Public Sphere, The

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The public sphere is, in theory, where ‘society’ takes place. It is the spaces, places and organisations in which people interact to debate, deliberate and exchange ideas. Jürgen Habermas identified the development of a ‘Bourgeois’ public sphere in the 17th and 18th century European coffee houses, where people met to reason about the politics of the day. Others have explored the more recent example of unregulated social interaction that takes place on the internet.

Few would question the need for a healthy public sphere. It is the basis for an inclusive democracy and meaningful participation in politics, in which citizens are able to make decisions and form opinions collectively, without moderation by government or influence by private capital. But what conditions are required for it to flourish?

Political freedom is critical: citizens can only participate if they are free from government coercion. Public policy promoted by the World Bank among others focuses on how a thriving public sphere can hold the state to account, emphasising the need for political transparency and a free press not under state control. In this classic liberal view, however, political democracy goes hand in hand with a free market. Just as citizens must be free to exchange ideas, the liberal account goes, they must be ‘free’ to buy and sell goods, without intervention from the state.

Yet the threat posed by the market is no less grave. Habermas recognised that a democratic public sphere is dependent on the ability of citizens to participate on an equal footing. He argued that the development of the capitalist economy corroded the public sphere, as private capital took over popular means of communication. The US news market offers a potent example, where the dominance of private corporations has eroded the supply of unbiased information for the American public – as demonstrated by American media coverage of the Iraq war. And so while the internet allows for radically horizontal forms of organisation and deliberation between citizens, some would argue that the BBC is also important in creating the conditions for participation in the UK context, with its mandate to provide universal access to balanced and accurate news coverage. It is the erosion of this ethos that concerns those who oppose Rupert Murdoch’s ascendancy in the British media market.

While political equality and democratic accountability are necessary conditions for a strong public sphere, they have limited meaning in an unequal society. Hence the feminist critiques by Nancy Fraser and others which pointed out that the clientele of the coffee houses espoused by Habermas were typically white, propertied men, and excluded women and the poor.

Organised society – the women’s, civil rights and labour movements – has tried hard to counter the social inequalities and power of private capital that would undermine the public sphere. The role of the state is more ambiguous. Choices about how to regulate and intervene in society and the economy can reinforce the interests of the public or private capital. Over the past three decades, the dramatic increase in inequality in OECD countries is evidence of how global elites have been able to amass considerable political and economic resources with which to access information, power and influence.

Public deliberation requires more than the absence of coercion and the existence of the physical or cyber spaces that enable interaction. Without mediation, all the spaces in which the public exchange ideas and receive information quickly become colonised by those with the resources to dominate. If the public sphere is inhibited by inequalities of power, its success – and that of democracy itself – relies on the continuous struggle for greater social and economic equality.

Author: Tess Lanning – Researcher at IPPR