Mural and photo: Thierry Ehrmann

The Lure of Technocracy
Jürgen Habermas, translated by Ciarin Cronin
Polity, $22.95 (paper)

For several years now philosopher Jürgen Habermas has weighed the deficiencies and prospects of the European Union (EU). His last two titles—Europe: The Faltering Project (2009) and The Crisis of the European Union (2012)—hinted at the possibility of demise, suggesting an EU on the brink of fragmentation, a process close to its undoing. These were apt concerns following the financial crisis, but now with The Lure of Technocracy, the specter is less dissolution than a form of governance perfected in response to that threat.

The culprit is “technocracy.” At its most basic, the term is simply intended to mean government that is weakly democratic, carried out far away from the influence and scrutiny of a European public. The formal properties of governing officials—their non-partisan status, say, or their technical qualifications—matter less than the way decisions are made and the form of authority claimed for them: the privileged capacity of an elite to identify the most efficient means to achieve supposedly incontrovertible ends. For Habermas, technocracy is a style of rule, marked by its unresponsive and unquestioning character, rather than a specific institutional arrangement. The question he takes up is how to intercept this mutated EU and turn its transformation to positive effect.

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Like any critique of today’s EU, The Lure of Technocracy must be understood in the context of the political handling of the “Euro crisis.” As the global crisis of private debt was transformed in Europe into a question of public debt, and as concerns regarding the finances of particular countries provoked wider uncertainty about the Eurozone as a whole, EU officials implemented a series of emergency measures to restore order. These ranged from short-term bids to ensure the solvency of individual states (principally through credit facilities and cross-border loans) to deeper efforts to reshape national economies and reduce budget deficits. The latest round of this ongoing crisis management resulted in last summer’s clash between a government opposed to the austerity program (led by Syriza in Greece) and an array of institutions determined to impose it (led by the German government).

In these scenes of institutional redesign, Habermas discerns the “self-empowerment of the European executive.” There is no single institution that goes by this name. Among those Habermas denotes are the European Council, where the leaders of EU member-states gather for major decisions, and the non-elected institutions of the European Commission and Central Bank. Sometimes in concert with the International Monetary Fund, these institutions have enjoyed a level of influence over the handling of the Euro crisis unmatched by national legislatures and the European Parliament. Furthermore, by instituting new monitoring regimes to constrain national budgets—ostensibly rule-based but with much room for discretion—they have ensured the longevity of crisis powers beyond the horizon of the financial crisis.

Habermas wagers that technocratic moves to European integration can be put to democratic ends.

Technocracy was also a theme of Habermas’s writing in the 1960s and ’70s, but it was a rather different beast then. In that period the ideology of expertise was concertedly in the service of a managed economy: it was a technocracy of the center-left, at least by today’s standards. Its critics, including Habermas and the student protest movement to which he responded, targeted paternalism, hierarchy, and large-scale bureaucracy; the principle of a planned economy was not in question. By contrast, technocracy today must be seen in the service of monetary economics. Its interventions are cast as exceptional actions to address unforeseeable contingencies, not as the normal business of government, and are geared to market stability and a privatized economy rather than the improvement of society more broadly. Today’s critique of technocracy, in short, is a critique of the New Right rather than the Old Left. Yet for Habermas, ever the democrat, the common denominator is clear: technocracy of all stripes entails a self-referential political arrangement, insulated from the public. In line with Habermas’s work on deliberation, this critique of European technocracy corresponds to a deeper theory of the conditions under which political power can be democratic.

Critique of the EU’s style of rule today might be expected to invite critique of the very idea of the Union. After all, the technocratic tendency in EU politics is by no means new—so could it be intrinsic to any cross-national arrangement? Habermas rejects this view, arguing that democracy can be instituted at the transnational level, and indeed that with some major but quite specific reforms the EU can be refashioned to accommodate it. In fact, he intriguingly suggests it may be possible to redirect the very tendencies that have driven the Union’s technocratic turn toward this end: “One should not underestimate the dialectic being generated at present by the much-bemoaned economic motor of the process of unification. . . . A cunning of economic reason is at work even in this tricky situation.” Habermas focuses on the economic drivers of cross-border administration, but the growth of executive power is typically associated with states of emergency more generally. Where a crisis can be framed as transnational—such as the threat of terrorism, as the recent Paris attacks have reminded us—the rise of impromptu forms of weakly democratic governance can be expected. Yet if the cunning of reason is forthcoming, even the most unpromising institutional trends may yield opportunities for democratization. 

