Habermas on Germany’s choice

by Maria on June 12, 2010

Fascinating interview with Jurgen Habermas in today’s Irish Times. Talking about Merkel and how she has burnt Germany’s reputation for putting its longer term interests as the greatest beneficiary of an effective European Union ahead of short-term, domestic politics, he notes a generational difference:

“Over the past four weeks Angela Merkel has squandered much of the capital of trust accumulated by her predecessors over four decades. … After Helmut Kohl, our political elites underwent a sweeping change in mentalities. With the exception of a too-quickly exhausted Joschka Fisher, since Gerhard Schröder took office a normatively unambitious generation has been in power. It seems to enjoy Germany’s return of Germany to normality as a nation-state – and just wants be “like the others”. Conscious of the diminishing room for political manoeuvre, these people shy away from farsighted goals and constructive political projects, let alone an undertaking like European unification. I detect a certain indifference towards this project. On the other hand, the politicians can no longer deceive themselves concerning the fact that the Federal Republic is the greatest beneficiary of the single currency. Self-interest dictates that they support the preservation of the euro zone.

However, that can only be accomplished if the euro countries build up a common economic government and co-ordinate their fiscal policies. There are extreme economic imbalances among the countries in the euro zone; this is why, at the time the euro was introduced, the medium-term goal was to harmonise the levels of development of those rather heterogeneous national economies. Now it turns out that the stability pact is much too rigid an instrument for achieving this goal. As a result, we now face the alternative of either co-operating more closely or of doing away with the single currency. The pivotal political question from a German perspective is whether the Federal Republic is ready to change its European policy before it is too late, and then whether it is also able to co-operate with France in leading the other EU countries in that direction.”



hix 06.12.10 at 1:15 pm

If Kohl had wasted less time on visions and focused more on economic managment, people would be richer and feal confident enough for postmaterialist feal good long term projects. Habermas blames the wrong person. Its not so hard to understand, first we had huge unemployment rates, then we managed the unemployment rate down to endurable levels with stagnant wages and increased inequality. What a surprise, more nationalism.
I tend to agree with the Schröder/Merkel line anyway. The new EU is so full of uncooperative nations that a cooperative aproach doesnt do any good expect screw the to cooperative countries.


Geoffrey 06.12.10 at 1:33 pm

On Habermas’ remarks regarding religion, see here. The current economic slump is, I think both a crisis and opportunity for European integration. I am neither close enough nor informed enough to comment intelligently on who is right or wrong in this particular argument. Suffice it to say, however, that the submergence of nationalism within a larger European sensibility has been a project of intellectuals and politicians on that continent for centuries. I think the jury is still out.


piglet 06.12.10 at 3:55 pm

Seems to be a typical case of “the old days were so much better”. Not surprising and perhaps understandable for an 80+ year old who flatters himself of having intellectually contributed to those good old times (that Habermas would cite Kohl as a far-sighted model statesman is, however, a bit surprising) but of little use as a contemporary political analysis.


lemuel pitkin 06.13.10 at 12:23 am

So has anyone here read Perry Anderson’s big book on Europe?


piglet 06.13.10 at 2:59 am

Nope. Why you ask?


lemuel pitkin 06.13.10 at 5:02 am

Because it seems like the Milward/Anderson take on Europe — that it has always been driven by purely national interests, a set of traditional diplomatic agreements for which notions of “Europe” as a cultural-popular entity were just a kind of marketing ploy — would be an interesting counterbalance to Habermas’ analysis.

And also, because my mission in life is to encourage CT to engage with thinkers to their collective left and not just their collective right.


John Quiggin 06.13.10 at 6:11 am

As you summarise it, LP, the Milward/Anderson sounds more like old-style international realism than anticapitalist leftism. And what I’ve read of Anderson lately is consistent with that. Of course, there’s a critical edge to it, which is a bit different from the usual international realist celebration of nation-state power, but the suggestion of inevitability is still there.


Guido Nius 06.13.10 at 11:29 am

Lemuel, care to elaborate on why you find that take on Europe to be more relevant than the one expressed by Habermas? Or is you mission in life to just point out what other should read, & not why they should read it.


