The debate between Habermas and Streeck about the Left and Europe’s future
Luca Corchia 25 March 2014

In July the European Council, with a vote of confidence from parliament, will appoint the president of the Commission, a position for which the candidates are the leaders of the main parliamentary groups, including for the moment Jean-Claude Juncker (European People’s Party), Martin Schulz (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats), Alexis Tsipras (United Left), Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Democrats and Liberals), José Bové and Ska Keller (Greens-Free Alliance) and Marine Le Pen (European Alliance for Freedom). Finally, for six months from July until December Italy will assume the presidency of the Council of the European Union, the body that coordinates member states’ ministers in the ten main policy areas that are the EU’s competence. This will be an excellent opportunity to return to our country a leading role in the integration process and in mediating between conflicting national interests.

The wave of increased consensus surrounding anti-Europeanism, the ‘point of contact’ for the opposition of cultural schools of thought moving within the fluid space of European public opinion, is what calls into question the outcome of democratic procedures that the Lisbon Treaty innovated, and that, mistakenly, are listed under business as usual. Its spokespersons are heterogeneous political parties historically linked to extreme wings, the nationalist or ultra-capitalist Right and the antagonist Left, but also new populist movements waving the banner of anti-politics, all convinced that they are representing the interests of ordinary people suffocated by the establishment. It is indeed minority dissent, but will make a great deal of noise over the coming months.

As always, while awaiting the national mainstream’s frantic run up, the question has been addressed on the day’s agenda with the relevance it deserves only within small academic and intellectual circles. The most stimulating essays include the recent Mal di Nazione by Alberto Martinelli[1], for the ability with which it describes the ideological constellation of anti-Europeanism, recreating its genesis and development, maintaining in the background the breeding grounds of globalisation and focusing on the institutional and social-economic contradictions of the devolution of state sovereignty at a communitarian level. Suitably, the essay ends addressing the fracture lines dividing the European Left as far as the integration process is concerned, also among those who disapprove of the levelling of social democracy with its dominant austerity policies imposed by communitarian institutions. A “duel on the Left” – we one would have written – all the more interesting because Martinelli compares two German intellectuals, both hostile to the lasting compromise of the Große Koalition that governs the country and on which the destiny of the European Union depends. Wolfgang Streeck, director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung in Cologne, and Jürgen Habermas, the grand maestro of critical theory, who – we must reassure readers of “Il Messaggero” – we must not yet “mourn”, as mistakenly reported by Giulio Sapelli on February 8th, commenting on the Karlsruhe Supreme Court[2].

The debate between important personalities in German political-cultural circles, which has gone down in history as the Streeck-Habermas Debatte, received instant attention in Germany, where the debate concerning “what socialism means today” within the context of European unification, is still current and captivating. If the debate has now also begun in Italy, it is thanks to academics attentive to the Franco-German school of thought, such as Maurizio Ferrera, who was the first last July to report on the matter in the daily newspaper “Il Corriere della Sera”[3], and Walter Privitera, curator of the translation published in September by “Reset” of the essay Demokratie oder Kapitalismus?[4], in which Habermas explains “why the anti-European Left is wrong”. A few months later there were contributions from markedly Europeanist scholars such as Sergio Pistone, in “The Federalist”[5] and Michele Salvati[6] and Antonio Padoa-Schioppa[7], in “il Mulino”, and, more recently Stefano Rodotà[8] in “Avanti!” and “L’Avvenire”[9]. The debate was finally fuelled by the translation of Gekaufte Zeit, the Adorno-Vorlesungen series that, in June 2012, Streeck dedicated to “Democratic capitalism’s postponed crisis”. Published by Feltrinelli last July[10], the pamphlet was enthusiastically reviewed by the Left anti-liberist blogger galaxy, which perhaps found support for the Greek solution to the post-democratic trend allegedly surrounding European integration in the prediction of capitalism’s terminal crisis expressed by the sociologist of Max-Planck. Appreciation was more prudently expressed by “Il Manifesto”, attracted by the portrayal of the pars destruens but mistrustful of nationalistic solutions[11].

Since it is not possible here to revisit the thoughts these two scholars have expressed about the EU over the last two decades, about which there are many texts and essays, we will address the main reason for the disagreement concerning the two Lefts’ alternative policies within the project for European integration.

