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Keynote Address at a Seminar on Democracy and Popular Legitimacy in the EU

Dublin European Institute, UCD, 20th March 2014



A Uachtaráin,

a Ollaimh agus A Mhic Léinn,

a Uaisle Uile agus a Dhaoine Óga,

Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh as ucht bhúr chuireadh tíocht agus labhairt san ollscoil seo inniu le tus a chur le comhdháil ar ábhar fíorthabhachtach dúinn go léir – daonlathas agus dlisteanacht an Aontas Eorpach.

I am delighted to be here with you today. May I thank Dr Ben Tonra, Dr Aidan Regan and Dr James Cross for organising this debate on the critical topic of democracy and popular legitimacy in the European Union.

When European political economy was heavily informed by philosophy and ethics, its conceptual strength was impressive. We should never forget that the Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations is the same person who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments some years earlier; or that the two texts are deeply connected.

What has happened – we might well ask – to the field of public economics and its discourse, for its decision-making structures, previously located in traditional democracy, to have given so much ground to the influence of unaccountable rating agencies? Acting as a modern panopticon, not bound by any requirement of democratic accountability, these agencies are increasingly coming to define the lifeworld and prospects of European citizens.

What can be done?

The formulation of a discourse on such issues as the possibility of having a pluralism of responses that would enable the member states of the European Union to address their citizens’ concerns on unemployment, poverty, social insecurity and growing inequality is, I believe, both urgent and important. What is this Europe of which we speak? There are many who have been appalled by a crude division of North and South, or creditor and debtor members?

As Jacques Delors put it:

“Rekindle the ideal, breathe life and soul into it, that is the essential imperative if we intend to give shape to the Europe that we so dearly wish for”.

This afternoon I limit myself to reflect on the possibilities of moral-ethical enquiry in making a contribution to the deepening democratic discourse and practice in the EU. Taking my cue from the title of the initiative which underpins today’s seminar – “Communicating Europe” – the questions I wish to raise are simple but, I believe, fundamental ones: How do we talk about Europe? How should we talk about Europe? And what Europe are we talking of?

Some of the finest contributions to this debate have, in recent years, come from Jürgen Habermas. His work provides the starting point for any analysis of the philosophical and political questions facing contemporary Europe. Aspects of his work also perhaps point to the limitations which have held back the debate on these issues to date.

In his book Under Weber’s Shadow, Dr Keith Breen, of Queens University Belfast, has recently offered a measured and constructive critique of Habermas’s work, a critique which I believe to be of relevance to our discussions today.

I draw on this scholarly work to suggest that Jürgen Habermas’s dualistic theorisation of the political space – as important as it may be – curtails certain essential citizens’ capacities. More particularly, Habermas’s dichotomy between what he calls ‘lifeworld’ – the world of the family, civil society and the public sphere – on the one hand, and what he refers to as ‘system’ – the realms of the state and the economy – on the other hand, leads him to privilege civil society and the public sphere as the sites of emancipatory politics, and to erode important possibilities for conscious intervention and change in the administrative and economic arenas, thereby stifling labour’s role in identity formation.

I believe that Habermas has made an invaluable, and often lonely, contribution and that it is important for us to critique that economic theory and policy which has, by elevating a technicist version of economic policy, invoked tension with the elected democratic institutions of the EU and made those institutions fragile.

Here it might be useful to unpack some of the key concepts at stake in Habermas’s critique.  As Dr Breen convincingly shows, Habermas is deeply responsive to Max Weber’s vision of the modern condition as resulting in two closely interrelated developments: the process of ‘rationalisation’, of ever greater knowledge specialisation and technical mastery which, in late modernity, peaks in an ‘iron cage’ of bureaucratic routine and ‘mechanised petrification’; and the process of ‘disenchantment’, concluding with the individual’s abandonment to a radical ‘polytheism’ of conflicting values, none of which can claim rational superiority.

Habermas does not deny that the modern age is torn by conflicts of values threatening the bonds of solidarity, but he disputes the Cartesian vision of the self perpetuated by Weber – one that reduces reasoning to a solitary activity and, thereby, fails to account for the intersubjective dimension of human life and the power of ‘communication.’ 

