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

Wrong Turn: Notes towards a Critique of Habermasian Liberalism

Part III
The Colonisation Thesis and the Public Sphere

According to Habermas, social reproduction must happen in both dimensions of social existence – system and lifeworld. Function integration of the subsystems of the social system is essential for the material production of life and the reproduction of social existence. But the normative reproduction of the lifeworld is crucial for social cohesion and personal motivation. For Habermas, the new faultline of conflict in modernity is the conflict between imperatives of function and normative integration: functional (system) integration depends increasingly on a technocratic society with a managed democracy, whereas normative (social) integration tends towards legitimation through public deliberation and self-reflexive social practices.

Although modernity is characterised by the “loss of meaning” diagnosed by Weber as a result of the breakdown of metaphysical worldviews, it is the “loss of freedom” that Habermas argues is the main problem today. This is a result of the intrusion of system dynamics into the processes of the lifeworld, which Habermas likens to the colonisation of a traditional society by an imperial power. The imperatives of system dynamics, driven by money and power, lead to the management of system disequilibria – such as economic stagnation or political crises – through transferring the fallout of these difficulties onto the lifeworld. In short, irrationalities of capital accumulation and bureaucratic domination are shunted onto the lifeworld in the form of the management of the normative problems that arise when citizens are required to put up with it anyway. According to Habermas, the way this is done is through recasting normative relations as legal relations. For Habermas, legal relations are both the missionaries of media colonisation (as “juridification”) and the pacemaker of normative social evolution (as the legislative control of social life based on deliberative democracy). (1) Legal relations carve out arenas for strategic action by formalising relations between persons and making performances predictable. (2) But legal relations also impose a normative ceiling on strategic conduct, beyond which even actors who regard one another instrumentally cannot go. A clear example of this duality of the law is labour law and industrial relations. The key point is that the “juridification” of social relations displaces communicative action. The process of juridification is also an index of the clash between system and social integration.

The rationalisation of the lifeworld involves submitting customary practices to rational scrutiny. This means that social cohesion and action orientations can only be secured through the reflexive analysis of traditional norms. Equally, the emergence of new situations that confront established norms with fresh challenges – such as, for instance, multicultural societies in the postwar era – means that a deliberate effort must be made to determine new principles that can accommodate the changed conditions while withstanding rational scrutiny and winning popular assent. According to Habermas, this overloads the lifeworld. One solution is to substitute legal regulation for normative consensus: Habermas understands this as the sign of subsystem encroachment on lifeworld processes, because subsystems are organised through formal law. Instead of normative agreement, juridification makes possible an ascribed consensus based on formal performances. The paradigm of juridification is the transformation of citizens into clients of welfare bureaucracies through the expert management of socialisation and acculturation, a situation that Habermas describes as “civil privatism.” From the system perspective, the system is reducing the complexity of its environment by managing its conditions of existence – by “extracting mass loyalty” through clientalism in relation to state bureaucracies, the administrative system reduces the risks involved in securing rational consensus. From the lifeworld perspective, social relations become formal and abstract, while the state bureaucracy confronts its clients as a monolithic apparatus. This “loss of freedom” is the Habermasian version of the Weberian “iron cage” and Lukács’s “reification” – social relations appear to persons as an objectified reality that confronts them as a natural force.

According to Habermas, social crisis is managed by the mediatised subsystems of economy and politics so effectively that crisis tendencies only really emerge in the lifeworld. When money and power overflow their domains of application and begin to reconfigure arenas of social life that cannot be successfully formalised – cultural renewal and transmission, the legitimacy of institutional norms and the solidarity of social members, group identity and personal socialisation – the result is the characteristic crises of lifeworld structures (crises of loss of meaning, decline of social solidarity and rise of psychopathologies).

Resistance to colonisation is rendered problematic because the lifeworld is only partly rationalised: this denies the plausibility of traditional interpretations, but also blocks the dissemination of the cultural resources to block an extension of mediatised systematisation. This is especially true because of the decline of the public sphere. Nonetheless, resistance happens, particular in the form of the new social movements (NSM), breaking out “along the seams between system and lifeworld” (Habermas, 1987b: 395). Thus although Habermas sees social conflict in the advanced capitalist world as primarily defensive, he recognises that this springs from the alienation of everyday communicative practice.

