Habermas and Crisis Tendencies

By | March 5, 2013

I think Habermas’ ‘Legitimation Crisis’ one of his more neglected books. Published in Germany in the early 1970s it has proved remarkably perspicacious. In this third blog on his work I give a brief outline of his argument, then ask why I judge it so compelling and what salience it has now.

In the era of liberal capitalism the logic, ethos and praxis of political economy soaked deep into – some would say stained – the fabric of everyday life. Capitalism provided not only for ‘system integration’ but also for ‘social integration’. Habermas’ analysis of liberal capitalism is explicitly Marxist, his accounts of its later stages noticeably less so.

Because of its internal contradictions, capitalism is ever prone to economic crisis. Moreover such crises can be frequent, following the natural course of the ‘business cycle’. In post-war, post-liberal capitalism, Habermas argues, the state has come to play a greater part in managing the economy to offset these economic crisis tendencies. The state now monitors inflation and unemployment, for example, counteracting potentially damaging trends by manipulating the supply of money or interest rates or by changing policy. It makes welfare provision available, keeping the unemployed afloat, and slows the downward spiral of overproduction by underwriting the unemployed as consumers. It finances research and development. As Nick Crossley puts it, it has brought the proletariat ‘inside’ the system (they have more to lose than their ‘chains’, like welfare, their homes, consumer goods and so on).

This enhanced role of the state represents a ‘functional adaptation’ within capitalism: it contains class conflict. But it also carries risks: with engagement comes responsibility. Capitalisms’ crisis tendencies are not eliminated, but rather displaced. The state picks up the tab. This opens up the possibility of what Habermas calls a rationality crisis, or a crisis emanating from the very philosophy of mediation adopted by the state. It is a philosophy that must deliver economically and retain legitimacy re-the electorate. Some maintain that in the mid-to-late-1970s the state’s Keynesian philosophy was no longer (seen to be) ‘fit for purpose’, thus heralding a potential rationality crisis.

Habermas argued that a legitimation crisis occurs when the citizenry experiences a democratic shortfall: in other words, when people feel under-represented. He is well aware that the formal democracy characteristic of modern and highly differentiated societies falls well short of substantive or participatory democracy. People know this. For the most part they are content to let politicians get on with it (Habermas refers to a widespread ‘civic privatism’ in this context); but they can and will sometimes rebel when they judge those they elect too unaccountable to the electorate.

The state, in sum, runs the risk of a rationality crisis if it fails to meet the demands of the economy, and a legitimacy crisis, or a loss of public support, if it fails to meet those of its citizens.

A fourth type of crisis is what Habermas calls a motivation crisis.  This can occur when the lifeworld culture in which civic privatism is embedded falters. More specifically, it becomes a risk when the institutions of primary and secondary socialization fail to produce and reproduce the work ethic. A weakening of the work ethic can leave citizens, especially the young, unresponsive or indifferent to the ‘imperative to work’ that fuels the subsystems of the economy (directly) and the state (indirectly).

Bear in mind that Habermas developed these ideas 40 years ago. There is much more that might be said of course. I for one regret his movement away from his earlier brand of Marxism; and in any event much has been written since about capitalism’s crisis tendencies and their management. But his analysis still has an echo. That this echo can be heard today has much to do with the global financial crisis of 2007-8 and subsequent implosion of the ‘eurozone’, the Arab uprising, and the anti-capitalist/anti-corporate occupy and other protest initiatives from 2010. The financial capitalism of the post-1970s did indeed seem to be lurching into crisis a year or two ago. Even cautious reformists wrote of windows of opportunity.

That the Clinton/‘bankster’-prompted economic crisis called for drastic inter- as well as intra-state interventions is axiomatic. Nor is it yet possible to deem these interventions effective. Furthermore, the limited effectiveness of state action to date has called into question the ubiquitous neo-liberal philosophy of free-market economics, raising the possibility of a rationality crisis. For many, however, it is the threat of a crisis of legimation that seems most tangible.

Consider Britain’s present profile. The ConDem alliance that emerged out of the debris of the 2010 general election not only embarked on a flawed philosophy of economics based on a programme of class-based austerity but also on a series of measures it had thought it prudent to eschew in opposition. Student fees were tripled, EMA abolished and health care subject to a top-down ‘reform’ paving the way for its re-commodification. Mid-term unpopularity does not necessary signal a legitimation crisis, even with more cuts planned before 2015 than have to date been implemented. But the London riots of 2011 were an eloquent reminder that millionaires in the cabinet who put into effect policies millionaires in finance and industry paid for can be unconvincing, notwithstanding the sympathetic ideological influence of millionaire media moguls and think tank sponsors. ConDem ministers born with no need ever to work can find it hard to sell the imperative to work to youths who see no opportunity to earn despite being subject to material and cultural vilification for being unemployed. There is no question that a motivation crisis remains a possibility,

It is enough in this short blog, one of a series, to suggest that the analysis of crisis tendencies ventured by Habermas on the cusp of the displacement of one stage of capitalism (industrial, Fordist, welfare statist, organized) by another (post-industrial, post-Fordist, post-welfare statist, dis- or reorganized), and the conceptual distinctions that this gave rise to, retain a certain pertinence and vigour today. The next blog will address his ‘Theory of Communicative Action’, a work of synthesis and revision re-the sociology of contemporary capitalism.



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