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"When you come to a fork in the road, take it"

-Yogi Berra


In this essay I want to focus on one thread of Jürgen Habermas's argument in Legitimation Crisis (hereafter referred to as LC) that seems to bear upon our current predicament in the era of late-late capitalist society.i But I find, as always, to mix metaphors, that pulling one thread of his argument often leads me into a labyrinth. I doubt that I will do justice to the complexity of his theory of crisis, but hope to make a little progress in satisfying my own sense of the dangers we face at this time and the extent to which his understanding of crisis may aid us in thinking through the problems of political power and democracy.

Habermas understands a crisis to be a persistent disturbance of system integration, a situation where the social system lacks a capacity to solve problems. (LC, 2) But to determine whether a crisis actually exists in a social system is a difficult problem for Habermas, because crises of systems manifest themselves at the level of the identity of the social system, and at the level of identity, the objective evaluation of a crisis is extremely difficult to determine. So the primary task before him is to try to understand the connection between steering problems and identity crises. This presents a core problem for Habermas, because questions of system on the one hand, and life-world, or the social symbolic realm of meaning, seem to be incongruous, at least in part because discussions of them arise from different theoretical traditions. "If we comprehend a social system as a life-world, then the steering aspect is screened out. If we understand society as a system, then the fact that social reality consists in the facticity of recognized, often counterfactual, validity claims is not taken into consideration."(LC, 5) How might this gap be closed?

We know that this question isn't answered in LC. By the end of LC, Habermas has reached a point in his argumentation where the partiality for reason presents itself as the uneasy and incomplete resolution of a truth-dependent mode of socialization constitutive of society.

Whether the constituents of a rational form of life should be retained cannot be made the object of a rational will-formation that depends on those very constituents. This requires, in any event, an appeal to the partiality for reason. As partisanship, however, this partiality can be justified only so long as alternatives are posed within an already accustomed, shared communicative form of life. As soon as an alternative appears that breaks this circuit of predecided inter-subjectivity, the only universalizable partiality – the interest in reason itself – becomes particular.

(LC, 142)

Habermas's concern is that this perspective leads to the temptation – and not for the first time – to a decisionist grounding for rationality. We are left at the end of LC with a clarification of crisis, but not with a means of its resolution, beyond resistance to decisionism. But along the way, there are extremely illuminating passages concerning what could be called a fork in the road for contemporary critical theory and the critical analysis of culture. The current divisions of thought between those among us who have abandoned the dialectic in favor of a new pluralism, inspired by both poststructuralism and a refreshed reading of a neglected American tradition, and the adherents to deliberative democracy and the ongoing project of communicative action, seem ripe for a reevaluation. That isn't really the task of this paper, though I do reach certain conclusions concerning the Habermasian politics that has emerged in the wake of LC. I want to focus particularly on Part Three of LC, "On the Logic of Legitimation Problems," especially on the question of structural force, which is touched upon by Habermas, but which also seems to be in severe need of the sort of supplement that he has subsequently avoided by staking his claim to communicative reason.

Punishment and the Question of Structural Force

Habermas begins his discussion of the logic of legitimation problems by making a strong claim regarding motives and truth claims, relying on Piaget's understanding of the stages of moral consciousness as being, at the highest level of moral consciousness, in accord with universal morality. Consistent with both Piaget's and Kohlberg's understanding of psychological development, Habermas's claim is that the Piaget's universal morality is both empirically and systematically superior to other psychoanalytic reconstructions of motives and their relation to truth. In thinking about the logic of legitimation problems, he suggests, "In the present context, only this systematic aspect of the claimed truth relation of factually valid norms and values is of interest." (LC, 95) But in order to understand how this developmental understanding plays itself out in the context of system, Habermas is confronted with the problem of authority, that is, the basic question of why people obey. This leads him immediately to Max Weber's concept of legitimate authority, and it is there that a shadow falls across Habermas's discussion.

What is this shadow? I here need to quote at some length:

Because the reproduction of class societies is based on the privileged appropriation of socially produced wealth, all such societies must resolve the problem of distributing the surplus social product inequitably and yet legitimately. They do so by means of structural force, that is, by fixing in a system of observed norms the asymmetrical distribution of legitimate chances to satisfy needs. The factual recognition of such norms does not, of course, rest solely on belief in their legitimacy by those affected. It is also based on fear of, and submission to, indirectly threatened sanctions, as well as on simple compliance engendered by the individual's perception of his own powerlessness and the lack of alternatives open to him (that is, by his own fettered imagination). As soon, however, as belief in the legitimacy of an existing order vanishes, the latent force embedded in the system of institutions is released – either as manifest force from above (which is only a temporary possibility) or in the form of expansion of the scope for participation (in which case the key to the distribution of chances to legitimately satisfy needs, that is, the degree of repression, also changes).

