File spoon-archives/habermas.archive/habermas_2001/habermas.0101, message 72

Date: Thu, 25 Jan 2001 19:07:33 -0800 (PST)
Subject: HAB: How relevant is the German context to America?

Dear Habermas List:

Hello. I've been interested in Juergen Habermas's work
for quite awhile, but lately I've been having queasy
feelings that I've been very hesitant to share with
anyone: How do the German problems of creating a
democratic society pertain to the US? Is Habermas'
work really relevant to understanding American
society--or are we reading about a philosopher who is
*benefitting* from American resources for *his*
purposes of contributing to a *German* democratic

Inasmuch as an American wants to gain a German
perspective on problems of advancing democracy, no one
better than J. Habermas could be sought. But America
is not facing the German and, generally, European
problem of creating democratic insitutions.

Recently, American workers at Chrysler have been going
through a rude awakening about their new Daimler-Benz
management: facing an authoritarian business culture
very different from the collaborative culture of
Chrysler. Indeed, a D-B executive recently admitted
that D-B lied to Chrysler management during
negotiations to purchase Chrysler, convinving Chrysler
that an equal partnership was sought; but now, nearly
all Chrysler executives have been fired, after D-B
dictated all policies and practices, down to the
micromanagerial level, and workers are anticipating
loss of jobs. It has been reported that, in Germany,
corporations don't generally feel obligated to keep
stockholders accurtately informed (stockholder
meetings are parties, not business meetings), while in
the US misleading stockholders would be found

OK, you say, one can find the same thing in the US.
But one does not: Authoritarian business practices in
the US have to be done secretly, because of public
intolerance of such norms of practice. 

Germany has such a short history of experience with
democratic forms of government. The high
intellectualization of _Between Facts & Norms_ makes
sense for a German reader. But I feel like I'm reading
a discourse on founding society, when I delve into
BFN, which is not at all the situation in America.
Likewise with Habermas' intense concern for moral
regulation, which makes sense for a society with a
weak history of moral stability.

Looking at discussions at this email list, I feel a
sense of otherworldly preoccupation with theoretical
fine points that shows little clue about the realities
of American political culture--as if the
discursiveness is a fine postponement of doing
something practical, like participating in educational
reform (and theorizing from the real problems of doing
this) or participating in community development
organizations (and theorizing from these problems). 

For Critical Theory, *getting* to practice is always
the problem. Starting from practice, one doesn't ever
have to get *to* Critical Theory. For example, in
Michael Shudson's outstanding _The Good Citizen: a
history of American civic life_ (Harvard 1998), he
shows how citizenship has become disseminated in
American society, differently from the starkly
"political" interface of the procedural (or
adversarial) system. So, the problem of The Political
shows itself in America to be intimately bound with
the particulars of local and priviate life, in a way
that seems invisible to the proceduralist mind.
Amartya Sen's _Development as Freedom_ shows a sense
of practical appreciation of the conditions of
underprivileged life and underdeveloped society that
makes Critical Theory antiquarian (backed by a
theoretical appreciation of economic theory that has
won Sen a Nobel Prize). In short, theorizing from
practice--from the realities of the lifeworld, from
the realities of organizational life--may never get to
Critical Theory before getting to those progressive
activities that, it so often seems, Critical Theory
idealizes in some distant realm of usefulness. 

This shows in the literature of American humanities
and human sciences, where Habermas is hardly mentioned
outside a small circle of ex-Marxists, neo-Marxist and
neo-Frankfurt School students of the 1960s, '70s, and
'80s who now populate departments whose students are
more interested in postmodern cultural theory
(postcolonial studies, etc.) than a communication
theory of society, etc. And where Habermas is a focus,
it's almost always preliminary, like an historical

Philosophically, the situation is no better: American
philosophy is widely involved in problems of
contemporary human sciences, whereas Critical Theory
continues its problem with mid-20th century
neo-positivism. Interdisciplinarity and epistemology
of psychology, linguistics, anthropology, bioscience,
literary life, etc., overflow the book stores, while
Critical Theorists seem to increasingly talk to each
other, quoting each other, fostering each other's
readings almost insularly, as if idealizing a new
primacy of the struggle for recognition (while the
planet eagerly strives very specifically for liberal
political economic development, having no need for
theory, rather: teachers, information system
technicians, trench-level lawyers, community service
organizations, etc.) 

At heart, a German longing for the intervention of the
Concept continues in the guise of "communication" in
so much Habermasian toying with intricacies of
rationality and justification (as if living with an
interminable danger of one's own irrationality).
Theory strives to imagine its practicality, while
global society largely looks to America's
multicultural success for prototypes. 

And there are the Germans, jockeying for control of an
EU confederation--a complex struggle between
federalism and confederacy which echoes the American
problem of democracy two centuries ago. 

I look to Habermas to understand the European problem
from a German perspective, as a matter of public
intellectual engagement as well as a matter of social
theory (and the philosophically social approaches
which complement the European problem). And one
shouldn't be surprised that the German experience has
much to learn from the American experience. But I'm
increasingly forced to believe--by the force of
history's argument--that Amerca doesn't have much to
learn about itself from the German "way".

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