Of the many voices raised in Europe against Angela Merkel’s and Wolfgang Schäuble’s handling of the debt crisis in Greece, one of the most strident and uncompromising has been that of the eighty-six-year-old German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Long regarded as Europe’s leading public intellectual, Habermas denounced the July 12 deal between Greece and the eurozone leaders as “an act of punishment against a leftwing government.” It was, he said, a “toxic mixture of necessary structural reforms…with further neoliberal impositions that will completely discourage an exhausted Greek population and kill any impetus to growth.”1
In Habermas’s view it was entirely understandable, in the Greek election last January and in the July 5 “referendum,” that the people of Greece would vote for a government that would resist the “barbaric costs” of the austerity program imposed on them by the country’s creditors. But though he understands the impulse for popular control, Habermas despairs of the nation-state as the appropriate domain for democratic politics in Europe. He is one of our most important theorists of democracy but the democracy he calls for is “post-national democracy,” democracy that operates at precisely the level at which the objectionable impositions upon Athens have been made. He refuses to associate his denunciation of Merkel with the growing chorus of Euroskepticism on the left. On the contrary, he is passionately in favor of a united Europe. Habermas’s views on all this add up to one of the most intriguing positions in modern European politics, and it is worth trying to get to the bottom of it.
There is, first of all, a sad irony in his denunciation. For many years, Germany had tried to redeem itself in Europe by displaying a “greater political sensitivity” to its neighbors and what Habermas called “a post-national mentality.” He believes that after the moral catastrophe of World War II, Germany had no option but to seek European unification, so that his country could “develop a liberal self-understanding for the first time” by embedding itself in Western Europe. Much of his work has charted the ambivalence of this self-understanding in German politics. But he says now that it was the events of 1989–1990—the unification of Germany—that directed his attention to the legal and political reorganization of world society that had been taking shape in the meantime.
In recent years, he has devoted himself to the problems of the EU. Many of his followers, he says, find this new preoccupation “tame” and “boring.” But Habermas seems now to be utterly committed to the European project. And that makes the stand he has taken on the Greek crisis all the more challenging.
The Lure of Technocracy is Habermas’s fourth book on Europe. It was published in German in 2013 and it has just been translated into English. The book is a short…
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