saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats

“God save me from the Marxists”–attributed to Karl Marx

Jürgen Habermas is often presented as the master theorist of deliberative democracy, the author who believes that a society should approximate an “ideal speech situation” in which “the only force is the force of the better argument.” People apply his theory by creating deliberative fora, such as citizen’s juries or Participatory Budgeting processes, that approach an ideal speech situation. People criticize him for being utopian or overly rationalistic.

There is some basis for this interpretation of Habermas, but it overlooks that he is a sociologist with an abiding interest in the big Systems of a modern polity: markets, firms, legislatures, courts, unions, and the like. He understands modernity as a process of differentiation in which institutions that have diverse organizational logics and incentives arise and interrelate. I haven’t encountered a point at which he advocates creating ideal participatory fora and adding them to the mix of social institutions (although he may have done so somewhere in his voluminous works). What he does advocate is social movements, especially the “New” movements that have arisen since the 1970s, which he understands as efforts to resist the encroachment of the state and the market on everyday life. He names, as examples, squatter movements that occupy houses in German cities, and anti-tax protests. He argues that these movements revivify the public sphere by forcing the public to debate the proper role of state and market in relation to private life. A better speech situation results as a byproduct of contentious politics.

The New Social Movements are not deliberative fora to which representative citizens are invited to discuss public issues and reach agreement on policies. Instead, they combine “discourse” with a whiff of tear gas. I think they are needed for a full appreciation of Habermas.

See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we needHabermas and critical theory (a primer)the New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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