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From Piketty’s Capital to Marx’s das Kapital

Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has created a very new platform for a discussion of the global economy. There is possibly no other book on economy which has been published in so many languages, printed in so many copies, and has found its way to such a varied global public. Piketty’s Capital has been discussed in many high ranked academic journals, and at the same time, it has come out to a broader audience with advertisements in places like the underground public transportation in metropolises around the world. The title of the book is also very ambitious in so far as the title Capital claims to be a follow up of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital for the twenty-first century. Piketty is similar to Marx in his ambition to give a large historical, or a world historical perspective on the significance of capitalist economy for the development of global society. Given this background it could be interesting to consider the relations between Piketty’s Capital and Marx’s Das Kapital.



Main Thesis

My main thesis is that although Piketty gives a very essential theoretical and historically based prognosis and critique of the development of inequality as he expects it to increase in the twenty-first century. Ultimately, he is not able to provide a conceptual critique of capitalism which can surpass the basic market perspective in Adam Smith’s tradition of classical and neoclassical economy.

On this basis my thesis is that Marx’s conceptual determination of the capital, das Kapital, the capitalist mode of production, and capitalism in general could contribute to sharpen the outcome of Piketty’s enormous empirical and historical research on the development of inequality in capitalist societies beginning from the French Revolution. In addition, Piketty has also presented a calculated prognosis for the exacerbation of inequality in global capitalism during the twenty-first century.

According to Marx, the development of inequality is not accidental but inherent in the principle of capital and the capitalist mode of production. Therefore, Piketty’s empirically documented development of inequality should lead to a fundamental critique of capitalism. However, this is not the case.

On this background, I would like to consider a change of perspective from Adam Smith’s liberal market perspective to Marx’s productive perspective on capitalism. For Marx, capitalism is seen as an autopoietic bureaucratic and productive machinery or social system, which not only determines the production of inequality but also the basis for all social relations on a global scale.

Outline of the paper

In the following paper, I would like to substantiate this thesis with a presentation of Piketty’s theory, method and main results. I would further like to present Marx’s critical concept of the capital and capitalism. Finally, I would like to illustrate some of the consequences of Marx’s critical theory for the understanding of Piketty’s empirical work.

Piketty’s Capital


Piketty’s theory is situated in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition.

Piketty’s work is situated in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition. Adam Smith’s main work Wealth of Nations (1981 I-II) from 1776 is interesting because it represents the foundation of modern economy. Smith’s theory can be read in many ways and it has brought inspiration to many different perspectives on ethics, societal ethics, common moral, political philosophy, political theory, sociology and economy. Normally the economic perspective has been emphasized, but one could say the same regarding the other perspectives.

Wealth of Nations begins with a presentation of the division of labor as the basis for creation of wealth in a nation. Therefore, it should be emphasized that Smith has a general concept of work as the basis for his economic theory. Smith formulated this generalization on the basis of the Physiocrats’ more restricted idea that only agricultural work created value.

The second essential line of thought by Smith is that the products of work should be sold at a price determined in an open market, which on a larger scale implies the world market as its perspective. Therefore, the free market is essential for Smith.

The third line of thought is that the price of the commodity is determined by the work behind the creation of the product. However, Smith is not completely clear on this topic. The other perspective in Wealth of Nations is that the price is determined by the exchange in the market. In other words, Smith’s theory is ambivalent concerning the creation of value.

It is this ambivalence in Smith’s theory, which is in the center of discussion during the next two hundred years among economists, especially in the neoclassical economic tradition.

On the one hand, the work perspective leads to an internal understanding of the fundamental role of work in comprehending societal relations and institutions. This is what leads to the sociological perspective on the relationship between economy and society. Marx’s, Durkheim’s and Weber’s theories should also be mentioned here.

On the other hand, we have the price and market perspectives, which become the dominant perspectives in later economic traditions. It is in these traditions that we find the most economists having an influence on economic practice and on economic education. Thomas Piketty should be placed in these traditions.

Piketty’s research method: economy as part of the social sciences

Piketty is a market economist based in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition and the later neoclassical liberal tradition. However, Piketty has a much broader theoretical and methodical horizon, which should be understood on the background of Piketty’s French formation.

The interesting thing about Piketty’s method is that he wants to integrate economics as a sub discipline of social sciences, alongside history, sociology, anthropology, political science and even literature (Piketty 2014: 573 ff.). Piketty has his specific methodological perspective from the French Annales School and from Francois Furet’s quantitative historical method, which gives him a long and convincing historical perspective (Bouvier & Furet 1965; Piketty 1998; Piketty 2001; Piketty 2004; Piketty 2006). Piketty would not have been able to come to his results, if he had not integrated all these different perspectives.

Following this, Piketty wants to reconstruct the classical political economy as a value based science, which is connected to its political, normative and moral purpose (Piketty 2014: 573 ff.). This is the same ambition found in Adam Smith and further back in classical political philosophy by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. The fundamental question according to Piketty is, how public policies and institutions can bring us closer to an ideal society (Piketty 2014: 574). This was also the question raised by Aristotle, Aquinas, Adam Smith, Hegel and Marx. They had very different answers to this question, but they all had in common that the economy should be subordinated to the political, normative and moral value horizon. Economy could not be sustained independent of the moral, social and political interpretation.

