Reading Guide to: Habermas, J (1976) Legitimation Crisis, London: Heinemann Educational Books (Trans. and intro. by Thomas McCarthy)

by Dave Harris

McCarthy's Introduction

This is a very useful summary of the book which puts it into context, showing how Habermas has turned to empirical research, and how he also attempts to establish his relations to the earlier generation of critical theorists.

The section on 'universal pragmatics' is particularly interesting from our point of view. McCarthy says that this helps Habermas overcomes some problems with Horkheimer and Marcuse -- they have analysed culture as so monolithically 'affirmative' that the space for critique is much reduced, and can rest now only in some un grounded hope for the future. The turn towards language helps overcome this problem, since language becomes a universal medium 'in which the social life of the human species unfolds' (xiii). Moreover, 'today the problem of language has replaced the traditional problem of consciousness' (McCarthy quoting Habermas himself). We have to develop a universal pragmatics that 'exhibits the normative basis of all communication and explains the possibility of systematically distorted communication' (xiii).

Language proceeds around four often implicit validity claims: 'claims that the utterance is understandable, that its proposition or content is true, and that the speaker is sincere in uttering it, and that it is right or appropriate for the speaker to be performing the speech act' (xiv). What we should be trying to develop is an ideal speech act, which features no distortion, or barriers to communication -- but this is only a ideal possibility, a 'counterfactual', because normally discourses are constrained by systems of norms, as in a neurosis, or, its social version, an ideology.

It is a problem to distinguish true and false consensuses, of course. We can only really tell the difference by examining the processes used to achieve this consensus: only unrestrained argument can produce truth. This is what Habermas means by a 'consensus theory' of truth -- not just that there is consensus, but that it has been arrived at entirely through the 'force of the better argument' (xvi).. We can tell whether we have abolished all other constraints if the argument is 'symmetrical' (that is, all participants have an equal chance to contribute, especially to challenge validity claims), and free from any use of strategic action (including the unconscious effects of neurosis or ideology). It is clear from this description that an ideal speech act refers both to linguistic and social conditions: the potential for these conditions should guide us in our criticism of 'systematically distorted communication'.

McCarthy says that Habermas thinks this is closely connected to classical critical theory's interests in consciousness and ideology. But, in their effort to overcome Marx's tendency to offer analysis which appeared to reduce culture to labour, the classical critical theorists lost all links to the critique of political economy. The 'critique of instrumental reason' became the principal task, almost as a replacement for marxism [see file]. Habermas wants to suggest that there is a distinction between labour and interaction, but both are found in actual social practice. Labour cannot be replaced, but must be reintegrated into a normative framework. This leads on to attempt to distinguish different 'quasi transcendental human interests' [see file]; to an attempt to explain methodological differences between natural and life sciences, and to ground critical sciences; and to show how social life is split between sub-systems of purposive rational action, and institutional frameworks. The latter is intended to replace the old divisions between base and superstructure.

In later work, Habermas was to argue for a notion of social evolution in three dimensions as well -- the forces of production, the development of organisational forms (steering mechanisms), and the development of critical interpretive systems. This work is the first attempt to offer such an integration.

Part 1

Chapter one

Crisis has both a subjective and objective dimension, but it has been difficult to grasp this using conventional approaches such as systems theory: this theory sees social organisations solving problems, but not as producing contradictions. In modern capitalism, 'steering problems' present crises for the social system, which leads to identity problems for subjects. Systems try to respond by integrating both systems and societies, 'systems' and 'life world'. The connection between these two needs to be rethought though. It is clear that both are needed -- the norms of a life world are affected by social determinants, and systems have to be grounded in certain validity claims, which are not just reducible to straightforward control mechanisms. It is here that systems theory becomes uncritical, while action theory operates merely with a dichotomy between norm and substratum [Lockwood's terms are cited here] without any connection between them. The two levels are connected -- the goals of social life are both the product of a system and the experience of normative limits. A theory of social evolution is needed to show this, by looking at the evolution of whole social formations (in the Marxist sense ) and their organising principles: such a theory should research steering problems within formations, and the crises that arise if there is a major break in the organising principles.

Chapter two

A social system has a number of constituents:

(a) a means of appropriating external nature and managing internal nature (that is systems of production and socialisation). It is this that produces communicative utterances claiming validity as truth and normative justification.

