On Weber’s and Habermas’ Democratic Theories: A Reconstruction and Comparison

Preliminary Observations.

While the meaning and possibility in modern times of democracy has been a central concern for Weber and Habermas, and both thinkers’ political theories have been the subject of several inquiries, there is a lack of comparative investigations on this particular subject. This may be surprising as Habermas is himself a Weberian scholar, and Weber has been one of his most important theoretical sources. Our first task will be to introduce the comparative literature on Weber and Habermas as thinkers of modern Parliamentary democracy. The democratic theories of these two authors will be then reconstructed; their ideological orientations outlined; and their conceptual definitions and theoretical propositions compared. This comparison, it is hoped, will not only fill a gap in the literature, but also contribute to contemporary democratic theory and political philosophy. This potential contribution will be dealt with in the last part of the article.

A paucity of comparative investigations.

As well known, Habermas has extensively dealt with Weber’s thought. This has occurred chiefly in the first volume of his major work: “The Theory of Communicatively Action” (Habermas 1984), but elsewhere as well. Habermas dwells on Weber’s concept of rationality and modernity, and his theories of meaning and culture. Weber’s discussion of the ambivalent effects of rationalization, and his differentiation of value spheres and sociology of law, are also mentioned (see Habermas 1985: 206-211; 1990: 1-4, 112-113, 115, 338; 2007: 5-18). Still, Weber’s concept and theory of democracy have received no attention in this or other works by Habermas, aside from cursory and critical references to Weber as a representative of democratic elitism along with Schumpeter and other elitist theorists (Habermas 1975: 123-124; 1992: 451). Habermas’ “Between Facts and Norms” (1996), in which a procedural concept of democracy is formulated, refers to Weber insofar as his sociology of law is concerned, but not as an author who has contributed a sociological theory of democracy (Habermas 1996: 66-74, 330-341).

The secondary literature on either Weber or Habermas has not considered, generally speaking, their democratic theories from a comparative viewpoint. Not only comparisons between Weber’s and Habermas’ thought have concerned aspects that are different than their democratic theories, but there is also an asymmetry in the secondary literature on these two authors. Most Weber scholars have ignored Habermas (for an exception, see Turner 1981: 98-102). On the other hand, several Habermas scholars have dealt with Weber one way or the other; and yet, even scholars who have given consideration to Weber in conjunction to Habermas have devoted little attention to their common theme of democracy.

True, Joas and Knöbl (2005: 242-243), Ingram (1987: 164-166, 173-174), McCarthy (1991: 131-133), and White (1988: 138-143) refer to Habermas’ writings on democracy, and also cite Weber very frequently. Joas and Knöbl, moreover, emphasize Habermas’ adoption of the Weberian hermeneutic epistemology of the social sciences and their common themes of rationality, rationalization and objectification (Joas, Knöbl 2009: 206, 208, 244-245, 555). All these authors, however, do not compare systematically Weber’s and Habermas’ democratic theories. They have stressed Max Weber’s and Habermas’ concern with cultural and societal rationalization in the broader context provided by the Frankfurt School, rather than dwelling on other common themes (Outhwaite 1994: 72-80, 92; Turner 1981: 94-101). Some comparative considerations of Weber and Habermas have focused on more specific themes, which may include other aspects of their political sociologies.

Brunkhorst, Crespo, Lukes, Ingram, and McCarthy are cases in point. They dwell on a variety of Habermasian themes, none of which however regards specifically Habermas’ democratic theory, or the theme of legitimacy and legality in Weber and Habermas (See Brunkhorst 2008: 91, Crespo 2008, Lukes 1982: 134, Ingram 1996: 150-151, 176, 276, and McCarthy 1985: 185; 1992: 58). Most Habermas scholars, furthermore, have not inquired whether Habermas’ principle of a normatively based and discursively attained rational consensus is a precondition to democracy and morality also for Weber. Their lack of consideration, which extends to Weber’s political sociology in general, is matched by a similar neglect of Habermas’ democratic theory on the part of most Weberian scholarship (for noteworthy exceptions, see Wellmer 1994: 52, 56-57; Chambers 1995: 242; 1996: 96).

An outline of Weber’s democratic theory.

That there is a theory of democracy implicit in the political writings of Max Weber – in the sense of a coherent set of normative and/or empirical statements bearing on this subject – should not be taken for granted. One of the purposes of this article is, in fact, to show that there is indeed one. To this end, some core elements of Weber’s political writings will be identified, formulated, and connected. Weber considered political education necessary to the consolidation of Parliamentary democracy. Its absence in Wilhelmine Germany caused, in his judgment, the impossibility to forestall the advance of bureaucratic domination, and prevent the curtailment of human rights (Joas 2005: 376). Still, he deemed human rights and the safeguards provided by the legal order not renounceable in modern times by anybody, no matter how conservatively oriented. For, they provide the foundation of the social and political order, which, in his judgment, Bismarck’s authoritarian State had violated (Weber 1984: 449, 462-467, 551).

As Weber argued, modern societies can be democratic only in a limited sense. In modern mass States Parliamentary strength depends, according to Weber, on several conditions, in addition to equal and universal suffrage. They are, first of all, institutionalized competition between political parties and between their leaders, in order to select the most talented leaders, and providing them with political training; further, the Government’s responsibility before the Parliament, and indirectly before the electorate; and finally, some political representation of the electorate’s desiderata to prevent the complete domination of the public administration and capitalist interests on the part of the public administration and capitalist interests (Weber 1984: 393-394, 465-466, 473-492; 1989: 270; 1996: 99-100).