According to Piketty, political economy should be a part of public discussion meaning that the shared values should be found in public democratic discussion. According to Piketty, this is not the case in most economic theory and practice in which economic models are used without regard to the political, social, cultural and historical context.

Piketty’s basic thesis: r > g – revenue is bigger than growth in a long historical perspective

Although Piketty has these critical perspectives on economy, he is in many ways still a traditional market economist based in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition and the neoclassical tradition. Piketty’s focus is price, market and equality in the distribution of goods. It is in this background that Piketty is concerned with the liberal discussion of inequality.

Piketty’s basic thesis is that revenue, r, has been bigger than growth, g, during the last two hundred years in Europe and the US, and more generally in all higher developed societies in recent history. Therefore, there has been a tendency towards a strong inequality in the last two hundred years in Europe. In general, this has also been a tendency throughout European history and in all higher developed societies. In that sense, all societies in history have been class based societies, albeit in different forms.

Patrimonial Capitalism

It is Piketty’s expectation that a new form of capitalism has been created, which he calls patrimonial capitalism (Piketty 2014: 173). It could seem to be a new form of capitalism, but in fact, it is a form of capitalism, which was known from the late 1800s until 1914. It is characterized on a huge accumulation of private wealth among a small part of the population, the upper 10%, 1%, 0.1% and 0.01%. At the beginning of the 1970s, the total value of private wealth in the Western societies stood between two to three and a half years of national income. Forty years later, in 2010, private wealth represented between four to seven years of national income in the Western world. The general evolution is clear: This is a strong comeback of private capital in the rich countries since 1970 (Piketty 2014: 173). This concentration of wealth is what Piketty calls ‘patrimonial capitalism’.

Piketty regards the new patrimonial capitalism as a repetition of something, which was formerly known in history from the late 19th to early 20th century. It is characterized by a high concentration of wealth in a low-growth environment like the nineteenth century (Piketty 2014: 237). The crisis of 2008 was according to Piketty the first crisis of the globalized patrimonial capitalism of the twenty-first century (Piketty 2014: 473). He expects that it will be followed by other crises. This is the scenario that Piketty expects for the twenty-first century.

Patrimonial capitalism, heirs and entrepreneurs

Consequently, the strong concentration of wealth can give rise to a tendency where the ‘entrepreneur’ transitions to the ‘heir’ as the basic figure of capitalism. According to Piketty, all large fortunes, whether inherited or entrepreneurial in origin, grow at extremely high rates, regardless of whether the owner of the fortune works or not (Piketty 2014: 439ff.).

Piketty gives a very illustrative example comparing Bill Gates, the entrepreneur among all entrepreneurs, and Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress of the cosmetics company L’Oréal. Between 1990 and 2010, Bill Gates’ fortune increased from $4 billion to $50 billion. In the same period, Liliane Bettencourt’s fortune increased from $2 billion to $25 billion. Both fortunes thus grew at an annual rate of more than 13 percent from 1990 to 2010.

Piketty also mentions Steve Jobs, who is regarded as a more creative entrepreneur than Bill Gates. But at the top of his career, his fortune was only $8 billion in 2011.

Piketty’s conclusion is that inheritance becomes the main access to the creation or growth of fortunes, and not the entrepreneurial spirit. Therefore, wealth is not just a matter of merit, and capital grows according to its own dynamic, when it has passed a certain size. The reason for this is the simple fact that the return on inherited fortunes is often very high solely because of their initial size.

Inequality – The economic system is the problem

It is a common discussion in liberal political theory that inequalities are acceptable if they serve the common good. This is also what has been stated in §1 of the Declaration 1789: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be found only upon the common utility”. It is on this basis that entrepreneurs becoming extremely rich while compared to other people becomes acceptable.

However, Piketty claims that the entrepreneurial argument cannot justify all the inequalities of wealth, no matter how extreme (Piketty 2014: 443). This is a claim that we find in Rawls’ liberal theory as well (Rawls 1971). As we have seen, the general class based inequality r > g combined with better returns on capital as a function of initial wealth makes it possible that fortunes can grow and perpetuate themselves beyond all rational limits and beyond any possible rational justification in terms of common utility.

In this way, it does even not take one generation to move from an entrepreneur to a rentier. Entrepreneurs can be transformed into rentiers in their own lifetime, and their wealth can be multiplied more than tenfold in twenty years as in the case of Bill Gates and Liliane Bettencourt (Piketty 2014: 443ff.).

The consequence is that even the merit criteria in §1 of Declaration that social distinctions are acceptable if they serve the common utility or the common good is very difficult not to say impossible to concretize. It is very difficult in praxis to sustain the distinction between the entrepreneur and the rentier when the first can be transformed into the second in a very short time as has been exemplified with the case of Bill Gates.

As I understand Piketty, he draws the conclusion that the most important problem is not to clarify whether inequality serves the common utility or not? The most important problem is that the accumulation of wealth among the 1%, the 0.1% and not at least the 0.01% tends to represent 70%-90% of all the countable wealth in global societies. It is this enormous concentration of wealth that justifies Piketty’s use of the concept of patrimonial capitalism.

Patrimonial Capitalism

The concept of ‘patrimonialism’ is situated in Max Weber’s classification as a traditional form of governance (Weber 1980: 682 ff). It has its origins in the specific patriarchal form of authority in the family. Following up, it can be broadened out to concern patrimonial forms of government in which political and or economic power can be concentrated. In this form of government, authority and power form a political unity. It is this traditional unity which transgresses into the power and authority of economic wealth in the patrimonial form of capitalism, as has been described above.

