Habermas on the Euro Crisis and the Necessity of Doubling Down on the Europe Project

Kenneth Anderson
June 12, 2010


The Nation runs an article from the great German philosopher Jurgen Habermas on the Euro crisis. (I didn’t see a credit for an original German publication; if it’s special to the Nation, congratulations on an intellectual coup. But reads as though it had appeared somewhere earlier.) Habermas, consistent with his long held positions, comes out in strong favor of political consolidation of the European project. He re-states what many economists have been saying since the crisis began (Martin Feldstein states it more plainly, as a matter of rational incentives in the public choice intersection between market and politics); Habermas sums up the problem of economic union without fiscal or political union in familiar terms:

The financial crisis, which has developed into a crisis of the states, calls to mind the birth defect of an incomplete political union marooned in midstream. A common market with a partially shared currency has developed in an economic zone of continental proportions with a huge population, but without the establishment of institutions at the European level with sufficient powers to coordinate the economic policies of the member states effectively.

No one can write off the call by the president of the IMF for “European economic governance” as unreasonable anymore. The models of a “rule compliant” economic policy and a “disciplined” budgetary policy that conform to the requirements of the stability pact do not meet the requirement of a flexible adaptation to rapidly shifting political constellations. Of course, the national budgets have to be balanced. Yet this is not only about Greek “cheating” and Spanish “delusions of affluence” but an alignment of levels of economic development within a currency area with diverse national economies. The stability pact, which France and Germany themselves suspended in 2005, has become a fetish. Imposing harsher sanctions will not be sufficient to counterbalance the undesirable consequences of a planned asymmetry between a complete economic and an incomplete political unification in Europe.

Habermas then calls for greater political integration to overcome the asymmetry, and in the process, locates it in the historical project of anchoring Germany, and Germans, in Europe. He blames Merkel, and he blames the Germans, for refusing to be good Europeans first:

The historically justified distrust of the Germans could not be weakened by their discernible interest in a peaceful European unification alone. West Germans seemed to have come to terms with the partition of the country, in any case. Mindful of their past nationalistic excesses, they could have no trouble in forgoing the recovery of sovereignty rights, in accepting their role as the largest net contributor to Europe and, if need be, in making concessions that paid off for the Federal Republic in any case. To be convincing, the German commitment had to be normatively anchored. Jean-Claude Juncker described the stress test well when, in view of Merkel’s cool interest calculation, he missed a willingness “to take domestic political risks for Europe.”

The new German intransigence has deeper roots. In the wake of reunification, Germany’s perspective had already changed in an enlarged country preoccupied with its own problems. But there was a more sweeping change in mentalities after Helmut Kohl. With the exception of a too quickly exhausted Joschka Fischer, since Gerhard Schröder took office a normatively unambitious generation has been in power that has become preoccupied with a short-winded approach to the day-to-day problems of an increasingly complex society. Conscious of the diminishing room for political maneuver, these people shy away from farsighted goals and constructive political projects, let alone an undertaking like European unification.

In the process of blaming the Germans, however, he also sends a collateral attack on the amoral, cool calculation of interest form of thinking that arises an attachment to economics-rational interest forms of thinking, on the one hand, and an atavistic attachment to sovereignty, on the other. So, a narrow utilitaritarianism in the form of rational choice economics in the service of an outmoded sovereignty. Habermas’ response is to call down for doubling down on the bet on European union in every sense — economic, fiscal, political, and the construction of a shared European identity; one senses, however, that he would find the very terminology in which I have framed this (“bet” and “doubling down”) to be yet another objectionable example of the “Anglicizing metaphors prevalent in Germany,” precisely because of their rational choice implications. His call:

In times of crisis even individuals can write history. Our lame political elites, who prefer to read the headlines in the tabloids, must not use as an excuse that the populations are the obstacle to a deeper European unification. For they know best that popular opinion established by opinion polls is not the same thing as the outcome of a public deliberative process leading to the formation of a democratic will. To date there has not been a single European election or referendum in any country that wasn’t ultimately about national issues and tickets. We are still waiting for a single political party to undertake a constructive campaign to inform public opinion, to say nothing of the blinkered nationalistic vision of the left (by which I do not just mean the German party The Left).

With a little political backbone, the crisis of the single currency can bring about what some once hoped for from a common European foreign policy, namely promoting a cross-border awareness of a shared European destiny.

