Georg Diez: A Philosopher’s Mission to Save the EU

Jürgen Habermas has had enough. The philosopher is doing all he can these days to call attention to what he sees as the demise of the European ideal. He hopes he can help save it — from inept politicians and the dark forces of the market. Translated from the German by Paul Cohen, Der Spiegel, 11/25/2011.

habermas2Jürgen Habermas is angry. He’s really angry. He is nothing short of furious — because he takes it all personally.

He leans forward. He leans backward. He arranges his fidgety hands to illustrate his tirades before allowing them to fall back to his lap. He bangs on the table and yells: “Enough already!” He simply has no desire to see Europe consigned to the dustbin of world history.

“I’m speaking here as a citizen,” he says. “I would rather be sitting back home at my desk, believe me. But this is too important. Everyone has to understand that we have critical decisions facing us. That’s why I’m so involved in this debate. The European project can no longer continue in elite modus.”

Enough already! Europe is his project. It is the project of his generation.

Jürgen Habermas, 82, wants to get the word out. He’s sitting on stage at the Goethe Institute in Paris. Next to him sits a good-natured professor who asks six or seven questions in just under two hours — answers that take fewer than 15 minutes are not Habermas’ style. Usually he says clever things like: “In this crisis, functional and systematic imperatives collide” — referring to sovereign debts and the pressure of the markets. Sometimes he shakes his head in consternation and says: “It’s simply unacceptable, simply unacceptable” — referring to the EU diktat and Greece’s loss of national sovereignty.

‘No Convictions’

And then he’s really angry again: “I condemn the political parties. Our politicians have long been incapable of aspiring to anything whatsoever other than being re-elected. They have no political substance whatsoever, no convictions.” It’s in the nature of this crisis that philosophy and bar-room politics occasionally find themselves on an equal footing. It’s also in the nature of this crisis that too many people say too much, and we could definitely use someone who approaches the problems systematically, as Habermas has done in his just published book. But above all, it is in the nature of this crisis that the longer it continues, the more confusing it gets. It becomes more difficult to follow its twists and turns and to see who is responsible for what. And the whole time, alternatives are disappearing before our very eyes.

That’s why Habermas is so angry: with the politicians, the “functional elite” and the media. “Are you from the press?” he asks a man in the audience who has posed a question. “No? Too bad.” Habermas wants to get his message out. That’s why he’s sitting here. That’s why he recently wrote an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, in which he accused EU politicians of cynicism and “turning their backs on the European ideals.” That’s why he has just written a book — a “booklet,” as he calls it — which the respected German weekly Die Zeit promptly compared with Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.”

But does he have an answer to the question of which road democracy and capitalism should take?

A Quiet Coup d’État

“Zur Verfassung Europas” (“On Europe’s Constitution”) is the name of his new book, which is basically a long essay in which he describes how the essence of our democracy has changed under the pressure of the crisis and the frenzy of the markets. Habermas says that power has slipped from the hands of the people and shifted to bodies of questionable democratic legitimacy, such as the European Council. Basically, he suggests, the technocrats have long since staged a quiet coup d’état.

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