Maria 06.13.10 at 4:41 pm

I possibly should read the new Perry Anderson, but I saw a review somewhere and it didn’t grab me. It’s quite a few years since I read anything of his that has, though admittedly it’s just been essays in LRB. I don’t personally feel much obligation to ‘keep up’ in this area. Perhaps others do.


piglet 06.13.10 at 5:08 pm

Would you be inclined to explain why you found the interview fascinating?


Maria 06.13.10 at 7:15 pm

I think the sharp generational shift Habermas claims in attitudes about Germany’s best interests is fascinating. Is there really such a strong shift? Is it channeled or enforced by leaders? I don’t know, but I find these fascinating questions to ponder.


Mark Field 06.13.10 at 9:00 pm

I’d be interested in your comments regarding Kenneth Anderson’s post on Habermas at Volokh here.


Guido Nius 06.14.10 at 7:21 am

Mark, thanks. I do hope that this is not the Anderson that lemuel referred to – because I would suppose it is clear that this is a load of …


ejh 06.14.10 at 7:29 am

There’s a clue in the forename.


Guido Nius 06.14.10 at 7:31 am

Not in 6.


ejh 06.14.10 at 7:55 am

Did you try scrolling up to 4? I know it’s a long way, but…


Guido Nius 06.14.10 at 8:42 am

Oops! I stand ashamed.

(but I really would like to get somebody here to say why it is relevant; yeah-yeah – I know I can google it but the interesting thing always is to get somebody over here to reuse her/his effort in having read it and formed an opinion on it)


novakant 06.14.10 at 3:00 pm

its longer term interests as the greatest beneficiary of an effective European Union

I’ve been hearing this for decades now, but is it actually true and how can it be quantified? I have a suspicion that Ireland might have been the greatest beneficiary up until now…


hix 06.14.10 at 4:09 pm

Right, thats a lie, the smaller countries profit more from bigger the economies of scale. If they are shameless, get away with it and start a huge tax evasion industry like Ireland or Luxemburg, they life in paradise. A good example how small nations profit is that the EU implemented the Nordic mobile phone standard in the EU, which lead to global implementation and thus to the rise of Nokia and Erricsson.

Guess the theory is
-Germany is in the center and has an above average world/EU market integration (but thats only true relative to her sice, the small ones are sure more integrated).
-Without the EU there would be some serious tensions between the big nations while the smaller ones could somehow stay neutral or play them out against each other like Switzerland. Next asumption, Germany would look worst.


lemuel pitkin 06.14.10 at 4:35 pm

Honestly, I brought up Anderson partly in hopes of getting an opinion on his work from folks who know European politics better than me.

As for John Q.’s good question of what a realist account of Europe has to do with anti-capitalist leftism, I’d say the answer is this. For folks like Anderson — and me, to the extent I have an opinion — European integration is first and foremost an elite project to do an end-run around the victories of working-class movements following World War II. Unlike their equivalents in the US, European business elites were not able to make a head-on attack on trade unions and the welfare state. The resistance, both parliamentary and extra-, was too strong. So the only way (neo)liberalism could succeed in Europe was on fresh political terrain, less accessible to popular pressure.

This logic visible in the institutions of Europe, where the most powerful and important are also the most liberal and the least democratic. And it’s more or less openly acknowledged by many advocates of integration. Here’s a passage that Anderson that gives a flavor of the argument (and also of Anderson’s inimitable style). He’s responding here to American political scientist Joshua Moravscik, who supports further EU integration.

In its own sphere [claims Moravscik], the EU needs to be shielded from demogogic interference by referenda or other hopeless attempts at direct decision-making. “Forcing participation [in EU governance] is likely to be counterproductive, because the popular response is condemned to be ignorant, irrelevant and ideological.” … As a casuistic for chloroforming any residual trace of popular will, these avowals have the merit of candour. But if the legitimacy of the union does not lie in democracy, what is its raison d’etre? Moravscik’s answer is commendably straightforward: “The EU is overwhelmingly about the promotion of free markets. Its primary interest group support comes from from multinational firms, not least US ones.’ Or more bluntly still: “The EU is basically about business.’ So it should remain. The neoliberal bias of the union is “justified”, for no responsible analyst believes current national welfare systems in Europe are sustainable. Nor can or should they be rearticulated at Union level. “Social Europe” is a chimera.” In its perfect rationality, actually existing Europe is the best of all international regimes.

The last bit is, of course, sarcasm. But it does seem like leftish EU supporters like Habermas tend to acknowledge the neoliberal and anti-democratic character of actually existing Europe, but then to insist that with deeper integration that will all change. And then to get enraged at the popular classes if they fail to accept the “trust us” of the elites, as in the 2005 referenda.


hix 06.14.10 at 5:22 pm

First, not everyone thinks neoliberalism is bad, second Habermas is 100% right that further integration steps would make the EU more social and more democratic. Its not coincidence the the British money elites discover ever bigger dislike for the EU. Market integration is almost done. Thers not much “neoliberal” that could possibly be done. The few market regulations that are still done, for example the AIFM is sure not to the likeing of the right.


chris 06.14.10 at 7:30 pm

First, not everyone thinks neoliberalism is bad

True, but Anderson’s thesis (as presented by pitkin here) is that enough people dissent from neoliberalism that it can only be (further) advanced in arenas that are not subject to popular pressure.

I think there definitely is a school of thought that, e.g., Greeks deserve to be punished for voting themselves bread and circuses, and if that requires antidemocratic institutions, so be it, Greeks aren’t responsible enough to get to vote anyway.

Of course if you conceive of voting for the decisions of your government as a *human right*, then this makes no sense; few, if any, Greeks have done anything sufficiently heinous to warrant disenfranchisement, and _en masse_ disenfranchisement would be an unjust collective punishment at best.


hix 06.14.10 at 7:54 pm

Strawn men. Its the antidemocratic element in the EU that saves Greece. There sure would be no majority in the EU for the current subsidy level to Greece in an opinon poll or an EU wide election.


chris 06.14.10 at 9:34 pm

@23: Barring greater European integration, Greece’s policies don’t need a majority in the EU, only a majority in Greece.


hix 06.15.10 at 3:18 am

And inner Greek democracy is threatend by the EU neolib conspiracy how exactly?


pseud tweedledumb 06.15.10 at 4:38 am

Grignr’s muddled brain reeled from the shock of the blow he had recieved to the base of his skull. The events leading to his predicament were slow to filter back to him. He dickered with the notion that he was dead and had descended or sunk, however it may be, to the shadowed land beyond the the aperature of the grave, but rejected this hypothesis when his memory sifted back within his grips. This was not the land of the dead, it was something infinitely more precarious than anything the grave could offer. Death promised an infinity of peace, not the finite misery of an inactive life of confined torture, forever concealed from the life bearing shafts of the beloved rising sun. The orb that had been before taken for granted, yet now cherished above all else. To be forever refused further glimpses of the snow capped summits of the land of his birth, never again to witness the thrill of plundering unexplored lands beyond the crest of a bleeding horizon, and perhaps worst of all the denial to ever again encompass the lustful excitement of caressing the naked curves of the body of a trim yound wench.


Walt 06.15.10 at 7:02 am

hix, you have it all wrong. It’s Germany that’s the irresponsible party, by running a current account surplus, and through the tight money policies they impose on the ECB. Greece would have been better off if they had never joined the EU, had their own monetary policy, and could impose tariffs.


Guido Nius 06.15.10 at 7:26 am

20- lemuel, thanks.

I don’t know whether Habermas got enraged or not but disregarding the emotional aspect of his reaction, I think his reaction was right. The European Constitution – or whatever it got called to not hurt neo-liberal feelings – was opposed by anti-capitalist left alongside nationalist right. I do think the former opposed it for honourable reasons: the reality of this European Union – as you have Habermas admitting – is anything but commendable, even if it was started on a collectivist basis.

The error in the anti-Habermas point here seems to me to be this one: it makes the EU the cause of neo-liberalism’s spread – or neoliberalism the direct cause of the EU. The latter is historically false so let’s look at the former. Clearly the spread of neo-liberalism was contemporaneous with the growth of the European institutions, but was this more than a co-incidence. I think so – both Reagan and Thatcher were outside of the EU, I haven’t seen Hayek or Mises applauding the first (collectivist) stages of European integration and so on and so forth. What did happen is that this Union grew in an otherwise already neo-liberally dominated world – & that the second motion of its growth was therefore neoliberal (even if, with Thatcher on the outside, the European elite on the inside was decidedly on a Rhineland line which can be said to be many things but not at all a neo-liberal line).

As the anti-capitalist left at least in Europe seems to be realizing, Habermas was right after all: if there is one way in which we can stop things like Ireland and Iceland from happening and things like global financial fraud from spreading, we need to act from, at least, a European base. That’s not an elite project unless you believe that anybody holding a degree (and therefore capabale of helping the European model to be adopted world-wide) is suspect for ‘the workers’.

It is surprising that there is still, post-financial crisis, an analysis of Europe from the left that is, basically, repeating the “divide et impera”-tactics of the conservative right.

It is, in fact, a bummer. If I were Habermas I would be enraged at so much dogmatic leftism.


VV 06.15.10 at 7:57 am

“Greece would have been better off if they had never joined the EU, had their own monetary policy, and could impose tariffs.”

This is very unclear. Greece and Greeks benefited significantly from the common currency via easy money that helped build roads and hospitals and buy lots and lots of Porsche Cayennes and Mercedes E-class. We made stupid use of much of that easy money obviously, but we can’t blame the single currency. And given the government’s profligacy and huge irresponsibility, we would today be faced with a 30%+ devaluation of the drachma and similar difficulty of access to world markets. One upside might be much less scrutiny by the rating agencies due to the less perceived (and real?) importance to the international financial order.

The idea behind not joining the euro is that it would give us and our politicians less rope to hang ourselves. It is probably true, but what an argument!


VV 06.15.10 at 8:05 am

@Guido Nius: What it seems you’re saying is that any other alternative than further European integration is bad for a non-neolib agenda at the European level. What lemuel seems to be saying is that existing evidence shows that European integration proceeds in a way that empowers elites at the expense of European populations and that can’t be good for a non-neolib agenda.

If you are both right, that isn’t very good…


Henri Vieuxtemps 06.15.10 at 8:07 am

“Anti-capitalist left” is too wide a category. Just like the “pro-capitalist right” can be global-neoliberal or nationalist, “anti-capitalist left” includes both vanguardism and anarcho-syndicalism.


Guido Nius 06.15.10 at 12:35 pm

VV- except that it is not so that the evidence shows that Europe is good for a neolib agenda – if it were one would expect AngloSaxon neolibs to support integration which they don’t (and as you probably know continental neolibs have gone from hard-to-find to a contradictio in terminis, if you are at least not so dogmatic as to label anything left of the extreme left as neolib)


chris 06.15.10 at 2:18 pm

@25: To the extent that the actions of the democratically elected Greek government are constrained by nondemocratic, or less democratic, whole-EU institutions that demand neoliberalism whether the Greeks like it or not. Essentially the same thing the IMF is accused of doing in the third world.


lemuel pitkin 06.15.10 at 3:27 pm

it is not so that the evidence shows that Europe is good for a neolib agenda – if it were one would expect AngloSaxon neolibs to support integration which they don’t

No. Let me try to clarify. Alan Milward’s argument (in The European Rescue of the Nation State and elsewhere) is that European integration is not an autonomous process with its own logic, but that the development of the EU has always been governed by national governments pursuing national aims. In that sense the EU is no different from other inter-state bodies. (Which does not mean it doesn’t subsequently constrain national actors, just as other diplomatic arrangements do.)

Perry Anderson then picks this up and adds that the most important concrete national-level agenda (which he sees as carried more by wealth-owning elites rather than states as such) is the imposition of neoliberal reforms that cannot be achieved through the national legislative process due to popular resistance. In other words, those in control of the state seek to deliberately limit their future freedom of action so that the EU can force them to do what they would be unable to do themselves. As Chris says, it’s the same reason that elites in poor countries accept IMF tutelage. Or on the flipside, the same reason that in the US, where working-class movements are much weaker than Europe, response to the crisis has been much more vigorous and less constrained by orthodoxy.

The logic of this argument suggests that it is elites in precisely the least liberal countries, and especially those with strong working-class movements, that would embrace Europe most strongly. And contrary to the quote above, disinterest in the EU among elites in more neoliberal countries is just what you would expect in this story — they don’t need to pay the costs of integration in order to defeat popular movements.

I think part of the confusion here comes from the tendency in these discussions to treat countries as unitary actors. To the extent that the evolution of the EU has been shaped by conflicts within states, if you’re asking e.g. if “Greece” is a winner or loser, you’re not looking where the action is.


hix 06.15.10 at 8:45 pm


Greece is a major beneficiary of EU aid, equal to about 3.3% of annual GDP. The Greek economy grew by nearly 4.0% per year between 2003 and 2007,

Besides, its the EU that stabiliced Greek democracy in the first place.

Tip: For nationalist anti EU rethoric, its much better to target the poor in rich EU countries. The trick is to frame the EU as an entity that has to be bought for the profit of the rich with transfer payments to the poorer nations while the poor in rich countries have to pay the bill anyway without any gains.


hix 06.15.10 at 8:55 pm

hix, you have it all wrong.

I agree, that if we would just inflate away all debt , Greece gains would exceed the gains from transfer payments. Sure that would be some fair democratic deal if Greek with a 90% of gdp in net foreign debt and Americans with some 30% would endorse that as a hallmark of democracy :-).

Next: Why cant every debtor just seceed and start a staate on his own where he decides that he doesnt have to pay back his debt.


Henri Vieuxtemps 06.15.10 at 9:15 pm

@35 For nationalist anti EU rethoric, its much better to target the poor in rich EU countries.

Nah, I think LP nailed it. Reminded me of Chomsky’s anti-MAI articles from the 90s; see this one, for example:

QUESTION: You’ve emphasized the involvement of national governments within this process, but isn’t that ironic given the fact that the MAI severely undermines the sovereignty of nation-states?

CHOMSKY: That’s on purpose. The leaders of the national governments want to undermine their sovereignty. Remember what a government is. It’s not a government of the people. It’s a government of powerful interests. …


piglet 06.15.10 at 11:23 pm

Thanks lemuel for pointing this out:

I think part of the confusion here comes from the tendency in these discussions to treat countries as unitary actors. To the extent that the evolution of the EU has been shaped by conflicts within states, if you’re asking e.g. if “Greece” is a winner or loser, you’re not looking where the action is.


hix 06.15.10 at 11:43 pm

Chomsky goes more along the lines poor rich nation underclass exploited by free trade. Those that insiniate how the EU only helps the Greek elites should do a lot of explaining how the bottom say 30% would be better off without the EU. This is a country that solved the distribution issue with a military coup in favour of the rich in pre EU times.


Guido Nius 06.16.10 at 7:26 am

Hey lemuel, I respect that analysis as I think it is a good one on how elites can and have turned democracy inside out supporting a small selectorate of happy few candidates out of which we – the electorate – can choose the ‘most popular’. The outcome of this is that we think we have the choice but that the capitalist elite finally determines with what a flavour they protect their own interest.

I think it is particularly fair to attribute the impact of this on supranational affairs.

But if we are to accept this analysis it rather supports the reading of Habermas that it is through nationalism and resistance to share sovereignty that neolibs will want to control evolution. And it can be made to support my thesis that, whatever the independent single actions, the European integration defines a playing field with a dynamic that’s essentially anti-neolib (because the field allows to consider chasing capital for taxes in places that were previously de facto impossible to attain or it allows to have action on synchronized labour conditions that were previously matter of competition between countries). It is quite possible that the mediatized decisions have been a large part in neolib EU decisions (because that is where the nationalist capital can agree at all) & that at the same time the non-mediatized long term evolution is social (which is commensurate with the fear and loathing the EU gets from all the right wing because it will ‘control’ and blabla, the same blabla that Tea Party people blabla about all things ‘federal’).

Personally, I think the reading of Habermas is more radical and more left wing than the one you are advancing on Anderson’s behalf. The former things that when we unite internationally, we’ll be able to advance; the latter just throws up the hands in the air and goes sulking in a corner and (with too much emotion) romantically starts thinking about blowing up stuff.

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