Europe on the Edge: Revisiting Habermas and Derrida

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Europe stands at a precarious moment and today is facing huge economical, political and social crisis. Although the idea of Europe has been widely discussed for centuries, nowadays we are dealing with its urgent questioning, asking questions about the aim of this project beyond all historical, cultural and political borders. The main idea of this text is to bring back into discussion the idea of Europe in terms of its philosophical concepts, in the period of devastating economic crisis and the deficit of political, about the future of European Union as supra-national economical project, as well as about possibilities of forming new political identity and making a radical turn in order to renovate this project in the age of global post-democracy and media plutocracy. I would argue that one of the main problems is that the ideal of Europe as universal political community and creation of universal cultural values is still utopian ideal, and the main problem is non-existence of Europe as universal political community (politically united peoples of Europe). In other words, Europe today is post-imperial space of end of history and peoples without power. There is urgent need for structural change of paradigm of social construction of reality. Contemporary global capitalism is based on techno-science, new media and neoliberal economy; politics has become domain of managerial elites and culture reduced to celebrity culture; mass media are events without message, turned into the visual semiotics of emptiness. To address those issues, I will focus on works and ideas of two thinkers of Europe, who didn’t always agree on these topics, but are nevertheless very important critics and indispensable thinkers of European project. They are Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas.

Before I begin my analysis, I would like to propose three main arguments: 1) The possibility and faith in realization of European project is basically question of possibility of action within framework of liberal democracy, which is basically project of unfinished modernity. The fundament of Europe is the Enlightenment’s notion of freedom, reason and tolerance. Therefore, the question what is Europe? is not “one among the other questions”, as Derrida would say, because this is the question of sustainability of ideas that determine universality of the notion of the world, which means that the future of “project Europe” is the global question about meaning of politics in general. Therefore, as far as Habermas is concerned, there will be no change of politics before building up institutional legal-political preconditions for different type of action. 2) We must separate notion and idea of Europe from European Union. Before mentioned crisis of Europe as universal ideal is quite different from economic crisis of European Union – the point is not only about making a radical shift in political space, but to change the politics of neoliberal capitalism which in case of EU has taken form as main generator of production of structural crisis, where politicians in EU have become managers, and EU does not serve interest of European citizens and nation-states alike, but follows brutal interest of transnational corporations. 3) There is a need to change “identity without power” to “power identity”. I argue that one of the main advantages of USA over Europe is that America is successful because it is the rule of “political power without cultural identity”, and in Europe we have “cultural identity without political power”. Those are the cornerstones of my presentation, and the main point is that Europe is not geographically defined space inhabited with peoples who do or don’t consider themselves Europeans, but primarily universal political community, founded on spiritual values based on historical process of building Kantian “Perpetual Peace”. Let me first begin with Derrida’s notion of Europe.

As Derrida wrote in the beginning of The Other Headings: Reflections on Today’s Europe, the question of Europe is not merely one question among others: it is a question that will always be of current interest. The question of Europe is “at once a chance and a danger”, drawing its urgency and actuality from the threat that what we call Europe is the problem that we “no longer know very well what or who goes by this name”. That said, for Derrida, Europe has always been in crisis. What is imminent today in Europe is not only that Europe may be about to realize the promise of its “concept”, but the very existence of Europe as a conception which is “at once a chance and a menace”. Taking up Husserl’s definition of Europe as an idea, Derrida inquires both into the eidetic unity of Europe and how Europe itself is born from the idea of philosophy. Although Husserl explain the crisis that the teleological idea of Europe undergoes in modernity as a result of sciences’ naive desire for formal objectivism, Derrida wrote that there is no teleological reason for this crisis, and that itself cannot reveal anything originally to us. The idea of Europe is therefore intrinsically related to the idea of philosophy as an infinite task, which is why Derrida is not only “European thinker”, but “thinker of Europe”. What follows from such a position is therefore neither Eurocentrism nor Anti-Eurocentrism, but critical interrogation of European identity as the spiritual unity of Europe. Let us remind ourselves that the idea of Europe was born from the ancient idea and birth of philosophy, and later enriched with the multiplicity of sources and identities that intersect in European heritage. The other conception of Europe, “new figure” can understand itself as having its origins outside itself. Therefore, Europe is this openness, or freedom in regards to all dichotomous counter positions (the Other). This is a universality of Europe, not as a territory or nation-state. The name “Europe” imposes itself as a conception and as a task of universality. As a consequence, Europe as the figure of the “passage” neither presupposes prior identity to be overcome, nor a new one to be achieved. Rather, it is openness to otherness, transformation and permanent transition, and this is precisely why it has universal appeal. This is why Derrida used French term “mondialisation” instead of Anglo-American “globalization”.