Surveying the dynamics of the Euro crisis, Habermas sees the relevant economic forces as these. What drives the Union’s empowerment of executives, and their detachment from popular will, are the challenges of governing an economic area highly uneven in productivity and lacking in redistributive mechanisms to offset such disparities. The introduction of a single currency almost two decades ago did little to remedy this: indeed, the Eurozone was arguably designed precisely to avoid cross-border transfers. The effect of the financial crisis has been to expose these contradictions and encourage steps toward further coordination, albeit under the supervision of technocratic institutions determined to pursue austerity policies. Habermas’s wager is that these same systemic demands can be channeled into regulatory structures more responsive to social-democratic concerns. By strengthening the powers of Parliament to include the right of legislative initiative, incorporating the European Council into the Council of Ministers, and requiring the Commission to “assume the functions of a government answerable to Council and Parliament in equal measure,” the ostensibly undemocratic moves toward further integration already taken in the last few years may be put to democratic ends.

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Beyond the dialectical flair, what recommends this perspective to Habermas is that it preserves cross-border coordination. In the name of restoring democracy, or at least staving off its further erosion, many would be tempted to step back from the EU and a common currency. This is the inclination of Wolfgang Streeck, for example, one of Habermas’s main opponents in the German debate, a powerful voice of left-wing Euroskepticism, and the target of one of the book’s more polemical essays. It is also the view of many in Britain, to whom Habermas addresses the preface of the English edition in view of the UK’s forthcoming referendum on EU membership. For Habermas, a straight choice between democracy and the EU must be refused. The losses incurred by renationalization—including losses to democracy itself—would simply be too great. “The national scope for action that has already been lost and is still shrinking can be made good only at the supranational level.” Only re-regulation “within an economic region of at least the size and importance of the Eurozone” can be effective in bringing market forces to heel. A more democratic order must proceed via, not in repudiation of, the interdependent condition in which Europe finds itself.

Yet Habermas stops short of implying that EU institutions will remake themselves. Deeper democratization requires political intervention: the dialectical conditions may be right, but the opportunity must be seized. The decisive actor in Habermas’s view is the German government: it holds “the keys to the fate of the European Union in its hand.” A significant portion of the book is spent arguing that Germany should pursue a “policy of solidarity”—in opposition to austerity—not just because it is in the country’s interest, but also because it has an obligation to do so, owing to its history, the advantages it has accrued from integration, and the expectations of reciprocity that rightly arise out of interdependence. Here Habermas the public intellectual speaks directly to his compatriots.

The route to transnational democracy thus goes via national democracy as well as via the unintended side effects of technocratic rule. His accent on German domestic politics reflects, one must assume, a tactical assessment of where the status quo is most susceptible to intervention. But it is certainly not just a pragmatic calculation. Habermas consistently emphasizes national institutions as the legitimizing pillar of transnational politics. Repeatedly we are told that nation-state democracy is an achievement that, even if insufficient to the demands of the global economy, must not be sacrificed in the building of a transnational order. Popular hostility for the EU is cast as rightful recognition of this fact: “the fear of a superstate mainly betrays the desire to hold on to the democratic substance guaranteed by one’s own nation-state.” A significant passage in the book is devoted to a constitutional thought-experiment intended to clarify the proper balance between national and supranational sources of authority. With the concept of a “double sovereign,” he evokes a compound image of the EU in which the national and the supranational are mutually supporting.