As Habermas defines it, communicative power is this fragile ‘potential of a common will formed in non-coercive communication.’ In Habermas’s view, this communicative power – that is, the attempts of ordinary subjects to reach understanding through speech – is the key principle of what he calls ‘lifeworld (or symbolic) reproduction’. He is referring to such processes as cultural knowledge transmission, social integration or identity formation.

Moreover, as far as Habermas is concerned, the losses in freedom and meaning, which Weber rightfully identifies with advanced modernity, are the result, not of rationalisation per se, but of a stifling of free communication in the realm of the lifeworld by a competing, instrumental principle governing the material (systemic) reproduction of societies. Habermas thus develops a two-level theory of society which locates the crises of modernity in a ‘boundary conflict’ between lifeworld and system, the former being characterised by communicative action and a telos of mutual understanding, whereas the latter, the economy and the administrative state, adhere to instrumental and strategic logics that are governed by the criteria of ‘efficiency’ and ‘success’ and are immune to moral-normative considerations.

Here it should be noted that in Habermas’s view, the ‘system’ – which includes the realms of the state and the economy conceived as a technical entity – is not in itself detrimental. The growth in systemic complexity associated with the development of capitalism and modern welfare states did occasion a huge expansion in material well-being, and in any case, a return to the ‘enchanted’ is simply impossible. But systemic logics become destructive when they affect irreplaceable social capacities grounded in the lifeworld.

Habermas uses the notion of ‘colonisation’ to describe the process by which lifeworld needs and roles are translated into systemic imperatives dictated by the state or the market. He understands this colonising forced as a ‘systematically induced reification’ impelled by ‘commodification’ and ‘juridification’. Private lives become commodified when the market transforms individuals with unique personalities into consumers with standardised preferences tailored to the requirements of capitalist production and consumption. On this process, there is now of course a large body of literature, such as the work of Zygmunt Bauman or that of the more radical Slavoj Žižek.

Habermas’s concept of ‘colonisation’ is worth a little further elaboration. His warning against the effects of ‘systematically distorted communication’, wherein creeping instrumentalism induces subjects to think of themselves and their lifeworlds in terms amenable to the maintenance of markets and administrative control, is especially useful to critically analyse, for example, EU projects such as the Lisbon agenda, the Europe 2020 strategy, and their related measurement criteria under which every domain of human activity, including science and the arts, is measured against the ultimate goal of economic competitiveness.

Habermas also provides some valuable analytical tools with which to examine the current crisis, the EU’s response to it, and the consequences of both on the very fabric of European societies. As Habermas sees it, the effects of ‘colonisation’ are starkest when systemic crises are curbed at the cost of endangering the transmission of cultural knowledge, in the process disrupting transgenerational solidarity, and impairing citizens’ cognitive, communicative and emotional capacities.

What is at stake, therefore, is far more than the individual’s freedom of action or the meaning of certain value commitments, but the irreducibly interpersonal conditions by which freedom and meaningfulness can endure at all. In the Irish context, one need only think of the social impact of mass emigration, for instance, to grasp the consequences of an engineered consensus congruent with the imperatives of financial power.

In his recent work, Habermas has very strong words to describe this capture of lifeworld resources for the benefit of systemic stability:

“The mass of those who are not among the winners of globalisation”, he argued, “will now have to pick up the tab for the impacts on the real economy of a predictable dysfunction of the financial system. Unlike the shareholders, they will not pay in money values but in the hard currency of their daily existence.”

Habermas’s analyses are thus of great value to grasp both our modern condition and the significance of the current crisis. Why, then, is his dualism problematic?

The problem is that Habermas’s dissociation between system and lifeworld induces him to surrender vast arenas of human endeavour to what, in Weberian terms, would be called ‘mechanised petrification.’ A difficulty stems from Habermas’s conception of civil society as the realm of wild, unorganised spheres of ‘opinion-formation’ that enjoy unrestricted communicative interaction and are free to thematise all issues.’

Habermas values such civil society contexts because of what he sees as their informal and non-colonised character, in contrast to the power-ridden, formal character of parliaments, state administrations and private corporations. In fact, such privileging of civil society is a recurrent feature of contemporary political thought. Civil society is often cast as a salutary resource upon which we are to rely if we are to rescue the EU from its ‘democratic deficit.’ It is presented as the sphere that might best enable the recovery of citizens’ communicative and participatory capabilities.