Dissent does not, however, prejudice the appreciation often expressed for analyses of the financialisation of contemporary capitalism or the crisis experienced by debt policies of European countries, transformed from tax-based systems into systems based on consolidation. In a paper presented in June 2011 at the Humboldt Universität, and updated in the essay Zur Verfassung Europas (2011)[12], Habermas had already positively quoted an article by Wolfgang Streeck and Jens Beckert, recently published by the FAZ[13], in which they analysed the unsustainable costs of national strategies still planning to overcome the sovereign debt crisis by containing state expenditure, increasing taxation, negotiating debt reduction with creditors and inflationist policies. Habermas confirms this in a later article entitled Euro-Krise: Rettet die Würde der Demokratie[14], praising even more the theses presented by Wolfgang Streeck[15] on the dynamics of European states’ sovereign debt in the so-called “Tina” phase (there is no alternative) of unopposed liberalism, in which private wealth and public poverty clashingly coexist, advising that it should be read by “politicians dreaming of returning to the intact ordoliberal world of an economic society that is perfectly self-regulating in an apolitical manner.”

Habermas also agrees with the idea of “tension” between capitalism, regulated by the logic of finance, and democracy, legitimised by the people’s sovereignty, tension that sees the EU’s weaker states succumb at “breath taking speed” as proved by the removal of elected politicians that are “disliked” by markets. On the other hand, Streeck’s analysis – “rich in ideas and empirically valid” – is acceptable to Habermas as a fair critical review of “mature capitalism’s crisis tendencies”, which, together with Claus Offe, the German sociologist had verified within the framework of Keynesianism[16]. Gekaufte Zeit proposes to recreate, in the “long” evolution of the economic system, the dynamics of the dissolution of “democratic capitalism”, resulting from the difficult class compromise between capital and labour, with the emergence of the antinomy between “social justice” and “market justice”, the prevailing of financial forces over the sovereignty of states that entrust only market instruments with the task of redistributing opportunities, with international and European institutions guaranteeing their supremacy[17]. Habermas too approves the attack on Brussels’ technocracy – “yielding to the neo-liberist model” – which “without democratic roots, would have no reason to attribute sufficient importance to the requests of voters on the subject of a fair distribution of revenue and property, living standard security, public services and collective assets, when these conflict with competitiveness requirements and the system’s economic growth.”[18] These words are taken from the April 2013 Louvain conference, after the celebratory introduction of Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council. There is no doubt that Habermas rejects the “bureaucratic path” to European integration, as well as the more recent “inter-governmental path” imposed by chancelleries. Wolfgang Streeck – he writes – “has the merit of have proved that “debtor state policies” implemented by the European Council since 2008, due to pressure from the German government, basically continue to follow a political model favourable to the capital that led to this crisis.”[19]

Agreement on the diagnosis diverges the moment the problem is posed concerning political solutions alternative to the austere recipes imposed by the troika. The “defensive policy involving the nullification of the euro”, Streeck approves, re-proposes the “nostalgic option” of a return to protectionism of state borders; a solution that is recurring in the “old Left”[20] which Habermas had criticised in the Nineties, already at the time referring to his research to describe the challenges that globalisation posed to national democracy[21]. What surprises him is that it is precisely the verification of the organisational advantage of financial markets for national institutions and the need for political regulation arising from a volatile and interdependent global economy, should induce a regeneration at a supra-national level of legislative power once concentrated in the laws of democratic states. According to Habermas, the strengthening of the European Union is the only prospect for rebalancing the “crazed relationship between politics and the markets,” between catering to the needs of people and capital’s profit expectations.

Solidarity for the “anger expressed on the streets” by the Greeks, the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Italians should not be expressed by encouraging “a lock down” in the sovereign impotence of “national fortresses,” but rather by implementing civil rights, political democracy and social justice in a Europe of states and citizens, guaranteeing conditions for economic growth providing the resources. Nor can the communitarian institutions’ default or subordination to markets be a sufficient reason for the integration project’s “defeatist surrender”, a project voters can influence at state and at European level. To overcome the usual nationalist scepticism of the creation of a common Europeanist identity, re-proposed by Streeck, Habermas requests the mass media and civil society’s intermediate bodies, such as associations, unions and political parties, to produce a “generalization of transversal interests relative to national borders,” especially in Germany. The last time the “grand old man” spoke was on February 2nd, when, as the guest of honour of an SPD closed doors seminar in Potsdam, surrounded by applause and embarrassment, he demanded a “change of direction”, lambasting Social Democrat managers as the “holdovers from the previous government, doing nothing of all you promised for Europe.” A commitment for Martin Schulz who appeared to warmly welcome this request[22].
The coming European elections will be the first real test.