(LC, 96)

A long time ago, Bill Connolly suggested that any time a political theorist uses the term "of course" it is a good time to pay very close attention, in large part because it is likely that something important and often unsavory concerning the theory is being swept away. Habermas's "of course" supplements belief in legitimacy with fear and submission to indirectly threatened sanctions, a fettered imagination, and sense of powerlessness. By way of his "of course," Habermas does not tarry with this moment, but immediately moves on to what happens when belief in legitimacy disappears.. The moment of disbelief makes the latent force manifest, which results in the use of force from above, on the one hand, or an expansion of chances for participation, on the other. It would seem that the management of degrees of repression – how much force, versus how much participation -- becomes an instrument in the continuing power of legitimate authority as it recovers from its crisis. (an interesting case study in this regard would be the ongoing political crisis and its management in Ethiopia, which we could discuss if we have time.)

For Habermas, immediately the question moves on to the relationship of legitimation to truth. He argues that if belief in legitimacy is simply an empirical phenomenon "without an immanent relation to truth, the grounds on which it is based have only psychological significance. If, on the other hand, every effective belief in legitimacy is assumed to have an immanent relation to truth, the grounds on which it is explicitly based contain a rational validity claim that can be tested and criticized independently of the psychological effect of these grounds." (LC, 97) At this point, Habermas goes on to pursue a complex argument concerning the relation of belief in legitimacy to belief in legality, which introduces the problem of decisionism in Schmitt leading to the (dangerous) possibility of binding decisions without grounds having become the practical possibility of our time. (LC, 102)

Rather than move along with Habermas, I want to tarry for a moment where he does not, in that morass of fear, repression, and fettered imagination at the moment when belief in legitimacy vanishes and the latent force embedded in the system of institutions is released. For it is at this open site of trauma that an alternative explanation for the power of structural force, its latency, its overtness, and its shaping power, comes into view. Drawn to the systematicity of Piaget's narrative of psychological development, Habermas in a sense abandons Freud, even as he praises him as an Enlightenment thinker in the Hegelian tradition. (On this, see his comments in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernityii ). But if we think of Freud as one who provides us with a narrative of psychological development that accounts for the incomplete and open character of what Deleuze would later call "a life," at the same time as giving us an account for the violent forces that attend our development, that is, a Freud who is more in sync with Foucault (at least in regard to an appreciation of the violence embedded within structures of governmentality and in regard to the issue of mortality and deathboundedness), several other elements of structural force and what we might call its vicissitudes come into play. First, a sense of the tragic, which, it turns out, becomes a necessary motivating force against injustice. Second, an understanding of the plurality of motivation itself based upon the vastly varied circumstances of identity formation. And third, a more nuanced sense of the various techniques of power and knowledge that shape the subjects under consideration, the relationship of unreason to reason. In short, the areas of fear, repression and fettered imagination almost precisely constitute the dimension of the life-world that assumes such great importance for Freud, on the one hand, and Foucault on the other.

Habermas's ongoing difficulty with Foucault is well known – he believes that Foucault provides no ground for the judgment of validity claims of practices, that the philosophy of immanence practiced by both Foucault and Deleuze renders critique meaningless, that the conflation of power and knowledge undermines the possibility of truth, and that Foucault's attempt to provide a genealogy of modern power in the end becomes a radically subjective, even narcissistic activity. (282-283, PDM) Needless to say, I have always been mystified by this reading of Foucault, and the hostility with which the critique has been pursued. And an enormous amount of ink has at this point been spilled in rescuing Foucault from accusations of nihilism, unreason, etc. But what fascinates me in rereading LC at this juncture, long after those battles has been fought, is the realization that the writing and publication of this book preceded by several years the publication of those works of Foucault that most directly staked a claim for a more specific and complete understanding of the relationship between "the latent force of institutions" as steering systems and the techniques of power that are pursued in them, how they relate to the rationalization of modern life, to translate and reduce the complexities of Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality.

What is absent in LC is precisely what DP provides. Habermas prefers to move on to Max Weber, but with all respect to Weber, as much as his understanding of the force of institutions anticipates elements of DP, his attempt to develop a theory of rational authority is not nearly as compelling as his careful treatment of monastic discipline and its migration to the ascetic ideal of the capitalist by way of Calvinism. Indeed, it is the irrationality embedded within the rational that marks so many of our habitual practices, practices that shape our reasons, and that are threatened by challenges to our ways of representing ourselves, that provide telling clues for knowing when the latent power of institutions will give way to overt crises of legitimation. It is at moments of crisis, and as tokens of crisis, that the force of state power in the form of criminalization of everyday activity, the most fundamental assault on rights, comes into play. That Habermas basically ignores the question of the relationship of punishment to legitmation is striking. We might note that Foucault recognized and made use of the work of other Frankfurt School thinkers, most importantly Rusche and Kirchheimer's Punishment and Social Structure. But Habermas is almost as critical of his predecessors in this regard as he is of Foucault. In reference to Adorno and Horkheimer adoption of negative dialectics, he suggests that they eschew theory and practice determininate negation on an ad hoc basis. He summarizes his concern with this approach:

Anyone who abides in a paradox on the very spot once occupied by philosophy with its ultimate groundings is not just taking up an uncomfortable position; one can only hold that place if one makes it at least minimally plausible that there is no way out. Even the retreat from an aporetic situation has to be barred, for otherwise there is a way – the way back. But I believe this is precisely the case.