Problems with Patrimonial Capitalism

Per my observations, Piketty draws the following conclusions concerning the patrimonial form of capitalism.

Society will fall behind the French Revolution

Piketty’s perspective is overall that patrimonial capitalism will bring society back to before the French Revolution. Some of the modern institutions may formally be maintained but the reality may be different.

Suspension of basic principles of Human Rights 

The second point is that the basic values of modern society are suspended as they are formulated § 1 of the Declaration: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be found only upon the common utility”. In patrimonial capitalism, there are basic distinctions which are bound to inheritance and which therefore are transferred from generation to generation. This is exactly what characterizes a traditional pre-modern society. In such a society, men are not equal in rights, because wealth is the basic structuring parameter for the life chances of people in all matters concerning wealth, education, health, work, and political, social and other positions in society. In short, human rights are suspended in such a society.

Suspension of democracy 

The third point is that democracy will be strongly weakened or even suspended in such a society, and there can be no possibilities to develop democracy in such a society.

Stagnation of society 

The fourth point is that patrimonial capitalism will not be able to develop a society because the entrepreneur and innovator will lose their possibilities compared to the primacy of secure reproduction and accumulation of the inheritance.

Violence and corruption will dominate society 

The fifth point is that such a society will be built on violence and corruption instead of legal and deliberative political institutions.

The rule of war between states 

The rule of war between states will be dominant because interstate conflicts cannot be solved through diplomacy and international law.


Patrimonial capitalism does already exist in many societies in the world

The description of patrimonial capitalism may seem like a doomsday prophecy, a description of the last days. But in fact, the reality is that this form of capitalism does already exist in different forms in many societies in the world and maybe even the most societies with a developed economy combined with a strong authoritarian and corrupt regime. Even in the US we find signs of patrimonial capitalism, when wealthy people have enormous possibilities to influence elections, political life, allocation of resources and social decisions.

Piketty’s Capital: A platform for a critique of capitalism and its perspectives

In the end, the interesting thing about Piketty’s analysis is in the end that it is an economic analysis on the basis of the fundamental principles of the French Revolution. Piketty’s own conclusion is that the French Revolution failed and is an illusion.

With this background, one could have expected that Piketty had been critical toward capitalism as an economic system. But this is not the case. Piketty is worried about the historical consequences of capitalism, but he does not criticize capitalism in itself as an economic and social system. However, this seems to be a relevant topic as he has at least created a new platform for a discussion of capitalism, because he has uncovered some of the historical destructive perspectives in capitalism.

Marx’s Das Kapital

Introduction to Marx

It is in this background that I would like to discuss Marx’s concept of capital, das Kapital, and some of his perspectives on capitalism. Marx is such an interesting thinker in this context because no one has delivered such a strong critique of capitalism and political economy as him.

If we want to understand Marx’s critique of capitalism, we have to look shortly at his intellectual background and development. Marx (1818-1883) is a German intellectual strongly influenced primarily by Hegel’s political philosophy. Marx is a Hegelian who criticizes Hegel’s perspective on state, civil society, politics, and economy in Kritik der Hegelschen Staatsphilosophie 1844 (Marx 1841/42: 20-149). His basic critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (Hegel 1955; 1991) is that Hegel ‘aufhebt’, lifts up or sublates the basic contradictions in civil society into a reconciliation, ‘eine Versöhnung’, in the State as an all-encompassing unity of the contradictions in civil society. According to Hegel, the contradictions in civil society were first of all constituted through the struggle between economic agents, who were only concerned with their own business. This is an insight Hegel had acquired through Adam Smith’ Wealth of Nations (Smith I-II 1981) and David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation from 1817 (Ricardo 1996).

In his Kritik der Hegelschen Staatsphilosophie 1844, Marx mostly critizised Hegel’s Aufhebung and Versöhnung. Later on, his project became to reconstruct this political and political-philosophical critique of Hegel as a critique of political economy. Therefore, it would be right also to consider Marx as a Hegelian in this later period of his life after 1849, when he arrived as a political refugee to London. This is also what Marx remarks in his postscript to the second edition of Das Kapital (Marx 1970: 27f.). Marx comments on his method and claims that there must be made a distinction between the research (die Forschungsweise), in which the subject is taken in consideration, and the presentation (die Darstellungsweise), in which the topic is reconstructed as it has taken place. Die Darstellung, the presentation, means for Marx the same as how the subject can be developed in an idealized way which gives the impression that it could be a pure construction. One could say that it could give the impression of being a pure construction without relation to the reality in so far as it should present the essential (das Wesen) of the topic. In that sense, ‘die Darstellung’ could also be considered as a form of presentation and interpretation at the same time. Although Marx claims to be a materialist, he has such a style of presentation that it does remind us of a constructed model in the idealistic tradition of Plato and Hegel.

Marx’s Hegelian method

It is very essential to understand Marx’s Hegelian method, because it indicates that for Marx and for Hegel there are always two levels in the understanding of social phenomena. On the one hand, we have the surface, ‘die Erscheinung’; this is the empirical level, where the events happen. On the other hand, we have the understanding of the phenomena; this is the level where the essence, ‘das Wesen’, is expressed. As the third step, Hegel and Marx claim that it is only from the perspective of the essence, ‘das Wesen’, that we can understand the empirical level, where the events take place. According to Marx and Hegel, this was the meaning of dialectics.