Being a responsible political leader is, according to Weber, a consequence not only of the leader’s personal qualities, but also of the nation’s political maturity (politische Reife). This expression, which was recurrent in Weber’s political writings, conveys different but compatible meanings. Political maturity means for Weber the ability on the part of a nation’s electorate to grasp her lasting interests. It also implies the citizen’s ability and will to exert steady control on the public administration, and capitalist influences on the political institutions, by means of Parliamentary committees and investigations. Finally, political maturity promotes the ability and will to take active part in determining the nation’s political course. This ability and will follows from, and points to, the existence of proud democratic traditions, as instantiated by the English, rather than the German, people (Weber 1992: 551, 593-596).

Charismatic leaders can check the undemocratic tendencies inherent in modern capitalist societies, as long as the leaders’ charismatic appeal is compatible with the values and institutions embodied in Parliamentary democracy. Demagogy is no synonymous of irresponsible leadership. The British political leader Gladstone proved to be a responsible politician, and still made large use of his demagogical appeal (Weber 1992: 207-218). Weber considered England a model of an effective parliamentary democracy. This was, in his opinion, a consequence both of the rational organization of British political parties, and the steady control exerted by Trade Unions on their members’ “emotional radicalism” (Weber 1984: 550).      British unions had promoted in their members “the feeling of honor and solidarity”, which had been shaped in their daily economic struggles with capitalist interests, and which was of decisive importance for their moral education (Weber 1984: 448).  Uncontrolled and irrational emotions receive free expression, by way of contrast, in those countries – like Imperial Germany – which are not constrained by the institutional counterweights provided by the organizations of parties and unions.

As a set of norms, Parliamentary democracy draws its moral legitimacy from these following sources. Firstly, as “a duty imposed by moral decency” those who have endured great hardship on behalf of their country ought to receive equal and full political rights. Secondly, Parliamentary democracy can, and ought to, cover the basic needs of those who as consumers cannot sustain themselves in a capitalist economy because of their lack of patrimony and income. Finally, Parliamentary democracy performs a valuable function of political education (Weber 1984: 217-221; see also Segre 1981). In Weber’s judgment, all social classes that composed the German nation at the turn of the nineteenth century displayed a lamentable absence of political education, which resulted from the absence of democratic traditions. This was the legacy of Bismarck’s autocratic style of leadership, and his aversion to Parliamentary democracy (Weber 1984: 449-450; 1993: 370-374).

According to this reconstruction, Weber supported civil and political rights, and parliamentary democracy. The legitimacy of the political institutions upholds, according to Weber, the legal order in a Parliamentary democracy, as long as democracy is based on universal suffrage and well-organized political parties and civil associations, such as trade unions. Procedural legality is, accordingly, not sufficient to achieve the stability of the political order. This reconstruction differs from other, which stress the elitist and non-democratic aspects of Weber’s thought (see Beetham 1974; Fleischmann 1984: 215-216; Mommsen 1963: 308-317; see also 1965, 1970, 1974a, 1974b, 1989),

It also differs from interpretations – such as Peter Breiner’s – which seriously underestimate the importance of democratic participation in Weber’s political thought, both as a value worth pursuing per se, and a concrete possibility in times in which mass politics prevail (Breiner 1996). As Weber argued, this social-psychological condition, and also the opposed one of political maturity, follow from contingent historical circumstances, as shown respectively by Bismarck’s Germany and Gladstone’s England. Direct democracy may be found, according to Weber, “only under certain conditions absent in the modern world, notably those concerning population size and complexity of economic function” (Thomas 1984: 216). For such conditions, as instantiated by some Swiss cantons, are exceptional and cannot to be found in the modern mass States. Whatever public goods may accrue from direct democracy would result from collective action in support of political parties, and in conformance to the norms and rules of Parliamentary democracy, as shown by Trade Unions in Britain (Weber 1968: 290, 1455-1456; 1971: 287; 1984: 394-395).

Furthermore, this reconstruction of Weber’s democratic theory differs from the one, which Ira Cohen has formulated (1985). This Author contends that “Weber exaggerates the forces” which impede the democratic agenda (Cohen 1985: 284). Domination and inequality as embodied in and a consequence of bureaucratized party structures, and the power of the private and public administrations, are viewed as causes of the formation of powerful professional elites (Cohen 1985: 287-288, 291, 293-294). As it has been pointed, however, democratic political reforms were advocated by Weber with great consistency and passion. Weber’s advocacy may be accounted for by his deep-seated fear that an unholy alliance of those elites might prevail in Germany, and maintain his country in a condition he considered of political immaturity. Finally, this reconstruction differs from interpretations, such as Held’s (Held 2006: 141-152), which argue for a continuity between Weber’s and Schumpeter’s theories of democracy (for Schumpeter’s democratic theory, see Schumpeter 1994: 269-273).

