A couple of weeks ago the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas stood before a hot, crowded lecture hall at the Goethe Institute in Paris, banged his fist on a table, and shouted, “enough already!” He was referring to the current state of Europe and its slide, as he sees it, into undemocratic forms of rule. It would have been astonishing to hear Habermas raise his voice if the hall was on fire, so clearly the “post-democracy” that  Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have forged has driven him around the bend. 

If Walter Benjamin is the great romantic of the Franfurt School, Habermas is its anti-romantic. His best-known book is The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which has long influenced me. (The Public Sphere section of this blog is inspired by Habermas’s book.) In this work he expanded upon  Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis of the culture industry, historicizing it and draining it of Adorno’s trademark gloom and pessimism. Where Horkheimer and Adorno saw giant corporation turning culture into a means of manipulation and repression–Mickey Mouse as hegemon–Habermas sees a breakdown of individual participation in political and cultural debates in the public sphere. Corporations and other entrenched powers may distort and confuse debate, but they’re not irredeemable threats to modernity. 

JuergenHabermasIn his latest book, however, Habermas tilts toward Horkheimer and Adorno’s skeptical view of Western culture. The argument of  Zur Verfassung Europas (On Europe’s Constitution) is that the great experiment in European unity is at a crossroads, undermined by market frenzy and political spinelessness. Institutions of questionable legality, controlled by unelected technocrats, have taken control of the continent’s political economy. He wants the future of Europe to be in the hands of what he calls the “global community,” by which he means, presumably, the citizens of Europe. In other words, the immensely frustrated citizens of Greece should have a voice in the debate about what to do about the debt crisis–as opposed to being reduced to caricatures of Southern fecklessness.

Habermas is a believer in a united Europe. He sees it as a project worth pursuing. However, he regards the democratic underpinnings of the union as critically endangered. He concluded his Paris lecture with this warning: “If the European project fails, 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.”

Just as the U.S. isn’t immune to the economic crises of Europe, we’re not immune to its political crises. In fact, we may be out in front of Europe in the development of a post-democracy.

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1 Comment

  1. This is interesting. I have several German web-pages about the changing democracy in Germany and Europe, i.e. (“afterdemocracy”) or (“democracy-is-important”), and I read a lot of German blogs and a good part of the German online press. But due to the language barrier and the affinity to ‘the German viewpoint’, English web-pages like these have mostly evaded me, and that will be the same for many. Which, I would think, gives a good head-start and competitive advantage to those who think multinational, probably mostly big media companies like Bertelsmann and all those spin-doctors. It’s a kind of pre-existent ‘divide et impera’. On holiday in England a short while ago, I had a breakfast-talk with a nice English couple staying at a B&B, and they told me about the changing England, pseudo-politics, debts, privatisation, surveillance infrastructure, everybody blaming the Greeks, etc., and I suddenly realised: This is happening everywhere! And those who make it happen know that, but those whom it happens to think it’s mostly a view of their own country. And I’m not talking about the petty bourgeois who carry it without understanding or caring for the consequences. At least in Germany, with the history of the Nazi-time and East Germany, it seems we learned little to nothing. Pretty scary and Orwellian. Even the fact that typing this makes me realise somebody paid to read this may do just that is scary. But if we are that far down the road, it is even more necessary to post and blog and voice ones opinion, I think. After all, we are not living in a state like North Korea or China. Yet.


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