Habermas, the Last European: A Philosopher's Mission to Save the EU

By Georg Diez

Jürgen Habermas has had enough. The philosopher is doing all he can these days to call attention to what he sees as the demise of the European ideal. He hopes he can help save it -- from inept politicians and the dark forces of the market.

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Jürgen Habermas is angry. He's really angry. He is nothing short of furious -- because he takes it all personally.

He leans forward. He leans backward. He arranges his fidgety hands to illustrate his tirades before allowing them to fall back to his lap. He bangs on the table and yells: "Enough already!" He simply has no desire to see Europe consigned to the dustbin of world history.

"I'm speaking here as a citizen," he says. "I would rather be sitting back home at my desk, believe me. But this is too important. Everyone has to understand that we have critical decisions facing us. That's why I'm so involved in this debate. The European project can no longer continue in elite modus."

Enough already! Europe is his project. It is the project of his generation.

Jürgen Habermas, 82, wants to get the word out. He's sitting on stage at the Goethe Institute in Paris. Next to him sits a good-natured professor who asks six or seven questions in just under two hours -- answers that take fewer than 15 minutes are not Habermas' style.

Usually he says clever things like: "In this crisis, functional and systematic imperatives collide" -- referring to sovereign debts and the pressure of the markets.

Sometimes he shakes his head in consternation and says: "It's simply unacceptable, simply unacceptable" -- referring to the EU diktat and Greece's loss of national sovereignty.

'No Convictions'

And then he's really angry again: "I condemn the political parties. Our politicians have long been incapable of aspiring to anything whatsoever other than being re-elected. They have no political substance whatsoever, no convictions."

It's in the nature of this crisis that philosophy and bar-room politics occasionally find themselves on an equal footing.

It's also in the nature of this crisis that too many people say too much, and we could definitely use someone who approaches the problems systematically, as Habermas has done in his just published book.

But above all, it is in the nature of this crisis that the longer it continues, the more confusing it gets. It becomes more difficult to follow its twists and turns and to see who is responsible for what. And the whole time, alternatives are disappearing before our very eyes.

That's why Habermas is so angry: with the politicians, the "functional elite" and the media. "Are you from the press?" he asks a man in the audience who has posed a question. "No? Too bad."

Habermas wants to get his message out. That's why he's sitting here. That's why he recently wrote an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, in which he accused EU politicians of cynicism and "turning their backs on the European ideals." That's why he has just written a book -- a "booklet," as he calls it -- which the respected German weekly Die Zeit promptly compared with Immanuel Kant's 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch."

But does he have an answer to the question of which road democracy and capitalism should take?

A Quiet Coup d'État

"Zur Verfassung Europas" ("On Europe's Constitution") is the name of his new book, which is basically a long essay in which he describes how the essence of our democracy has changed under the pressure of the crisis and the frenzy of the markets. Habermas says that power has slipped from the hands of the people and shifted to bodies of questionable democratic legitimacy, such as the European Council. Basically, he suggests, the technocrats have long since staged a quiet coup d'état.

"On July 22, 2011, (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and (French President) Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to a vague compromise -- which is certainly open to interpretation -- between German economic liberalism and French etatism," he writes. "All signs indicate that they would both like to transform the executive federalism enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty into an intergovernmental supremacy of the European Council that runs contrary to the spirit of the agreement."

Habermas refers to the system that Merkel and Sarkozy have established during the crisis as a "post-democracy." The European Parliament barely has any influence. The European Commission has "an odd, suspended position," without really being responsible for what it does. Most importantly, however, he points to the European Council, which was given a central role in the Lisbon Treaty -- one that Habermas views as an "anomaly." He sees the Council as a "governmental body that engages in politics without being authorized to do so."

He sees a Europe in which states are driven by the markets, in which the EU exerts massive influence on the formation of new governments in Italy and Greece, and in which what he so passionately defends and loves about Europe has been simply turned on its head.

A Rare Phenomenon

At this point, it should be mentioned that Habermas is no malcontent, no pessimist, no prophet of doom -- he's a virtually unshakable optimist, and this is what makes him such a rare phenomenon in Germany.

