Jürgen Habermas’ European Dreams

Compared with reading a book by Professor Habermas, going to the dentist is a pleasant experience. He has made his career as a torturer – not of people, but of language. The esteem in which he is widely held is to me mysterious and itself of sociological and psychological interest, worthy of further research. Audiences have been known almost to swoon at his Teutonically polysyllabic vaticinations. He is largely incomprehensible; where he is comprehensible, he is either banal or wrong, or both. He is often funny, but not intentionally.

Let us take his banality first. At the bottom of page 69 of this short but frivolously dense book entitled THE CRISIS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION: A Response , we read with respect to his scheme for a world body that will deliver universal justice (modeled more or less on the triumphantly successful European Union): “But any design for a world order aiming at civilizing the exercise of political authority, no matter how farsighted it might be, must take account of the fact that the historical asynchronicity of regional developments and the corresponding socio-economic disparities between the multiple modernities cannot be erased overnight.”

Do we really need a professor of philosophy  – indeed, do we need anyone – to tell us this? Professor Habermas tries to squeeze significance out of truisms, as a constipated man tries to squeeze stools out of a reluctant colon, by the use of locutions such as ‘multiple modernities’ and the printing of the word ‘overnight’ in italics. But is there a single person in the world who thinks that all economic differences between individuals and nations could be ironed out overnight, and who either needs to or would be disabused of this notion by Professor Habermas’s contradiction of it? Academic vacuity can go no further.

Let us now turn to the Professor’s almost comic error-proneness. According to him, the United Nations could and should be a quasi-judicial body, wielding military force, but subject to a higher court whose constitution, make-up and source of authority he does not vouchsafe us, that would intervene wherever national governments abused whatever happened to be the human right du jour. Let us, partly from charity towards the Professor, disregard the question as to whether this would be a recipe for permanent peace or permanent war; let us, rather, examine one of his empirical claims:

A fortunate consequence of the [UN’s] restriction to legal,

but fundamentally moral matters is a deflation of the demands

on legitimation of the world organization. For the relevant

principles of distributive justice as well as the negative duties

to refrain from justiciable human rights violations and wars

of aggression are rooted in the core moral contents of all

the major world religions and in the cultures they have shaped.

Jürgen Habermas

On what planet, we may ask, has Professor Habermas been living for the past few decades? Not on Earth, surely? Does Frankfurt University, where he is professor emeritus, not receive news from the rest of the world’s surface? Has it escaped his notice that there seems to be some conflict over, inter alia, the limits of free expression, for example about the Prophet Mohammed, and that this conflict is actually over quite fundamental principles, the differences between which are not easily reconcilable? Is he not aware that the principles of what he calls ‘distributive justice’ are far from settled, and that even if it were true that the ideals of the welfare state (which he much favors) were indisputably just, which of course they are not, it is a matter of empirical fact that many people do not accept them as just. Elections such as the current ones in the United States may not in practice change very much, but that does not mean that they are about nothing of fundamental importance.

Underlying Professor Habermas’ platitudinous but mistaken verbiage is actually something rather sinister: the communist, fascist and Nazi dream of the abolition of politics, in favor of mere administrative decision-making by a supposedly enlightened elite, armed with indubitable truth from which their decisions follow syllogistically. The world should be free of Jews or economic exploiters so we kill them; the world should be free of human rights abuses so we topple the governments that commit them. Complexity of vocabulary and syntax apart, life is really very simple.

With regard to Professor Habermas’ obscurity, however, one is spoilt for choice. It is true that even at his most opaque, one sometimes glimpses a meaning, or at least a connotation, as one might glimpse a giant panda in a bamboo forest; and it is this dialectic (I surmise) between incomprehensibility and meaning that has given him a reputation for profundity. His thoughts lie too deep for words, at least those that we can grasp at a first or subsequent reading, and the fault lies with us, not with him.

At the risk of being accused of the very fault with which I tax him, I should say that he Habermasizes language. He uses locutions to hide rather than reveal meaning to the educated reader (only the educated could possibly be under the misapprehension that they ought to read him). Here is a relatively mild example: “A political integration backed by social welfare is necessary if the national diversity and the incomparable cultural wealth of the biotope ‘old Europe’ are to enjoy any protection against becoming levelled in the midst of rapidly progressing globalization.”

A biotope – hardly a word on everybody’s lips – is ‘a small or well-defined area that is uniform in environmental conditions and in its distribution of plant and animal life:’ a combination of Lebensraum and Gleichschaltung when you come to think of it, which is rather unfortunate in the political context. The passage hints at, has the connotations of, but does not quite mean, protectionism, winding up the drawbridge against the barbarians assembling beyond the walls. How this sits with the Professor’s world government I am at a loss to understand: I suspect that there is a special kind of dementia that is caused by having read too much Hegel in one’s youth.

