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112: Jürgen Habermas Part I:
The Political, The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In his essay, “The Political, The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology,” Jürgen Habermas identifies globalized capitalism as a powerful force against democracy and social integration. “…politics as a means of democratic self-determination has become as impossible as it is superfluous….’The political’ has been transformed into the code of a self-maintaining administrative subsystem, so that democracy is in danger of become a mere facade, which the executives agencies turn toward their helpless clients.” The process is economic. As economics determines more and more of private life, individuals become more and more concerned with the private to the public’s detriment. This results in a general loss of confidence in collective action. This loss of confidence in collective action, resulting from worsening economic conditions diminishes the status and use of ‘the political’ too. For the author it is the neglect of ‘the political’ that is at stake. The economic condition and the loss of confidence in collective action are the symptoms of the limiting of ‘the political’.

What is ‘the political’? The author spends half the essay on what it is. First he contrasts it with ‘politics’ and ‘policy’. “Today the social sciences lay claim to the political system as their subject matter; they deal with ‘politics,’ that is with the struggle for and the exercise of power, and also with ‘policies’ – that is, the goals and strategies pursued by political actors in different political fields….’The political’ no longer appears to constitute a serious philosophical topic alongside ‘politics’ and ‘policies.’”

On the positive side the author starts a historical documentation of ‘the political’ with a starting definition of: “…that symbolic field in which the early civilizations first formed an image of themselves.” Historically many ancient empires used religious narratives and symbols to justify political order. Many still continue today. The questioning and codifying of these initial norms created the first discourses on the political. This happened simultaneously in various parts of the world during the 8th to 3rd century BCE and is known as the Axial Age. The result was a certain separation of labour but co-dependence of religious and political power. “…the axial worldviews make both legitimation and the critique of political authority possible at the same time, ‘the political’ in the ancient empires was marked by an ambivalent tension between religious and political powers.” the notion of ‘the political’ would remain relatively stable until the advent of modern capitalism.

Fast forward to the early modern state and we find that ‘the political’ had formed the early modern state to mitigate the religious wars while allowing for the emerging potential disruption of capitalist accumulation. This social disruption, which made nearly unlimited capital accumulation possible by giving imperishable gold and manufactured commodities a political power that had previously been held by status at birth, started the modern decline of ‘the political’. “…a decisive step toward the neutralization of ‘the political’ already occurred in early modernity within the framework of the sovereign state….[1] The citizens, having achieved economic independence, [and 2] the recognition of religious freedom and free speech….these two developments already prefigured the ‘neutralization’ of ‘the political’…” It is modern liberalism that has rendered ‘the political’ inert.

In response to this disempowerment of ‘the political’ some (Carl Schmitt) have suggested a return to ‘the political’ of old; a kind of clericofascim that would bring religion and religious values back as the source of legitimation for political action. The fact is that religion has not withered away and that most people do have religious values and beliefs. It is therefore a lie to keep them silent and worse to hide them in public discourse. For the sake of truth, and to avoid this deception, some propose the revival of a political theology to ground the state and reinvigorate ‘the political’. This would bring a firmer ground to current secular values (such as human dignity, human rights) and offer up a more unifying and powerful collective force against the economic forces that seem to dominate the world today because these values would be grounded in the true and higher sources of human meaning.

For Habermas this solution is anachronistic and in hindsight very dangerous. He contrasts it with a much better (but not the best) theory from John Rawls. Rawls recognized that people hold religious values and that the secularization of political authority is not the same as the secularization of society. Yet, there is an unfair burden in that it is religious individuals in society that must purge themselves of religion when in the public sphere. And further, there is something unjust in ignoring the contributions that religious values and “groups can well make to the democratic process within civil society.” It is democratically de-legitimizing to ignore religious values which many people consider legitimate. It is this de-legitimization that makes liberalism the poison of ‘the political’.

The author quotes Rawls’ proposal in “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited”: “Reasonable comprehensive doctrines, religious or non-religious, may be introduced in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due course proper political reasons…are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines introduced are said to support.”

Two objections to this proposal are that people may not be able to translate religious discourse into proper secular discourse and that even if they are able and willing Rawls’ proposal puts an undue burden on most of the population. The author believes Rawls’ proposal is close but in order to overcome the two objections the translation function must be provided by the state. “…all citizens should be free to decide whether they want to use religious language in the public sphere. Were they to do so, they would, however, have to accept that the potential truth contents of religious utterances must be translated into a generally accessible language before they can find their way onto the agendas of parliaments, courts, or administrative bodies and influence their decisions. Instead of subjecting all citizens to the imposition of cleansing their public comments and opinions of religious rhetoric, an institutional filter should be established between informal communication in the public arena and formal deliberations of political bodies that yield to collectively binding decisions.”

In this way the goal of re-animating a 21st century ‘political’ (that is meaningful public discourse from all sources of human values and experience that legitimate secular and neutral government while engaging the whole population in developing a shared and integrated self-image) could be developed. “Although religion can neither be reduced to morality nor assimilated to ethical value orientations, it nevertheless keeps alive an awareness of both elements. The public use of reason by religious and nonreligious citizens alike may well spur deliberative politics in a pluralist civil society and lead to the recovery of semantic potentials from religious traditions for the wider political culture.”

Religion has proven to be a powerful and undying force in society held deeply at the core of many people who routinely gather and have a shared faith. The system of globalized capitalism is another default force that separates and distracts from the social goods possible in society. If we are to resist the evils of globalized capitalism, ‘the political’ must find a way to engage the passion and fervor of religious belief without the loss of pluralism in civil discourse. For the author this means encouraging religious discourse in public life and formally translating it to a secular common discourse.

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren