Jürgen Habermas Beware the Technical-Industrial Complex

One of Germany's leading philosophers, with an unerring instinct for political relevance, questions the "elite project" called Europe.
If you want to argue a point, come to me.

The world today seems to prove the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” is coming to an end.

The landmark 20th century publication – written by the German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – maintains that society, industry, technology and culture are fundamentally different and therefore in separate spheres.

But present-day reality is an argument against that notion. Separation of real life and rational thought no longer exists.

An invading army of high-tech media – computers, mobile phones, GPS systems and the Internet – has digitally conquered and perforated our culture. The new digital world affects all living environments from early childhood onward. Everything is drawn into the maelstrom of rational expediency dictated by this “technical-industrial complex.” Democracies could turn into technocracies, controlled by the very science on which societies supposedly advance.

But is that really true? Has enlightenment already been reversed and beaten down by high-tech tyranny? An 85-year-old German, one of the most important philosophers of the mid- to late 20th century, is a determined opponent of that view.

Jürgen Habermas was a student of both Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and before that Martin Heidegger. The social philosopher and “troublemaker” insists that industry, society and culture don’t belong together, just because modern forces push them together.

He is the last unconditionally critical “zeitgeist” – both academically rigorous and effective via mass media – in protesting what we call progress. Instead, he calls it “colonialization of the living environment.”

Mr. Habermas objects to pretty much everything, but especially against God and the world. He opposes genetic cloning and terrorist suppression gone mad. He stands against the “elite project” called Europe, now far removed from its origins, and increasingly technocratic societies with their market conformity.

There is hardly a prominent issue he does not use to try to bring about public consensus – always with absolute precision and an unconditional determination to be concrete.

His tantalizing fundamental questions make us think: Where is the “grand coalition” of market and democracy leading us? How can Europe facilitate the participation of individuals, if individuals no longer participate in making laws to which they are subject? Are our societies, in their neo-liberal turmoil, just becoming enormous profit centers?

The interconnection of theory and practice in philosophy, politics and the public sphere became a central theme in Mr. Habermas’ life.

Finally, what is the ultimate damage to democracies that don’t resist being usurped by technical progress? Or, as Mr. Habermas asks in “Science and Technology as Ideology,” do we use technology, or does it use us?

Mr. Habermas caused a furor in the academic world in the 1980s with advanced theoretical works, such as “Theory of Communicative Action.” He is an intellectual in the public eye, of the kind otherwise only known in France, which is more accustomed to public discourse. He described himself as a “product of reeducation” after the end of World War II, and a philosopher schooled in the American pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey.

Despite his intellectual roots in the West, Mr. Habermas is a German intellectual, and not just in habits and gestures. He became a public figure in post-war Germany, in which unreformed Nazis and sometimes-violent students unleashed storms of protest against perceived guilty parties. For him, the break with his former teacher, Martin Heidegger, was absolutely clear – the moment when Mr. Heidegger’s sympathy for the “inner truth and greatness” of Nazi Germany became apparent. His most vehement public interventions were always targeted at “removing the past.”

It was no coincidence then that leading members of the Frankfurt School, to which Mr. Habermas belonged, began discussing philosophy and sociology in public. And in doing so, they used the new mass media marketplace for all kinds of controversy. Their big presence in the media was an almost ironic self-criticism of the system: Marxist critics of the “consciousness industry” making use of the same media as their effective forum.

His post-doctoral thesis was published as a book in 1962. “Structural Change of the Public Sphere” became standard reading for politically sensitive students and lecturers, alongside “Dialectic of Enlightenment.”

Inspired by Hegel, it describes a public sphere moving toward domination – or “refeudalization” – by big government and business in the modern capitalist era. It protested the rise of powerful private interests, monopolies of opinion and lobbyists. It also anticipated and shaped an entire industry built around free communication in the public sphere: media science.

Without wanting to, but due to his intellectual vision, Mr. Habermas became founder and mentor of a new intellectual school of thought – with roots in the work of German philosophers Karl-Otto Apel and Ernst Cassirer, as well as Immanuel Kant. It understood knowledge as the result of social practice, which grew increasingly closer to the truth in the course of constant argumentative conflict.

The interconnection of theory and practice in philosophy, politics and the public sphere became a central theme in Mr. Habermas’ life. It also took him to working as a journalist in the mid-1950s, including with Handelsblatt.

Ralf Dahrendorf, a German sociologist, called him “the most important intellectual of my generation – his significance extending far beyond Germany’s borders.”

To this day, the power of his public displays of good sense has not diminished. Consider his comments on the global financial crisis: “I think it’s hypocritical to point an accusing finger at the black sheep,” he said. “After all, speculators also behaved – within the law – according to the recognized logic of society, in a bid to maximize profit. Politicians look ridiculous when they moralize instead of basing what they say on restrictive laws of the democratic legislature. Politicians are responsible for the common good – not capitalism.”

On the subject of Europe, he insists that it must remain “a political” project and not be allowed to shrink to a purely economic one: “Our fainthearted government flounders helplessly in a predicament, between the imperatives of big banks and rating agencies on one hand, and its fear of having its legitimation taken away by its own frustrated population on the other. It has become the destructive henchman of a Europe-wide erosion of solidarity.”

He insists that only supranational, political responsibilities can be effective in pursuing a European objective. On one hand, he recognizes the erosion of national democracies. On the other, he calls for supranational responsibilities from governments to bind together national economies, which are constantly drifting apart.

When Mr. Habermas received the Peace Prize from the German Book Trade Association in 2001, almost the entire government poured into the church where it was awarded. It surely had something to do with the core of his social philosophy – his single-minded struggle to reach consensus, finding the truth by way of discussion and mutual consent.

According to the consensus philosopher, communication must have an objective – at the beginning and end of each exchange, in every use of language and every attempt to understand. The informal pressure of the better argument brings agreement. Otherwise, communication would be an absurd, empty game.

Politically, Mr. Habermas put his theory on the shaky foundations of a “non-hierarchical discourse,” which could always serve as an indicator of how truthful political communication is.

Today’s political communication does not seem to work like that. In the “unspeakably pious-to-Merkel media today,” Mr. Habermas said recently, “(you could) observe even in the West, how democratic processes and institutions degenerate to mere facades, without a functioning public sphere.”


Rüdiger Scheidges is a reporter for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]