Utopian Thinking In Habermas’s Normative Theory
22nd August 2012
Jürgen Habermas is an immensely influential figure within social and political theory. The ambition of his grand theory, his preoccupation with the formation of democracy, the belief that change in civil society can contest the domination of instrumental reason, has fuelled his intellectual career.
At the heart of his philosophy, Habermas seeks a normative crux, a rationalisation at the level of communication aiming at socio-political transformation. Habermas holds that the achievement of the lofty ideals of the true and the good may be unachievable, but they are worth pursuing via a democratic constitution that can conceive the inconceivable. Habermas’s rational and universal foundation for democratic institutions and legal constitution is founded on his belief in a homo democraticus existing at the core of a discursive rationality embodying “the unconstrained, unifying, consensus-bringing force of argumentative speech” (1). This paper will interrogate whether aspects of Habermasian normative theory can be fairly critiqued as utopian or whether his thinking is unjustly derided on this point. In the first section, aspects of Habermas’s normative theory will be laid out before, in the second section, answers to the allegation of utopianism as located in the debates surrounding Habermas’s conception of power will be attended to. There will be a re-engagement with the Foucault-Habermas debate before, in the third section, the related wrangle between the foundational and the relative will be examined. The fourth section of the paper will problematise the separation Habermas drew between values and norms and whether his conceptualisation of norms is sufficiently firm enough to build a normative theory around.
Habermas’s Normative Theory
“If there is any small remnant of utopia that I’ve preserved, then it is surely the idea that democracy – and its public struggle for its best form – is capable of hacking through the Gordian knots of otherwise insoluble problems. I’m not saying we’re going to succeed in this; we don’t even know whether success is possible. But because we don’t know we still have to try” (2). In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas seeks to secure the normative foundations of critical theory by addressing the tension between moral norms and practical context via a legal institutionalization that is based on discursive procedures, a more developed account of the normative claims embedded in liberal-democratic cultures, both in formal (law and politics) and informal public spheres (civil society and social movements). Habermas states that “only those statutes may claim legitimacy that can meet with the assent of all citizens in a discursive process of legislation that in turn has been legally constituted” (3). Citizen participation and deliberation in the informal public sphere is central to Habermas’s normative theory. This ‘weak’ public is part of a two-track model of the public sphere, of which the second track, the ‘strong’ public, consists of the formal political institutions (4), the judiciary, the legislature, the parliament. In spite of their absence from the decision-making processes, weak publics “ferret out, identify, and effectively thematise latent problems of social integration” acting as a “warning system with sensors, that, though unspecialised, are sensitive throughout society” (5). This division of discourse enables a ground-up source of subject matter from weak to strong publics that is efficient because weak publics, unlike strong publics, tend to be free from organisational corruption and power relations. In Habermas’s conception, weak publics are “better equipped to make social diagnoses that are rational and perspicacious” (6) in a view of weak publics as unburdened by the the need to make formal decisions and acting as the identifiers of social problems.
It is a characteristic of civil society to contain intersubjective deliberations on social issues by the weak publics, whereby “every encounter in which actors do not just observe each other but take a second-person attitude, reciprocally attributing communicative freedom to each other, unfolds in a linguistically constituted public space” (7). Within this, Habermas affords a special place for a media which must be kept free of political influence and “must be capable of raising and maintaining the discursive level of public opinion formation without constraining the communicative freedom of critical audiences” (8). It must remain a part of the demarcated periphery that surrounds the centre, a media that disseminates the communicative rationality of weak publics through society, enticing the emergence of further weak publics in a continual, re-perpetuating process. Habermas’s normative theory is a framework that lays the foundations upon which participants can discursively and rationally contest and recalibrate their interpretations of society, the idealising of measure of a liberal-democratic ‘imaginary’ that aspires transformation.
