The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article

The Concept

The public sphere – “A realm of social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is granted to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.”

It’s a broad, but accurate definition, but there are limitations. This isn’t a business transaction or meeting of political officials. “Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion — that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions.”

In a large public body, that kind of communication requires transmission, i.e., newspapers, magazines, radio, and television (obviously, this was written way before the internet).

And a reminder, here, we’re talking about the political public sphere. There are many public spheres. State authority exercises authority over public sphere, but is not a part of it, unless there’s democratic control of state authority.

The History

The public sphere hasn’t always been around. Take, for instance, the middle ages, when there was no distinguishing between private opinion and public opinion, merely public representations of power like the princely seal.

Still that limited public representation, brought about by feudal authorities like the church and nobility, evolved into distinctly public and private elements, the church as private, and the nobility, now with separate budgets from the ‘public’ budget, thus became more independent of the private sphere they were part of before. “Nobility became the organs of public authority, parliament, and the legal institutions, while those occupied in the trades and professions developed into a sphere of bourgeois society which would stand apart from the state as a genuine area of private autonomy.”

A representative public sphere began to submit to public authority. “Private individuals subsumed in the state at whom public authority was directed now made up the public body.”

So, society became a private realm in opposition to the state, but society also became a concern of public interest when the developing market economy “had grown beyond the bounds of private domestic authority.” So, we get the ‘bourgeois public sphere’, “the sphere of private individuals assembled into a public body…” And they demand a voice for debate.

The Liberal Model of the Public Sphere

The medium for that debate was public discussion, of course.

“For the perfect image of the liberal model of the public sphere, just look at the catalogues of rights in the first modern constitutions:

  1. They guaranteed the society as a sphere of private autonomy and the restriction of public authority over a few functions.
  2. Between these two spheres, the constitutions further insured the existence of a realm of private individuals assembled into a public body who as citizens transmit the needs of bourgeois society to the state, in order, ideally, to transform political into ‘rational’ authority within the medium of this public sphere.
  3. The general interest, which was the measure of such rationality, was then guaranteed, according to the presuppositions of a society of free commodity exchange, when the activities of private individuals in the marketplace were freed from social compulsion and from political pressure in the public sphere.”

Daily political newspapers start to take off. From being mere lists of notices, the papers now assumed the role of bearers of public opinion. The editorial staff. This was before newspapers became a “medium of consumer culture.”

The Public Sphere in the Social Welfare State Mass Democracy

Those liberal principles still apply, but can’t be properly applied “to the actual conditions of an industrially advanced mass democracy organized in the form of the social welfare state.”

For example, “group needs which can expect no satisfaction from a self-regulating market now tend toward a regulation by the state.”

“With the interweaving of the pubic and private realms, not only do the political authorities assume certain functions in the sphere of commodity exchange and social labor, but, conversely, social powers now assume political functions.

Habermas says this leads to a “refeudalization” of the public sphere, where large organizations seek compromise with the state to the exclusion of the public sphere. However, these large organizations have to appear open to the public to maintain the support they need.

In a social welfare state, the political public sphere has its critical functions weakened:

“At one time the process of making proceedings public was intended to subject persons or affairs to public reason, and to make political decisions subject to appeal before the court of public opinion. But often enough today the process of making public simply serves the arcane policies of special interests; in the form of ‘publicity’ it wins public prestige for people or affairs, thus making them worthy of acclamation in a climate of nonpublic opinion.

But that weakening of the public sphere is countered by the extension of rights in the social welfare state.

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