interview Jürgen Habermas

There Are Alternatives

For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic, a Chancellor has been voted out of office in a national election. Can we conclude that German democracy has gained in self-confidence? Yes, I think we can. Hitherto political parties manoeuvred to change coalition partners during a legislature. This was the way both Ludwig Erhard and Helmut Schmidt were forced out. Now citizens have taken it upon themselves to reject a Chancellor. In a democracy voters must believe that their decisions can at certain turning-points influence a self-enclosed and bureaucratized political world. In West Germany it required several generations for this democratic attitude really to take hold. I have the impression that this change is now effectively sealed.1 You always felt Helmut Kohl guaranteed the Western credentials of the Federal Republic. Will you miss him?

especially after 1989. if it doesn’t sound too presumptuous. soon afterwards Willy Brandt became Chancellor with a paper-thin SocialLiberal majority.Every necessary criticism of Kohl has already been made. Kohl had clearly not forgotten the monstrous mises-enscène of Nazi rallies or the Chaplinesque antics of our fascist mountebanks. or elsewhere. Kohl achieved something else against his own intentions. there were surely many people of my age who remembered a spring in 1969. The failure of his original talk of a ‘spiritual-moral change’ acted as something of a litmus test. I am thinking here of his almost bodily disavowal of the kind of political aesthetic that elitist spirits called for. unaltered even 1 Interview with Gunter Hofmann and Thomas Assheuer. a figure famous for his integrity. Once Kohl in office found that he could no longer do what he wanted at Verdun or Bitburg. Is this just a political shift. published in Die Zeit. The present situation is quite different. or does it signal a change of cultural outlook? As the unprecedented scale of the Left’s electoral majority became clear on the evening of the poll. People of my age also recognize Kohl as one of their own generation. After his election as Federal President. Certainly we often groaned at the shapeless provincialism of Kohl’s words and gestures. The previous period I lived through as a time poisoned by continuities of personnel and outlook with a fatal past. His historical merit was to embed German unification in a wider enterprise of European unity. Gustav Heinemann spoke of a certain ‘shift in power’. it was clear that the country had become a liberal society. my generation wanted. of ‘internal enemies’ on the left—a deep dread of subversion discharged once again in the pogrom-like atmosphere of autumn 1977. 8 October 1998. One of the mental fixtures of the early Federal Republic was the suspicion. But I came to appreciate the deflation of sonorous vacuities and banalization of public ceremonies that went with it. 4 . Kohl no longer drew sustenance from this kind of emotional attitude. So the political shift was the eventual outcome of a deeper change in the cultural climate. The shift of power at the turn of the sixties came after a decade of dogged intellectual opposition and another decade of active political confrontation with its legacy. There is going to be a red-green government in Germany now. In that conjuncture. Maybe we succeeded in mustering some of it against the turgid inwardness. the long delayed end of the Adenauer epoch found a striking embodiment in the person of his opponent Heinemann. For years nothing has changed in a diffuse and paralyzing cultural climate. misprinted grandeur. There was an element of contrariness in Kohl’s style which. and compulsion to the sublime of the airs and graces of the German spirit. voiced by thinkers like Carl Schmitt.

