Saturday, October 13, 2007

Habermas, America and Iraq

[rough notes]

1) Habermas believes that there is universal core to the Western civilisation. This universal core is not based in the particular experiences the Western societies went through but in the linguistic character of our being in the world.

2) As beings bound by the use of language we are all equally heirs to the potential inherent in the language use. This potential is described by Habermas in terms of his theory of communicative action.

3)Thus, language use according to Habermas is the primary mode of action coordination and socialisation. Since we are all linguistic beings, history of different human societies must reflect this shared potential of language use and must be able to realise this potential to a certain extent.

4)[Communicative action is the basic type of social interaction in which actors coordinate their respective action plans according to commonly supposed world interpretations and mutual expectations. In acting communicatively, individuals more or less naively accept as valid the various claims raised with their utterance or actions and mutually suppose that each of them is prepared to provide reasons for the claims should their validity be questioned. In a slightly more specific (and controversial) sense, and one more closely tied to modern structures of rationality Habermas also claims that individuals who act communicatively self reflectively aim at reaching a shared understanding (or Verstaendingung) about something in the world by relating their interpretations to various idealizing, yet unavoidable, supposition of discourse, including claims to validity. Given the close connection between validity, reason and action, communicative action must initially be approached interpretatively, that is, from the internal perspective of the participants or virtual participants who are able to give and assess reasons.]

5) Habermas has a quasi Marxist account of why different human societies have failed to realise this potential. A revised version of false consciousness in details of which I do not want to go here. [Marx established in what sense the category of labour is a universal concept applicable to all societies. He shows that only to the extent that the capitalist mode of production has become established are the objective conditions fulfilled that allow him, Marx, access to an understanding of the universal character of this category ‘labour’. With regard to . . . a theory of communication, one must use the same method to clarify how the development of late capitalism has objectively fulfilled conditions that allow us to recognize universals in the structures of linguistic communication, providing criteria for a critique which can no longer be based on the philosophy of history (Habermas, 1986: 99).]

6) According to Habermas democratic procedures and human rights represent this universal potential of our linguistic being and is the shared heritage of all human societies.

7) Thus, Habermas clearly demarcates the universal core of the Western civilisation, which is based on our linguistic being in the world and hence is truly universal, from the particular historical experience through which the Western societies have institutionalised these universal insights.

8) Habermas urges the West to “export” the first but he thinks the West should not try to impose its own historically specific experiences through which it has institutionalised those universal insights, and the particular forms that this institutionalisation has taken.

9) This is the basis of Habermas’ objection to American strategy in Iraq. America according to Habermas, is trying to impose its own historically specific institutions on Iraqis and others. That must be avoided.

10) The fall of Saddam Hussein's monument is a sign that Iraqis too yearn for freedom, democracy and human rights. On the other hand the fierce resistance to Americans in Iraq is resistance to what Habermas calls liberal nationalism, which tries to impose the particularity on the other. Thus, the resistance is not directed against the universal as such. It is directed against a particularity which is at most only one representative of the universal.

11) Thus, the falling of the monument represents the urge for freedom, for the universality that is the core of Western civilisation while the resistance to the invading army and occupation represent loath against the imposition of a particularistic interpretation of the universal. The resistance is a protest against unequal treatment, against the egocentric perception of America.

12) What Habermas wants America to do is to go through decentration, to recognise the other, and the right of the other to try to realise the universal according to his or her own specific experience. Thus Habermas please for egalitarian universalism.

13) The particular policy implication of this plea is Habermas’ rejection of the American unilateralism, since it represents American liberal nationalism and not egalitarian universalism. Habermas counterposes to this the policy of upholding of the international law and making the UN the basis of all policy initiatives.

14) Habermas does not seriously consider for a second the inherently unequal character of the UN itself (although he does mention it in passing). And for good reasons of its own. For the primacy of international law and the UN is actually a plea for the unity of the Western forces and her allies. This becomes clear when we consider Habermas’ support of an equally unauthorised invasion of Kosovo. Habermas enumerates three points that differentiate the present case (that of Iraq) from the Kosovo invasion. However, the third and the last point is crucial: “undisputed democratic and rule of law character of all members of the acting military coalition. Today normative dissent has divided the West itself”. The collective action of the West in itself is a sort of guarantee against particularism.

15) This should not surprise us since Habermas does not consider for a moment the possibility that the people of Iraq or any other part of the world may genuinely resist not only the particularities mentioned above but the universal itself. This is strange considering Habermas own reference to the possibility of what he calls “less friendly use of democracy”. John Gray a leading European critic of neo liberal policy argues that the outcome of the imposition of democracy in the Middle East would not be a liberal order but a theocratic rule.

16) I totally disagree with Habermas diagnosis. Firstly, among the Western countries, America is least susceptible to the temptations to impose its own particular values on others. Compare with France for example.

17)Secondly and most importantly he indugles in strange misinterpretation of events by imputing policy changes to individuals [Pauls Wolfwits is dubbed as a revolutionary!] and to neo conservatism [ignoring the Clintonian basis of current policy as recently argued by Philip Bobbit in his Shield of Achilles].

18) However, the most glaring omission of Habermas analysis is the relation of democracy to the capitalist imperatives. This is strange for a thinker who has been sufficiently sensitive to the necessity of addressing the system imperatives through out his career.

19)The role of America in today’s system is not due to any unilateralism but because of its role as the sole defender of the capitalist order and the changed nature of capital accumulation. Today interventions are needed not to export values or any other reasons but to keep the lines of supplies safe for the global capitalist order. And this is not just the interest of America, it is the interest of the whole capitalist world. The people who have claimed oil to be the sole cause of invasion are as wrong as Habermas. Habermas ignores the system imperatives; the others ignore the the distinction between the particularites of the accumulation and its generalities.

20) Europe knows that it is totally dependent on America for the growth of its economy. However, at the same time America is totally dependent on foreign investment to sustain its growth and finance its debt. America today needs constant intervention throughout the world to sustain this life line.

21) Habermas and others have a point but that must be understood on a totally different level. The problem is not that America is trying to impose its own values. The problem is that the sole defender of the capitalist order is a nation state. Thus it cannot fulfil its obligation consistently. When Habermas and others argue for a new role for the UN they are actually calling for a truly universal state (with the reservations which are beyond the scope of this presentation, see TDW for detail).

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