“The Liberal Idea Has Become Obsolete” Putin, Geuss and Habermas

Martin Jay in The Point:

There is, in other words, a certain amount of bad faith in Geuss’s arguing against argumentation, giving reasons against the power of reasoning. But the performative contradiction reproach, let it be admitted, only goes so far in rebutting Geuss’s disillusioned take on the role of communicative rationality in the public sphere. It smacks too much of a clever schoolboy trick to stifle a discussion before it can begin. Geuss’s case should be addressed on its own merits, taking his points, both empirical and theoretical, at their strongest. Otherwise, the defender of communicative rationality will be open to the charge of performative contradiction in turn.

Let me begin by conceding that the current political discourse in liberal democracies—Geuss’s main case is the cacophonous Brexit debate, but it would be easy to give other examples on both sides of the Atlantic—provides ample evidence that we are a long way in practice from Habermas’s ideal speech situation. Of course, he always posited it as a counterfactual, which could only be approached asymptotically with no guarantee that we are going in the right direction. Like the democracy that is always “to come,” as Derrideans are wont to say, or “the perfect union” that is always a task, not an accomplished state of affairs, it is an aspirational goal. By making the obvious point that we have not yet achieved it, does it follow that its function as such a goal is negated? Geuss is thus setting up a straw man in asserting that “no amount of exertion will suffice to permit us to establish within the domain of the natural phenomenon ‘communication’ a safe-zone that is actually completely protected on all sides from the possible use of force.” Would the same disconnect between imperfect achievement and enduring aspiration also render otiose other such laudable goals as, say, equality, dignity, autonomy or abundance for all?

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