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Jürgen Habermas and the Public Sphere

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? These questions were of central concern to the cultural theorist Jürgen Habermas.

Ocracy / San Francisco: M. Soules, 1991 A student of the Frankfurt School of Social Research-which advanced a Marxist critique of western capitalism and its discontents-Habermas wrote The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) to explore the status of public opinion in the practice of representative government in Western Europe. Habermas defined the public sphere as a virtual or imaginary community which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space. In its ideal form, the public sphere is "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state" (176). Through acts of assembly and dialogue, the public sphere generates opinions and attitudes which serve to affirm or challenge-therefore, to guide-the affairs of state. In ideal terms, the public sphere is the source of public opinion needed to "legitimate authority in any functioning democracy" (Rutherford 18).

In his later work, Habermas made a distinction between "lifeworld" and "system." The public sphere is part of the lifeworld; "system" refers to the market economy and the state apparatus. The lifeworld is the immediate milieu of the individual social actor, and Habermas opposed any analysis which uncoupled the interdependence of the lifeworld and the system in the negotiation of political power-it is thus a mistake to see that the system dominates the whole of society. The goal of democratic societies is to "erect a democratic dam against the colonizing encroachment of system imperatives on areas of the lifeworld" (Further Reflections).

A public sphere began to emerge in the 18th C. through the growth of coffee houses, literary and other societies, voluntary associations, and the growth of the press. In their efforts to discipline the state, parliament and other agencies of representative government sought to manage this public sphere. The success of the public sphere depends upon:

For Habermas, the success of the public sphere was founded on rational-critical discourse-everyone is an equal participant and the supreme communication skill is the power of argument.

This ideal of the public sphere has never been fully achieved by most accounts. As ethnic, gender, and class exclusions were removed through the 19th and 20th centuries, and the public sphere approached its ideal more closely, Habermas identifies a concurrent 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 devoted to profit, for example, turned the press into an agent of manipulation: "It became the gate through which privileged private interests invaded the public sphere" (185).

Habermas writes of a "refeudalization" of power whereby the illusions of the public sphere are maintained only to give sanction to the decisions of leaders.

Behind Habermas' analysis lies an oral bias: he believes the public sphere can be most effectively constituted and maintained through dialogue, acts of speech, through debate and discussion. In "Further Reflections," Habermas claims that public debate can be animated by "opinion-forming associations"-voluntary associations, social organizations, churches, sports clubs, groups of concerned citizens, grassroots movements, trade unions-to counter or refashion the messages of authority.

For Habermas, the misuse of publicity undermines the public sphere. "Manipulative publicity" (178) has become common: "Even arguments are translated into symbols to which again one can not respond by arguing but only by identifying with them" (206). Such propaganda manages views, fosters political theatre, and conveys "authorized opinions" (245). Visual display-"showy pomp" (195) and "staged display" (206)-are used by those in authority to assert dominance or entitlement.

Jacques Ellul echoes Habermas' concern in Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (1962). Ellul's term "the propaganda of integration"--including biased newscasts, misinformation, political education--works over time to shape the individual to suit the needs of social mechanisms. Ellul argues that propaganda is necessary in a democracy, even though it can create zombies of its citizens. "Propaganda is needed in the exercise of power for the simple reason that the masses have come to participate in political affairs."

Herbert Marcuse, in One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, analyzes the new "voice of command" used by managers, educators, experts, and politicians. This style of address, appropriated from advertising, has a hypnotic effect. The syntax is abridged and condensed, giving the language more directness and assertiveness; it uses an emphatic concreteness, constant use of "you" and "your," and endlessly repeats images to fix them in people's minds. This style of rhetoric in Marcuse's terms creates the "one-dimensional" citizen, incapable of protest or refusal.

For all these theorists, the techniques of advertising and publicity (largely developed in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th C.) have invaded and corrupted the public sphere. Image management (and image substitution) combines with a style of authoritative discourse to offer little chance of dialogue. Rutherford concludes:

The [public] sphere remains a site for the production of public opinion that is given concrete form by surveys and polls which, to a degree, actually fashion the opinion through the process of asking certain questions (and not asking others). Because of an excess of goods and risks competing for attention, the sphere continues to be a contested arena; however, much of the excess is manufactured by people and institutions with money, moral clout, or other forms of power. The mass media play out a double roll here, both as the vehicle for competitive spectacles and as the source of news, a different kind of discourse, though again a monologue and now contaminated by the ubiquity of publicity. (274-5)

Rutherford uses an medical analogy to characterize the colonization of the public sphere by systems of authority: "civic advocacy constitutes a kind of virus which debilitates the body politic" (274). Propaganda and persuasion don't kill the body politic--merely makes it less effective--since power without the people would not be much use.


Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

---. "Further Reflections on the Public Sphere. In Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Rutherford, Paul. Endless Propaganda: The Advertising of Public Goods. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.