There are passages in this book, short though it is, that would make strong men – or, in the politically correct language preferred by the translator, persons – scream. “One need not share the associated evaluation in order to appreciate the descriptive force of freeing the concept of the ‘political’ from the fog of a mystified counter-enlightenment and restricting it to the core meaning of a democratically juridified decision-making and administrative power.”

This might be the translator’s fault, but I doubt it.

Nevertheless, let me try to extract some of Habermas’ main points, in so far as I am able. He thinks there is no inherent problem in the creation of a pan-European democracy, complete with a proper parliament with real powers. (He does not descend to such petty problems as the simultaneous translation of Estonian into Portuguese, Croat, Greek, Danish, German, French, Spanish, English, Italian, Swedish, Finnish, etc. and vice versa, such that jokes become apparent only 30 seconds after they have been made, and laughter breaks out when the speaker has moved on to, say, the question of Greek debt or genocide.)

Habermas thinks that the transfer payments between countries that he deems necessary, especially from Germany, and indeed which might be imposed on Germany if his scheme of a genuinely powerful European parliament came about, would pose no problem once a European mentality had been ‘constructed.’ Why he should think this is a mystery to me; transfer payments between nationalities are already threatening to break up well-established states such as Belgium and Spain, and one of the hopes of the Scottish nationalists must be that they will get more transfer payments from Europe than from England, and larger rents from their own political activities.

Habermas is unequivocally in favor of majoritarian democracy and sees no need for a countervailing principle in defence of liberty:

Democratic self-government means that the addressees of

mandatory laws are at the same time their authors. In a

democracy, citizens are subject only to those laws which

they have given themselves in accordance with a democratic

procedure. The legitimizing force of this procedure rests, on

the one hand, on the inclusion of all citizens in the political

decision-making process (however this is realized) and, on

the other hand, on the coupling of (if necessary qualified)

majority decisions with deliberative will-formation.

One is tempted here to adapt Edmund Burke slightly: In the groves of his academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. But of course, the hangings would be coupled to majority decisions with deliberative will-formation, so they would be all right.

Habermas, to be fair, supports human rights, but in the full Soviet sense of the term. The concept of human rights, in his view, derives from that of human dignity (his essay on this subject in this book is considerably better written than the rest, though not less wrong-headed), with the right to an equal amount of which every human being is endowed at birth, ex officio as it were. But no one can retain his human dignity if he is homeless, hungry, lacks a 72-inch flat-screened TV, etc., and therefore it is the duty for the state, in the name of human rights, to ensure that he is provided with them. In Habermas’ view human rights evolve and extend: when 96-inch flat screens become available, possession of them will be a human right, too. That all this involves a very considerable coercive apparatus, often arbitrary and frequently unjust, is quite beyond him to recognize.

Professor Habermas is an old man and respect is due to age. He came to consciousness in the Hitler years and lived through the war; I have little doubt that he is motivated at the deepest level by a genuine desire that Europe should avoid any such catastrophe again. Alas, his ideas, if implemented, would lead to something rather like it.

Reader Discussion

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on October 25, 2012 at 11:09:52 am

Reading Professor Habermas' rather difficult verbiage one is tempted to speculate that it must have been he who wrote the decrees of Vatican 2.

Or the justification for the USA's drone assassination program.

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on March 12, 2013 at 11:13:07 am

If you still read this, I would like to say how happy I am to have found your blog. Erudite, perceptive - it is a joy to read! Thank you.

As a native speaker of German it is quite clear to me that you don't know the language, however. The word "Biotop" in German conjures up images of a surprising amount of organic diversity in a small geographical space, such as many species of plants and animals living in interdependence or even symbiosis - from trees and deer to the smallest fungi and bacteria. It has nothing whatsoever to do with "Gleichschaltung" (lit. "enforcing sameness").

I think you will find that the word "Biotop" actually encapsulates a very naive way of thinking about the EU that is prevalent in Germany. Using this word, the EU becomes benign, pretty and fascinating in its complexity. The whole thing is made to seem natural, grown and fundamentally unopposable - you can't argue with a biotope, it just is. No one talks about conflict in a "Biotop" either, it's all about interdependence and living happily ever after if no evil developer comes and paves the whole thing over.

I agree that much writing in modern philosophy and political science is unreadable, but to me this particular choice of word is very revealing indeed - just not in the way you think it is.

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