Habermas and Europe

by Henry on June 14, 2010

According to Kenneth Anderson

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.

A very considerable part of Habermas’ intellectual project over the last few years has been exactly to come up with a form of patriotism which is distinct from nationalism. Habermas dubs this “constitutional patriotism” – and while it is not intended to overcome existing forms of nationalism, it is intended to temper them, and to make them non-exclusive. As it happens, one of the sources that Habermas draws on for this is US constitutional politics (he is also interested in the Swiss model). I suspect Anderson hasn’t actually read much Habermas, or he wouldn’t be mischaracterizing Habermas’ work so badly in a failed effort to score a cheap debating point against ‘American intellectual elites.’ It is entirely possible that Habermas’ ideas won’t work – but it is emphatically clear that Habermas does disentangle patriotism and nationalism from each other as intellectual concepts, and that this distinction is at the heart of the broader project on which this essay draws. You might expect someone making grand claims about European intellectuals and their slavish American sycophants to actually know this. You’d be wrong.

This said, I don’t actually agree with Habermas here. Partly this is because I am a pragmatist rather than an idealist. But also, in large part, because I’m pretty skeptical about the potential for deliberative exchange to produce wide-reaching political agreement. Habermas seems to be hankering for a political party (and associated deliberative process) that would lead people to reach a consensus that we are all Europeans now.

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).

I just don’t think that this is how democratic politics works – or should work. Democracy is about contention rather than reaching a happy-clappy consensus. My best guess (which is to say that I think this is right, but to make a plausible case I would have to make serious arguments rather than just wave my hands around) is that the moment when (if) an actual European polity will be created, will not be the moment when European publics, led by their elites, realize that they are actually Europeans. It will be the moment at which self-interested political parties, rather than arguing and picking petty squabbles about whether ‘we’ should all be Europeans or not, start arguing and picking petty squabbles about what kind of Europeans ‘we’ should be. In other words, Europe is never going to work as a broad consensus underpinned by processes of debate leading to the construction of a ‘democratic will.’ But it might possibly work as a space for faction, conflict and infighting – just the way that national processes work. How you get to this point, I don’t know. But I don’t think deliberation will have much to do with it.

Update: Kenneth Anderson updates his post to respond. I’m happy to withdraw the suggestion that he hasn’t read much Habermas and to apologize for it. I read his text as saying that Habermas couldn’t make any distinction between patriotism rather than that Anderson found his distinction unsatisfactory – but I should have refrained from the snark. That said, I still don’t think that the comment does justice to Habermas here (and I write this as someone who doesn’t buy into the Habermasian project). There is a quite clear and intellectually sustainable difference between constitutional patriotism as Habermas conceives of it and nationalism. It may very likely be that constitutional patriotism is too weak a reed to build a thick political identity around. But that seems to me to be a different question to whether one can sustain a difference between nationalism and patriotism in Habermas’ thought at all.

{ 25 comments }

1

Matt 06.14.10 at 3:44 pm

I was pretty surprised by this remark by Anderson, too, and also thought it indicated he either hadn’t read much Habermas, at least his work from the last 30 years or so, or else really misunderstood what he was up to. For people interested in the “Constitutional Patriotism” idea, I’d recommend the very nice (and not too long) book by the same name by Jan Werner-Muller, a political theorist at Princeton. It’s a very nice and helpful book on the idea, building on and developing the Habermasian idea, but with less dedication to the rest of Habermas’s machinery.

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JM 06.14.10 at 4:11 pm

You might expect someone making grand claims about European intellectuals and their slavish American sycophants to actually know this.

Ignorance is one of the chief reasons why attempts to smear American intellectual elites with otherwise unrecognizable caricatures of Europeans are so far-fetched, ill-suited, and ultimately ugly.

3

Bloix 06.14.10 at 4:21 pm

“Democracy is about contention rather than reaching a happy-clappy consensus.”

Democracy succeeds when there is consensus about the most important issues. It fails when there is no such consensus. As long as there is a broad area of consensus, the losing side on any specific issue is willing to put up with having their desires frustrated. But if the underlying consensus fails, democracy fails. Without consensus, why should a losing minority accept some intolerable state of affairs just because 50% plus one of the people in some arbitrarily defined geographical area want them to? Very often, they refuse to do so.

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novakant 06.14.10 at 5:16 pm

You can only have contention in any meaningful sense of the word, if you have a clue what you’re voting for or against – otherwise you’re left with petty ressentiment. And the latter is a constant threat to the process of EU integration.

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Bloix 06.14.10 at 6:06 pm

BTW how does a happy-clappy consensus differ from a sober-sided consensus? I have to say that my hackles bristled at happy-clappy the same way that they do at hopey-changey and lucky duckies and all the rest of that sneering mindless right-wing baby talk.

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hix 06.14.10 at 6:14 pm

Bloix is right, shorter: Why cant every parliament be like the British one, the Suiss are fools. This sound just like distinction about form, not substance.

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Bloix 06.14.10 at 7:02 pm

The people of the Swiss Confederation (to use its formal name) have an extraordinarily strong national consensus on a large number of key issues: historical identity, strict political and economic neutrality, strong support for compulsory national military service, to name a few. Nonetheless, the country does not attempt to have a national consensus on many issues – that’s what it means to be a confederation. Switzerland has 26 cantons, each with its own executive, legislature, and judiciary, and each with the power to tax. The national government has a number of anti-democratic features designed to assure that it will not infringe on the independence of the cantons. Most importantly, it has a bicameral legislature, one house of which represents the cantons; its executive is elected by the legislature, not by popular vote; and constitutional amendments require approval of a majority of cantons.

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alex 06.14.10 at 7:12 pm

Those features are only ‘antidemocratic’ if you cleave to a narrow, process-based, tyranny-of-the-majority definition of ‘democracy’, which I thought we weren’t, here?

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VV 06.14.10 at 7:35 pm

“its executive is elected by the legislature, not by popular vote”

This is anti-democratic how exactly? Isn’t this the norm of representative democracy?

I agree with #3,#4 though: you can’t have democracy without consensus about fundamentals, including the fundamental of how the democratic polity is formed, how the body politic is held together (except by “random” borders). I thought that was at the core of the Habermasian project.

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Bloix 06.14.10 at 7:47 pm

The whole point of federal or confederal systems is that there are units in which consensus on a range of issues is possible. Then, in order to protect these local consensus-building units from encroachments from the national level, you structure the national government in a way that’s not optimal for democracy (e.g. by introducing a bicameral legislature). Henry is arguing that consensus isn’t necessary to a European-wide democracy. I’m arguing that it is, and that in order to maintain the degree of consensus required for stability, many states have chosen to compromise on democratic principles.

Switzerland, btw, is a poor model for Henry’s argument. If there’s one thing that the Swiss agree on, it’s that they are Swiss, in a much stronger way than Flemings are Belgian or Sicilians are Italian. Yet they have built a system that moves much of the “space for faction, conflict and infighting” far down from the national to the cantonal level. Why would Greeks and Scots and Poles want to join in a single “space for faction, conflict and infighting” if they haven’t first come to realize that they are all “actually Europeans”?

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Bloix 06.14.10 at 7:54 pm

VV – it’s anti-democratic because the legislature as a whole – including the canton-based upper house – elects the executive. The Swiss cantons range in population from over a million to 15,000 (don’t quote me on the numbers, but the order of magnitude is about right), so the system grossly inflates the votes of the residents of the smaller cantons. The big cities are in the populous cantons, so the national government tends to be more rural-minded and conservative than the populace as a whole. That’s a common fault of federal systems.

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lemuel pitkin 06.14.10 at 8:23 pm

Those features are only ‘antidemocratic’ if you cleave to a narrow, process-based, tyranny-of-the-majority definition of ‘democracy’, which I thought we weren’t, here?

I hope we aren’t, also. But the flip side is that the same kind of institutions that are compatible with a high level of substantive democracy in Switzerland (or not; I know zilch about Swiss politics) can be profoundly anti-democratic at a European level.

One gets the feeling sometimes that liberals like Habermas think that the egalitarian income distribution and politics of Europe came about through some some kind of public debate and consensus, or was just derived from first principles. It wasn’t. It’s the result of massive, often bloody struggles from the late 19th century through much of the 20th. If working people in Europe have a larger share in national income, a louder voice in national politics, and more secure access to public goods, it’s because they fought (and died) for them. They were greatly aided in this fight by the first and especially second world wars, which disorganized and discredited the old ruling classes in a way that didn’t happen in the US. The result of this history is a combination of political institutions and political culture that continue to give working people a substantial voice in politics, and make it very hard to roll back social protections despite the near-consensus among European elites on the desirability of moving toward the American model. There is no question that a major motivation of the European project is to insulate politics from popular pressure. In this sense it’s it’s an inherently anti-democratic process. Formally similar institutions could be compatible with substantive democracy in a different historical context, and for that matter the current process of European integration would look quite different if it was taking place against a backdrop of popular mobilization.

