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Jurgen Habermas’ Achievement and its Critics

Norman Wintrop

Both of these books analyse and assess the enormous range of Habermas’ writings. They concentrate on the texts that have established his reputation as a leading post-1945 philosopher, sociologist and political thinker, and both find in his work a combination of continuity and change. However, where Thomassen emphasises a continuity in which each new stage of his thinking develops out of earlier work, Ingram detects what he considers to be an unfortunate break from Habermas’ pre-1980s thinking. Indeed, Ingram’s account of the post-1970s work is best described as a critique. Nevertheless he agrees with Thomassen about the erudition, originality and other outstanding qualities of Habermas’ main texts, which both authors date from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962).

In this work Habermas argued that the eighteenth-century bourgeois public sphere, for all its patriarchal and other limitations, demonstrated the democratic potential of the evolving social life and institutions of modern Europe. His argument, however, was not that this potential for freedom, equality and solidarity has been actualised in capitalist democracies, rather that it has been distorted and suppressed by free-market and state capitalism, hierarchic and bureaucratic power structures, and the displacement of politics by a consumerism that has been pandered to by the mass media.

The next major book highlighted by Ingram and Thomassen is Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), a work that was firmly in the critical-theory tradition of Habermas’ Frankfurt School predecessors, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Its central propositions were that empirical sociologists and other social scientists should be more open to philosophic insights, and that instead of value freedom and an imagined neutrality they should commit themselves to promoting human welfare and liberation from irrational forms of domination.

The first of Habermas’ books to receive international recognition, however, was his Legitimation Crisis (1975), which, inter alia, influenced the New Left and generated controversies about New Left politics. Its thesis was that post-war Keynesian and welfare-state reforms had constructed an ‘advanced capitalism’ which, contrary to its admirers, had not ended overproduction and other causes of economic crises, but had transferred their effects to the political arena. The main outcome, Habermas argued, would be persistent and worsening governmental difficulties in balancing welfare expenditure and private profits, unemployment and inflation, taxation and investment incentives, and the demands of voters and powerful pressure groups. These balancing acts were likely to lead to mismanaged rather than efficiently managed economies, and to political parties and governments having their legitimation eroded.

But more than any other book, it was Habermas’ two-volume Theory of Communicative Action (1981) and its English translations (1984 and 1987) that became the foundation for his reputation. These volumes made rationality and rational communication central themes and ideals. Habermas argued that rationality should be understood, primarily, not as what was rational or irrational for persons but for communities. In order to sustain themselves, national and other communities required the co-operation of their members; a co-operation which, if it was not to be a product of coercion or deception, depended on speech and other communications being for the good of the community and having as their ends empirical truth and moral rightness. By contrast, modern individualist conceptions of rationality encouraged manipulative individual and group attitudes and irrational societies. They exemplified what earlier Frankfurt School theorists had called ‘instrumental’, and Habermas ‘strategic’, rationality.

Instrumental or strategic thinking refers to individuals and groups trying to apply the most efficient means for achieving their particular purposes, irrespective of the effects on others. It rests on the belief that goals and ends are subjective choices, between which there is no rational arbitration. At the most there are compromises. Instrumental rationality thus has a value-relativist conception of ends that Habermas believes offers little resistance to nihilism. He did not, however, challenge it by turning to pre-modern philosophical or religious traditions that drew moral criteria from ultimate universal principles and ends. Instead, he constructed and shaped what he called a post-metaphysical, ‘discourse’ ethical theory.

This discourse theory is intended to clarify and answer value, normative and moral questions by considering the likely results of rational communication. It appeals to what would be the most probable decisions reached by democratic discussions among equals, in which all participants had access to relevant information, were honest and avoided deception when communicating with one another, and no participants were more influential than others, unless it was due to the relevance of their contributions to common interests. Private interests are not excluded, but they have to be justified by reasons that others find acceptable. In such democratic discourse, unlike in instrumental reasoning, everything may be questioned. Ends as well as means, and value and normative as well as empirical claims, are all subject to argument, with reasons being given for and against. The idea that rationality, communication and democracy are interrelated and dependent on one another is therefore basic to the discourse theory of Habermas’ Communicative Action.

