The Lure of Technocracy


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The Lure of Technocracy - Short Political Writings XII

Contents I. European Conditions.

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Democracy or Capitalism? Posted by Thomas Gregersen at No comments:.

Newer Post Older Post Home. Beyond the dialectical flair, what recommends this perspective to Habermas is that it preserves cross-border coordination. In the name of restoring democracy, or at least staving off its further erosion, many would be tempted to step back from the EU and a common currency.

For Habermas, a straight choice between democracy and the EU must be refused. The losses incurred by renationalization—including losses to democracy itself—would simply be too great. A more democratic order must proceed via , not in repudiation of, the interdependent condition in which Europe finds itself. Yet Habermas stops short of implying that EU institutions will remake themselves.

Deeper democratization requires political intervention: the dialectical conditions may be right, but the opportunity must be seized. Here Habermas the public intellectual speaks directly to his compatriots. The route to transnational democracy thus goes via national democracy as well as via the unintended side effects of technocratic rule. His accent on German domestic politics reflects, one must assume, a tactical assessment of where the status quo is most susceptible to intervention. But it is certainly not just a pragmatic calculation.

The Riptide of Technocracy

Habermas consistently emphasizes national institutions as the legitimizing pillar of transnational politics. Repeatedly we are told that nation-state democracy is an achievement that, even if insufficient to the demands of the global economy, must not be sacrificed in the building of a transnational order.

The conflation of principled opposition to the EU and its policy-making with a primordial aversion to outsiders has been all too common in the discourse of EU technocrats. But is political dissatisfaction with the EU intelligible in the terms that Habermas suggests? It would be a stretch to say the ongoing debate about the British referendum is chiefly concerned with whether democracy is best served at the national or European level. Arguments about democracy are voiced, but often for strategic effect: many calls for EU exit seem designed not to re-politicize decision-making at the national level but to take certain policies off the agenda altogether notably worker-friendly employment laws and other social rights still protected by the EU.

And one may doubt how far the majority of ordinary citizens question the EU out of attachment to national democracy: their disaffection may simply represent the leading edge of disaffection with political institutions at all levels. Still, the basic intuition stands: as a democratic norm, one should avoid confusing political dissatisfaction with a cultural aversion to all things foreign. For Habermas and the wider Frankfurt School, political philosophy is not about imagining a better world from first principles: it must always proceed from the ideas and practices of the existing order.

Rather than reflect on abstract ideals, it must look for the logic that is already present, however imperfectly, in existing institutions and explore how they may be reformed to better express it. It is a deliberately non-utopian approach and reflects a conscious rejection of grand theorizing.

John Rawls

Indeed, for all the skepticism of Streeck and others, it may signal too great a concession to realism. After all, the mixed model Habermas describes retains significant tensions. Pitting the legitimacy claims of one national democracy against another was a favored move of the Euro-technocrats in the standoff between Berlin and Athens in the summer of A transnational order bound to national representative institutions will surely be prone to the territorialization of conflict.

There are costs, in other words, to rejecting a hierarchical federal structure for Europe and the more profoundly de-nationalized democracy it would entail.


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But the implication remains that the nation-state has a philosophical and not just sociological significance. To wholly subsume German political culture within a European superstate would be to cut off the present from the historical arc of a learning process. For Habermas, any desirable recasting of the EU must retain within it a privileged place for the national, since it is from national experience that the post-national constellation gains much of its normative promise.


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Habermas himself has expressed doubts in light of recent events. Yet the notion that Germany has a distinct moral status in light of its Nazi past is by no means idiosyncratic. The German government was far more direct and principled than others in welcoming refugees from Syria in the latter half of But it is not coincidental that Germany should take, at significant political risks, an overtly moral stance more forthright than anything seen elsewhere in Europe: it taps the sentiment that Habermas describes. Who then can free the EU from the riptide of technocracy? What forces in society might organize to impel Germany and other leading states to action?

On the channels of agency Habermas has less to say. Apparently the new order will be made from the political center, by the organs of the establishment raising their game. Yet some may suspect that meaningful change will require the emergence of more radical and innovative forces from the political margins—agents who have not already made their peace with austerity. Part of the Syriza government that took on Berlin in the summer of , Varoufakis quickly became an iconic figure in the negotiations, partly for riding a motorcycle, partly for his principled demands.

This is one kind of radicalism from the margins, but party politics remains relevant too. Whether such forces will exercise meaningful power in government remains to be seen, but it is not wholly unimaginable.

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The decisive question would then be whether several could hold power at once, or whether, like Syriza, they would be dismantled one by one. As the link in a cross-national chain, German domestic politics may be an important part of this process. But Habermasian arguments for EU reform will need to speak well beyond the Grand Coalition of parties currently in power. The concluding essay of the book turns to the reflections on Europe of the nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine, who offers an arresting vision of a transnational order shaped by differences of political opinion rather than competing territorial interests and identities.

Democracy, not helplessness, is what moves in the undertow of technocracy. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support.

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