Wolfgang Suetzl on Tue, 20 Nov 2001 05:12:20 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Habermas on Faith, Knowledge and 9-11

Violence and precision
The Peace Price of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, a
lost opportunity. A rejoinder to Habermas.

Juergen Habermas has been awarded the 2001 peace price of the German
publishers and booksellers association. This demands an explanation.
After all, Habermas, recently referred to as the "philosopher of
consensus" by the German journalist Jan Ross, justified NATO's bombing
of Serbia by stating that this was comparable to the labour pains of the
emerging global civil society that is to take over from the nation-state
centered international system of the present. This new world society,
according to Habermas, is still without institutions capable of
enforcing the respect for human rights upon governments, and therefore
it was both legitimate and necessary for the international community to
draw upon the services of existing institutions, even if these still
belonged to the traditional international law-regulated system. 

The fact that the institution in question was no other than NATO seemed
of no further consequence to Habermas. After all, he argued in an
editorial published by the German weekly Die Zeit, the "programmatic
exemption of civilians" and the "great precision of the attacks"
provided them with a "high level of legitimacy". 

To be sure, this phrase is more than just a philosophical appreciation
of the world view of NATO strategist and former peace activists
converted to militarism (does anyone remember Blair's CND membership?
Solana's anti-NATO protests? Fischer's pacifism?). For if taken
seriously, it turns the inheritance of the European Enlightenment, whose
defence is the philosophical mission of Habermas, against itself. The
Enlightenment, and in particular the universal concept of human rights
it engendered are about de-legitimising violence wherever this cannot be
achieved through national legislation. Now if the legitimacy of violence
is linked to the universality of human rights, as was the case in the
NATO bombings, and echoed in Habermas' position, than all those who
stand up against this violence stand "against themselves" and run the
risk of ending up as weird marginal figures engaged in a monologue.
Hence the eerie silence on the part of a peace movement committed to
Enlightenment ideals that accompanied the bombings. Such ruins of the
Enlightenment can no longer serve as the basis of a critique of
violence, but instead perfectly serve the purpose of justifying a new
type of violence - a violence whose legitimacy is defined technically,
and therfore increases with the level of technical sophistication.
Western technology equals just wars.

Attributing a high level of legitimacy to the precision of attacks means
no less than turning the morality invoked in the justification of the
bombings over to technical performance. On this level, western
universalism, in spite of its multiple fragmentations in the history of
the 20th century, still functions - and functions all too well. No
longer do states have to spend time sorting out complex moral issues and
engaging in lengthy democratic procedures (e.g. a mandate of the UN
security council, a declaration of war by parliament, etc.), in public
discourses and in open debates, except for ornamental reasons. The new
just wars demand quick deployment of forces, both military and
rhetorical. Their justice resides in the precision of weapons,
establishing a mutual dependency of the legitimacy of war and military
technological innovation. Legitimacy, as it were, becomes a technical
feature of the weapon. And the "moral consensus" which the
legitimatising of these wars draws upon, and which the "philosopher of
consensus" seeks, is only the silence in the face of the precision of
The peace prize was awarded against the background of the attacks in the
USA and the retaliation strikes against Afghanistan. What better could
have happened to the networks of terror and to potentially violent
haters of the western community of technology and values, than precisely
this dissolution of justice in technical performance, the undermining of
the Enlightenment by its own technological condition, justified
paradigmatically by Habermas in connection with the NATO intervention in

For if such acts of violence need no longer seek legitimacy because the
latter comes in a package with high-tech armaments, and if legitimacy no
longer requires democratic procedures but only efficient and precise
systems of destruction and representation, it becomes much easier for
terrorists to provoke government-led attacks against democratic
constitutions, whose imprecision stands in sharp contrast to the
supposed precision of the attacks against the enemy on the outside.
These attacks are doomed to failure in spite of their force, but capable
of effectively weakening the inner legitimacy of states. But for the
same reason it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue against this
type of violence on the basis of the Enlightenment principles. The
extra-institutional critique that would be particularly important at
this time, given the weakening of the institutions, is faced with the
choice between confused speechlessness and monological strangeness. 

Against this background, it must be asked whether Habermas' call for a
"return of the political in another form" is any more than a rewriting
of Clausewitz. Equally, the "common language" that according to Habermas
must be found to settle differences with non-western fundamentalists is
already there: in the form of the techno-moral networks that have been
offered to non-western communities since the 19th century as sole valid
mode of being. And the "civilising power of formation" resembles the
19th century colonialist ethos of "la civilizacion des sauvages". 

These views, then, offers some good prospects for the future of war and
for the arms industry. Good prospects, too, for those violent actors who
seek to sabotage the inner legitimacy of western states. The recent
blind fervour in slashing fundamental and civic rights is already an
indication of what is possible. But why, it might cynically be asked,
should we still have fundamental rights and democratic principles, if
legitimacy can be achieved much more efficiently through technical

It would be time to leave this spiral of moral legitimacy and military
technological innovation, and to look for a thinking that is capable of
it. Whether the opportunity to stimulate this process by the awarding of
a peace prize as prominent as the Frankfurt one has really been seized
seems quite debatable. 

Wolfgang Suetzl

(A German version of this commentary was published in the Austrian
"Standard" newspaper)

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