“An” Understanding of Habermas and the Public Sphere

In my discussion of dis/placement violence in relation to “public” spaces, it might be helpful to figure out what exactly is meant by “public,” and in what context.

By two separate professors, I was directed toward the writings of Jürgen Habermas as the beginnings of a way to approach the idea of what is “public” and what is “private.” (I’m still not sure if this was the best advice, but at least I understand him enough to have a basis for my own criticism of current (neo)liberal constructions of publicness.) Here is my diagram the basic model of Habermas’ public sphere as I currently understand it, as he presents it in “The Public Sphere” as re/produced in Jürgen Habermas on Society and Politics, edited by Steven Seidman.

Public Sphere diagram 1

Based on this theoretical model, the idea of “publicness” is something constituted by/corresponding to the public sphere. The “public sphere” is a sort of space that mediates between society and the state. If I read “publicness” to mean “the quality of being public,”‘ then this “quality of being public” corresponds to a relationship between society and the state. Habermas also explains that “public opinion, in terms of its very idea, can be formed only if a public that engages in rational discussion exists” (232), further specifying particular characteristics of what is “public.”

Okay. Great. So what does this mean? Is it even relevant to my project?

…Perhaps. Let’s see why/not.

In the short chapter from Habermas that I read, Habermas contextualizes the development of “the public sphere” in a specific historical process, tied to the development of capitalism and a liberal bourgeois as well as to the press as a form of public discourse. (Note that this approach is 100% Eurocentric, using developments in specifically European contexts and generalizing them into universals. Still, perhaps it can be seen as a development of historically, geographically specific political models that become relevant in other contexts through colonialism and globalization.)

At first, Habermas explains, there was a sort of “representative publicness,” where feudal lords “represented” the land by being the land; they represented authority “before” rather than for the people (232).

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of what Habermas means here when he says that feudal lords were being the land, and I”m not sure it’s relevant to this website. Still, for the purposes of discussion, we might say that he’s talking about how lords’ authority and “ownership” of their land, and the supposedly inherent, “natural,” and perhaps divine connection between that lord’s “own self” and “own land,” meant that “public” representation of the lord was just to represent existing authority, rather than (as we’ll talk about later) exposing authority to “public” debate.

What does this mean? Well, Habermas seems to be saying that the “public sphere” is not characterized by a “representative publicness,” the public display of existing authority, but that this was a sort of precursor along the path of structural transformation of power/state/society and thus the public sphere.

Habermas continues in his short Eurocentric history of the public sphere, explaining that the rise of national and territorial states brought in a new sphere of “public power.” At first, this public power consisted of established state authority, embodied in permanent administrations and standing armies. Public power, he says, was a sort of “competence-regulated activity of an apparatus furnished with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force” (233).

From what I understand in this sentence,  “competence-regulated” refers to the regulation of participation in public power through public office. (I.e., people had to be “competent” enough to participate in public office in order to have an effect on the apparatus.) By “apparatus,” I understand Habermas to mean the state apparatus. So, maybe he is saying that public power first consisted of “state activity, driven by specific public office holders and enacted through the  state’s monopoly on legitimate force.”

This public power was addressed to a public formed by “private persons subsumed under the state” (233). This means that public power wasn’t subject to “public opinion” as a way to rationally debate and control state policies; rather, the public was subsumed under the state.

The representation is intentionally hierarchical, with Public Power and the State "on top," with its established authority and force-based institutions as mechanisms to regulate/control "the public."

My representation is intentionally hierarchical, with Public Power and the State “on top.” At this (supposed) historical moment, the state, run by people in office, uses its established authority and force-based institutions as mechanisms to regulate/control “the public.”

At this point, though, there began to arise another force that started to confront such a public power that “subsumed” state citizens. This “counterpart” of the state consisted of things like the stock market and the press, “through traffic in goods and news;” it was based on the rise of bourgeois society as a social/political/economic group that valued things like rights and “private” property and “free market” liberal economic systems.

Habermas explains that at this stage, “society becomes a matter of public interest insofar as with the rise of a market economy the reproduction of a life extends beyond the confines of a private domestic power” (233). In other words, as market economies began to foment, so did a group of individuals who wanted to control the state so that it wouldn’t interfere in their private dealings. As I understand him, at least, Habermas is saying that the public sphere arose in confrontation with the state as a way for bourgeois society to secure access to “private property” and a market system based in an absence of state (“public power”) control.

They did this through an appropriation of the press… The public sphere of newspapers, says Habermas, was used against the public power itself, in order to “engage in debate about the general rules governing relations in their own essentially privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and labor” (233, my emphasis).

