“Habermas’s reflections on the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crisis tendencies’ endemic to ‘advanced’ or ‘organized’ capitalism…. Briefly he argues that the basic contradiction of the capitalist order remains the private appropriation of public wealth-in terms of the discourse model of practical reason: the suppression of generalizable interests through treating them as particular. As a consequence, political decisions that reflect the existing organizational principle of society ipso facto do not admit of rational consensus. They could not be justified in a general and unrestricted discussion of what, in the light of present and possible circumstances, is in the best interests of all affected by them. Hence the stability of the capitalist social formation depends on the continued effectiveness of legitimations that could not withstand discursive examination. The problem, in short, is how to distribute socially produced wealth inequitably and yet legitimately.
Started in this way, Habermas’s critique appears to be essentially moral; social reality is measured against an abstract standard of reason and found wanting. However if we recall his views on the nature of critical social theory-from the ‘empirical philosophy of history with a practical intent’ to the ‘reconstruction of historical materialism’-we might expect that he would not leave off with a moral condemnation. And in fact the burden of his argument in Legitimation Crisis is to the effect that the basic contradiction of contemporary capitalism issues in crisis tendencies that can [be] empirically ascertained. The critique as a whole, then, assumes a Marxist form: what is morally required is being empirically prepared; the seeds of the new society are being formed in the womb of the old. But it is a Marxist critique with important differences. In the first place, the crisis tendencies pregnant with the future are no longer located immediately in the economic sphere but in the sociocultural sphere; they do not directly concern the reproduction of the material conditions of life but the reproduction of reliable structures of intersubjectivity. Habermas thus attempts to make a case for the likelihood of a legitimation crisis, not an economic crisis….
Other important differences concern the structure and status of the crisis argument itself. Habermas distinguishes four types of ‘possible crisis tendencies’ in advanced capitalism, tendencies rooted in the functioning of the economy and the administration, and in the needs for legitimation and motivation. Any one of these tendencies, or more probably some combination of them, could, he holds, erupt into an actual crisis. But to say that a crisis could occur is not to say that it will occur. And it is the latter claim that is characteristic of Marxist critique. Accordingly the question to which Habermas addresses himself is, Can a crisis of advanced capitalism be systematically predicted today?” (McCarthy 1994:358-359).
1994 The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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