(PDM, 128)

There is a certain courageous stubbornness to this position. Rather than remain where the aporias of reason have left him, to explore them, to try to live through them, so to speak, Habermas will turn back, reconstruct communicative rationality, attempt to build a new house of reason.

But he still leaves something rather large out – an inconvenient truth so to speak, the truth that power's relationship to truth isn't completely mediated through rationality, and that it is likely, as a normative question, that it probably shouldn't be, at least in the form that he presents it. We are left to wonder if Habermas is able to overcome a limitation of his own thought of legitimation, or if, in parallel with John Rawls, who is similarly disabled in regard to the question of punishment, he is unable to address the large issue of what we might the constitutive relationship of democracy to punishment. In regard to Rawls, Bonnie Honig has pointed out that such a constitutive relationship can be mediated in others ways, say, through a politics of virtú, one which does not insist upon the finality of its truth claims in opposition to a given alternative, but which calls attention to the contestability of both sides of an argument regarding the final necessity of punishment, on the one hand, and the extent to which punishment must exist to reinforce the claims of rationality. Pursuit of what she calls a counterwager that chastens its aspirations to closure can lead to further politicization of claims to justice, but that is a virtue of the virtú position. It helps open a conversation of justice that might not ever issue in a final jusdgment, but will address the remainders of politics in a less harsh way than they otherwise are addressed.iii

Habermas is not Rawls, but the differences between the politics that has emerged from his theory of communicative action and the deliberative democracy that has emerged out of Rawls's theory of justice have shrunk considerably in the decades since LC first appeared. The positions of Rawlsians and Habermasians seem to have become more rigid as they witness the irrationalities of the politics of absolutism unfold in the 21st century, recognizing in such moralistic positions strong traces of a politics of Schmittian decisionism, especially among the really-existing Straussian neoconservatives, on the one side, and Islamic fundamentalists on the other.


None of this is to say that LC is not a work that leads us to profound insights concerning the sorts of difficulties we face in negotiating the relationship between justice and democracy. It is only that there seems to be crucial supplements that might enable Habermas to realize, not that a Schmittian decision to force reason upon us is somehow inevitable – his attempt to reconstruct the basis for a rational society belies that impulse, even as he recognizes it – but to allow the remainders, the excesses, the unreason that haunts reason, to play a part in his political theory.

He rejected such a possibility as early as LC (Perhaps earlier, I don't know.) In his comments on Nietzsche and the advent of nihilism, he claims, conventionally enough, that Nietzsche cuts the umbilical cord to the universalism of Enlightenment, and that this cutting is itself the source of his great pain. It is a moment of sympathy, but it is sympathy for the devil, for someone who Habermas believes is in the end a cynic, purveying the illusion of an end to all illusions. He accuses those who read Nietzsche as not appreciating the radicality of his pain. "Today the pain has either been reduced to nostalgia or given way to a new innocence – if not precisely the innocence that Nietzsche once postulated – for which positivism and existentialism have prepared the foundations." (LC, 122) And yet I think it may be said of Habermas that he has shrunk from the radicality of own insight, the paradox that he describes at the end of LC, the partiality for reason that brings down its claims to universality at precisely the moment that he hungers for its realization most poignantly. Like Luther, who Max Weber cites at the end of "Politics As a Vocation," there he stands, he can do no other. By holding open the possibility of reconstructing communicative reason Habermas was trying to hold open the possibility of a robust reason emerging in the end. Reconstruction was his way of avoiding decisionism. But that undecidability was, ironically, a kind of decision in and of itself.

Thomas L. Dumm

Thomas L. Dumm teaches political science at Amherst College. His most recent book is A Politics of the Ordinary (Harvard University Press, 2008). He was a founding editor of Theory & Event.


i. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), originally published under the title Legitimationprobleme im Spätcapitalismus in 1973 by Surcamp Verlag, hereafter referred to as LC. All subsequent page references to this book will be found in the text.

ii. Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), originally published under the title Der philosphische Diskurs der Moderne: Zwölfe Vorlesugen (SuhrkampVerlag, Frankfurt am Main, Federal Republic of Germany, 1985), hereafter reference to as PDM. All subsequent page references are in the text.

iii. Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 147-148. The virtú politics Honig develops in this book enjoys serious affinities with William E. Connolly's pluralism, as well as Stanley Cavell's approach to understanding the claims of community in a democratic polity, especially as enunciated in his thinking about Emerson.

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