New book by Jürgen Habermas: Discourse or Barbarism

Jürgen Habermas outlines the danger that digital media pose to democracies. The thesis is not new, and the conceptual sharpness is fascinating.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas stands at a lectern

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas became known in 1962 with the "structural change of the public sphere".

One can easily find this little 100-page booklet redundant. The occasion is as formal as round dates always are. Appeared 60 years ago Jürgen Habermas' "Structural Change in the Public Sphere". In this powerful historical study in 1962, the young left-wing academic outlined the rise of the bourgeois public sphere and its threats from media corporations and manipulation.

At that time, Habermas first developed the idea that the debate, in which “the informal compulsion of the better argument” counts, is not an idealized intellectual idea, but the heart of democracy.

Without space beyond power, capitalist economy and state, without domination-free discourse, a rational self-understanding of society is not possible. Otherwise democracy becomes a facade.

The volume "A New Structural Change in the Public Sphere and Deliberative Politics" contains three texts. A central essay that describes the effects of digital media on the political public with the necessary skepticism, as well as two texts that Habermas' concept of deliberative politics explain, that is, that democracy that is based on reasonable discourse.

New structural change of the public

All three texts have already been published. Does this book make sense? Absolutely. Because some of the texts can be found in remote places like the “Oxford Handbook on Deliberative Democracy”. Above all, however, they deserve attention because they deal with two key questions at a high theoretical level, but are nevertheless understandable: what holds our societies together? And what role do digital media play in this?

If one follows Habermas, then since the Enlightenment and secularization we have only had the discourse to found the state and society. And today even more than before. "The more heterogeneous the social situations, the cultural forms of life and the individual lifestyles of a society are, the more the lack of an a fortiori existing background consensus must be compensated for by the common formation of public opinion and will."

The open, reasonable discourse accepted by everyone is central as a binding agent - at the same time, as the USA in particular has shown, it is fundamentally threatened. That millions of Trump voters are applauding the storming of the Capitol is an alarm signal that marks the "dwindling of the rationalizing power of public debate."

Integrative power of public discourse

Because in public discourse, both must prevail - violent arguments and a set of rules that is recognized by everyone and prevents the opponent from appearing as an enemy. Reich citizens and Trump supporters are now signs that the integrative power of this model, which emerged in 1789, is waning. Barbarism threatens beyond the regulated discourse.

Habermas approaches the digital media with the sharp cutlery of his political discourse theory. The criticism is correspondingly cutting. Of course, he registers the enormous potential of network-like communication that is no longer hierarchically ordered, which can be used for democracy. But in fact, according to the obvious analysis, there is hardly anything left of the promise of an egalitarian, grassroots democratic discourse.

The digital, closed-off digital bubbles of like-minded people are the opposite of the discourse that provides the heartbeat of democracy. Because this discourse must be accessible to everyone and follow rational arguments.

In view of the unregulated hate speech in the platform economy of Facebook and Twitter, Habermas longs for the public filtered by editors and media. And notes, with a hint of cultural pessimism (which fortunately is otherwise absent): “Just as the printing press turned everyone into potential readers, so today digitization makes everyone into potential authors. But how long did it take for everyone to learn to read?”

Digital chat rooms and bubbles

A division that is fundamental to the bourgeois-democratic public sphere – private and public – is also becoming blurred in digital spaces. The digital chat rooms and bubbles are neither one nor the other and "seem to have a peculiarly anonymous intimacy". And fake news flourishes in them, corroding the foundations of any rational politics like rust. Digital media are thus accelerating the decay of democracy.

Therefore, so the conclusion of this astute essay, it is not a matter of opinion or idea that one must "maintain a media structure that enables the inclusive character of the public" - but "a constitutional imperative". A kind of self-defence.

The return to the world of newspapers and TV editorial offices is an illusion. One does not learn here how the digital public sphere has to be constructed. It would be a bit much to ask. This is the job of digital natives who have understood the “theory of communicative action” as well as the logic of algorithms.

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