Streeck replies, and the debate goes on
L. C. 11 April 2014

The task of this brief presentation is to “establish a dialogue” with  Streeck’s text, attempting to fill the hiatus between the answer and the original question that Habermas’ interpretation intended to pose to those wishing to simply dispose of economic and monetary union, ending up by dismantling the political and cultural integration project that inspired the founding fathers.

Streeck complains about the “levity” with which many reviewers accepted “as a slogan” the “killer-argument” [Totschlagargument] of the “nostalgic option” provided by the interpretation of his most recent publication and the excuse for his removal from the assembly of “guardians of the Holy Grail”.  Now, while acknowledging that in the thesis of the author of Gekaufte Zeit [4] there is no trace of nationalist seeds, which – as Altiero Spinelli observed – “had caused the catastrophe of the two World Wars” [5], Habermas’ critique seizes the unrealistic thoughtlessness of an idea that ends up evoking the system of  “European cooperation” between the now impotent national states. We can do without the “specialisation in Europeanism” that  according to Streeck, would be required as a preliminary to discuss European policy in the German public arena, but not criticism that is constructive and not defeatist. How should one interpret, if not in a pre-political manner, the “correction” in which the German sociologist “reveals himself, also to lay people, as an enthusiastic citizen […] of a Europe of people that follows its path and that to a certain extent finds itself already part of the world?” A Europe, he writes, “Understood as a mixed, unique and supranational society, whose members surprisingly blend differences that really exist between, them instead of recanting or repressing them. People who have learned to adapt and complete their identities and continue to develop them.” We are, no doubt, pleased with the coexistence of different visions of the world, subjective forms of belonging and identities that peacefully develop together, arising from “a personal past that is not, however, unknown to others” or  “a combination of pasts in which nowadays – “ following the end of territorial wars in western Europe – we are able to recognise, respect and link together in our lives and jobs different and particular expressions of a general conditio europaea if not humana.” However, the creation of a sociality area, in which Streeck states he feels “happily at home” cannot be separated from, in fact it depends on, the political-institutional organisation that Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi, Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet and other constituent fathers imagined they would create to eliminate the sources of the most virulent nationalisms. It was a project that nowadays is the only credible possibility for setting up shared opposition to the undesirable consequences of globalisation presenting surprising opportunities, but just as many risk factors to European populations.

As Haberman emphasises, there is no doubt that the implementation of a European project is the only solution for the lost sovereignty of state organisation that, without conflicts, has constitutionalised those civil, political, social and cultural rights that Streeck intends to defend from “the advance of neoliberalism organised in a supranational manner.”  While there is no margin of “opposition” outside the European Union, but perhaps it would be best to speak of regulation of social relations, one must also say that such an objective cannot be achieved outside the pact-based framework created so far, that must not be abandoned but reformed. This reform should on one hand involve a balancing of policies imposing rigour on state budgets with economic growth and social cohesion, and on the other, a strengthening of the democratic procedures legitimising EU institutions[6]. One must criticise the “small steps” policies followed so far, with no input from citizens, by the European Commission and European Council, but integration has reached a point of no return. If a majority in favour of abandoning the single currency should emerge from the May 22-25 elections, a chain reaction will result stopping the entire process. The alternative presented by Habermas in September 2012 is still valid. “Should one damage the project for the European Union that emerged after the war by abandoning the single currency? Or progress significantly with political union, especially in the Eurozone, to the extent of democratically legitimising the transfer of competences beyond national borders?” he asked, adding, “One cannot avoid one thing without wanting the other.”[7]

Agreeing with this prediction – that in Germany is shared by all parties in the Große Koalition [8] – does not mean being “euro patriots”, the new “totem” and the “replacement for constitutional patriotism”, but means perceiving the urgent need for completing monetary union to speed up the reform programme presented by the Commission in November 2012[9].

Streeck’s essay is almost entirely devoted to proving that, faced with a global crisis, the single currency has been an element that increased structural imbalances between economies in the north (mainly Germany) and Mediterranean countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece), causing “incalculable damage to the peaceful coexistence of European populations.”

Unlike what was set out by its founders, monetary union appears to be anything but a means for increased solidarity between people in the European continent, who express a reciprocal aversion that fuels national stereotypes and a return to nationalistic feelings. Speaking of southern European countries, Anglo-Saxon journalists often use the acronym “PIGS” with a derogatory tone and there is once again talk of incapable and irresponsible people referring to catastrophic socio-economic data (employment, administrative capabilities, corruption, productivity, GDP growth, innovation, sovereign debt etc). But the old clichés, considered forgotten, mainly affect the Germans, who “must observe with horror how the monetary union foisted on them by governments, no matter which, as the turning point for their “westernisation”, is now causing them to be increasingly isolated from their neighbours.” According to Streeck, even more surprising is the united attempt made by majority and opposition parties, supported by entrepreneurial associations and trade unions, to raise “conservation of monetary union to the level of a sacred national interest […]  accompanied by more or less explicit promises that Germany’s newfound isolation will end when “we” have saved others with growth programmes, Euro-bonds, financing to oppose youth unemployment and other similar measures.” 