(b) possibilities for system development vary according to levels of development and autonomy but they are also limited according to the world views in operation -- system integration cannot operate in a cultural vacuum

(c) the learning potential of society varies according to the capacity of its institutions to learn and make progress, and this in turn is dependent upon the level of discursive analysis permitted in those institutions -- this is why unconstrained communication is essential for social progress, and even basic social reproduction, and why threats to the lifeworld produce deep social crisis.

Chapter three

Different social principles are found in the organisation of different social formations. There are in fact four basic types of social formation:

  • primitive (based on kinship);
  • traditional (organised according to political feudal principles);
  • liberal capitalist (neutral laws, and the clear separation of civil, social, political, and economic levels: the economy steers the social formation, while the State is limited to reproduce it and to develop utilitarian morality. Social criticism in such a State needs to confront the claims towards universality. Crises arise because the economy is uncoupled from the normative level: this is at first helpful in removing restraints on economic growth, but it is also dangerous. Conflicts emerge in the form of economic crisis, but these soon become normative crises as well, and eventually crises of the whole State.) .
  • [Where's the fourth? Could it be advanced capitalism as below?]

Thus we have three stages in social development so far, and three types of crisis. The first is induced by external factors, the second internally determined, and a third a system crisis proper. The latter is spelled out in the chapters below..

Chapter 4

In liberal capitalist societies, the economic system is seen is the major steering mechanism, based on its main ideology, the exchange of equivalents. However, this is unstable with a tendency to conflict -- class is institutionalised as a major division via the market. Markets are eventually forced to steer social formations are not only through the use of money and power, but also through ideology (posing as anonymous, natural, and unpolitical). Marx offered the most effective critique of this combination, covering both the economic system and its accompanying ideologies.

Contradictions arise because class conflict is now located in system imperatives [that is growth cannot be achieved except at the price of class conflict]. Contradictions are serious conflicts involving incompatible claims within the overall rules. For them to become social contradictions, there must be involved a 'logic of the employment of proposition or contents in speech and action'. That the logic of the system is contradicted in this way indicates that it cannot be sufficient. Two things follow: firstly this indicates that economic and scientific logic and the logic of protest both involve some underlying universal pragmatic, and, more politically, explains the emergence of systematically distorted communication, designed to block the inadequacy of economic logic (27).

The contradictions in a system between solutions and problems, the logical incompatibility of systems logic and the capacity to solve problems in language cannot be grasped by systems theory alone. Systems theory tries to explain conflict in abstract theoretical terms, but what is involved is the consciousness of participants, expressed in (challenging, political) language. A crisis can arise in both the economic system and the more general cultural social level when markets steering mechanisms fail -- failures include Marx's predictions of falling rate of profit, problems of finding ways to realise capital, and unmanageable unemployment. The social crisis demonstrates the existence of contradictory class interests: it becomes a 'practical critique of ideology'. Economic crisis can be seen as driving social crisis, and this needs to be adequately grasped, operating, as does marxist critique, at both system and social levels. So: has modern capitalism changed in terms of this link between system and social levels?

Part 2

Chapter one

We need a descriptive model of advanced capitalism to include the role of multinationals and the State. These offer differences with liberal capitalism, although there are some continuities as well, such as the persistence of market mechanisms, and private interests.

  1. The economic system in advance societies is divided according to the private/State distinction. The administrative system now extends to include global planning/regulation as avoidance strategies [avoiding crises in national states by regulating exchange rates], and to some extent replaces the market mechanism, as in government consumption, government investment in matters such as the productivity of labour, and the government willingness to bear the burdens of social costs.
  2. There is now an entire legitimation system. The state is directly engaged in economic and social matters, and needs to preserve its legitimation, without relying just on tradition. It is forced to adopt a set of universalistic values, to develop a system of formal democracy (though not substantive democracy) to prevent class contradictions being thematised as politics. The State therefore needs a certain level of independence. The trick is to get diffuse mass loyalty, but avoid participation, a kind of civic privatisation of politics, a political abstinence, and an interest in the rewards of the system. This has generated both welfare states, and achievement-oriented education systems. The actions of the State can be justified by elite theories or by technocratic systems theories -- both aim to establish the naturalness of the capitalist system.
  3. The class structure changes into a more anonymous form, and conflict is defused by social reform, such as price-setting, prices and incomes policies and so on. High wages can now be passed on as costs. This does build a genuine common interest in the system, but this is still threatened by wage disputes, inflation, fiscal crisis, regionalism, and the emergence of 'quasi groups' such as consumer pressure groups. Everyone can experience participation, but also victimisation. There are also clear and growing inequalities. The issue is whether these are still based on exchange relations, the extraction of surplus value, or political power. There is also a question about whether crises are located in social private areas, and whether economic crisis is now always displaced on to the State -- is there a tendency for the overall system and to go into crisis, or do we just have different source of conflict between different groups? This can only be decided by empirical research [sic!] (page 40).

