Habermas, Civil Society and the Public Sphere

This blog is the second in a short series on the work of Habermas and issues that arise from it. The focus is on the notions of civil society and the public sphere and how these have changed as spaces of resistance and unrest.

Habermas’ early study of the rise of the bourgeois public sphere, initially in England in the eighteenth century and subsequently elsewhere in Europe, is well known (see blog ‘Introduction to Habermas’). The public sphere for him represented the public use of reason (as articulated by private individuals engaged in argument that was in principle open and unconstrained). It was a domain in which activities of the state might be confronted and subject to critique. The emergence of the public sphere was facilitated, first, by the rise of the periodical press and, second, by the establishment of new centres of sociability like salons and coffee houses. Habermas argued that this led to a greater accessibility and scrutiny of Parliament and a constitutional extension of rights of freedom of speech and expression. Over time, however, the public sphere experienced a decline (Habermas refers to its ‘re-feudalization’). In a review article in 1993 John Thompson summarized:

‘what was once an exemplary forum of rational-critical debate became just another domain of cultural consumption, and the bourgeois public sphere collapsed into a sham world of image creation and opinion management in which the diffusion of media products is in the service of vested interests’.

Thompson went on to object, however, that in ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’ Habermas:

  • neglected non-bourgeois or popular forms of public discourse and activity, some of them militantly opposed to bourgeois culture and practice;
  • overlooked prior historical examples, notably at the time of the English Civil War;
  • made too little of the absence of women (as feminists have pointed out, the absence of women was constitutive of the public sphere: it was juxtaposed to the private sphere in a gender-specific way);
  • exaggerated both the precipitous nature of the decline of the public sphere and the passivity of later recipients of media products.

These criticisms are certainly telling of Habermas’ original analysis, long since modified in some crucial respects. Yet some current commentators share his general pessimism. The literature of the late 1990s is replete with references to the near-disappearance even of what Oldenberg in ‘The Great Good Place’ called third places – that is, casual everyday meeting places like parades of shops and lauderettes – let alone civil society and the public sphere. Mayhew suggested that a new cadre of professional specialists, using market and promotional campaigns, have come to dominate public communication. He wrote of a ‘new public’, subject to mass persuasion through relentless advertising, lobbying and other forms of media manipulation.

While earlier concepts of civil society in particular, and the public sphere more rarely, were pitted against the power of the state, in his early and explicitly Marxist writings Habermas set them in opposition also to the economy. But by this time the public sphere of the lifeworld, to use his terms, had been substantially colonized by the subsystems of economy and state via their respective steering media of money and power. There is perhaps no gainsaying this conclusion. But there remains more to be said. There is space here for the raising of three sets of issues.

The first draws on an argument I made with the late David Kelleher. Habermas located civil society at the interface of the private and public spheres of the lifeworld. In ‘Between Facts and Norms’ he wrote that civil society consists of those ‘more or less spontaneously emergent associations, organizations and movements that, attuned to how societal problems resonate in the private life spheres, distil and transmit such reactions in amplified form to the public sphere’. We went on to suggest that two sectors of civil society be distinguished. What we called the enabling sector of civil society is located in, or derives its impetus from, the private sphere of the lifeworld. It is within the enabling sector that – as part and parcel of the ordinary day-to-day intercourse of the lifeworld (and typically in Oldenberg’s third places) – issues of potential concern arise and are often identified. The protest sector of civil society is located in, or is directed towards, the public sphere. It is within the protest sector that people come together, or are mobilized, in networks, campaign groups, social movements and other forms of association in pursuit of influence for purposeful change (third places are often salient here too). I still find this conceptualization serviceable.

The second set of issues concerns social movements. Habermas reluctantly concluded that even before the present era of what I call financial capitalism ‘old’ class-based movements had yielded territory to ‘new’ social movements. Producer society had been displaced by consumer society, and collective action had come to focus on issues of identity and belonging rather than material distribution. Along with others, like Susan Edwards, I think Habermas, less inclined to Marxism than in his earlier writings, has overstated the decline of class politics. In fact, in their excellent ‘Farewell to the Leftist Working Class’, Houtman et al show that class politics and voting remains alive and well but have been compromised by an increase in cross-cutting cultural voting. Anyway, class is far from dead even if class-consciousness is for the time being an unlikely precipitant of collective action.

In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008-9 and the Arab uprisings, there occurred a series of transnational-to-local occupations, protests, campaigns and marches under the large and twitchy umbrella of a broadly anti-capitalist movement of movements. In the UK foci of discontent included the ending of the EMA, the tripling of student fees, the Health and Social Care Bill, benefit cuts, and corporate tax evasion and avoidance. One student activist told me that for all the anarchistic and other honed theoretical tendencies sheltering under the umbrella, most activists acknowledged that Marx was the ‘granddaddy’ of pertinent theory without espousing Marxism. In short, those we might call resisters, heterogeneous and smart, were clear and united about what they were against, but much vaguer about what they were for. This of course was both a strength and a weakness. It was also a scenario beyond old versus new social movements.

The final set of issues has been much debated – how to characterize today’s versions of civil society, the public sphere and social movements. Castells writes of ‘networked social movements’ in his ‘Networks of Outrage and Hope’. This is in acknowledgement of the rise of what he calls ‘mass self-communication’, based on horizontal networks of interactive, multidirectional communication on the Internet and, even more, in wireless communication networks. The movement activity of the last few years, he insists, have their genesis in structural economic crisis and deepening crises of legitimation. But they do not just arise from poverty or political despair. They have also been triggered by outrage against the brazen injustice of and by hope for change deriving from successful uprisings in other parts of the globe. These movements have, Castells posits, common characteristics. For example:

  • they are spontaneous in origin, usually sparked by indignation (typically, with seeds sown in the enabling sector of civil society);
  • they comprise ‘networks of networks’ (typically, moving into the protest sector of civil society, with decentred structures involving interaction between multiple nodes);
  • this horizontality of networks supports cooperation and solidarity while undermining the need for leadership;
  • they accomplish the transition from outrage to hope by deliberation (Habermas’ public use of reason) in autonomous or democratic spaces;
  • they favour non-violence (typically, using civil disobedience as a tactic of choice);
  • they become movements by occupying urban spaces (typically, local spaces globally connected);
  • they are highly self-reflexive;
  • they are rarely programmatic;
  • they aim at changing the values of society;
  • they are fundamentally political (typically, engaging in direct, deliberative democracy based on networked democracy;
  • they generate their own form of time: ‘timeless time’ (typically, living in the moment while opening up an unlimited horizon of possible futures);
  • they are ‘viral’, globally accessible and inspirational to others.

Of course I have done less than justice to Castells here; but he does in my view raise shrewd and highly topical sociological questions about civil society, the public sphere and social movements. It is within a frame ‘something like this’ that a contemporary theory and programme of research might be established. Things have moved on since Habermas addressed and then ceased to address such issues.

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