The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Summary and Analysis of Parts 6 and 7

Summary of Parts 6 and 7 (“The Transformation of the Public Sphere's Political Function” and “On the Concept of Public Opinion”)

The sixth part of Habermas’s book extends the analysis of the previous chapter. Here, he discusses the political consequences when the public sphere has been replaced by mass media. He begins by showing how the presses—which had originally been a forum for critical debate—have become commercialized, to the point where they provide only an illusion of publicity, rather than the real thing. People can read the newspaper stories selected for them and feel that they are participating in the politics of the nation by being knowledgeable. But this is consumption, not participation. Similarly, states learn to address their citizens as consumers rather than participants. They start to sell political platforms like advertisements.

In such a world, political parties operate more like public relations firms than as spaces for actual political debate. In turn, political parties are incentivized not necessarily to have the best argument or position, but merely the most publicity. It is like politics has become a war between public relations firms rather than between ideologies or policies. This marks the complete reversal of the role of publicity in politics. In the bourgeois public sphere of the early 19th century, publicity was used to expose the secret workings of the monarchy and subject the nation’s policies to critical debate. Now, publicity is in fact a product of secret interest groups. And as secret interest groups publicize a particular candidate or referendum, they market their message not for debate but “acclamation.” That means someone watching a television ad will say, “Yes, I agree with that,” rather than participating in a conversation over what “that” is.

Habermas calls this state of politics “manufactured publicity” or “displayed publicity.” It is not about creating a public sphere, but about putting on a show for the public. On the one hand, this means more and more people are exposed to the public sphere, rather than just the elite bourgeois class. But this exposure is of impoverished quality. People are invited to consume a political message rather than to engage it. And in turn, the messages became more and more simplified. Soon, “even arguments are transmuted into symbols to which again one cannot respond by arguing but only by identifying with them.” You vote for a mascot or a logo, rather than for an idea.

If citizens are no longer participating in politics, then Habermas says their relation to the state is one of “demand.” That means they demand to have their needs met, from public assistance or the development of infrastructure, and they vote for the party that will meet this demands. There is little discussion between citizens about policies or their consequences. When there is, the discussion is usually had within a family, which in turn produces homogeneity rather than argument. Without critical argument, people rarely change their minds, converting from one party to another. In turn, political parties do not try to engage people in argument, but only to make a message that will attract the undecided. Enlistment, rather than debate, is the strategy.

Without critical debate, people only approve of policies that have already been written, rather than participate in the drafting of new policies. And the means of approval, voting, becomes a ritual of democracy rather than its actual practice. Habermas calls elections “period stagings” of a public sphere that no longer exists. At regular times, people come together to participate in the illusion of a public sphere by casting their vote for one option from a pre-selected set of options. This sense of illusion matters. For people think that a public sphere exists and they are active citizens, when they are really passive receiving mass communications.

Overall, Habermas argues that this change from the bourgeois public sphere to the mass media public sphere of today is the transformation from a liberal constitutional state to a social welfare state. In the liberal constitutional state, there is a private realm and various rights protect it from state intervention. The idea is to leave individuals alone. In a social welfare state, the private realm is not protected but managed. And instead of leaving individuals alone, the state prioritizes groups of people like political parties. But there is a tension, because the official ideology is a commitment to liberalism and critical communication. No one says they are against critical debate, but the spectacle of staged publicity is in opposition to it.

This tension is a glimmer of hope. It means that the mass media hasn’t completely killed off any hope for a public sphere. There is still a chance for the critical debate to come out on top of the staged or manipulative publicity of modern politics. For this to happen, Habermas thinks two things are required. First, bureaucracy has to be minimized. Too much of politics happens in cabinet meetings or the administration of different government officers. This has to be opened up so that politics is again public and not secretive. Habermas thinks this “objectively possible,” which means it could concretely happen. Second, there needs to be a universalization of interest. By this Habermas means we need a public that comes together again in a common playing field, in order to actually talk with one another. He thinks this is not a utopian dream for two reasons. As nations get richer or more affluent, it’s possible that everyone’s interests really could be met by the nation. Alternatively, as people begin to worry about the end of the world because of nuclear war and other global crises, they may come together in their universal interest in life. Either way, it is possible the public sphere can be universally accessible in the future.

