Retrieving the Public Sphere

Article excerpt

The recent disclosures of phone-hacking practices employed by the ex-Murdoch title News of the World completes an ignominious triptych in the abuse of authority. Its ripples have yet to dissipate, but the event takes its place alongside the 2009 Parliamentary expenses affair and the unrepentant behaviour of bankers following the near collapse of the financial markets in 2008. All three cases have exposed an entrenched concentration of power and the extent of the gulf that today exists between decision-making on the one hand, and the democratic efficacy of the public on the other. In 2011 the interpenetration of media, power and politics facilitated the ongoing democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring. Yet the News of the World affair has thrown the malign potential for this nexus to work against democracy into sharp relief.

By raising questions about public life itself - its functions, value and potency - the ongoing episode around the press culture of Rupert Murdoch provides an opportunity to confront issues little discussed today. What is the role of the public? To what do we refer in the claim that the public has been disgusted by allegations of phone-hacking, and why does the culture in which this behaviour occurred matter? A precondition of answering these questions will involve clarifying just what we mean by the public sphere and its opinion, what it can achieve and what a violation of its terms amounts to.

Against this backdrop it is timely that 2012 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Jurgen Habermas' The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Astonishing both in its scholarly range and interdisciplinary command, this work by the most prominent living spokesman of second generation Frankfurt School critical theory was true to the mainstays of that intellectual project as conceived by Max Horkheimer (Anderson, 2005, 113). The Structural Transformation sought to describe the political efficacy of private citizens utilising unconstrained reason to arrive at a common opinion on matters of shared social and political concern. Habermas narrates a rich historical tale of the developments by which this public sphere arose, and the transformations that would ultimately undermine its potential. Fifty years on, the concerns of this classic work continue to resonate clearly in our own times.

As well as an historical inquiry into the conditions by which the category of the 'bourgeois public sphere' emerged in Europe, The Structural Transformation set in motion Habermas' life-long methodological project of recasting critical theory with greater emancipatory hope than the unremitting pessimism at which his intellectual mentors had arrived in Dialectic of Enlightenment (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002 [1947]).

In associating reason with a form of 'instrumental' reason ever-orientated toward the mastery of nature, in that text Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno analysed how the values of the Enlightenment had ossified into their own restrictive and repressive form of myth. For the authors this story represented not a subversion of the Enlightenment dictum sapere aude ('dare to know!'), but the brutal conclusion of its guiding principles. In doing so, Dialectic of Enlightenment severed the tie, intact since classical antiquity, between insight, self-determination and freedom: against the Mundigkeit or autonomous maturity Kant envisaged, 'reason had become an expression of coercion simpliciter' (Wolin, 2006, 6-7). The result was an inability to think beyond the impasse of modernity's degenerative horizon on which the authors gazed, and a correspondingly despondent framework in which critical theory functioned as little more than a Flaschenpost or 'message-in-a-bottle' for future generations (Wolin, 2006, 6-7).

Although Habermas accepted and continues to conceptualise instrumental rationality as a force with tendencies towards the 'colonisation' of everyday life, importantly his twovolume Theory of Communicative Action (1981) distinguishes this marketised, means-end form of scientistic rationality, and what is termed 'communicative' rationality. …