Derrida further asserts: “I believe that without Eurocentric illusions and pretensions, without the slightest European nationalism, without even much trust in Europe as it is or in the direction it is taking, we must fight for what this name represents today, of course, with the memory of the Enlightenment, but also with a guilty conscience for a responsible awareness of the totalitarian, genocidal and colonialist crimes of the past.” Jacques Derrida begins his compelling essay on contemporary world politics with the issue of European identity. He asks: what is Europe? How has Europe traditionally been defined and how is the current world situation changing that definition? Are prospects of a New Europe demand not only a new definition of European identity but also a new way of thinking identity itself? If such Eurocentric biases are not to be repeated, Derrida warns, the question of Europe must be asked in a new way; it must be asked by recalling another heading (the name of his book is The Other Headings). Not only is it necessary for Europe to be responsible for the other, but its own identity is actually constituted by the other. Rejecting the easy solutions of Eurocentrism or anti-Eurocentrism, of total unification or complete dispersion, Derrida argues for the necessity of working from the Enlightenment values of liberal democracy while at the same time recalling that these values do not themselves ensure respect for the other. Referring to various texts of Marx, Husserl, and especially Valery, Derrida seeks to find a redefinition of European identity that includes respect both for difference and for universal values. The Other Heading appeals eloquently for a sustained effort at thinking through the complexity along with the multiple dangers and opportunities of the contemporary world situation without resorting to easy solutions. Here, Europe stands for a study of a philosophical concept. Derrida’s argument for recovering the idea of Europe (or European identity) focuses on the possibility that Europe can be understood as “the opening onto a history for which the changing of the heading is experienced as always possible”. The “heading” Derrida speaks of is an idea of Europe as a heading, a cape, an appendix to the Asian body and a heading that is not Europe that is in its otherness also constitutive of European identity. In other words, Derrida redefines European identity as a radical responsibility for itself, that is to say, a necessity of Europeans reminding themselves of the heading of the other, “before which we must respond, and which we must remember, of which we must remind ourselves“. This necessity of reminding them/our/selves of the other is fundamental to the new Europe Derrida imagines, a Europe beyond Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism.

Jacques Derrida

Let us now turn to Habermas, who has been named as “the last European”, because of his mission to save the EU, and reluctance to see Europe consigned to the dustbin of world history. He clearly states: “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”. Therefore, I would like to refer to one of his articles published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as well as on his book Zur Verfassung Europas (On Europe’s Constitution) 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. The addressees of his writings are EU politicians accused for cynicism and “turning their backs on the European ideals.” But does he have an answer to the question of which road democracy and capitalism should take? Habermas basically 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 thinks that the technocrats have staged a quiet coup d’état. According to him, last year Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy (i.e. acronym Merkozy) “agreed to a vague compromise (which is certainly open to interpretation) between German economic liberalism and French etatism, and all signs indicate that they would both like to transform the executive federalism enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty into an intergovernmental supremacy of the European Council that runs contrary to the spirit of the agreement.” At this point Habermas refers to the system that Merkel and Sarkozy have established during the crisis as a “post-democracy.” The fact is that European Parliament today barely has any influence. The European Commission has “an odd, suspended position” without really being responsible for what it does. Most importantly, however, he points to the European Council, which was given a central role in the Lisbon Treaty. He sees the Council as a “governmental body that engages in politics without being authorized to do so.” He also sees a Europe in which states are driven by the markets, in which the EU exerts massive influence on the formation of new governments (recently in Italy and Greece), and in which what he so passionately defends about Europe has been simply turned on its head. Of course, Habermas is a social philosopher who truly believes in the rationality of the people. He truly believes in the old (one might add: old-fashioned) ordered democracy, as well as in a public sphere that serves to make things better.

This is in a certain way a belief in the power of words and the rationality of discourse. While at first glance it seems the activists of the Occupy Wall Street movement refuse to formulate clear demands, Habermas wrote why he sees Europe as a project for civilization that must not be allowed to fail, and why the “global community” is not only feasible, but also necessary to reconcile democracy with capitalism. Otherwise, he thinks, we run the risk of permanent “state of emergency” (let us recall here Carl Schmitt or Giorgio Agamben) otherwise the countries will simply be driven by the markets. For the first time in the history of the EU, we are actually experiencing dismantling of democracy. There is obvious lack of political union and of “embedded capitalism,” a term Habermas uses to describe a market economy controlled by politics. As previously stated, decisions of the European Council, which infuse our everyday life, basically have no legal or legitimate basis. Nation-state is still seen as a place in which the rights of the citizens are best protected, and how this notion could be implemented on a European level. EU is not a commonwealth of states or a federation but, rather something new. Ultimately, it is an analysis of the failure of European politics. However, Habermas offers no way out, no concrete or tangible answer to the question of which road democracy and capitalism should take. Essentially, all he offers is the kind of vision that a constitutional theorist is capable of formulating. In the midst of the crisis, he still sees “the example of the European Union’s elaborated concept of a constitutional cooperation between citizens and states” as the best way to build the “global community of citizens.” The main conclusion is that Habermas is, after all, as some scholars have already pointed out, a pragmatic optimist – he does not say what steps will take us from worse off to better off. He says: “If the European project fails, then there is the question of how long it will take to reach the status quo again. Remember the German Revolution of 1848: When it failed, it took us (i.e. Germans) 100 years to regain the same level of democracy as before.”