Chapter two

There are still some abstract possible sources of crisis -- ecological crisis, the growth of alienation, international conflict. These could escalate into system crises -- for example control over ecological pollution could violate the exchange relation mechanisms. Incidentally, Habermas thinks they can be no real crisis arising from constraints on 'inner nature'.

Chapter three

System crises and identity crises take different forms:

(a) economic crisis from things like falling rate of profit;

(b) political crisis, arising from the apparent ineffectiveness of policies, the failure of rational control of the economy, and problems with a legitimation, when mass loyalty is withdrawn. Offe sketches one version of possible crisis [he was to develop this as an inherent contradiction between the duties of the State to encourage economic growth, and to provide a welfare state -- economic activity and activity devoted to welfare offer completely different principles of organization, and the more the latter succeeds, the more the former must be weakened]. Another possibility arises when the system penetrates and dispels traditional values, which no longer become available as legitimations;

(c) socio-cultural crisis, affecting claims to legitimation. These may include motivational difficulties, where the erosion of traditions also lead to a weakening of the work ethic, or personal frustrations arising from having collective expectations dashed [a kind of Mertonian anomie theory?]. The challenge is to specify and quantify these tendencies.

Chapter 4

An economic crisis can arrive when the 'State must confront individual capitalists as a non-capitalist, in order to carry through the "collective capitalist will"' (50) [for example when the state wishes to modernise at the expense of individual?] Is the State then really an agent of collective capital? Orthodox Marxism would say yes, because capital accumulation is still the dominant feature. Habermas insists that this is now an empirical matter, however: there are new social problems which maybe independent from capital accumulation (problems of social integration as he defines them) , and the State now does more than just maintain the capitalist mode of production -- it complements and replaces market mechanisms, and compensates capital when there are political reactions or social costs. As an example, an education system operates so that 'educational qualifications raise the productivity of labour, leading to cheapened constant capital' (55). There are also new kinds of unproductive labour, such as reflexive labour [e.g.engaged in education], and scientific knowledge itself is a major factor in production.

The State uses its power to achieve a 'class compromise', controlling wages but offering political and welfare benefits. It uses its administrative power to plug 'functional gaps', replacing both market mechanisms and ideological ones. The State does not become a monolithic block, as in some Marxist theories -- its role really is just to avoid crisis. Corporatism, and the growth of interest groups takes the place of collective action among the working class. Elites are bound together by functional into relations as much as personal contacts.

Chapter five

The State acts neither as the unconscious executive of the system nor as the agent of monopoly capital. It pursues limited planning based on the class compromise to avoid crisis. However, economic crisis can still be displaced on to the State, producing a rationality crisis. For example, one way out of a fiscal crisis is to take more taxes, but this produces legitimation problems because taxes are perceived as unpopular and unequal. The same applies to more obvious cases of regulation.

The State is unable to stand outside in control the social formation, since this would be to cross into private interests. Instead, it goes through cycles of intervention and standing aloof. It is difficult to quantify and assess the impact of these crises and inefficiencies. There is a 'legitimation gradient' [increasing strategic action leads to greater losses of legitimation]. The State wishes to appear natural rather than overtly political, or at least rational and social, although in my support and economic process which is private and competitive. There are no fixed guidelines, so the State operates ad-hoc.

Elements 'hostile to accumulation' must become more and more the matter of government [the Offe scenario referred to above]. Big corporations have taken interest in politics rather than just reacting to the market; increasing attention must be paid to use values not just exchange values (for example we need to develop professionalism rather than just profit-making); inactive labour grows, and so does the burden of welfare to support them. None of these problems are steerable just by altering money flows: planning is needed, but it must take only a limited form.