It is exactly this phenomenological double perspective with the movement from Erscheinung to Wesen and from Wesen to Erscheinung, which is so strange for the American and English way of thinking, and is also the dominant perspective in modern liberal economy. However, it is this double perspective, which gives Marx the possibility to make a critical reconstruction of the political economy and present a new perspective on the relation between economy and society.

Marx’s project is to reconstruct the classical political economy

With this background we can discuss what Marx is concerned with in Das Kapital. Here we should remark on the subtitle of Das Kapital, which is Kritik der politichen Ökonomie – Marx wanted to criticize and reconstruct the political economy because it did not present what should be its essence, das Wesen. One could say that Marx wanted to write a new edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations. According to Marx, political economy had moved away from a scientific project to a political project that was only concerned with price and market, the surface, ‘die Erscheinung’, because it served to hide that the dominant economy’s ‘Wesen’, the workproces, was based on exploitation of the workforce, who produced value and surplus-value.

Marx did not finish his project; he did not finish the presentation of the total reproduction of the economic system. In that sense, we cannot say that Marx has presented a model for the total reproduction of the economic system. Marx edited only the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867. Friedrich Engels edited the next two volumes with support from Marx’s remaining manuscripts. Therefore, the question is what status can Marx’s theory have, when it is not finished in the same sense as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is a finished work?

The three edited volumes of Das Kapital, the collection of Marx’s preparatory work papers collected in Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Marx 196-?), combined with the rest of Marx’s work give a sufficient basis to understand Marx’s new theoretical contribution to the political economy. Marx presented the basic principles in a critical theory with a new perspective on political economy understood as the reproduction of what he called the capitalistic mode of production or the capitalistic economic system. Broadly speaking, it gives a new understanding of the basic principles in a capitalistic society. In that sense, Marx’s theory provides the basis for a sociological understanding of the relation between economy and society, and in a wider perspective for the interpretation of history.

The glorious and tragic days of Marxism have ended. Therefore, today Marx’s theory should be seen in line with other economic and sociological theories, and it should be seen as part of a hermeneutical work, which in the end determines the integration of the different possible scientific perspectives.

With this background, I would like to present some of the essential topics in Marx’s theory in Das Kapital and Grundrisse, which will be relevant for a discussion of Piketty’s Capital. I will concentrate on the first chapters of Das Kapital as it is here that we find the basis for all of Marx’s theoretical construction.

The concept of Capital – The constitution of das Kapital

It already becomes clear from the title page itself that Marx’s Das Kapital is a very special treatise. On the one hand, it is in fact very similar to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1955), and on the other hand, it is very different compared to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Piketty’s Capital. Therefore, it can be enlightening to compare it with these treatises.

Smith’s theme is the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, and chapter 1 begins immediately with a presentation of the division of labor as what has mostly improved the production of wealth (Smith 1981, I: 13 ff.). All the categories here and in the rest of the treatise refer to empirical matters. All of Smith’s categories have an empirical reference.

The same could be said about Piketty’s subject, which is equality and inequality with reference to the distribution of wealth.

Marx’s Introduction does not have this character. The title of the book, Das Kapital, is an abstraction and does not have an immediate empirical reference. The subtitle is Critique of the Political Economy. This means that the treatise is concerned with a critique and reconstruction of political economy as we know it from Smith and Ricardo. The subtitle of the first volume of Das Kapital is the Capital’s Production Process. The subject in Das Kapital is the capital. This is very strange in itself. How should capital be understood in a determined form? Normally we understand capital in quantitative terms, however, in Marx’s determination of das Kapital (Marx 1970: 12) we have to do with a concept. Capital is a conceptual abstraction, and it is the production and reproduction process of this subject, which is the topic of Das Kapital. This is also, what Marx emphasizes in the introduction to the first edition of Das Kapital in 1867 (Marx 1970: 11-17). In the postscript to the second edition from 1875, Marx comes back to the same theme concerning his method, which he designates as being the same as Hegel’s method, although turned around, because Marx claims that Hegel is an idealist, and Marx claims to be a materialist (Marx 1970: 27). I think that the two methods are very closely connected, and I find it difficult from a methodological perspective to see the difference between the beginnings of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s Das Kapital.

Marx’s development of the concept of capital

The first chapter of Das Kapital begins in the same abstract style with an analysis of the wealth in a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production, which presents itself as an amazing collection of commodities. The skeleton, ‘die Elementarform’, the basic element of such a society is the commodity. This is the reason why Marx begins his analysis with an analysis of the commodity.

In chapters 1-3, Marx develops all the basic concepts of work such as the production of the commodity, the use and exchange value of the commodity, the equal exchange of commodities, and the invention of money as the means of exchange of equal values.

I would especially like to emphasize chapter 1, section 4, where Marx introduces the fetish character of the commodity and it’s secret. In a commodity producing society, all social relations become hidden in the commodities, which are all a product of the work process. It is the commodities that seem to be the real actors in society (Marx 1970: 86). This is the beginning of the creation of the alienation in a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production.

In the third chapter, Marx describes how money becomes the general presentation of the circulation of commodities. There is a change from the form ‘commodity – money – commodity’ to the form ‘money – commodity – money’. In this way, money comes into the center of society and becomes an aim in itself.