Major flaws in Held’s knowledge of Weber’s concern with aspects of modern democracies, which Schumpeter has neglected, cast serious doubts on Held’s interpretation (Segre 1991: 130-131). On the other hand, this reconstruction conforms to interpretations which stress the importance, which Weber conferred from a normative viewpoint, to a Parliamentary democracy endowed with the right of Parliamentary inquiry. Of great relevance were to him the values of individual freedom, democratic participation and human rights, all of which he considered imperiled by the advance of bureaucratic domination (see Bergsträsser 1961; Loewenstein 1961; and most recently, Kelly 2004; Titunik 2005). The reconstruction of Weber’s political thought, which has been here proposed, is in line with these interpretations. The core elements of Weber’s democratic theory would then be as follows:

Firstly, the safeguard of human and political rights, as values worth preserving on moral grounds and also as a source of legitimacy of the political institutions; secondly, political education as a condition to a well-functioning Parliamentary democracy; thirdly, a strong Parliament, based on universal suffrage, as a training ground for would-be leaders, and capable to exert control on the public administration, capitalist elites, and political leaders; fourthly, the inevitability of demagogic appeals in contemporary large-scale societies, but the existence of fundamental differences in the use and effects of demagogy in mass democracies and authoritarian regimes; finally, the importance of institutionalizing the discussion of public affairs by means of organized parties and unions, in order to avoid irresponsible talk on the part of intellectuals who idle their time away in public places.

An outline of Habermas’ democratic theory.

Habermas’ theory of democracy, as formulated chiefly in Facts and Norms, is an attempt to overcome the tension between “the social facticity of observable political processes” and “the normative self-understanding of the constitutional State, as explained in discourse-theoretic terms” (Habermas 1996: 287-288). This tension between facts and norms has found expression in the incompatibility between the empiricist and normative models of democracy. The empiricist model refers to rational choice theory in order to establish the conditions of actual acceptance of political authority’s validity claims on the part of rational citizens. Legitimacy is conceived of as one among such conditions. This model fails, as Habermas argues, to explain why rational citizens observe the procedural rules of democracy. The normative model, which lays stress on norm-acceptance out of free consent, does not explain why minorities should accept decisions made by majorities. This model must be, therefore, integrated by a consideration of the institutionalized procedures of communication and bargaining that constitute the public sphere, and are inherent to and legitimate the democratic process.

The evaluation of the relevance of the normative model for the democratic process depends on which conception of democracy is followed. Discourse theory provides one of these conceptions. It emphasizes argumentations that aim to obtain understanding and persuasion in decision making according not only to democratic procedures, but also by means of a communicative network. This network includes a variety of voluntary associations composing civil society, and extends only to the public sphere of those who enjoy political rights. The liberal model conception focuses on the pursuit, compromise and integration of interests, while the normative background is limited to the protection of basic rights against encroachments on the part of other citizens or the State. The republican conception of democracy, finally, stresses shared normative consensus among citizens, who on this basis form a self-determining community of mutually respecting citizens. The notion of popular sovereignty, which goes back to the political thought of Bodin and Rousseau, conforms to this latter model (Habermas 1996: 268-274, 289-302, 472-475; 2005: 277-292).

Habermas’ democratic theory comes close to discourse theory, but complements it by adding the condition that only forms of communication prevail which comply with “the ideal procedure of deliberation and decision making” (Habermas 1996: 306). In keeping with discourse theory, democracy draws its legitimacy from two sources. As a first legitimacy source, the discussions preceding deliberations proceed from the peripheral process of rational will and opinion formation to the centre. These discussions, which provide “a rationalization of the life world”, are deemed essential to the democratic process. For, in Habermas’ words, “the only regulations and ways of acting that can claim legitimacy are those to which all who are possibly affected could assent as participants in rational discourses” (Habermas 1996: 458; see also 1992: 452-457).

The political-legal system of the Parliament, the government, the public administration, and the courts formally in charge of implementing the deliberations, constitutes this centre of formation of a rational public opinion. Government bureaucracies and capitalist interests have posed a threat to system, social, and political integration, and ultimately to democratic opinion and will formation (Habermas 1996: 299, 501). The Welfare State crisis has caused a profound uncertainty, moreover, on the opportunities for democratic participation in capitalist post-Welfare States. This crisis, both financial and ideological, has in recent times negatively affected the very possibility of formulating rational discourses (Habermas 1985b). In addition to discussions on public issues, a further source of legitimacy is the observance of democratic and constitutionally guaranteed procedures.

Formal institutionalized procedures apply to bargaining conditions, and either aim to achieve a compromise among interests, according to the liberal view of the democratic process, or contribute to society’s political self-organization, according to the republican view. The democratic process paves the way to an institutional-normative connotation of democracy in either case. A sufficiently alert public opinion, which originates from a network of voluntary associations constituting the public sphere and is a prerequisite to democracy, may bring to the courts and the Parliament’s attention all the problem that may threaten social integration. These problems are politically relevant only as long as conditions of social and ideological pluralism obtain.  In the political public sphere, legitimate power, which is produced discursively and spontaneously, interpenetrates with administrative power, which is also legitimate but (in contrast to power produced in the public sphere) is institutionally structured.

These two legitimate sources of power are provided with orientation and constrains by a political culture, when supported by tradition and socialization patterns. This culture is a prerequisite to, and a consequence of, the proper functioning (in Habermas’ own wording) of the “institutionalized procedures of rational collective will-formation”.  Rational will and opinion formation on the part of intellectuals can be relevant to democratic procedures only if there be a number of autonomous public spheres, none of which is hegemonic and monopolizes political communication, while they are all engaged in a cooperative search for rationality and truth.

The ultimate aim of this search – to overcome the opposition between facts and norms – is in line with a critical theory of society, which shows how the public spheres have been endangered by the process of systemic rationalization. In contemporary mass and post-traditional societies, electronic mass media have had an ambivalent effect on the democratic potential of the public spheres. Democratic procedures, as long as institutionalized and “under conditions of social and ideological pluralism” (Habermas 1987: 458), provide law-making with legitimacy. For, in keeping with the discourse principle the process of law-making has been accompanied by equal opportunities for all citizens to debate and actively participate in political decisions. The moral and democratic principles complement the discourse principle as long as they establish valid norms.