Maybe the experience of the older projects has made people somewhat jaded with new ones. Is a ‘red-green project’ possible? Or is the space for any political action now so reduced that there are only different versions of centre politics? A red-green project existed up to the end of the 198os. What can it do about mass unemployment? The leeway of national governments has shrunk in two critical the handful of jokers who tried to have fun at the interface between a chubby neo-liberalism and a pallid post-modernism. The result is a largely defensive approach to the conditions of an altered and essentially post-national constellation of power. at least since Daniel Bell’s book The End of Ideology—far too often to have any credibility. Since then. So there are no alternatives? Not at all. and avoided any source of potential offence. if only for the purpose of finding alternative financial resources. That is why the relationship between economics and politics needs to be addressed in new and reflexive fashion. But this slogan has time and again been invoked and discredited in the past fifty years. while the familiar instruments of macroeconomic policy cease to function in an economic space that is no longer a national unit. In politics. That is what is missing today. The state is increasingly ineffective as a fiscal authority in the domestic economy. The question is posed: must politics continue indefinitely to be a process of deregulation? To simplify: does the declining efficacy of national politics point towards an ultimate abdication of the political domain altogether. Everyone speaks today of a ‘post-ideological age’. One does not have to look far to see a burning problem ahead for the new government. or can the medium of political action be regenerated on 5 . nothing moves without an ‘issue’ that divides people. It is the mistaken premise that a social and ecological transformation could be accomplished in a national framework. the constraints of ‘German unity’ and ‘the global economy’ have watered the project down to little more than the slogan of ‘modernization and social justice’—garnished with a drop of ecologically conscious tax reform. What worries me is the lack of any new perspective on this situation. On election night the relaxed faces of the losers made it clear they did not take all the talk of a ‘change of direction’ too seriously. The social-democratic challenger eschewed any polarization of opinion. The excitement over such tremors of yesterday is already virtually forgotten today. It is not so much the pragmatic sobering up that disturbs me in the new stance. This is not what happened in the recent election. as long as there was a possibility of Oskar Lafontaine winning the next general election. What do you understand by a ‘project’ here? There is a project when you address a controversial issue and propose an analysis of it that clarifies the question at stake and makes some political goals more plausible than others.

6 . European marketeers happy with the euro are now joining forces with former Eurosceptics to preserve the status quo of a Europe united only over the establishment of markets. But it will do nothing to alter the increased dependency of the state on economic conditions that have been fundamentally transformed at the global level. If we want to avoid a further increase of social inequalities. In your new book ‘The Post-National Constellation’ you challenge politicians to leap over their shadows. would it not be more sensible first to make use of what political possibilities exist at the national level. Anyway. Can and should there be a democratically legitimated exercise of power beyond the limits of the nation state? The need for regulation stands before us and defines politics. The question is whether the post-national constellation does not also require different and more effective forms of political action. if we are to avoid a competitive rush for deregulation by the various member states. I should say that it extends beyond Europe to the idea of an international domestic policy without a world government. do we not need an effective European-wide federal state? That is the crux.other levels. it is good news that we now have a government that can be trusted to try everything that deserves the name of a reform within at least the national framework. as the single European market is completed by a common monetary policy. Schröder knows that the introduction of the euro makes the problem of harmonizing tax-regimes acute. and will continue to be such for a long time to come. but has to be democratically legitimated. Effective income redistribution cannot simply be settled in Brussels. the European Central Bank. He explained this after the election with the example of petrol prices. to keep pace with the power of transnational markets? This is now the central issue. On the other hand. But first of all we have to decide whether we really wish to build a Europe capable of concerted political action. and the creation and segmentation of an underclass of the poor. and reconstruct the welfare state on a supranational level. It seems to me that we must work towards common social and economic policies within the European Union. rather than saying good-bye to the nation-state as such? The nation-state is still the most important political actor. neo-corporatist procedures have their limits. Behind Theo Waigel’s slogan that ‘the euro speaks German’ lies merely an oath of loyalty to an apolitical institution. We can already see a change of political fronts. Would you regard this as a yardstick for measuring Gerhard Schröder’s potential success? Yes. I have no doubt that the ‘grinding of plates’ Schröder wants to effect after receiving so many careful proposals and well-known recommendations for reform could have some success. It is impossible to part with it so quickly. that is exactly my view. and nothing else. Given that there are hardly any supranational institutions that count.