This “grand illusion” will collapse as soon as the citizens of all the states in the Eurozone realise that we are not dealing with “an exceptional and temporary crisis caused by the convergence of unfortunate events” but rather with the contradictions of integration between “state economies with significant structural and functional differences, obliged to coexist in monetary union.” Furthermore, these differences in social systems, “on which politics can intervene only to a very limited extent over the short term” are allegedly the expression of “collective ways of life” that distinguish people in Northern Europe from those from the South.

Referring to analyses by Fritz W. Scharpf and Martin S. Feldstein[10], Streeck believes that in spite of benefiting from lower interest rates today, Mediterranean countries would not exist “equally well” under the control of budgetary restrictions required by “united monetary order.” For these states, monetary union is described as “a ferocious convergence programme” [rabiates Konvergenzprogramm] that forces parts of our continent still not rationalised by the market – and whose “sub-sumption” within the framework of a competitive accumulation of capital is still underway – to adapt, or become progressively impoverished. They are also forced to embark on the path of so-called structural reform, on the side of resigned losers, necessarily sacrificed in name of the progress of a global market economy.” Streeck considers as a case study the recent policies adopted in Italy, starting with the Monti government, whose confidence in the markets’ “capitalistic monoculture” was equal only to adhesion to the “German model” of austerity. More in general, policies involving rigour and joining monetary union, in his opinion, penalised structurally less competitive southern states,  because they can no longer rely on currency devaluation that in the past had been often used to ensure goods were competitive on foreign markets. They are consequently obliged to resort to “internal devaluation,” lowering the cost of wages, pension income and state expenditure, and, over the long term,  adapting all policies to the diktats of the global economy. The loss of sovereignty exposes governments, whose legitimacy depends on the electorate’s votes, to allegations of being servants to foreign interests and encourages the emergence of populist movements radicalising national safeguarding. Streeck proposes a similitude with the crisis experienced by democratic regimes between the two wars analytically reconstructed by Karl Polanyi[11].

On the other hand, according to the director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschafts­forschung in Cologne, monetary union has resulted in great benefits for Germany, which, albeit risking the stability of a strong currency and the Deutsche Bank’s hegemony, has imposed on competitors from other member states favourable conditions for exporting the manufacturing industry’s products.  Structural reform, started in  2003 by Schröder’s coalition government – the “Agenda 2010” – has certainly put right a country considered Europe’s “sick” nation, afflicted by low inflation and high interest rates, weak growth and high unemployment, and even more profoundly produced a change in mentality among social players, projected towards the frontiers of innovation, combining social security and labour flexibility. In Streeck’s opinion, however, the real turning point for “Rhine capitalism” coincided with the collapse of Mediterranean economies, sparked by the global crisis and later rigour policies and debt consolidation that have incorporated it. The extent of that crisis is however so broad that the German government, dissatisfying voters, is allegedly prepared to review the non-bailout option, leaving Draghi’s European Central Bank to deal with the matter, but in exchange requesting a surplus of structural reform and safeguarding clauses, a condition that according to Streeck, southern countries cannot guarantee. Hence the compensation that northern countries will have to necessarily bestow upon Mediterranean ones, will abolish “intra-European solidarity,” “if not that of the elites, certainly that of voters who will have to ‘foot the bill’. Even if a decision were made in favour of the wealthy sharing with the less fortunate, one could not entirely blame them.” However, “one would have to, for more decades, save Mediterranean countries from  the Greek and Spanish experiences under German management.”

The conflict of interest between Europe’s north and south is therefore allegedly absolute, and determined by this shared adhesion to a “forced” monetary union, dividing national states into first and second class nations and running the risk of undermining the entire ‘pacification’ project among Europeans. This objective is very different from the economic and political integration of states and the creation of a European citizenship supported by Jürgen Habermas.

Streeck’s reply focuses in the integration process posing a provocative question: “How can it happen that someone like Jürgen Habermas should advise us to remain attached to such a monstrous creation, one that even its economic supporters believe can survive only through “reforms” making it even more monstrous?” The answer warns “visionaries” about the real transfer of power at a supranational level, which, far from moving towards a democratisation of institutions, is governed by the troika and by financial and industrial partners. What would Europeans gain if the relationship between politics and economics, democracy and capitalism, should remain that of these past decades? Should the current status remain, even a “European democracy” with a parliament, a government, a public sphere and anything else, would be nothing but another layer of post-democratic clay imposed from above on a post-national state.”