One upshot of Habermas’s reading is that it avoids characterizing skeptics of the EU as xenophobic nationalists. The conflation of principled opposition to the EU and its policy-making with a primordial aversion to outsiders has been all too common in the discourse of EU technocrats.  Former Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso once warned of “anti-European slogans” that rest on “narrow nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia”: such conflation of cultural and policy-specific concerns encourages reasonable dissent to go unheard. But is political dissatisfaction with the EU intelligible in the terms that Habermas suggests? It would be a stretch to say the ongoing debate about the British referendum is chiefly concerned with whether democracy is best served at the national or European level. Arguments about democracy are voiced, but often for strategic effect: many calls for EU exit seem designed not to re-politicize decision-making at the national level but to take certain policies off the agenda altogether (notably worker-friendly employment laws and other social rights still protected by the EU). And one may doubt how far the majority of ordinary citizens question the EU out of attachment to national democracy: their disaffection may simply represent the leading edge of disaffection with political institutions at all levels. Still, the basic intuition stands: as a democratic norm, one should avoid confusing political dissatisfaction with a cultural aversion to all things foreign.

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Many of Habermas’s critics dwell on the apparent optimism of his calls for a more democratic EU. Streeck, for example, has recently written: “I cannot by any stretch of my imagination see from where—in theory or in historical experience—I am supposed to draw the optimism this requires.” Though Habermas rejects such skepticism, he acknowledges that national citizens rightfully fear “being exposed to the risk of intrusions and encroachments by an unfamiliar supranational polity.” Thus the problem is how a supranational democracy “can satisfy the stringent requirements for democratic legitimacy without assuming the character of a state.” The solution he proposes is not “hierarchical” but “heterarchical,” according to which “the higher political level should not be able to overwhelm the lower one.” Indeed he is careful to emphasize that his case for supranational democracy should not be construed as aiming after “a European federal state”:

It does not seem possible to resolve the tension-laden relationship between the two subjects—the citizens of the separate states and the future citizens of the Union—in favor of a hierarchical arrangement. . . . The supranational polity that is empowered to act in important policy fields should, on the one hand, be allowed to exercise its jurisdiction only in democratically legitimate ways without, on the other hand, depriving the member states of the measure of autonomy that allows them to ensure themselves that the normative substance that our national democracies embody is conserved.

One can see in this argument the lingering influence of Kant’s image of world peace among states in a loosely organized union, as well as the constraints of an immanent critique. For Habermas and the wider Frankfurt School, political philosophy is not about imagining a better world from first principles: it must always proceed from the ideas and practices of the existing order. Rather than reflect on abstract ideals, it must look for the logic that is already present, however imperfectly, in existing institutions and explore how they may be reformed to better express it. It is a deliberately non-utopian approach and reflects a conscious rejection of grand theorizing. Indeed, for all the skepticism of Streeck and others, it may signal too great a concession to realism. After all, the mixed model Habermas describes retains significant tensions. Pitting the legitimacy claims of one national democracy against another was a favored move of the Euro-technocrats in the standoff between Berlin and Athens in the summer of 2015. A transnational order bound to national representative institutions will surely be prone to the territorialization of conflict. There are costs, in other words, to rejecting a hierarchical federal structure for Europe and the more profoundly de-nationalized democracy it would entail.

In the later sections of the book one is reminded that Habermas’s attachment to the nation-state reflects a particular evaluation of the German intellectual tradition. An essay on the return of Jewish literary exiles to postwar Germany conveys the significance of the country’s decades-long reconciliation with its Nazi past as a process of societal learning. “My impression,” he writes, “is that the political culture of the old Federal Republic owes the hesitant progress it made in civilizing its attitudes in good, perhaps decisive, part to Jewish émigrés,” from whom one learnt “how to distinguish the traditions that are worthy of being continued from a corrupt intellectual heritage.” This cultural progress of a nation is not to be understood as an exclusive, communitarian achievement: as Habermas has argued elsewhere, it rests on a model of enlightened “constitutional patriotism” that the EU itself might adopt. But the implication remains that the nation-state has a philosophical and not just sociological significance. To wholly subsume German political culture within a European superstate would be to cut off the present from the historical arc of a learning process. For Habermas, any desirable recasting of the EU must retain within it a privileged place for the national, since it is from national experience that the post-national constellation gains much of its normative promise.

