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We are condemned to learn

Towards higher education as a learning society


Author - Dr Ted Fleming


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Civil society and colonisation of the lifeworld

Some argue that civil society is in decline and that civil society must be strong for democracy to prevail, the economy to grow, and social problems to be resolved in a post-industrial global society (Hall et al.: 1999). Civil society is ‘a sphere of interaction between the economy and state, composed above all of the intimate sphere (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary organisations), social movements, and forms of public communication’ (Cohen and Arato 1992: ix). Habermas defines civil society as ‘composed of more or less spontaneously emergent associations, organizations and movements that, attuned to how societal problems resonate in the private public sphere, distil and transmit such reactions in amplified form to the public sphere’ (Habermas 1996: 367).

Voluntary organisations in civil society are made up of citizens who seek acceptable interpretations for their social interests and experiences and who want to influence institutionalised opinion and will-formation. These organisations

that intervene in the formation of public opinion, push topics of general interest, and act as advocates for neglected issues and under represented groups; for groups that are difficult to organize or that pursue cultural, religious or humanitarian aims; and for ethical communities, religious denominations, and so on.

(Habermas 1996: 368)

Habermas links the concept of a public sphere with that of civil society in order to provide an account of how control can be exercised over markets and bureaucracies. Civil society operates on the basis that the government is not fully representative of the people. The agenda of civil society is influenced strongly by this analysis of undemocratic or partial democratic achievements and by a certain conception of what democracy might mean. Civil society has the dual function of ensuring that those who exercise power do not abuse it but work to make it more democratic. In a complex modern society the quality of democracy ultimately depends on the existence of the public sphere, on people’s intelligent involvement in politics and on organisations and associations that help form opinion through discourse. A vibrant civil society is essential for democracy. The conviction that free, open, public discussion has a transformative function is central to Habermas’s thinking. The way to reach a true understanding of people’s needs and interests is to engage in a democratic debate in which these needs are shared and in the discourse, clarified and transformed.

Civil society, by being energetic, critical and actively sustaining a public sphere for discourse, can insert moments of democratic accountability into the system world of the state and economy, both of which pose a threat to civil society. The revitalising of civil society and the sustaining of a critical public sphere are tasks for a critical education. Such an education fosters the creation of spaces where citizens can debate publicly in pursuit of consensual agreements.

However, civil society is often a place in which appalling violence is perpetrated – on women, on children, by men against men and boys against boys; against all by para-military forces (Fleming 2002). The public sphere can be a location for racism, sexism and non-inclusive and unequal practice and ideas. There is also a need to constantly renew civil society. Adult educators have developed the idea that democracy, civil society and the public sphere are core concepts for a critical adult education (Welton 1995a).

Habermas, in outlining a diagnosis of our times, suggests that two things have happened. First, the state is in an unhealthy relationship with the economy and second, the functional imperatives of the state and economy have invaded civil society. The economy plays a crucial role in our society, creating wealth and providing jobs. But its agenda and values dominate public discourse. Society is willing to go to great lengths to implement the requirements of the economy. When the state and the economy combine, as they do frequently, they are a formidable coalition ensuring that the interests of the economy are served. The system is not an ally of the life-world. The conceptual tool Habermas uses to shed light on this invasion is to talk of the colonisation of the lifeworld. The public sphere is the primary locus of the struggle to protect the lifeworld.

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