Peace Through Conversation

March 1, 2005 Topic: Society Regions: Central EuropeEurope

Peace Through Conversation

Mini Teaser: Europe's favorite philosopher, Jürgen Habermas has invented a new Weltpolitik: If we talk long enough, we'll all agree.

by Author(s): David Martin Jones

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate." Thus the captain of prison 36 addresses the eponymous hero of Stuart Rosenberg's 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke after his failed attempt to escape from the prison chain gang.

Jürgen Habermas, Germany's leading public intellectual, would endorse the prison captain's insight but not his response (which in Luke's case entailed more physical punishment). Indeed, Habermas's most recent pronouncements on the globe's current difficulties--from burgeoning inequality and environmental degradation to the Iraq War and transnational terrorism--argue that all these problems would be best addressed through a process of uncoerced communication. Rational deliberation would lead to agreement on a set of universal norms that all partiescould accept and follow. Their application could be mediated through a reformed United Nations resembling a parliament of world citizens. In the words engraved above the BBC's Broadcasting House: "Nation shall speak peace unto nation"--except that there would be no nations either, but global citizens.

Given his understanding of this progressively evolving global cosmopolitanism, Habermas regards the events of September 11 (although "monstrous") as the consequence of "the spiral of violence [that] begins as a spiral of distorted communication." He further contends that the "hegemonic" and "unilateral" intervention of the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq is a cause of further miscommunication and escalating global violence. How did he come to such an understanding of national and international politics? And why are his numerous works regarded with reverence not only among left-leaning social scientists from Aberystwyth to Zurich, but also by the German foreign minister and the new bureaucratic class that manages European integration?

To explore this strange marriage between a pedantic German academic idealism and the Eurocratic elite's increasing preoccupation with "an emerging global public sphere [and] a new universalist . . . order" of world citizens, let us trace the intellectual evolution of Europe's most "passionate public intellectual."

The Life and Times of a Frankfurter

Jürgen Habermas was born in 1929 in a small town in Germany. Growing up in the Third Reich left the young Jürgen with an enduring suspicion of the nation-state, the German disposition to authoritarianism, and conservative thought in general. The events of his adolescence added an ambivalent respect for the United States and its imposition upon the infant West German republic in 1945 of a constitution guaranteeing democratic rights. These influences molded his subsequent political thought, which projects onto a universal canvas his profound anxiety about Germany and its modern fate. These anxieties are mixed with often bitter reflections upon the evolution of German philosophy and its shift from 18th-century Enlightenment rationalism to an irrationalism whose exponents in the 1930s, like Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, gave intellectual credibility to the Third Reich. In order to negate this past and its possible influence on the future, Habermas seeks to revive in Germany, Europe and ultimately the world the more progressive aspects of the German Enlightenment, from Kant through Marx to Habermas himself. Habermas sees his mission--and that of the cosmopolitan intellectual everywhere--as being to inculcate a rational spirit of criticism that endorses constitutionalism and radical democracy but exposes the injustices of capitalism, globalization and the market. He considers the norms that emerge from this deliberative procedure the basis for a moral and just world society.

Educated at Göttingen and Bonn universities, Habermas came to prominence in the mid-1950s as the leading second-generation exponent of the Marxist-flavored Frankfurt school of critical theory. Unlike the first generation Frankfurters, who included Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, and unlike a later generation of French post-structuralist thinkers, whose work rejected science and reason as carriers of liberation, Habermas remained committed to what he terms "the unfinished project of modernity."

Because modernity is unfinished, Habermas can endorse those of its features compatible with critical theory, while exposing those that obstruct progress to a more just state of affairs. He agrees, for instance, with Kant's argument that modernity entails release from the self-incurred tutelage of tradition and its progressive replacement by the rule of reason. Kant thought that history revealed a developmental process from self-determining nation-states to universal perpetual peace between equal ethical commonwealths regulated internally and externally by law. Habermas endorses this teleology. But he seeks to demonstrate its emergence in terms of communication,rather than through "an untenable philosophy of history."

