Habermas @ Leuven: the EU as enormous labor union?

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None other than Jürgen Habermas has come to speak at Leuven, and about nothing less than the future of the European Union – to be precise, “Solidarity, Democracy, and the European Union”. God bless him, Habermas is nigh unintelligible when he speaks (fortunately, the university distributed copies of his lecture), but no one can question that his heart is in the right place. The question is whether his heart possesses the best possible argument; that seems doubtful to me.

Arguably, Habermas is famous among philosophers, social scientists, and activists for making a Golden Age out of the Enlightenment era, and drawing abstract models therefrom. The best example is his famous description of how the public sphere and liberal democracy came to emerge. Historically, a crucial institution was the coffeehouse, which philosophically becomes liberal democracy in ideal form: a common, agreed-upon space wherein interlocutors agree to rationally and coolheadedly debate an issue to a consensus. Elections, in their best form, resemble such a debate; so, too, legislative discussions.

With respect to the European Union’s present troubles and its future solution, the historical model for Habermas, at least as I understand him, appears to be the late-nineteenth century labor union, which philosophically becomes supranational democracy in ideal form. This time, the idea is of forging a cohesive fraternity with a democratic (i.e., rational, deliberative) but still collective decision-making process with a wealth-sharing agenda. I presume that because everyone is acting and thinking in solidarity, and because the European Union’s various institutions are driven to work for the best interests of this collective, the notorious “democracy deficit” that besets the Union today would evaporate. So too would disappear the clash of national self-interests that are threatening, says Habermas (and we all sort of feel it), to rend asunder the northern and southern economies.

The historical comparison, based upon his remarks in the third and final, philosophical part of his lecture, appears to be the following. In the nineteenth century, various social classes found themselves uprooted by liberal bourgeois capitalism and industrialization; in self-defense – indeed, to make the world a better place – they came together in cohesive fraternities, essentially thinking and operating as one against a common foe. Today, the nation-states are the equivalent to the social classes of back then: they have been uprooted by neo-liberal neo-aristocratic capitalism and globalization, and only by uniting in solidarity can they hope to survive and make the world a better place. Hence, the European Union should be literally that, a (labor) union, on a huge scale.

Finally, Habermas poses this argument as a solution to none other than the problem of public opinion in his own nation, Germany. Only the European Council has the power and authority to bring about supranational democracy, but because of its structure, paradoxically and tragically, it cannot and will not do this, at least not until it absolutely has no other choice. Germany is both the key player in the institution and a microcosm of it: Habermas’ homeland finds itself once more in the position of “semi-hegemony”, “too weak to dominate the continent, but too strong to bring itself into line” (Ludwig Dehios), and additionally, it has everything to gain from deeper European integration, but because of its structure, it cannot bring itself to do what is necessary.

So, Habermas wonders: what possible compelling interest could there be to make the German public finally take the leap into supranational democracy? He doesn’t say it outright, but we can grok the answer: only when they realize that the same carnivorous political-economic forces that have devoured the futures of the Portugese, Spanish, Irish, Italian, Greek, and Cypriot publics’ futures is coming, sooner or later, to devour their own. They need, in other words, today’s equivalent of class consciousness – they need national consciousness (not Habermas’ formulation, my own).

Assuming that I’ve gotten Habermas’ basic thinking down accurately – or perhaps I’ve creatively misread him – either way, this sounds great, and it also sounds way too incomplete. Speaking as a Bahá’í, there is definitely something appealing in this notion of “national consciousness”, and of the solidarity that should inevitably arise from it. And speaking as a recovering semi-Leftist, that Habermas has found a compelling illustration for social democracy in the neo-liberal order – none other than the very labor union that brought it about! – is all the more enticing. But is the argument, although cogent, really legit? I’m not certain.

Philosophers who’ve studied Habermas know that he’s got a lot of Hegelian genetics, so he’s often subject to the same kind of worldview that we find in Marx. The portrayal of the labor union here is simply not historically accurate. For one, the labor union was not a revolutionary force: rather than overthrow the bourgeoisie, most labor unions of yesteryear sought a piece of the capitalist pie for themselves; only in communist societies did the proletariat seek to actively replace the bourgeoisie and become the masters of production themselves.

Moreover, today in the West, many labor unions are now so self-centered, so determined to have a piece of that yummy capitalist pie only for themselves, they very often won’t help each other, much less the general, non-proletariat public. In fact, sometimes their tactics seem to fly in the face of the concept of good public relations, not to mention decency or, yes, solidarity. The neo-liberals have succeeded in dismantling labor unions precisely because the labor unions have been so good at helping them do it. This hardly seems like a good model for the European Union: presuming the Europeans do unite, we should tremble at the thought of how they shall behave on the world stage if they were to do it as an enormous labor union.

