Saturday, April 15, 2017

Scheuerman on Habermas and the Fate of Democracy

In "Boston Review" (April 12, 2017), Professor William E. Scheuerman reviews Stefan Müller-Doohm's biography of Jürgen Habermas (Polity Press, 2016):

Habermas and the Fate of Democracy


"During the last thirty years or so, as Habermas has moved from being a Marxist and left-socialist to a social democrat, he has constructively engaged with the ideas of left-liberal American thinkers such as Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls. He now speaks of the need to tame or civilize capitalism but no longer toys with the prospect of a basically different economic order. The shift has been widely noted by more radical critics. Once fashionable on the left, Habermas’s name is now sometimes met with skepticism by a younger generation for whom the recent global economic crisis underscores the need for a fundamental attack on capitalism."

"Habermas’s life-long interest in the nexus between democracy and capitalism, however, remains. [......] Against those on both left and right who seek what he views as a retrograde rolling back of globalization, Habermas wants political decision-making to be scaled up to our globalizing economy. Democracy and the welfare state not only need to catch up to globalization if they are to survive, but can only do so when reconstituted in new and more inclusionary ways beyond the nation state. He considers it a mistake to try to shore up the nation state with outdated ideas of political identity based on common ethnicity or far-reaching cultural or linguistic sameness, and he attacks nationalists and populists for doing so." (.....)

"He chides his friends on the social democratic left for pursuing economic policies barely distinguishable from those of the political right. The anti-EU backlash can be attributed precisely to that failure to recalibrate political and economic processes that has so vexed him since the 1990s, a failure exacerbated by mainstream politicians who allow populists to pose disingenuously as best able to provide economic security to voters suffering globalization’s worst consequences. In an interview with a political journal last November, Habermas reiterated his longstanding call for left-leaning parties in Europe to join arms and “go on the offensive against social inequality by embarking upon a coordinated and cross-border taming of unregulated markets.” Though sometimes vague on details, Habermas believes that only new transnational social and economic measures and regulations can extinguish populist political fires." (......)

"It [.....] seems ironic that our most impressive contemporary theorist of democracy spends so much time attacking elected leaders and other political elites for failing to take on unpopular political tasks. What about grassroots political and social movements, or a European public sphere? Why do we still see so few genuinely cross-border popular or citizen-based initiatives to reform or strengthen the EU? Habermas stylizes himself as a “radical democrat,” and has always emphasized that democracy remains principally a grassroots affair between and among active citizens who argue and debate about competing views. However, he has had relatively little to say about that part of the story." (.....)

Since the 1950s Jürgen Habermas has used his enormous intellectual and political energies to deepen democracy. Müller-Doohm occasionally seems overwhelmed by his subject. He neglects, for instance, the fascinating story of Habermas’s massive global dispersion—how his ideas have been taken up and creatively reworked by admirers and disciples. Müller-Doohm’s broad sympathies for Habermas also make him more cautious about expressing criticism. Still, he does a service in methodically outlining Habermas’s theoretical trajectory, highlighting its strengths as well as ambiguities and dead-ends. And he recounts Habermas’s activities as an outspoken public contrarian, in which Habermas has regularly confronted revanchist voices in Germany reluctant to confront the Nazi past and cramped views of national identity. While it seems unlikely that Habermas will win his battle to extend democracy beyond the nation state anytime soon, he has defined a path of intellectual and political engagement that others with similar commitments will—we can only hope—carry forward."

William E. Scheuerman is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the Indiana University. Among his books are "Frankfurt School Perspectives on Globalization, Democracy and the Law" (Routledge, 2008) and "The Realist Case for Global Reform" (Polity Press, 2011). 

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