Home / Comment / Reviews

The Lure of Technocracy

The Lure of Technocracy

The Lure of Technocracy

Jurgen Habermas, tr. Ciaran Cronin

Polity Press 2015

Jurgen Habermas has been one of Europe’s most prominent philosophers for some 60 years now. Unusually, through his movement between philosophy, law and social science, he has been able to deliver philosophy to some of the harder edges of the policy world – not least as an advocate of a European constitution. 

Habermas is a former Hitler Youth who was educated in the crucible of Post-War Germany. His intellectual awakening came amid the damning revelations of the moral and philosophical failing of Germany laid bare at the Nuremburg trials. His early career he often criticised the failure of German philosophy (particularly Heidegger) to address and criticise Nazism. Habermas’s own philosophy, not coincidentally, has persistently been grounded in addressing philosophy to questions of democracy, citizenship and politics, with a fear of nationalist or pre-political claims to solidarity. In his earlier career that might have included religion, but Habermas appears to have softened and since the 1990s seems to have held a higher regard for religion at least as a useful cultural phenomenon.

This latest book, published in English as Habermas approaches his 86th birthday, returns to a number of themes that will be familiar from later Habermas works. Consisting of a collection of essays divided into 3 sections The Lure of Technocracy is not particularly “new” on any single issue. It is, however, an admirably punchy, short and clear exposition of a number of themes that ought to have a particular resonance in the UK given the ongoing debates over the EU.

The first section establishes the foundation of  Habermas’s European model. It is marked by a resistance to “technocracy” (rulership by experts and bureaucrats) that became so prevalent in the technical, often democratically unaccountable decisions taken to alleviate the Eurocrisis. It makes a plea for solidarity differentiated from either ethical or legal definitions. “Showing solidarity” for Habermas is “a political act and by no means an act of moral selflessness that would be misplaced in political contexts”. It is not synonymous with “justice, be it in the moral or legal sense of the term”. Instead solidarity entails, for Habermas, medium-long term redistribution for one’s own self-interest.

The second section builds on those themes as it makes its case for “More Europe” – a better integrated, more democratic, union of states (but not a federal union). More Europe, if it were anchored with a strong democratic accountability that comes from a civic solidarity and a constitution, is in the long term interests of European states. Habermas calls on politicians to make that case, rather than focusing only on immediate re-election. 

The final section reveals an oddity at the heart of Habermas’s model of solidarity. Heine is glowingly reflected on as someone who saw the need for less pagan nationalism and a deeper fraternalism of peoples. Heine’s model for this was a Christian conception of love and brotherhood.

This speaks to Habermas’s dislike of nationalist models of solidarity (which are arbitrary and fictional constructions of an anti-democratic nature) while wanting to retain a solidarity at the heart of Europe. Habermas, unlike Heine though explicitly wants to divorce solidarity from moral and ethical considerations. He wants it to be based on an idea of civic solidarity of trust and medium-long term mutual benefit. The problem with that is that such a model is harder to sustain during a time of economic problems. It is hard for political parties to make such a case, even if they were so inclined, when people are struggling and there are no obvious guarantees of future benefit (at least of an economic variety). Such a model is always at risk of the very technocratic takeover to which Habermas is so averse - because only technocrats can afford to make such medium-long term calculations. The then Cardinal Ratzinger in discussion with Habermas in 2004 made a similar point – that a transcendent standard of justice would better underpin a system than democratic will.

In divorcing the concept of solidarity from any moral or spiritual cause Habermas seems to weaken, rather than strengthen it. Without a moral or ethical underpinning that can inspire solidarity even in times of economic distress it is very difficult to make a case for Europe. Habermas’s constitutuion might be stronger were it underpinned by a moral cause. It would also link his ideals closer to the founding principles of the European project in Catholic social thought, not least in its rejection of nationalism while still providing a cultural source of solidarity – as Habermas himself conceded in that debate with the future Pope in 2004.

Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos | @BenedictWRyan

Want to keep up to date with the latest news from Theos? Click here to join our monthly e-newsletter. We'll let you know about our latest reports, blogs and events.

Image by Wolfram Huke from Wikimedia available under this Creative Commons Licence

Posted 21 July 2015

Europe, Ethics

Get monthly email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once a month.

Thank you for signing up.