Therefore, we are now in Europe’s post-democratic era. The monopolisation of the EU by political elite risks reducing a sense of civic solidarity that’s crucial to the European project. Only in that case would the EU citizens who elect and control the parliament in Strasbourg be able to participate in a joint process of democratic will-formation reaching across national borders. “A dangerous asymmetry has developed because to date the European Union has been sustained and monopolised only by political elites – an asymmetry between the democratic participation of the peoples in what their governments obtain for them on the subjectively remote Brussels stage and the indifference, even apathy, of the citizens of the union regarding the decisions of their parliament in Strasbourg.” Such a regime would make it possible to transfer the imperatives of the markets to the national budgets without proper democratic legitimation. This would involve using threats of sanctions and pressure on disempowered national parliaments to enforce non-transparent and informal agreements. What is than, possible alternative? At least, if we read Habermas properly, the alternative is to “pursue the democratic legal domestication of the European Union further in a consistent way. A Europe-wide civic solidarity cannot emerge if social inequalities between the member states become permanent structural features along the fault lines separating poor from rich nations.”

Jurgen Habermas

Let us now go back ten years in the past, when Derrida and Habermas together published appeal, an article that appeared simultaneously in two newspapers, in Germany in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as “After the War: The Rebirth of Europe,” and in France in Libération, as “A Plea for a Common Foreign Policy”. This article, among other things, calls for new European responsibilities “beyond all Eurocentrism” and the strengthening of international law and international institutions. Both Habermas and Derrida are explicitly working toward a new, constructed European identity, which must surely be some kind of world-view. In other words, only in a united cosmopolis, in which the distinction between foreign and domestic politics would be obsolete, could Weltinnenpolitik (a global interior policy) make any sense. Here is a quote from the respective article: “An attractive – even infectious – ‘vision’ of a future Europe will not fall from heaven. Today such a vision can only be born of the unsettling experience of helplessness. But it can also result from the [inner] distress caused by the current situation, in which we Europeans are thrown back on ourselves. And it must be articulated in the wild cacophony of a public with many voices. If up to now this topic has not made it on to the agenda, we intellectuals have failed.” The EU presents itself as a form of ‘governing beyond the national state’, that could serve as an example as a post-national constellation. For a long time the European welfare state was also an example for others. At the level of the national state, however, it has been forced into the defensive. But the level of social justice that the welfare state has attained should not be abandoned in any future politics of the taming of capitalism. Why shouldn’t a Europe that has solved such enormous problems also take on the challenge of developing and defending a cosmopolitan order on the basis of international law?

Following that trail of European welfare state and lack of legitimation of Eurocratic policies, Habermas some years after tried to answer the question why Europe still needs a constitution. He says that “Europe is in the process of inventing a new political form, something more than a confederation but less than a federation – an association of sovereign states which pool their sovereignty only in very restricted areas to varying degrees, an association which does not seek to have the coercive power to act directly on individuals in the fashion of nation states. Therefore, the challenge before us is not to invent anything but to conserve the great democratic achievements of the European nation-state, beyond its own limits. These achievements include not only formal guarantees of civil rights, but levels of social welfare, education and leisure that are the precondition of both an effective private autonomy and of democratic citizenship.” From that viewpoint, it is “clear that while the original political aims of European integration have lost much of their relevance, they have since been replaced by an even more ambitious political agenda.” Of course, rapid economic growth was the basis for a welfare state that provided the framework for the regeneration of post-war European societies. But the most important outcome of this regeneration has been the production of ways of life that have allowed the wealth and national diversity of a multi-secular culture to become attractively renewed ‘European way of life’ as the content of a political project:

