Most volumes by Jürgen Habermas appearing in English over the past decade have consisted of papers and lectures building on the theory of communicative action and social change in his earlier work, or tightening the bolts on the system. Some are technical works only a Habermasian could love. But a few of the books have juxtaposed philosophical writings with political journalism and the occasional interview with him in his role as public intellectual of global stature.
The latest such roundup, The Crisis of the European Union: A Response -- published in Germany late last year and in translation from Polity  this summer – is probably the most exasperated of them as well. Very few contemporary thinkers have laid out such a comprehensive argument for the potential of liberal-democratic societies to reform and revitalize themselves in a way that would benefit their citizens while also realizing the conditions of possibility for human flourishing everywhere else.
The operative term here being, of course, “potential.” When you consider that his recent collections The Divided West (2006) and Europe: The Faltering Project (2009), also both from Polity, are now joined by one with “crisis” in the title, it’s clear that unbridled optimism is not a distorting element in Habermas’s world view. But the sobriety has turned into something closer to frustration in his latest interventions.
The earliest text in the new book first appeared in November 2008 – a time when the initial impact of the financial crisis made many people assume that the retooling of major institutions was so urgent as to be imminent. Habermas was more circumspect about it than, say, folks in the United States who imagined Obama as FDR redivivus. But although he has long been the most moderate sort of mildly left-of-center reformist, the philosopher did permit himself to hope.
Might not the U.S. “as it has done so often in the past,” he said, “pull itself together and, before it is too late, try to bind the competing major powers of today – the global powers of tomorrow – into an international order which no longer needs a superpower?” If so, “the United States would need the friendly support of a loyal yet self-confident ally in order to undertake such a radical change in direction.”
That would require the European Union to learn “to speak with one voice in foreign policy and, indeed, to use its internationally accumulated capital of trust to act in a farsighted manner itself.” A common EU foreign policy would only be possible if it had a more coherent economic policy. “And neither could be conducted any longer through backroom deals,” he wrote, “behind the backs of the populations.”
Habermas suffered no illusions about how likely such changes might be. But he treated late ’08 as a moment when “a somewhat broader perspective may be more needful than that offered by mainstream advice and the petty maneuvering of politics as usual.” (Fatalism, too, is an illusion, and one that paralyzes.)
The appendix to Crisis reprints some newspaper commentaries that Habermas published in 2010 and ’11, as the crisis of the Euro exposed the shakiness of “an economic zone of continental proportions with a huge population but without institutions being established at the European level capable of effectively coordinating the economic policies of the member states.” This gets him riled up. He is particularly sharp on the role of the German Federal Constitutional Court’s “solipsistic and normatively depleted mindset.”
He also complains about “the cheerful moderators of the innumerable talk shows, with their never-changing line-ups of guests,” which kill the viewer’s “hope that reasons could still count in political questions.”
A seemingly more placid tone prevails in his two scholarly texts on the juridification (i.e., codifying and legal enforcement) of democratic and humanitarian values. But there is a much tighter connection between Habermas’s fulminations and his conceptual architecture than it first appears.
Another recent volume, Shivdeep Singh Grewal’s Habermas and European Integration: Social and Cultural Modernity Beyond the Nation-State (Manchester University Press ), starts with a review of Habermas’s changing attitudes towards European unification over the past 30 years. Then Grewal -- an independent scholar who has taught at Brunel University and University College London -- reconstructs pertinent aspects of Habermas’s scholarly work over roughly the same period, surveying it in the context of the philosopher’s developing political concerns.
Using the political journalism as a way to frame his thinking about modernity is an unusual approach, but illuminating, and it avoids the familiar tendency in overviews of Habermas’s work to treat his books as if they spawned one another in turn.
To summarize things to a fault: From the U.S. and French revolutions onward, the nation-state was best able to secure its legitimacy through constitutional democracy. However limited in scope or restricted in mandate it was at the start, constitutional democracy opened up the possibility for public challenges to authority grounded on nothing more than tradition or inertia, which could in turn make for greater political inclusiveness. It could even try to protect its more vulnerable citizens and mitigate some kinds of inequality and economic dislocation.
Thus public life would expand and grow more various and complex, since more people would have access to more possibilities for decision-making. And that, in turn, demands a political structure both firm and flexible. Which brings us back to constitutional-democratic governance. A virtuous circle!
Actual constitutional democracies were another matter, but at least it was a normative model, something to shoot for. But the problems faced by nation-states cut across borders; and the more complex they become, the less power over them the separate states have. The point of creating a united Europe, from Habermas’s perspective, was, Grewal writes, “the urgent task of preserving the democratic and welfarist achievements of the nation state ‘beyond its own limits.’ ”
Habermas makes the point somewhere that institutions making decisions about transnational issues are going to exist in any case. Whether they will be accountable is another matter. Establishing a constitutional form of governance that goes beyond the nation-state would involve no end of difficulty in principle, let alone in practice, but it is essential.
It’s also not happening. Not right now, anyway. But as exasperated as Habermas sounds in Crisis, he has not given up. In an email discussion, Grewal pointed me to a recent statement called “Only deeper European unification can save the eurozone”  that the philosopher co-authored.
“Habermas acknowledges the 'laborious' and incremental learning learning process of the German government,” Grewal told me, “whilst bemoaning the lack of sufficiently bold and courageous politicians to take the European project forward.…The alternative to the transnationalization of democracy is, Habermas continues to suggest, a sort of post-democratic 'executive federalism', with shades of the opinion poll-watching, media-manipulating approach of figures such as Berlusconi and Putin.”
He acknowledges that there are people who don’t see this as an either-or option. It’s possible have both continent-spanning constitutional democracy and a political system in which media manipulation and pandering ensure that decision-making continues behind closed doors. Is it ever....
But even aside from that, why does Habermas count on bold and courageous politicians for the kind of change he wants? Part of his frustration, no doubt, is that he’s counting on the actions of people who don’t exist, or get sidelined quickly if they do. Democracy doesn’t come from on high. I respect the man's intentions and persistence, but wish he would come up with a better strategy.