Surveying the Wreckage of the World and Wondering Where Habermas Fits in These Days

I must admit it. I am not sleeping well at all at night. The ravens of the dark time come to feast on my discombobulated psyche. I fear reading the news websites. A “bad spirit” is loose. The endless news about Covid-19 cases in Canada and non-stop hectoring leaves me numb. I hate wearing a mask. I hide in a corner of the art gallery, peer around to see if the security guy is not present, and take it off to get some air. Will I still be wearing one in the spring of 2023? Nobody ever says. Just a few vague hopes. Nothing feels stable.

A military rife with sexual abuse, universities that lack courage to defend freedom of inquiry, a healthcare system that is crumbling beneath too heavy loads, violence against stressed-out and fearful healthcare workers, governments that reek of incompetence of stupid decision-making, a culture that denies science and evidence, churches that advocate reconciliation without justice. God, is every institution, the NHL included, covering up bad and dirty deeds, demeaning some members of our society or sweeping the dirt under some grimy rug somewhere? An inquisitorial and accusatory spirit is roaming the land. Who and what might be next?

Watched the news this morning, O boy, and learned that some healthcare workers don’t want to be vaccinated. What? The stability and surety of daily life is eroding before my eyes. Marx’s words in The Communist Manifesto of 1848 – “All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life, and his relation to his kind” – capture our dreadful time of troubles.

Does the G20 or COP26 perk my spirits? Nope. We are now confronting a massive failure of global leadership and will. The nation-state reigns supreme stupid. A world constitution dwells in a far off fairy land. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimer Putin didn’t even bother to show up. Maybe they were too busy working out deals with coal companies. The environmental action kids want fossil fuel consumption stopped by next Saturday; the comfortable corporate barons set their date in 2050. They will all be gone by then, some to Mars.

Let me escape to the calm respite in the cathedrals of higher thought. There to find repose and profound security.

Then, as I fumbled through mounds of essays on my desk, I discovered Blake Smith’s article, “Why Jurgen Habermas disappeared,” Foreign Policy, February 7, 2021. Well, the title grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, particularly jarring because I had been trying (unsuccessfully in the end) to publish a book on Habermas as learning theorist. I was awash in piles of secondary literature and knew well (too well perhaps) that Habermas certainly hasn’t vanished from the interior caves of Academia and the arcane publishing worlds.

He is the foremost intellectual of Europe – insistent advocator for Europe’s economic and political integration. Disappearing? What in the world does the young Turk Blake Smith possibly mean? Hasn’t the old German philosopher, now 92, just completed a two volume 1700 page history of philosophy (Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie [2019])? Yup. And aren’t the reviews cluttering the journals? Yup.

Smith argues that Habermas is “still eminent in the academy but increasingly marginal outside it, the theorist best known for his notion of the ‘public sphere’, in which intellectuals influence politics by shaping public opinion, risks becoming the most compelling counter example to his own ideal.” Habermas is a big shot in the Academy (although, let’s admit that post-modern and post-colonial scholars enjoy taking shots at him). But his ideals for building the rational society and cosmopolitan world order are far removed from the irrational and hyper-nationalist times we inhabit.

Habermas’s corps of impressive defenders (Benhabib, Cohen, McCarthy, Jay and lots more and little me too) shout out ideals of deliberative democracy into the dark caverns of modernity. But our words cannot be heard in the din of discordant voices crushing openness to learning something new. Discursive deliberation as a “fundamental principle of liberal democratic polity” is far removed from the parliamentary backrooms of just about everywhere in the world. Power rules with an iron fist. Name one place where it does not.

Smith asks the question of whether Habermas’s expansion on Kant’s Enlightenment philosophy “applies to politics.” At stake here is whether Habermas is “casting about” for the “cultural resources” to instantiate his project in real-world nation-states. This matter is an old one, dogging the global movements for justice after the collapse of the Marxist Project in one country after another. Habermas is searching, Smith observes provocatively, for “subjective agencies” to carry out his political projects like a democratic EU or some form of a “world constitution” for a global order. Where and what are these subjective agencies? It sure as hell does not seem that there are too many agents (those that do exist are not oriented to the same horizon) around. Is this “an insuperable contradiction” at the foundation of his philosophical project?

Smith thinks that Habermas’s decline as a public intellectual (in the sense that his ideas and dreams are not taken-up by actors in the real world) represents “the potential exhaustion of the sort of politics that his career embodies.” In numerous brilliant texts Habermas elaborated on Kant’s ideas that we humans were capable of becoming autonomous moral agents. Indeed, our system of morality was “immanent in the structure of rational thought.” However, to be autonomous, human actors needed the support of the welfare state. Habermas knew that, left to its own devices, the welfare state could hinder decision-making, so we could only see ourselves as free and equal if we added “political participation” (in vibrant public spheres) to “economic security.” Our communicative action, Habermas insisted with much energy, “foreshadows the right kind of life.”

Smith asserts that there are serious obstacles to the Habermasian agenda. First, Habermas’s project requires recreating the welfare state on a continental scale. By itself, the nation-state does not “weigh enough” to protect the “redistributive policies” that make autonomy meaningful for ordinary people. One cannot have Keynesianism in one country. Second, is the problem of the “collective will” that is supposed to work toward autonomy. In 1975 Habermas demonstrated in Towards a reconstruction of historical materialism that we cannot locate such a will in class, religion or nation. Humanity needed a “new identity” – something universal, available to every human being without exclusion. “Europeans had to imagine themselves as members of a common humanity.”

This secularized vision of the Judeo-Christian sacred imagination of the end times challenged the formidable vice-like grip of the “friend-enemy” distinction often associated with Carl Schmitt. For Schmitt a “viable form of collective identity” requires “powerfully and potentially dangerous shared emotions and an aura of the sacred.” Habermas rejected the idea that liberal democracies required a “religious aura.” But this rejection left the mighty intellectual in a real bind. By calling Europeans to “generate a collective will around a shared past, powerful emotions and values of heroism and sacrifice,” Habermas was slipping in quasi-religious forces to fuel the collective will.

Habermas thought that Europeans could be “united by the legacy of the French Revolution and formalize their identity by creating a new constitution.” This, Smith opines, was a kind of larger-version of “his unsuccessful intervention in German unification” (the idea here was to join West and East Germany not on the basis of national identity but, rather, upon agreed-upon civic values). But public opinion and political elites resisted this call to formalize a European identity around the values of the French Revolution.

Controversially, Smith suggests that the “ideals of the French revolution “must inspire passionate and deliberate action in the present—otherwise, they will not take root in our souls.” However, the efforts of the revolution’s leaders were “violent and illiberal.” The audacious attempt to create a “new civic religion centred on the rights of individuals and a passionate commitment to the nation led, for example, to the persecution of Catholics.” Habermas, it seems, desires that Europeans embrace 1789 as the “founding generation” – calling them to carry on with the common project.

But citizens of contemporary democracies do not see themselves as heirs of the revolution. Today, European nations are accommodating more and more non-European immigrants with different world-views, creating “divided societies” without a “strong value consensus.” Habermas’s view of history is rendered incoherent—so thinks Blake Smith. That’s a new idea for me. Yikes.

Europe is increasingly diverse; most do not see themselves as “heirs of 1789.” Significantly, for the future of deliberative forms of democracy, the “ties of symbolic filiation are fraying.” Unless you are already part of a community to whom these ideals are addressed, abstract civic ideals have little meaning. Even “indignation” – supposedly we all feel this emotion – does not, in itself, in the “absence of shared values about the sorts of practices that our feelings about ‘human dignity’ commit us to defend, indignation carries the risk of degenerating into just ‘witch hunts’ – or into impotent moralizing.” Then, too, indignation can be “homophobic” or “Islamophobic”—thus violating the norms of cosmopolitan tolerance.

Indeed, in “February 15, or, what binds Europeans together,” in Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe (2005), Habermas and Derrida manifest all sorts of indignation. Against the US invasion of Iraq and against European leaders “unable to develop a united Foreign Policy as a counter-weight to US power.” Habermas found support for “indignation” – the “power of feelings” – in the February 2003 protests at the US invasion of Iraq.

Nonetheless: “The legacy of 1789 and the feelings of indignation are not sufficient to produce the collective will that Habermas sees as essential to the realization of the Kantian ideal. Smith concludes: “The legacy of the French Revolutions, mass emotion, and virtuous elites are only some of the incoherent and ineffective cultural resources that Habermas has drawn on in support of his Kantian political ideal.” Ouch!