In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas laid out a renewed conceptualisation of power. His amended version of ‘communicative power’ as a positive influence produced in communicative space departs from the concept of power espoused in Theory of Communicative Action where power was conceptualised as as a coercive force to be avoided in order for the discursive situation to prevail. He viewed the lines between communicative and administrative power as remaining undistorted ideologically. In a modern pluralist culture, he argues, normative issues should be separated from issues of the good life. In Habermas’s deliberative paradigm, law stabilizes society, but only through the universal voice of democracy. Between Facts and Norms culminates with the proposition of a new paradigm of law that collapses the dichotomies that burden modern social and political theory. It is Habermas’s belief that the potential release of transformative energy in the communicative rationality of the periphery can counter ‘the exhaustion of utopian energies’ (9) that followed the failure of the Marxist vision. Communicative rationality is a clarion call unmasking the exigencies and dysfunctions of social and political life and energising the transformation of liberal democracy and citizen life. Running contrary to the irrationalism of elitist politics, Habermas’s discourse theory offers citizens the opportunity to generate a rational social analysis. Discourse theory in full flight promises democratic autonomy and the legitimacy of law and state power, securing a substantive politics from normatively just procedures. Discourse theory turns a dysfunctional state into the good society.
Utopianism And Power
Habermas’s belief is that without holding fast to an ideal of an architectonic, universally constituted democracy we are left within the dangerous waters of contextualism, nihilism and relativism. Constituting society rationally via “intensive solidarity” (10) is achieveable via his Diskursetik, a bulwark against power relations and relativism, a central and universal human experience, encapsulated in its ‘universalisation principle’ (U). Habermas believes that language functions according to a teleological consensus, that “reaching understanding inhabits human speech as its telos” (11). Discourse is assumed to be the default setting for conflict that re–establishes rational social order, always seeking rational consensus. Geuss (12) questions the value of such a rationality, a conceptualisation that, although useful in well-defined areas, lacks utility as an analytical tool in politics. Surely, in delivering communicative autonomy as the condition of social justice, Habermas has built a theory of discourse that presupposes the very thing it sets out to achieve Such theories, argues Kuper in the same paper, act to reduce much that is socially significant, meaning that the theory is valuable only as a kind of ‘aspect-seeing.’ Using utopian ideals in this way can and has led to disastrous consequences when used as the foundation for social action. Putnam guards against the evidence of history (13), stating that “two centuries of constitution-writing around the world warn us…. that designers of new institutions are often writing on water…. That institutional reforms alter behaviour is an hypothesis, not an axiom.”.
The best way to understand Habermas’s work, suggests Geuss, is as a myth, just like Plato’s myth of the cave in the Republic – a way of presenting a better vision of a better world” (14). Utopia hasn’t always been a revolutionary idea, nor a political one. Plato’s Republic was situated in a paradise lost not in a yearning for a golden future. Isaiah Berlin has written “all the utopias known to us are based on the discoverability of objectively true ends, true for all men, at all times and places,” that in utopian thought the central problems of men are “in principle soluble…. the solutions form a harmonious whole” (15). But if there is a universal feature of human life, it would be conflict. Humans desire incompatible things, such as freedom and security, and this is discordant with the powerful appeal of harmony. A project is utopian if there can exist no circumstances in which it can be realised. This would include the utopian ‘we-perspective’ outcome of communicative rationality. The longings of a society free of coercion and power collapses in the face of the enduring contradictions within human needs. The imperfections of human nature are not seen by utopian thinking as flaws, they are viewed as signs of repression, part of a history from which we must rouse ourselves in the quest for autonomy. Utopian projects are more than erroneous rationalities, they are a perspective upon the world, once found in religion, but, for some time, a part of Western governments belief that political endeavour can transform the human condition. Yet it remains a fascinating, penetrating and disconcerting question to ponder whether we can live without such a utopian imaginary.
This discursive, cooperative search for truth, in the absence of coercion except from the force of the better argument, is clearly problematised in Foucauldian thought. The processual requirements for successful consensus require a level of empathy, neutrality, transparency and autonomy that is difficult to evidence. But from the point of view of Foucault, this is far from an adequate conception. The Habermasian constitution, as the device for citizen unity and power regulation, the image of power-law, of power-sovereignty, declines the famous Foucauldian invitation to “cut off the head of the king” (16). According to Flyvberg (17), the fundamental weakness in Habermas’s normative theory is “its lack of agreement between ideal and reality, between intentions and their implementation.” This weakness is rooted in an insufficient conception of power. Although the utopia of communicative rationality is described, it is lacks instructions as to the route taken to get there. The reason for this is that there is no way to get there. To do so requires a Kirkegaardian leap of faith. A leap into utopia. In ‘reality,’ political change demands a conceptualisation of power that does not assume that consensus-seeking and freedom from domination are universally inherent forces in human interaction. Instead, the realisation is required that power penetrates communication. Whether it is always present, as stated by Foucault may be contestable, but to operate as if it has little influence strenuously tests the validity of discourse theory.
