The ‘talking cure’ that Jürgen Habermas has proposed for the West’s ailing democracies may seem irredeemably idealistic. Only in a far more genuinely democratic system than our own would all citizens really have the opportunity to debate, freely and at length, the issues that affect them in their daily lives. Only in such a society would the media really fulfil its role as fourth estate—soliciting the opinions of experts to provide citizens with up-to-date, detailed and accurate information on every issue of public concern. Channels of communication between the public sphere and the political system would not only be regularized but open and accessible to anyone chosing to make use of them. Citizens’ influence on public policy would not be restricted to political issues but would have an impact on economic developments, too—on investment strategies, foreign aid, price-setting, interest rates, the allocation and preservation of natural resources and so on. Democratic government would no longer, paternalistically, be for the people; it would finally approach the republican ideal of government by the people.

We obviously do not live in the best of all Habermasian worlds. Many citizens are not even sufficiently motivated to put a mark on a ballot paper every five years, let alone to engage in sustained, reasoned discussion of public affairs. The privately owned media pander primarily to the profit-making interests of their owners and advertisers. Even when information is not withheld altogether, coverage and analysis is often biased, sometimes actually impeding responsible opinion-forming. Despite recent experiments in electronic town halls and citizens’ forums, there are far too few institutionalized channels of communication between the public and the political realm. Even when politicians are made aware of the opinions of their constituents, they will often ignore them in favour of their own interests, or those of their financial backers or other allies.

There are moments in Between Facts and Norms when Habermas’s account of liberal democracy oscillates between these two poles—counterposing the ideal presuppositions for deliberative democracy, and the actual democratic deficits of existing advanced capitalist states.footnote1 In contrast to the ideal—a robust and vibrant public sphere, and a political system sensitive to citizens’ values, interests and needs, that can meet it half-way—a more sober, critical assessment of political realities will sometimes emerge. In the course of the book, however, Habermas also advances a third, more conciliatory, position. Acknowledging the defects in current political practices, procedures and institutions, he nonetheless judges these states to be ‘more or less’—a recurring phrase—democratic, in the stronger, ideal sense of that term. He thereby effectively collapses the distinction that he himself has set up between an ideal, constitutionally regulated polity and its instantiation in existing liberal democracies.

Habermas’s ‘third way’ entails other problems. First, in his attempt to demonstrate the extent to which the Western states approximate the democratic ideal, Habermas minimizes—and finally condones—the degree to which these have now abandoned their discursive, legitimating ground in the public sphere. Secondly, this conflation of the real with the ideal involves a departure from the claims made in his earlier work, that the public sphere has been colonized by power and money, in ways that actually thwart citizens’ participation in the democratic process; and that ‘civil privatism’ in these societies deters active involvement in political affairs. Has ‘communicative power’ in fact succeeded in remedying any of the problems that have beset the advanced countries over the last twenty years? And even in the best of Habermasian worlds, could it actually do so?

The massive volume of Between Facts and Norms—the text alone is nearly 500 pages long—has been described as the ‘culminating effort’ of a project that was first announced with the 1962 publication of Strukturwandel der Offentlichkeit and elaborated through Legitimation Crisis (1973) and the two-volume Theory of Communicative Action (1981).footnote2 In some important respects, however, the book represents a sideways shift, if not a break with central arguments in the earlier work. Habermas certainly makes strong claims in Between Facts and Norms for the importance of effective ‘communicative power’ in legitimating liberal democracies. Such power, he argues, can develop ‘only in undeformed public spheres’; it can issue ‘only from structures of undamaged intersubjectivity found in nondistorted communication’. Ultimately, it consists in the ‘unhindered communicative freedom each one has “to make public use of one’s reason at every point”.’footnote3 To the extent that this freedom is genuinely unfettered, it becomes possible for citizens to identify, articulate and effectively bring to the attention of their political representatives their values, concerns and interests. Liberal-democratic polities are obligated by their constitutions to take these ‘generalized interests’ into account when they adopt new policies or redefine their procedures—not only because they are ‘responsible for problems that concern society as a whole’, but because they derive their legitimacy from representing the interests of the carrier of communicative power: the anarchic, amorphous public sphere. Their decision-making is necessarily constrained by economic interests and forces; but parliaments are also beholden to ‘lifeworld sources of communicative power’ for legitimation.footnote4

So far, then, we seem to have a version of the sixties slogan: power to the people. But to what extent is it really possible for ‘popular power’ to exercise any influence over decision-making processes in the political realm today? Habermas ostensibly devotes chapter 8, ‘Civil Society and the Political Public Sphere’, to a critical discussion of this question. He begins by examining the ‘disillusioning, if not downright cynical’ sociological critique of the functioning of modern democracies: that power does not, in fact, circulate in the constitutionally prescribed fashion—from public sphere to political system. But in the course of the discussion, the question of the actual movement of power is displaced by another: ‘whether and how a constitutionally regulated circulation of power might be established’. This certainly implies that the ‘official circuit’ of democratic decision-making, ‘steered by communicative power’, is—or has become—problematic. In fact, it will turn out that this circuit is only established fleetingly and exceptionally. In answering the second question, Habermas ends by adopting the cynical, sociological view he originally set out to criticize, but with a twist. The top-down, ‘systems-paternalistic’ model of power is the norm—both in the sense that power usually is exercised in this way and, much more controversially, in the sense that it usually should be.

Under normal circumstances, it is the political systems in liberal democracies that set the agenda, develop policies and draft legislation, largely unencumbered by public opinion. While agreeing with Bernhard Peters that legitimate decision-making ought to be ‘steered by communication flows that start at the periphery and pass through the sluices of democratic and constitutional procedures, situated at the entrance to the parliamentary complex or the courts’, Habermas readily admits that ‘the normal business of politics, at least as it is routinely conducted in Western democracies, cannot satisfy such strong conditions’. The ideal grounds for legitimacy, outlined in the constitutions of democratic states, are not usually satisfied. Power does not circulate from the public periphery to the political centre. Instead: ‘Courts deliver judgements, bureaucracies prepare laws and process applications, parliaments pass laws and budgets, party headquarters conduct election campaigns, clients exert influence on “their” administrations—and all these processes follow established patterns’.footnote5