Jürgen Habermas’s career, with its prodigious philosophy and social theory now translated into forty different languages, can be interpreted primarily as an effort to make intellectual sense of democracy and its untapped possibilities. But the Habermas who emerges in the German sociologist Stefan Müller-Doohm’s illuminating new biography (Habermas: A Biography) also appears as an intensely political creature, an intellectual whose public interventions over the course of sixty years have regularly galvanized popular debate in Germany and beyond. Beginning in the 1950s, when he was perhaps the first in his generation to take on Martin Heidegger and other older intellectuals who had embraced the Nazis, Habermas’s public political interventions have been instrumental in shaping our understanding of and aspirations for democracy.
Habermas himself has drawn a sharp distinction between his political interventions and his more systematic scholarship. But Müller-Doohm suggests a fuzzier border, with the more abstract Habermas often giving voice to concrete political experiences. This is true even today, with Habermas’s scholarship eerily applicable to current waves of populism around the world. And at the age of eighty-seven, Habermas continues to address democratic decay and nationalist nostalgia as he energetically defends the embattled European Union.
Jürgen Habermas grew up in Gummersbach, a sleepy German town about thirty miles east of Cologne. It is a bit surprising that Habermas’s story—the story of a cosmopolitan and radical democrat—starts here since the provincial, upper-middle class, deeply conservative milieu in Gummersbach and elsewhere helped pave the way for Hitler’s rise.
Habermas’s father, Ernst, was a right-wing conservative who joined the Nazi Party in 1933. The young Jürgen was forced to join the Hitler Youth, and then in February 1945, when he was fifteen years old, got news of his call-up from the Wehrmacht. Good luck spared him the fate of other teenagers mobilized during the war’s final months: “It was sheer coincidence,” Habermas later recounted, “that I was somewhere else for one night, and on that night the military police came to look for me. Then, thank God…the Americans came.”
Habermas is an intensely political thinker whose ideas are eerily applicable to contemporary global politics.
Germany’s defeat helped free Habermas from the provincial social climate. He listened to live radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg Trials and, shocked by the horrors recounted, seems to have quickly grasped the criminal nature of the regime under which he had grown up. Revealingly perhaps, his academic interests shifted away from medicine, a more professionally secure field, to philosophy. His 1954 University of Bonn doctoral dissertation on the Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling offers little evidence of Habermas’s growing radicalism, but his early journalistic pieces, published during the early and mid ‘50s in major German newspapers and intellectual journals, anticipate his life-long political concerns. Directed against right-wing intellectuals (for example, Heidegger), they criticize an older generation for failing to take democracy seriously—that “magic word,” according to Habermas, that brought together otherwise disparate voices within his own postwar generation who sought a clean break from Nazism.
Because Habermas took the magic word of democracy so seriously, he found himself disenchanted not only with established conservative intellectuals but also political elites who preferred to keep their mouths shut about their Nazi entanglements, and for whom Germany’s new liberal order was primarily about stability and security, not democratic self-government. Dictatorship and the racism that motored it still haunted his country. Democracy was not a fortunate historical inheritance one could simply take up, but instead an unfinished project. As he has more recently claimed, democracy represents the surviving “remnant of utopia”: only democracy is “capable of hacking through the Gordian knots of otherwise insoluble problems.” Thus his life-long intellectual project of trying to understand democracy’s promise and possibilities.
For a democrat with leftist sympathies in 1950s Germany, where ex-Nazis still dominated many university faculties, the Frankfurt-based Institute for Social Research offered an obvious intellectual home. Made up of heterodox Marxists and Jews recently returned from American exile, the so-called “Frankfurt School” shared Habermas’s anxieties about Germany’s unfinished democracy and refusal to break cleanly with the Nazi past. In 1956 he joined the eclectic group of interdisciplinary scholars based at the Institute and began working closely with the philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno, its most creative thinker and prominent public intellectual. Adorno’s habit of speaking his mind, even when politically inconvenient, clearly influenced Habermas.
Even as he worked under Adorno’s tutelage, Habermas maintained his intellectual independence. For him, the Frankfurt School never constituted a closed research agenda or shared orthodoxy. Müller-Doohm recounts a series of political and intellectual battles with the Institute’s autocratic Director, Max Horkheimer, who worried about Habermas’s radicalism and at one juncture demanded his dismissal. By the late 1950s, Habermas had become a tough Marxist critic of not only postwar Germany but also liberal democracy more generally. Already at this point, however, Habermas’s Marxism served mainly as a starting point for exploring tensions between capitalism and democracy, not an all-encompassing philosophical framework promising ready answers. Habermas remained first and foremost a democrat, though one ensconced on the political left and preoccupied with capitalism’s threats to democracy.