A major political conclusion that follows from these close relations is that democracy should be understood and defined not in terms of voting but in terms of rational communication. It follows from such an understanding that Western democracies have many ‘shortfalls’, with their elections, party rivalries and pluralist pressure-group politics producing limited and deformed, rather than an effective and substantive, forms of representative government. It also leads to Habermas contending that a primary cause of the shortfalls and defects of Western democracy is the subordination of politics to profit-driven market economies. This contention is partly expressed by the argument that systems colonise the lifeworld. ‘Systems’ are defined mainly as capitalist economies and bureaucratised legal and political power structures, in all of which instrumental rationality is dominant. The ‘lifeworld’, however, consists of those oases of rational communication that have managed to survive in parliaments, courts, universities, other branches of education, and elsewhere in public and private life.

Although Habermas’ The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, published in 1983, two years after Communicative Action, is not discussed in detail by either Ingram or Thomassen, both see it as illuminating the purposes of Habermas’ work. It is a defence of reason, modernity and what has become known as the ‘Enlightenment project’, with its main target being postmodernist criticisms. Other targets include conservatives who follow Edmund Burke in opposing the tradition to reason, social scientists who wish to restrict social change to piecemeal social engineering, and laissez-faire liberals for whom reason means little more than market exchanges between free individuals. Against all of them, Habermas insists that it is not reason and the Enlightenment project that are the underlying cause of the twentieth century’s political disappointments—world wars and other disasters—but the abandonment of Enlightenment reason.

A more recent and larger scale political-philosophical text by Habermas, to which both Ingram and Thomassen pay considerable attention, is Between Facts and Norms (1992). In it, as in much of his subsequent work, Habermas examines and assesses national and international politics and law on the basis of his discourse theory. It is a book which Ingram and other critics of Habermas believe marks a profound change in his politics, from his being a radical social critic to a more moderate reformer of law, parliamentary democracy, economic globalisation and current politics.

Unlike Ingram, Habermas holds to the classical democratic-socialist view that if there is to be a serious challenge to contemporary political and economic structures that offers richer and superior ways of living to those of capitalist civilisation, then such a challenge must retain and build upon modern liberal and democratic political principles and institutions. Ingram, by contrast, contends that the links between the so-called liberal-democratic politics and institutions of Western nations, and those of contemporary global capitalism and neo-imperialism, are so strong that the politics that Habermas derives from communicative rationality and action cannot break them. Only revolutionary struggles, beginning with mass national and international protest movements, have the necessary strength. Curiously, although this objection to Habermas’ politics comes as a left-wing criticism, it rests on a conservative premise: the inability of reason to overcome human folly and wickedness. Along similar lines, Ingram also criticises Habermas’ thinking on international law and politics.

In recent years, especially in his writings as a public intellectual, Habermas has sought to promote moves towards global governance, but governance that falls short of a world state. He urges greater co-operation between nations, especially on matters of human rights, the modifying of national claims to sovereignty, making the European Union more unified and democratic and using it as a model for other regional associations, and widening, codifying and strengthening international treaties and laws. He also advocates a radical reform of the United Nations. Ideally it should become a kind of world parliament with two houses, one for the representatives of national governments and the other, as far as it is possible, for the world’s citizens.

These proposals, which owe much to Immanuel Kant’s thinking about how nations can attain perpetual peace, are part of a cosmopolitan project that Habermas sees as an alternative to America’s quest for international hegemony, for the neo-liberal dream that global markets be substituted for global politics, and for a world divided between rival hemispheric power blocs. For Ingram, however, Habermas’ cosmopolitan project and proposals are unachievable. They defy the entrenched interconnections between international treaties and law, and regional associations and the United Nations, on the one hand, and global capitalism and superpower politics on the other.

On these criticisms of Habermas by Ingram and others, Thomassen says little and concentrates on exegesis. But despite this and other differences between their books, both can be recommended. Their authors succeed in putting the English translations of Habermas’ often highly technical and complex analyses into clearer English, though Ingram is a little less successful at this, as he tends to be overfond of abstractions. The main difference between their books is probably that Thomassen’s, as its title indicates, is addressed to university students and others who find Habermas’ work too far-ranging or otherwise difficult, while Ingram’s longer and more ambitious book is intended more for academic specialists and other readers already familiar with Habermas’ work.

Norman Wintrop is a senior research associate and former senior lecturer in Political Theory at the Flinders University of South Australia.


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