In the fourth chapter, The Transformation of Money into Capital, Marx questions the addition of value when only equivalents are being exchanged all the time. Marx’s simple answer is that the workforce, ‘die Arbeitskraft’, is a commodity, which has the ability to produce more value, a surplus value or ‘Mehrwert’, than it costs to reproduce it.

Marx speaks about the transformation of money into capital, when the production takes the character of a production of surplus value, ‘Mehrwert’, and in that sense a production of Capital (Marx 1970: 180 ff.). Marx speaks about society as a capitalist society when the production of capital dominates society.

The term ‘capitalism’ is a technical term, a concept for a specific form for economy and society. The concept capitalism has its origin in the Late Latin word capitale derived from caput, meaning ‘head’, which is also the origin for chattel and cattle in the sense of moveable property. Capitale emerged in the 12th to 13th centuries in the sense of referring to funds, stock of merchandise, sum of money, or money carrying interest. In English language, the word capitalism is used since the 1850s as the determination of a specific form of society, in which capital and capitalist modes of production have a determined significance.

On the basis of the concept of capital, Marx’s project is to develop an all-encompassing description of the reproduction of a society dominated by the capitalistic mode of production. As mentioned, Marx did not finish this project. In this sense we could say that Marx did not succeed. However, this would not be a correct judgement, because Marx developed the base for a new understanding of economic significance in a modern society.

I will not go in detail with a further presentation of Das Kapital, but would only like present some of the consequences of Marx’s perspective. I speak here about the abstract theory in itself and not about the specific historical forms, which are determined by many other historical and social factors. In that sense, the abstract principle of capital does only indicate the determinate productive principle in a specific historical form of society.

Marx gives a totally new perspective on liberal economy

The essence is that Marx determines a new perspective on economy and society. Das Kapital, the capital, is a driving machine or subject, which aims to produce capital in an escalating intensity and quantum. This is also determined as accumulation of capital.

Das Kapital is a critique of the liberal market economy

Marx theory is a critique of political economy. The word ‘critique’ could be mystifying. Therefore, let me first express what I think critique means in this context. It primarily means to show what is inconsistent, hidden or suppressed in the understanding of a liberal market economy, and secondarily to present a reconstruction of a basis for another understanding of economy. In the liberal economic perspective, the economy does only mediate social relations; it does not produce social relations. The basic categories are therefore price, market and commodity. In this perspective, the economy is in itself a neutral mediator. In Marx’s perspective, it is different.

Das Kapital is the productive and destructive subject of society

In Marx’s perspective, das Kapital not only produces ‘Mehrwert’ and ‘Kapital’, or is not only an economic productive force. Das Kapital forms a society, its institutions and its social relations in a specific adequate way. In this context, the following topics can be emphasized:


Das Kapital has a tendency to create a commodification of all social relations and all human life.

Die groβe Profanierung – All pre-given norms are broken down and restructured in accordance with the new historical imperatives

All pre-given norms are broken down, because they are under pressure to be relativized and commoditized. This is ‘die groβe Profanierung’, this is the big profanation of the Holy and of all social norms. In The Communist Manifesto, it is stated in this way: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” (Marx 1968b: 529).

Die groβe Verschleierung – the big concealment

The big paradox in capitalism is that its consequences are ‘verschleiert’ or veiled. The astonishing thing is that this veil is constituted through the liberal market economy, in which all distinctions are ‘aufgehoben’, lifted up and abolished in the general equivalent, money, at the market. All social distinctions are relativized and hidden on the market. In the end, there is only the distinction more or less of the general equivalent, money.

The big illusion – the liberal market economy produces the big illusion about society

The liberal market economy creates or produces the big illusion about this same form of society, because the abolishment of all distinctions becomes a hindrance for critique. We are all equalized in the general equivalent, money. Therefore, there is no internal way from the liberal market economy to a critique of the specific formation of the social relations, because these distinctions are not inherent in the economic theory. The liberal market economy is constituted through an abstraction from the possible distinctions.

Summing up – Marx has presented a specific theory which can be applied on empirical work with economy and society

What I have presented are the basic principles in Marx’s critique of the political economy. As mentioned, Marx has developed a much broader and differentiated theory compared to, what has been presented here. However, in the end, what we have from Marx is a theory with a specific perspective on economy and society, making it possible to apply it in specific empirical work.

From Marx to Piketty – From Piketty back to Marx


Marx and Piketty on empirical work – What is the difference?

In this context, it could be interesting to question how empirical research would be different in a Marx perspective compared to a Piketty perspective. Let us imagine that Marx had conducted similar research as Piketty on the development of inequality in France the last 200 years. What would be different? I am not sure that the concrete research method would be different. Piketty has gone down to the sources and tried to give an answer to his question. The difference would lie in how the questions are posed. Piketty poses his questions inside the horizon of the liberal market economic theory and the neoclassical economic theory. He does not pose questions to or discuss this economic perspective. It is as if it were pre-given or impossible to fundamentally question it. Consequently, we do not move outside the framework of this economic perspective.

The practical results of Piketty’s research are not very significant compared to the enormous research he has done.

The taxation card is Piketty’s only solution to the huge problems created by growing inequality. However, Piketty does not really believe that it is possible to establish the necessary taxation system. Therefore, one could say that there is a lack of critical potential in his theory although he delivers amazing empirical material. The practical results of his research are not very impressive compared to the enormous research he undertook.

