Peace through Conversation

By Jones, David Martin | The National Interest, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Peace through Conversation


Jones, David Martin, The National Interest


"WHAT WE'VE got here is a failure to communicate." Thus the captain of prison 36 addresses the eponymous hero of Stuart Rosenberg's 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke after his failed attempt to escape from the prison chain gang.

Jurgen Habermas, Germany's leading public intellectual, would endorse the prison captain's insight but not his response (which in Luke's case entailed more physical punishment). Indeed, Habermas's most recent pronouncements on the globe's current difficulties--from burgeoning inequality and environmental degradation to the Iraq War and transnational terrorism--argue that all these problems would be best addressed through a process of uncoerced communication. Rational deliberation would lead to agreement on a set of universal norms that all parties could accept and follow. Their application could be mediated through a reformed United Nations resembling a parliament of world citizens. In the words engraved above the BBC's Broadcasting House: "Nation shall speak peace unto nation"--except that there would be no nations either, but global citizens.

Given his understanding of this progressively evolving global cosmopolitanism, Habermas regards the events of September 11 (although "monstrous") as the consequence of "the spiral of violence [that] begins as a spiral of distorted communication." (1) He further contends that the "hegemonic" and "unilateral" intervention of the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq is a cause of further miscommunication and escalating global violence. How did he come to such an understanding of national and international politics? And why are his numerous works regarded with reverence not only among left-leaning social scientists from Aberystwyth to Zurich, but also by the German foreign minister and the new bureaucratic class that manages European integration?

To explore this strange marriage between a pedantic German academic idealism and the Eurocratic elite's increasing preoccupation with "an emerging global public sphere [and] a new universalist ... order" of world citizens, let us trace the intellectual evolution of Europe's most "passionate public intellectual." (2)

The Life and Times of a Frankfurter

JURGEN HABERMAS was born in 1929 in a small town in Germany. Growing up in the Third Reich left the young Jurgen with an enduring suspicion of the nation-state, the German disposition to authoritarianism, and conservative thought in general. The events of his adolescence added an ambivalent respect for the United States and its imposition upon the infant West German republic in 1945 of a constitution guaranteeing democratic rights. These influences molded his subsequent political

thought, which projects onto a universal canvas his profound anxiety about Germany and its modern fate. These anxieties are mixed with often bitter reflections upon the evolution of German philosophy and its shift from 18th-century Enlightenment rationalism to an irrationalism whose exponents in the 1930s, like Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, gave intellectual credibility to the Third Reich. In order to negate this past and its possible influence on the future, Habermas seeks to revive in Germany, Europe and ultimately the world the more progressive aspects of the German Enlightenment, from Kant through Marx to Habermas himself. Habermas sees his mission--and that of the cosmopolitan intellectual everywhere--as being to inculcate a rational spirit of criticism that endorses constitutionalism and radical democracy but exposes the injustices of capitalism, globalization and the market. He considers the norms that emerge from this deliberative procedure the basis for a moral and just world society.

Educated at Gottingen and Bonn universities, Habermas came to prominence in the mid-1950s as the leading second-generation exponent of the Marxist-flavored Frankfurt school of critical theory. Unlike the first generation Frankfurters, who included Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, and unlike a later generation of French post-structuralist thinkers, whose work rejected science and reason as carriers of liberation, Habermas remained committed to what he terms "the unfinished project of modernity.

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