While it is true that civil society does indeed encompass pivotal forms of intersubjective life, its ‘weak publics’ – as Habermas calls them – are not immune to, but, on the contrary, permeated by power inequalities generated by the wider economic and political structures. Moreover, as Habermas himself acknowledged, the democratic potential of the public sphere is rendered ambivalent by the constraints and new hierarchies of electronic mass communication.

Should Habermas’s civil society publics, therefore, provide the central focus of European citizens’ energies and emancipation strategies? In Alisdair Mcintyre’s work, a resounding ‘yes’ is given. Yet I would like to suggest that the markets and administration, because they are dominant institutions of modern life, must be reclaimed as areas amenable to transformation, critical reflection, and moral-ethical enquiry. This is of vital importance for the future of democracy in the European Union.  If the mediating role of political parties in contest for public support is weakened, if the role of organised labour or business is to be abandoned, then politics in the public space is vacated for the benefit of the extremes. We need to locate the role of expertise within an accountable system where its function is to clarify choice, not serve as substitute for collective deliberation.

The current encroachment of expertise and technocracy over democratic debate is threatening the future of our polities. Acknowledging the embeddedness of ethical ideals with the economy and administration is, I suggest, one of the surest means to debunk some of the theoretically fragile, in terms of its undeclared assumptions, expertise directed at citizens who are dismissively assumed to be economically illiterate. As Keith Breen put it, “genuine expertise is a modest expertise, different in degree rather than kind, to the phronetic wisdom of ordinary subjects.”

In the economic realm, then, the idea of transformative practice entails overcoming Habermas’s strict dichotomy between instrumental and communicative reason. After all, how can we hope to reform formally constituted economic organisations, if we accept, as Habermas suggests, that they are necessarily governed by some form of latent functionalism? We need, rather, to reaffirm strongly that the market is not a norm-free realm, and that there is scope for our insistence in placing individual discretion and accountability within it.

What constitutes work will also be a fundamental question in our coming decades. It is important to recognise how the material and the symbolic are interrelated in workers’ lives and identities. Indeed, the thesis according to which the extrinsic structures of material reproduction invade something intrinsic symbolic reproduction has the effect of surrendering labour and human beings’ productive capacities to the functionalism of system. With it the social and psychological significance of one’s work and occupation, their role in forming social identities, are suppressed. The concept of citizenship in the European Union cannot be commodified, reduced to a unit of consumption, or a flexible unit of migratory, or unprotected, labour, without calling into question the aspirations to a just European Union as at best rhetorical.

In the political realm, therefore, it is necessary to reaffirm a substantive vision of citizenship that goes beyond the current formalism attached to European citizenship. Indeed, as Hannah Arendt powerfully argued, mature citizenship demands meaningful participation within the plurality of institutions that together form the state and where the power to change states of affairs can be regularly and accountably seen to be at stake.

In my speech to the European Parliament last year, I argued that a robustly democratic European order requires a strengthening of the role of both the European Parliament and national parliaments, and deeper integration between their respective deliberations.

It requires an emancipatory path that avoids rigidly opposing communicative power to administrative power. It requires what Dr Breen describes as an “interplay of institutional imagination and cautious experimentation” – utilising the possibilities for an institutionalisation of communicative fora within formal organisations and state bodies. The institution of ombudspersons or judicial hearings, are but two examples of such possibilities.

With all this in mind, is it not possible to find a new language to talk of Europe, one that renders more central and more clearly audible the moral-ethical underpinnings of European integration? A language that is informed by both the legacy of European thought and the knowledge systems that preceded any divisions between Eastern and Western intellectual traditions, or revealed or civilisational suggestions as to truth.

If I may go back one more time to Habermas, it is important to stress how, in giving the bonds of intersubjectivity their due, his philosophy helps us capture the substantive quality of the European project. Indeed, where Weber identified the struggle for domination, the unrelenting contest of will between leaders, factions and states as the fundamental condition of modern political life, Habermas, on the contrary, suggests that both personal and political maturity are achieved through a gradual acquisition of reflexivity and reciprocity.

