Defending democracy: The threat to the public sphere from social media

Book Review by Mark Hannam: “Habermas is a blockhead. It is simply impossible to tell what kind of damage he is still going to cause in the future”, wrote Karl Popper in 1969. The following year he added: “Most of what he says seems to me trivial; the rest seems to me mistaken”. Five decades later these Popperian conjectures have been roundly refuted. Now in his mid-nineties, Jürgen Habermas is one of the pre-eminent philosophers and public intellectuals of our time. In Germany his generation enjoyed the mercy of being born too late. In 2004, in a speech given on receipt of the Kyoto prize in arts and philosophy, he observed that “we did not have to answer for choosing the wrong side and for political errors and their dire consequences”. He came to maturity in a society that he judged complacent and insufficiently distanced from its recent past. This experience sets the context for his academic work and political interventions.

Polity has recently published two new books by Habermas, both translated by Ciaran Cronin, providing English readers access to the latest iterations of his distinctive themes and methods. He defends a capacious concept of human reason, a collaborative learning process that operates through discussions in which participants appeal only to the force of the better argument. Different kinds of discussion – about scientific facts, moral norms or aesthetic judgements – employ different standards of justification, so what counts as a valid reason depends on context, but all progress, regardless of the field, relies on our conversations following the path along which reason leads us. Habermas’s principal claim is that human reason, appropriately deployed, retains its liberating potential for the species.

His first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), traced the emergence in the eighteenth century of the public sphere. This was a functionally distinct social space, located between the privacy of civil society and the formal offices of the modern state, where citizens could engage in processes of democratic deliberation. Habermas drew attention to a range of contemporary phenomena, including the organization of opinion by political parties and the development of mass media funded by advertising, that have disrupted the possibility of widespread, well-informed political debate. Modern democracy, he argued, was increasingly characterized by the technocratic organization of interests, rather than by the open discussion of principles and values…(More)”.