Chapter 6

Class struggle now takes on a concern with power, rather than being derived exclusively from the economic. It becomes possible to organise a class compromise, but this only displaces class struggle onto the political system, with all the crisis potential and uncertainty that is involved. Even more political intervention is needed as a result, yet this raises real problems with legitimacy. One solution is to divide the State into an administrative section and a section devoted to increasing legitimacy, through mobilising diffuse loyalties (through advertising, personalisation, propaganda and so on).

Yet cultural traditions can only be manipulated, and not replaced altogether with manufactured ideology. The same traditions can also be appropriated and used to do critique. Culture can never be used simply strategically. Political initiatives, such as attempts to develop rational planning, need new kinds of legitimation as a result, but this can rip lead to a dangerous realisation that culture is contingent, not natural. Thus still more discussions are needed to establish the validity of culture, and there are still dangers of re politicisation and collective action. These threaten to expose an underlying and still fundamental class structure. The State can try to buy loyalty, but runs the risk of raising expectations. However, it is only the most rigid systems that are particularly at risk from crisis.

Chapter seven

A motivation crisis arises when the associate cultural system becomes dysfunctional. The development of privatised consciousness is the key here [and there are links to the Affluent Worker studies in Britain]. Privatism leads to depoliticisation, but also to a withdrawal from familial and vocational motivations, and to a loss of competitiveness and a career orientation. Traditional sources of motives are being destroyed and not replaced. Habermas refers here a lot of rather old studies of political culture which indicate that there was a tendency in early capitalism to fuse the older authoritarian traditions with bourgeois universalism: this relied for its legitimation on things like religion, as in the famous Protestant work ethic.

These traditions have been destroyed and are non-renewable. The current social structure tends to undermine individualism as well. We can understand this as a process of rationalisation producing scientism and commercial substitutes for communication. Older communities have also become 'positivised', with the emergence of rational law. Schooling also has a part to play here, with its tendencies to secularise values.

Structural changes make it difficult to develop strong competitive individualism. This works well if achievement can be seen to be based on meritocracy -- markets in the early days were, and education now is probably the closest, but only in certain conditions. Labour markets tend not to be meritocratic. Welfare systems operate on a different basis altogether, and offer no spur to individual achievement. Individual wealth is no longer so important, given the development of a collective infrastructure in leisure, health, and education: success in these areas becomes vital. The whole orientation to exchange value becomes weakened: we have the growth of both unproductive and 'concrete' labour dependent upon use values.

Scientism, 'post auratic art', and universalistic morality replace traditions. Fascism expressed the last attempt to reverse this trend, and demonstrated the need for massive repression to do so. A bohemian sub culture or counter-culture is a more likely consequence, and this is not grounded firmly in liberal capitalism exchanges, and so it can be subversive to some extent. A new communicative ethics is the only real possibility to properly renew the basis of social life. The cultural system can be uncoupled from the economy altogether [as in 'unofficial leisure', or 'escapes', or perhaps the free zone for interaction offered by the Web?], but it's probably too late to do this. Adolescent rebellion, a culture of withdrawal or protest is likely to grow [and Habermas cites a lot of work on sub cultural and social strain theories of juvenile delinquency here -- see file for a summary of the classic work ].

Chapter eight

To summarise: a standard economic crisis cannot be guaranteed any more, but the prices to shift the crisis into the political sphere. Culture has become commercialised, but it is no longer capable of offering satisfactory meanings and motivations. What is required is a whole new form of socialisation.

Part 3

We can make certain assumptions. Cultures are internalised from social systems as symbolic expectations., yet they still display in interest in 'a relation to truth'. Reviving the potential for a moral consciousness involves the reconstruction of norms as stages of development. This is empirically grounded [in Piaget's work?]. We can use Weber's theories of legitimacy to focus on both the potential for justification and for factual validity in moral systems. An analysis of force is also needed, alongside one of the 'fetters of imagination' of the exploited. If overall legitimacy does fail, however, different types of legitimacy might be tried -- but these still need to bear some relation to truth, if a deep motivational crisis is to be avoided.

Chapter one

Is the basis of legitimacy a psychological matter, or must it involve relation to truth? The legality of the State can be accepted as valid, or its validity claims can be seen as merely 'functionally necessary deceptions', in Luhmann's terms (99). Validity may represent an actual consensus in terms of values. If this were so, we would expect that this consensus has emerged from a great deal of discursive justification, as above.