In general, Marxists share a a great deal of positive ideas about the good society with someone like Habermas, at least within the horizon of the foreseeably possible. But what’s so frustrating to us is that he thinks that good society is the work of bien-pensants like himself. He’s completely forgotten the liberal order he’s defending was carried into existence on the shoulders of working people and their struggles.

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hix 06.14.10 at 8:52 pm

My point was that Switzerland is next a couple of other unusual features a consensus democracy while Britain is a very extreme opposition/government confrontation democracy. That doesnt seem to change that much of the substance in politics. So i dont see a substancial difference between Habermas and Henry here, expect that Henry prefers British form over Suiss form.

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Bloix 06.14.10 at 10:54 pm

And to add to lemuel pitkin’s valuable contribution, I’ll say something he will no doubt disagree with:

Before the 19th and 20th century struggles he refers to, there were 17th and 18th century struggles that resulted in the relatively uniform ethnic composition of the states of western Europe that became the model for modern states. Thereafter, in the west, most ethnic conflict was inter-state conflict, while intra-state conflict was class conflict. Thus, in the west, during the era of the development of the modern welfare state, when there was a proposal for a state-sponsored social program – pensions, health benefits, maternity leave – everyone with a vote was aware that they were voting for programs for people like them. You didn’t have the knee-jerk racism that sidelined so many efforts at better social welfare in the US.

But in a single unified Europe, would Germans really vote to increase retirement benefits for Greeks and Poles?

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Henry 06.15.10 at 12:52 am

What Lemuel says, with a theoretical spin – which is that I think (a) that genuine political change usually comes about as a result of contention rather than deliberation, and (b) that democracy is best described as a situation of _contained_ clashes of irreconcilable interest than something which has the possibility of creating a genuine, rich consensus of the kind that many deliberation theorists would like. And when I say “happy clappy” I am referring to the ways in which many (not all) deliberation theorists wish away political contention, inability to agree etc in their ideal vision of politics. If the European Union is going to become something more than it is, it will not be as a result of political elites being brave enough to tell their publics that they need to eat up their European greens, however unpalatable they will seem. It will be as a result of political struggles shifting upwards, so that battles of the kind that Lemuel describes take place at the European rather than national level.

Ernest Gellner (I think – at least I have been attributing this to him for years) remarks somewhere that the moment when the Austro-Hungarian empire was really screwed wasn’t when various national groups started complaining more vigorously to the center about how badly they were being treated – it was when these groups stopped complaining and started to organize themselves at the level of the national polities. If the EU is to become a thick political space, it will need to have the Austro-Hungarian moment in reverse. So what I am saying I suppose is that the political level that ‘matters’ is not usually a product of elite reflection, but rather is a kind of by-product of social and political processes of contention.

All the reflection groups in the world cannot whistle a thick European political identity into being – but one might emerge as a distillate of conflict, if the important conflicts start taking place at the European rather than the national level, and people start identifying with this or that group, which is seeking to define Europe as a social democratic space, as a space governed primarily by free markets or what have you. At this point people will find it easier to think of themselves as European – because the important social and political conflicts are happening at the European level.

16

VV 06.15.10 at 7:38 am

“At this point people will find it easier to think of themselves as European – because the important social and political conflicts are happening at the European level.”

I doubt that this is enough and tend to agree with Bloix (and apparently Habermas) that this has the order backwards. This says nothing unfortunately about the process of producing a common identity, and there I agree with Henry that it won’t be created top-down…. Is Habermas really claiming the opposite though? Apart from an understandable desire to believe that philosophers and political scientists will carry the day with their wisdom :-) which part of his project implies that the deliberative process will involve elites telling people to “eat their European greens”?

17

a.y.mous 06.15.10 at 10:25 am

So in order to have Oceanians thinks themselves has Oceanians, they have to first identify Eurasians (or was it the Eastasians?)? At the scale of the EU, what else can form a cohesive idea for the proles? There was this long thread on ethnicity here at CT and even upthread the comments on violence as the deciding factor in union building. So, Carthago delenda est. Which makes it a full circle, even personally, what with my sig online in the early days was mons montis quod flumen.

18

chris 06.15.10 at 3:56 pm

But in a single unified Europe, would Germans really vote to increase retirement benefits for Greeks and Poles?

