Habermas’ Grand Theory?

While social theorists attempt to incorporate all aspects of a given society to generate a grand theory that functions for all people all of the time, invariably, because the theory in question is so grand, there are elements that are excluded, misplaced or forgotten.  Jurgen Haberamas is no exception.  I will argue that, while his grand theory is sweeping, it is also narrow, excluding much of the population that is not white, male, and upper-class.

Habermas’ philosophy, based in part on some of the ideas of Husserl and Schutz, is that social order is created where reason and rationality provide a means for “establishing economic equality, political democracy, and the liberation of the individual from systems of domination.” Applerouth and Edles 2008: 720).  By extension, he also believes, like the majority of the Frankfurt school, that modern society is defined by an increase in instrumental rationalization in the form of methodical procedures and technical rules that increasingly pervade the domains of social and personal life.

He conceives of the “lifeworld,” as a “network of shared meanings that individuals draw from to construct identities, to negotiate situational definitions, or to create social solidarity”. He conceives of “system” as a society’s political and economic structures that are “responsible for the organization of power relations and the production and distribution of material resources (Applerouth and Edles 2008: 721).  This includes cultural knowledge and know-how as well as customs and norms through which we construct a “common” understanding of our social world, and it incorporates the socialization and internalization of those norms and values that are essential to the stability of the social order.  His analysis of modern society, where, “society stands over and above the individual, with big social institutions ultimately controlling the actions of actors.” (Elliott 2009: 175)  Thus no allowance is made for an individual actor deviating from the social norm, contrary to the given social laws. The assumption here is that the individual actor will not deviate because such social laws are in place.  This assumptive law is not pragmatic and not realistic.  It also does not allow for change, be it evolutionary, revolutionary, or anarchistic, which exists in every era, every society, and every culture.

He allows no specific room for the pervasiveness of technology or technique that evolves unchecked as only it can.  He believes that social controls can be controlled by political and economic structures, whereas, no technology knows now discipline, morality or loyalty to any one culture, political movement, or individual.  It evolves according to its own laws of nature as rapidly as it can with the understanding that no entity can or will control it (Ellul 1964: xxv).  Society cannot control it and the best that it can hope for is to accommodate its insatiability.

However, his concept of rational action, where instrumental, moral-practical, aesthetic-expressive, and communicative moves towards an understanding of technique and technology by extending the rationalization of Weber and validating the technological society of Jacques Ellul, intuiting that as societies evolve, the state and the economy develop formal structures and mechanisms for organization.  But he falls short when he does not realize that this organization is not manageable or controllable.  It is as Ellul explains, that technology, which Weber describes superficially as rationalization, is a jinn that has been let out of a bottle that cannot be bottled up again.  Technology feeds on itself.  And we are not strictly describing electronics here, although that is part of the technology and technique that Ellul discusses.  We are discussing techniques or processes of doing things, whether that be the steps in a work project, the steps involved to recreate a recipe in the kitchen, or to build a time machine.  It does not matter.  Each is a technique, even the writing of these words.

His model of language for social critique where he ties forms of communicative rationality to critical theory fails to address the relationship between language and the rationality of questionable speech that include the obscenities engaged in at a sports match, the hate speech of a racist, and the cat calls that some men engage in with women on street corners, hoping to intimidate them as they walk by.  Habermas, as I stated earlier, attempts to be so all encompassing to include everyone, the ‘generalized other’ and not the ‘concrete other’ (Elliott 2009:  176).  Additionally, Habermas overlooks gender inequalities, utilizing and viewing his ‘system’ and ‘lifeworld’ as a gender-neutral entity that favours the masculine by default.  Ignoring this gender bias risks the exclusion of vital actors in the private and the public lifeworld in the system (Elliott 2009:  169).

