“Weak” vs “arranged” publics

This is probably the first time I have to emphasize the blog-like nature of this blog, however excuse-like this may sound.

The thing is, I have been thinking about a problem pretty much all last week, and by now I have only come to the conclusion that I still need to read more in order to be able to give a more or less satisfactory answer. But I thought I could still jot down a few points about it here; if nothing else, this will serve as a reminder for myself. Also, I figured it would be a good idea to create a separate here a separate page for papers that I consider finished and at least trying to respect some academic standards.

This half-baked post is not one of them. Anyhow, the problem is this.

Habermas in Between Facts and Norms talks about “weak” and “arranged” publics. In his understanding, deliberative democracy does not mean that the whole of the society is organized by the discursive mode of sociation. (This is, so far as I understand, a necessity: discourse is something that always includes exclusion; there needs to be a context, something other than the discourse, against which it can be defined.) There is a constitutionally organized political system, which is legitimated (in the ideal case) by its procedurally correct deliberation process. (A number of variables can be drawn up to describe what “procedurally correct” actually is.) But this political system with its decision-oriented, deliberation-run processes is not everything there is; there is also an informal, open and inclusive network of overlapping, subcultural publics. These publics are “weak” in the sense that they are “uncoupled from decisions”, their communication does not necessarily respect the rules of procedurally correct deliberation; they are in fact not really organized at all.

And there is an interplay between these two spheres, and this is where the political public sphere is. The mass media (again, this is the Habermasian model!) filters and shapes the communication of weak publics, and acts as a channel between them and the political system. The unrestricted, informal “public sphere” is useful because it provides “first-hand” information from all parts of the society, and because it provides people ways to cherish their identities freely by taking part in various discourses (cf. “achieving self-understanding”).

So far, so good. With a broad simplification, there is deliberation that decides what to do about problems, but the informal public sphere provides information about what, actually, the problems are. Which is fine, until the problem of general elections and popular referendums come around.

The situation here is different. The problem, so to say, is provided by the constitutional framework (elections), or by the decision-oriented deliberative political system (that, in the case of referendums, decides that the best way to decide is asking citizens directly). But since the decision will be carried out by members of the “weak” publics, without procedurally correct deliberation, how can these decisions be considered legitimate?

Ideally there should be a way to make sure that debate in such cases, where the informal public sphere is NOT uncoupled from actual decision making, is procedurally correct. In fact Habermas says that it is the role of the established mass media to act like a guardian of “good debate” (he elaborates on this topic somewhat in his 2006 “Does Democracy Still Enjoy an Epistemic Dimension”-paper). But the constitutional framework that sets the basic rules and barriers for the operation of the media cannot substitute the deliberative process.

If it is true that:

[O]nly the political system can “act.” It is a subsystem specialized for collectively binding decisions, whereas the communicative structures of the public sphere constitute a far-flung network of sensors that react to the pressure of society-wide problems and stimulate influential opinions. The public opinion that is worked up via democratic procedures into communicative power cannot “rule” of itself but can only point the use of administrative power in specific directions. (Between Facts and Norms p300)

…then what if this public opinion MUST make a decision, like in the case of general elections? If legitimacy is guaranteed solely by the process of deliberation, and if deliberation is not involved in precisely those processes that are supposed to provide a greater power of individual voters in influencing the state – then just how can this be considered legitimate? Or is there a problem with the whole deliberative model of democracy?

See, I really have to read more about it. I reckon that Habermas has an answer, I just need to look for it more carefully.

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