Among a generation of gloomy 20th-century European philosophers who sought to tear down reason and justice as instruments of oppression, Jürgen Habermas long remained an intemperate optimist. He found his inspiration in the coffeehouses and cafes of an earlier era in European history and, in 1981, coined his most famous concept: communicative rationality, the idea that the very process of talking and arguing produces agreement.
But the current crisis in Europe has beaten the optimism out of Habermas. He has described European politicians' halting response to the mess as a creeping coup d'état that has put power in the hands of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. And as the eurozone economy imploded, the nationalism that the European Union was supposed to suppress came roaring back, with parties across the continent dabbling in a potent brew of racism and Islamophobia that has turned right-wing extremism into a political growth industry. For the first time in the EU's history, the 83-year-old Habermas told Der Spiegel, "we are actually experiencing a dismantling of democracy. I didn't think this was possible."
So what is this Europe whose decline Habermas so laments -- and how will it be saved? In his new book, The Crisis of the European Union, Habermas lays out a case for a more cosmopolitan Europe that more fully transcends its national borders, where political power vested in an EU government elected by the people of Europe would foster the kind of cross-border solidarity that the crisis has so clearly exposed as lacking. It is a bold vision of a pan-European democracy that would effectively end state sovereignty and foster a unity that no market force could undermine. In a year of stifling incrementalism, Habermas's ambitious vision is like a breath of fresh air.
Ricken Patel has taken the fuzzy concept of a "global community" and given it teeth. Avaaz, the civic organization he co-founded in 2007, has grown into the world's largest web activism movement. Its more than 16 million members vote on the organization's priorities and direct their donations in support of a wide array of causes, from combating global warming to convincing the Hilton hotel chain to train staff to spot guests trapped in prostitution. In harnessing the Internet as a force for global change, Patel has disproved the notion that such ventures are mere "clicktivism" and has pioneered a new model for advancing human rights and democracy.
Patel, a Canadian who spent his career working as an analyst in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, modeled Avaaz after the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, but on a global scale. These days, however, Avaaz has gone far beyond the usual roster of progressive causes, most notably with its daring bid to play a direct role in Syria's civil war. Armed with millions of dollars donated from supporters across the world, Patel's network has smuggled medicine and communications equipment to activists inside the country and helped with the evacuation of journalists from the besieged city of Homs. In stark contrast to the international community, which has "been full of words and light on actions," Patel said, "we've given concrete support and assistance."
Whether coordinating assistance in a guerrilla war or supporting gay rights in Uganda, Patel says that Avaaz's ethos of transnational empowerment remains the same. "There are two types of fatalism," he said. "The belief the world can't change, and the belief you can't play a role in changing it."
Best idea: Shift fossil fuel subsidies to the renewables sector. Worst idea: Saudi vision of expanded Gulf Cooperation Council to team up against the Arab Spring. American decline or American renewal? American choice. Corrupt plutocratic decline or progressive democratic renewal. More Europe or less? More! But of the right kind -- people-driven, people centered. To tweet or not to tweet? To each his own.