During this early period, he published The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1962, a major theoretical contribution that chronicles the decline of the nineteenth-century liberal public sphere. The book provides a dreary portrait of contemporary society as increasingly authoritarian, with top-down executive-centered government depicted as replacing an earlier mode of liberal rule in which deliberative publics—groups of people partially realizing the communicative ideal of free and open discussion among equals—exerted influence via powerful legislatures. Though the volume’s Marxist framing located the main source of liberal decay in the transition from liberal competitive to modern organized capitalism, it also sketched Habermas’s most important intuition: because democracy rests on public deliberation and exchange, participants in discourse should possess equal chances to express their views and must not be unfairly limited when doing so. Those impacted by any decision must be allowed to deliberate freely and equally about it without being hindered by social inequalities.
His efforts even won Horkheimer over, who soon changed his mind about his young colleague and worked behind the scenes to make sure Habermas was named his successor at Frankfurt University in 1964. With one interlude during the 1970s, when Habermas relocated to the bucolic lake district outside Munich to direct a research institute, he spent the rest of his career at Frankfurt as a professor of philosophy and sociology. He soon became the Frankfurt School’s most prolific and prominent representative.
When The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was translated into English in 1989, Habermas distanced himself both from its bleak diagnostic claims and the Marxist framework. Nevertheless, some of his early observations remain eerily prescient. Habermas observed, for example, that politics and entertainment were becoming blurred by personalization and scandalization, with new technologies dumbing down political and cultural debate. Rather than active citizens and participants in a shared cultural life, Habermas saw compliant consumers unable to distinguish between new products and political proposals. He also worried about the dismantlement of legal and constitutional safeguards and novel types of popular but illiberal and effectively authoritarian rule. Despite its limitations, Structural Transformation can be read as anticipating the emergence of authoritarian populism, along the lines of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. With the erstwhile protagonist of The Apprentice propelled to a new starring role in the White House, thanks in large part to “fake news” and bots, it also sometimes makes for an illuminating reading of Donald Trump’s United States.
He was one of the first in his generation to take on Heidegger and other intellectuals who had embraced the Nazis.
For uncharitable critics, Habermas remains a naïve defender of pristine or ideal speech, where actors somehow miraculously engage in rational discourse in a space free of power. With his efforts focused mostly on formulating a rigorous model of idealized communication, Habermas ignores the harsh realities of political life and overstates its rational traits. His theory, they say, seems suited to a philosophical seminar, not the rough and tumble of politics.
But such critics overlook the fact that his theory is not intended as a recipe book for reformers aspiring to cook up perfect deliberation at short notice. Discourse in the most demanding and hypothetical sense, Habermas concedes, is rarely if ever achievable in ordinary communication. Why then worry about it? For Habermas, if we interpret democracy as a way of life where people make binding decisions based on arguments, we need to grasp how deliberation works, and how best to delineate reasonable and legitimate from unreasonable and illegitimate public exchange. Real-life democracy hardly looks like the idealized communication community Habermas describes. Yet absent some sense of that ideal community, we can neither distinguish manufactured from independent public opinion, nor deepen 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. Müller-Doohm devotes nearly a quarter of his thick volume to a discussion of Habermas’s cosmopolitanism, a longstanding component of his thinking that in recent decades has taken on a central role. Habermas has always expressed sympathy for Immanuel Kant’s idea of a perpetual peace founded on cosmopolitan law. Structural Transformation posited that modern means of mass destruction underscore the need to transcend the “state of nature in international relations” that is “so threatening for everybody.” His early security-centered call for a new post national politics was then supplemented in the 1990s by the thesis that economic globalization outstrips the nation-state’s capacity to regulate its own affairs. Like many on the left, Habermas has become increasingly worried about global-level economic transformations that make it difficult especially for small and medium-sized states to maintain a generous welfare state. This diagnosis has motivated him to provide an account of how best to move towards the post national order he thinks we need.
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. For today’s Europeans, he believes, only a more democratic and politically robust European Union (EU) can navigate economic globalization’s rocky waters and preserve democracy’s social presuppositions. And only in a stronger more democratic EU could more porous and tolerant political identities flourish.