Norms’ validity is no longer taken for granted in our age of post-conventional morality, but must be justified. The discourse principle justifies moral norms with arguments, while the principle of democracy presupposes that moral principles have already been established. The discourse principle, and as a consequence also the moral and democratic principles, assume that people interact as members of the same, discursively constituted, language community. In keeping with the discourse principle it is possible to distinguish between Enlightenment and manipulation, and therefore the emancipation and repression aspects of social rationalization (Habermas 1987: 389-390; 1990: 338; 1992; 1996: 107-111, 278-279, 296-305, 339-341, 356-358, 457-460, and 483-490; 2005: 277-308).

Habermas also presents, briefly discusses, and evaluates some contributions to democratic theory which differ from his own. Bobbio’s “procedural minimum” is considered insufficient in that it pays no attention to the discursive processes that lead to the formation of political opinions. Dahl’s indicators of democracy fail to show how to determine “the rational potentials already at work in society … that can be taken up and developed by the political system” (Habermas 1996: 298, 303-304, 315-321). These two authors have apparently provided Habermas with a foil to illustrate his own democratic theory. Their criticisms, which are made in keeping with it, point to the relevance of discourses for a normative foundation of the democratic processes in civil and political society. Habermas’ democratic theory focuses then on discussions preceding deliberations, and the observance of the legal procedures, as sources of normative legitimacy available to democracy in civil and political society.

No direct evaluation of Habermas democratic theory will be here produced; rather, the theory may be indirectly evaluated by briefly discussing some of its interpretations. As with Weber, also with Habermas there have been quite different appraisals, positive and negative. Among the positive appraisals, Chambers’ in-depth study of Habermas’ democratic theory defends the author against the charge that the theory is so vague that is indeterminate (for this often repeated charge, see for example Affuso 2010: 37-38). According to Chambers, Habermas’ discourse theory indicates how a political culture can be rational, stable, moral, non-coercive, legitimate, and conducive to social integration (Chambers 1996: 13, 193-211).

Several other commentators have also shown appreciation for Habermas’ democratic project. As Ceppa (2007: 153-155) and Petrucciani (2004: 142-159) remark, Habermas formulates a democratic project which conforms to the discourse, moral and democratic principles; includes political rights and moral solidarity; and brings civil and political societies into harmony. Wellmer (1985: 65-66) and White (1988: 124, 138-143) have maintained that Habermas’ “communicative model” is suited to explain and understand the various elements – strategic, normative, and dramaturgical – that are found in new social movements, thus giving a new meaning to democracy and communicative rationalization. Bernstein praises Habermas’ “powerful, comprehensive, critical understanding of social and cultural modernity” (Bernstein 1985: 3; see also 1995: 195-196). William Rehg points to the “complexity and abstractness” of Habermas’ Facts and Norms, which makes this work “a rich and suggestive source of insight for reflections on the problems facing contemporary constitutional democracies” (1996: xxxiv).

On the other hand, some students of Habermas have remarked that the impact of the new communication media, such as Internet, on the public sphere has been left out of consideration in his analysis of democracy (Kellner 2000: 274-279); and that Habermas expects too much from the ability of discursive procedures to promote a rational public opinion, and democracy as a consequence. Habermas democratic theory has paid insufficient attention – it has been further contended – to the possibility that civil and political society might fragment in a number of autonomous public spheres (Baynes 1995: 212-218). It would then be impossible to “communicate seriously about basic differences among members of a public sphere”, and distinguish objectively “private from public across the range of discourses” (Calhoun 1995: 244, 246).

Interpreters have also questioned Habermas’ ability to “adequately thematize the role of identity-forming, culture-forming public activity” (Calhoun 1995: 247); the integrative capacity Habermas confers to the legal system and to the public spheres (Fraser 1992: 115-137; Joas, Knöbl 2009: 247); the very possibility to clearly distinguish, with a radically proceduralist discourse, between a public sphere and private matters (Benhabib 1992: 85-95); and the necessity to give rational interpretations to ethical judgments, as Habermas contends (McCarthy 1985: 184-186). Considering these different evaluations of Habermas’ democratic theory, its comparison with Weber’s will focus on its core elements only. These core elements are, according to this reconstruction: a developed a public sphere, which is produced and maintained in a civil society by means of a discursively constituted consensus; constitutionally grounded legal procedures; and finally, an established democratic culture, based on widely known and accepted norms. According to Habermas, a stable representative democracy is premised on these conditions.

The normative foundations of Weber and Habermas’ democratic theories.

Liberalism has provided the democratic theories of these two authors with common normative foundations; for they shared an emphasis on the importance not only of a democratic culture, but also of democratic procedures and civil and political rights. Still, the existence of fundamental differences between them should not be gainsaid. Habermas has theoretical concerns of his own, especially regarding the connections between the themes of intersubjectivity, ethic, and discourse. One of their common traits – a specific aspect of political liberalism, which makes legal safeguards a prerequisite to political freedom, and freedom in general – may be found in the philosophy of Kant and John Stuart Mill, Weber’s “philosophical eclecticism” (Fleischmann 1964) notwithstanding. These two philosophers are considered here to be representatives of political liberalism and, to this extent, possible orientation sources for Weber and Habermas. As it will be argued, other possible sources, such as Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, were not relevant to their democratic theories.

