jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—part I


Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century


I. The Long Rhythms of the Century


The threshold of the twenty-first century exerts such a strong

grip on our imagination because it also leads us into a new

millennium. This calendrical turning point is itself the product

of a construction of religious history, whose starting point, the

birth of Christ, marked what we recognize in hindsight as a

break in world history. At the end of the second millennium,

the timetables of international airlines, global stock market

transactions, international scientific conventions, even rendezvous

in space are all scheduled according to the Christian

calendar. But the round numbers that punctuate this calendar

don’t match up with the plots of historical events themselves.

Years like 1900 or 2000 are meaningless in comparison to dates

such as 1914, 1945, or 1989. What’s more, these calendrical

blocs can often have the effect of concealing the very continuity

of far-reaching social trends, many of which have origins well

before the beginning of the twentieth century and will continue

well into the new millennium. Before beginning this examination

of the physiognomy of the twentieth century, then, I will

recall some of these longer rhythms that pass through the

century. Here I will mention (a) demographic changes, (b)

structural changes in the nature of employment, and (c) the

course of development of science and technology.


(a) Europe’s dramatic increase in population had its beginnings

in the early nineteenth century. Largely a result of medical

progress, this demographic change has in the meantime

largely come to a standstill in affluent societies; in the Third

World population growth has exploded since the middle of the

twentieth century. Expert opinions do not expect a stabilization

of world population — at a level of roughly 10 billion people

— before 2030. That would be a fivefold increase in global

population since 1950. Of course, a highly complicated phenomenology

hides behind this statistical trend.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population

explosion was described by contemporaries in terms of the

social form of “the masses.” Even then, the phenomenon was

not an entirely new one. Well before Le Bon became interested

in the “psychology of the mass,” nineteenth-century novelists

were already well acquainted with mass concentrations of

people in cities, housing blocks, factory buildings, offices, and

barracks, as well as with the mass mobilization of workers and

immigrants, demonstrators, strikers, and revolutionaries. But it

was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that massive

flows of people, mass organizations, and mass actions began

to appear intrusive enough to give rise to the vision of the

“revolt of the masses” (Ortega y Gasset). The mass mobilizations

of the Second World War, the mass misery of the concentration

camps, mass treks of refugees, and the mass chaos of

displaced persons after 1945 all exhibit a kind of collectivism

first anticipated in the illustrated title page of Hobbes’

Leviathan: countless individuals anonymously fused into the

overpowering figure of a macro-subject of collective action.

Since mid-century, however, the physiognomy of persons in

great numbers has itself undergone a change. The presence of

bodies — collected, herded together, set in motion — has given

way to the symbolic inclusion of the consciousness of the many

into ever wider networks of communication: the concentrated

masses have been transformed into a broadly dispersed public

of the mass media. Physical commercial flows, and commercial

jams, keep rising; people massing in the streets and squares

become anachronistic as individual connections are integrated

into electronic networks. Of course, this change in social perception

does not touch on the basic continuity of population growth.


(b) Similarly, structural changes in the labor system ignore

the thresholds of centuries or millennia. The introduction of

labor-saving production methods, and the subsequent increase

in productivity, is the driving force behind these structural

changes. Since the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century

England, economic modernization has followed the same

sequence in all countries. First, the mass of the laboring population

is shifted into the secondary sectors of manufacturing

industries from the primary agricultural work that had occupied

them for millennia. Next they shift to the tertiary sectors

of commerce, transportation, and services. Postindustrial

societies are now characterized by a quarternary sector of

knowledge-based economic activities such as high-tech industries

or the health-care sector, banking or public administration,

all of which depend on the influx of new information and,

ultimately, on research and innovation. And research and innovation,

in turn, are supported by an “educational revolution”

(Talcott Parsons) which not only eliminated illiteracy but triggered

a drastic expansion of systems of secondary and higher

education. As higher education lost its elite status, the universities

frequently became crucibles of political unrest.


Over the course of the twentieth century the pattern of these

structural changes remained invariant, while its pace accelerated.