His problem as a philosopher has always been that he appears a bit humdrum because, despite all the big words, he is basically rather intelligible. He took his cultivated rage from Marx, his keen view of modernity from Freud and his clarity from the American pragmatists. He has always been a friendly elucidator, a rationalist and an anti-romanticist.

Nevertheless, his previous books "Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere" and "Between Facts and Norms" were of course somewhat different than the merry post-modern shadowboxing of French philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard. What's more, another of Habermas' publications, "Theory of Communicative Action," certainly has its pitfalls when it comes to his theory of "coercion-free discourse" which, even before the invention of Facebook and Twitter, were fairly bold, if not perhaps naïve.

Habermas was never a knife thrower like the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek, and he was no juggler like the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. He never put on a circus act, and he was always a leftist (although there are those who would disagree). He was on the side of the student movement until things got too hot for him. He took delight in the constitution and procedural matters. This also basically remains his position today.

Habermas truly believes in the rationality of the people. He truly believes in the old, ordered democracy. He truly believes in a public sphere that serves to make things better.

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1. Muddled thinking
pmoseley 11/27/2011
Well, if this is the most prominant philosopher in Germany today, then German philosophy must be in steep decline. He, or at least the reporter, took so much hot wind to declare what we all know, that there is not enough democracy and accountability in Europe and that the European ideal would be more acceptable to Europeans if there was more. He, like so many European 'idealists', have totally missed the point that the European ideal is not something that people can love, it is just something that they can use. People love their country, their people, their culture and traditions and occasionally their national leaders. The EU is just a political and economic overlay that may be useful but as soon as it is not useful, then it is generally dismissed. That is what is happening now. Mercozy are sidelining the EU structures, the markets have lost confidence in it and Barroso is having fits in the wings.
2. Habermas
nettisa 11/30/2011
---Quote (Originally by pmoseley)--- Well, if this is the most prominant philosopher in Germany today, then German philosophy must be in steep decline. He, or at least the reporter, took so much hot wind to declare what we all know, that there is not enough democracy and accountability in Europe and that the European ideal would be more acceptable to Europeans if there was more. He, like so many European 'idealists', have totally missed the point that the European ideal is not something that people can love, it is just something that they can use. People love their country, their people, their culture and traditions and occasionally their national leaders. The EU is just a political and economic overlay that may be useful but as soon as it is not useful, then it is generally dismissed. That is what is happening now. Mercozy are sidelining the EU structures, the markets have lost confidence in it and Barroso is having fits in the wings. ---End Quote--- PMoseley is much too dismissive of Habermas in his comment. He needs to realize that ideals have to be advanced for people to reach for them. Ours is a globalized world. For Europe to pull its weight, and advance its values, it must offer a transcending identity, tho not doing away with more local ones: a European identity. (I believe that polls have shown that 51% of the population of the countries involved do affirm such an identity.) Moseley might be interested in the notion of "dynamic nominalism" advanced by the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking, whereby once a category is created people can than come to fill it. After all, national identities did not always exist. Moseley is raising the right questions, but must go further in his search for answers. Bruce Mazlish
3. optional
ksos 12/03/2013
What is so brilliant about the coup that Habermas describes is that while those who recognize it do their best to convince those who don't that it is happening, the dismantling continues unopposed. The shift in power to the technocrats has roots that keep going deeper and taking a stronger hold, getting harder and harder to dislodge. At least with a military coup, there is no disagreement about whether it really happened or not, and what each side stands for. The fact of it is undeniable. But with what has happened in the U.S. and in Europe, the fact of the overthrow is still being argued. People feel the effects, but can't assign a cause with certainty. We have been, as Habermas says, "reduced to spectators" and don't yet realize what has happened. It's unfortunate that Diez faults Habermas for not providing a concrete answer to this problem, and so, dismisses what he is doing in the face of what he hasn't done. Ultimately, of course, describing the problem will not be enough, and a convincing narrative is necessary to drive change. But far more people have to recognize the current situation as intolerable for anything to change. Habermas is successfully calling attention to this reality, working to wake people up. It might not be enough, but it is more than nothing, and should be recognized as such.
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