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What democratic Europe? Response to Jürgen Habermas

By Etienne Balibar

Jürgen Habermas expressed a clear position on Europe’s current situation and the decisions that need to be taken: following the Constitution of Europe translated in May, Le Monde published the German philosophers’ latest point of view under the heading ‘More than ever, Europe’.

Essentially, Habermas’ argument is that the Euro crisis has nothing to do with the ‘errors’ of the big spender states that would struggle to catch up the more ‘thrifty’ states (in German, Schuld means both error and debt …), but everything to do with the inability of states pitted against one another by speculators to level the market playing field, and to weigh in favour of global financial regulation. That is why there will be no way out of the crisis if Europe does not decide to ‘take the step’ towards political integration that will enable it to simultaneously defend its currency and pursue its social policies and policies aimed at reducing inequality that justify its existence. The natural space for this transformation is the ‘European core (Kerneuropa), that is to say the augmented Eurozone with states that should join (particularly Poland). However, its sine qua non condition is a true democratisation of the Community institutions: which is what Jürgen Habermas really means by the creation of an effective parliamentary representation of the populations (according to a two-levels system, that he distinguishes from the German ‘federalism), equipped with political control powers at the European level, particularly over the tax base and the use of income tax that would support the single currency, in accordance with the principle of the American revolutionaries: ‘No taxation without representation!’ This action should be congratulated and should not go unheeded.

A brave critic of the “new German nationalism”

It comes after a series of brave views where Habermas hit out at the ‘new nationalism’ of German policy and the ‘unilateral’ prejudices that it conceals (we find ourselves wishing that French intellectuals would show the same independence). It makes a remarkable effort to hold together the political, economic and social aspects, and provides an idea of what Europe’s contribution could be in finding a global crisis exit strategy, in which must be factored the need to protect social rights (which does not mean their immutability) and the need to regulate credit mechanisms that increase rapidly above the real economy. It clearly shows that politically unified Europe (whether or not we call it ‘federal’) is only possible under the condition of substantial democratisation of Europe, that affects the very nature of its powers and their representivity, therefore their legitimacy (as far as I am concerned, I had long supported a more radical position – some would say uncertain: political Europe outside of which there is indeed only decline and inability for the people of the continent, will only be legitimate, and therefore possible, if it is more democratic than the nations that create it, if it allows them to step beyond their historical conquests in terms of democracy).

No exit from the crisis without tax revolution

The Frankfurt philosopher’s argument includes however – in my eyes – two weaknesses, which are linked. The first is that it does not take into account the time that has passed and therefore the climate: it reasons as though the crisis wasn’t already developing for some years, as if we could reposition ourselves ‘before’ the effects of the crisis and do what should have been done to avoid it (essentially at the time the European monetary system was implemented). I don’t believe this at all. At least the indication that it contains should be developed (in the original version: this idea came from the French translation) concerning the acceptance of tax and the monitoring of its use. There will be no – in Europe and elsewhere – exit from this crisis without a tax revolution which involves not merely lifting European tax and ensuring that it is fairly distributed, but using it for a job distribution policy destroyed by the crisis, a policy of reconversion of economic activities and European land planning. Something like a New Deal or a European Marshall Plan. This undoubtedly supposes a return to a balanced monetary policy, based equally on the tax system and the banking system (coincidentally like the one that fuels speculation).

There will be no – in Europe and elsewhere – exit from this crisis without a tax revolution which involves not merely lifting European tax and ensuring that it is fairly distributed, but using it for a job distribution policy destroyed by the crisis, a policy of reconversion of economic activities and European land planning.

An overly formalistic conception of democracy

The second weakness is that Habermas sticks to an overly formalistic conception of democracy that is increasingly unsatisfactory as powerful processes of “de-democratisation” are at work in our society, and because these processes take arguments of opportunity and efficiency from the crisis in favour of “governance” from the top. They should not only be corrected but counteracted and ‘material’ democratic inventions should be opposed to them. Let it be clear, I do not reject the requirement of representation. On the contrary, the history of the 20th century has demonstrated both the need and margins of fluctuation, between the simple delegation of power and effective control. We must intensify this debate across Europe. But we must also bring about other terms of democracy, or rather the democratisation of the political institution. This is the key to a resolution of the famous paradox of “European demos”. The “Demos” did not exist before democracy, as its condition: it results from it, as an effect. It in itself exists across and in the forms of different practices of democratisation. As representative democracy, certainly, but also as participatory democracy, whose limit is self-managed communism (construction of ‘the commons’ Negri would say), and as confrontational democracy (“counter-democracy” Rosanvallon would say) living demands and protests, resistance and indignation: It is true that these modalities form an unstable equilibrium that takes us away from ‘normative’ constitutionalism.

Something like a movement must emerge

These modalities could not be implemented by prescriptive decisions, regardless of the mode of legitimisation (like others, Habermas emphatically discusses the possibility of a referendum on the future of the Euro and Europe). It could even seem that by exceeding the possibilities of governmental “management”, by conjuring the potentialities of autonomy or disagreement, they go against the objective of “rebuilding” the European Union: how to make unity with multiplicity and contradiction, stability with uncertainty, legitimacy with dissent? But conversely, do we ask to Habermas, how to bring democracy in the European construction without a “jump” or “step aside” from the structures and procedures that were designed to exclude it, neutralise it, and that the methods of “crisis management”, mainly to avoid the intervention of citizens, have systematically locked away? On this point and others (“social Europe” …), something like an opposition and a movement must emerge. Let us not miss the opportunity Jürgen Habermas and his colleagues are offering us from a debate on Europe for Europeans by Europeans. In different ways, it is beginning to take shape, wherever the severity of the effects of the crisis are constrained in Greece, Spain and very little in France where, despite the warning signals that should be the avalanche of this season, we seem to be turning towards a remake of the campaigns of 1992 and 2005, with the difference that there is no referendum planned … Nothing that arises from national borders yet. Nothing, therefore, that installs policy at the level required to address the emergency as well as matters of principle.

 

This article was originally published in Libération and translated by the Green European Journal.