Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Jeremy Waldron on Habermas's "The Lure of Technocracy"

In "The New York Review of Books" (October 22, 2015), Professor Jeremy Waldron reviews Jürgen Habermas's book "The Lure of Technocracy" (Polity Press, 2014):

"The Vanishing Europe of Jürgen Habermas"

Here are some excerpts from the review:

Habermas is Europe’s most formidable political philosopher. (.....) He is one of our most important theorists of democracy but the democracy he calls for is “post-national democracy” (.....) He brings to his analysis of the EU an understanding of democracy that is deeper than that of most intellectuals. The Lure of Technocracy is a small book, but behind it loom large volumes of Habermas’s more abstract writings on the principles that inspire democratic procedures. Habermas’s philosophical writing is not the clearest in the history of political thought, and his ideas are convoluted and difficult. By contrast, his thoughts on Europe are incisive and direct. I suspect this makes them less interesting to those whose allegiance to the great man has something of the character of an esoteric cult, of which they are oracles. Outside the charmed circle, however, readers may be tempted to neglect Habermas’s philosophy altogether. That would be a pity, if only because his complex position on the EU and Greece is unintelligible apart from the depth of his commitments in democratic theory. (.....)

Habermas’s model begins with something that entranced Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau before him: the idea of self legislation or political autonomy.In a democracy, laws are supposed to have legitimacy because the people to whom they are addressed are also their authors.(.....)

To this model of people making laws for themselves, Habermas adds three additional layers. First, he frames the democratic process by emphasizing “deliberation”. (.....) We make law for ourselves in the company of others - all others who are going to be obligated - and if we are to meet democratic standards we convince ourselves that a given set of laws is necessary, if it is, by listening respectfully to what others say about the interests and values of theirs that are at stake in the matter. (.....)

A second layer concerns Habermas’s idea of rationality and values. When people talk to each other, they are not, as he conceives such conversation, just engaged in instrumental reasoning. They are presenting to each other everything that is important to them about the matters under discussion, including ultimate values and concerns that go way beyond the economic considerations that pervade technocratic thinking. (.....)

The third thing that distinguishes Habermas’s model is an insistence that democratic deliberation may be understood entirely in terms of the processes that it involves. (....) What we see on nearly every page he has ever written is a commitment to the view that when we idealize democratic procedures - when we try to define “an ideal speech situation” for political deliberation that respects everyone as a potential contributor - our theory is to be built up out of nothing but procedural concerns. Habermas’s theory “attributes legitimizing force to the process of democratic opinionand will-formation itself.” The crucial questions for Habermas are: Who is included, who is not included? Who is being silenced or browbeaten? Whose interests are being allowed to distort the process of communication? Political legitimacy for Habermas comes from respectful and thorough answers to questions like these... (.....)

If democracy is so important, then why not treat the undemocratic character of the EU as a ground for Euroskepticism? Why not scramble back to “the reliable shelter of the nation-state,” where at least something like democratic governance is available? (.....) 

The answer, for Habermas, is that particular nations no longer have the sort of control of their own destiny that would make this reversion worthwhile. “It is counterproductive,” he says, “to cling to the state-centered tradition of modern political thought.” (.....) Some of the passion behind his post-national vision is for the institutions of social justice and social welfare that have been fostered by national democracies. But that achievement now needs democratic stewardship at a global or at least a regional level. And he wants to strengthen, not weaken, that stewardship in Europe. “I do not see how a return to nation states that have to be run like big corporations in a global market can counter the tendency towards de-democratisation and growing social inequality,” he told The Guardian recently. (.....)

In many respects, the US works as an exemplar for Habermas (.....). He takes the American experience as encouraging evidence that people, in a country of immigrants, can hold layered and incompletely integrated political identities. His well-known theory of constitutional patriotism explains the growth of a “we, the people” mentality as a nonethnic basis for American identity. A similar kind of patriotism is crucial for what Habermas has in mind for Europe. European constitutional patriotism, as he envisages it, will no doubt differ in some respects from the US version. It will look to principles that would be challenged by some powerful social and political forces in the US, principles such as "secularism, the priority of the state to the market, the primacy of social solidarity over “merit,”. . . rejection of the law of the stronger, and the commitment to peace as a result of the historical experience of loss". But the form is supposed to be the same: an identity organized around a constitution rather than around a particular ethnicity.

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