Habermas also argues that communicative action is the process by which we understand and engage in non-coercive debate to achieve consensus free of money, power, and manipulation (Applerouth and Edles 2008: 723).  While existing in a vacuum, I agree this may be possible, but realistically this is not possible.  Even in the Anarchistic community, where racism is decidedly not part of the overt agenda, the anarchists of colour have felt racism, nonetheless.  An anarchist gathering of people of colour was organized, as a result, so that the anarchists involved could engage in a dialogue and consensus that was as non-coercive as possible.

Habermas’ theory of communicative action and deliberative democracy fails to account for modern media and a public easily swayed by propaganda. With such entities and individuals in place that have no interest in real dialogue, how is deliberate democracy possible when politicians, churches, corporate entities, and media pundits think their side is correct and the other side is pushing a ‘propaganda agenda’. The result is a stagnant standstill that is far from a democracy of any kind.

Additionally, Habermas fails to account for the fact that few media outlets are open to the public to debate in the public sphere.  This is open to public individuals only rarely.  Celebrity pundits engage in a one-sided debate that rarely results in agreement and consensus.  These examples influence the public and if the current atmosphere is any indication, most individuals are not interested in a rational debate or a consensus of any sort.  Habermas’ idea of ‘consensual, cooperative theory of social action’ bears no relation to the current state of politics, culture, or lifestyles, here and abroad ((Elliott 2009: 177) when everyone has to be right and everyone has to be wrong, where ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’.

Throughout the elaboration of his multi-faceted theory, he is eternally hopeful in our power of reason and our ability to engage in critical thought to save us from systems of domination and oppression (Applerouth and Edles 2008: 721).  While historically this has occasionally been the case, dictatorships, whether oligarchy, whether technocracy, whether fascist in its multifaceted definitions, always and will be more than reason and critical thought can handle without power to overpower it in turn. In the case of liberal democracies and technocracies, as well as the dictatorships, we are still faced with techniques and technology.  This is not pessimistic, but realistic.  For Habermas to fail to include this inevitable equation, makes his lifeworld and his system less than what it could be as it fails to account for what is societally dominant, what has been dominant for at least a century or more.

Habermas is at once realist as he allows that the majority of us seldom engage in real public discourse, controlled as we are by public and private propaganda initiated by commercial mass media (Applerouth and Edles 2008: 726).  But he fails to realize that there are additional lifeworlds and systems that are not included in his generality, communities, that are influenced less (highly unlikely in a most instances) and who participate less (highly likely in a few instances). What I am considering here are anarchist communities, communes, and the like, that are based upon a co-dependent existence, which seldom seek out news from the mass media, and when they do, they usually participate in the minor mass movements as a result. Based upon Habermas pessimism or realism of public debates and discourse, he still fails to account for everything and every periphery that have existed, most likely, since the beginning of recorded history.

He places his hopes in “new” social movements, but how exactly are these different from past social movements? The movements and communities described above, though influenced by technique and technology as we all are, chose which technologies to embrace and which to resist, however impossible.  They chose to disrupt the status quo during various international and national meetings, whether it is protesting international NATO or WTO meetings or national political party conventions.  These social protests and movements may be new to Habermas, but they are as old as the United States and older.  They are part of our social structure and therefore our personal makeup, what makes us human, what causes some of us to contribute to society on the periphery, rather than conforming to the mainstream standards that Habermas seems be viewing with his limited vision.

In the field of social theory, most grand theorists desire to create a theory so grand and so inclusive that it takes in everyone and every possibility.  When it fails to do so within their lifetime, they may attempt to bandage it or expand it in order to perpetuate its grandness.  When they choose to let it stand, others, before or after their favorite theorist’s death, will attempt to isolate and expand a microcosm of that theory or they will attempt to expand it to perpetuate its grandness indefinitely.  In the case of Habermas, he has allowed his theory to stand without correcting it or reassessing it’s perfections or its flaws.

Applerouth, S., & Edles, L. D. (2008). Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Text and Readings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Elliott, A. (2009). Contemporary Social Theory:  An Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Ellul, J. (1964). The Technological Society. New York: Alfred A Knopf.