Difficult problems of this kind require supranational agreement over environmental. It is true that voters in many European countries are rather suspicious of a distant Brussels. I merely observe how economic. political and scientific managers are responding to the imminent adoption of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment—which. who should control it? Would you be satisfied with a disabled democracy—without a critical public sphere? No. The member states have enough to worry about with their own internal problems. at the moment only on the drawing-board. But Delors’s campaign for a ‘social dimension’ is borne by other and more proximate interests. The historical commitment of the post-war generations in Germany to overcome a murderous nationalism and achieve reconciliation with France seems somehow to have been exhausted. Assuming that some kind of political union did come about in Europe. What makes you so hopeful that a European project for economic development will follow? Yes. This is not merely the case in Germany. even Kohl insisted on a Europe des patries after the Cardiff Conference. Such a project is in no way doomed to failure by the variety of our national languages. Such institutions. That is why in future Joschka Fischer will prove to be the more reliable European. could help to foster those processes without which they would lack any infrastructure. is more about institutionalizing markets than ‘taming capitalism’. But we can certainly aim for a European constitution. social and economic measures. and that means a European political constitution. It has taken every effort of the major European players just to agree on the euro.Is not society actually shrewder and more aware of these problems than we think? Even the top minds of the Deutsche Bank want to tame capitalism. That is the sore point. Its aim is to assure legal security for investments through an internationally effective equivalent of what private civil law supplies within a national framework. I am for a European federal state. But this they generally do not. I know him long and well enough to be confident that the change of guard from Kohl to Fischer will be a happy one. So your scepticism is unfortunately quite justified. It is always much easier to create and institutionalize new markets than it is to correct them. A European-scale civil society could develop if a European public sphere were constructed. nor will it be spontaneously generated by economic interaction. and citizens’ initiatives that transcend national boundaries. unless intellectuals provoke some public debate about them. here in Germany even less than in France or Britain. I have no idea what these gentlemen think. Their political elites will pay no attention to the larger European issues. as far as I can see. as the German Constitutional Court’s judgement on Maastricht thought to 7 . A common political culture cannot be conjured up ex nihilo.

and tacitly do so all the time. It is just because the domain of public communication functions as a hinge between the informal shaping of opinion and the more institutionalized procedures of will-formation (for example in a general election or a cabinet meeting) that the condition—I would call it. So can we interpret this idea in a way that safeguards it against cynical evacuation. The mere proposition that the power of the State derives from the people does not tell us very much about actual social relations. I do not think I really harbour any illusions about the condition of a public sphere in which commercialized mass media set the tone. communication in the mass media plays an important role. discursive constitution—of the public sphere matters so much. if not in the conscious articulation. Of course. From the perspective of a democratic sovereignty? Yes. In this way they participate. at least in the weighting of competing public opinions.conclude. in private settings or small circles. almost no more than electronically connected. but it does not say nothing at all. For example. In the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands the school system is already creating a bilingual population. can with minimum attention absorb information from the mass media about all kinds of issues and interventions. citizens would not bother to vote if they did not intuitively cling to the idea that the ballot-box does still something to do with the classical conception of democratic self-determination. or immediate recoil from the realities of highly complex societies? In the normative picture I propose. Public television is now competing in a race to the bottom with the most degraded presentation and programming of commercial television. media-driven societies! But the desublimation of the sublime—‘a flop is a flop’—does have something refreshingly egalitarian about it. as the most widely shared second language in Europe. My book Between Facts and Norms approaches the problem from a quite different perspective. There are now many attempts to conceptualize this virtual reality. Even public television is no longer discursive in this sense. in which everyone became a compère chatting to other compères. For our constitution does still express the idea of the self-determination of a democratic community. come to grief on the narcissism of the other major nations? You still have some illusions about our media-driven societies. Public broadcasting has problems of its own 8 . if everything were to be transformed into a kind of talk show. A distracted public. and today both are linked directly to the soiled channels of private television. Why should English. in fleeting moments of everyday life. People can then give or withhold assent. Yes indeed. the world would indeed conform to Luhmann’s image of it. It is true that the political sphere forms part of a wider cultural sphere.