The European project is grounded in the recognition that societies, and nation-states, are not self-referential units. The EU member states are united by a sense of interdependence and accountability, a realisation that even when they disagree, they are dependent on one another for their continued existence, and willing to engage their antagonists “without hatred and without the spirit of revenge” (Georges Sorel).

The recognition of interdependence, the institutional embedding of mutual accountability and the sharing of sovereignty can be interpreted as a sign of maturity – Europe’s coming of age after the terrible ordeals of the 20th century.

Such a reorientation towards intersubjectivity, accountability and pluralism is profoundly meaningful in our contemporary world. As we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, recalling how Europe sleepwalked into war; as we watch in dismay the unfolding crisis between Ukraine and Russia; as risks of armed conflict on a large scale are discernible elsewhere in the world, we should seek to understand, reflect and speak of what it is that Europeans gained in displacing oppression as a mode of international relations. The full capacity of a deepened democracy in life and institutions has yet to be achieved.

This ethic of pluralism is embedded in the very procedures of European decision-making. What is usually decried as an overly complex, and hence non transparent, process, can also be a mean to ensure that all points of view are heard – those of large and small countries alike. In principle, the community method, or the co-decision procedure – that legislative shuttle between Council and Parliament – have the potential of fostering reflexivity, bringing each institution to submit its position to reflection and critique.

This substantive content of the EU’s institutional framework, the meaning and ethical significance of its complex decision-making procedures, need to be made more explicit.

Communicating with each other, as mutually respected citizens, in a Union that is cohesive, that acts in solidarity to its internal and external challenges is a greater, more urgent, and rewarding project than dreaming of strokes to communicate what has not been defined.

In my view, elected representatives, both at national and European level can with great benefit engage in a discussion of the normative and ethical implications entailed in particular policy choices; they are challenged to be clarifiers and mediators in the complex and contradictory entanglement of socio-economic inequalities at national, European and global level.

Such a role of clarification and public justification is an eminently democratic one. It is not about foreclosing the definition of the common good, but about pointing up options – and what they might mean morally – and then respecting the citizens’ capacity to come to their own considered moral and political judgements.

The rise of Eurosceptic populists in contemporary Europe, with national identity as their rallying cry, points very plainly to European citizens’ perceptions and growing discontent with the current course of the EU. Ironically, this national-populist upsurge might well force us, who care for the future of European integration, to engage more resolutely in an exercise of normative clarification, and articulate more clearly the significance of the European project, in order to go further on the basis of a set of economic pluralist models that are responsive to the varying conditions of our peoples in social and demographic terms.

The real challenge, therefore, lies in our ability to reconnect the definition of European common goods with what European citizens hail as ‘good.’ This entails, I do realise, more than bringing out the normative content of institutions and procedures. Indeed it is my conviction that, in order to deepen democracy in the EU, we must engage in an ethical discussion that goes beyond the limits of a discussion of constitutional guarantees and political norms technically defined.

The ethical discourse we need has to do with self-understanding and self-clarification, with the meanings and purposes around which groups form and sustain themselves, with how individuals craft a life that they have reason to value. Through social interactions, actors not only come to express their beliefs, make assertions as to what is to them true, proper or necessary, but also – particularly in the Western rational tradition – offer reasons for them.

Once that is recognised and properly valued, it becomes possible to recast our structures of power as being dependent upon justifications arising within the everyday lifeworld of citizens, and their right to dream and realise alternative futures. And beyond all that they feel free to speak of a world possible but not yet probable.

All this has important consequences as to the conceptions that underpin both scholarly work and policy-making at national and European level.  Civil servants within the European Commission, leaders at the European Council, and member-states bureaucracies tend to focus on the testing of the ability of macro-sociological systems, sometimes a single macro-economic model, to adapt to an unstable and complex environment. Such an exercise, however, can never be decoupled from an understanding of the internal lifeworld perspective of European citizens without a democratic cost.

Systemic approaches are valuable and can even be essential insofar as they allow us to grasp complex processes in a mode sometimes inaccessible to ordinary perception – when the purchase of a commodity in one context fuels economic exploitation elsewhere, for example, or when an industrial relocation from one member-state to another can be seen as benefiting the Union as a whole.

