Photo Gallery: Taking a Stand for Europe

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

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.

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.

A Vision of Europe at the Crossroads

This also explains why he gazed happily at the audience on this mid-November evening in Paris. Habermas is a fairly tall, lanky man. As he stepped onto the stage, his relaxed gait gave him a slightly casual air. With his legs stretched out under the table, he seemed at home. Whether he's at a desk or not, this is his profession: communicating and exchanging ideas in public.

He was always there when it was a question of putting Germany back on course, in other words, on his course -- toward the West, on the path of reason: during the vitriolic debate among German historians in 1986 that focused on the country's approach to its World War II past; following German reunification in 1990; and during the Iraq War. It's the same story today as he sits here, at a table, in a closed room in the basement of the Goethe Institute, and speaks to an audience of 200 to 250 concerned, well-educated citizens. He says that he, the theorist of the public sphere, doesn't have a clue about Facebook and Twitter -- a statement which, of course, seems somewhat antiquated, almost even absurd. Habermas believes in the power of words and the rationality of discourse. This is philosophy unplugged.

While the activists of the Occupy movement refuse to formulate even a single clear demand, Habermas spells out precisely why he sees Europe as a project for civilization that must not be allowed to fail, and why the "global community" is not only feasible, but also necessary to reconcile democracy with capitalism. Otherwise, as he puts it, we run the risk of a kind of permanent state of emergency -- otherwise the countries will simply be driven by the markets. "Italy Races to Install Monti" was a headline in last week's Financial Times Europe.

On the other hand, they are not so far apart after all, the live-stream revolutionaries from Occupy and the book-writing philosopher. It's basically a division of labor -- between analog and digital, between debate and action. It's a playing field where everyone has his or her place, and it's not always clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. We are currently watching the rules being rewritten and the roles being redefined.

A Dismantling of Democracy

"Sometime after 2008," says Habermas over a glass of white wine after the debate, "I understood that the process of expansion, integration and democratization doesn't automatically move forward of its own accord, that it's reversible, that for the first time in the history of the EU, we are actually experiencing a dismantling of democracy. I didn't think this was possible. We've reached a crossroads."

It also has to be said: For being Germany's most important philosopher, he is a mind-bogglingly patient man. He is initially delighted that he has managed at last to find a journalist whom he can tell just how much he abhors the way certain media ingratiate themselves with Merkel -- how he detests this opportunist pact with power. But then he graciously praises the media for finally waking up last year and treating Europe in a manner that clearly demonstrates the extent of the problem.

"The political elite have actually no interest in explaining to the people that important decisions are made in Strasbourg; they are only afraid of losing their own power," he says, before being accosted by a woman who is not entirely in possession of her faculties. But that's how it is at such events -- that's how things go with coercion-free discourse. "I don't fully understand the normative consequences of the question," says Habermas. The response keeps the woman halfway at a distance.

He is, after all, a gentleman from an age when having an eloquent command of the language still meant something and men carried cloth handkerchiefs. He is a child of the war and perseveres, even when it seems like he's about to keel over. This is important to understanding why he takes the topic of Europe so personally. It has to do with the evil Germany of yesteryear and the good Europe of tomorrow, with the transformation of past to future, with a continent that was once torn apart by guilt -- and is now torn apart by debt.

Without Complaint

In the past, there were enemies; today, there are markets -- that's how the historical situation could be described that Habermas sees before him. He is standing in an overcrowded, overheated auditorium of the Université Paris Descartes, two days before the evening at the Goethe Institute, and he is speaking to students who look like they would rather establish capitalism in Brussels or Beijing than spend the night in an Occupy movement tent.

After Habermas enters the hall, he immediately rearranges the seating on the stage and the nametags on the tables. Then the microphone won't work, which seems to be an element of communicative action in practice. Next, a professor gives a windy introduction, apparently part of the academic ritual in France.

Habermas accepts all this without complaint. He steps up to the lectern and explains the mistakes that were made in constructing the EU. He speaks of a lack of political union and of "embedded capitalism," a term he uses to describe a market economy controlled by politics. He makes the amorphous entity Brussels tangible in its contradictions, and points to the fact that the decisions of the European Council, which permeate our everyday life, basically have no legal, legitimate basis. He also speaks, though, of the opportunity that lies in the Lisbon Treaty of creating a union that is more democratic and politically effective. This can also emerge from the crisis, says Habermas. He is, after all, an optimist.

Then he's overwhelmed by the first wave of fatigue. He has to sit down. The air is stuffy, and it briefly seems as if he won't be able to continue with his presentation. After a glass of water, he stands up again.

He rails against "political defeatism" and begins the process of building a positive vision for Europe from the rubble of his analysis. He sketches the nation-state as a place in which the rights of the citizens are best protected, and how this notion could be implemented on a European level.

Reduced to Spectators

He says that states have no rights, "only people have rights," and then he takes the final step and brings the peoples of Europe and the citizens of Europe into position -- they are the actual historical actors in his eyes, not the states, not the governments. It is the citizens who, in the current manner that politics are done, have been reduced to spectators.

His vision is as follows: "The citizens of each individual country, who until now have had to accept how responsibilities have been reassigned across sovereign borders, could as European citizens bring their democratic influence to bear on the governments that are currently acting within a constitutional gray area."

This is Habermas's main point and what has been missing from the vision of Europe: a formula for what is wrong with the current construction. He doesn't see the EU as a commonwealth of states or as a federation but, rather, as something new. It is a legal construct that the peoples of Europe have agreed upon in concert with the citizens of Europe -- we with ourselves, in other words -- in a dual form and omitting each respective government. This naturally removes Merkel and Sarkozy's power base, but that's what he's aiming for anyway.

Then he's overwhelmed by a second wave of fatigue. He has to sit down again, and a professor brings him some orange juice. Habermas pulls out his handkerchief. Then he stands up and continues to speak about saving the "biotope of old Europe."

There is an alternative, he says, there is another way aside from the creeping shift in power that we are currently witnessing. The media "must" help citizens understand the enormous extent to which the EU influences their lives. The politicians "would" certainly understand the enormous pressure that would fall upon them if Europe failed. The EU "should" be democratized.

His presentation is like his book. It is not an indictment, although it certainly does at times have an aggressive tone; it is an analysis of the failure of European politics. Habermas offers no way out, no concrete answer to the question of which road democracy and capitalism should take.

A Vague Future and a Warning from the Past

All he offers is the kind of vision that a constitutional theorist is capable of formulating: The "global community" will have to sort it out. In the midst of the crisis, he still sees "the example of the European Union's elaborated concept of a constitutional cooperation between citizens and states" as the best way to build the "global community of citizens."

Habermas is, after all, a pragmatic optimist. He does not say what steps will take us from worse off to better off.

What he ultimately lacks is a convincing narrative. This also ties Habermas once again to the Occupy movement. But without a narrative there is no concept of change.

He receives a standing ovation at the end of his presentation.

"If the European project fails," he says, "then there is the question of how long it will take to reach the status quo again. Remember the German Revolution of 1848: When it failed, it took us 100 years to regain the same level of democracy as before."

A vague future and a warning from the past -- that's what Habermas offers us. The present is, at least for the time being, unattainable.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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