The Roots of Critical Theory – Resisting Neoconservatism Today
Geoff Boucher February 2007

Wrong Turn: Notes towards a Critique of Habermasian Liberalism

Part II
Communicative Action versus Strategic Action

For Habermas, the division of cultural modernity into distinct value spheres (nature, morality, art) follows from the structure of speech itself, because argumentative claims presuppose a belief in states of affairs in what he calls the objective, social and subjective worlds. As the logic of each claim type is increasingly liberated from influence by other types of claims (e.g., as expressions of subjectivity are liberated from social restraints, such as in the movement of the avantgarde in the 1920s and 1930s), the autonomous logic of the independent value spheres becomes the object of specialised discourses and expert competence. The different validity claims separate in modernity into differentiated value spheres of natural science, morality and law, and art. The autonomy of these spheres implies a decentred worldview in which participants understand that different sorts of reasons can be advanced for different sorts of action, and that no sphere is trump in regard to the others. The rise of expert cultures, specialised in one of the value spheres to the exclusion of the others, reinforces the autonomy of value spheres and the decentring of the modern worldview. A major consequence is that rationality is now procedural rather than substantive, because the sort of reasons varies according to the object of analysis: “communicative reason finds its criteria in the argumentative procedures for directly or indirectly redeeming claims to propositional truth, normative rightness, subjective authenticity and aesthetic harmony” (Habermas, 1987a: 314).

Habermas accepts that this fragmentation leads to widespread dissatisfaction with modern life as oppressively regulated and deeply meaningless. He diagnoses several reactions to modernity – including fundamentalism and postmodernism – as rejections of modernity’s decentring of worldviews and lack of a unified rationality. Nonetheless, Habermas insists that the loss of the sacred canopy (including the discrediting of providential metanarratives of salvation and progress) as a result of the decentring of worldviews does not preclude an emancipatory social theory, and that the fragmentation of rationality into distinct value spheres is not the destruction of reason. Although a unified worldview or global reason is impossible, the different aspects of rationality can be meta-theoretically unified through (1) a theory of communicative action that emphasises the unity of argumentation and (2) an open everyday life that facilitates innovative solutions to cultural problems of modernity through the dissemination of expert knowledge in public debate. Furthermore, according to Habermas the multiple value spheres of science, morals and art are not necessarily antagonistic to one another, but instead can be harmonised. For Habermas, the discontents of modernity relate to (1) the longing for a unified worldview and (2) dissatisfaction with the selective path of social rationalisation followed by the modern world. According to this position, the dominance of the economic processes of capitalism has led to rationalisation of the administrative system and commercialisation of the cultural field. This selective rationalisation leads to loss of meaning and the growth of unfreedom – modernity remains an “unfinished project.” Habermas is therefore a defender of the “normative content of modernity” – its project to generate social norms and moral principles without reference to God, Nature or Being – against the variants of contemporary neo-paganism, theologically-inspired communitarianism and postmodern sophism.

Habermas begins his reconstruction of the “unfinished project of modernity” by means of a reconstruction of the rational competence of ordinary individuals engaged in speech acts. This programme of “universal/formal pragmatics” involves rendering explicit “the pre-theoretical grasp of rules on the part of competently speaking, acting and knowing subjects,” by means of an analysis of what counts as rational action under certain conditions (Habermas, 1987a: 297-298). For Habermas, rational action entails plausible belief, since making an action intelligible for a community involves presupposing, on the part of the actor, a belief that the world is thus, and a rational action implies that an actor can provide reasoned arguments for their belief in the “thusness” of the world. This analysis leads Habermas to reject the model of the isolated individual in their lonely transformation of nature or their solitary monologue on reason. Consequently, the Habermasian conception of rational action does not involve a solitary agent transforming the world, but a social actor providing reasons for their actions to others. Accordingly, Habermas does not base Critical Theory on the epistemological subject of modern philosophy or calculating agent of liberal theory. Furthermore, Habermas rejects Weber’s notion that rationality consists solely in the selection of efficient means to an arbitrary end. Substantive rationality involves the selection of ends consistent with values and the defence of values according to rational arguments, as well as the selection of efficient (or right, or authentic) means. For Habermas, the dialogical justifications that agents provide one another for their conduct leads to the intersubjective construction of social and natural reality through the building up of situation definitions regarding the world. Rationality is now seen as grounded in the intersubjective process of reaching agreement through dialogical justifications. In this process, agents manage to cooperate only insofar as they share common situation definitions – and therefore a common world – so that dialogical justification (rational action) generates at once individual autonomy and social solidarity.

