Habermas and Strategic Versus Communicative Action

In this fourth in a sequence of blogs on the theories of Jurgen Habermas I move on to consider his use of the concepts of lifeworld and system. These receive their fullest expression in his magisterial two-volume ‘Theory of Communicative Action’, although many of the theories pre-existed this treatise.

One enduring problem Habermas set out to solve was how best to combine two discrete strands of thinking in social theory: (a) ‘the perspective that analyzes society as a meaningful whole for its participants’ (or Verstehen theory), and (b) ‘the perspective that analyzes society as a system that is stabilized behind the backs of the participants’ (or systems theory). In ‘Theory of Communicative Action’ these two perspectives transmute into, respectively, a focus on the action orientations of society’s members, and a focus on how the action consequences are coordinated without necessitating the will or consciousness of the participants. And this gives rise to the celebrated distinction between the lifeworld, based on social integration, and the system, based on system integration.

The lifeworld is not easy to define. Nor can it be ‘known’, since it serves as the vehicle of all knowing. We cannot step outside of our lifeworld any more than we can our language. But if the lifeworld as a whole cannot be interrogated, aspects of it can. In such instances, the aspect is ‘thematized’, or made subject to argument as the participants attempt to re-establish their mutual definition of the situation, a prerequisite for successful cooperation. Thus the lifeworld can be reproduced through communicative action, but not through instrumental or strategic action. The lifeworld is a medium of ‘symbolic space’, within which culture, social integration and personality are sustained and reproduced.

The system has to do with material rather than symbolic reproduction and is characterized by strategic not communicative action. In a manner more than reminiscent of Parsons, Habermas argues that societal differentiation has produced four subsystems: the economy and the state (comprising the system), and the private and public spheres (comprising the lifeworld). Moreover there has been a fundamental ‘uncoupling’ between the system on the one hand and the lifeworld on the other.

The four subsystems are interdependent: each is specialized in terms of what it produces but is dependent on the others for what it does not produce. In sum:

  • the economy produces money
  • the state produces power
  • the private sphere (paradigmatically, household) produces commitment
  • the public sphere (assorted media of discussion and debate) produces influence

Money, power, commitment and influence constitute the ‘steering media’ of the subsystems. And these products or steering media are traded between subsystems. For example, in the words of Crook and colleagues in 1992: ‘the economy relies on the state to establish such legal economic institutions as private property and contract, on the public lifeworld to influence consumption, and on the private lifeworld to provide a committed labour force, and itself sends money into each other subsystem’.

But the steering media of the subsystems are not equivalent in their thrust or capacity. With the progressive uncoupling of system and lifeworld the media, and thus subsystems, of the former have come to dominate the media of the latter. Habermas writes in this context of the ‘colonization’ of the lifeworld. Developing the analyses of Weber on the theme of ‘rationalization’ and Marx on that of ‘commodification’, the lifeworld, her asserts, has become:

‘increasingly state administered (‘juridified’) and commercialized. Possibilities for communicative action in the lifeworld become attenuated as social participation becomes hyper-rationalized in terms of immediate returns. Participants encounter each other as legal entities and as parties to contracts rather than as thinking and acting subjects’ (Crook et al again).

System rationalization, in short, has outstripped lifeworld rationalization. Rationalization, in the West at least, has been ‘selective’. Importantly, however, Habermas distances himself from Weber and his more pessimistic Frankfurt mentors (see first blog). He has no truck with talk of ‘iron cages’. He accuses Weber of treating the processes of rationalization/colonization that have undoubtedly happened in the West as inevitable when they were contingent and selective. Weber, in sum, is charged with conflating the dynamic with the logic of development. Habermas contends that the logic of development allows for the further rationalization of the lifeworld – that is, for an extension of the scope for communicative rationality or action –  and, it follows, for lifeworld ‘decolonization’. Lifeworld decolonization is mostly likely to come via activity in its public sphere (see earlier blog). The most likely ‘agents’, Habermas argued, are the ‘new’ as opposed to the ‘old’ (class-based) social movements. There are few grounds for optimism he added, looking with most hope in the direction of the women’s movement.

In line with previous blogs on Habermas and other matters, I would suggest that the passing in the English parliament of the Health and Social Care Act in 2012 affords a timely example of the colonization of the lifeworld by the system in early 21st century financial capitalism. My own analysis would certainly be contested by some sociologists but to me what happened seems as clear as the nose on  my or anyone’s face.

The ConDem coalition government not only had no mandate for a top-down reform of the NHS after the general election of 2010, Cameron and his coterie had explicitly ruled it out. The LibDems were natural allies of Labour, not the Tories, instinctively and doctrinally opposed to what was to emerge in 2011 in the small print of Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill. For ‘reform’ read ‘commodification’. The NHS was/is to be handed over to for-profit health providers in which a number of MPs and members of the House of Lords, not all of them Tory, have a pecuniary interest. (I transpires that a third of the GPs on the new GP commissioning bodies also have a direct or indirect financial interest in private providers.) I have argued in previous blogs for a new ‘class-command dynamic’ in post-1970s financial capitalism. What I have been suggesting is that core ‘executive’ or ruling-class interests have come to exercise more sway than in the postwar (welfare-statist) era over the political elites at the apex of the apparatus of the state. Crudely, and courtesy of the LibDems, the Tory cabinet has been bought off. In Habermasian terms, the colonization of the lifeworld has proceeded apace, with class-based representation in the subsystem of the economy requiring of the subsystem of the state tighter regulatory control of the populace/electorate in its interests. Money buys more power now. How else would you account for the deconstruction of the most efficient/cost-effective health care system (the NHS) in favour of a shift towards the worst candidate in the marketplace (sic) (the USA)? American health care cost more in 2010-11 than any of its OECD rivals and continues to take one dollar in three in administrative costs. Nor was there much resistance in the public sphere (see blog on civil society and the public sphere).

In my view the frame Habermas worked on has a continuing salience within and without sociology. And it does so at the micro- as well as the macro-sociological level. The enhanced social differentiation that has accompanied modernity’s displacement of simpler or ‘traditional’ societies might inevitably have precipitated a new ‘systemness’. This is arguably not intrinsically problematic. Colonization occurs when this systemness skirts around public accountability: that is, when it signals the displacement of (the possibility of) substantive or participatory democracy by formal or parliamentary democracy of the kind that delivered the ConDem coalition and the health and Social Care Act.

In the next blog I will try and show why and how these macro-social changes leave their traces on individuals and their behaviours. System colonization, I will suggest, creeps up on us unawares even as we chat ‘innocently’ in café society.



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