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The Challenge of Habermas' New Social Paradigm
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-11-28 10:40:19
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My last contributions focused on the need within Western Civilization for a new social paradigm. I proposed the issue within a classroom discussion scheduled for my three classes of introduction to philosophy which I am currently teaching: two within the adult education program (ACE) at Barry University, plus the one at Broward College.

The discussion that ensued can fairly be described as a spirited and stimulating one, as asserted by some of the same students who participated in it. In one of the classes at Barry University there was in fact a challenging question for the professor that went something like this (and I paraphrase): “Professor, we seem to have concluded in this discussion that there is no such thing anywhere on earth as a society based on pure capitalism or one based on pure socialism. We also seem to have agreed that an urgent new paradigm is long overdue perhaps synthesizing capitalism and socialism. But there is a problem that persists: how does one construe this new urgently needed paradigm without sacrificing democracy which seems to be at the very core of modern western industrialized countries? The Marxist paradigm does not seem to do it since it advocates violent revolution and the Machiavellian justification of bad means to bring it about an allegedly good goal which gets corrupted in the end by the bad means.”

I acknowledged that the question was a very good and challenging one and worth pondering. I also acknowledged that I had no ready answer to her question and would further research it and attempt an answer it at our next meeting. Well, I have done an initial research, have done some pondering and am ready for a partial answer which I will submit to the students next lesson, for all its worth. Let me also share it with the Ovi readership.  

I wish to also acknowledge that most of the stimulation for this particular piece came from an insightful article on the subject by Ljubisa Mitrovic published way back in 1999 in Philosophy and Sociology. That article is much more thorough and scholarly than mine and is commendable to all those who wish to deepen their knowledge of the matter. This article made me aware in fact that  there exists a new paradigm which has been around since the beginning of the 21st century and was theorized and proposed since the 80s by a former neo-Marxist philosopher who has since abandoned the Marxist paradigm and proposed a new one in the form of a communicative action theory. Its author, about whom I have already published some articles in Ovi regarding a new EU more open minded about religion (see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/4126 ), is none other than Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher-sociologist  that can be culturally placed within the second generation of the Frankfurt philosophical circle. He is undoubtedly one of the most popular and most translated authors in modern sociology. Unlike Marx’s paradigm of production and social labor Habermas’s paradigm is based upon the communicative mind, communication and rationality, and the communicative community. Let us briefly explore this new paradigm while encouraging the interested readers to do further reading on their own.

In his principal work entitled Theory of Communicative Action (1981), Habermas founded the paradigm of communicative action. In his previous study entitled Reconstruction of the Historical Materialism" (1976) Habermas carried this task out by questioning the "basic concepts" and "basic assumptions" of the historical materialism of Marx while doing some revisions as well. In his version the historical materialism is not only a theory about radical social changes but about social evolution as well. Starting from the thesis that labor and language are older than man and society Habermas questions the assumption about the "labor subject" or "macro-subject" as a unique process of linear, indispensable and ascending development of the society in the course of its history.

Habermas, in his conception of the social evolution concerning the history of human society distinguished four social formations, namely, the one preceding high culture, traditional, capitalist and post-capitalist ones. The first is pre-class while the others are class ones. The traditional formation comprises slave-holding and feudal formations, while the post-capitalist comprises modern state-socialist societies. It should be stressed that Habermas also assumes a "postmodern" social formation as a "formation of the future" which might be "mind-created society.” Analyzing the ways of reproduction and functioning of the above mentioned formations, Habermas stresses that the organizational principle of the first formation is a "primary role of age and gender" (kinship system); the principle of the traditional formation is "class government in the political sense" (state); the capitalist formation principle is "the hired labor and capital ratio" through the market, while the organizational principle of the future "postmodern" formation will be communicative action (rational communication and consensus, communicative mind).

Habermas's theory of communicative action represents a critical synthesis of the leading sociological theories, primarily of those of Parsons, Weber and Marx. His general theoretical objective is to link the communicative action theory, as a variant of the action theory, with the system theory into a comprehensive approach to the social theory.

On the basis of his analysis, Habermas builds a conceptual analytical apparatus of his new theory of society. In that sense, he elaborates the basic concepts such as social action, interests, life world, social system, regulation as communication. Regarding differences in the character of actions, Habermas distinguishes four forms of action, namely, 1. teleological action, 2. norm-regulated action,  3. dramaturgical action and 4. communicative action. He also differentiates the instrumental action from the communicative and emancipation actions. To each action type correspond various interests of the mind (theoretical interest, practical and emancipation interests). To each degree of the social development correspond a degree of understanding social facts (knowledge), moral justification (legitimacy) and legal norms (regulation). If the development of these dimensions is not  coordinated, the society is inevitably subjected to conflicts, crises and changes.

