The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate 
by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen.
Polity, 270 pp., £29.50, February 1990, 0 7456 0679 2
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Should philosophers be politically committed, engagés in the manner of Socrates or of Sartre? Or should they adopt an aloof and distanced posture, like Plato after his early political disappointments, who views concern with this-worldly affairs as (at best) a conscientious return from the heights to ‘the cave’? Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls are surely the two most distinguished political philosophers of our day, and their work exhibits many parallels: but on this deeply political matter they are worlds apart.

John Rawls’s writing is scrupulously, evenly distant from political and cultural controversy. Although he is quite explicit about the historical and cultural context of his own theory of justice, which he sees as specifically tied to and designed for a modern world that lacks consensus on ultimate values, and although his theory has definite practical import, he does not engage with current political and cultural debates. His writings focus relentlessly on the fundamental task of vindicating and articulating a complex account of justice. The enormous public influence that these writings have had, at least within the US, is not because Rawls’s own writing reaches a wide audience, but because Rawlsian positions and arguments have been appropriated and developed in the debates of lawyers, policy-makers and other professionals. In these debates Rawls is invoked by many who think that Utilitarians don’t care enough about rights or that neo-conservatives care too much about property rights – hence too little about welfare or the poor.

Jürgen Habermas’s relations to his public – or rather publics – are quite different. His intellectual reputation, like Rawls’s, rests centrally on a corpus of philosophical and theoretical work, most of it long translated, if not yet widely appreciated, in the English-speaking world. However, Habermas also often speaks directly to audiences who don’t follow his basic work in philosophy or social theory. He practises the communicational ethics that he defends theoretically by contributing pieces to a range of contemporary cultural and political debates. From time to time Suhrkamp publish selections of these shorter writings; and the pieces in The New Conservatism are mostly translations from writings published in Volumes V and VI of the Suhrkamp collections. Some pieces have been translated before, but none is easily available in English. Where the translations are new or have been revised, an attempt has been made to retain not only Habermas’s paragraphing and metaphors but his sentence structure and punctuation. Unsurprisingly one result is wilfully inelegant, if serviceable English.

The thematic unity of the volume is greater than its mixed provenance suggests. Nearly all of these writings reflect on political and cultural currents of the Eighties, and in many Habermas tries both to make intelligible and to criticise the neo-conservatism which dominated the decade in the German as in the English-speaking world. Habermas’s central line of thought diagnoses the neo-conservatisms of the last decade as a selective repudiation of the secular and universal ideals of the Enlightenment: the new conservatives combine ‘an affirmative stance towards social modernity and the devaluation of cultural modernity’. They endorse processes of modernisation in the organisation of economy, polity and administration, yet repudiate them in the sphere of culture, where they reject democratic and secular ideals and seek a reinstatement of tradition. In British terms, this amounts to relishing the Big Bang while wanting to restore Victorian values: ‘a disenchanted modernity has to be satisfied by a process of re-enchantment.’

Yearnings for re-enchantment demand that ‘the legacy of tradition ... be preserved in as static a form as possible.’ Where preservation and stasis are not enough to keep cultural modernisation at bay, a bit of judicious restoration, or even nostalgic invention, of traditions may be called for. Accordingly, most neo-conservatives hark back to and even try to ‘improve’ on religious and other traditions. Others of them, who don’t find cultural restoration a plausible option, are led from a distaste for the modernisation of culture into a restless array of eclectic, aestheticised Post-Modernisms. Habermas dubs anti-traditionalists who are also cultural anti-modernists ‘Young Conservatives’, and his translator has kept the term with an insouciance which may amuse British readers, but which is not after all so implausible: yuppie conservatism, too, endorses the economic and administrative ideals of the Enlightenment, but substitutes a variegated consumerism for its moral and cultural ideals. Traditionalists and Post-Modernists may then join a common neo-conservative cause on the basis of a shared hostility to the legacy and ideals of the Enlightenment, combined with a shared acceptance of its economic, administrative and political implications.

The search for re-enchantment has taken varied forms, and while Habermas’s analyses are by no means confined to the German case, many of the pieces in this volume trace the Sonderweg of German neo-conservatism in the post-war period, and in particular in the late Seventies and the Eighties. The conservative project of affirming and reviving tradition became a more controversial and bitter affair in a culture whose traditions had not only included Wilhelmine values but had led to Auschwitz. Faced with flawed traditions, cultural neo-conservatives may be tempted to help their project along by denying past realities or minimising past horrors.

