The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays
Despite Jürgen Habermas' increasingly complex theoretical formulations, his earlier historical work on the public sphere still attracts a great deal of attention from researchers. In fact, the great strength of his work on the public sphere lies in its continuing influence across intellectual disciplines. So it is with great enthusiasm that The Postnational Constellation, Habermas' latest collection of political essays, will likely be received. This book is essential for those looking for a condensed overview of the unique perspective Habermas has developed through his life work. The essays move clearly from a local historical perspective, outlining Habermas' concerns with democratic legitimacy and historical self-understanding in Germany to his more theoretical formulations on the global status of human rights. It is in the book's eponymous centrepiece essay that Habermas draws from the aggregate of his work. Here, he spells out the dangers and possibilities of a global public sphere amidst the current concerns over "globalization." In what follows, I will try to draw out the main arguments of this essay and assess the prospects for Habermas' political vision.
Habermas begins outlining his vision of a contemporary world citizenry by tracing the history of his own country, Germany, an irony he heightens by addressing the book to the prevailing global sentiment of "enlightened helplessness." But it is in chapter 4, the focus of this review, that Habermas considers the current crisis facing a universal communicative order. Left in the wake of the twentieth century's great catastrophes, the most significant threat to democratic control, Habermas tells us, is an old one; namely, the social inequalities of capitalism, or "issues of redistribution" (p. 72). Whereas at one time the social costs of modernization could be bargained over between state and citizens, the new constellation of transnational authorities must learn to redistribute burdens, rather than simply sharing risks. Habermas locates the normative basis for this renewed conception of democratic participation in the following way: "In the political public sphere, conflicts on a national, European, or global scale develop their power to disturb us when they are seen against the background of a normative understanding of social inequities and political oppression, not as natural phenomena but as social products - hence as changeable" (p. 59). Indeed, "the media see to it that prosperity gaps . . . are perceived worldwide" (p. 73).
The task now, as Habermas perceives it, is to bring global economic networks under democratic political control, a goal he links to the desire to act politically against a normative background. The problem, however, is that "Since 1989, more and more politicians seem to be saying: if we can't solve any of these conflicts, let's at least dim the critical insights that turn conflicts into challenges" (p. 59).
The problem that Habermas does not acknowledge, however, is that the motivating normative background produced in the media not only provides a background for ideological conflict, but also serves a normalizing function descriptively. If the self-perception of "oppressed" groups around the world is not sufficiently similar to the descriptive reality portrayed in the media, then there is no hope of motivated political action. In other words, Habermas may be confusing political motivation with what is simply a difference in political understanding. Neoconservative rhetoric may appear to be the culprit hindering political challenges. On the other hand, political challenges may be motivated differently in varying cultural backgrounds whose normative self-understanding appears irrelevant to the reality portrayed in the global public sphere.
But Habermas points to a different difficulty facing the idea of a public sphere today. "The regulatory power of collectively binding decisions operates according to a different logic than the regulatory mechanisms of the market. Power can be democratized; money cannot" (p. 78). But this is precisely where the significance - and extreme difficulty - of determining motivating norms lies. For what can motivate citizens toward a global public sphere that has the authority to regulate transnational flows of money?
For one, the very divergence of normative backgrounds against which inequities and oppression are seen undermines collective regulation of global economic networks. According to Habermas, however, individuals have the communicative capacity to act politically, "even among strangers" (p. 73), that is, within complex societies and between cultures. But if gaps in prosperity are perceived worldwide through the media, then Habermas needs to not only explain what self-reflectively "disturbs" political agents, but indicate further some ways in which conflicts can be turned into the challenges he notices as absent. So the question remains, how can we explain the presence or absence of the motivation to act politically given the awareness of social and material inequalities?