Empirically, human nature, in communication and elsewhere, includes unsavoury aspects, being at times variously deceptive, selfish and deluded, and constructive of a communication that at different times can be vested, unconscious and irrational. Habermas underplays aspects of human nature that preclude the feasibility of genuine consensus and sidesteps the penetration of power and the resulting asymmetries that reside within discourse. Power is as likely to be corrupted by rhetoric and vested interests as it is to be a container for freedom from domination and rational consensus. It is not sufficient merely to assert the need for rational and imaginary resources. So deeply socialized are we, so profoundly accustomed to that which we have already adopted as the core of our own identity, that it is inpenetrably difficult to imagine a public sphere engaging in the kind of empathic and selfless hypothesizing and reconceptualizing that would effect emancipation. Such autonomy would be the result of an agency and awareness that is too improbable to be real. Humans are infinitely more complex than homo democraticus. Power games infuse communication. Machiavelli expressed the opinion that “in constituting and legislating for a commonwealth it must be taken for granted that all men are wicked and they will always give vent to their malignity that is in their minds when opportunity offers” (18). Accurate and deluded, dissenting and patriotic, selfless and selfish, attached and detached, we are ambiguous beings.
Substantively, neither Habermas nor Foucault offers an account of what is to be done, the elements of political action are left to be defined by the participants. Whether freedom from domination is achieveable via a Habermasian procedural macropolitics or via a Foucauldian substantive micropolitics depends on which thinker you choose to think with. To many, Habermas’s solution is a part of the problem. Utopianism hampers the very thing it craves due to a confidence in abstract rationality that bears scant resemblance to the imperfect discursive world we populate. The suspicion is that Habermas’s ideas on communicative rationality and strong democracy are so abstract as to render them exceptionally unlikely to make their way into the real-life annals of political realms. Within these spheres there are examples aplenty of the role of resistance, activism levering social change away from oppressive practice and toward a more autonomously functioning society. Even though rational discourse and cross-interest consensus have to play their part in such resistance, democracy and the freedoms we live with exist in their present forms not because of a universal consensus on human norms, but because of active, stoic resistance to perceived injustice.
Often the details of resistance to injustice and battles for freedom will need to be settled in legal environs, as recognised in Between Facts and Norms. Courts of law, however, do not seek two parties willing consensus, they seek the judgement to fall in the favour of one over the other by means that fall beyond reasonable doubt. The defeated can consent or not. That is irrelevant to the letter of the law. If they really protest the decision the sytem is protected by sanctions that deter people from overstepping the mark of their dissension. Where is power better demonstrated than the threat of incarceration? Power protects us from power. All societies need procedures in place for the times when rational debate fails. As to whether the protagonists in the court engage in communicative rationality to reach their decision is an arguable position. In court, as in life, there are shadowy discursive skills, techniques, power plays, omissions and exaggerations working their way through cases. Any implementation of discourse ethics would in itself flounder on the competing wants of societal and political actors, and would need to be coerced into constitution, an irony that the energies of a utopian imagination could easily miss. There is no communicative rationality unperverted by power. Such a civil society would contadictorily be built upon a claim to power, an immorally instituted morality.