Marx’s perspective on empirical economic research

On the other hand, Marx has an incomparably stronger critical theory, which can help pose many interesting research questions and could be integrated in an empirical project.

In the end the dividing line between Piketty and Marx is the following. For Piketty, the liberal market economy is regarded in itself as a neutral system. For Marx, the problems of inequality observed by Piketty are an inherent consequence of capitalism. It could simply not be otherwise because a basic principle in capitalism according to Marx is capital accumulation and capital concentration. Piketty remarks that contingent historical events, the first and second world wars combined with a strong left wing policy, created the basis for diminished inequality in the period 1945-1975, and not fundamental changes in the liberal economic system.

In Marx’s perspective, it would also have been a good idea to change inequality through taxation. However, the interesting perspectives are the basic contradictions in the economic system itself, and whether these contradictions can find a practical solution is a political question.


Marx and Piketty – research perspectives and strategies

What to do in a world dominated by the liberal economic perspective?

A basic question would be how one should conduct research in economic oriented topics when most research resources are concentrated around the liberal economic perspective. The strategy could be to integrate research from the liberal economic perspective in a hermeneutical horizon, which is more influenced by critical theory. In this way, it would be possible to use the given empirical resources in another critical hermeneutical perspective in which an inherent critique of capitalism could be formulated.


Declaration of Man and the Citizen 1789

Bouvier, Jean; Furet, François; Gillet, Marcel (1965), Le mouvement du profit en France au XIXe siècle, Paris and La Haye, Mouton & Co

Hegel, G. W. F. (1955), Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1991), Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl (1968), Die Frühschriften. Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag.

Marx, Karl (1968a), Kritik der Hegelschen Staatsphilosophie 1841/42, in. Marx, Karl (1968), Die Frühschriften. Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag

Marx, Karl (1968b), Manifest der kommunistischen Partei, in: Karl Marx, Die Frühschriften. Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag.

Marx, Karl (1970), Das Kapital band I, MEW 23, Berlin, Dietz Verlag.

Marx, Karl (196-?), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Frankfurt, Europäische Verlagsanstalt.

Piketty, Thomas (1998), Les hauts revenus face aux modifications des taux marginaux supérieurs de l’impôt sur le revenu en France, 1970-1996, CNRS, URA928, numero 9812. [High-Income Taxpayers’ Reaction to Marginal Income Tax Rates Changes in France, 1970-1996].

Piketty, Thomas (2001), Les hauts revenus en France au 20e siècle: inégalités et redistribution, 1901-1998, Paris, B. Grasset.

Piketty, Thomas (2004), L’impact de la taille des classes et de la ségrégation sociale sur la réussite scolaire dans les écoles françaises: une estimation à partir du panel primaire 1997, EHESS, Paris-Jourdan.

Piketty, Thomas; Valdenaire, M. (2006) L’impact de la taille des classes sur la réussite scolaire dans les écoles, collèges et lycées français – Estimations à partir du panel primaire 1997 et du panel secondaire 1995, Ministère de l’éducation nationale, Paris.

Piketty, Thomas (2014), Capital in Twenty-First Century, Cambridge Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Rawls, John (1971), A Theory of Justice, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ricardo, David (1996), Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Amherst, Prometheus Press.

Smith, Adam (1981), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume I-II, First edition 1776, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund.

Weber, Max (1980), Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der Verstehenden Soziologie, 5. Rev. Aufl. Tübingen, Mohr.

“Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas” (Lysebu Conference Centre in Oslo, Norway, April 9th — 12th, 2015)

This special issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum contains select proceedings from the third meeting of the Nordic Summer University research circle called “Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas”, held April 9th — 12th, 2015 at the Lysebu Conference Centre in Oslo, Norway. The circle’s research program runs from 2014 to 2016 and is aimed at examining the concept of crisis as it is used today in academia and public discussion. In this collection of papers from the symposium we present some of the different ways in which the topic of the study group was addressed.

Continue reading “Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas” (Lysebu Conference Centre in Oslo, Norway, April 9th — 12th, 2015)

Jón Ólafsson (ed.), Lýðræðistilraunir. Ísland í hruni og endurreisn [Democratic experiments. Iceland in collapse and renaissance] (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2014)


The indications are that the costs are 44% of Iceland’s GDP, meaning that it is internationally the third costliest financial collapse ever (Luc Laeven og Fabian Valencia. 2013. Systemic Banking Crises Database. IMF Economic Review, 61, pp. 225-270). The series of events leading to the collapse and what has happened afterwards has had serious consequences for Icelandic society and government. The most obvious sign of these consequences is that trust levels within Icelandic society have declined. The banks enjoy least trust of all Icelandic institutions, as is to be expected, as only 10.2% of Icelanders said in October 2014, six years after the financial collapse, that they trust Icelandic banks (MMR Market and Media Research). Just 12.8% trust Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament, according to the same source.


