The european public sphere
Habermas used the term Öffentlichkeit (later translated as public sphere) to describe the complex of institutions that evolved into a mediating structure between the state and civil society in eighteenth century Europe. It gathered different private opinions and, through the process of reasoned exchange, transformed them into public opinion, which the state was expected to take into consideration. Today some authors (including Habermas) are talking about a strong and a weak public sphere or strong and weak publics. Networks (based on specific interests) that are forming throughout the EU are thought to be the first building blocks of a European public sphere. The problem with this conceptualisation is that the critique, inherent in the idea of ‘refeodalisation’, has been lost – namely that specific interest groups have monopolised political participation whilst at the same time excluding the public. Here the argument goes that the problem is getting worse: the governing bodies of the EU are subject to less democratic control than national governments and are under a stronger influence of organised interests. Political parties are moving away from civil society and becoming part of an autopoetic political system, when in the ‘golden age’ of the public sphere they were one of the main mechanisms through which public opinion influenced the political system. Luhmann referred to this process as the operational closure of the political system and found nothing wrong with it. Rather he stoically noted that this is why we cannot distinguish one political program from the other in terms of its impact on society. When talking about the media and their role in the public sphere, it is essential to keep this in mind. It is not sufficient that rational debate can develop and different voices (especially the marginal) can have equal access. When the media are implicitly equated with the public sphere a very important point is ignored, namely how opinion, formed in civil society, is transformed into the will of the political system. Seen in this way the public sphere is limited to subjects, not citizens. The distinction between a strong and a weak public sphere therefore obfuscates more than it reveals: instead of the demand that the state conforms to public opinion it is becoming its own little self-sufficient public sphere.