Jürgen Habermas, the last European

Jürgen Habermas has had enough. The philosopher is doing all he can these days to call attention to what he sees as the demise of the European ideal. He hopes he can help save it -- from inept politicians and the dark forces of the market.

Published on 2 December 2011 at 15:31

Jürgen Habermas is angry. He's really angry. He is nothing short of furious -- because he takes it all personally. He bangs on the table and yells: "Enough already!" He simply has no desire to see Europe consigned to the dustbin of world history.

"I'm speaking here as a citizen," he says. "I would rather be sitting back home at my desk, believe me. But this is too important. Everyone has to understand that we have critical decisions facing us. That's why I'm so involved in this debate. The European project can no longer continue in elite modus." Enough already! Europe is his project. It is the project of his generation.

Jürgen Habermas, 82, wants to get the word out. He's sitting on stage at the Goethe Institute in Paris. Usually he says clever things like: "In this crisis, functional and systematic imperatives collide" -- referring to sovereign debts and the pressure of the markets. Sometimes he shakes his head in consternation and says: "It's simply unacceptable, simply unacceptable" -- referring to the EU diktat and Greece's loss of national sovereignty.

"No convictions"

And then he's really angry again: "I condemn the political parties. Our politicians have long been incapable of aspiring to anything whatsoever other than being re-elected. They have no political substance whatsoever, no convictions." It's in the nature of this crisis that philosophy and bar-room politics occasionally find themselves on an equal footing.

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Habermas wants to get his message out. That's why he's sitting here. That's why he has just written a book -- a "booklet," as he calls it -- which the respected German weekly Die Zeit promptly compared with Immanuel Kant's 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. But does he have an answer to the question of which road democracy and capitalism should take?

A quiet coup d'état

"Zur Verfassung Europas" ("On Europe's Constitution") is the name of his new book, which is basically a long essay in which he describes how the essence of our democracy has changed under the pressure of the crisis and the frenzy of the markets. Habermas says that power has slipped from the hands of the people and shifted to bodies of questionable democratic legitimacy, such as the European Council. Basically, he suggests, the technocrats have long since staged a quiet coup d'état.

Habermas refers to the system that Merkel and Sarkozy have established during the crisis as a "post-democracy." The European Parliament barely has any influence. The European Commission has "an odd, suspended position," without really being responsible for what it does. Most importantly, however, he points to the European Council, which was given a central role in the Lisbon Treaty -- one that Habermas views as an "anomaly." He sees the Council as a "governmental body that engages in politics without being authorized to do so."

At this point, it should be mentioned that Habermas is no malcontent, no pessimist, no prophet of doom -- he's a virtually unshakable optimist, and this is what makes him such a rare phenomenon in Germany.

Habermas truly believes in the rationality of the people. He truly believes in the old, ordered democracy. He truly believes in a public sphere that serves to make things better.

A vision of Europe at the crossroads

This also explains why he gazed happily at the audience on this mid-November evening in Paris. While the activists of the Occupy movement refuse to formulate even a single clear demand, Habermas spells out precisely why he sees Europe as a project for civilization that must not be allowed to fail, and why the "global community" is necessary to reconcile democracy with capitalism.

On the other hand, they are not so far apart after all, the live-stream revolutionaries from Occupy and the book-writing philosopher. It's basically a division of labor -- between analog and digital, between debate and action.

"Sometime after 2008," says Habermas over a glass of white wine after the debate, "I understood that the process of expansion, integration and democratization doesn't automatically move forward of its own accord, that it's reversible, that for the first time in the history of the EU, we are actually experiencing a dismantling of democracy. I didn't think this was possible. We've reached a crossroads."

"The political elite have actually no interest in explaining to the people that important decisions are made in Strasbourg; they are only afraid of losing their own power," he says. This is important to understanding why he takes the topic of Europe so personally. It has to do with the evil Germany of yesteryear and the good Europe of tomorrow, with the transformation of past to future, with a continent that was once torn apart by guilt -- and is now torn apart by debt.

There is an alternative

His vision is as follows: "The citizens of each individual country, who until now have had to accept how responsibilities have been reassigned across sovereign borders, could as European citizens bring their democratic influence to bear on the governments that are currently acting within a constitutional gray area."

This is Habermas's main point and what has been missing from the vision of Europe: a formula for what is wrong with the current construction. He doesn't see the EU as a commonwealth of states or as a federation but, rather, as something new.

It is a legal construct that the peoples of Europe have agreed upon in concert with the citizens of Europe -- we with ourselves, in other words -- in a dual form and omitting each respective government. This naturally removes Merkel and Sarkozy's power base, but that's what he's aiming for anyway.

There is an alternative, he says, there is another way aside from the creeping shift in power that we are currently witnessing. The media "must" help citizens understand the enormous extent to which the EU influences their lives. The politicians "would" certainly understand the enormous pressure that would fall upon them if Europe failed. The EU "should" be democratized.

"If the European project fails," he says, "then there is the question of how long it will take to reach the status quo again. Remember the German Revolution of 1848: When it failed, it took us 100 years to regain the same level of democracy as before."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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