[1]Alberto Martinelli, Mal di Nazione. Contro la deriva populista, Milan, Egea, 2013.

[2]Giulio Sapelli, La svolta di Karlsruhe. La ripresa più difficile cambia tutto nell’eurozona, in “Il Messaggero”, February 8th 2014, pp. 1, 20.

[3]Maurizio Ferrera, Il dilemma dell’Europa capitalismo vs democrazia, in “Corriere della Sera”, Supplemento “La Lettura”, July 21st 2013.

[4]Jürgen Habermas (2013), Italian translation by W. Privitera, Vi spiego perché la sinistra anti-Europa sbaglia, in «Reset», September 2013.

[5]Sergio Pistone, The Debate in Germany on Democracy and European Unification: a Comparison of the Positions of Habermas and Streeck, in “The Federalist”, LV, 2013, pp. 126-135.

[6]Michele Salvati, La crisi rinviata del capitalismo democratico, in “il Mulino”, 6, November-December 2013, pp. 902-1000.

[7]Antonio Padoa-Schioppa, Una struttura costituzionale per l’Europa, in “il Mulino”, 6, November-December 2013, pp. 1001-1009.

[8]Stefano Rodotà, Il pensiero debole dell’Europa che si accontenta, in “la Repubblica”, January 10th 2014, pp. 1, 28.

[9]Gianfranco Sabattini, La difficile convivenza tra democrazia e capitalismo, in “Avanti!”, September 22nd 2013; Palano Damilano, Lo Stato sociale ucciso dalle tasse?, in “Avvenire”, November 13th 2013.

[10]Wolfgang Streeck (2013), Italian translation by B. Anceschi, Tempo guadagnato. La crisi rinviata del capitalismo democratico, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2013.

[11]Benedetto Vecchi, Le élite rapaci dello stato debitore, in “Il Manifesto”, August 6th 2013; Massimiliano Guareschi, La rivincita del rentier, in “Il Manifesto”, August 6th 2013.

[12]Jürgen Habermas (2011), Italian translation by C. Mainoldi, La crisi dell’Unione Europea alla luce di una costituzionalizzazione del diritto internazionale. Saggio sulla costituzione dell’Europa, in Id., Questa Europa è in crisi, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2012, pp. 43-94.

[13]Jens Beckert, Wolfgang Streeck, Die nächste Stufe der Krise, in “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, August 20th 2011, p. 29.

[14]Jürgen Habermas, Euro-Krise: Rettet die Würde der Demokratie, in «Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung», November 4th 2011.

[15]Wolfgang Streeck, The Crises of Democratic Capitalism, in “New Left Review”, 71, September-October 2011, pp. 5-29.

[16]Jürgen Habermas (1973), Italian translation by G. Backhaus, La crisi di razionalità nel capitalismo maturo, Bari, Laterza, 1975.

[17]Wolfgang Streeck, Tempo guadagnato. La crisi rinviata del capitalismo democratico, cit., pp. 78, 205-209.

[18]Jürgen Habermas (2013), Italian translation by P. Foglizzo, Democrazia, solidarietà e la crisi europea, in “Aggiornamenti Sociali”, LXV, 1, 2014, p. 22 (18-30).

[19]Jürgen Habermas, Vi spiego perché la sinistra anti-Europa sbaglia, cit.

[20]Albrecht von Lucke (2013), Italian translation A. Varta, I partiti tedeschi e la crisi dell’euro, in “il Mulino”, 4, July-August 2013, pp. 668-674.

[21]Jürgen Habermas (1999), Italian translation L. Ceppa, Lo stato nazionale europeo sotto il peso della globalizzazione, in Id., La costellazione postnazionale. Mercato globale, nazioni e democrazia, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1999, pp. 103-123.

[22]Paolo Lepri, Germania? Discorso al Conclave della Spd, in “Corriere della Sera”, February 5th 2014, p. 2. Habermas’ speech was published with the title Für ein starkes Europa – aber was heißt das?, in “Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik”, 3, 2014, pp. 85-94; partial Italian translation, La nuova Europa in quattro mosse, in “la Repubblica”, February 7th 2014, pp. 1, 34.