The decisive actor is Germany: it “holds the keys to the fate of the European Union.”

Is today’s Germany worthy of this exalted view? Habermas himself has expressed doubts in light of recent events. Of Germany’s treatment of Greece in the European Council in July 2015, he wrote in the press: “I fear that the German government, including its social democratic faction, have gambled away in one night all the political capital that a better Germany had accumulated in half a century.” An enlightened moral awareness seemed hard to discern. Yet the notion that Germany has a distinct moral status in light of its Nazi past is by no means idiosyncratic. The German government was far more direct and principled than others in welcoming refugees from Syria in the latter half of 2015. “If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations,” Angela Merkel said, “then that’s not my country.” Ulterior motives may lurk here, from an aim to bolster the country’s long-term labor force to a desire to regain some of the high ground so visibly lost in the standoff with Greece. But it is not coincidental that Germany should take, at significant political risks, an overtly moral stance more forthright than anything seen elsewhere in Europe: it taps the sentiment that Habermas describes. In migration policy at least, the country’s politicians have shown themselves capable of bold action. Whether that moral consciousness can find expression in the remaking of Europe’s institutional order, when the deep issues of economic design are at stake, remains to be seen.

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The book’s German title, Im Sog der Technokratie, evokes technocracy less as a source of allure than as a natural force that overwhelms. Who then can free the EU from the riptide of technocracy? What forces in society might organize to impel Germany and other leading states to action? On the channels of agency Habermas has less to say. We are told what the media “must learn to do” (report on debates of cross-national concern), but not whether and where there are currents in the media that might drive this. We are shown the tasks that await “the governments and the political parties” (the making of genuinely European lines of political division), but not the forms of partisanship and the ideological formations that might plausibly take these on. Apparently the new order will be made from the political center, by the organs of the establishment raising their game. Yet some may suspect that meaningful change will require the emergence of more radical and innovative forces from the political margins—agents who have not already made their peace with austerity.

One person seeking to initiate such a movement is Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. Part of the Syriza government that took on Berlin in the summer of 2015, Varoufakis quickly became an iconic figure in the negotiations, partly for riding a motorcycle, partly for his principled demands. To the bafflement of his interlocutors, he insisted on criticizing the EU’s debt regime not in Greece’s name but in Europe’s. Much like Habermas, his stated goal was less to get a “better deal” for his country (though it was certainly that too) than to undermine the technocratic order afflicting Europe and to push forward the cause of transnational democracy. Estranged from Syriza since the July concessions, he now seeks to coordinate a transnational movement in pursuit of an alternative EU order.

This is one kind of radicalism from the margins, but party politics remains relevant too. Recent events in Britain—the referendum on Scottish independence, Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendancy in the Labour Party—have shown the speed with which movements and parties can align. Whether such forces will exercise meaningful power in government remains to be seen, but it is not wholly unimaginable. The decisive question would then be whether several could hold power at once, or whether, like Syriza, they would be dismantled one by one. As the link in a cross-national chain, German domestic politics may be an important part of this process. But Habermasian arguments for EU reform will need to speak well beyond the Grand Coalition of parties currently in power.

The concluding essay of the book turns to the reflections on Europe of the nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine, who offers an arresting vision of a transnational order shaped by differences of political opinion rather than competing territorial interests and identities. “Why,” Habermas asks, “shouldn’t his European notions of overcoming national prejudices with the aid of the cunning of economic reason be able to come true?” Once more there is the suggestion of a dialectic. Just as economic forces continue to drive the further integration of Europe’s states, it is technocrats such as Mario Draghi, the head of the Central Bank, whom Habermas sees as pushing forward the debate on the future of the EU, however one-sided their proposals may be. Perhaps one best captures the book’s optimistic message if one renders its title differently. Democracy, not helplessness, is what moves in the undertow of technocracy.