However, what European democracy requires is that any systemic perspective be rooted in an understanding of the practices, perceptions, aspirations and everyday realities of citizens. Such perceptions and everyday realities are the wellspring of ‘good administration’ and democratic legitimacy in the EU. Or, to put it in Habermassian terms, lifeworld should never be reduced to the status of a mere environment or appendage to the instrumental action of the administration and market.

This also means, I suggest, that a greater pluralism is needed in the academic disciplines that inform ‘European expertise’. The ‘European system’ – with its dedicated academics, civil servants, lobbyists, think tankers and other professionals – draws its intellectual resources mainly from three disciplines: political science, economics and law. These three disciplines need, in my view, to be reintegrated with philosophy. Economics in particular, should – in the face of the current crisis – critically re-examine its claims to science truth. It should have confidence in economics seen as a craft rooted within ethics and utilising the finest of intellectual tools as instruments.

Reconnecting with the lifeworld of European citizens requires so much more than the periodic conducting of polls. Our understanding of the European integration process can greatly gain from mind work, and from field work, stemming from disciplines, such as anthropology or sociology, which are concerned with the aspirations, visions of the world and daily practices of Europeans, and whose theorisations are grounded in fieldwork research.

The humanities have also so much to contribute: obviously history, but also subjects such as literature, linguistics, or philology, a discipline that can help us unpack the sedimentation of meanings in European languages, themselves influenced by the protagonists and victims of empires – and we should not forget the courage of thinkers such as Diderot, Kant or Herder who sought an enlightenment without empire.

An adequate discourse, able to deliver a Europe of the citizens, is one that would include the capacities and goals which, in the eyes of European citizens, render human life worthy of living. A discourse that would discuss, as I have said, the nature of ‘good work’ – which is a question very different from the issue of labour-force flexibility or mobility. A discourse that would let the poor and the unemployed of Europe speak is, and will be, the test of authenticity.

As Theodor Adorno said:

“The need to let suffering speak is the condition of all truth.”

European citizens have made it clear that they are awaiting, and are ready for, a new substantive agenda for the European Union. They are willing, with adequate invitation, and when presented with challenging alternatives, to take part in the crafting of this new agenda. Jürgen Habermas put it very clearly, when he said, in a recent interview:

“The agenda which recklessly prioritizes shareholder interests and is indifferent to increasing social inequality, to the emergence of an underclass, to child poverty, to a low wage sector, has been discredited”

The challenge, therefore, is to craft a public discourse in which all citizens – not just the most expert, or the most mobile among them – will be allowed to take part. For this to happen, government and the markets must, I suggest, be made amenable to the tribunal of everyday justificatory discourse.

To conclude, just a few thoughts on the question of language itself. It seems to me that the current obsession with calculability, with measurement, is cutting off the possibility of a connection with the European demos, as it might come to be.

As I argued in my introduction, the disproportionate influence of rating agencies – our post-modern panopticon – in informing European policy responses to the crisis is undermining the role of citizens in governing our democracies. The relationship between peoples is not in the end reducible to the calculable.

In the face of what could be described as a sort of extreme reductionism – a reduction to the ‘depeopled’ medium of credit ratings and narrowly calculated growth rates – I would like to contrast the virtues of democratic deliberations, the power of full-blown conversations between Europeans, and plead, as well, for the nurturing of multilingualism in Europe.

European citizens all have a native tongue, and one or several languages of communication – usually English, nowadays. Some of them also have a language of choice. I profoundly believe that the most precious is the third one – it is the language through which we can express something additional, which is not given in a vernacular language.

A chosen language also allows you to better appreciate a chosen country and people. Without the languages of other Europeans, we deprive ourselves of the possibility of genuinely understanding one another, of thoroughly apprehending our common past, and sustaining a rich conversation as to the future.

Therefore if I could formulate one last wish for our common future as Europeans it would be the following: intra in te ipsum: return from exteriority. We have renounced conquest and can start interiorising space. And endeavour to turn the space of the Other into our space – not through appropriation, but through mutual listening, through dialogue and reading, through memorisation.

These are, I suggest, meaningful ways of not merely “communicating Europe”, but of communicating as Europeans.

Muchísimas gracias.