Habermas points out that actions inherently claim validity and that speech acts implicitly lay claim to the validity of the underlying beliefs, but these validity claims are rational if and only if they can be redeemed through reasoned argument. The notion of justification of one’s actions before a speech community means that action can no longer be conceived solely as the transformation of nature, for action can also include moral conduct and dramatic expression. Just as instrumental transformation of nature is justified with reference to states of affairs in the objective world, moral conduct is justified with reference to states of affairs in the social world and self expression is justified with reference to states of affairs in subjective world of the speaker. Following this analysis of action types (Habermas, 1984: 75-101), Habermas concludes that:

Hence the action types constitute worlds, whose regulative principles can also be specified:

Teleological actionObjective world of factsTruth: states of affairs
Normatively regulated actionLegitimately regulated interpersonal relationshipsRightness: normative principles in the light of generalised interests
Expressive actionSubjective experiencesSincerity: evaluative standards in the light of subjective criteria of validity

Habermas’s discussion is highly problematic. He mentions – but does not really develop – the category of “dramaturgical action,” where an agent positions themselves before a community to interpret their needs and desires in the light of relations in the social world and states of affairs in the objective world. Dramaturgical action therefore cuts across the too neat (basically Kantian) distinction between different types of speech acts. Indeed, because agents always act on the basis of both material and ideal interests, actions are always based in need interpretation as well as normative considerations (Benhabib, 1986). And because language always involves a positioning before the “generalised other” (Honneth, 1995) as well as a minimum of world disclosure and rhetorical effects, seeking mutual understanding is always minimally “dramatic.” I suggest that “dramaturgical action” is actually the type of all action and that this by no means entails descent into postmodern relativism or the aestheticisation of reason, for a speech act is evaluated (and acted upon) according to the illocutionary force of the utterance, and this can be rationally criticised.

At any rate, formal (or universal) pragmatics is therefore a meta-critical contribution to the theory of argumentation that would provide the interconnection between different types of action. What this means is that rational argumentation itself – the dialogical process of reasoned debate on the definition of a situation – becomes the process articulating science, morality and art:

Metaphysico-religious worldview:
Inter-penetration of value spheres
Process of rational argumentation
Autonomous logic of value spheres
Objective worldSocial worldSubjective worldNatural scienceLegal-moral representationsAesthetics and subjectivity

For Habermas, the evolution from a unified metaphysico-religious worldview to the decentred worldview of modernity replicates the psychological development of the individual. Habermas’s claim is reminiscent of the worst sorts of social Darwinism, for he describes the pre-modern (and infant) inter-penetration of value spheres in terms that (A) tend to suggest that they are the same, i.e., that indigenous peoples are the “childhood of humanity” and (B) that describe this inter-penetration in terms of cognitive errors, such as “conflation” and “magical thinking.” I will return to this in my summary of the problems with Habermas’s position.

The aim of Habermas’s theory is to contest the universality of instrumental reason by introducing the notion of communicative reason. He summarises this position in TCA (Habermas, 1984: 285):

Action Orientation

Action Situation

Oriented to success [i.e., teleological action evaluated by its efficiency-GB]Oriented to reaching understanding
Non-socialInstrumental action 
SocialStrategic actionCommunicative action

For Habermas, strategic action and communicative action are two different modalities of the social coordination of action.

Furthermore, communicative action is mediated through the dialogical process of consensus formation, whereas strategic action is immediate, because consensus formation is regarded as another object to be manipulated in the social field. Because the original use of language is reaching understanding, the strategic employment of language to manipulate a pseudo-consensus is logically secondary. With the concept of strategic action, the problematic of reification returns to Habermasian theory construction – but what Habermas will do is to naturalise strategic action instead of to demythologise it. Because this move is so crucial I want to highlight what I think is absolutely mistaken about it:

I believe that Habermas misses an opportunity to return to the reification problematic here. If all action is social action, and every speech act has components (in different proportions) of all “worlds,” then every action is concretely a communicative act to the extent that awe or intimidation (sacred authority and superior force) are excluded from social cooperation (the case in modernity). But to the extent that that action is involved in relations of real abstraction, it becomes instrumentalised and so is abstractly a strategic action. My suggestion is as follows:

Concrete aspect of an action as a particular act in a local context, based on the recognised authority of speakersCommunicative action
Abstract aspect of an action as functional input within a complex system, based on the calculated performance of agentsStrategic action

This section would be incomplete without a discussion of Habermas’s distinctive moral theory of the ideal speech situation. An extremely stupid caricature of the Habermasian “ideal speech situation” portrays it as a group of academics sitting round the seminar table smoking pipes. But the academic seminar is an appropriate description of Richard Rorty’s “postmodern liberal bourgeois conversation,” which is the epitome of everything that the ideal speech situation is not.