One of the consequences of the financial collapse was that in 2009 the Icelandic republic had the first left-wing government in its history, i.e. since it was established in 1944. This government had to deal with all the most serious consequences of the financial collapse. On top of that, it tried to engineer changes to important Icelandic social institutions like the fishing quota system, which has been controversial since its inception in 1983, and the Icelandic constitution. The reasons behind the changes to the quota system were based on justice and fair allocation of natural resources. The reasons behind changing the constitution were not as clear, but it seems to me that the best construal of them is that the attempt to change the constitution was a confidence-building measure, an attempt to reconstruct the most important legal document of the republic´s legal system and secure general trust in governmental institutions. According to the same survey firm as referred to above, the legal system as a whole enjoyed the trust of 28.9% last November, but in November 2013 the same measurement was 38.1% and in October 2009 the trust in the legal system as a whole in Iceland was 36.5%. There is no reason to read too deep a meaning into these measurements, but they are some indication that the preparation, writing and rejection of the draft constitution have not affected public trust in the legal system. Some may think that we can infer from this that the whole affair surrounding the drafting of a new constitution was in vain. But this may be too hasty.


What actually happened in this process? First, there were public protests against the sitting government ending in its fall in early 2009. Second, after the general election in 2009, the first left-wing government in the history of the Icelandic republic was established. The prime minister of that government had long been of the opinion that the constitution needed revision. Third, some general meetings were arranged early in 2009, trying to find out which were the most important values of Icelanders. The government organised a similar meeting in early 2010 to figure out those values that should govern the revision of the constitution. Fourth, the government established a committee gathering data and evaluating various ideas about such a revision, thus preparing the work of a constitutional assembly. Fifth, the government decided that an assembly should be elected by the general public to write a new constitution or revise parts of the existing one. Sixth, the election to the constitutional assembly was declared null and void by the Icelandic Supreme Court after a legal challenge. The government decided then to establish a constitutional committee with the same mission and the same individuals as voted onto the assembly. Seventh, the constitutional committee delivered in four months a draft of a new constitution. This draft was never assented to twice by the majority parliament with a general election in between, as it must do according to the rules laid down by the present constitution.


This book is a collection of essays in Icelandic about this whole process and other democratic experiments in Iceland’s recent years. It is written by two Icelandic authors and six international authorities on democracy and democratic developments. Jón Ólafsson edits the book and writes an introduction describing the development of the constitutional project and other democratic experiments in Iceland. James Fishkin analyses some of the processes that took place in the constitutional preparation and the drafting of the new one, and he evaluates to what extent deliberation and rational discussion were features of them. His conclusion is that neither the general meetings nor the constitutional committee reflected the general population and we should be careful about drawing any conclusion about the views of the meetings and the committee coinciding with the views of the population as a whole. He is also critical of the lack of rational discussion both in the preparations and the drafting of the new constitution.


Hélène Landemore examines the process of preparing and writing a new constitution in Iceland from an epistemological point of view. She is interested in: how the constitutional committee dealt with the problem of writing a constitution; and how it used “crowdsourcing”, meaning the competence and the intelligence of the general public, especially in writing the draft of the new constitution. She is critical of the role of experts in writing and editing the draft of the new constitution; she believes that the process had serious drawbacks, as she thinks that the general public and its representatives are capable of writing a constitution upon the condition that as many as possible take part in the process. She believes that the current Icelandic method for establishing a change to the present constitution or adopting a new one is too restrictive. Tom Ginsburg and Zachary Elkins approach the preparations and process of writing the draft of the new Icelandic constitution from a comparative point of view. They review various views of transparency in such a process, as well as the role of experts. They are, like the other experts writing in this book, favourable to the opening up of the process for preparing and writing a constitution and the government process in general, but they realise that there is no simple solution or simple recipe for a constitutional process, in Iceland or anywhere else. Thus, they ask the difficult question: If the new constitution was the result of a grassroots movement, why was it so easy to stop it in parliament? Why were those parties that opposed the new constitution elected as the new parliamentary majority in 2013? There is no simple answer to that question and there are two appendices to their article that are informative and interesting.


Paolo Spade and Giovanni Allegretti write about novelties in democracy or new initiatives in democracy, especially participatory financial budgeting as practised in a number of Brazilian cities. They explore the connection between these new initiatives and the new possibilities that have opened up on the net. They realise that these connections are complex and they can easily become counterproductive from the point of view of participation, if not used carefully. Democratic experiments in other places are drawn into the discussion such as Portugal, Germany and the United States, and in Reykjavík, Iceland. This is not directly relevant to the process around the constitution but the discussion broadens the picture of new initiatives in democracy. The last article is by Kristinn Már Ársælsson and is an overview of democratic initiatives in Iceland in the years 2009-2013, i.e. the years of the first left-wing government of the Icelandic republic. These include the preparation and the writing of the draft constitution, plus two national referenda on the Icesave agreements between the Icelandic government and the British and Dutch governments. These referenda were engineered by the refusal of the Icelandic president to sign two laws supported by the majority of parliament. In both cases the general public voted against these laws. These were the first national referenda since 1944, when it was decided to establish a republic. He also discusses the initiatives taken by the city council in Reykjavík.


All these articles are interesting, make important points and throw light on the events that have taken place in Iceland in the last five years. This is of particular value for a small society like Iceland, because very few people outside the country can understand what happens here and why. Icelandic scientists are a part of their own society and sometimes find it difficult to analyse what actually happens. The critical distance of foreign scientists can bring benefits.


