Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Lure of Technocracy
by jürgen habermas
translated by ciaran cronin
polity, 200 pages, $22.95

The European project, as it is called, is marked by great promise and great peril. No less than ­Winston Churchill called for the reconciliation of a “spiritually great France” and a “spiritually great Germany” in a memorable address in Zurich in September 1946. Churchill foresaw a “United States of Europe” that could bring peace, prosperity, and liberty to a continent that had been ravaged by war and tyranny. He imagined Britain as a friendly onlooker of this process of European pacification and unification, wishing Europe well while remaining committed to Britain’s empire and commonwealth and to her “special relationship” with the United States.

In his latest book, the famous German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas invokes the authority of Churchill to encourage an overcoming of “national particularisms,” first in Europe, and then in the world as a whole. As this book reveals, Habermas is the theorist of post-national democracy, of a “postnational world order.” Churchill was, of course, attached to Britain and fought heroically to protect her sovereignty and liberty even as he foresaw the benefits of much wider circles of cooperation and collective security. He appreciated the promise of European unity. Still, it is far from clear that he would endorse Habermas’s dream of a transnational world society. For Habermas, the nation is in the end an atavism, an anachronism, and it will survive in diminished form only if it jettisons stubborn claims to sovereignty and autonomy.

Habermas claims to be a partisan of a truly political Europe, but his conception of politics is remarkably bloodless and abstract. The title essay in this volume of essays, interviews, and public interventions diagnoses the excessively technocratic character of contemporary “Europe” in thoughtful and helpful ways. Habermas appreciates that the “new technocratic form of co­operation” that animates the European Council and the collective European response to the banking and sovereign debt crisis after 2008 suffers from a ­serious democratic deficit. The European project has relied for too long on the passive support of the peoples of Europe; it has done little or nothing to give shape to a properly European “will-formation” (one notices how inelegant Habermas’s formulations sometimes are). He has little patience for the claim that European nations are the signatories to the European treaties, culminating in the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007. National autonomy is a “fiction.” A truly political Europe must therefore strive to overcome it.

To be sure, he is entirely right about the limits of a “technocracy without democratic roots.” But his vision of a transnational or supranational Europe is chiefly informed by a desire to preserve the welfare state in its present form (with its ever-expanding “social rights”) against a capitalism that he deplores. He tellingly abstracts from foreign policy—it doesn’t seem to belong to his conception of politics—and is completely silent about the threat that radical Islam poses to the integrity of Europe.

Habermas presents his readers with a stark choice between “democracy or capitalism,” which is the title of one of the book’s essays. A transnational Europe, the avant-garde of a transnational world society, is “indispensable if unbridled global capitalism is to be steered into socially acceptable channels.” Political globalization, on a massive scale, is thus the only alternative to economic globalization. It is the vehicle of social justice or solidarity, which Habermas always identifies with a robust statism. He never acknowledges that the requirements of economic competition and economic growth are legitimate goods in a liberal society, goods that have to be weighed against the social rights that are at the core of his political vision. In Habermas’s Europe, there will be no place for prudential judgment, with all its complexities and competing demands, that weighs and balances market freedoms with the full array of social security measures. For him, the latter are rights that can brook no significant limit or qualification. They are, in decisive respects, beyond discussion and will be codified and ratified by European law.

But Habermas does not rest content with the evolutionary transfer of sovereign rights to an enhanced European entity. The new Europe will establish joint fiscal, budgetary, and (redistributive) economic policy. It will harmonize social policy across the whole of Europe. In doing so, “the red line of the classical understanding of sovereignty would be crossed.” Europeans would abandon the “fiction” that “the nation-states are ‘the sovereign subjects’ of the European Treaties” beginning with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which established the European Community, and culminating in the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, which solidified the vision of a post-national Europe. To renounce this vision would be to “turn one’s back on world history,” a history that he believes is leaving the nation definitively behind. He provides no real evidence for this claim.

In what way would a Habermasian Europe be a political Europe? His European legislators would transform “the claims to solidarity of the marginalized . . . into social rights.” His vision thus presumes a direction to history (characterized by ever more “social emancipation” and tutelary government). These questions are beyond dispute for Habermas. To some, this will look like the “soft despotism” famously invoked by Tocqueville at the end of Democracy in America. To others, it will merely codify the European model of the “providential state,” as the French revealingly call it. In any case, it is hardly a model of politics where informed citizens debate great and contentious questions. Where is the partisan conflict that is inevitable in genuinely political political life?