The Habermasian ideal speech situation of unconstrained consensus, on the basis of the force of the better argument alone, is a counterfactual ideal – which is to say that on Habermasian assumptions, it is a presupposition of all rational dialogue, despite the empirical constraints on dialogue everywhere present in the real world. Engaging in reasoned argument, Habermas explains, presupposes a difference between some agents regarding the definition of a situation that must be resolved for the participants to cooperate in action. That the participants argue rather than fight – that is, provide definitions and justifications, and engage in reflection on the evaluative criteria for the debate itself – presupposes their belief that it is strength of reasons that should decide the outcome, not reasons of strength. But this implies that in engaging in argumentation, one lays provisional claim to universal validity. Habermas’s position depends partly on the assumption that understanding an utterance means making intelligible the reasons why the speaker believes the world to be just so, in other words, evaluating the cogency of the reasons that can be provided in defence of the statement. Another assumption is that participants are cooperatively engaged in teleological action and must determine ends and means in a certain situation. It follows from this that participants are implicitly committed to the force of the better argument alone and that they must reach consensus in order to cooperatively act. Another consequence is that the conditions of existence for this debate can legitimately be contested, so that the existence of exploitation and oppression necessarily call into question the validity of any argumentative consensus. Thus Rorty’s “postmodern bourgeois liberal conversation,” whose condition of existence is the exclusion of the voices of the oppressed, is exemplary of pseudo-consensus, the surreptitious substitution of the arguments of force for the force of arguments. The notion is a communication-theoretical restatement of Kant’s idea that the Idea of freedom – as the cosmological Idea of a suprasensible world – is a postulate of practical reason which, although problematic and indeterminate from the perspective of speculation, is lent a practical determination through moral reasoning. It is, in other words, a regulative ideal, nowhere manifest in the world, which nonetheless has real practical effects because somewhat rational dialogue sometimes happens. Habermas’s example is the radical cultural struggle of the Enlightenment, which led up to the French Revolution: unconstrained consensus does not preclude the use of force in defence of freedom, but it does exclude the incorporation of force into the definition of liberation.

Habermas is then in a position to assert the distinction between cultural rationalisation and social rationalisation. For Habermas, cultural rationalisation – the trajectory of supplying rational arguments for justified beliefs that goes from mythological worldviews to discrete values spheres – precedes and facilitates social rationalisation – the increasingly efficient development of social action within various environments. Specifically, cultural rationalisation establishes opportunities for learning processes that provide resources for innovative solutions to social problems. (An instance is the rationalisation of religious worldviews in the Reformation, leading to a demystification of the natural world that clears a space for the development of natural science, which in turn is applied in social rationalisation to the efficient calculation of social action and the development of industrialised technology.) For science and art, cultural rationalisation means the clearing of intellectual space for the application of the specific logic of that value domain to problematic objects, without reference to other cultural values. The really crucial development in modernity for Habermas is the emergence of post-conventional moral and legal representations. These are moral and legal representations based on universal principles rather than conventional norms and traditional customs. He proposes that moral and legal representations enable the emergence of new social practices that can lead to heightened complexity, because legal representations assist non-linguistic media of social interaction (money and power) to steer social practices. Habermas suggests that the problems of modernity spring from the institutionalisation of strategic action (instrumental reason in its social application) to the exclusion of communicative action. The problems of modernity emerge, then, not at the level of system integration but of social integration – the central faultline in modern social conflict is system versus lifeworld.

System versus Lifeworld

Habermas’s social theory involves analytical dualism. Society is a “system” when regarded from the perspective of an observer, from the perspective of the functional differentiation of social actions and their evolution within various environments. Society is a “lifeworld” when regarded from the position of a participant, from the perspective of the performative attitude adopted by speaking subjects in the generation of community. Whereas the efficiency of the system depends on adaptation to the system’s environment based on survival needs, the coherence of the lifeworld depends upon cultural reproduction, social integration and personal socialisation. Habermas proposes that modern existence involves a dialectical relation between cultural rationalisation – the emergence of a new consensus within the meaningful whole of the lifeworld, when grasped from the perspective of its participants – and social rationalisation – the increasing complexity of a system composed of functional subsystems, when grasped from an observer perspective. Because of the “selective rationalisation” of modernity – that is, the predominance of strategic action and instrumental reason – system and lifeworld are in conflict.