They’d have to have some kind of equal protection clause that prevented them from slashing Greeks’ and Poles’ retirement benefits without also slashing their own, otherwise an EU government couldn’t possibly avoid degenerating into international (intra-union) economic warfare. Everyone except Greeks would probably vote to cut retirement benefits for Greeks, if they could. But this isn’t normally considered a legitimate democratic move even if it musters a majority, under modern understandings of democracy — it’s pretty much a textbook example of tyranny of the majority.

If all three nations are participating in a common decision on what retirement benefits should be for all three nations, the majority view in one nation might well lose, but they would have to accept that loss as legitimate under EU-wide democracy, in order for the EU-wide government to function.

I think it’s important not to essentialize nations too much, though. Even though fiscal austerity might be popular in the corridors of power in Germany, there’s probably still a fair number of Germans on the street who don’t want to see social spending cuts, particularly if they and the Greeks are in the same boat. (German retirees seeing themselves as having more in common with Greek retirees than with German captains of industry is probably the kind of condition Habermas was thinking of in the first place.)

P.S. I should probably admit that I have a pre-existing bias against the idea that the real problem with economic situation X is that workers just make too darn much money. ISTM that it is almost always advanced by people with a financial interest in one of the nonworker slices of the pie (management or capital) who are seeking to profit (more) at worker expense, so I distrust it whenever it pops up (which is often).

19

Bloix 06.15.10 at 10:21 pm

Chris – I was not being clear. I wasn’t proposing that Germans could vote to cut benefits for Greeks only.

Aside from our grotesquely anti-democratic Senate, the next largest obstacle to social welfare programs in the US is the racism, conscious or unconscious, of many voters. Every proposed government provision of services runs into the argument that it’s more of “our” money being given as hand-outs to “them.” These racist appeals work even though “we” would benefit from the services as much as “they” do. You can see this sort of voting against self-interest all through American history and it’s still powerful, as in the Tea Party opposition to health care reform.

In a united Europe, I was wondering, would Germans vote for increased social spending for unfortunates who also are German, even if they knew that those lazy Greeks would also have the right to it.

20

piglet 06.15.10 at 11:47 pm

The whole point of federal or confederal systems is that there are units in which consensus on a range of issues is possible. Then, in order to protect these local consensus-building units from encroachments from the national level, you structure the national government in a way that’s not optimal for democracy (e.g. by introducing a bicameral legislature).

Doesn’t make sense to me. Why should there be a contradiction (or tradeoff) between democracy and local self-rule? Perhaps it is the latter that is “optimal for democracy”, or more to the point, perhaps what is “optimal for democracy” isn’t the same in Switzerland or Germany as in France or Britain?

21

chris 06.16.10 at 2:08 pm

In a united Europe, I was wondering, would Germans vote for increased social spending for unfortunates who also are German, even if they knew that those lazy Greeks would also have the right to it.

Good question, but ISTM that Habermas is saying that if they won’t, then the EU can’t work. (By that logic, the US can’t work; whether this is a refutation or not is left up to the judgment of the reader.) If Germans reduce Greeks to a stereotype and vote against them on that basis (or for that matter vice versa), then there isn’t enough Euro-identity for the EU to be a viable political unit. It’s only if German retirees and Greek retirees can form a common retirees’ interest group that is more important to them than their national identities that it makes sense to put Germany and Greece in the same polity.

22

piglet 06.16.10 at 9:52 pm

Some news from Germany for whoever cares: A new study found that during 2000-2006, inequality in Germany has increased at higher rates than anywhere in the developed world. That would mean, if true, that Schroeder bested Bush in class warfare. Quite depressing.

Meanwhile, the current government is at 12% popularity. They are currently planning outrageous additional welfare cuts while rejecting any suggestion of raising taxes for the rich. Whether they can push that through in the current climate remains to be seen.

http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/interviewhartmann100.html

23

polyorchnid octopunch 06.17.10 at 1:14 am

You should read some John Ralston Saul, if you haven’t already. I’d particularly like to point you to “Reflections of a Siamese Twin”, about Canada and its relations with the US, and the idea of postmodern civilization; Canada is unique in North America as having arrived through the process of negotiation among three cultures, none of which could become dominant at the time: English, French, and First Nations.

I’d also recommend The Doubter’s Companion. It’s a dictionary, and very entertaining.

24

piglet 06.17.10 at 3:27 am

“Canada is unique in North America as having arrived through the process of negotiation among three cultures”

That’s a bit of a stretch don’t you think? There was quite a bit of violence and domination before there was “negotiation among three cultures”. Canada is certainly special but don’t idealize too much.

25

polyorchnid octopunch 06.17.10 at 4:29 pm

@piglet: You can go read the book and judge his analysis for yourself, if you care to.

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