With this rise of the bourgeois opposition to the public power comes, finally, the “liberal model of the public sphere” that is represented at the beginning of this page. Habermas claims the following in relation to the (bourgeois, rational) debatea bout the general rules governing political relations:

 The bourgeois are private persons; as such, they do not ‘rule.’ Thus their claims to power in opposition to public power are directed not against a concentration of authority that should be ‘divided’ but rather against the principle of established authority. The principle of control, namely publicness, that the bourgeois public opposes to the principle of established authority aims at a transformation of authority as such, not merely the exchange of one basis of legitimation for another. (234)

[Personally, I might oppose this directly and say that the bourgeois appropriation of the public sphere in opposition to public power and established authority is a way of transferring “rule” to the private, capitalist system of socioeconomic relations, based on the bourgeois “freedom” to exploit others through the market system. It’s not based on the division of a concentration of authority per se, but perhaps on a naturalized, “invisible” authority governed by liberal economics and the “private” individual, as I discuss in my post about positionality. However, let’s continue with the discussion of Habermas in his own terms.]

Habermas seems to be saying that the rising of a “public sphere” in rational debate, in opposition to the established authority of the state, was a way for private individuals (this term is very particular and exclusive, of course, where “private individuals” probably means “bourgeois men in positions of political and economic power”) to create “publicness” as a way to transform authority from something established (in armies and institutions) into something “discussed” through rational debate. Thus arose the “public sphere,” a space using “publicness” as part of public opinion in order to mediate between a state and a society of private persons.

Two other ways (based on my understanding) that Habermas refers to the public sphere and the mediation between "state" and "society." The words and phrases are mostly taken directly from page 234 of the text I am using.

Two other ways (based on my understanding) that Habermas refers to the public sphere and the mediation between “state” and “society.” The words and phrases are mostly taken directly from page 234 of the text I am using.

Thus we see that this conception of the public sphere, as created and performed and enacted in historical and political context, are (according to Habermas) specifically contextualized in bourgeois economic liberalism.

This diagram shows the logic, within a liberal, capitalist society, of how "emancipation" (of bourgeois "private" individuals) works in favor of the "general interest." Again, most of the words on the diagram are taken directly from the text, again from page 234.

This diagram shows the logic, within a liberal, capitalist society, of how “emancipation” (of bourgeois “private” individuals) works in favor of the “general interest.” Again, most of the words on the diagram are taken directly from the text, again from page 234.

Habermas goes on to talk about the changes in the public sphere in “mass welfare-state democracies,” but I don’t have time to write about it right now. He basically says that there is a tendency away from individual private power and toward the influence of large groups that circumvent private, individual autonomy. He suggests that the best option at this stage, in the face of a “weakening” public sphere, is the organization of groups of private individuals. He doesn’t seem explicitly critical about the bourgeois/market liberalism aspect of the public sphere, at least not within this piece.


Why did I give you such a detailed summary of Habermas’ text? Well, it was mostly so I could understand it, and most of it isn’t relevant to this research project. However, going through this little story has helped to highlight several things. First, the “public sphere,” and thus “publicness,” as conceived by Habermas, is a particular manifestation of bourgeois politics and history, and thus something imbedded in (print) capitalism, in today’s neoliberalism, in individualism and private property.

It is not something inherent and timeless, and not something with a universal meaning. Rather, the idea of what is public, Habermas says, has changed over time, and is constantly transforming, in relation to the “structural transformation” that he probably talks about in his 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.

“Publicness” in this framework, then, refers to historically specific characteristic of a relationship between private individuals (or organized private individuals) and a state, thus structuring the functioning of a liberal democracy based on specific manifestations of liberal “market capitalism.”

(Note that Habermas’ chapter continues with one more chapter about the changes in the meaning of the public sphere in a ‘mass wellfare state,” but I am principally concerned with the way he talks about the idea of publicness in an ‘ideal’ form.. I do not see Habermas’ conception of public sphere as a reality, but instead as a thought tool. Thus, his discussion of how the public sphere is currently changing because of changes in political dynamics is something I skipped over due to lack of time.)

So, how does this relate to “public space” and displacement violence? In the next post, I was going to talk about critiques of Habermas’ theory, and then I would explain how these theoretical models might (or might not) offer a useful framework for understanding the relationship between “citizens” and “state” that’s involved in acts of dis/placement during street protests (and through their representations).

However, that never really happened. For the beginnings of a critique of Habermas’ approach, see my brief discussion of DeLuca and Peeples’ text.

My most important point in this post is the following… Habermas argues that the public sphere can only exist in the absence of coercion. However, with my discussion of police enactment of violent dis/placement of political protesters, I am arguing that the public sphere, as a sphere that mediates between private persons and the public, has its boundaries enacted through violence. The public sphere is free from coercion in some ways, but it is based on a regulation of public behaviors and the limits of publicness. My idea is that the public sphere, as a space where only a limited number of individuals can participate due to its methods of ‘rational discussion’ (that privileges certain social classes), is (in this case) constituted by coercion. The space for rational discussion – such as the interview of a MPL representative in my post about the Estadão piece – is undergirded by violence.

See also my texts on dis/placement violence, Weber’s conception of state use of force, and three different analyses of media performances of dis/placement.

Habermas, Jürgen. Jürgen Habermas on society and politics: a reader. Steven Seidman, editor. Boston: Beacon Press, c1989. Print.


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