Habermas motivates the concept of the lifeworld by means of a critique of utilitarian theories (such as neo-classical economics and functional systems theories). A social agent who is nothing more than a calculating ego engages universally in strategic action, but has no commitment to the rules of the social game – agents motivated solely by selfish considerations are perennial free-riders. But this means that they are persistent under-performers (quite apart from their lack of commitment to democracy and morality), because they are only motivated to innovate within a social practice when it is in their narrowly conceived self-interest and they cannot reliably reproduce the institutional rules that provide them with their arena of action. Accordingly, Habermas proposes that systemic processes need to be anchored in the lifeworld because utilitarian actors lack the motivation to play by the rules. No social order can exist durably without the underlying consent of its participants to the legitimacy of its institutions and the social background consensus regarding the relevant situation definitions.

Habermas reconstructs the concept of the lifeworld, removing its phenomenological connotations and expanding it beyond just cultural signification to include social practices. “Lifeworld” means any action considered as intelligible conduct, as a meaningful act. In line with hermeneutic theories, he defines the lifeworld as a “culturally transmitted and linguistically organised stock of interpretive patterns” sustaining collective identity (Habermas, 1987b: 136). But he insists on a linguistic conception of the lifeworld as the “always already,” the pre-theoretical and pre-reflexive horizon of pre-understandings (background assumptions) that supply the context against which actions are intelligible. The lifeworld is the inescapable context of knowledge and action, but it cannot be entirely thematised: we are always standing somewhere, within a horizon, but what lies beyond this horizon (the rest of the totality of the lifeworld) remains invisible – “everyday communicative practice is not compatible with the hypothesis that everything could be entirely different” (Habermas, 1987b: 132). Problematic situations make us aware of some of the background assumptions that guide our conduct and these assumptions lose their certainty – in Habermasian terms, the assumptions that are thematised (highlighted) generate the situations within which the horizon can be glimpsed as a horizon.

Habermas proposes that everyday life happens through a network of communicative actions (the mutual negotiation of situation definitions) taking place against a background of unquestioned presuppositions. Accordingly, coherent social reproduction requires the consistency of the cultural framework of everyday life. The reproduction of the lifeworld involves (1) transmission and renewal of cultural knowledge – cultural reproduction (2) maintaining the solidarity of individuals as members of a community through providing legitimation for institutions – social integration (3) the formation of personal identities that can form life histories and have motivations for participation in social life – personal socialisation. Thus the reproduction of the lifeworld is also the reproduction of the structural components of the lifeworld, culture, society and person (Habermas, 1987b: 137). Against the notion that either “society does not exist,” or that society is solely a system operating through subjects who are mere bearers of a process, Habermas insists that society is fundamentally a network of communicative actions that have the effect of maintaining cultural continuity, maintaining the legitimacy of social institutions and socialising competent individuals.

The lifeworld is reproduced when social actors can connect new situations with existing cultural interpretations, legitimate orders and personal histories. Thus a crisis in the lifeworld results in failure of interpretive schemes (loss of meaning), loss of legitimacy (legitimation crisis) and anomie (motivation crisis). Social integration happens when social actors are able to connect emergent social conditions with action norms governing pre-existing situations, that is, with existing cultural interpretations, legitimate social relationships and individual life histories. In other words, people have to know what is happening, what to do, and who they are, during major social change. Lack of answers to any of these questions generates disorientation, especially when the collective generation of new answers – through political debate and social mobilisation – is systematically blocked by a commodified culture and a mediatised democracy.

A persistent crisis of social integration can therefore be characterised at the levels of culture, society and person. These are marked by: (1 – culture) cultural disorientation caused by loss of meaning, as existing interpretative schemes cannot explain new cultural conditions – problems of relativism; (2 – society) an erosion of solidarity and the rise of alienated/anomic individualism, because new situations cannot be reconciled with the existing normative regulation of social groups – a crisis of recognition; (3 – person) decline in personal responsibility linked to broken generational continuity and the waning of historicity, leading to an increase in psychopathologies, and to a disconnection between generalised competencies for action and personal responsibility – the spread of anomie and pathological narcissism.

Habermas reconceptualises the Weberian notion of cultural rationalisation as rationalisation of the lifeworld. Exposure of problematic themes from the lifeworld due to changing situation definitions results in communicative justification for various customary actions, destroying the naturalisation of values in the lifeworld. Traditional certainties are eroded by natural science, moral inquiry, the pluralisation of values, the secularisation of society, modern subjectivity and aesthetic radicalism.