In Weber’s political writings Hegel is never cited, and there is only a very cursory reference to Marx’s “fragmented system” (zerbrochenes System) (Weber 1971: 26). Weber – it has been authoritatively stated – “disagrees with Marx in both tone and substance about Western democracy” (Cohen 1985: 285). The complex intellectual relationship of Weber with the legacy of Marx was in other respects, especially insofar as class analysis is concerned (Wright 2005). As for Nietzsche, the scholarly debate has concerned not his possible influence on Weber’s democratic theory, but rather whether and how Weber and Nietzsche differed in their definition of this personality ideal; for Nietzsche pursued an autonomous self emerging on the basis of a transvaluation of all values, whereas Weber’s ideal personality was that of a self-reflexive, rational and mature citizen who is active in liberal democratic institutions (Fleischmann 1964: 237-238; Hennis 1991: 214-220; Kemple 1998; Mommsen 1981: 38-39; Scaff 1989: 127-133).

Habermas’ notion of civil society, which is of central importance to his democratic theory, has been used in a sense quite different from Hegel, Marx, and what Habermas designates in general as “the ‘bourgeois society’ of the liberal tradition”. As Habermas points out, Marx, in contrast to Hegel, conceived of civil society as been prevented from becoming a social whole as long as capitalist relations prevail. Habermas, having a notion of his own of civil society, formulates his democratic theory without any detectable influence from Hegel or Marx (Habermas 1996: 45-46, 366-367).  The Kantian notion of constitutional State (Rechtsstaat) deserves attention here. This notion, which originates in Kant’s political and legal philosophy and asserts “the priority of the right over the good” (Chambers 1996: 21), points to a major difference between Kant and Nietzsche (Eden 1983: 97).

In The Metaphysics of Morals (Vol. 2: 194), Kant defined the State as “the association of a given number of people under juridical laws”. Not all citizens – Kant added (Vol. 2: 198) – should possess equal political rights, and be active in this sense. In his celebrated essay on What is Enlightenment, moreover, Kant (1999) argued in favor of a public use of Reason, which involves freedom of thought and speech, and which he contrasted to the private use of Reason, as exerted within one’s own occupation or community. To the extent that the scholarly literature has investigated possible influences of Kant on Weber, attention has been directed to the influences of neo-Kantians such as Fischer, Rickert and Windelband, rather than Kant himself (Burger 1987: 70-72; Bruun 2007: 11-17, 84-85; Eliaeson 1990; Habermas 1985: 206; Turner, Factor 1994: 13-16). Kelly (2004) has argued for Weber’s selective but positive reception of the philosopher Georg Jellinek, especially insofar as Weber’s conceptions of citizenship and human rights are concerned, but has also made no reference to Kant.

Thus, the question has remained unexplored of Weber’s possible connection with Kant insofar as the norms and values embodied in a constitutional State are concerned, though neo-Kantian sources of influence have been detected. This lack of attention is possibly due to the fact that “there is no evidence of any systematic study of Kant on Weber’s part” (Turner, Factor 1994: 180). It may then be advisable to recall that Kant and Weber were major exponents of German liberalism (De Ruggiero 1959: 218-219; Mommsen 1974b: 95-115), and had therefore similar ideological orientations and ethical concerns. These similarities probably account for the remarkable continuity of Kant’s and Weber’s values and theoretical concerns.

Even less attention has been devoted to Weber’s ideological proximity to John Stuart Mill.  Mill, the illustrious exponent of English liberalism, advocated not only juridical laws valid for all citizens – for he ”never supposed that there could be any important freedom without law” (Sabine 1961: 712) – but also universal political rights. As Mill wrote, popular government produces “the invigorating effect of freedom”. Its absence or limitation – he added – turns “the bulk of the community” into “a flock of sheep innocently nibbling the grass side by side”. Since all cannot in large communities participate personally in the public business, the principle of representation – he contended – should not be extended to everyone.

Mill was, like Kant, opposed to universal suffrage at least in those countries in which, for lack of political education and democratic traditions, “equality alone is cared for, but not liberty” (Mill 1861: 66, 69, 78, 83), and the tyranny of the majority may prevail (Mill 1859: 13-14; see also De Ruggiero 1959: 144-146; Sabine 1937: 709-711). Mill used expressions to this effect that are not only similar to Weber – they both insisted, in particular, on democratic procedures, legal safeguards, and education to political freedom – but also close in their meaning to Habermas. Habermas has approvingly cited Mill’s “On Liberty” for having “united equality and liberty in the idea of the discursive public sphere” (Habermas 1996: 474). What is more, according to Habermas Mill – and Kant and Dewey as well – “analyzed the principle of publicity and the role an informed public opinion should have in feeding and monitoring parliament” (Habermas 1996: 474).

There are important differences, though, between Mill’s project and analysis of democracy on the one hand, and Weber and Habermas’ on the other. Not only Weber and Habermas make explicit references to the Enlightenment, which are absent in Mill. Also, their democratic projects comprehend universal suffrage as a fundamental element, in contrast to Mill’s. Weber’s and Habermas’ endorsement of representative democracy on normative grounds has been, to some extent, differently argued, their adherence to political liberalism notwithstanding.[1] Weber shared with Kant and Mill an endorsement of civil and political rights, representative democracy, and – at least as far as Kant is concerned – also the Enlightenment project. He did not share, on the other hand, their reservations on the principle of representative democracy, and universal suffrage in particular.