Machiavellian worst-case scenario thinking may be a pessimistic view of human nature but it may offer a more durable safeguard for a form of democratic success. If we were to rely upon a discourse ethic that history has yet to evidence, without the necessary checks, balances or contingencies besides an abstract appeal to reason we would imperil the very democracy Habermas craves. To chart a path on the road to morality, it is prescient to realise that we are not universally moral. To rely on the force of a better argument to win the day may be abstractly appealing but is also empirically empty. It is hard to see how we can even consent upon the criterion by which an argument is deemed better. Eventually, legal processes must end arguments for those conflicts which remain unresolved. Law will bring its own form of consensus, voluntarily or not. In the final analysis, Habermas recognises this in the democratic and legal programme he sets out in Between Facts and Norms, as noted by Baynes (19) who underlines the significance in this work of Habermas’s increased emphasis on law and its role in legitimating and integrating community. Nonetheless, although offering a more profound analysis of civil society and democracy, Habermas’s approach remains idealistic in its impression of human folly and its intolerance to context. The opportunities for communicative rationality to stamp its authority in an oft-miscommunicating lifeworld are limited. Being inattentive about the role of power leaves democracy further away. The critical starting point is not an ideal of a utopian communicative rationality, it is an understanding of power. And key in this lies the debate between what is foundational and what is contextual, between the real and the relative.
The Foundationalism-Relativism Debate
Habermas’s oft–quoted depiction of Foucault’s genealogical enterprise as “relativistic, cryptonormative illusory science” (20, emphasis in original) succinctly describes his critique of the lack of normative foundations in Foucault’s thought. However, the postulating of a normative base is not the same as a demonstration. It was Nietzsche who stated of the ‘historians of morality’ that “their usual mistaken premise is that they affirm some consensus of the nations…. concerning certain principles of morals, and then they infer from this that these principles must be unconditionally binding also for you and me; or conversely, that they see the truth that among different nations moral valuations are necessarily different and then infer from this that no morality is at all binding. Both procedures are equally childish (21, emphasis in original). It is from this vantage point that Foucault dismisses foundationalism in favour of situational ethics, of contextualism. Being human limits the choices we have, so we need to understand context. Foucault seeks the local challenging of power abuse in the search for the undefined work of freedom. A universal, normative grounding of this work would be unproductive for Foucault, as it would lead straight back into the confines of utopianism. “The search for a form of morality acceptable by everyone in the sense that everyone would have to submit to it, seems catastrophic to me” (22). A universally grounded morality would endanger democracy, not empower it. This belief that nothing in society is fundamental sets Foucault in startlingly diametrical opposition to Habermas. Yet at some point, we come back to the need to navigate the politically choppy waters of how we govern ourselves, of how we choose to live and ultimately, this requires some depiction of norms (including with Foucault). But does this require utopian norms? Habermas sees his normative theory as a standard to approach, even in the awareness that we may not reach the ideal. But even allowing for the need to draw up a constitution to live by, in the construction of our political and social spheres do we really need a utopian barometer as a best case scenario? Or can we take a nihilistic starting point, accepting that there are no moral values other than the values we find for ourselves? As it so often is, the answer lies somewhere in between.
The standpoint here is not a postmodernist take. Although postmodernists reject the unshifting normative base, dissuade us of the universalism that diminishes pluralism and refute the privileging of progress, the postmodern incredulity toward metanarratives escalates into an anthropocentric conceit. Habermas sagely criticised the performative contradictions inherent in postmodernist claims, given that an aversion to metanarratives is itself a claim to reason. Postmodernists are no less susceptible to ideological illusion. When analysed, postmodernism is guilty of anthropocentrism. In positing the reality/irreality of the wandering world of our own constructions, any acknowledgment of human nature is rejected as dogmatic and reactionary. This abolition of absolutes is an invitation to accept a world of our own making. But this form of relativism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Masquerading as intellectual humility, the outright denial of the real is actually a troubling conceit. To rebut the limits of a natural world assumed to exist separately from our beliefs about it implicitly rejects any limits on human aspirations. The construction of human belief as the final authority on reality is tantamount to saying that nothing is real until it appears in human consciousness. This is an anthropocentric arrogance. Furthermore, Geuss (23) warns against the pernicious effects of some postmodern thinking, that fails to take into account that “as finite human beings we have no alternative but to have theories.” It is self-deluding to believe we can eradicate delusion. The contention that no single theory can give us the whole truth and nothing but the truth “is not reason to jettison theoretical activity altogether.” Postmodernism goes awry when it dispenses with reason and theory, as it is to deny what humans do.
