Jürgen Habermas wants to bring the social media to terms. Last year he published “Reflections and hypotheses on a renewed structural change in the political public sphere” in the social science journal “Leviathan”. Suhrkamp’s essay is now being printed again in book form, in a paperback entitled “A New Structural Change in the Public Sphere and Deliberative Politics”. A three-digit page number is achieved by adding two shorter texts, an interview from 2018 and the original version of the foreword to an English interview volume published in June, in which “leading thinkers” such as Hauke Brunkhorst and Gertrud Koch discuss “Habermas and the crisis of democracy”. to express.
The recent “structural change in the public sphere”, which Habermas sees as prompting him to review the theses of his famous book published sixty years ago, is said to be due to the decline in circulation of newspapers and the corresponding spread of the exchange of political news on “platforms” on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter caused.
“The ninety-two-year-old does not have a Twitter account himself,” Oliver Weber remarked when he presented the article to the readers of the FAZ on October 27, 2021. Even after his ninety-third birthday, Habermas has not logged on to Twitter (at least not under his name). In his small political writings, he has always cultivated a rhetoric of exaggeration, which promotes and perhaps even enforces the prescribed brevity on Twitter (in contrast to Facebook). And so the reprinted foreword ends, and with it the whole book, with two sentences, furious in form and content, which would have made a perfect short Twitter thread. In order to better understand the sentences, the reader would like to use the most important means of enlightenment in the non-ideal but too often bad-talked speech situation of Twitter: the reply or query.
It doesn’t work without a doorkeeper
The first sentence reads: “The disturbing phenomenon of a combination of traditional right-wing populism – ‘We are the people’ – with the libertarian self-centeredness of freaky conspiracy theorists who defend their subjective freedom rights against an imaginary oppression by an allegedly only pseudo-democratic constitutional state is reason enough to turn the tables.” Freaked out! The great thing about the drastic choice of words is that the author almost sounds freaked out too. With the prophetic power of social criticism, Habermas will have written it sometime at the end of last year, when Ulf Poschardt (hardly imaginable today) was not completely gone and Ulrike Guérot presumably had not yet climbed her professorship at Habermas’ alma mater in Bonn. But now the question: Which tables should be turned?
The wording is already turning, because the image is popular in the crank circles of would-be revolutionaries. Does the second sentence help? “In the generally growing capitalist societies of our democracies, which, as it turns out today, are not particularly stable, this surprising potential for resistance arises and causes the political system to crumble from within if the decay of the political public sphere has progressed far enough on the basis of growing social inequalities.” We (on Twitter @PBahners) understand it cautiously and provisionally as follows: If the “resistance potential”, the energy condensate of all utopian dreams of critical theory, is today in the social media counter-world of the right, then it must be possible the other way around, a similar unrest to mobilize for the defense of the political public.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, isn’t it tantamount to audacity more than that of Munchausen to hope that such a trick of reason would stabilize democracy? The criticism of the book should begin with the empirical. Habermas overestimates the spontaneity of social media. Platforms empower anyone to “spontaneously share” about “spontaneously chosen topics” in “spontaneous posts” and disempower the gatekeepers of the press. But where populists and conspiracy theorists join forces, nothing happens without a gatekeeper. The right has its own mainstream media, from Fox News to Tichy’s Insight. It is difficult to say how to assess the chances of the uprising that the Poschardtists are instigating against the political system in the name of decolonizing the living world. For reasons of his own theory design, the unfortunate preference for the spontaneous, Habermas romanticizes the counter-public.