Habermas on Capitalism and Citizenship

By Jason MacLeod on January 25, 2011 — 4 mins read

In Jurgen Habermas’ article, “Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe”, he examines the relationship of Capitalism and democratic citizenship.  He believes that the market has its own independent logic that is separate and independent of the intentions of its human subjects/citizens. (294).  We can see the free market hasn’t necessarily lead to the freedom of the people in the market, or the freedom of capital (for that matter).  The economic structure, or lack thereof, created by human subjects, cannot constrain the creative and destructive power of international capital, and no person can foresee the movements of capital beyond their own control.  The legislative, administrative, and judicial arms of the government become involved in the control of capital by passing laws that incorporate specific rules and regulations, whereby money becomes the basis for our interactions (have you accomplished anything today without the use of money?).  This coalescence of the government, capital, and nation state is what Habermas terms “system integration.”

The interaction between “system integration” (the control of capital by government bureaucracies) and “social integration” (the active projection of our consciousness out into the world) is inherently tense and in a state of crisis.  Social integration occurs when we project values, norms, and mutual understandings, through our willingness to involve ourselves in community.  Political integration, one aspect of social integration, occurs “through democratic citizenship”. (295).  In other words, we make the rules that reflect our general understanding of the world.  System integration occurs in an undemocratic space whereby national and international monetary systems are constituted of neoliberal discourses and free markets (the majority system).  These ideals found in, and through, system integration are generally those of the elites, who are the minority.  Thus, the minority, through their access and influence in supranational trading and other norm creating entities, “affect the lives of more and more citizens to an ever greater extent.” (296).

Where should the line be drawn between the government’s unilateral creation of laws and the peoples’ responsibility (and rights) to create a nation state that reflects their values, norms and mutual understandings?  Habermas believes that, “economic imperatives have become independent of everything else and that politics has been absorbed into the state.  These developments undermine the status of citizen and contradict the republican claim associated with this status.” (297).  To reclaim our citizenship must we radically change the system we live in?  Does the invisible hand of the market not only move capital, but also our relationships to one another and our government?  Through the destruction of capitalism and the movement into socialism and later communism (as Marx theorized), would we see the first true global citizen(ship) emerge from the chaos?  Habermas, it seems, is theorizing that capitalism itself contradicts our involvement with, and citizenship to, our own nation state.

Following are some questions regarding some specific qoutes:


“The national consciousness is a specifically modern manifestation of cultural integration. the political consciousness of national membership arises from a dynamic that first took hold of the population after processes of economic and social modernization had torn people from their places in the social hierarchy, simultaneously mobilizing and isolating them as individuals. Nationalism is a form of consciousness that presupposes an appropriation, filtered by histiography and reflection, of cultural traditions. Originating in an educated bourgeois public, it spreads through the channels of modern mass communication. Both elements, its literary mediation and its decimation through public media, lend to nationalism its artificial features; its somewhat constructed character makes it naturally susceptible to manipulate and misuse by political elites.” (288)

How does this manifest in our current culture and influence our thoughts of nationalism?

Is FOX News the perfect example of what Habermas is speaking to?

Community vs. liberal

“The holistic model of the community that incorporates its citizens in every aspect of their lives is in many respects inadequate for modern politics. Nevertheless, it has an advantage over the organization model, in which isolated individuals confront the state apparatus to which they are only functionally connected by membership: the holistic model makes it clear that political autonomy is an end in itself that can be realized not by the single individual privately pursuing his own interests but only by all together in a inter-subjectively shared practice.” (292)

How does this correspond to social movements?  Can social movements occur under Locke’s liberal tradition of individualistic relationship to the government?  If you were behind the “veil of ignorance” would you choose to live in a communitarian state or a liberal/individualistic state?

The spread of democracy

“Taylor’s remarks boiled down to the statement that the Universalist principle of constitutional democracy need to be somehow anchored in the political culture of each country. Constitutional principles can neither take shape in social practices nor become the driving force for the dynamic project of creating an association of free and equal persons until they are situated in the historical context of the nation of citizens in such a way that they link up with those citizens motives and attitudes.” (293)

How does this theory coincide and interact with the goal and theory of “spreading democracy” around the world?  Would you ascribe the failures of such a plan to the lack of a political culture that could accept constitutional democracy?  Would a totalitarian state such as Iraq ever be susceptible to a constitutional democracy?  If so, could it happen immediately?