Second, we can ask which of Habermas' proposals motivate us to regulate democratically global economic networks? Despite increasing multicultural demands within the state and the global economy's weakening of state controls, "[I]t is the deliberative opinion- and will-formation of citizens, grounded in the principles of popular sovereignty, that forms the ultimate medium for a form of abstract, legally constructed solidarity that reproduces itself through political participation" (p. 76). Does this offer us a convincing way out of enlightened helplessness? On the contrary, it is inadequate to cite the processes for constructing solidarity as both the motivation for the political action of particular agents and as the universal background against which participants bring political challenges. In this case, Habermas' proposals fail to appreciate the dominant role played by global media that may or may not reproduce motivation for the solidarity that Habermas sees as desirable.
These ambiguities become explicit when we examine more closely Habermas' characterization of the postnational constellation. Habermas' own, "self-referential model of citizenship" (p. 76), the medium of deliberation, allows participants to constitute themselves as a public in relation to shared normative assumptions. The point is, then, that given the difficulties of explaining political behaviour in a national context, what constitutes a motivating normative background for participation on a global scale? Indeed, at times, Habermas refers to the postnational constellation as a global condition; on other occasions, he writes, "We will only be able to meet the challenges of globalization in a reasonable manner if the postnational constellation can successfully develop new forms for the democratic self-steering of society" (p. 88). The question then becomes: are citizens constitutive of or constituted by the postnational constellation?
Habermas' transposition of the idea of the public sphere to a transnational context is difficult to maintain and strains his conceptual categories regarding political participation. Specifically, the prior difficulties of explaining participation in the public sphere of a national context are even less well suited to a postnational constellation. In a national context, principles of popular sovereignty are commonly embedded in written constitutions. This provides nationally bound citizens in the public sphere with a legally constituted solidarity that may or may not orient them to participate. At the same time, a greater diversity of normative assumptions within multicultural societies obscures reference to a (single) public sphere. Habermas' model of global political participation is notably lacking in a postnational, that is, a global, normative standpoint.
Institutionally, the public sphere in a national context ought to be at least equal in power to the state; indeed, as Habermas points out, the social-welfare state claims to act on behalf of public opinion and for a common social good articulated in the public sphere. At the global level, however, what institution could be set up over or equal to market mechanisms? If we sum up our arguments here, we can see that persons in control of global capital flows have little motivation to regulate their activities for greater social equality. Rather, they have collective power over precisely those deliberative mechanisms necessary to prevent political conflict from turning into challenges. Given the media's wide and unrepenting coverage of this fact, the public's enlightened helplessness can be understood.
The Postnational Constellation provides a thoughtful reflection on the challenges and conflicts facing the future of democracies. Readers will find in Habermas' work a very challenging interpretation of how "we" in the West have become what we are, and the self-imposed danger of being "us." In particular, this book should help to inform critics who would charge his work with increasing abstraction. The essays in the book are grounded clearly in contemporary political realities. But one cannot help wondering whether Habermas' empirical descriptions, or at least the focus of his concerns, are already aimed toward his own theoretical intentions. Habermas has spent a lifetime constructing and defending his theoretical stance, and it occurred to me while reading this book to ask whether it is possible for Habermas to theorize beyond that framework any longer. In any case, there is in this book a noticeable absence of the significance of the interdisiplinary perspective displayed in his earlier work. As much of The Postnational Constellation points to such diverse factors for empirical support, they are also the most glaringly underdeveloped aspects of the book's overall argument.
translated, edited, and with an introduction by Max Pensky Does a global economy render the traditional nation-state obsolete? Does globalization threaten democratic life, or offer it new forms of expression? What are the implications of globalization for our understanding of politics and of national and cultural identities?In The Postnational Constellation, Jürgen Habermas addresses these and other questions. He explores the historical and political origins of national identity, the achievements and catastrophes of the twentieth century, the future of democracy in the wake of the era of the nation-state, the political and moral challenges facing the European Union, and the status of global human rights in the ongoing debate on the sources of cultural identity. In their scope, critical insight, and clarity, the essays present a powerful vision of the contemporary political scene and the opportunities and challenges facing us. Those new to Habermas's work will find in this book a lucid and engaging introduction to one of the twentieth century's most influential thinkers. Those familiar with Habermas's writings will appreciate the application of his social and political theories to current political realities.