Under a developmental dictatorship, a country like South

Korea has, since 1960, succeeded in making the jump from a

preindustrial to a postindustrial society within the space of a

single generation. This acceleration explains the new quality

that a well-established process of migration from countryside

to urban areas assumed in the second half of the twentieth

century: leaving aside sub-Saharan Africa and China, the soaring

productivity caused by mechanized agriculture has all but

depopulated the agrarian sector. In the OECD* countries, the

proportion of labor engaged in heavily subsidized agriculture

has fallen below 10 percent of the laboring population.

Counted in the phenomenological currency of lifeworld experiences,

this signifies a truly radical break with the past. The

mode of village life, which had been formative for all cultures

from the neolithic period until well into the nineteenth century,

survives only in imitation form in developed countries.

The decline of the peasantry has also revolutionized the traditional

relationship between the urban and the rural. Today,

more than 40 percent of the world’s population live in cities.

The urbanization process, as it destroys the older forms of

urban life that had arisen in premodern Europe, also destroys

the city itself. If New York, even its metropolitan center in

Manhattan, is itself already no more than vaguely reminiscent

of the great cities of the nineteenth century such as London or

Paris, then the sprawling urban areas of Mexico City, Tokyo,

Calcutta, Sao Paulo, Seoul, or Shanghai have finally exploded

the familiar dimensions of “the city.” The hazy profiles of these

megalopolises, where explosive growth is only two or three

decades old, face us with a mode of experience that we are at

a loss to comprehend.


(c) Finally, the series of social consequences of scientific and

technological progress constitutes a third continuity extending

through the twentieth century. New synthetic materials and

energy sources, new industrial, military, and medical technologies,

new means of transportation and communication have all

revolutionized modes of human interaction and forms of life,

but are all based on scientific knowledge and technical developments

from the past. Technological triumphs such as the

mastery of atomic energy and manned space travel, or innovations

like the deciphering of the genetic code and the introduction

of genetic technology into agriculture and medicine, surely

change our awareness of risks; they even touch upon our ethical

self-understanding. But in a certain sense, even these spectacular

achievements have run along familiar lines. Since the seventeenth

century, the instrumental attitude toward a scientifically

objectified nature has not changed; nor has the manner in which

we control natural processes, even if our interventions into

matter are deeper, and our ventures into space are further,

than ever before.


Technologically permeated structures of the lifeworld still

require from us laypersons the banal, routinized mode of handling

and operating machines and devices that we don’t understand;

a habitualized trust in the functioning of ongoing

technologies and processes. In complex societies, every expert

is a layperson in relation to other experts. Max Weber had

already described the “second naïveté” that emerges as we

busy ourselves with our radios and cell phones, our calculators,

video gear, or laptops — with the operation of familiar electronic

equipment whose manufacture requires the accumulated

knowledge of generations of scientists. Despite all the panicky

reactions to warnings, prognostications, and mishaps, the lifeworld’s

capacity to assimilate the strange and uncomprehended

into the familiar can only be temporarily undermined by media-

sponsored doubts about the reliability of expert knowledge and

high technology. A growing awareness of risks does not disrupt

the daily routine.


The acceleration effects of improved transport and communication

technologies have an entirely different relevance

for the long-term transformation of everyday experience. As

early as 1830, travelers on the earliest railways described a new

mode of perception of space and time. In the twentieth century,

motor traffic and civil aviation accelerated the transport of

persons and goods still further, shrinking the subjective sense of

distance even more. Space and time consciousness were also

affected by new technologies of information processing, storage,

and retrieval. Late eighteenth-century Europe already saw

the new print media of books and newspapers contribute to the

emergence of a global, future-oriented historical consciousness;

at the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche complained of

the historicism of an educated elite that brought everything

past into the present. Since then, the thoroughgoing decoupling

of the present from the objectified pasts of museums has

reached the masses of educational tourists. The mass print

media is a child of the twentieth century too; but the time machine

effect of the print media was intensified over the

course of the century through photography, film, radio, and

television. Spatial and temporal distances are not “conquered”

any more. They vanish without trace into the ubiquitous present

of virtual realities. Digital communication finally surpasses

all other media in scope and capacity. More people have

quicker access to greater volumes of information, and are able

to process it and instantly exchange it over any distance. The

mental consequences of the Internet – which is proving much

more resistant to incorporation into the routines of the lifeworld

than a new electronic gadget — are still very hard to assess.


* Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.



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