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


Jet Budelman/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

Jürgen Habermas, Vienna, 2004

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 collection of brief essays, most of them devoted to the prospects for European democracy and to Habermas’s concerns about the alternative—what he calls “technocracy,” the rule of experts.

Habermas is Europe’s most formidable political philosopher. For a long time, the emphasis of his public writing was on Germany. And some of that remains. The Lure of Technocracy contains an interesting essay devoted to the return to Germany after the war of Jewish figures like Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, leaders in the Frankfurt School in which, in the 1950s and 1960s, Habermas pursued his concerns about the foundations of the new Germany and the mostly American model of culture and society that inspired it.

But his main concern in this book is with the future of democracy in Europe. Most European countries are democratic. Indeed, among the members of the European Union are some of the most respected democracies in the world. They have free and fair elections; they are open societies with free speech and freedom of association; and their officials can be counted on to carry out the laws that their elected representatives vote for. But can we say the same about the EU itself? It is supposed to be democratic: Article 10 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty stipulates that “the functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy.”

But the EU’s functioning falls well short of this. Of its major institutions only the European Parliament has any direct elective credentials; and it has the least power. In The Lure of Technocracy, Habermas says that the Parliament “is supposed to establish a bridge between the political battles of opinions in the national arenas and the momentous decisions taken in Brussels.” But, he laments, “there is hardly any traffic on this bridge.” As for the other institutions, the best one can say is that the Council of Ministers (together with the commission that implements the council’s decisions) derives its legitimacy from the ministers’ credentials in their respective home democracies.


Does the EU need to be democratic? It is not a state like France or Ireland. But the measures adopted by the commission and the Council of Ministers increasingly constrain the policies of the member states so that the democratic failings of the EU threaten to compromise democratic governance at the national level too. Things happen in Britain and Poland—involving maximum working hours, for example, or aspects of immigration policy—because of decisions made in Brussels rather than because of anything that British or Polish citizens have voted for or for which their politicians can be held accountable.

Some political scientists believe that this talk of a “democratic deficit” in the European Union’s institutions is exaggerated or that it doesn’t really matter.2 Not Habermas. His view is that the EU was undemocratic in its inception and that the democratic deficit grows larger every day. And it is hard to think of a modern political philosopher who cares more about democracy or its absence.

As I said, Jürgen Habermas is Europe’s most widely respected political philosopher. He brings to his analysis of the EU an understanding of democracy that is deeper than that of most intellectuals. The Lure of Technocracy is a small book, but behind it loom large volumes of Habermas’s more abstract writings on the principles that inspire democratic procedures.

Habermas’s philosophical writing is not the clearest in the history of political thought, and his ideas are convoluted and difficult. By contrast, his thoughts on Europe are incisive and direct. I suspect this makes them less interesting to those whose allegiance to the great man has something of the character of an esoteric cult, of which they are oracles. Outside the charmed circle, however, readers may be tempted to neglect Habermas’s philosophy altogether. That would be a pity, if only because his complex position on the EU and Greece is unintelligible apart from the depth of his commitments in democratic theory.

Any theory of democracy works, at base, with a fairly simple model, which it then maps onto the detail of actually existing institutional arrangements. A model is necessarily simple compared to the reality to which it applies, but its role is to help us see through the complexity to identify things that really matter to us, whether we are assessing elective institutions at Westminster or diagnosing democratic failings in the European Parliament.

Habermas’s model begins with something that entranced Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau before him: the idea of self-legislation or political autonomy. In a democracy, laws are supposed to have legitimacy because the people to whom they are addressed are also their authors. Of course, our authorship of the laws that apply to us is offset by layers of institutional structure: elections, representation, majority decision, and the elaborate procedures that parliaments use to debate and enact a bill. Still, all of this is done in our name, and the institutional layers are supposed to be governed by a principle of political equality that gives each of us an equal say, direct or indirect, in the lawmaking process. In the final analysis these procedures are us, making laws for ourselves.

To this model of people making laws for themselves, Habermas adds three additional layers. First, he frames the democratic process by emphasizing “deliberation.” There are millions of us—hundreds of millions in the EU—diverse and opinionated. We disagree about what laws we need or want. But democracy means not only that we vote on these questions, but that each of us has to face up to all the arguments there are for and against a given measure. In some hands, this element of deliberation is understood in a solitary way—one assembles the reasons in one’s head, so to speak, and reaches a conclusion for oneself about how to vote. But Habermas’s model is irreducibly a matter of dialogue. We make law for ourselves in the company of others—all others who are going to be obligated—and if we are to meet democratic standards we convince ourselves that a given set of laws is necessary, if it is, by listening respectfully to what others say about the interests and values of theirs that are at stake in the matter.

This happens in formal deliberation in the legislature and it happens pervasively, too, in civil society—in the media and in the marketplace of ideas. Nowhere, not even in the most abstract reaches of his philosophical model, does Habermas ever lose sight of the importance of the other person in deliberation. So for him the question of how the citizens of Europe can really deliberate together is inescapable. His philosophical position does not allow him to accept that a technocrat in Brussels thinking rationally about public policy is any substitute for that.