As Habermas tells it, the Enlightenment opened a space for criticism to flourish free from political intimidation. This public sphere's emergence--but also its potential for manipulation by the developing administrative power of the modern state--forms the subject of his dissertation upon The Limitations of the Public Sphere (1962). Here and in his subsequent work, Habermas shifts ambiguously between a positive assessment of the liberal project that treats government as a human contrivance for the satisfaction of human wants, and a negative view of "strategic" or instrumental reason that orchestrates the alienating administrative organization of the modern state. Habermas shares with the early Marx the view that while critical reason made the public sphere possible, capitalism and its related sub-systems deformed that sphere and the "lifeworld" of the family and its networks of spontaneous association.

Rather than trace this crisis of modernity, as Marx had done, to the capitalist mode of production itself, the Frankfurt school located it in the cultural sphere. The Left, in other words, got out of the structure industry and invested in culture. Crises now occur when radical groups in the public sphere reject the ideological domination of the system, expose its contradictions, and reassert the lifeworld, or its "methodological objectification" society. Hence, the central problem of the modern condition is one of legitimation (or how the state accounts for its burgeoning administrative power), rather than one of economic distribution.

Positive and Negative Reason

So Habermas's philosophy, like the modern condition he exposes, faces both ways: towards the system and its mechanisms of dominance and distortion; and towards the possibility of a moral political order. He reveals the tensions that inhere in modernity's two faces while abandoning neither reason nor its promise of emancipation. Still, reason presents something of a difficulty for Habermas. For it is both responsible for the deformations of capitalism and indispensable to the public sphere and the pursuit of universal truth and justice. He resolves this contradiction by distinguishing between two forms of reason. A flawed instrumental reason, of a means-ends variety, supports capitalism and its administrative systems, while a morally positive, communicative reason of a "quasi-transcendental" character thrives in an uncontaminated public sphere and offers the promise of universal liberation.

Elaborating the distinctive modus operandi of what we might term negative and positive reason and their socio-political consequences becomes, therefore, the central task of the Habermasian project. In order to establish this, Habermas calls upon a vast array of scholarship that renders his later works both formidable and obscure or, more precisely, formidably obscure. His recipe begins with ideas from Kant and Marx as well as the German and Continental schools of hermeneutic philosophy, throws in ingredients from the American pragmatism of Charles Peirce and Herbert Mead, spices them with a touch of psychoanalysis, adds a pinch of the sociology of Max Weber, Emil Durkheim and Talcott Parsons--and finally serves up an academically fashionable but ultimately indigestible stew of discourse ethics.

This mélange comes together in his major two-volume work, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). Here Habermas reveals the web of language and media that makes social action possible and the manner in which it both enables and distorts communication in the public sphere. The root of all contemporary problems, he believes, lies in the distorted communication that modern technology, through the promotion of universal education and the mass media, paradoxically makes possible. True social emancipation, therefore, lies not in ownership of the means of production, but in a public sphere where "no force but that of the better argument is exercised." Unmasking the fault lines between "system" and "lifeworld", the theory envisages a new politics where post-material protest movements would draw sustenance from the lifeworld to enhance race, gender and environmental awareness.

Habermas develops this insight further in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1983). This requires him first to expose the fallacy that the act of reasoning requires the conscious activity of a knowing subject. Not so. Meaning and, by extension, true reason and morality, only emerge through a pragmatic and inter-subjective process. This insight was crucial for Habermas's evolving understanding of discourse ethics. As he somewhat ponderously explains: "in communicative action the creative moment of the linguistic constitution of the world forms one syndrome with the cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical and expressive moments of the intramundane linguistic functions of representation, interpersonal relation and subjective expression." More precisely: You and I communicate inter-subjectively, therefore I am.

On this "syndrome", Habermas erects a model of uncoerced communication. Its enlightened application would supposedly transform bourgeois democracy into a positive rational, radical, deliberative alternative to itself, while simultaneously reshaping the instrumental practice of law into a normative procedure that would ultimately bring about a just cosmopolitan order of global citizens. How does mere conversation acquire such remarkable political properties?

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