We now move into highly controversial territory. Smith asserts the failure to “forge a common will” has in recent years turned Habermas to “Christianity as another such resource.” In the last two decades Habermas has set out the powerful idea of Christianity as a “historical source” for many of liberalism’s core concepts. Thus, “Christians today can contribute to the liberal project by ‘translating’ Kantian imperatives into religious language and inspiring believers to advance liberal ends.” Tipping close to embracing the necessity of a sacred aura for deep motivation, Habermas appears to take up the Durkheimian argument that human rights are “only cherished and defended by citizens who are united by a national identity indistinguishable from religion.”

Habermas does seem to “appeal to religion, as he once appealed to history or emotion, to supply the will power still absent in his own system.” But this, itself, is problematic – post-Reformation Christianity “filtered through Enlightenment philosophy is already much more culturally specific and less inclusive than he acknowledges.” Certainly, Brandon Bloch, in “The unfinished project of Enlightenment,” Boston Review, June 18, 2020, acknowledges that what stands out in Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie (2019) is the assertion of the “foundational role of western Christianity” in the evolution of western philosophy. This means, then, that Habermas’s thought remains profoundly Eurocentric.

Yet, not many philosophers (so it seems to me) reconstruct the interplay of “Christian faith and worldly knowledge as a process not of conflict, but of mutual learning and translation” (Bloch). Like Smith, Bloch thinks that the European origin of Habermas’s thought “collides with its universal intent.” “But by tracing the emergence of modern rationality solely to a Western, and Christian, learning process, he elides the historical reckoning necessary for any such dialogue.” Europe becomes the site of “universal ideals.” This standpoint, though, sidelines the violence that “saturated Europe’s interactions with the non-Europeans.”

I am personally attracted to the way Habermas thinks that historical events are “moments in the learning process, way stations on the path toward moral universalism.” The sixteenth century eminent Spanish theologian, Francisco de Vitoria, defended the property rights of indigenous people in the 16th century, exemplifying “the universal reach of Catholic natural law.” But as fascinating (even encouraging?) as this argument is, Habermas forgets the intra-Christian debate over the legitimacy of slavery. Nor does he mention Haiti. Bloch counters Habermas’s argument that the “abolition of slavery” is a “popular and really striking example” of moral learning. Maybe, but Bloch thinks that his description is misleading. “It elides not only slavery’s enduring legacies, but the histories of resistance, civil war, and violent backlash that paved the twisted road to emancipation.”

Habermas uses the same form of argument when he celebrates the “enactment of democratic constitutions to mark the ‘historical embodiment of reason,’ but the North Atlantic constitutions of the Age of Revolution continued to authorize slavery at the same time that they expanded the rights of privileged groups.” Similarly, Habermas passes over the “contested, politicized, and still ongoing struggles by which marginalized groups claimed legal rights” as he analyzes nineteenth-and twentieth century social reform. Thus, “Habermas regards ‘the authorization of religious tolerance, freedom of opinion, [and] sexual equality, increasingly also the recognition of sexual freedom’ as the results of moral learning processes.”

Well, over quite a few years I have been attracted to this style of conceiving social-historical learning processes. I, too, celebrate the increase in human beings coming to feel obligations to strangers : where we somehow manage to see in others nothing relevantly different from ourselves. Still, Bloch thinks that Habermas “does not further specify who stands on each side of these learning processes, the active bestowers of rights and the receptive ‘strangers.’” I agree.

Bloch recognizes that scholars like Maria Pia Lara believe that Habermas’s concept of publicity provides tools for “feminists and other excluded groups” to challenge power structures and demand recognition. “Yet stories of excluded groups and individuals who inserted themselves into the public sphere – and the canon of Western philosophy – are all but absent from This Too a History of Philosophy. For its many twists and turns, the history Habermas tells is linear and aggregative, the unfolding of an immanent logic. Rarely do we learn of realizations that were unjustly discarded, knowledge suppressed, experiments failed. In the learning process, it would seem, little is forgotten.”

As a critical learning theorist, I have tried to show how Habermasian ideas and concepts –such as civil society, public spheres, communicative action, constitutional democracy and international co-operation around global problems – are lucid lenses to see the world and act well within it. But their attainment often seems “ever more remote. But a history oriented toward the realization of these ideals would require fuller examination of the contexts under which they were formed and contested. To narrow the genesis of moral universalism to a Western, Christian ‘learning process’ limits our understanding of how political change happened in the past. Transforming the contingent into the inexorable, such a narrative constricts social theory’s thinking of possible futures.”

Will I now be able to sleep well at night? We shall see. I doubt it.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.