Habermas on Globalisation and Governance

Jürgen Habermas (1929–) is one of the foremost social theorists of the 20th century, renowned for his work on the nature of modern society, politics and communications. Educated at the School for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, he went on to become one of Germany’s most significant contemporary intellectuals. Here, he explains the defining importance of the nation-state in the context of globalization and speaks about the impact of globalisation and neoliberalism, suggesting a response.

The focus … is now on the construction of supranational institutions. Such is the rationale of continent-wide economic alliances like NAFTA and APEC … Larger gains from cooperation are to be expected from more ambitious projects like the European Union … [P]olitical alliances of this type are a necessary condition if policies are to catch up with the forces of a globalized economy …

In view of the fact that coping with the demands of a globalized economy exceeds the competency of that nation-state, the obvious alternative is … the transfer of functions previously performed by the welfare state to supranational authorities. On this level, however, there is no political mode of co-ordination for properly channelling the undesirable social and ecological consequences of transnational economic processes. There is certainly a close-knit network of institutions interconnecting the … sovereign states below the level of the United Nations. About 350 governmental organizations, more than half of them founded after 1960, are committed to economic, social, and peace-keeping functions. But they are still too weak to make binding decisions or assume any regulatory functions in the fields of economy, social security, and ecology …

Through globalization processes, the nature of which are much broader than purely economic, we get more and more accustomed to a different perspective which sharpens our awareness of the growing interdependence of our social arenas, of shared risks, and of the joint networks of our collective fates. While the acceleration and condensation of communication and traffic makes for shrinking distances in space and time, expanding markets come up against the limits of the planet, and exploitation of resources against those of nature … [It] is increasingly rare that costs and risks can be shifted onto others—other sectors of society, remote regions, other cultures or future generations—without fear of sanctions …

Governments certainly cannot be expected to enter international agreements and to establish regulations … as long as they are perceived as independent actors in those national arenas where they have to gain support and re-election. The individual states must be tied into the binding procedures of cooperation within a transnational community of state in such a way that this commitment is in each case visible on the stage of domestic policy. The crucial question, therefore, is whether a consciousness of compulsive cosmopolitan solidarization is likely to emerge in the civil societies and the public spheres of continental regimes that are growing together on a larger geographical scale. Only under the pressure of the changing consciousness of citizens, and of its impact on the field of domestic affairs, may those collective actors capable of acting globally come to perceive themselves differently, that is, increasingly as members of a community that leaves them no choice but co-operation and compromise. Still, ruling elites cannot be expected to accomplish this shift of perspective from ‘international relations’ to ‘world domestic policy’ unless this achievement is rewarded by the populations themselves.


Habermas, Jürgen. 1998. ‘Learning by Disaster: A Diagnostic Look Back on the Short Twentieth Century.’ Constellations 5:307–320. pp. 317–319.


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