Here we have a similar standpoint as Derrida, because Habermas urges for European project beyond mere creation of monetary and economic union. He states: “today we need a broader perspective if Europe is not to decay into a mere market, sodden by globalization. For Europe is much more than a market. It stands for a model of society that has grown historically”. “Economic globalization, whether we interpret it as no more than an intensification of long-range trends or as an abrupt shift towards a new transnational configuration of capitalism, shares with all processes of accelerated modernization some disquieting features. Eurosceptics reject a shift in the basis of legitimation of the Union from international treaties to a European constitution with the argument, that ‘there are yet no European people’. This nation of citizens must not be confused with a community of fate shaped by common descent, language and history. This confusion fails to capture the voluntaristic character of a civic nation, the collective identity of which exists neither independent of nor prior to the democratic process from which it springs. The artificial conditions in which national consciousness came into existence recall the empirical circumstances necessary for an extension of that process of identity formation beyond national boundaries. These are: the emergence of European civil society; the construction of a European-wide public sphere; and the shaping of a political culture that can be shared by all European citizens. At the same time, a European-wide public sphere needs to be embedded in a political culture shared by all. This widely perceived requirement has stimulated a troubled discourse among intellectuals, since it has been difficult to separate the question ‘What is Europe?’ from the fact that the achievements of European culture – which did not, in fact, seriously reflect upon its own nature and origin until the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries – have been diffused across the globe. What forms the common core of a European identity is the character of the painful learning process it has gone through, as much as its results.”

Taking it as a premise that a European Constitution is both feasible and desirable, let us one more time point out differences I mentioned previously between USA and EU. According to Habermas’s proposal, European Union of nation-states would have to display the following general features:

1) Parliament that would resemble the Congress in some respects similar division of powers and, compared with the European parliamentary systems, relatively weak political parties;

2) Legislative ‘chamber of nations’ that would have more competencies than the American Senate, and a Commission that would be much less powerful than the White House (thus splitting the classical functions of a strong Presidency between the two);

3) European Court that would be as influential as the Supreme Court for similar reasons (the regulatory complexity of an enlarged and socially diversified Union would require detailed interpretation of a principled constitution, cutting short the jungle of existing treaties).

Let us now go back to Derrida and try to elaborate his notion of differences between European and American political project. It seems that it is easier to answer the question “What is USA” than “What is Europe”. For Derrida, America is Europe’s ‘Other. In other words, Derrida’s notion is very much focused on the other and on difference. Contrasted to Derrida’s idea of America is of course, Habermas’s Europe: a Europe where identity predominates over difference and where Kantian reason and the spirit of the Enlightenment have been unleashed to crush the darker passions that produced unspeakable destruction during World War Two. Habermas’s Europe is transnational unity, Europe of “constitutional patriotism”. Moreover, he has in the past condemned Derrida’s deconstructive approach as fostering a reversion to a pre-Enlightenment mystique opposed to the project of modernity.

What is than the major difference between those two great thinkers? For Derrida (who was deconstructionist), in the joint text I mentioned above published ten years ago, the question is how can one mount a principled condemnation of terrorism if one has rejected or gone beyond enlightened reason and the value system associated with it? For the “Kantian modernist” Habermas, the question is how can enlightened reason be still considered relevant given that the era of modernism has seen totalitarianism and the Holocaust followed by global terrorism? Significantly, they both dealt with the relationship between terrorism and the Enlightenment, and though they embraced different views of it, they both placed themselves on the side of the Enlightenment. In that context, both Europe and America should be taken symbolically and metaphorically rather than literally. The ideal of cosmopolitanism as conceived by Derrida is derived from Kant and is thus firmly anchored in Enlightenment thought. Habermas’s discourse ethics within a dialogical framework posits an ideal communicative setting within which all participants are oriented towards reaching a consensus and given an equal opportunity to present their claims. Only those claims that are universalizable from the standpoint of all perspectives are to command a consensus of all participants and hence to become morally binding on all. But, contrary to Derrida, Habermas considers the pathologies associated with the Enlightenment project as being external to it and external to modernity. Thus modernity and communicative ethics require the rational pursuit of freedom and equality for all.

Following the analysis I tried to develop in this text, and combining different, but on the other hand, similar notions on Europe, let me propose a conclusion. Europe is primarily a search for identity which is a search for the ‘lost future’. The main task today is therefore building cosmopolitan order that will guarantee perpetual peace in the world. Europe is and cannot be anything else but cosmopolitan project of transnational idea of freedom of citizen and human in its identity. What is missing today is actually subject of transnational politics as metapolitics of advent of freedom of “coming community” (Agamben). Only in that sense Europe can overcome neoliberal technocratic ideology and once again create itself as a project of new power beyond limitations of nation-states, territorial sovereignty and limited participation of European citizens in today’s politics in EU.

Author Profile
Tonči Valentić

Tonći Valentić is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Textile Technology, Department of Fashion Design, the University of Zagreb, where he teaches courses in Media Theory, Sociology of Culture, Semiotics of Fashion, and Cultural Anthropology. He received his Ph.d. in Sociology from University of Ljubljana. He contributes regularly to a variety of Croatian and foreign cultural magazines, as well as author and translator. His publications include: Multiple Modernities (2006), Camera Abscondita: Essays on Ontology of Photography (2013), Archipelago of Contemporary Philosophy (2018) and Media Construction of Balkanism (2021).