The last chapter of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is a brief discussion of the concept of “public opinion.” Habermas begins by reminding us of the difference between critical and manipulative publicity. He argues that the difference is not between “norm” and “fact,” as if critical publicity is the ideal and manipulative publicity is the reality that needs to catch up with the aspirational ideal. Instead, he argues the distinction has to do with how institutions are organized. Criticality can only emerge when institutions are opened up so that communication is possible beyond a select group of members internal to the institution. In this way, criticality can begin within institutions, but eventually extends beyond them. To have a critical public, this task of expansion must be facilitated so there are more and more communications among members of the public, beyond the confines of institutions.

Analysis of Parts 6 and 7 (“The Transformation of the Public Sphere's Political Function” and “On the Concept of Public Opinion”)

Chapter 6 has a surprising emotional arc. It begins with utmost pessimism and concludes with utmost optimism. Let’s start by looking closely at the pessimism. It is motivated by the seeming convergence of the mass media and the state. It is not just that the state has taken over the public sphere, but also that the public sphere’s dominant media forms are by nature non-reciprocal, in the form of radio and television, for instance. So there is a double threat here: private citizens no longer control the public sphere, and the technology of this sphere is already anti-critical to begin with. It is difficult to imagine getting out of this situation, because both threats are so large and massive, and they feed off one another.

The pessimism extends into Habermas’s saying that even the means by which political change might seem possible are already co-opted. Thus, the central institution of democracy, the election, is only an “illusion” of the public sphere rather than a real example of it. To be clear, Habermas is not saying there is some conspiracy where the results of an election have been determined in advance. This is not the state of a dictatorship where elections are rigged and results are tampered with in order to keep the same people in power. Rather, Habermas is saying that even before anyone votes, the options for voting have already been narrowed. This is because in a society where there is no debate, the only viable candidates will be the ones people can vote for without having to think about. So no candidate is going to be overly critical or progress the national conversation very far.

The scary thing about this situation, then, is that there is a loss of democracy not just in a totalitarian country, but in a country where democracy seems to be doing well, where elections are fair and people come out to vote and the majority rules. If the problem were a dictator, then the solution would be, if not easier, at least more obvious. But when all the institutions of a democracy are working but people are not being engaged in actually democratic decision-making, then the problem is more pervasive, harder to isolate, and more difficult to resolve. There can be no single event that remedies the situation, like the deposing of a dictator. Rather, there has to be an entire cultural change, just like the cultural change that brought about the rise of the bourgeois public sphere to begin with.

But people don’t want change, Habermas seems to say. The mass media feels good. People like consuming the fantasy of publicity more than the hard work of engaging in actual critical debate. A similar point was made by the scholars who originally supervised The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. They thought the mass media had made society passive, and that society enjoyed the passivity. This indicates the entrenchment of the problem, that people don’t even identify the problem. And in such a world where all the institutions are working and no one sees a problem, where do you begin?

Enter Habermas’s surprising optimism at the end. He concludes the book by saying that if we can get rid of bureaucracy and find a principle of universal interest, perhaps a new critical public can be built. To be clear, Habermas is not saying we should return to some golden age of the public, since, remember, that the bourgeois public sphere had its own problems, especially exclusivity. The goal is not nostalgia but a moving forward to build something new that can change the present. Habermas realizes the enormity of the task when he defends it from a charge of “utopianism”; he is clearly anxious that he will come off as an idealist, not a pragmatist. But in many ways, idealism is the only way to end this book. In the few pages devoted to a “way out” of the present, Habermas cannot remedy the weight of history the previous hundreds of pages have documented. That will be a task, not for him as an individual scholar to achieve and write down, but for a public to debate and work toward.