In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society Jürgen Habermas presents an impressive account of the rise and transformation of “public opinion” as both idea and ideology. In this dense and difficult text, Habermas chronicles the rise of a bourgeois public sphere in Western Europe from the late seventeenth century on as feudalism made way for industrialization and capitalism. Yet Habermas’ narrative works in part to expose how the relatively new idea of “public opinion” is at best restrictive and naïve and at worst manipulative and oppressive.
From a twenty-first century perspective, the restrictive nature of the “public sphere” and the “public opinion” it produced is almost painfully obvious. Habermas points to this exclusivity by describing the public sphere as the result of a “complicated constellation of social preconditions” (Habermas 88). Most notably, this “complicated constellation” included the fact that the “public” was limited to a relatively small group of educated, property-owning male citizens. Hence, a majority of the population (including all women and anyone who didn’t own property) was categorically excluded from the “public.”
Likewise, the idea that public opinion somehow unerringly reflected the rational, moral, and “correct” way of seeing the world seems either completely arrogant or quaintly naïve from a twenty-first century perspective. Though Habermas shows how this belief was altered over time, at one point it was indeed thought that “people in their reliable common sense were, so to speak, unerring” (93). This idea of public opinion as a “principle of enlightenment and as a sphere in which reason realized itself” (120) was perhaps most harshly critiqued by Karl Marx, who “denounced public opinion as false consciousness: it hid before itself its own true character as a mask of bourgeois class interests” (124).
In addition to being restrictive and somewhat naïve, public opinion can easily be used to manipulate the public in both political and economic ways. The commodification of the press in the nineteenth century brought about an era in which public opinion served as a vehicle for the “psychological manipulation of advertising” (190). In economic terms, this manipulation works to raise a society of “skilled consumers” (192). In political terms “‘[e]ngineering of consent’ is the central task, for only in the climate of such a consensus does ‘promotion to the ‘public,’ suggesting or urging acceptance or rejection of a person, product, organization, or idea,’ succeed” (192).
At several points throughout The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Habermas hints at the concept of “industrial feudalism” or the “refeudalization” of capitalist society, but he perhaps does so most explicitly in his final chapter, “On the Concept of Public Opinion.” Here we see how public opinion has become a vehicle for oppression: “all those behaviors of population groups would be designated as public opinion that are apt to modify or preserve the structures, practices, and goals of the system of domination” (243).
The tragic irony of refeudalization is the way in which the public sphere has been dismantled by the insatiable excesses of the same force (capitalism) that worked to establish it in the first place. Ours indeed seems to be an era of refeudalization, an era in which the incessant and almost entirely one-way channels of public relations and mass media have supplanted any remnants of rational-critical “public” debate. That public opinion has been used for manipulative and oppressive economic and political ends clearly speaks of the decline of Habermas’ ideal of an enlightened public sphere in which a vigorous rational-critical debate aimed to solve societal problems. Yet the inherently restrictive and naïve nature of “public” opinion calls into question the extent to which such a sphere ever really existed to begin with.