Ongoing rationalisation of the lifeworld affects all three structural components of the lifeworld, loading up the demands on communicative action and making securing consensus increasingly risky. As cultural knowledge depends more and more on reflexive thinking and reasoned knowledge – rather than adherence to traditional customs – values become relativised and denaturalised. With the pluralisation of social roles and the multiplication of beliefs, the reciprocal norms underlying legitimate institutions and group associations become subject to debate and testing against universal principles, leading to crises of legitimacy. The increasing reflexivity of identity formation – where individuals form personal narratives through life decisions of an unprecedented scope – implies responsibility for lifestyle choices and value orientations, as well as the difficulties of reconciling multiple social roles into a coherent biography. The role of expert cultures becomes increasingly salient in the reproduction process of cultural renewal and the socialisation of new generations becomes the province of expert professionals. The rationalisation of the lifeworld foregrounds the contingency of cultural traditions, social relations and individual biographies. “The further the structural components of the lifeworld and the processes that contribute to maintaining them get differentiated, the more interaction contexts come under conditions of rationally motivated mutual understanding, that is, of consensus formation that rests in the end on the authority of the better argument” (Habermas, 1987b: 145). Habermas argues that although rationalisation of the lifeworld is permanent unless deliberately turned backwards by a willed suspension of disbelief, the lifeworld remains a sort of conservative ballast within the persistence of reflexivity. The background of pre-reflexive consensus is essential to the conduct of everyday life, for reflexive debate about all social conduct would be exhausting and impossible.

Now, you might expect Habermas to celebrate the extension of reflexivity because it entails that communicative action increasingly becomes the mode of social coordination. Indeed, his thesis that rational consent is social solidarity implies that the growth of communicative action and the renewal of community are coextensive. Of course, the increasing role of communicative action as the mode of socia integration, together with the dislocations generated by the pluralisation of values, provokes political and social reactions from defenders of tradition. Fundamentalism represents an attempt to stop the pluralisation of values by restoring the metaphysical or religious unity of worldviews, and other projects exist to restore the ethical unity of society by force. What is strange is that Habermas proposes that the spread of communicative action makes social integration fragile – he should argue the direct opposite. The risk of dissent, he suggests, generated within a hyper-reflexive lifeworld, overloads communicative action and individuals respond with anxiety to the denaturalisation of customs and assumptions. It is necessary, he argues, for a complex social system to “unload” some of the burden on communicative action by transforming this into forms of strategic action that do not require dialogue.

According to Habermas – disastrously, I believe – the economy and administration are not coordinated through communicative action, but are “steered” by means of “media” such as money and power. For Habermas, “media” turn linguistic coordination of action into coordination through quantitative values or qualitative performances.

Modernisation of social life involves the development of steering mechanisms through “media” (such as money and power) that are normatively neutral and governed solely by efficiency. For Habermas, social rationalisation involves functional differentiation and subsystem specialisation. Fundamentally, this means the adaptation of the system to its environment in the interests of survival generates increasing complexity within the system’s components as a result of functional specialisation. Material reproduction, cultural integration and normative regulation of society, from the system perspective, are increasingly managed by specialised subsystems – and the global ensemble of subsystems becomes so complex that participants cannot grasp the integration functional of system processes. These happen “behind the backs” of agents through anonymous and lawlike mechanisms. Consequently, he proposes that economy and state are norm free domains of strategic action.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Habermas turns not to Karl Marx but to Talcott Parsons to develop the systems theory for his position. From this analytical perspective, three functional subsystems engage in the functional requirements of material production, normative regulation and cultural reproduction: the economic and administrative systems are responsible for material production and reproduction of society; the lifeworld is interpreted from a systems perspective as a subsystem responsible for cultural reproduction, social integration and personal socialisation. But where the lifeworld is steered by discourse, the economy is steered by money and the administration is steered by power.

By media, Habermas means a mechanism that facilitates “real abstraction,” the subjection of social relations to abstract calculation by virtue of their quantification and standardisation. Correspondingly, the social practices of agents engaged in media-steered subsystems (“mediatised”) become predictable performances. These performances function in the interests of system integration, but the agent cannot grasp intuitively how this function is fulfilled.

Note that Habermas’s concept of real abstraction is linked to the notion of strategic action. Habermas employs real abstraction as a framework for grasping how meaningful actions in the lifeworld are used “behind the backs” of agents as performances that sustain the functioning of the social system as a whole.

For Habermas, the contradictions of capitalism have been so successfully managed that (1) the continuous rise in living standards and the new social cleavages have displaced class conflicts (2) the claims of redistributive justice have lost their power and (3) the opposition between system and lifeworld constitutes the new shock front in social conflict (Habermas, 1987b: 348-350).