A second layer concerns Habermas’s idea of rationality and values. When people talk to each other, they are not, as he conceives such conversation, just engaged in instrumental reasoning. They are presenting to each other everything that is important to them about the matters under discussion, including ultimate values and concerns that go way beyond the economic considerations that pervade technocratic thinking. Some of Habermas’s recent work has explored ways of making religious ideas intelligible across the divide that separates believers from their secular fellow citizens.3 A 2006 pamphlet has him in conversation with Pope Benedict XVI when the latter was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.4 That’s a recent development. But the critique of instrumental rationality—of means/end reasoning oriented to insufficiently examined goals—has been a theme of Habermas’s work since the 1950s. Like other members of the Frankfurt School, Habermas worried that we had created for ourselves an arid and dehumanized discourse of economic imperatives and satisfactions.

This too affects his view of European institutions. The Brussels-based technocracy doesn’t just claim that it is better at “delivering the goods” than more inclusive participatory procedures would be. It changes our sense of what “the goods” are. Increasingly, technocratic expertise is defined according to a regime’s ability to secure and enjoy the confidence of global markets through, for example, restrictions on the ability of national parliaments to regulate the economic activity of foreign investors. And this means other goods are sidelined:

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel; drawing by James Ferguson

A technocracy without democratic roots would have neither the power nor the motivation to accord sufficient weight to the demands of the electorate for social justice, status security, public services and collective goods, in the event of a conflict with the systemic demands for competitiveness and economic growth.

If democratic deliberation is to be rational, it must engage reasons and demands such as these, not just the accountant’s arithmetic pointing to fiscal austerity.

The third thing that distinguishes Habermas’s model is an insistence that democratic deliberation may be understood entirely in terms of the processes that it involves. Most philosophers come to democratic theory not only with an idealized set of fair political procedures in mind but also with an idealized view about what should count as just or appropriate outcomes of these procedures. In the institutions they advocate—whether it is a system of representation or a constitutional court—they seek some sort of adjustment or compromise between democratic procedures and just outcomes.

Certainly Habermas, a long-standing social democrat, has his own views on what would be just outcomes, and these have played an important part in his argument about Greece. But as I read him, he is not trying to present a model in which the desirability of certain outcomes would count as a reason for constraining the procedures of institutional democracy. Instead, what we see on nearly every page he has ever written is a commitment to the view that when we idealize democratic procedures—when we try to define “an ideal speech situation” for political deliberation that respects everyone as a potential contributor—our theory is to be built up out of nothing but procedural concerns. Habermas’s theory “attributes legitimizing force to the process of democratic opinion- and will-formation itself.” The crucial questions for Habermas are: Who is included, who is not included? Who is being silenced or browbeaten? Whose interests are being allowed to distort the process of communication? Political legitimacy for Habermas comes from respectful and thorough answers to questions like these—not, certainly, from populist demagogy, but at the same time not from institutional mechanisms like the European Central Bank or the European Court of Justice, both of which finesse democratic procedures.

This means that his concern about the absence of democratic procedures in the EU is pretty much nonnegotiable. It doesn’t matter that the Brussels technocrats—often under pressure from the more powerful nations, such as Germany—come up with right answers if those answers do not actually emerge from a fair participatory process. Certainly, he tells us, there is “no lack of proposals that cast the existing democratic deficits [i.e., the lack of democratic participation and consent] in a flattering light through a shrewd reduction of democratic standards.” But Habermas’s own philosophical commitments mean that he has to repudiate all such philosophical tricks.


If democracy is so important, then why not treat the undemocratic character of the EU as a ground for Euroskepticism? Why not scramble back to “the reliable shelter of the nation-state,” where at least something like democratic governance is available? Britain may well try to do this in the referendum on EU membership that David Cameron has promised in the next two years. And some of Habermas’s comrades on the German left take this position too.

The answer, for Habermas, is that particular nations no longer have the sort of control of their own destiny that would make this reversion worthwhile. “It is counterproductive,” he says, “to cling to the state-centered tradition of modern political thought.” Embedded capitalism—the version that located major capitalist industries within the economies and legal systems of particular countries—has, Habermas argues, run its course and globalized markets are outstripping national politics. Financial markets cannot be mastered by particular sovereign states. If all our faith is invested in national-level democracy, then we will forfeit democratic control of many of our most important economic decisions.

In any case, the siren song of technocracy is sounding at the national level as well. What Habermas calls the “technocratic hollowing out of democracy” is already apparent within national systems of government. It is not that Habermas wants to denigrate the democracy of particular states. Some of the passion behind his post-national vision is for the institutions of social justice and social welfare that have been fostered by national democracies. But that achievement now needs democratic stewardship at a global or at least a regional level. And he wants to strengthen, not weaken, that stewardship in Europe. “I do not see how a return to nation states that have to be run like big corporations in a global market can counter the tendency towards de-democratisation and growing social inequality,” he told The Guardian recently.