As a philosopher and political thinker, rather than as a sociologist like Weber, Habermas also has declared himself a follower of the Enlightenment, and sympathetic with the Kantian project of autonomy, responsibility, and emancipation. Habermas has formulated this stance not only in the Kantian and Enlightenment terms of modernity and emancipation, as Weber, but also in those of rational and undistorted communicative action. In compliance with the Enlightenment’s emancipation project, Habermas has advocated on moral grounds representative democracy based on universal suffrage and a well-developed public sphere (Habermas 1971: 191-213; 1990: 18-20, 260-261, 337-338; see also Ingram 1987: 173-177; McCarthy 1990: x-xi, xvi-xvii; Wellmer 1985: 40-43).

A Comparison of Weber and Habermas’ Democratic Theories. 

It is then preferable to consider Kant and Mill, and in general the philosophical or ideological background of Weber and Habermas, as sources of inspiration of their Liberalism rather than of direct influence on them. The ideal of undistorted communication has been necessary to Habermas to counter “the destructive forms of Enlightenment thought”, as represented by “unbounded instrumentality” (Bernstein 1995: 27; see also: 87). Legal procedures and an established democratic culture are indispensable to this end. Habermas has rejected the Weberian value pluralism and differentiation of the value spheres, and advocated instead a rationally grounded and intersubjectively achieved consensus as a precondition to democratic culture and institutions in a world, in which the ideal situation of communicative rationality cannot even be approximated[2]. Habermas has formulated in The Theory of Communicative Action (1987) his well-known thesis that the losses of meaning and freedom, and the cultural impoverishment of daily communicative praxis, have been a consequence of the penetration of instrumental rationality into the lifeworld, and the ensuing curtailment of meaningful intersubjectivity.

Weber’s instrumental rationality has given way in Habermas to a more general critique of systemic rationality (Habermas 1985a: 206-211). Kant and Weber have imputed objective validity to moral norms, as the foundation of a principled morality; but, this validity has been deemed incompatible with our age’s post-metaphysical morality and cognitive indeterminacy (Habermas 1996: 94-118; 2001: 295-296, 308-309). The burden of forming moral judgment has been taken over by “Parliamentary legislative procedures, judicial decision making, and the doctrinal jurisprudence” (Habermas 1996: 115). Individuals as legal persons have been thereby relieved of this task. Habermas shares with Weber the value of a democracy based on political rights extended to the whole adult population.

They concur in considering irrenounceable representative democracy’s political institutions and juridical safeguards, which, however, can no longer insure popular control on the public administration and private interests. Another preliminary condition – it may be recalled – is for Habermas a discursively established public sphere as a source of rational debates and public opinion formation. A “subjectless communication form arenas” are thereby produced that constitute “the communicative network of public spheres … both inside and outside the parliamentary complex and its deliberative bodies” (Habermas 1996: 299; see in general 1992: 449-452; 1996: 299-300, 359-366; see also Baynes 1995: 216-217). Habermas also dwells in the closing pages of his Theory of Communicative action on the new social movements, which are viewed as potential resources for civil society insofar as they counteract the colonization of the lifeworld.

Weber, like Habermas, has insisted on the importance for stable representative democracies of a developed civil society and a consolidated democratic tradition. In this sense, discourse is for both authors conducive to democratic practices. For Habermas, as for Weber, the premises of an effective democracy may be found both within and outside of the Parliament. However, Weber’s constitutive components of civil society are at least in part different than Habermas’. Habermas considers informal discussions in public places as a prerequisite to civil society. Weber holds the opposite view that such informal and inconclusive interactions are oftentimes empty talk, which is carried on by idle intellectuals. They are also detrimental to democracy, and little practiced in mature democracies. Constructive interactions in civil society take place only if they are institutionally regimented and constrained, as in trade unions or the Parliament.

The “feelings of honor and solidarity”, which in these circumstances thrive in some institutional components of civil society, in Weber’s view benefit society as a whole; only, however, if the population has developed a strong democratic tradition, as indicated by its ability of controlling the capitalist class and the public administration by means of an effective Parliament. England provides for Weber the model of such a democracy. Informal discussions on public affairs are considered incompatible with this model, if conducted in non-institutional milieux. Habermas has not neglected to consider that “salon chatters” (Protti 1984: 112) might prevail over rational discourse aiming at reaching a consensus; but this occurrence would obtain only when the ideal conditions of communicative action are neither present nor approximated.[3]

As Weber and Habermas have maintained, social movements may be instrumental to approximate the ideal conditions of consensus formation in Parliamentary democracies. Still, Weber restricted this possibility to semi-institutionalized movements, such as working-class unions, and old social movements in general. Accordingly, he would have considered new social movements not supportive of democracy, but rather a threat to it. In contrast, Habermas has welcomed all those new social movements, which endeavor to promote resistance against the colonization of the lifeworld caused by the penetration of money and power into it. For Weber, democracy is upheld and continuously reconstituted in trade unions and Parliamentary committees, rather than in accidental and politically irresponsible gatherings. Public opinion, which Weber conceives of in the Habermasian terms of a “communicative network of public spheres” (Habermas 1996: 299), is not formed in cafés or other public places.

None of such places, in Weber’s view, is conducive to voice problems affecting civil society, or to propose solutions to and “influentially thematize” (Habermas 1996: 359) them, in such a way that they can be dealt with by the political system. In comparison to Habermas, Weber defines therefore the public sphere much more restrictively. Those organized settings, where people assemble to discuss matters, profess values, and conform to norms, are for Weber the exclusive components of civil and political society. They have a general relevance, not only because they all contribute to “the socially integrating force of solidarity” (Habermas 1996: 299), but also because they may be sounding boards and training grounds for leaders outside and inside of the Parliament, and the other political institutions.