The “trivial if not repugnant facts” he expressed in Gekaufte Zeit – and against which he uses rhetoric in asking us to “renounce fleeting benefits for lasting ones” are said to prove we are only creating a common market in which political and social aspects are “avoided like the plague.” Like other intellectuals who “ignore the facts that refute their vision,” Habermas hopes for a European solution for the crisis through democratic change, which, however, would require “a leap out of the history of the past three decades that would dramatically overturn in a fundamental manner supranational institutions.” According to Streeck, on one hand there is no chance whatsoever that the current European institutions will decide  in favour of a “revolution” of the status quo; on the other hand, Habermas’ attempt to ascribe to German politics a national interest in European democratisation is a mere illusion, “bearing in mind that he presumes that Germany could impose this, should the country find the will to pursue enlightened policies that would keep its interests under control.”  Streeck does not believe that German citizens need the euro and that, therefore, they can longer turn their backs on monetary unification they do not control completely and will end up costing more than it brings in. To avoid electoral reprisals, which affected Schröder due to his “neoliberal reforms”, “a government seriously wishing to move from national to European democracy, would have to at the latest in four years’ time have achieved its objective and replaced German elections with European ones, if wishing to avoid or eliminate the consequences of what Habermas hoped for the September 22 Bundestag elections [2013]; hence a dramatic rise in votes for parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland.”

In Streeck’s opinion, Habermas’ idea “minimises” the problem posed by an integration that is not in the best interests of any member states, and that, “as implemented ever since Jacques Delors, […] has for a long time lost any chance of becoming democratised.”  Instead of looking for a way out in the passage from the parochialism of “small homelands” to the “great statism” of the European Union, we should “try and exploit Europe’s characteristic fragmentation as a non-centralised response to the call to globalisation.” In the “blitzkrieg” started by “technocracy” and “moneycracy” against the European people, the only line of defence would allegedly be the institutions of national states, without which “the project for a political democratic economy in Europe would not be quite so necessary, but rather dead and buried.”

If Time gained is the slogan for the nostalgic Left “that says no to Europe” and appeals to the national states “as the only positions from which it is possible to at least slow down the advance of  the neoliberal and supranational Leviathan,” good luck to the stubborn and opposite direction. But Habermas is not wrong in mistrusting the “fortresses” and in trying to establish new paths for the hope to combine economics and politics in favour of humankind’s progress.

Translated by Francesca Simmons


[1] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, Mohr, Tubingen, 1960, p. 300.

[2] Wolfang Streeck, Vom DM-Nationalismus zum Euro-Patriotismus? Eine Replik auf Jürgen Habermas, in «Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik», 9, 2013, pp. 75-92.

[3] Jürgen Habermas, Demokratie oder Kapitalismus? Vom Elend der nationalstaatlichen Fragmentierung in einer kapitalistisch integrierten Weltgesellschaft, in «Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik», 5, 2013, pp. 59-70; repr. in Jürgen Habermas, Sog der Demokratie, Kleine politische Schriften XII, Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2013, pp. 138-157.

[4] Wolfgang Streeck, Gekaufte Zeit. Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus, Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2013.

[5] Altiero Spinelli (1982), La sfida europea, in M. Mascia (a cura di), L’Università raccoglie la lezione dei Padri dell’Europa, Centro interdipartimentale di ricerca e servizi sui diritti della persona e dei popoli dell’Università degli Studi di Padova, Padova, 2007, p. 15 (12-27).

[6] Jürgen Habermas, Im Sog der Technokratie. Ein Plädoyer für europäische Solidarität, in Id., Im Sog der Technokratie. Kleine politische Schriften XII, cit., pp. 82-113.

[7] Jürgen Habermas, Drei Gründe für »Mehr Europa«, Munich, 69th “Deutscher Juristentag”, 21.9.2012; in J. Habermas, Im Sog der Technokratie. Kleine politische Schriften XII, cit., pp. 132-137.

[8] Angela Merkel, Scheitert der Euro, so scheitert Europa, Bundestag, Berlin, 26.10.2012.

[9] COM/2012/777/FINAL/2: “A Blueprint for a Deep and Genuine Economic and Monetary Union: Launching a European Debate”, 28.11.2012.

[10] Fritz W. Scharpf, Solidarität statt Nibelungentreue, in «Berliner Republik», 3, 2010; Id, Mit dem Euro geht die Rechnung nicht auf, in «MaxPlanckForschung», 3, 2011, pp. 12-17; Id., Rettet Europa vor dem Euro, in «Berliner Republik», 2, 2012, pp. 52-61; Martin S. Feldstein, The Euro and European Economic Conditions, Working Paper 17617, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge (Mass.), 2011, pp. 1-15.

[11] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Beacon Press, Boston, 1944, pp. 20-30.



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