Hmm … Habermas, and the European elite for which he is the celebrated chief public intellectual, are not exactly enamored of that homely American sentiment, “Here, the people rule.” It is impossible within Habermas’ account — faithfully reflecting German and European history — to disentangle patriotism from nationalism, a fundamental difference of political experience that is one of the chief reasons why American intellectual elite attempts to ape their presumed European betters are so far-fetched, ill-suited, and ultimately ugly. (The historian John Lukacs has written deeply on this distinction; it is one that, I sorrow to say, eludes most international law professors of my acquaintance.) The inability to formulate such a distinction is a principal reason for the European elite attachment to both the EU and the ideals of global constitutionalism.

It’s a peculiarly German problem, for obvious reasons — France has no such inherent difficulty, much less Britain — but the received view is that populism can have no honorable outlet save for nationalism, and from there it is a straight line to fascism and Nazism. (It used to be regarded as a straight line to the Holocaust, but that connection somehow seems fuzzier to a Europe sensibility than it used to be.) American elites found the refusal to countenance such a distinction in American political experience and history to be a good thing for, I suggest, two reasons. The first is that it is so … so thrillingly Continental. The second is that it is so empowering for elites.

Hence the appeal, as ever to “deliberative democracy.” I have criticized the program of deliberative democracy, in the hands particularly of Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson in Democracy and Disagreement, here on this blog for — well, in shorthand — metaethicizing its prior normative commitments. In ordinary speak, it not only insists on a particular method by which democracy is to proceed, it then insists that this meta” method of doing ethical democratic politics must inevitably result in … whereupon follows a wish list of progressivism’s cherished domestic views of the last couple of decades, from abortion to affirmative action.

If you reach any different conclusion, you haven’t engaged in a legitimate political process of “deliberative democracy” — return to the seminar room and start over. The beatings will continue until morale improves, so to speak. The whole method is a central political part of what I have sometimes described in the 1990s as “therapeutic liberal authoritarianism,” which is back with a vengeance, and it all reminds of those conversations with my mother which were not actually over until I agreed with her. I don’t think I would call them ”conversations,” at least not in politics.

The criticism of “deliberative democracy” here, in Habermas’ use of it above, is related but slightly different. It is not only a complaint about the elite assumption that the “deliberation” is not over until you agree with me, but that the popular will does not express the universal will, and the universal will is given by the elites, whose problem is to shape the electoral will to reflect it.

Let me reflect my humble American intellectual roots and say that I don’t buy it. Not for my political culture, anyway. I quite accept that a political system rooted in nothing more than calculations of cool self-interest and in which its elites are inculcated with a view that they are merely elite managers a bunch of people whom they govern from the jet stream, as it were, will not last. I have many profound objections to the shallowness of some versions of both reductionist political and economic theory precisely because it inculcates a view that there are no true relations of fiduciary duty built on trust, on shared sacrifice and shared blessings, and that to be a politician is simply to be a person who has obtained a gate-keeping position on the line between the public and the private, from which one can extract economic rents, either now or as deferred payoffs in the future. There is a role for leadership in politics which requires both elitism and a connection to those whom one would “lead,” rather than merely manage.

So I have some sympathy with Habermas’ rejection of narrow utilitarian thinking in politics and something of his ethical distaste for it. That does not, however, draw me any closer to the profound illiberalism of his — or his American counterparts and acolytes’ — love of the empowerment of elites through “deliberative democracy.”

(Update: I suppose I feel the same way about my professors in philosophy, whether Philippa Foot or Rogers Albritton, as some of the commenters feel here about Habermas. Which is fine, even if it might mean reflexively rising up to defend the Great Philosopher from any criticism, no matter how mild, almost always on the basis that the critic Had No Idea What He Was Talking About and hadn’t read the works in question. Okay, I’ve done it myself. Still, it does at least slightly raise the eyebrows when someone — Henry Farrell in this case, over at Crooked Timber — suggests I might not have read (enough) Habermas.

Well, I don’t agree that Habermas has managed to disentangle patriotism from nationalism, at least in a way that can make sense outside of a very particular European frame and perhaps not there either. To those of us who are not already convinced Habermasians, it doesn’t help to be told that H. has been elaborating a theory of patriotism; it looks like round 35 of trying to square a circle, to put it non-reverentially. To which the response is, you haven’t read enough of it, or read it correctly, and forgive me if it all starts to feel slightly religious.

It is slightly surprising, though, for a former long-term Telos editor to be informed he hasn’t read enough Habermas. Possible, I suppose, but frankly it feels a little more like, you haven’t read enough Habermas, closely enough to … agree with me. The beatings will continue, etc., as I remarked above. But it’s like saying a Telos editor hasn’t read enough Schmitt, no? However, on a completely different note, though I’m only partway through Professor Farrell’s The Political Economy of Trust, if you have an interest in the intersection of law of agency and fiduciary, finance, rational choice, and the moral psychology of trust, as I do, this is an fine book.)

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