Weber and Habermas’ Democratic Theories: A Comparison in the Light of Some Contemporary Developments.

 This essay has provided an attempt to reconstruct and compare Weber’s and Habermas’ democratic theories. This reconstruction of Weber’s and Habermas’ writings on democracy has involved connecting their core elements in a unitary format. The theoretical interest of this attempt has been suggested not only by the scarcity of such comparisons so far, but by also the great consideration in which both these thinkers are currently held. These theories have been reconduced to the common liberal tradition of political liberalism, as represented especially by Kant and John Stuart Mill. Weber and Habermas have received from this tradition the principles of political representation and legal protection of basic rights; however, the principle of universal suffrage has not been accepted without reservations by liberal democratic thinkers. Weber and Habermas have fully endorsed this principle, whereas Kant and Mill were opposed to it. Beside their normative endorsement of full political representation and legal protection, Weber and Habermas have concurred in a number of other points.

These points, which have an empirical rather than normative character, may be recapitulated as follows: Firstly, the importance of democratic traditions and articulate civil societies for the effective functioning of representative democracy. Further, the threat produced by formal rationality, as embodied in the public administration and the capitalist firms.  In their judgment, this threat jeopardizes the civil and political freedoms. Finally, the relevance of legal procedures for any democratic process; these procedures do not include democratic representation within the firms. These points of agreement should not deflect attention from considering some fundamental differences. Communicative rationality is viewed by Habermas, rather than Weber, as a precondition to achieve consensus in, and hence to legitimate, democratic societies. This consensus may be reached even informally in non-institutional settings. For Weber institutions, rather than communicative rationality, are sources of legitimacy.

As a consequence, there is a quite different stress imputed by Weber and Habermas to politically relevant intersubjectivity. This concept may be broadly defined as meaningful interactions between any large set of different people and social groups, as with Habermas; but also narrowly defined as meaningful relations between specific sets of people who act in their capacities as members of civil or political institutions, in keeping with Weber. To these different conceptions correspond different views, respectively, broad and narrow, of the public sphere. There is, furthermore, a dissimilar appraisal of the democratic promise of the new social movements. Habermas praises them as sources of innovation and resistance to the colonization of the lifeworld; while Weber considers them as causes of public disorder, which is politically and socially detrimental.

The potential fruitfulness of these partially different conceptions and theories of democracy is worth noting. Research may investigate how the public sphere, broadly defined in Habermasian terms, has promoted or followed processes of crisis, breakdown, and reconsolidation of democracies (Linz 1978). It may also inspire investigations on the consequences for democratic regimes of large versus narrow public spheres. A restricted public sphere (Habermas 1962; 1989) may supply the political system with well-articulated desiderata coming from an informed public opinion; at the cost, however, of preventing a substantial part of the population from full access to the democratic process. In contrast, Weber’s democratic theory includes in political society (roughly equivalent to Habermas’ public sphere) organizations providing voice and representation to different political and economic interests. Universal suffrage and the organized and law-abiding representation of all societal interests are necessary conditions to the successful pursuit of these ends.

A large part of the population would be thereby included in the political system. But the access barriers would not be easily overcome by the remaining part. The negative consideration in terms of desirability and effectiveness which Weber, in contrast to Habermas, gives to the new social movements may account for this different conclusion. A Weber-inspired research may then investigate the institutional conditions that promote the full inclusion of the socially disadvantaged classes into Parliamentary democracy; alternatively, the conditions which are conducive to its partial and inadequate incorporation, as was the case of the Social Democratic movement in Imperial Germany (Roth 1963); or, finally, the conditions in which “sterile political outbursts” (Weber 1984: 550-551) may occur. As previously emphasized, Weber was wary of them, and considered them signs of a defective democracy.

Weber and Habermas’ Democratic Theories as compared to other Formulations.

According to contemporary democratic theory, there is a set of political rights and legal safeguards which are inherent to liberalism, and are also a necessary condition to democracy. At least to this extent, contemporary theory has been consistent with Weber and Habermas’ theoretical positions. It has not, however, produced a comparative discussion or assessment of these two authors’ contributions to contemporary democratic theory. In order to support this thesis it will be then focused on the writings on Dahl, Sartori, Bobbio, and Held, as major exponents of this field of study.

Since his celebrated work on polyarchal democracy (Dahl 1956), Dahl’s basic question has been: How to attain and maximize political equality and popular sovereignty in order to protect the political opportunities, freedoms and interests of those who are subject to collective decisions. Dahl’s answer is that procedures are necessary to make binding decisions that concerning members of an association, and of a country in particular. Procedural democracy involves some assumptions and criteria, as follows: Members are defined as all adults, except transients and the mentally defective. Democratic procedures entail that only members are equally qualified and able to control the political agenda, and express their political preferences.

They do so by participating in the process of decision making with equal voting. Moreover, voters are presumed to adequately understand the issues on which they express their preferences; and to possess identical and sufficient information on the political alternatives of leaders and choices. Democracy therefore presupposes competent citizens. The criterion of competence differs from, and is not necessarily compatible with, the majority rule (Dahl 1956: 63-84; 1982: 4-30; 1986: 191-225). Dahl has expressed concern lest there be sources of political power not subject to popular control, such as special interest groups or other autonomous organizations (Dahl 1982); and the right to self-government be not extended to those who are employed in economic enterprises (Dahl 1985). Furthermore, Dahl is aware of objections that may be raised against the majority rule: in particular, that a minority might be damaged as a consequence of this rule unless is protected by legal rights (see Dahl 1989; see also Pennock 1979: 7-9)).

