Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Perry Anderson on Jürgen Habermas

Today I came across an article by Perry Anderson in "New Left Review" (January-February 2012) in which he answers some of the critiques of his book "The New Old World" (Verso Books, 2009) and where he criticizes Jürgen Habermas and his recent book on the European Union.

Here is an excerpt:

The New Old World is "a systematic attack on the European narcissism that reached a crescendo in these years: the claim that the Union offers a ‘paragon’ — in the formula of the late Tony Judt, echoed by so many other pillars of European wisdom — of social and political development to humanity at large. Since 2010, the lacerations of the Eurozone have left their own cruel commentary on these vanities. But have they, for all that, disappeared? That it would be premature to think so can be seen from an august example. Jürgen Habermas has just published another book about the EU, now following Ach, Europa (2008) with Zur Verfassung Europas (2011). Its centrepiece, an essay entitled ‘The Crisis of the European Union in the Light of a Constitutionalization of International Law’, is a remarkable illustration of the patterns of thought indicated. Some sixty pages in length, it contains around a hundred references. Three quarters of them are to German authors. Nearly half of these, in turn, are to three associates whom he thanks for assistance, or to himself. The residue is exclusively Anglo-American, dominated — a third of the entries — by a single British admirer, David Held of recent Gaddafi fame. No other European culture figures in this ingenuous exhibition of provincialism.

More arresting still is the theme of the essay. In 2008 Habermas had attacked the Lisbon Treaty for failing to make good the democratic deficit of the EU, or offer any moral-political horizon for it. The Treaty’s passage, he wrote, could only ‘cement the existing chasm between political elites and citizens’, without supplying any positive direction to Europe. Needed instead was a Europe-wide referendum to endow the Union  with the social and fiscal harmonization, military capacity and — above all — directly elected Presidency that alone could save the continent from a future ‘settled along orthodox neo-liberal lines’. Noting how far from his traditional outlook was this enthusiasm for a democratic expression of popular will that he had never shown any sign of countenancing in his own country, I commented that, once the Treaty was pushed through, Habermas would no doubt quietly pocket it after all.

The prediction was an underestimate. Not quietly pocketing, but extravagantly trumpeting the Treaty, Habermas has now discovered that, far from cementing any chasm between elites and citizens, it is no less than the charter of an unprecedented step forward in human liberty, its duplication of the foundations of European sovereignty in at once citizens and peoples — not states — of the Union, a luminous template for a parliament of the world to come. The Europe of Lisbon, leading the way in a ‘civilizing process’ that pacifies relations between states, confining the use of force to punishment of those who violate human rights, is blazing a trail from our indispensable, if still improvable, ‘international community’ of today to the ‘cosmopolitan community’ of tomorrow, a Union writ large embracing every last soul on earth. In such raptures, the narcissism of recent decades, far from abating, has reached a new paroxysm. That the Treaty of Lisbon speaks not of the peoples but of the states of Europe; that it was rammed through to circumvent the popular will, expressed in three referenda; that the structure it enshrines is widely distrusted by those subject to it; and that so far from being a sanctuary of human rights, the Union it codifies has colluded with torture and occupation, without a murmur from its ornaments—all of this vanishes in a stupor of self-admiration.

No single mind can stand, as such, for an outlook. Now laden with as many European prizes as the ribbons of a Brezhnevite general, Habermas is no doubt in part the victim of his own eminence: enclosed, like Rawls before him, in a mental world populated overwhelmingly by admirers and followers, decreasingly able to engage with positions more than a few millimetres away from his own. Often hailed as a contemporary successor to Kant, he risks becoming a modern Leibniz, constructing with imperturbable euphemisms a theodicy in which even the evils of financial deregulation contribute to the blessings of cosmopolitan awakening, while the West sweeps the path of democracy and human rights towards an ultimate Eden of pan-human legitimacy. To that extent Habermas represents a special case, in both his distinction and the corruption of it. But the habit of talking of Europe as a cynosure for the world, without showing much knowledge of the actual cultural or political life within it, has not gone away, and is unlikely to yield just to the tribulations of the common currency."

See Perry Anderson's article in NLR here.

See my previous posts on Habermas's book here (German edition), here (English edition), and here (reviews).

Perry Anderson is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

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