Chapter two

Morals and values can be seen as fundamentally irrational, leaving only 'decisionism' as a basis for choice between them. An alternative might be to investigate how norms actually arise, and how they might be reconstructed. We might investigate how contracts between individuals are presupposed, and explore the types of justification for them. Ultimately though, norms and the reasons for obeying them must be established in a 'communication community', where practical discourses attempt to test validity claims. Tests should not be restricted just to deductive reasoning, as 'positivists' tend to do [A good deal of discussion of alternative forms of rationality ensues, ending in a plea for full argument, explanations and justifications, speech acts rather than sentences, theoretical and practical types of reason].

Genuine discourses of this type are context independent, focused on those validity claims which are usually bracketed, and proceed without any restrictions, save the force of the better argument and a co-operative search for truth. Participants must be given equal chances to participate, allowing genuine common interests to emerge. These interests must be clarified for each individual in discourse itself. Only genuine interests which have been communicated fully established can be the basis for accepting morals and values. There is such a universal generaliseable level despite the apparent pluralism of social life.

Perhaps such universalism might be itself the result of some decisionistic option? Perhaps it runs the risk of appearing as a foundationalism? Habermas says it can be simply presupposed as an 'ideal speech act', the result of a universal pragmatics.

Chapter three

Where they have not been rationally grounded, norms tend to be enforced by normative power or by some compromise. The latter is seen in a political compromises such as the 'separation of powers': this is by no means essential to democracy, but serves as a substitute for rational consensus. The usual form of legitimation is one of ideological consensus, where generalisable interests have in fact been suppressed. We can compare such consensus with what would have happened if there had been a genuine discourse and full knowledge of the limits of economic systems and so on.

We can thus detect strategic action (based ultimately on a competition for scarce goods), it by a 'counterfactual imagining' of what would be taking place. This involves an ascription of interests of course which is testable only in the practical discourse of participants.

Chapter 4

Normative systems can be related to truth. It might be that individuals actually do internalise norms, and that communicative ethics are actually present. It is possible that religion could reassert itself in the form of a new theology, or that science as some kind of rational illusion could be becoming a spent force.

However, there is an increasing cynicism about values, a nihilism as in Nietzsche, arising from the dark side of the Enlightenment, or relativism. All these can render the desire for truth as old fashioned. There are also new elite theorists which see democracy as only plebiscitory, and democratic discourses as inevitably a matter of compromise. There is the 'end of individual' thesis, expressed best in Dialectic of Enlightenment themes on the emergence of individual liberty and its rapid eclipse. There is some social psychological research on the growth of alienation, or inauthenticity, and also on how easily such characteristics may be reincorporated [student protest is the example here -- page 129]. It is possible that we might be seeing a new reconciliation of strategic utilitarianism and subcultural responses -- both renounce social practice based on truth.

Chapter five

Luhmann argues that norms can only ever be contingent, and subjectivity is also contingently selective. There is so much cultural choice that powerlessness results. Consequently, all problems of integration can only be dealt with as systemic ones -- there is no possibility of proper social integration. Lifeworlds become merely provincial and local. The political system has to steer, and it does this mostly by organising strategic consensus. As a result, administration cannot be too complex, which means largely rational legitimations rather than any attempt to explore a good life based on lifeworlds. This shift towards administration rather than a properly participatory democracy is necessary.

However, Habermas counters by arguing that there are limits to this administrative planning, as the recurrence of crisis shows. Administration is still dependent on systems like private property and motivational or normative factors. If administration becomes too separated from public values, there is an unnecessary use of creative forces and the risk if necessary unintended consequences and so a drift into complexity whatever the intentions [this refers back to Offe again]. It might be more efficient to let participatory democracy decide! Luhmann's option, granting administration a separate status as an evolutionary force, also depends on what defines the system/environment boundary. Overall, his theory is uncritical, and it fits advanced capitalism only if there are no more crises or resistance.

Chapter 6

Can we just irrationally choose or opt for reason? Habermas's communicative ethics does express a partiality for reason. It may have to be admitted that reason is chosen as a result of mere decisionism. Even so, we can still proceed to test the claims of advanced capitalism and try to avoid the establishment of a 'nature like system' over the heads of its citizens: in the end, it is a matter of 'human dignity' (page 143). [What a terrible cop-out right at the end of this book!!]

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