According to Sartori (1987), nineteenth-century liberalism had a distinctive core, which, in keeping with Tocqueville and Mill, involves the constitutional protection of the minority, and competitive voting procedures (rather than direct, Rousseauian democracy) (Sartori 1987: 380; see also: 134-141). Modern liberalism has laid stress not only on liberty, and representative democracy based on competitive elections; but also on social and economic equality: “Democracy within Liberalism”, as Sartori has put it succinctly (Sartori 1987: 240-247, 386-389).

In his revisitation of democratic theory, Sartori dwells very perfunctorily on Habermas, who is taken to task for his lack of concern for the fate of public opinion in the absence of a pluralistic society (Sartori 1987: 99 and 127, note 38). Weber is more extensively dealt with, especially insofar as his distinction between the ethic of responsibility and that of ultimate ends is concerned. Referring also to Kant’s ethic and to what he considers the proper relation between ethics and politics, Sartori makes the following statement: “In Kantian-Weberian terms … our democracies suffer from a lack of moral basis” (Sartori 1987: 243). Sartori’s own contribution to democratic theory has then strong roots in Liberalism, as a current of thought present both in philosophy and classical sociology.

Bobbio‘s formulation of democratic theory is close to Sartori’s in some relevant ways. They both consider electoral procedures based on universal and equal suffrage as necessary to forming collective will, and making collective decisions (Bobbio 1976: 72-75). Like Sartori, furthermore, also Bobbio maintains that “only in a liberal state can democracy be put into effect” (Bobbio 2005: 49; see also: 37-39); and dwells on Tocqueville and Mill as ideological precursors of modern democratic theory (Bobbio 2005: 51-66). Bobbio adds that universal and equal suffrage should be complemented by citizens’ access to the loci where economic decisions are made. This control should not be detrimental to democracy, conceived of as a set of procedural rules (Bobbio 1976: 17-20).

In this last respect, Bobbio’s democratic theory differs from Sartori’s, and also from those of Weber and Habermas. Bobbio briefly mentions Weber’s concept of plebiscitarian democracy, but pays no attention to Habermas, an author with whom he seems to be not familiar (Bobbio 1987: 168-170). Dahl (1989), on the contrary, discusses Habermas’ theory of communicative action, but ignores Weber. As Habermas observes, a procedural notion of democracy such as Bobbio’s and Dahl’s fails to consider discourses and bargaining processes that are instrumental to institutionalizing democratic procedures. According to Habermas, these procedures are not supported by the knowledge necessary to have an informed public opinion; and also to enable the parliament to control administrative action (Habermas 1996: 303-304, 315-321).

David Held (1995; 2006) has built on Robert Dahl’s conditions for a polyarchal democratic system to formulate his own version of democratic theory. His theory emphasizes the principle of the autonomy of the person, and is connoted by “a shifting balance between descriptive-explanatory and normative statements” (2006: 6). In keeping with this principle, which he traces back to John Stuart Mill, the person is conceived of as capable “to reason self-consciously, to be self-reflective and to be self-determining” (Held 1995: 151). Held considers this principle “at the core of the modern liberal democratic project”. It is represented in terms both of a democratic culture, and also of “a bundle of rights which people can enjoy as a result of their status as free and equal members of particular communities” (Held 1995: 149-150).

The modern liberal democratic project also includes the citizen’s active involvement in collective decisions by means of the majority rule, as institutionally regulated and safeguarded; and the creation of the best circumstances to develop the citizen’s abilities, talents, end economic opportunities (Held 1995: 150, 156-158). According to Held, Weber and Habermas’ writings on democracy belong to two different models: competitive elitism and government overload, respectively. The former model is considered very restrictive, and therefore “undermining the essence of liberal political culture” (Held 2006: 125; see also 157, 197); the latter is unconvincing in that it underestimates the fragmented nature of contemporary democratic politics (Held 2006: 200). They also differ in their focusing, respectively, on the nation-State, as with Weber, or on cosmopolitanism, as with Kant and Habermas (Held 1995: 24).

A few words by way of conclusion.

In conclusion, contemporary democratic theory should perhaps pay more attention to some features of the liberal democratic project, which they seem to have neglected. In contrast, Habermas and Weber have considered these features relevant, though their formulations have differed in some respects. They have endorsed basic tenets of democratic liberalism, such as popular control, juridical defense, a developed civil society, and the autonomy of the person; but they have also inquired into the social presuppositions of these tenets, and have identified them in aspects of civil society – a discursively established public sphere, and institutionally organized political settings, respectively – to which other political thinkers have given less consideration so far. It is a task of future research to establish the consequences for civil and political society of these conceptions of the public sphere, whether considered separately or in their interrelations.

[1] Habermas has made extensive use of social-science knowledge – especially, the analysis of language and. cognitive and moral development – which was unavailable in Weber’s time. This fact should prove no obstacle to a comparison between their democratic theories.

[2]  For a comparison between Weber and Habermas’ theories of the rationalization process, see White 1988: 92-103. It is not relevant here that Habermas’ view of consensus as intersubjectively achieved has been found fraught with theoretical difficulties (Lukes 1982).

[3] Luhmann has argued in his debate with Habermas (Habermas, Luhmann 1971) that a consensus may not be reached anyway, even if such conditions obtain.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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