The Terms of Civil Discourse: Post 10/20

After the Comprehensive Spending Review (10/20/10 – US style), academics were formulating their ‘takes’ and circulating drafts. An exchange around one draft jumped out. It raised the predictable issues about what was being done to whom; but also the implications for the terms of public debate.

The article was on social and spatial inequalities – the stuff of urban policy. While highly critical, it also adhered to a certain form of ‘civil discourse’. It highlighted implications of the CSR for poorer groups. A new age of social polarisation was anticipated. The draft had anger, but muted anger – no impugning of motives, no questioning of the moral calibre of the inexperienced young men fronting these extreme austerity measures. Questioning of good faith lies beyond the bounds of the familiar ‘civil discourse’.

Jurgen Habermas and Regeneration

Writing like this stands in a tradition which places great hope in the capacity of reason and argument to prevail against ignorance and prejudice. The tradition received something of a boost 25 years ago, through the work of a German thinker. In The Theory of Communicative Action, Jürgen Habermas sought to redefine the social sciences by effecting a ‘linguistic turn’. Inherent in our use of language, he insisted, is the impetus to seek shared understanding based simply on the force of reason and argument. Perceiving this, he maintained, it becomes clear that language itself contains the seeds of a more open, inclusive democracy – able, through ‘communicative action’, to contain the ‘colonising’ forces of power and money.

But there is a problem applying this in practice. I encountered it myself in Ferguslie Park in the early 1990s. What does one do when the force of argument is about to be outgunned by the argument of force – by power and money – in ways which will prove damaging for all concerned?

In Habermas, the moral imperative seems clear – maintain the ‘communicative action’ until the force of argument prevails. But in practice this can leave the powerless vulnerable. One can be instilling false hope about what is likely to be achieved through dialogue.

Actually, the language of urban regeneration has long been framed on quite Habermasian lines: ‘partnerships’, ‘participation’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘learning’ based on ‘evidence’. It has – on the surface – been about good people working together to learn how best to help the poorest communities. Many have continued to want to believe in this, even when much of the evidence has challenged it. Indeed, it has typically been regarded as ‘bad form’ to say as much.

Can you help me here Jurgen?

But on 10/20 things were just so stark – the celebrations as the cuts were announced (‘more, more, more’). It turned out that the problem with ‘the broken society’ had been that it wasn’t broken enough.

One of those commenting on the draft article posed the question: Was it really possible now to continue along the familiar lines of ‘civil discourse’? The central presumption of good faith, as regards concern for avoidable suffering in ordinary lives, had long been in serious doubt. Post 10/20 it seemed no longer remotely tenable. Such suffering was now seen as acceptable, even desirable, in pursuit of a ‘higher ideal’. This is what ‘the big society’ amounts to – now that the lipstick is off.

There’s certainly a point here: on 10/20, a ruling elite was publically rejoiced in the anticipated misery of others. Somewhere in The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas may have some advice as to how one ought to respond. He would not advise abuse – perhaps along the lines of hair colour and resemblance to rodents. But a continuing belief in the good faith of all concerned?