Habermas has harbored a life-long interest in the nexus between democracy and capitalism.
Simultaneously, Habermas rejects the idea of a world state or even a federal European state. Instead, he proposes a three-tiered framework for global governance, with existing national governments to be complemented by new modes of what he describes as binding supranational (that is, global or worldwide) and transnational (regional or continental) decision-making. At the global or supranational level, a reformed UN would better secure world peace and protect human rights. Because we presently lack anything approaching a robust global demos, however, its authority should remain circumscribed. At the transnational level, environmental, financial, and social and economic policies, or what he dubs “global domestic politics,” would be negotiated by global actors tasked with generating new modes of cross-border regulation. With the EU in mind, Habermas believes that regional political and economic blocs possess the requisite muscle to get the job done. At the national level, existing states would preserve core features of sovereignty, though they would lack any legal right (as per the UN Charter) to wage aggressive war. Both supranational and transnational decision making would continue to rely on the nation-state and its military and police powers for enforcement.
Habermas lauds the EU for successfully delinking key political decisions from the nation state; in Crisis of the European Union (2012), he goes so far as to claim that its institutional innovations provide a model for others elsewhere hoping to tackle globalization. The EU divides sovereignty between nation states (and their citizenries) and European citizens: nation-states maintain control over coercive authority but share sovereignty with European citizens. Unfortunately, the EU’s achievements are threatened by recalcitrant political elites who now impede further progress: they are chiefly responsible for the dire crisis Europe faces. Habermas’s main target is a “post-democratic executive federalism” in which powerful national leaders—including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel—expropriate far-reaching powers of crisis management absent sufficient public oversight. In the recent financial and Euro crises, for example, ordinary political and constitutional procedures were circumvented, and vast authority placed in the hands of institutional actors operating behind closed doors. Instead, the EU’s crises should have been an opportunity for both “we the people of Europe” and “we the peoples of Europe’s nations” to figure out how best to exercise popular control over controversial matters of economic policy presently exercised by a small group of elite political players.
Habermas’s cosmopolitan aspirations seem increasingly unachievable in a political context where Donald Trump mocks the UN as “just a club for people” to “have a good time,” and Brexit and influential anti-European political parties block a stronger and more immediately democratic EU. Of course, populists also worry about unaccountable elites in Brussels. But for them ideas of a European-wide citizenry and robust EU democracy are dangerous myths and part of the problem, not the solution.
Laying out two intertwined explanations, Habermas has struggled to make sense of the nationalist and populist backlash. Like others, he thinks that populist and nationalist movements draw support disproportionately from economic globalization’s losers. 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.
Simultaneously, Habermas criticizes European leaders for failing to pursue political reforms that might strengthen Europe-wide democracy. In his view, their preference for opaque, top-down decision-making feeds political resentment against Brussels. In 2014 he cautiously greeted right-wing populists, not of course because of their policy views, but only because he hoped they might inadvertently spur mainstream politicians to start a serious conversation about political and institutional reform. On this second view, the immaturity of the EU’s version of transnational democracy is the main culprit behind long simmering and now apparently explosive populist anger.
Only new transnational social and economic measures and regulations can extinguish populist political fires.
Habermas’s economic and political explanations both help make sense of present-day political quagmires. Yet neither does justice to the sizable hurdles faced by flesh-and-blood politicians who risk being attacked by populists for putting general European interests ahead of national interests. Europe’s main political players, after all, still answer not to a European demos but to national and local constituencies. Given existing electoral and political incentives it seems a lot to ask of them to transcend their parochial preoccupations. He sometimes gives politicians—and especially his left-leaning allies—too little credit for the genuine quagmires they face, as they respond to angry voters who blame global elites for declining life prospects.
It also 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.
Whether Habermas’s preferred loose, multi-tiered system of European governance, rather than a robust federal European state, might tame globalizing capitalism also remains unclear. Most successful attempts to regulate capitalism have gone hand in hand—just think of the New Deal—with institutional enhancements to centralized state power. Redistribution within the EU, as in many existing political entities, would seem to demand relatively autonomous, more centralized institutions able to take on powerful local interests (e.g., within the EU, Germany, the main bulwark behind austerity policies). Of course, Habermas is probably right to deem lingering calls today for a European federal state politically unrealistic. Yet this hardly renders his own model of a decentralized, non-statist, yet simultaneously more egalitarian and redistributionist, EU any less difficult to fathom politically.
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.