home page Habermas and “political world society”
a sympathetic critique

gary e. davis
October 19, 2007

Coincidently, the year I was born, there was a man named “Garry Davis” who campaigned for a World Citizenship convention, including a World Citizenship passport, and submitted to arrest gladly for civil disobedience in promoting his aspiration and the proffered validity of his passport. (He stormed the UN General Assembly around the time my mom became pregnant with me. But I never chanced to ask her about this. [Garry died July 25, 2013.])

Habermas notes near the beginning of his essay “A political constitution for the pluralist world society?” (PDF available) that Kant sought “the transformation of ‘international’ law as the law of states into ‘cosmopolitan’ law as a law of individuals. Individual persons [relative to Kant’s ideal] no longer enjoy the status of legal subjects just as citizens of a nation state, but also as members of a politically constituted world society” (2). Maybe, we’ll all speak Esperanto, instead of a global English (as business and science currently tend to do). Anyway, there seems no prima facie problem with the passports we have, commerce in terms of WTO parameters, or political relations in terms of existing customary international law, special-purpose treaties, Geneva Conventions, and the United Nations. Indeed, Habermas points to the exemplarity of the UN---but wants more. The following discussion supplements my earlier discussion of “Habermas and Europe” (which has a new preface, introducing this discussion).

Habermas’ essay appears to be motivated (given its early footnotes), not surprisingly, by the ongoing issue of formalizing European integration, which today seems to have reached a milestone, with the completed negotiations of a new European “treaty” that, reportedly, antedates the ratification process of the earlier EU Constitution that has so exercised Habermas’ role as public intellectual, exemplarily. A Habermasian reader should want to know, now, what he thinks of today’s milestone (including skepticism that 27 governments will be able to ratify it without 27 more referenda). At this point, this U.S. reader would first like to know more details, having only first reports to inform the following discussion.

But most interestingly, what does the new treaty say about the satisfactoriness to Europe of the current world order?; and what does it do to provide an implicit commentary on Habermas’ post-Kantian interest?Does today’s milestone antedate Habermas’ project? If, as JH claims, “[t]he European Union provides a convincing example of how higher-order legal norms can function in a binding manner even though they are actually backed and implemented by much more powerful member states that are formally subordinated to those norms” (7-8), does today’s treaty express the adequacy of such provision without supra-organizational constitution?

How can one not admire the idea of “a politically constituted world-society [that] could even in the absence of a world government frame [a] kind of global domestic politics that is ...especially [relevant for] the fields of global economic and environmental policies” (8-9)? Such an idea would have to at least be appreciative of ongoing, broadly insightful, work on the relations of the political economics of energy and the political economics of global warming, biodiversity, etc., that is common news. Indeed, do we not already have that “politically constituted world-society” in terms of the planetary communication community and global policy community that is so ordinarily the focus of mainstream media?

JH turns to the UN for his model of a “supranational arena” (9-10) in his “tripartite” model; so, nothing new called for there. The apparently-second part of his tripartite model, “world-domestic politics” (which is “horizontally” transnational, so to speak, rather than “vertically” supranational? ), is clearly exemplified (though not by JH) by the EU—and, JH mentions more than once, exemplified by the U.S. One might also add regional organizations such as the evolving Association of S.E. Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the evolving African Union (and other organizations that JH indeed mentions: 13).

Today’s finalization of the EU treaty has been overtly celebrated, by EU prime ministers, as a consolidation of the EU’s power in globalization and world affairs. It implicitly claims to outstrip JH’s sense that “[t]he European Union has at least achieved the status of laying claim to growing into the role of a global actor.” The treaty today implicitly claims to actualize JH’s “However”: “However, European unification will only be able to stand as a model for the construction of higher order capacities for political action if it attains a degree of political integration that enables the EU to pursue democratically legitimated policies both toward the outside world and within its own borders” (13). Apparently, the EU today has achieved articulation of that anticipated “degree of integration.”