But to label Foucault a postmodernist in this sense is a misinterpretation. In questioning the existence of universals he is not intending to begin from a nihilistic position. For Foucault, the aim it is to assert the possibility of resistance toward social conditions we do not want (such as oppressive power relations) and to promote the possibility of those we do (such as a strong civil society). In the end, much of the difference between Foucault and Habermas relates to the stability or not of norms. Though he focused on description and not advocacy, eventually Foucault, if pushed, would surely end up providing norms on how to build societal arrangements, however contextualised and temporary these norms may be in comparison to Habermas’s. For Foucault, it is the socially-situated, historically-conditioned context that establishes the most effective fortification against nihilism, and the foundation for change. The utopian ideal of autonomy cannot be attained via a sytematic theory appealing to abstract reason and correct discourse, “I am attempting, to the contrary, apart from any totalization – which would at once be abstract and limiting – to open up problems that are as concrete and general as possible” (24). The constitution-based theorising of Habermas does not figure in the ideas of Foucault. As regards legal, democratic constitution-building, Foucault sees the work to be done in the existing institutions, how they can be challenged and resisted to unmask the institutional power that pretends to be neutral and benignly independent. The challenge is not to dissolve relations of power in the utopia of perfectly transparent communication, but rather to unearth the localised, contextualised rules of law and ethics that would only permit power relations the very minimum of domination. Yet setting this diametrically against Habermas’s reasoning is to overplay the the utopian accusation. Habermas also believes that the ideal speech situation is unattainable in reality, only in utopia. Habermas also clearly demands the regulation of domination. The difference between the two is largely in approach not destination, in Habermas’s universalistic, normative interpretation set against Foucault’s contextual, genealogical discernment.
Distinguishing Between Values And Norms
Social progress in the sense of learning from the past and working towards a more democratic future plays a significant part in the thought of Habermas. In settling the terms for this future, a participatory, deliberative society needs to engage in a consensual search for our moral norms, revealed by our validity claims to rightness. Habermas believes that there may only be a few universal moral norms and contends that this makes consensuality a clearer horizon (in the sense that fewer norms means a correspondingly deeper fundamentality). Yet this expression of a small moral core rather diminishes Habermas’s claim that the discourse theory of morality is critical to social order given that most conflict within civil society will therefore fall outside the few, core moral norms that we live by. This can only reduce their greater relevance to wider social integration.
Habermas cites the example of human rights in estimating that valid moral norms form the bedrock of universal agreement, maintaining that after 200 years of modern constitutional history, it is easier to see that “human dignity forms the portal through which the egalitarian and universalistic substance of morality is imported into law” (25). Human dignity is one and the same everywhere and for everyone, and “grounds the indivisibility of all categories of human rights” (26). Rousingly, Habermas speaks of the first human rights declaration setting a standard that inspires “people who have been thrust into misery, and those who have been ostracized and humiliated, a standard that can give them the assurance that their suffering is not a natural destiny” (27). This is a gallant hope that is easy to warm to. The enshrining of human rights into positive law presses upon the “collective memory of humanity” to carry out our legal duty to realise exacting moral requirements. For Habermas, “human rights constitute a realistic utopia insofar as they no longer paint deceptive images of a social utopia that guarantees collective happiness but anchor the ideal of a just society in the institutions of constitutional states themselves.” Theoretically, this quote offers an insightful encapsulation of the processual utopianism in Habermas’s normative theory as set against a utopian ideal of an outcome or destination. But empirically, this realistic utopia is little evidenced within human rights issues, given the lack of fulfilment of what might be called our duty to each other.
There is an interesting distinction drawn by Habermas in his later writing in his separation of ethics and morality, and a corresponding distinction between universally-binding, absolute norms and contingent, relative values. Habermas prioritises the moral over the ethical in conflict resolution, claiming the right over the good, as it cuts the contestation of values out of the debate. This is too neat. And diverts us from the endless deliberation in deciding values, interminable because they are largely contestable and sometimes incommensurable. The precision of this distinction is troublingly incisive given that, in the intersubjectivity that consensus requires in settling upon a normative framework, it is inevitable those discussions will be informed by the values of the participants. This is illustrated in the Human Rights Act as well as anywhere. Norms may not be the same as values, but the separation between the two is disputable. Surely norms presuppose values, or how else could we identify them? In asserting that historically, the distinction between morality and ethics is blurred (28), whilst simultaneously defending his own conceptual distinction between the two is problematic. Habermas is adamant that norms are fundamentally different from values. It has to be this way given that validity claims to rightness preside over our actions and provide the foundations for social order. However, the contention by Habermas that values can be the source of unamenable conflict, and given the continual requirement to reinterpret values and given the overlapping of values and norms within consensus-building leaves Habermas with a dilemma. Habermas reasons that needs are dictated and interpreted according to cultural values and that our interests are expressed by our moral norms. As Finlayson (29) points out he is consequently letting values in through the back door. Valid norms may be few in number but they are inextricably linked to our values. Accepting the vagueness of the distinction between values and valid norms exposes Habermas’s normative theory, if not as utopian, certainly as substantially weakened. The resolution of conflicts cannot be achieved within this theory without more thought. Again, the accent has to be placed on political and legal mechanisms as opposed to moral and ethical ones.
In Habermas’s commitment to the ideal of communicative rationality and mass democratic participation, he is swimming against the tide of the deficit in normativity left behind by Marxism and the loss of critical theory’s transformative potential. His desire is to regenerate utopian energies to overcome the dead-end of despair that engulfed the later Frankfurt School and his investment is in the potentialities of political and civic life to radically reform society. However the communicative ideals he postulates are too unremittingly demanding and wide-ranging, and too presumptive of an as yet unseen human rationality, to be anything other than a utopian pursuit. Dreams of the best life are a seemingly enduring theme of humanity, embodied in an Enlightenment ideal of social harmony that has no basis in experience. In the words of Isaiah Berlin, “Man is incapable of self-completion and therefore never wholly predictable; fallible, a complex combination of opposites, some reconcilable, others incapable of being resolved or harmonised; unable to cease from his search for truth, happiness, novelty, freedom, but with no guaranteee…. of being able to attain them” (30). Nonetheless, the utopian critique of Habermas’s normative theory is an exaggeration and part-misinterpretation. Ultimately, his normative theory seeks a democratic and legal edge that belies much of the criticism. Where the utopianism is evidenced is less in remote and nebulous ideals of future harmony, more in the procedural, discursive, consensus-seeking processes that he maintains would enable us to transform our social and political dilemmas. It is in the details of democratic participation and legal constitution where our utopian energies are better exerted, more than in the search for formal structures with universal value. So the question is less whether Habermas’s normative theory is utopian, more whether he believes a standard of utopian normative theory is necessary for an imaginative impulse that propels social change?
In a discursive, democratic reality that is short on transparency, short on rationality, and beholden to powers and conflicts from whose Gordian knots we can never fully extricate ourselves, what may be a more useful zetetic than the utopian heuristic, is a commitment to localised, contingent, stoic, realistic gains made in the dimly-lit awareness that no gains are irreversible, that normative frameworks can take the form of myth and that humans will probably be subject to their own folly and irrationality as much as they are to reason and consensus. Social change and progress are always in danger of reversal without the work of intentional contingency-building and legally-binding checks and balances. There is no wholesale, rational political consensus that can envelop all the pluralistic interests of society’s members. There are crucial theoretical limitations in idealised communicative action, in a validity that transcends context. A differentiated model of political culture is needed, one compatible with such plurality and context. Political and public horizons are best refined and civilised, not in an ideal that assumes away power and conflict but in the lived democratic spaces that exhibit economic, political, cultural and social assymetries. Democratic conflict is inevitable, immovable, even affirming, a strength of civil society. The right to engage in conflict and struggle is a characteristic of freedom. The task set before us is less to unveil the richness of communicative rationality, and more toward illuminating the mechanics of power. In a sense such a conflict-accepting, power-inevitable, pluralistic, contextualised depiction of resisting and changing social and political problems is no less a vertiginous project than the utopian hope of a communicative rationality. However, it may be the better place to begin the work.
Word Count 5,047
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