Habermas Versus Merkel

Why “Europism” is a Very Bad Idea

Taken as a whole, European intellectuals are not known for their clarity, nor even their ability to reason logically.  Rather, they take refuge in generalisations couched in vague polysyllabic terms.  From Kant to Heidegger to Sartre and to Jergen Habermas the trail of confused obfuscation is well marked.

Habermas has been grandly described as “one of the most influential contemporary European intellectuals” [The Guardian] which probably arises out of most people struggling to understand what he is saying.  One thing is clear, however.  Like most continental philosophers, Habermas is decidedly anti-democractic and elitist.  The common people are not to be trusted.  The intellectuals know best.

Habermas has argued for a new kind of politics which needs to play out in a different kind of arena.  There is such a thing as “the public square” where political debates and discussions need to take place where all accept certain fundamental constructions that limit and direct the discussion.  Self, private opinions, individual identities–all need to be laid aside in this more neutral “public sphere”.  This had all led Habermas to advocate for an undemocratic, imperial Europe.  He is sure that everyone who enters and participates in his “public sphere” will end up thinking the same way he does.  Such a sentiment is elitist at its core.

Like many post-war German intellectuals there is a strong streak of guilt over the spectre of Nazism.
  German nationalism is to be rejected in this public sphere because it is insufficiently abstract, insufficiently public, too parochial.  One can see immediately how, once the German people lose identity as Germans in the Habermasean public sphere, Europism rears its head as the ultimate political entity.  But, of course, Europism is far removed from the madding crowd of ordinary people, which is to say that Habermas’s ideas end up advocating for an un-democractic elite governing all.

We can see the undemocratic prejudice in Habermas’s anger at the German position over Greece.

Jürgen Habermas, one of the intellectual figureheads of European integration, has launched a withering attack on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, accusing her of “gambling away” the efforts of previous generations to rebuild the country’s postwar reputation with her hardline stance on Greece.  Speaking about the bailout deal for the first time since it was presented on Monday, the philosopher and sociologist said the German chancellor had effectively carried out “an act of punishment” against the leftwing government of Alexis Tsipras.

“I fear that the German government, including its social democratic faction, have gambled away in one night all the political capital that a better Germany had accumulated in half a century,” he told the Guardian. Previous German governments, he said, had displayed “greater political sensitivity and a post-national mentality”.

Note the phrase, “post-national mentality”.  The German stance in Europe after WWII had been to eschew national identity and plump for a post-national identity. This sentiment was born and has been nursed in guilt.  As Matthew Lynn astutely notes:

For decades, Germany had immersed itself within the European Union as a way of coming to terms with its violent history.  It shied away from every asserting any kind of national self-interest.  But, below the surface, a different Germany was emerging.  A generation was coming to power to which the war meant very little.

The assumption had always been that the mighty German economy would provide the money to pay the European Union’s bills.  But when the global financial crisis broke, the ordinary German was not prepared to pick up the tab.  Many Germans had opposed the introduction of the euro, fearing that they would end up subsidizing what they saw ass lazy Mediterraneans, and that it would turn into a weak, inflationary currency–precisely what Germany suffered from in the Weimar Republic and that led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.  Now they could see that billions were being spent to prop up a broken financials system. [Matthew Lynn, Bust: Greece, the Euro and the Sovereign Debt Crisis (New York: Bloomberg/Wiley, 2011), p.77.]

The image Lynn employs to represent this re-emerging German (as opposed to European) consciousness was the Swabian housewife (personified by Angela Merkel).  As the West rushed to respond to the global financial crisis by throwing fiat-created money at the problem, Merkel struck a different, very German note.

But while other leaders talked up big government, and boated about the way they were saving the global economy from ruin [just the sort of post-national response endorsed by Habermas and the pro-Eurocrats, Ed] Merkel had a different message for the party faithful who had gathered in Stuttgart that day.  She talked of the Verantwortung, which is the German word for “responsibility”.  “As we are in Stuttgart, you should ask a Swabian housewife,” Merkel told her audience, as she argued through the response of her government to a financial crisis which had hit the German banking industry almost as hard as the American or the British.  “She would give us some short and correct advice, which would be this: ‘You cannot live beyond your means in the long run.’  We are not going to participate in this senseless race for billions.”  [Ibid., p.75.]

German traditional cultural values were being asserted over against post-national Europism.  Naturally, Habermas and his ilk were aghast.  And so, over the past few weeks of the Greek crisis, Habermas has thrown his toys out of the cot.  Germans were daring to assert German interests–manifested through the democratic process–over against an elite Europist cabal.  In Habermas’s terms it represented the illicit intrusion of “private” German concerns into the rarefied, anti-democratic, Europist “public sphere”.

This necessarily means that, whilst Habermas speaks often of democracy, it is of a peculiar kind.  The kind of democracy he espouses is one in which the ignorant, parochial masses–the Swabian housewives–remain quiescent, while the truly enlightened trans-nationals work in their behalf, for their best interests, which, like children, they are inchoately unable to do.

Habermas argued that Europe was “stuck in a political trap”. “Without a common financial and economic policy, the national economies of pseudo-sovereign member states will continue to drift apart in terms of productivity. No political community can sustain such tension in the long run,” he said. “At the same time, by focusing on avoidance of open conflict, the EU’s institutions are preventing necessary political initiatives for expanding the currency union into a political union. Only the government leaders assembled in the European council are in the position to act, but precisely they are the ones who are unable to act in the interest of a joint European community because they think mainly of their national electorate.”  

And there you have the “European project” in a nutshell.  It is anti-democratic and elitist to the core–all in the name of a “higher form” of democracy, of course. 
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