Lifeworld and system: Habermas’s characterisation of modern society
The Public Sphere
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962/1989) was Habermas's first published book; its themes are still relevant. This work reflects the emphasis of the early critical theorists - reflection on consequences of the rise of mass communication.
Habermas plots the emergence of a 'bourgeois public sphere' in eighteenth century European society. This a result of the rise of the modern state, the development of capitalist economic activity, the separation of state and civil society, the development of print media and the establishment of coffee houses in which open discussion of the issues of the day could take place. This period saw the development of the idea of society as separate from the ruler and of a public of private individuals debating the authority of the state through engaging in the 'public use of reason' (1989: 27). Habermas characterises c18 civil society as 'the genuine domain of private autonomy [that] stood opposed to the state' (1989: 12).
Habermas suggests that through the c19-20 there has been a progressive 'refeudalisation' of the public sphere, due to:
a. the emergence of commercial mass media - replaced critical public opinion formation with manipulation, so that the public sphere became another domain of cultural consumption;
b. the development of the welfare state - transformed the form of the state from a constitutional to a social state and re-fused relations between the state and society.
Result: critical potential of public opinion has been denuded - the public sphere has shifted from being an arena of rational debate to focus on the negotiation of interests.
a. is 'refeudalisation' an adequate way to think about the impact of mass communication on the conduct of politics?
b. in this account individuals are treated as though they are passive consumers - do audiences receive messages in uniform ways?
Changes to capitalism in c20:
a. importance of research and technology as productive forces;
b. intervention of state into economy to ensure stability.
Habermas argues that Marx's account of historical materialism is one-dimensional; societies develop along two dimensions - purposive rational action and communicative action. Account of development of societies needs modification: state intervention to manage economy produces a logic of crisis displacement - economic crisis breaks out, state intervenes. Can become a crisis of the state, a rationality crisis. If this continues, becomes a legitimation crisis, people withdraw support. If this continues, motivation crisis - apathy.
Important idea: logic of crisis displacement. Conflict does not necessarily emerge as overt class conflict. Possibility for transformation: people make increasingly critical demands that society meet the claims of a universalist account of justice. Alternatively, new forms of legitimacy may be found within the system – via rolling back the state, appeals to family, etc.
To what extent is legitimacy required for the exercise of power?
Do states require active support or merely acquiescence?
The problem of 'colonisation'
With The Theory of Communicative Action (1981/1984 & 1987) Habermas changes his approach and develops his argument through an account of rationalisation. He posits two dimensions of rationalisation:
a. rationalisation of the system - economy and state - increasingly complex and bureaucratised, rationalisation as increased steering capacity;
b. rationalisation of the lifeworld - family and public political sphere - bearers of communicative action, rationalised through increased criticism and demand for rational justification.
Distinct tensions of modern era can be understood in terms of the intersection of a and b: a tends to impinge on b in ways that threaten the communicative rationality of the lifeworld with 'colonisation' (e.g. juridification and colonisation of the family).
Habermas argues that in modern societies conflicts break out along the seam between the system and lifeworld around, for example, the clientalism engendered by the welfare state, environmental destruction caused by the economic system, etc. He suggests that such conflicts underpin the formation of new social movements – these are not expressions of class conflict but of conflicts concerning the destruction of the infrastructure of the lifeworld (self destructive consequences of system growth).
The colonisation thesis is closely linked to Habermas’s account of communicative rationality and of the rationality basis of speech. Between Facts and Norms (1992/1996) extends Habermas’s critique of the social constitutional state and points to a positive resolution of these problems. He argues that a procedural account of law and the development of deliberative democracy in the public spheres of civil society are central to the renewal of the legitimacy of the constitutional state. He demonstrates his argument by reference to the 'paradox' of the welfare state – this was meant to ensure stability but produces dependency and dis-welfare due to inadequate mechanisms for input into the formation of legislation by those subject to it.
This argument has been vital to contemporary discussions of deliberative democracy and to debates about the future of constitutionalism. Habermas’s response to problems of contemporary constitutionalism is a proceduralised conception of law and deliberative model of politics. He argues that this can deliver the public and private autonomy that he discerns to be necessarily conceptually bound up with the constitutional democratic state, with its dual articulation of the dominance of popular sovereignty on the one hand and the rule of law on the other.
Questions and criticisms
a. Habermas’s work shows a longstanding concern to analyse the lines of conflict between states and societies and his work has gone through significant transformations along the way; is the theory of social evolution on which this work rests defensible?
b. the thesis of the ‘colonisation of the lifeworld’ is illuminating with respect to the emergence of new social movements; however, this thesis also militates against the analysis of power relations within the lifeworld (when does state intervention into the family become 'pathological'? Is the lifeworld free from power? Is it a domain of authenticity?)
c. to what extent is Habermas’s attempt to reconcile popular sovereignty and the rule of law successful?
d. Habermas’s account provides an internalist account of the development of modern societies - what of external boundaries and conflicts?