Iam not arguing in principle against social rights, or modest protectionism and other hedges against the effects of globalization. That I’ll leave to the doctrinaires of economic liberalism. But these rights invoked by Habermas are not absolute, and their articulation and expansion alone do not provide politics with a meaningful content. In Habermas’s supranational construct, nations still exist, but they are completely subordinate to European law. Indeed, he argues with some justification that this is, for all intents and purposes, already the case. European officials would be chosen by European voters as a whole—forever putting an end to the “fiction” of national self-government. Of course, the remnant of the nation would still have a “monopoly of legitimate violence,” to cite Weber’s classic definition, striving to protect “the emancipatory achievements of their respective national democracies.” Here again, the nation is reduced to a vehicle for protecting (ever-expanding) social rights and the memory of the “revolutionary past.” This is not nothing. But Habermas reduces the founding moments of European democracy to 1789 and 1968: respectively, the eruption of a national vehicle for the “rights of man”—no matter how destructive the French Revolution was of liberty in its concrete forms—and that real and symbolic moment of social unrest when Europeans began challenging political and social authority in all its forms.

Habermas makes no mention of the millennia-old European nation with its roots in the High Middle Ages. The conserving, as opposed to emancipatory, dimensions of rich European national traditions are passed by. Christianity is given some credit for defending human dignity and for giving genuine substance to secular calls for human solidarity. But in the end, Christianity, and what Pierre Manent calls the “nation of a Christian mark,” are thoroughly dispensable. Ultimately, Habermas is a partisan of what he calls the “secular religion of humanity.” Like his hero Heinrich Heine, Habermas hopes and offers a secular prayer that “ridiculous national prejudices are disappearing.” His heart is with the “emphatic unity of democracy, human rights, cosmopolitan hope, and pacifism,” culminating in a great project of social emancipation. That is the antinomian significance of 1968 in Habermas’s social and political vision for Europe and Germany. He has little respect for Adenauer’s dignified, conservative postwar Republic, which was still rooted in the German and European past, with its evocation of “Christian democracy” and its straightforward anti-­communism. (Habermas rightly despises Hitler and all his works but is seemingly more ambivalent about communist totalitarianism, whose evils he rarely mentions.)

After the failed European revolutions of 1848, Heine broke with political utopianism and even became a believer of sorts in God. But Habermas assures us that if Heine gave up on an “extravagant idea of Revolution,” he remained faithful to the “political enforcement of human rights, the ‘Ten Commandments of the new world faith.’” But are rights enough to give human and political life meaning? Are the moral contents of life reducible to rights claims, important as they are in the fight against tyranny? Rights may constrain politics, but they cannot be the substance of politics, which always turns on the question of what kind of people we wish to be.

Conservative-minded statesmen such as Churchill and de Gaulle still saw the old nation (and in de Gaulle’s case, the old religion) as pillars of a Europe worthy of the name. However, Habermas is too confident in the philosophy of history to doubt the triumph of emancipatory cosmopolitanism. Perhaps churchmen who invoke the necessity and inevitability of a “governing world authority”—a claim made in several papal social encyclicals since the 1960s—should think long and hard about the philosophy of history and the “secular religion” that will provide the inevitable spiritual underpinning of a transnational global society. The nation is, and remains, the political form of the Christian West, and more thought needs to be given to the political and spiritual costs of saying adieu to the political form that made self-government and spiritual communion possible. The West did not begin in 1968. The European project will only remain viable if it draws all the proper conclusions from this fact.

All this said, Habermas’s fundamental decency needs to be acknowledged. He is a man of peace and reason. He can write respectfully about such diverse figures as Martin Buber and his Jewish philosophy of dialogue (in a beautiful talk at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem reproduced in this volume) and Leo Strauss and his recovery of classical political philosophy (in a thought-provoking essay on the reception of Jewish thinkers in post-1945 Germany). He is no Badiou or Žižek, justifying the unjustifiable (“the idea of Communism,” and Stalin and Mao, too, in their cases). No doubt there are worse things than Kant-inspired cosmopolitanism, even if it needs to be challenged by a richer and more capacious sense of political possibility and limitation.

Habermas is the theorist of “communicative rationality” and a “discourse” theory that is barely accessible to the uninitiated. But in the post-­national Europe and post-national world society he envisions, both politics and the higher manifestations of the soul would atrophy. That is a paradox that ought to give one pause.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College.