A resolute refusal to forget those horrors had become a point of honour to the generation of Germans who define themselves as 68-ers, many of whom look to Habermas as their spokesman. Nonetheless, some German historians writing in the mid-Eighties manifested their conservative cultural sympathies by a willingness to revise previous accounts of Nazi war crimes. The revisionists took an apologetic and normalising approach to the Nazi period, blaming the initial descent into what they chauvinistically termed ‘Asian’ barbarities on the provocations of earlier Bolshevik strategies, and by implication condoning Nazi atrocities as an explicable response to other people’s behaviour. Habermas’s response in the last pieces included in this volume is not to defend Bolshevik barbarities, but to insist – with a passionate sobriety – that Germans should not gloss over those of their own past.

Given the furore caused in Britain earlier this year by Nicholas Ridley’s speculations on the German character, it is worth quoting Habermas’s position at some length: ‘After Auschwitz our national self-consciousness can be derived only from the better traditions of our history, a history that is not unexamined but appropriated critically. The context of our national life, which once permitted incomparable injury to the substance of human solidarity, can be continued and further developed only in the light of a gaze educated by the moral catastrophe, a gaze that is, in a word, suspicious. Otherwise we cannot respect ourselves and cannot expect [?respect] from others.’ In Habermas’s account, Ridley’s mistake would not lie in the concern he showed about the German past, but in his assumption that what is awry is ‘the German character’, rather than the neo-conservative tendency to endorse specific elements of that past. Ironically, the very neo-conservatism that mars the writing of those Gentian historians who took an accommodating view of the Nazi past also lurks in Ridley’s position. Ridley was all for economic development, provided it was ‘not in my backyard’. This nimby politics, too, accepts universal rules and market imperatives – the economic, political and administrative project of modernity – but rejects cultural modernisation in favour of enclaves of tradition and privilege, which are said to be demanded by fixities of character and tradition.

The ‘Historians’ Debate’ in which these issues were fought out provides the context of several pieces in this book. Other manifestations of neo-conservative thought are dealt with separately. Habermas dissects architectural disputes, in which traditionalists and Post Modernists have combined to mount a neo-conservative attack on Modernism. He takes a look at religious revivalism in the US. He analyses the sources of the renewed flowering of hostility to intellectuals in Germany. (British and American corroborations might be added.) He offers a guide to the controversies surrounding the relationship between Heidegger’s Nazism and his philosophy. He probes the Eighties revival of interest in Carl Schmitt’s realist jurisprudence where constitutionalism is endorsed at the expense of democracy.

These case-studies may persuade many readers that Habermas is able to provide a penetrating diagnosis of the structure of neo-conservatism. However, some will still wonder what he thinks is so wrong with neo-conservatism. Isn’t the attempt to secure economic growth, prosperity and (some) human rights, while also hanging onto the particularities of culture and tradition very understandable? Isn’t the fear that processes of modernisation end up imposing uniformities – a fear evident in current discussions of moves towards European unity – entirely reasonable? And if we think it is, wouldn’t it make sense to espouse neo-conservativism?

The lectures and essays in The New Conservatism offer only parts of answers to these questions. The most convincing reason Habermas offers for rejecting neo-conservatism is that it is internally incoherent. The spread of universal principles of market, politics and administration is itself a cause of the destruction of traditional forms of life and culture: hence a politics that demands economic and political modernisation cannot also embrace cultural conservatism. In British terms, the party of the market cannot also be the party of the traditional family. Habermas points out many cases in which this stark choice is obscured and evaded by a rhetoric of resentment that identifies other villains and accuses them of causing cultural and moral disorder. He points out some of the popular scapegoats, such as left-wing intellectuals and educators; the list can be richly extended by drawing on the demonology of the neo-conservative decade in the English-speaking world, which includes feminists, loony lefties, working mothers, welfare cheats and a large number of other citizens. Meanwhile the real dynamic of modernisation proceeds unchecked, administrative and market forces penetrate more and more spheres of life, and cultural traditions crumble.

If the two elements of neo-conservatism cannot be combined, there will be hard choices, and on this these short writings leave much open. We could imagine a completed and consistent modernisation across all spheres of life; various self-limiting forms of modernisation which deliberately leave some domains to the contingencies of life, and which may be compatible with elements of traditionalism; and also (although this is harder) a retrenchment of modernisation. (Some Greens may offer an account of what this would entail.) Accounts of alternatives to neo-conservatism can, however, be found in Habermas’s more systematic writings.

This volume mainly offers English-speaking readers a diagnosis rather than a remedy, but, in the UK at least, the symptoms it diagnoses are very recognisable: the neo-conservative decade is still alive and unhealthy in these parts, if not only in these parts. In the wake of last year’s transformations, demands for economic and political modernisation and for cultural and national restoration jostle throughout the continent of Europe. Habermas’s discussion of German predicaments in the Eighties speak to European dilemmas of the Nineties. Writings that began as occasional pieces dealing with the issues of the moment have turned out – in ways that Habermas would regret – to have a lasting relevance, and incidentally to show that philosophical writing may be engagé without being ephemeral.

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