Jürgen Habermas addresses the crisis

In an interview given late last year to Die Zeit (a translation can be found here), the philosopher-social theorist Jürgen Habermas asserted:

Since 1989-90 it has become impossible to break out of the universe of capitalism; the only option is to civilize and tame the capitalist dynamic from within. Even during the post-war period, the Soviet Union was not a viable alternative for the majority of the Left in Western Europe. This was why in 1973 I wrote on legitimation problems "in" capitalism. These problems have again forced their way onto the agenda, with more or less urgency depending on the national context.

One quibble: It is false to claim, as Habermas does, that it is "impossible to break out of the universe of capitalism." I believe it false because capitalism as an inclusive world system can exist only if countries engage in global trade, if, that is, the local economies within this system can struggle to expand their reach within a global system of markets. If this claim were true, then even if one were to concede Habermas' point — that modern humanity is fated to participate within a capitalist economic form — it remains the case that this economic system necessarily produces and confronts internal and external limits which it will need to successfully manage if it is to survive intact. Petroleum depletion provides one such limit on global trade and on industrial production. Another obvious one: Global warming, the existence of which threatens to produce a species-wide catastrophe. Worse still is the strong possibility that these two limiting conditions, which humanity cannot simply deny or neglect, may eventually combine to pulverize global civilization altogether, leaving, at best, only small, residual pockets of humanity scattered across the world. Without a doubt these remnants would depend upon barter and, perhaps, commodity production as well; nevertheless, they would lack the material conditions (the material resources, including a hospitable planet) needed to expand beyond the boundaries of their individual locations. Small may or may not be beautiful, but it promises to be unavoidable.

Once they found themselves 'free' of the capitalist world economy, humanity's survivors could — and might even be forced by circumstances to — create and adopt a less destructive mode of production. The catastrophe will have thus liberated humanity from its global capitalistic fate.

To be sure, no sensible and humane being would consider a catastrophe of this magnitude a product of a rational decision which humanity could feasibly make. The ends do not justify the means. It is better for humanity to live within a capitalist world economic system than to perish altogether or nearly so. Nevertheless, "humanity" cannot "decide" anything at all, according to Luhmann (p. 105). At best, an elite could produce a decision, but even this choice would require a global political system to implement a decision of this scope. And, it is the very lack of an effective global political system that is the species-wide developmental deficit of the moment: As we know all too well, a global threat can emerge from the workings of the "invisible hand," so to speak. A technologically sophisticated, modern world economy generates threats of this kind as a matter of course. Yet a programmatic effort to manage the risks posed by this economy will likely require an effective global political system the existence of which seems as remote to us today as full communism. A global political system has long been Habermas' preferred solution.

It became clear to me during the 1990s that politics must build up its capacities for joint action at the supranational level if it is to catch up with the markets. There even seemed to be initial steps in this direction during the early part of the decade. George Bush the elder spoke in a programmatic way of a New World Order and seemed to want to make use of the long blocked — and ridiculed! — United Nations! There was initially a sharp increase in the number of humanitarian interventions enacted by the Security Council. The politically intended economic globalisation should have been followed by a system of global political coordination and a further legal codification of international relations. However, the initial ambivalent efforts lost momentum already under Clinton. The current crisis is making us aware of this deficiency again. Since the beginning of the modern era, the market and politics have had to be repeatedly balanced off against one another in order to preserve the network of relations of solidarity among the members of political communities. A tension between capitalism and democracy always remains, because the market and politics rest on conflicting principles. The flood of decentralsed individual choices unleashed within more complex networks also calls for regulations after the latest phase of globalisation; this is contingent on a corresponding extension of political procedures through which interests are generalised.

The call for a global political system indicates the deeper, more ominous emergency condition humanity now faces, namely: The second-order crisis which came into existence because human beings cannot order their affairs in such a way that their living and relating does not also produce an existential threat for the whole of life on the planet. Human beings seemingly cannot learn how to get along well with each other or how to live without also befouling their environment.

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