So, JH’s suspicion about “powerlessness of a mere ought” in theory (13) seems moot. More aptly, perhaps, the Owl of Minerva had already taken flight in 2005 (when JH’s essay was written) and is now academic (as an episode in the ongoing re-thinking of Kant for EU readers). I do hope that the 2008 English version of JH’s book, from which his essay is taken for this translation, will be a re-thought version of what is now antedated by current events (not just by the EU treaty, but, I might argue, by the contemporary world order that JH discusses later in his essay).

JH might disagree, in terms of needs for legitimation that can’t be derived from the conditions of validating treaties (14). But his example of the UN apparently expresses desire for the UN to supplant the current, actual multiple power centers that include the UN trans-organizationally with the WTO and regional alliances, in a global pluralism without ultimate center of power---including, by the way, a global fourth estate of the press that JH doesn’t mention (but which is profoundly implicative for legitimation processes across the modes of a tripartite conception of world affairs), though he recalls that “[d]ecisions taken at the supranational level on war and peace, justice and injustice do indeed attract attention and a critical response worldwide” (16)—a note which might be enriched to undermine JH’s claim later that “regulatory decisions that intervene in nation states from above are increasingly uncoupled from popular sovereignty” (17).

JH idealizes (in association with an international regime of law), “perfectly constitutionalized world society” (15) which, of course, would need some sort of supranational legitimation. But where’s the real need for this? The human rights community seems to wield great force without a supranational military backing. The problem in Darfur is not our humanitarian union’s lack of backing, through current international law or military resources available to the UN. The efficacy of the World Bank, etc., is not without enough “republican kind of legitimation” (17). I see no “growing legitimation problems” (ibid.) here (and JH details none).

But I strongly admire JH’s conception of law as the “result of long-term democratic learning processes” born of “exemplary histories... in the collective memory of [human]kind” (15-16).

A great test of the question of the need for more supranational legitimation than we currently have is presently before the U.S. Supreme Court, where an illegal Mexican immigrant, sentenced in U.S. law, is arguing that international law trumps U.S. law in his case. Earlier, at least one U.S. federal court has ruled for the relevance of international precedent in federal-level jurisprudence. We will see, in 2008, where the politics of the U.S. Supreme Court stands. But the large point here is that national law may be quite capable of evolving a regime of relationship with international law without yielding jurisdiction to international law. Also, U.S. legislative politics is quite enmeshed in issues of the evolving WTO (e.g., on farm subsidies, which is slowly evolving in favor of the WTO regime, I believe). Such ongoing evolutions show that popular sovereignty is quite involved in, again, “regulatory decisions that intervene in nation states.” But there’s surely room for
detailed inquiry into how the dynamics of this may be viewed as legitimate, contrary to JH’s brief note (18, ftn.18).

Instead, JH turns to disagreeing that A-M. Slaughter answers “the issue of a legitimation deficit”: ”[T]o whom are the deputies of the executive branch accountable if they negotiate binding multilateral regulations that their domestic voters would not accept?” (18). The question doesn’t make sense, given his own quoting from Slaughter, e.g., that [Slaughter} ”[t]he members of government networks (must)...first. .. be accountable to their domestic constituents. ...” (ibid.).

Those deputies are accountable, in the U.S., to the legislature that must ratify treaties---a legislature whose members have expert committees corresponding to each mode of the executive branch (e.g., numerous expert agencies involved in agriculture expressing domestically- vested interest in negotiation of farm subsidies for the Doha Round of the WTO)---a legislature that is integrally involved in the treaty-formation and negotiation process via the integration of executive and legislative agencies, all in the glare of the press (thanks to competing interests within agencies that urge self-interested transparency). Such an integration of national-transnational process does not need to depend on a neoliberal model of “self-legitimizing force of the rationality of experts” (19), a claim that can be warranted in terms of real U.S. politics. Moreover, at the transnational level exemplified for JH by the WTO, dispute settlement is based on rules that, it seems to me, have evolved in accordance with JH’s principle (D) of discourse ethics (over the evolution of the WTO from the GATT)---rules which are, for the WTO (as for JH’s discourse ethics) revisable likewise (i.e., according with principle [D]) for an evolving order that has its “rounds” (e.g., the current Doha Round). It seems to me just false to assert that “[i]n the WTO there is no legislative authority that generates norms in the domain of international business law or could change it” (20).

