| Arthur W. Frank
| Department of Sociology
| University of Calgary
…people’s sense of the legitimacy of fundamental institutions (government, business) is in doubt.
Habermas’s second criticism is that Parsons failed to understand the nature of the generalized media that he identified with each AGIL
function. Fill in these generalized media, as Parsons specified them:
Adaptation depends on the generalized medium of money,
Goal attainment depends on power (specified in votes),
I is influence, and
L is value-commitments.
Habermas makes a key observation about these media, and his the whole theory depends on this: there is a fundamental difference between two types of media.
The A & G media, money and power (votes) are quantitative: both money and votes can be counted, and whoever has the most wins.
The I & L media, by contrast, are qualitative: you can’t quantify influence or value-commitments, since these are only enacted in communication between persons.
With this difference in mind, you can understand what colonization means. In social settings that formerly operated by communicative media (I & L), the quantitative media (A & G) now dominate. Rather than communicative action—people talking about their differences and coming to a common understanding—one (person, party, or interest) dominates the other by having more money or votes. Colonization reduces the sphere in which communcative, qualitative media operate, and more of social life depends on non-communicative, quantitative media. However—and this is key—the legitimacy of the quantative media ultimately depends on the qualitative media: the value of money and votes requires constant acts of influence and value-commitment, or the A & G media become worthless.
Remember the key concern is legitimacy. Habermas agrees with Parsons about which institutions are essential to the A & G functions. A is what Habermas calls the “official economy”, and G is the “administrative state”. Both require legitimacy or else society falls into crisis. If people believe either that the economy affords them no opportunity to compete and succeed, or that the state works against their interest, crisis results. Habermas believes we have such a crisis, and it is deepening. The reason is that the quantitative media (money and power) are non-communicative. What he means is that when money and votes are invoked, whoever has the most wins and that’s it, end of process. There is no possibility of reaching a common understanding through these media. And that’s what Habermas means by communicative action: the process of reaching a common understanding. This process is on-going; understanding will never be final. So legitimacy requires that citizens understand each other as committed to continuing the process of seeking common understanding, and acting with respect for that on-going process. With money and votes you never seek to reach understanding, you only invoke how much (quantitative) you’ve got, and thus overpower or be overpowered. Money and votes can be useful ways of getting things done, but only so long as their legitimacy is assured by the common understandings of influence and value-commitments.
A & G are examples of what Habermas calls systems… Systems are fully rationalized … The principles of rationalization—evident in McDonalds—are efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. The point of such rationalization is to reduce the person to part of the “machinery” by which the system does what it does; individual scope of action and decision are minimized: “choices” are strictly limited. Ritzer points out how McDonalds “works” as a system by putting customers to work: the customer becomes part of the assembly line, picking up food, taking it to tables, clearing off the tables, etc. There is minimal possibility for customer and staff to talk to each other, much less to reach any common understandings; no place for “communicative action”. Staff have no possibility of making decisions about how the restaurant will be run, and customers are expected to move on at regular intervals (Ritzer points out that seats are built so that people won’t sit too long). Everyone involved has to act as the system directs them. The quantitative system (so many “served daily”, as quickly as possible, and what they are served is advertised for size, not quality) colonizes any lifeworld communication.
By the lifeworld Habermas means the shared common understandings, including values, that develop through face to face contacts over time in various social groups, from families to communities. The lifeworld carries all sorts of assumptions about who we are as people and what we value about ourselves: what we believe, what shocks and offends us, what we aspire to, what we desire, what we are willing to sacrifice to which ends, and so forth.
The crisis of contemporary modernity (what remains unfinished about modernity as a project) is that the systems media (A & G) have become de-coupled from the lifeworld and its media (I & L). The “societal community” of I & L are increasingly colonized, in the sense that members of the community have less sphere for communicative action. Their relationships are increasingly mediated, locally, by money and power. McDonalds is one example; the contemporary university is another. In the university, department meetings could, ideally, be a place where communicative action takes place and influence and value-commitments are regenerated. We could, in those meetings, attempt to reach common understandings. In one meeting we were discussing a proposed change to the curriculum. I was trying to ask a colleague why s/he wanted this change; my “communicative action” involved asking what s/he was trying to teach, how that teaching was going, and so forth. The colleague’s response was: “If you don’t like the change, vote against it.” In other words, s/he didn’t want to talk, explain, or reach a common understanding. Instead we would each gather votes and whoever had the most votes would win. Systems media (power, votes) had pushed out lifeworld media (appeals to common value commitments as a basis of influencing colleagues to believe one option or the other best represented who we want to be, as a departmental community). It’s important to understand that this colleague acted in a milieu that the university as a system creates: money and power dominate, and local understands don’t count for much. The colleague was part of this colonization process, but s/he was only reflecting a larger process.