Nevertheless, labor unions once did stand up for what was universal, good, and true – and it is also true that the bourgeoisie did horrible things to stop them. Unionization, even if not for Marxistic glory, was a real and bloody struggle. However, here lies a crucial point with respect to Germany: who were the individuals that posed the greatest threat to their fellows? It was not the bourgeoisie; it was the workers aligned with the bourgeoisie, typically as management or as the factory floor managers (and as every American knows, labor union leaderships can also be bought). The point is: according to such logic, Germany is the one actually in the role of this treacherous comrade. And how were these treacherous comrades made to see the light? With blood.

Therein lies the fearsome aspect of Habermas’ argument, and its latent, unconscious Marxism: could he still be creating a formula for the very violence he is seeking to avoid? The solidarity may come about, but by an unanticipated consequence of Habermasian logic, only by another great conflagration, in the same spirit as that last, far more terrible conflagration which forced Germany back into the fold…

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7 Replies to “Habermas @ Leuven: the EU as enormous labor union?”

  1. Unions do not, from what I can see, negotiate or interact with the world using principles of practical reasoning… or any reasoning at all. They impose what they think is advantageous for themselves through varying methods of power, and only for their own benefit. Fairness is not the watchword of the labor union. Power is.

  2. i dont think the germans will see the light. i think there will be blood, but not against the germans. it will be in the countries that enslaved themselves into the union.

    eventually, humans may one day realize giving up sovereignty to some overlord for the greater good is not good at all.

  3. These utopian guys always talk about bright future and call for loyalty in the mass. When you present them with cruel and complex reality and bloody history they say they’re only talking about ideals, literally denying their relevance to reality, but ironically they do command followers in doing this or that, much more successfully than conservatives. Let’s at least pay some attention to I. Berlin and Hayek in their warnings against utopian talking, not about their being unrealistic but their being dangerous.

  4. I missed the labor union analogy during his speech. I thought what he meant to propose was a European-wide integration of all parts (classes) of society, which, naturally, would include not only the labors. I don’t recall Habermas being antagonistic to the bourgeoisie either..on the contrary, doesn’t he believe that the bourgeoisie is among those who contribute to the making of a more rational, autonomous, Enlightened society?
    I salute Habermas’ sincere support for the EU — his faith in nation-states is eroding, and he is one of the people who work really hard to remind the Germans about the atrocity that they committed during the Second World War. He believes that further integration of the EU would solve the dilemma that the 21st century nation states are facing, as well as prevent narrow ethnocentrism from resurging violence in the continent. He believes that a deeper integration of the EU would prove to the world how constitutional patriotism works. My problem with his theory is that he takes for granted that a post-nationalist world will move naturally towards (his vision of) “Enlightenment”, and that in this particular field Europe/the West will lead and guide the world. There *exist*, you know, outside the Occidental, the alternatives of Habermas’ rational, autonomous conventions of civil society…(cue the Chinese “authoritarian deliberation”, Calcutta’s practice of adda, etc.)

    (Wow! Writing this made me feel super hungry.)

  5. I’m not familiar with Habermas, but I think your post well illustrates the limits of not only utopianism, but ideology itself. Your post reminds me of a Far Side cartoon where a mathematician is trying to prove that a theory works by filling a chalkboard with formulas and numbers, and near the end of it are the words “Then a miracle happens!” and on the other side of it a few more numbers and symbols.

    Ideology usually starts with valid observations about certain tendencies in human society but then tries to apply it–in a Henry Ford assembly-line way–to other challenges. As such, ideolgies become points of contention and conflict and often a hindrance to creative problem-solving. Many religions, of course, have also been guilty of playing this role, and most Baha’is know what ‘Abdu’l-Baha said about religions that become the source of such conflict.

    I think history will judge this kind of thinking as an unfortunate by-product of the Industrial Revolution but probably one of many difficult lessons we collectively needed to learn. I do, however, get concerned when other Baha’is fall into the similar cognitive traps that much of the rest of the Western world’s politicians fall into, even as they try to claim their independence from such politics…

  6. Hello. I just wrote a post and then refreshed the page accidentally… So I’ll quickly cover my main points.

    * The EU currently resembles a modern-day European monarchy: it doesn’t include as much blood anymore, but it still has most of the money and resources available to society.
    * Habermas’ suggestion of moving from a representative democracy to an ‘actual’ democracy is right on the spot. We should be organizing periodical gatherings pertaining to the most recent social developments, so as to make European culture more cohesive.
    * Also, the EU should seriously re-evaluate its legislation in terms of economic distribution and national versus international rights. I feel that the EU lacks a proper long-term system that is capable of assisting integration within our supposedly globalizing world.
    * Additionally, I think de-centralizing the EU would not be such a bad idea. Right now every notably important institution is mostly located in Brussels, whilst Germany is dominating the market completely. Competition measures can only be done successfully if that also implies expanding welfare from the precious north to the rest of the continent.
    * Last but not least, if indeed Habermas has Marxist undertones then I believe it does not have the purpose of first destroying the EU and then re-establishing unions… Rather I think he wants to make use of the current benefits of the EU framework, in order to be able to more efficiently invoke necessary changes that involve the immediate co-operation and eventual interests of every EU citizen. Since the EU offers mobility I think those are one of the aspects that citizens could work with in order to improve overall living conditions.

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