For many, there remains a stumbling block: How can there possibly be democratic decision-making in Europe if there is no European demos? As things stand, public opinion in Europe remains thoroughly immured in the politics of the twenty-eight member states. The citizens whom Habermas is urging to think like Europeans read their own national newspapers, they form political parties in their own countries, and they are extremely sensitive about aspects of EU policy that involve redistribution of resources, opportunities, or burdens across national boundaries. The recent crises over responsibility for asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East foundering in their boats in the Mediterranean—and facing fences and other barriers on the European mainland—are but one example.

Habermas cannot afford to flinch from this difficulty. If anything, the problems that Europhobes point to are deepened by his political philosophy. For his model of democracy requires above all a public whose members talk to one another, whose “national public spheres gradually open themselves up to each other,” from Portugal to Poland and from Ireland to Greece. Quite apart from linguistic and cultural difficulties (about which he does not say nearly enough), what he calls “the transnationalization of the existing national publics” will have to involve interest groups and parties organized at the European level, and activists and intellectuals (like himself) with what he calls a pan-European profile. Newspapers and television channels will have to “thematize…European issues as such” and if they are national media they will have to report on the “controversies which the same topics evoke in other member states.”

Not only that, but Europeans need to form themselves into a political community whose “members…can feel responsibility for one another.” Habermas believes this is a matter of transforming one “we-perspective” into another. In this, he is encouraged by his conviction that existing nation-state communities did not develop spontaneously, any more than the EU did; instead each one was “legally constructed” as an organized form of political integration. In a state of seventy or eighty million people, solidarity with one’s fellow nationals is itself an abstraction, and if it has been made to work in Britain or France or Italy, might it not be made to work at the European level as well? Opposition in Europe to EU integration, he says, is not necessarily xenophobic or “reactive clinging to naturalized characteristics of ethno-national origin.” It is rather “the insistence of self-conscious citizens on the normative achievements of their respective nation-states.” As such it is not an insurmountable obstacle to the sort of vision Habermas has in mind.

Some agree with Carl Schmitt (a former Nazi thinker who enjoys a remarkable following among modern political theorists) that you cannot forge a political identity without an enemy to give sharpness to its boundaries. Habermas rightly rejects this as dangerous nonsense. Yet I wonder whether he isn’t occasionally tempted by something of this kind. Sometimes he suggests that European identity might be sharpened by a sort of tepid anti-Americanism. In an essay cosigned by Jacques Derrida, Habermas cited “February 15, 2003,” the day on which tens of thousands of people in London, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, and Paris protested the invasion of Iraq in some of the largest demonstrations seen since the end of World War II, as the harbinger of “the birth of a European public.”

This seems to me rather thin. For one thing, the demonstrations were echoed in New York and Los Angeles—and in London also (which Habermas associates with the US in this enmity). For another thing, he exaggerates the extent of anti-American sentiment: Is it really true that “the overwhelming majority of Western Europeans responded with one voice to the reckless war of George Bush, Jr.”? Anyway, the suggestion is ephemeral. Who now remembers February 15—or even 15 February—as though it were like September 11? It is, I think, unworthy of Habermas’s cosmopolitan vision.

In many respects, the US works as an exemplar for Habermas, not as a point of Schmittian otherness. He takes the American experience as encouraging evidence that people, in a country of immigrants, can hold layered and incompletely integrated political identities. His well-known theory of constitutional patriotism explains the growth of a “we, the people” mentality as a nonethnic basis for American identity. A similar kind of patriotism is crucial for what Habermas has in mind for Europe. European constitutional patriotism, as he envisages it, will no doubt differ in some respects from the US version. It will look to principles that would be challenged by some powerful social and political forces in the US, principles such as

secularism, the priority of the state to the market, the primacy of social solidarity over “merit,”…rejection of the law of the stronger, and the commitment to peace as a result of the historical experience of loss.

But the form is supposed to be the same: an identity organized around a constitution rather than around a particular ethnicity.

It is hard to know how optimistic Habermas is in all of this. He is utterly committed to European democracy, but sometimes he seems quite alone in his commitment. “Today,” he says, “I cannot identify anyone anywhere in Europe who would risk a polarizing election campaign to mobilize majorities for Europe—and only that could save us.”

But the experience of the face-off between Angela Merkel and Alexis Tsipras has brought this issue to life. A lesser thinker would just denounce the neoliberal program of austerity and applaud the tactics of the government in Athens and leave it at that. Habermas does all that, but he also refuses to budge from his demand for European democratization. He knows why people are wary (and weary) of European institutions. And he doesn’t blame them: “The process of European unification…was conducted above the heads of the population from the very beginning,” and those who built European institutions are persisting “unapologetically in…the disenfranchisement of the European citizens.”

The social consequences in Athens have been frightful. But opposition from social democrats needs to emphasize democracy as well as social goods and not to connive at the technocrat’s “overtly writing off democracy as merely decorative.” Habermas cannot be accused of that, nor can he be accused of not taking the European experiment seriously. His combination of these positions amounts to a standing reproach to what he denounces as the “constipated manner in which the German government perceives its leadership role.”