As the author concisely states: “This book is a comparative study of the development of political culture in Europe from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century…the focus is chiefly on Great Britain, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Its central thesis is that during this period a new cultural space developed, which posed new challenges to regimes and their ruling orders. Alongside the old culture, centered on the courts and the representation of monarchical authority, there emerged a ‘public sphere’, in which private individuals come together to form a whole greater than the sum of the parts … ‘public opinion’ came to be recognized as the ultimate arbiter in matters of taste and politics. These changes presented regimes with both a challenge and an opportunity” (p. 2).
Tim Blanning’s introductory framework is a restatement of Jurgen Habermas’s ideas, from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. But, there are important disagreements between the two. Blanning attempts to depart from Habermas by “clear[ing] away” his predecessor’s “insistence on the ‘bourgeois’ nature of the public sphere” and “its allegedly oppositional orientation” to 18th Century regimes (Blanning, p. 14). That he fails to clear away either will be explained in the course of this review. But he does provide a significant history. His examination is richly informative and applies public sphere theory to an expanded range of political environments. Habermas focused his initial examination on France. Blanning surveys France, Britain and the Holy Roman Empire. By doing so, he is able to exhibit how other early modern authorities dealt differently with this newly formed cultural space.
An important revelation is that the challenge of the public sphere did not have to result in violent revolution, as it did in France. Great Britain was able to adapt to public opinion. It had a monarch who projected a moral character admired by middle and working class subjects, and a Parliament that prided itself on liberty to an extent not mirrored in France. There were factors ignored by Blanning: Part of the island’s advantage over 18th Century France was in having an economy where, thanks to imperialism and industrialism, fewer commoners went hungry. While these conditions were immediately harmful to subjects, slaves and colonies, they gave the government time to acclimatize to democracy.
The Holy Roman Empire is a more problematic example. Blanning’s focal point is Frederick II’s Prussia. This historian sees Frederick as Frederick saw himself: as an enlightened despot. Certainly, Frederick II deserves credit for fostering the arts, censoring publications less than France did, surrounding himself with Philosophes and talking a good game. But he didn’t “create” the Prussian public sphere as Blanning claims (Blanning, p. 227). Neither did he make “contributions to the formation of a public sphere” (Blanning, p. 223). This arena was evolving in his nation in spite of monarchy; not because of it. One should be more judicious in evaluating this king: Frederick allowed “some freedoms of the press” (Blanning, p. 224). He joined the liberalizing Freemasons (Blanning, p. 226). He wrote articles that were widely read. Some credit is due. It may even be true, as the historian claims, that Frederick II “was a genius…as a political theorist, historian, poet, dramatist, composer and flautist, he would deserve his niche in any cultural history” (Blanning, p. 227). But a careful reader needs to look past Blanning’s colossal man crush to examine the workings of power. A monarch has privileges of action and expression that others do not. The public sphere is an arena of thought experiments and debate. But the only times that the author quotes someone criticizing Frederick’s ideas is when that person is outside of Prussia. Moser disagrees with the king over Shakespeare from the safety of Osnabruck (Blanning, p. 251). Writers for the Hamburgische Neue Zeitung dispute Frederick’s evaluation of German literature from their free city (Blanning, p. 262). No evidence is shown of Prussians debating their king over literature. Also, what is not publicly spoken is as important as what is spoken. Literary criticism is one thing, but the menace of authority would not permit one to excoriate governmental shortcomings in Prussia. Frederick did not contribute to the growing public sphere; he controlled it in some areas and usurped unrivaled privileges of expression in others.
Part of the author’s misperception of monarchical government lies in a basic misunderstanding of power. Blanning’s Introduction states “in 1679, Louis XIV obliged Frederick William…to return to Sweden all the territory conquered…not by force of arms…but by his aura of authority” (Blanning, p. 5). Earlier, he says it was “the success of the British and Prussian states in adapting their political cultures which enabled them to achieve success in war” (Blanning, p. 3). While factors like an aura of authority or a modern political culture may contribute to success, the ability to do violence and visceral fear are far more persuasive motivators. Frederick William knew that France had the largest modern army in Europe and immense wealth to support a protracted war. Power is not as intellectual a force as Blanning presents. So he depicts Frederick as an enlightened participant in the public sphere without seeing how his threat gave him control. He shows British government reasonably bending to public opinion, without understanding that behind this civility loomed their memory of Civil War, and numerous bloody revolts, which produced a taste for compromise and stability.
When examining history, one must look forward as well as backward from an event to understand it in context. The history of the public sphere is one of a public applying pressure to authoritarian governments to produce changes. The scope of Blanning’s book only shows the period of 1660 - 1789. So he neither sees back to the series of the aforementioned armed conflicts in England, nor ahead to the results of public sphere pressure. The history of British monarchical & aristocratic government is one of bending so far that it was eventually bent-over. The UK gradually achieved full suffrage, between petitions and revolts, because government eventually accommodated over three centuries of pressure. In the German principalities consistent pressure, memories of the French Revolution and occurrences like the Revolution of 1848, eventually led to government concessions. Public opinion favoring democracy, educated over years of legal and censored writing, along with the Kaiser’s loss in World War I, produced Germany’s first republic. In the long view, a persistent, inextinguishable public voice desiring equal participation (along with the threat or actuality of violence), won in Europe.
Blanning’s failure to see the dominance of the bourgeoisie in the public sphere is puzzling. Monarchs and aristocrats did write, and create institutions, outside of the court. But the institutions they produced were fairly exclusive. The author’s own statistics regarding European musical events, show that middle class individuals attended middle class venues and aristocrats attended aristocratic venues. When liberal aristocrats opened their events to the populace, few subjects could afford tickets (Blanning, pp. 172-3). If institutions are not available to the public, they cannot impact the public sphere. Concerning publicity and writing, aristocrats were a small minority of the participants. Many of them supported ideas that would improve conditions for the middle class. In general, public sphere publicity benefitted the middle class and diminished aristocratic power. Saying that the public sphere was not bourgeois is like saying that Black Lives Matter is not an African American cause, because a minority of white people are involved.
Though Blanning fails to disprove Habermas with his notions, that the public sphere was neither bourgeois nor antagonistic to the traditional power structure, his study has a great deal of merit. His central thesis, quoted at the outset, remains intact. This study is broader, though not deeper, than Habermas. He examines more nations, showing how they avoided revolution through accommodation and usurpation of public sphere vehicles. It is unfortunate that a writer, with “power” in his title, does not understand how power over people is different from power with people. But the author’s survey is thoughtful and coherent. He remains on-point throughout a lengthy project. More importantly, one can understand him. As Blanning observes, “even native German speakers have difficulty deciphering [Habermas’s] tortuous prose” (Blanning, p. 6). Readers of English who have found translations of Habermas to be a scrum of concepts, should pick-up The Culture of Power. Habermas may have had an original and brilliant theory, but Blanning explains and exemplifies it with superior clarity. Able writing, coupled with broader application, make this work a valuable contribution to history and public sphere theory.
Blanning, TCW. The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture. Old Regime Europe 1660-1789