I also don’t see real danger of the “world order” losing “political forms of regulation to market mechanisms” (21), i.e., I don’t see the “neoliberal” sense of economism as a real danger. In other words, I don’t see [1] the degree of economics serving politics being generally submerged by [2] the degree of politics serving economics. I might argue this point (generally stable prevalence of [1] over [2]) in terms of the sensitivity of finance capital to conditions in commodity markets---a sensitivity which will be the case forever, I believe. [1]-over-[2] seems clearly the case for exchange rates, which are a function of real GDPs. I see no danger in the U.S. or the EU “such that it becomes impossible to use democratic means to overturn” (21) economic policies, in terms of new administrations.

Contrary to fears of neoliberal hegemony, one should not underestimate the importance of JH’s observation that “[d]ifferent social models of capitalism compete with each other already within the domain of the Western culture” (22). Neoliberalism is just one among the models---and clearly to this American reader, the days are numbered for “the Washington consensus.”

Uselessly vague is the obviously-valid claim that “[n]ot all Western nations are prepared to pay the social and the cultural price at home and world-wide of a lack of compensation for the affluence gap....” (ibid.). In the U.S., the income-distribution gap is high on the agenda of the present political season (and is seemingly inherent to U.S. history). No country does more for the cause of NGOs, The World Bank, or The Millennium Project (which the U.S. formulated). The challenge for the EU is to match the U.S. in commitment to humanitarian and humanistic union while paying for its own defense.

A keynote of the Doha Round is to increase developing regions’ access to the world market, and the theme of “the bottom billion” is integral to domestic politics in the U.S. The politics of development is complex, to say the least. But that complexity deserves one’s attention, whereas broad-stroke statements aren’t useful (e.g., theories of modernity or analyses of capitalism based in the Cold War ‘60s). I’m unsure, by the way, how one should make use of a notion of “ society that has had its political teeth pulled” (ibid.) when global economic growth has never been better, including general progress for developing regions (that aren’t undermined by tribal wars), notwithstanding the coming plague of global warming that is already shaping the supranational agenda of the planetary communication community (e.g., China is close to going nuts about it, “green” industry is a venture capitalist’s dream in both Europe and the U.S.).

Anyway, “the achievements of Modernity” have always been a matter of appropriating new developments in terms of local resources, no less for the exemplary history of Europe and America than for, say, Africa. The days of colonialism are over; it never prevented genuine modernization, which, again, has always depended on local appropriation. It’s in the nature of appropriation that its scope of regioning new developments cannot be “rob”bed (ibid.), i.e., expropriated, because it’s located in the lifeworld of the people---and even the African bushman now likely has a cell phone that may reach Chicago’s commodity exchanges in a few seconds.

Oct. 19
Talk about planetary communication for coordination of human development...

“Next week,” begins this week’s Science Editorial, “Feeding a Hungry World,“more than 200 science journals throughout the world will simultaneously publish papers on global poverty and human development—a collaborative effort to increase awareness, interest, and research about these important issues of our time. Some 800 million people still experience chronic and transitory hunger each year. Over the next 50 years, we face the daunting job of feeding 3.5 billion additional people, most of whom will begin life in poverty. The battle to alleviate poverty and improve human health and productivity will require dynamic agricultural development....” [continued in PDF]

Oct. 20
World Bank Report Puts Agriculture at Core of Antipoverty Effort

“For the first time in a quarter century, the World Bank’s flagship annual report on development puts agriculture and the productivity of small farmers at the heart of a global agenda to reduce poverty....[T]he report crystallizes an emerging consensus among wealthy countries, philanthropists and African governments: Increased public investment in scientific research, rural roads, irrigation, credit, fertilizer and seeds — the basics of an agricultural economy — is crucial to helping Africa’s poor farmers...” [continued as html]