This morning our seminar on Cafés and Public Life met in our local coffee house to talk about whether public life needs coffee houses (or something like them), and whether most people need public life of the kinds that coffee house debate provides.
Our conclusions: Yes to the first, No to the second.
Habermas argues that society needs a robust public sphere in which the public critically debates the issues of the day. This creates public opinion, the necessary counterweight to the state and the corporations. Otherwise, public opinion is corrupted into propaganda and advertising.
Not everyone, though, wants to think critically about the Big Picture, about the structure of society and the relations of power. As several students said (possibly autobiographically) it is easier and more comfortable to live in a bubble, not worrying about the structures that shape ordinary life.
Those who promote a robust public life often imply that democracy itself is imperiled if the masses don't participate in public debate. As I read the history of attempts to achieve sustained mass participatory democracy, though, this is a utopian quest, and an overstated fear.
For the good of society, it is a good thing that a strategic minority critically debate the issues of the day. They stand over against the interests of powerful institutions – and often support them, albeit knowingly and critically.
For the good of people who want coffee house debate, it is a good thing that there are coffee houses and other third places.
I think, though, that coffee house debate and leadership in public opinion will always be a minority taste and a minority calling.