Why Habermas?

Hardly a day passes without someone coming up to me on the street and saying something like this to me:

Paul, you are my excellent local councillor, assiduous and magnanimous in all your works.  You are also a highly competent Chair of Governors with your finger on the pulse of education and a sense of how to negotiate a difficult course through often frankly senseless policy, as well as being known as much for your good works in many charitable areas as for your good looks and strong physique, such that in the distance I often mistake you for Hollywood A-lister Mr George Clooney.

I therefore value your opinion highly, and am interested in your current preference for the political philosophical project of Jurgen Habermas. What is it about the works of this elderly German gentleman which you find so persuasive in the context of modern Brexit Britain?

And I tend to reply to my supplicants in these terms:

I think your question, in your lowly position as my constituent, is well articulated and contains within it a high degree of Geltanspruch, or validity claim, in the sense that it is both reflective of the truthfulness of your current questioning position, and sincere in that you genuinely wish to know the answer. I am therefore prepared to invest my time in providing you with the answer you seek.

As an individual, Habermas is one of the only living, and almost certainly the only active political philosopher to have lived through fascism and the reconstruction of a nation in its aftermath. As such, a great deal of his intellectual energies have gone into a forensic project to understand and then “reconstruct” the processes – from the basic tenets of inter-subjective communication onwards – of stable states governed by the rule of law and by the “validities” required to make that so, and alongside this to understand both the perversions which occur in any turn to fascism and what we, as engaged citizens, need to do to protect the Enlightenment values which were destroyed in Germany and elsewhere before being re-established in stronger (though not unassailable form there) than in the so-called victor countries.

It therefore seems appropriate, at a time when democratic values and practices are now being actively subverted through a determined process of non-truth telling, in which lies are used primarily to conceal truth,but (in a way Hannah Arendt understood only too well), but to subjugate, by a requirement to repeat those lies and thus to corrupt the self.

It is this overarching grasp of how unchecked power has made the civil rights notion of “truth to power” untenable, and created instead a need to organise a defensive “truth to lies” movement, which makes Habermas’ work so important.

In more concrete terms, I draw your attention, noble constituent of mine, to what Habermas says at p.382 of the English translation of his masterwork Facts and Norms.  He says this:

“Under the conditions of a liberal pubic sphere, informal public communication accomplishes two things in which mobilization depends on crisis. On the one hand, it prevents the accumulation of indoctrinated masses that are seduced by populist leaders. On the other hand, it pulls together the scattered critical potentials of a public that was only abstractly held together by the public media, and it helps this public have a political influence on institutionalized opinion and will -formation. Only in liberal public spheres, of course, do sub-institutional political movements- which abandon the conventional paths of interest politics in order to boost the constitutional regulated power in he political system- take this direction. By contrast, an authoritarian, distorted public sphere that is brought into alignment merely provides a forum for plebiscitary legitimation.”

The reason Habermas is so important now is that we are at a critical juncture. We can become again a properly liberal state, in which conversations between equals matter, and are bound by norms of truth. Or we will descend into authoritarian rule, or worse, in which “the masses” are used to legitimate lies-become-truth.

It remains our choice. For now.”

With that, I say good day to my constituents, and continue on my way, all the while continuing to think through and plan how, as comrades for democracy, we might effect these principles in local and national political practice.

Author: paulinlancs

Councillor for the Socialist Republic of Bickerstaffe. Interested in making things happen, except when there's cricket on. Sadly, there's never cricket on.

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