Philosophy Hammer
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119: Jürgen Habermas Part III:
Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In this essay Jürgen Habermas criticizes Charles Taylor’s essay “The Politics of Recognition,” then offers up his own understanding of the politics of recognition and ends with a critique of the new reunified German state’s political asylum policy of the 1990s.

First some basics: constitutions conceptually start in natural law as “those rights that individuals must grant one another if they want to order their life together legitimately by means of positive law.” three concepts must be accepted: rights, legal persons and positive law. Constitutions are therefore projects that evolve. Habermas’ criticism of Charles Taylor’s work is based on his supposed need for collective or group rights which “calls into question the individualistic core of the modern conception of freedom.” Taylor believes that groups’ rights can come into conflict with individual rights and that a balancing decision must be made. Habermas wants to show that “when properly understood the theory of [individual] rights is by no means blind to cultural differences.” And therefore does not need special group or cultural rights.

Persons with rights have a legal identity that is thought intersubjectively; that is existing between minds or in the collective consciousness. As such we all become individualized through socialization. “A correctly understood theory of rights requires a politics of recognition that protects the integrity of the individual in the life contexts in which his or her identity is formed….All that is required is the consistent actualization of the system of rights.” This will require struggle; the struggle of marginalized groups but not the struggle for group rights rather the struggle for the consistent actualization of the system of rights.

The struggle for recognition is vast and multifaceted. “The political struggle for [feminist] recognition begins as a struggle about the interpretation of gender-specific achievements and interests….it changes the relationship between the sexes along with the collective identity of women, thereby directly affecting men’s self-understanding as well.” For new and endogenous oppressed ethnic and cultural minorities the struggle for recognition changes the majority culture with a “revised interpretation of the achievements and interests of others.” The struggle of nationalist people who want a homeland also want the recognition of their achievements and interest from the world community. The author goes on to describe the struggles against Eurocentrism, western hegemony and for political correctness, philosophical discourse, legal, and human rights. In all cases we are dealing with normative legal rights protected and enforced through a constitutional democratic state. That is where particular solutions must be directed and put into practice.

“From the point of view of legal theory, the primary question that multiculturalism raises is the question of the ethical neutrality of law and politics. By ‘ethical’ I mean all questions that relate to conceptions of the good life, or a life that is not misspent. Ethical questions cannot be evaluated from the ‘moral point of view’ of whether something is ‘equally good for everyone’; rather impartial judgment of such questions is based on strong evaluations and determined by the self-understanding and perspectival life-projects of particular groups, that is, by what is from their point of view ‘good for us’…” In a democratic state it is perfectly permissible and necessary to have collective goals that arise out of the struggle for recognition. However, “consideration of collective goals is not permitted to dissolve the structure of the law. It may not destroy the form of the law as such and thereby negate the difference between law and politics.” The democratic setting up of norms of behaviour and law is necessarily “also and expression of a particular form of life and not merely a reflection of the universal content of basic rights.” Therefore every process in a democratic state is permeated by ethics.

What this means in practice is that the democratic legal system must guarantee an equal right to coexistence. “[F]rom a normative point of view, the integrity of the individual legal person cannot be guaranteed without protecting the intersubjectively shared experiences and life contexts in which the person has been socialized and has formed his or her identity.” In a multicultural society every person must have the equal right to grow up in the world of a cultural heritage and not suffer discrimination because of it. However, cultures change and evolve. The same self-identified culture of any people is not the same over generations. “Cultures survive only if they draw the strength to transform themselves from criticism and secession….In the modern era rigid forms of life succumb to entropy.”

The author describes traditionalist and fundamentalist movements as “ironic attempt[s] to give one’s own lifeworld ultrastability by restorative means.” They demand collective rights against individual rights in order to create an imagined past golden era. This conflicts with the equal right to determine one’s conception of the good. The neutrality of the law towards concepts of the good life of persons and groups is necessary (especially in a multicultural society) for the cohesion of society because society “can no longer be held together by a substantive consensus on values but only by a consensus on the procedures for the legitimate enactment of laws and the legitimate exercise of power.”

On the fact of immigration, the author notes that there are wide and deep levels of xenophobia in the Europe of the 1990s. Immigration always and everywhere threatens the ethical and political integration that unites all citizens of a nation – and that is not necessarily a bad thing; but it does change the understood unity. The problem of immigration leads to the question of naturalization: the legal expansion of the political community. This expansion goes hand in hand with the degree of change in the political unity of the host country and the degree of assimilation of the new naturalized citizens. The author distinguishes two levels of assimilation: 1) assent to the principles of the constitution and 2) willingness to be acculturated to the majority culture. The first is a legitimate demand; the second can be asked but must never be required.

Refugees who are entitled to asylum according to the Geneva Convention must be fleeing from a country “where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” However, in the 1990s the vast bulk of refugees are refugees from poverty and lack of work opportunities. This fact should expand legitimate refugee status.

The new reunified German political asylum policy of the 1990s failed miserably in the eyes of the author. Refugees are only considered refugees on strict interpretation of the Geneva Convention. This creates a permanent underclass of undocumented people who are labeled as abusers of asylum. Refugees coming from a “safe” or “intermediate” third country are not refugees. This shifts the moral and practical burden onto other closer states. German naturalization laws were left unchanged. These laws allow only people who can demonstrate German ancestry to become naturalized citizens. This is all based on a flawed premise that Germany is not a land of immigration. This slogan is repeated very often but the facts on the ground are totally different. Germany in the 1990s was (and still is) a land of immigrants.

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren