Habermas seems quaint right now, but shouldn’t
by Sebastian Benthall
By chance I was looking up Habermas’s later philosophical work today, like Between Facts and Norms (1992), which has been said to be the culmination of the project he began with The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1962. In it, he argues that the law is what gives pluralistic states their legitimacy, because the law enshrines the consent of the governed. Power cannot legitimize itself; democratic law is the foundation for the legitimate state.
Habermas’s later work is widely respected in the European Union, which by and large has functioning pluralistic democratic states. Habermas emerged from the Frankfurt School to become a theorist of modern liberalism and was good at it. While it is an empirical question how much education in political theory is tied to the legitimacy and stability of the state, anecdotally we can say that Habermas is a successful theorist and the German-led European Union is, presently, a successful government. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that this is at least in part due to the fact that citizens are convinced, through the education system, of the legitimacy of their form of government.
In the United States, something different happened. Habermas’s earlier work (such as the The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) was introduced to United States intellectuals through a critical lens. Craig Calhoun, for example, argued in 1992 that the politics of identity was more relevant or significant than the politics of deliberation and democratic consensus.
That was over 25 years ago, and that moment was influential in the way political thought has unfolded in Europe and the United States. In my experience, it is very difficult to find support in academia for the view that rational consensus around democratic institutions is a worthwhile thing to study or advocate for. Identity politics and the endless contest of perspectives is much more popular among students and scholars coming out of places like UC Berkeley. In my own department, students were encouraged to read Habermas’s early work in the context of the identity politics critique, but never exposed to the later work that reacted to these critiques constructively to build a theory that was specifically about pluralism, which is what political identities need in order to unify as a legitimate state. There’s a sense in which the whole idea that one should continue a philosophical argument to the point of constructive agreement, despite the hard work and discipline that this demands, was abandoned in favor of an ideology of intellectual diversity that discouraged scrutiny and rigor across boundaries of identity, even in the narrow sense of professional or disciplinary identity.
The problem with this approach to intellectualism is that it is fractious and undermines itself. When these qualities are taken as intellectual virtues, it is no wonder that boorish overconfidence can take advantage of it in an open contest. And indeed the political class in the United States today has been undermined by its inability to justify its own power and institutions in anything but the fragmented arguments of identity politics.
It is a sad state of affairs. I can’t help but feel my generation is intellectually ill-equipped to respond to the very prominent challenges to the legitimacy of the state that are being leveled at it every day. Not to put too fine a point on it, I blame the intellectual laziness of American critical theory and its inability to absorb the insights of Habermas’s later theoretical work.
It has come to my attention that this post is receiving a relatively large amount of traffic. This seems to happen when I hit a nerve, specifically when I recommend Habermas over identitarianism in the context of UC Berkeley. Go figure. I respectfully ask for comments from any readers. Some have already helped me further my thinking on this subject. Also, I am aware that a Wikipedia link is not the best way to spread understanding of Habermas’s later political theory. I can recommend this book review (Chriss, 1998) of Between Facts and Norms as well as the Habermas entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which includes a section specifically on Habermasian cosmopolitanism, which seems relevant to the particular situation today.
I may have guessed wrong. The recent traffic has come from Reddit. Welcome, Redditors!
It might be too little too late but I believe some current theorists are building on these ideas e.g Helen Landemore at Yale
Thanks, that’s a good lead. I wonder how popular her work is in undergraduate curricula.
I still don’t buy it without taking history, race, class and gender into account. The ledger doesnt start at zero I’m afraid, and some interests are fundamentally antagonistic. Europes internal struggles (brexit etc) and the growing ambivalence to immigration shows just how fragile the balance can be.
Habermas’s political theory began with a Marxist history. So that takes care of class and history.
Later critiques (e.g. Fraser’s) brought race and gender into the discussion, and left open the question of whether or not multiculturalist public spheres could achieve the kinds of thing more homogenous public spheres in their earlier formulation theoretically could.
When I refer to Habermas’s *later* theory, I am referring to what he wrote about the legitimacy of the state *after this critique*, which is mainly about *the law* and not about the public sphere.
Ambivalence about immigration in Europe does not imply that there is ambivalence about *the rule of law* in the same way as there is in the U.S. Brexit, as well, is a intensely legal process but nobody (as far as I know) is denying the legitimacy of the electoral or parliamentary process there is negotiating a solution.
These are nuances that I’m afraid get lost in American political thought because the conversation *ends* with “but what about history, race, gender, and class?”. But there has always been history, race, gender, and class. They have been part of political thought since there was ever political thought. That is not an excuse for not questioning the basis for the legitimacy of the state, coming up with a positive theory of it, and teaching it to students.