in Europe we are still a long way away from the end of party a form: but it rested on the correct idea that not all social functions can calmly be left to market forces. as these become less and less significant for the articulation and resolution of major issues. and the social milieux which nurtured loyalties to them disintegrate? Political scientists have described these trends quite well. If forms of political participation change. The ‘media democracy’ of the United States does not exactly offer an appealing example. If party-political democracy is dissolving. Externally directed public relations come to overshadow internal communications among the party membership. Culture. A structurally conservative system like the Federal Republic is liable to various kinds of blockage of impulse and outlook. it is not necessarily a turn for the worse. we can see that they are by no means all new. information and criticism are all dependent upon a specific form of communication all their own. win a world-wide influence. On the other hand. like Greenpeace. and to practices of social compensation? 9 . as public persuasion degenerates into market research. How might the role of the media be redefined? That is a very good question. But it is true the personalization of political issues by the media and the cult of immediate contact between leaders and TV audiences have considerably increased the plebiscitary dimension of politics. The ground is shifting under us. If we look at Lazarsfield’s radio research of the early 1940s. Do you think this society is too beholden to its past. emerging from nowhere. but God preserve us from shimmering figures like Berlusconi or Ross Perot. both older and newer forms of public sphere come under pressure. The Greens have now followed the classic path from a social movement to a political party. There must always be room for mavericks. or at least better educated and informed. and reduced the importance of party organizations. But that does not have to be typical. we must remember the younger generation. for which I have no immediate answer. I have not thought enough about the issue. In any case. and we need new rules of the game in the mass media. The imperative of ratings ought not to penetrate the very pores of cultural communication. counter-trends may arise in civil society. Should parties continue to become more and more bureaucratic and market-minded. Parties continue to select and form their own personnel. and in many respects more interested in political issues today. Do I need to tell you this? What then of the future of parties in our democracy. Other initiatives remain ‘alternative’ in form and sometimes. The general population is more intelligent. that depend on a less damaged public sphere? Are we not witnessing the slow death of democracy based on political parties. and the professional quality of our politicians is not so bad.

it comes more from conservative than liberal quarters. there are attempts to uncouple democracy from justice. This can be seen as the secularized modern equivalent of the religious fatalism of ancient civilizations. Currently.It may well be that the traumatic upheavals of German society in this century have made the political mentality of the country a little too conservative. Since capitalism has triumphed world-wide as a form for the production of social wealth. If one thinks the worldview of the neo-liberal entrepreneur through to its logical conclusion. In Germany. But I am very wary of neo-liberal philippics against the alleged dead-weight of our welfare state. should feel a certain fatalism about society at large. 10 . The ‘flexible individual’ is one upon whose shoulders society now transfers problems it should be solving itself and cannot address. that the hour of the nation-state had already sounded. More flexibility means— decoded—that labour-power should be stripped of every specific or personal quality and treated as merely a commodity like any other. Ralf Dahrendorf. This is an outlook that loves to cast a wandering historical gaze back to the hierarchical society and fatalistic mentality of ancient empires. What do you think of this new realism? I wonder whether Dahrendorf doesn’t actually understand ‘inclusion’ to mean an equal integration of all citizens. as the ‘flexible individual’ becomes the figure of the age? Sennett gives us an illuminating description of the increasing individualization of social burdens. Have we not learnt from Marx that the one cannot simply be converted into the other? Of course there are genuine mental blocks. Then there are the cynics who believe the sole task of the state is to equip people for market competence. at the very moment of national reunification. Do you share Richard Sennett’s concern that at the end of the century a new kind of adaptation to capitalism has emerged. for example. This sits very well with a scepticism towards any attempt to re-regulate markets in our time. seems to argue that only ‘inclusion’ really matters. guided solely by personal preferences in a value-free institutional network. It was difficult for many people to grasp. A normative brain-washing is now starting to erode the universalistic foundations of the egalitarian self-understanding of the modern age for the last two hundred years. In our culture. it is clear why highly mobile individuals. which has misunderstood human nature. a tradition of anthropological pessimism was always very strong. and instruct us about the illusions of equality of a relatively short modern epoch. all the old questions of a just distribution have returned— including the need to distribute employment. of a different kind. Others repress the problem of the end of full employment and the need to redistribute a lower volume of necessary labour. by emphasizing libertarian rather than social rights. But otherwise you are right. not distributive justice.