For Habermas, solidarity – the agreement on legitimate orders – is now the key endangered resource in contemporary society. In complex social systems – which require rationalisation of the lifeworld to make them possible – social solidarity takes the form of communicatively-mediated self-determination. Habermas rejects as utopian the fundamentalist effort to restore social solidarity through the imposition of a religious worldview, as rationalisation of the lifeworld has foreclosed a return to tradition. The decline in social solidarity affects the legitimacy of social relations. According to Habermas, problems in the monetarised-bureaucratic systems are diverted into culture and person, to protect the already weakened structure of solidarity – outright anomie would provoke a “legitimation crisis.”

Nonetheless, Habermas is adamant that the solution to the problems of modernity is not political revolution – or even democratisation of economy and state. He protests that the complexity of mediatised subsystems is too great for the legislature (whether a parliament or soviet) to direct society consciously. Because the political is only one system in a decentred system, the notion of a self-organising society needs to be replaced by that of a self-organising legal community that can affect the other subsystems without taking them over. The way this is to be done is through a renewal of civil society that aims to restore the public sphere.

As a consequence, in Habermas’s rethinking, the progressive project undergoes a drastic truncation. Habermas rejects state socialism and the planned economy, together with insurrectionary politics and the working class as subject of history. In the place of the twentieth century programme stands a modest programme for the renewal of the public sphere and the restoration of civil society in a new balance of powers designed to revive democratic deliberation in advanced capitalism. The exemplary instance of this political project is the self-limiting democratic revolutions of 1989. For Habermas, the project of the Left is to restrain subsystem expansion and protect the social integration performed by the lifeworld. At the same time, the economic and administrative subsystems must be protected against rash democratic impulses, which under conditions of social complexity might risk a new barbarism. The left must abandon the idea of a meta-subject and the programme of the de-differentiation of society, to articulate a new balance of powers. Media must be constrained to their proper spheres of operation by means of a reinvigorated public sphere. For Habermas, “only in an egalitarian public of citizens that has emerged from the confines of class and thrown off the millennia-old shackles of social stratification and exploitation can the potential of an unleashed cultural pluralism fully develop” (Habermas, 1996: 219). But “throwing off the shackles” seems to require fairly modest reforms: (1) reinvigoration of the public sphere designed to generate rational consensus on shared value orientations; (2) income distribution and social welfare to redress economic exploitation and status stratification; (3) the democratisation of the administration (through greater transparency of procedures rather than direct popular control); (4) the rationalisation of the lifeworld to generate a populace accustomed to freedom.

For Habermas, the public sphere is a “social space generated in communicative action” – that is, it is the (abstract) space of public debate. The political, social and cultural discussions that constitute the public sphere can generate solidarity regarding legitimate conduct, because the totality of these debates creates a “higher level intersubjectivity” across society. But the public sphere does not require an ancient polis composed of informed citizens. Instead, it requires a rise in the overall level of public debate. The notion of deliberative democracy that follows from this involves open and balanced processes of deliberation via anonymous communications paths, “replacing the expectation of virtue with the supposition of rationality” (Habermas, 1987b: 348-350). The public sphere acts as a feedback channel relaying complaints from the lifeworld to the administrative system, and as a forum for the legitimation of the legal subsystem. The legal system is therefore subject to the constraints generated by the public sphere. According to his analysis, the legitimacy of law is the means to maintain communicative pressure on subsystem dynamics: economy and administration need the legal subsystem to remain legitimate for the steering processes of money and power to be effective, but legitimacy for the law can happen only in the lifeworld. Habermas envisages the development of a multi-dimensional deliberative democracy on the basis of constitutional civil liberties and elected parliaments that institutionalise communicative procedures and allow the interplay of these institutions with informally developed public opinions.

