among the different systems rather than their submission to politics. The state is merely “supervisory” (343-34). More specifically,
(a) Attunement is through “nonhierarchical bargaining systems” among the subsystems. The state “steers” other systems not through direct intervention but more through “suitable changes in the context” [???] to balance out the different subsystems (344).
(b) Politics manages system relationships through law, and law shifts from the individual level to inducing system-level change—environmental protection laws are an example (345).
(c) “Willke speaks of ‘societal discourses’ and even of the ‘attunement of autonomous actors through rational discourses.’” However, this dialogue among functional systems no longer deals with norms and values but rather “is restricted to the cognitive goal of enhancing systemic self-reflection” (345).
Habermas critiques Willke’s approach point by point:
(a) The problem of collective action remains—how do these selfish systems give way to societal order and consider others’ interests? How can these “self-referentially operating units” (346) be enabled to understand each other? There is no shared language. But, Habermas asks, Isn’t that what ordinary language already is?
(b) The state is supposed to ensure the “’rationality of the whole,’” yet it is posited as just one of many (equal) systems. Also, if the constitution is to bind collective actors and systems, the state “undermines its individualistic basis of legitimation” (349), endangering individual rights. To Habermas, the state must maintain a higher position than other systems and represent the citizenry as a whole.
(c) Willke has attunement among systems accomplished by sharing of knowledge among different experts for the purpose of “functional coordination,” but, Habermas argues, this “is based on the unrealistic assumption that one can separate the professional knowledge of specialists from values and moral points of view.” In the political arena, you cannot disentangle expertise from norms and ethics. Instead, “it is advisable that the enlarged knowledge base” of political administration “be shaped by deliberative politics, that is, shaped by the publicly organized contest of opinions between experts and counterexperts and monitored by public opinion” (351).
The question, to Habermas, is how the political system allows “constitutionally regulated circulation of power” (354)—that is, how the public influences policy and decision making. His answer uses Bernard Peters’ model, in which influence flows from the “periphery” (=organized interest groups) to the political center (administration, judiciary, and parliament and electoral politics). To Peters, the decisions at the political center are [or should be?—not sure if this is descriptive or prescriptive] determined by these influences from the periphery, rather than coming from inside the administrative complex or “the social power of intermediate structures affecting the core area” (356). This isn’t, however, always true, so Peters focuses on how the political center largely operates according to routines and what power configurations change those routines. When there is conflict, there is “heightened public attention” to the conflict issue and “an intensified search for solutions” (357), and influence is exercised in constitutionally proper ways. When the system is not in conflict mode, however, this democratic influence of the periphery only occurs if the public has the capability to raise latent problems effectively. That capability is depends “on a rationalized lifeworld” (358), which cannot be legislated or regulated into existence.
8.3 Civil Society, Public Opinion, and Communicative Power
The public sphere, then, must bring problems to the attention of the political center and “convincingly and influentially thematize them, furnish them with possible solutions, and dramatize them in such a way that they are taken up and dealt with by parliamentary complexes” (359).
The public sphere is the network in which communicative action occurs, using ordinary language—it is a social space. Public opinion forms as information is shared and issues are debated and discussed among many. To what degree opinions have this procedural basis, and to what degree they influence the political sphere, are empirical questions in a given situation. As the social space broadens, some individuals attain more influence than others, but the general public remains the ultimate arbiter. For public-sphere communication to have political influence, it must emerge among “those who are potentially affected” (365).
Civil society’s “institutional core comprises those nongovernmental and non-economic connections and voluntary associations that anchor the communication structures of the public sphere” (366). Civil society includes groups and movements that transfer an understanding of societal problems from the private to the public sphere and advance problem-solving discourse.
Civil society is enabled by legal and constitutional measures, including freedom of association, assembly, and speech; and the legal protection of a private sphere. Civil society can’t flourish in a totalitarian state (369); it requires a “liberal political culture” (371). In addition, civil society must energize itself. Civil society groups have “limited scope for action” (371), but they still can reason through questions of public import and can convey important knowledge to the state administration.
Civil society can gain significant influence under certain circumstances, despite the power of the mass media. Mass communication by its wide reach creates an increasing distinction between (political) actors and their audiences. A big question is thus to what extent the public sphere autonomously develops public opinion through being genuinely informed versus just being manipulated by more powerful actors.
The media are very important in filtering and selecting messages that get broadcast. Many of their strategies have the effect of depoliticizing public communication. Getting heard in the media requires considerable resources and expertise as well as keeping the message within the moderate middle. But the public are not passive consumers of media messages; people interpret media content critically and in discussion with one another. The media should, ideally, use its power to promote an informed public and open dialogue among diverse views on issues of public concern [ha!]. Since this isn’t how things are, “one will be rather cautious in estimating the chances of civil society having an influence on the political system” (379).
Who can put issues on the political agenda? In ordinary circumstances, political leaders raise and decide on issues themselves, with no public influence. Sometimes they must mobilize external constituencies in support of a particular course of action. Sometimes, however—particularly in a “perceived crisis situation” (380)—civil society raises issues and moves them onto the political agenda, especially if they can dramatize them in such a way as to draw the media’s attention. Civil society has the advantage of “greater sensitivity in detecting and identifying new problem situations” (381). In the most extreme situations, civil society groups initiate civil disobedience to protest the legitimacy of existing laws or policies. This mode of protest recognizes the constitution as “an unfinished project” and the state as “a delicate and sensitive—above all fallible and revisable—enterprise, whose purpose is to realize the system of rights anew in changing circumstances” (384).
Can this task of reinterpreting the constitution anew be done effectively in complex societies? The constitutionally-regulated political system is specialized in making collectively binding political decisions. As such it is responsible for society-wide problems of integration and has an asymmetrical position in relation to other systems. The “political system is subject to constraints on two sides”—one, its effective administrative power is limited; two, it is dependent on the communicative power of the public sphere for legitimacy. Thus there is potential for a vicious cycle in which there is a breakdown both in legitimation and “steering” (governing). This kind of crisis is symptomatic of “the peculiar position of political systems as asymmetrically embedded in highly complex circulation processes” (386). Citizens must actively practice self-determination to realize their rights in changing circumstances.

Discussion points

· It is unclear when Habermas is being descriptive versus prescriptive. He seems to be exhorting the public to get more energized and politically active, and perhaps he’s also exhorting states to be more open to influence by civil society. I don’t think he would deny this—he wants to restore the “normative” element to this discussion; it’s just hard sometimes to figure out what is a description of the truth and what is an aspiration.
· Political systems seem to fall, to Habermas, into two categories: “liberal” democratic and totalitarian/authoritarian. The first fosters robust civil society; the second doesn’t. This leaves open a huge question about the role of civil society in promoting democratization in states that are undemocratic or partly democratic.
· His point about how process measures (like transparency and full exchange of information) can ensure the quality and integrity of discourse resonates with me and conforms to my experience.
· I disagree with Flyvbjerg’s critique that Habermas is oblivious to power. He is just, perhaps, a little optimistic about the ability of the public sphere to penetrate the halls of power. Look, for example, at how U.S. health care reform was killed in the 1990s, despite the fact that I think there were huge swaths of civil society who wanted reform.
· Another point where Habermas might be overoptimistic is the ability of rational discourse to reveal truth. I think he ignores differences in values—no amount of high-quality discourse will overcome value differences, though perhaps it might soften the negative impacts of such differences.
· I do, however, support his vision of a politically active and informed citizenry, and I agree that fully-developed public opinion (emerging from open exchange of information and debate) is a valuable public commodity, in contrast to a pollster’s “public opinion” which may be ill-formed and ill-informed.