How did the particular formation of democratic politics, a rambunctious public sphere, and capitalist social relations come about in the early American republic? I began to talk about this question last month when I asked, ‘how did democracy become a good thing?‘ I argued that the crucial factor was an unprecedented separation between economic and political power, which made democractic politics incapable of seriously interfering with capital accumulation. Today I want to show how Jürgen Habermas’ account of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere helps us see what went on in this crucial separation, and how his account relates to the American case in particular.
What Habermas described was the process of “privatized individuals coming together to form a public” (51)—the “privatized” element of that formulation is just as important as the “public”. Habermas’s account of the transformation of privacy was derived from Marx’s understanding of the transition from feudalism to capitalism: “In Germany [for example], manorial authority… was transformed into private landed property only in the eighteenth century” (5), moving production (i.e. farming, in this case) out of the realm of manorial (political/juridical) authority and into the new private realm. This private realm also became, of course, the intimate sphere of personal feeling and belief—the intimate world that was, ironically, given shape by the new public medium of the printed novel.
But there’s an enormous tension in this notion of privacy. Clearly, the distribution of material stuff—ownership and access to property—affects everyone in a direct causal relation: if you own that field, I don’t own it, and nor does our neighbour. It’s a matter of public interest. So what on earth makes property “private”? Precisely this tension, I’d argue, is what drives the historical change—the structural transformation—in Habermas’s account.
To see how this tension played out we have to look at the distinction between the public and the state. The public sphere is the embodiment of this distinction, an embodiment of the power that existed beyond that of the state after the dissolution of feudalism: the power of merchants, financiers, and private landowners, or in other words, Habermas’s bourgeoisie. Structural Transformation describes the emergence of networks of information and exchange within the bourgeoisie through new mediums and venues of communication, from letters to coffee-houses to newspapers. But more importantly, it describes the way these networks transformed into what Habermas calls “the public sphere in the political realm,” the mechanism of organised bourgeois power.
Thus, Habermas argued that the political nature of the public sphere lies squarely in its opposition to the controlling efforts of the state, in the field of the economy, and specifically in commerce. In this sense, the political logic of the bourgeois public sphere is to keep property private, i.e. beyond the reach of the state. Although it was not the aim of his project, then, Habermas has given us an account of the very process I was describing earlier: the process of separation between economic and political power that allowed for the rise of political democracy without posing a threat to capital.
Once we have these processes clear, it’s easy to see how they operated in the specific context of early America. Habermas’s account of how commercial information networks developed into modes of political organisation—or in other words, how economic complaints became political ones—needs no major adjustment to fit the story of the imperial crisis and American Revolution. The implications for the way we understand the new republic are radical. “The constitution of the liberal constitutional state,” Habermas wrote, “was from the beginning meant to order not only the state as such and in relation to society but the system of coexistence in society as a whole.” As we have come increasingly to recognise in the half-century since Habermas published Structural Transformation, the empire of liberty was very much an empire.
 For Marx himself on this, as quoted by Habermas, see p.123. We should be quite clear that Structural Transformation is a biting and sardonic critique of capitalism and liberalism (as well as the later social-welfare state) in the Marxist tradition. It is nothing nearly so boring as “a story about new uses of texts” (Michael Warner, Letters of the Republic, 1990, p.x). If my remarks here do anything, I hope they might help rescue the book’s abiding interest in power and social forces from the crushing dullness of the history of print, to which most Americanist scholars seem to have consigned it.
 Or let’s take another very salient example: religion. By the nineteenth century it was possible to describe religion as a private matter; now it’s hard not to describe it thus. But to men and women in the fifteenth century that proposition would have been absurd. Worship, faith, and the structures of clerical authority were public, social, and also—often violently—political. As Habermas showed, there’s nothing natural or fixed, or even really very boundary-like, about the public/private boundary.