Before I finish my summary of Habermas’s work up to Theory of Communicative Action, I want to mention two replies to obvious criticisms of his work that Habermas has presented. It has been proposed that the entire notion of the “public sphere” is hopelessly idealised, because of the growth of multinational corporations and vast state bureaucracies: inequalities of money and power completely distort public communication; and, the mass media exercises an influence on public deliberation that is strategic in its implications (i.e., the public sphere will always be reified). Habermas replies that (1) the public sphere is an idealisation that provides a regulative ideal for social struggle; (2) although influence is real, it remains tied to communicative action despite its potential to short-circuit deliberative processes (Habermas, 1996). Habermas admits that “influence” – in the sense of trust in expert knowledge – is a “quasi-medium,” not unlike money and power. Scientific knowledge, moral authority and professional reputation constitute the quasi-medium of influence, whereby experts can redeem validity claims not with reference to reasoned arguments, but with reference to trust in their ability to provide such arguments if necessary.

Problems with Habermas’s Position

Habermas’s conception of intersubjectivity and his opposition between system and lifeworld are potentially powerful theoretical advances. Sometimes, Habermas speaks as if the opposition between communicative action and strategic action had the force of the Marxian distinction between concrete and abstract labour, but a far greater scope: “when labour is rendered abstract and indifferent, we have a special case of the transference of communicatively structured domains of action over the media-steered interaction” (Habermas, 1987b: 402-403). Sometimes, he also speaks as if the distinction between lifeworld and system had the force of the dialectical contradiction between social relations and productive forces, but purified of the anthropology of labour and teleology of history that these have in classical historical materialism. But I maintain that what Habermas does instead is:

  1. Habermas seems to deprive the system-lifeworld distinction of critical force, because of his insistence on the inviolability of media-steered subsystems on grounds of social complexity. He regards economy and politics as sealed and inviolable compartments of the system. The consequence is that he proposes that “media-steered subsystems” are “norm-free” zones of strategic action. What this means is that there is no normative critique of commodity relations or bureaucratic domination. The lifeworld tends to become just another sealed compartment of the system – under the banner of the “public sphere” and “civil society” – and this is the only one where a progressive politics can operate.
  2. The Habermasian notion of “unconstrained communication” and the “ideal speech situation” seem to me to be basically Kantian in their inspiration. In political terms, this translates as the renewal of the public sphere through better discussions that have as their regulative ideal a deliberative democracy, i.e., an open information channel to a transparent and accountable legislature, rather than a participatory democracy or a democratisation of representative government. (1) They are based on the notion of freedom as “freedom from” external coercion, rather than “freedom to” based on capacities and relations. (2) They lead to proceduralist conclusions, i.e., formal considerations deprived of substantive content. (3) They risk the classical problems of Kantian formalism – that they can say nothing about the socio-political conditions that make such autonomy possible and that they remain separate from actual politics as unrealizable ideals.

The Habermasian programme for progressive politics merely constitutes a social liberalism – liberalism tempered by social democratic elements and fragments from the programmes of the new social movements.

Additionally, Habermas’s positions on aesthetics and gender are highly problematic and have been subjected to intense critical scrutiny.

These problems are not just sins of omission that Habermas might rectify with a more complete theory. They reflect fundamental problems with the execution of a basically correct insight, that Critical Theory needs to make the linguistic turn and broaden its conception of social action beyond just labour. I maintain that the combination of these problems reflects a liberal intellectual-ideological constellation:

  1. the notion of unconstrained communication in combination with the prohibition on political and economic transformation amounts to a restatement in linguistic terms of “negative liberty”;
  2. the formalism of the Habermasian schema reflects a classical problem with liberal theory, that of formal equality and material inequality, normatively legitimated through a fictitious social contract – this time, based not in enlightened self-interest but in interests in a regulative ideal;
  3. the abstraction of this schema takes its revenge in an expressive conception of the subject whose sole mode of free discourse is the compensations of art and the consolations of a home situation where materially unequal gender roles are happily naturalised as aspects of moral development.

My conclusion is that Habermas represents a “wrong turn” from the moment of Adorno and Horkheimer, a turn to Weber and away from Marx; or, to change the metaphor, “one step forwards, two steps back” – a step forwards to communicative intersubjectivity, two steps back to empty formalism and naturalisation of inequality.


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