In his theory of society, Habermas distinguishes the social environment or what he calls "the world of life" (in which man leads his everyday life by establishing more or less direct relationships with others) from social systems (economic, political, legal-normative) as specifically structured and institutionalized interaction patterns among people. In the history of human society, social systems grew out of the world of life. Their basic characteristic is to create the system dependence of people and groups and thus they appear as subjects in the political system, as clients in the public service ruling system and as consumers in the economic system. Through the controlling media (such as money, power, influence, value) the social systems affect human behavior, regardless of direct interaction and their individual personal interests.

These system institutions narrow their rational range in time and become too narrow; in other words, they become factors of conservatism and social impediment, something we may be witnessing as we speak, to wit the tea party movement, and thus, they lose their legitimacy. They are dominated by money and power, bureaucratization and politics.  Therefore, the main problem of modern society is "how to save the social world from the system structure onrush, that is, what conditions are necessary to ensure and develop the subject autonomy in the not-yet-conquered communities.

According to Habermas, the way out is the affirmation of the "communicative rationality", in the strengthening of the civil society autonomy, in expanding the space reserved for free action and communication of people who, in mutual communication, bring about rational decisions founded upon rational argumentation and consensus instead of upon strengthening of authoritarian government forms and system enforcement.

Following this line of thinking, Habermas also notes a progressive role of new social movements, stressing that conflicts in modern society move away from the production relation sphere into the domain of culture and politics. Habermas thinks that the existing forms of social organization, both capitalist and socialist ones, should be replaced by new organizational principles. Instead of the success principle or the solidarity principles, he pleads for argumentation and communicative action principles. This requires adequate prerequisites; most of all, it is necessary to abolish compulsion in communication; to develop universal communication ethics and establish adequate democratic procedures among people and social groups. In this context, what is essential is the role of the speech act in a communication process which points to contextual and other conditions as well as assumptions buttressing rational discourse. Echoes of Stuart Mills’ “freedom of speech and communication” can be detected here.

However, when one compares Marx’s and Habermas’s social theories one notices some essential differences. Namely, Marx's paradigm relies upon "the idea of materialism in sociology", that is, upon the role of labor and production in social changes throughout history, while Habermas’s normative theoretical basis is speech and communicative action stressing the role of organizational principles and communication. The normative basis of Marx's theory is the value theory and the theory of exploitation and alienation. This is discarded by Habermas, while he continues to speak of alienation vis a vis privileges and deprivation.

While Marx speaks about the historical role of the proletariat as a macro-subject in the emancipation process, Habermas believes that speech and communicative community both involve pluralism of actors, that is, all social layers and interests. While Marx speaks about revolutionary transformation of the class society into the classless one, Habermas writes about a lasting and gradual evolutionary correction of the existing state. Marx's project requires abolition of the multiple-party system, market, government division; Habermas, on the other hand, considers all these mechanisms valid once they are reformed; while Marx's project is put into a utopian perspective, Habermas's begins at the origins of human society. Here there are echoes of Vico’s and Heidegger’s originative thinking. Finally, Marx's project requires the creation of the “new man,” while Habermas's relies on what is already there, for better or for worse.

But similarities can be detected too: they both believe in the good within human nature; they both search for non-capitalist ways of social organization looking for an alternate social development, the only difference being that in one case, this principle is located in communist solidarity (Marx), while, in the other case, the principle is to be found in mutual negotiations and communication processes. Habermas’s concept of the social state as evolutionary and democratic can therefore be considered as a post-Marxist one and at its core social-democratic. As we have seen in my last contribution Marx does not eliminate democracy altogether but postpones to after the advent of the “new man.”

There are however some weak  points in Habermas’s theory. For example, there is a too radical and sudden abandonment of Marx’s labor paradigm and society’s contradictions for the “communication community” concomitant to an exaggerated idealistic worship of the roles of the rational discourse, quite endemic to German philosophy in general. The question in fact arises: in this theoretical model has Habermas perhaps simplified too much the social life of modern man thus reducing it to a "pure" theoretical laboratory conditions and thus depriving it of real and contradictory phenomena such as class distinctions and contradictions as found in Marx?

There is a danger which cannot be overlooked and it may be this: that the myth about philosophers-kings (probably incarnated only partially in Marcus Aurelius) and of ideal imaginative utopian states, as envisioned by Plato and Marx, may be repeating itself in this new communicative action theory. Nevertheless, despite the caveat, Habermas's requirements for the integration of diverse theoretical approaches and for a valid alternative to Marx’s social paradigm, represents a powerful challenge to all those who acknowledge the urgent need for more humane and inspirational social paradigms than the facile taken for granted market oriented ones that obtain presently in the Western world and even globally.


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