But these I cannot really judge. Did he take fright at his own courage? You should be glad that after the election Schröder also stressed the continuity between Bonn and Berlin. The Errors of the Copyist by Botho Strauss2 merely reflects the deadened self-awareness of intellectuals who drape themselves once again in the toga of ‘the spirit’. It is not so clear as that. who even in English never lost his German accent. with the debate in 1995 over the meaning that 8 May 1945 has come to acquire for us. 1997) offers a diagnosis of the ‘current condition’ of Germany (1997). The political fronts seem almost reversed. Kohl gave the impression he wanted to exorcise the spectres of a ‘Berlin Republic’ some of his keenest advisors had earlier conjured up—as if Berlin was to remain Bonn after all. Perhaps it senses that after so many incentives to individualism. I know what my friend Herbert Marcuse. 11 .Yet praise of the entrepreneurial spirit also bespeaks a certain sense of contemporary reality. The SPD has discovered ‘culture’ and now enthuses about a pace-setting Berlin which 2 Playwright and author of crypto-conservative Kulturkritik. who regarded themselves as the bearers of authentic German traditions. The resentment of our foremost rightwing intellectuals. But this campaign failed. There is no mystery about what would be needed. Die Fehler des Kopisten (Munich. This outlook became virulent after 1989. there is no longer any civil society left. Young conservative sentiments regularly rose and burst like bubbles during the post-war years. something we should certainly wish for the new capital. These circles cultivated the view that the country’s Western orientation after the war cut us off from the roots of our natural heritage. No doubt twisted attitudes of a similar sort are now seeking other. Cultural criticism today lacks a fresh idiom—a language capable of skewering the phenomena of the hour as mercilessly as Adorno did in the early days of the Federal Republic. less conspicuous outlets. The ‘Berlin Generation’ now stands rather tragically on its own and feels a sense of solidarity only with itself. the only time when it went onto the offensive with the bid by a ‘New Right’ to restore ‘self-consciousness’ to the nation. will not come by announcement. A new generation or a new culture. would have said about all this talk of the Berlin Generation: ‘crap with liquorice’. especially in biotopes like the Feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. You mention the affective attitudes expressed in these attempts at self-definition or self-discovery. That is very interesting. ‘Political existentialism’ comes to seem more attractive than democratic experimentation. Towards the end of his rule. has left an unmistakable trace in the cultural history of the Federal Republic. A new generation is such because it produces something new—not made to design.

What are the traditions of the Bonn Republic which you regard as indispensable—if you would accept the expression—for the Berlin Republic? I believe we would all like to live in a civil country that is cosmopolitan in outlook and ready to play a thoughtful. As the pioneering role of my friend Karl-Otto Apel has shown. and the plurality of regional. and I fear Schröder has discovered culture. but equally those rare moments of emancipation and achievement of which we can be proud. 12 . The influence works both ways. continental and German traditions are taking a back seat to Anglo-American themes and approaches. Blair discovered constitutional reform. without damaging the substance of the German tradition at all. the autonomy of individuals. Rorty himself is certainly a brilliant analytical philosopher. But one can easily slip on this ground.warms to the reconstruction of Hohenzollern palace and rejects a memorial to the Holocaust. The new republic would do well to remember the role of Germany in the catastrophic history of the twentieth century. ethnic and religious identities. as your examples show. policies which look attractive in the media and cost nothing are popular. but he owes his international reputation to a synthetic style of developing themes and connections which owes much to the Hegelian background of pragmatism. active appropriation of analytical philosophy and American pragmatism has given a new impetus to philosophy here. that in the field of philosophy. We would all like to live amongst fellow citizens who are accustomed to respecting the particularity of strangers. With no claim to originality. have been an enormous enrichment to us. Can you understand this anxiety? The very close connections of post-war German with AngloAmerican philosophy. Richard Rorty’s student Bob Brandom is cracking open the treasury of Hegel’s thought with the methods of analytical philosophy. I would also wish to see a disposition which was suspicious of any rhetoric of the high or the deep. the Goethe Institutes do a pretty good job. a strongly regional—culture abroad is concerned. which resisted any aestheticization of politics. for example. costs persist. cooperative role amongst other nations. Perhaps it won’t do any harm. Anyway. established largely through emigration. Why has culture—the cinderella of social-democratic concerns—suddenly become so appealing? It is difficult to say what the point of Schröder’s public relations move really is. There is a fear. In periods of domestic budgetary stringency. Do we really wish to leave the fate of the rich cultural infrastructure of a civilized country in the hands of commercial sponsors? A closer look at the United States in this respect is quite sobering. So far as the representation of German—historically speaking. but also guarded against trivialization where the integrity and independence of the life of the mind was at stake. We hear recurrent criticisms of the cultural opening of the Federal Republic.

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