This distance has its drawbacks too. This is clear from the discussion of the constitutional process. There is no attempt to relate it to the political culture in Iceland. What is most interesting about this process, which elected a constitutional assembly from members of the general public, is also a major break with the Icelandic tradition of politicians and legal experts discussing and drafting changes to the constitution. Part of this tradition is that all the major parties have had to agree to the changes put forward. Even though this is not literally true of all the changes proposed, it is true of most of them. This has guaranteed that the changes proposed and consented to in parliament before it is resolved, are consented too unchanged in the newly elected parliament. This threshold to changes to the constitution has not proved to be serious or impossible in the Icelandic context. Changes have regularly been made to the Icelandic constitution. It is not fashionable nowadays to take Icelandic political culture seriously, since its vices rather than its virtues have been more prominent in recent years, but it seems to me that one of the reasons working against the new constitution was that there were serious political disagreements about it. Pushing it through parliament would have been a serious break with the national consensus tradition. You may not think very much of this tradition, but it is an historical fact; besides, traditions in political cultures have to be reckoned with.

Deweyan Democracy: The Epistemic Context

Dewey’s characterizations of democratic conduct show that he thinks of it as involving a give and take. One’s contribution (according to ability) creates a claim (according to need). The individual has duty to his or her community (or society) and society has corresponding duties toward him or her. The mutual dependence of individual and society is the dynamic that generates values. Intellectual freedom, cultural and intellectual diversity, growth and participation are examples of central values made possible by the democratic dynamic. Democracy for Dewey is thus primary: It is an ideal because of the conditions for value formation that it creates. Other values are then (or can be) derived from the democratic ideal.

It is in this complex sense that Deweyan democracy is a “way of life.” The claim is not that democracy is just one of many possible choices of a way to organize society or a way to live. It is in Dewey’s view the only possible framework for the ever-increasing intricacies of the modern world.

There are two ways to explore the conception of democracy sketched here. One is a thorough exegesis of Dewey’s works to investigate whether this characterization of his view makes sense – to check its correctness. Another is to look beyond Dewey and see whether the approach to democracy so inspired by his philosophy is a good approach to democratic theory, if the goal is to seek a useful justification of democracy. In this paper I am interested in doing the latter. In what follows I will attempt to show that “Deweyan democracy”—i.e. the idea of democracy as a way of life—offers interpretive possibilities that help understand how we can both have a substantive notion of democracy and put it in a justificatory framework where rejecting it is certainly possible, but fails to make sense unless, before rejecting it, one is prepared to accept it, in which case rejection, of course, does not make sense.



The democratic ideal—democracy as a way of life—looks like a moral concept. It has, obviously, a moral side to it in the sense of presenting a morally superior way of organizing social life (to use Deweyan vocabulary) to other available ways of doing so. But it is a mistake to overemphasize this moral side of the concept (although a frequently to be seen in comments on Dewey’s philosophy). The moral side in my view is less important than the epistemic side of Deweyan democracy. Democracy as a way of life provides the environment that protects and fosters science or, more generally, inquiry. The reason is proximity in method: In a democratic arrangement moral and political problems get a treatment similar or even analogous to what scientific method would dictate for inquiry. One must be careful not to take the analogy too far however. It does not mean that the method of science should be used to solve moral issues, but it is a recipe for moral cognitivism. Moral as well as political problems should be approached by reason and argument: Democracy is the intellectual environment that fosters reason and argument.

One should also follow Dewey in drawing a distinction between the idea of democracy and the manifestations of democracy (Dewey 1954, p. 143-144). The forms of power associated with democracy, such as representative government, majority rule, parliaments, elections etc. are no necessary features of democracy. Democracy is thus characterized by its ends rather than by the specific means that have traditionally been used to reach them.

Deweyan democracy has evoked considerable discussion in recent years. Many philosophers, who are generally sympathetic to Dewey, have been skeptical about his democratic theory and some have rejected it outright. Robert Talisse has argued that if democracy is a moral ideal it must be treated as other (possibly competing) ideals and values, from the point of view of value pluralism. Talisse correctly points out that from this perspective one cannot think of it as a shared or basic value, it would only amount to a moral value which could certainly be chosen or desired by any reasonable person, but could equally well be “reasonable rejected” by anyone adhering to different values (Talisse 2012, p. 109). For Talisse, Deweyan democracy fails the “pluralism test.” He argues that Deweyan democracy is simply one version of perfectionism because of the emphasis on human flourishing that it entails. In other words, if we read Deweyan democracy from the point of view of a Rawlsian conception of liberalism, the democratic ideal turns out to be just one more “comprehensive doctrine” which can never serve as a basis for a political organization acceptable to all reasonable persons (Talisse 2012, p. 112-114).

Matthew Festenstein points out—contra Talisse—that the notion of reasonable rejectability is not the kind of constraint that the pragmatist (i.e. the Deweyan) could accept. Since it only proposes a fixed standard to adopt or reject basic values it amounts to an a priori evaluation, which is not very useful from a pragmatist point of view. While Festenstein recognizes that one can reasonably reject the democratic ideal that, in his view, does not exclude it from being a possible “basis for the justification of state power.” It is difficult to see, however, what is gained by his result, since relativizing the democratic ideal does not remove Talisse’s objection, it only refocuses the difficulty (Festenstein 2010, p. 42).

Eric MacGilvray picks a useful element out of Deweyan democracy when he argues that it provides a kind of a test, similar to the pragmatic maxim, to determine whether one or another belief is fit for public discussion. It means that holding—and promoting—a belief about how to justify state power e.g., requires willingness to present it in experimental terms. The threshold for access to discussion about basic values for the social contract need in his view not be higher than that. If a belief can be tested and discussed experimentally—it would not have to be experimentally tested—and its meaning (conceivable consequences) for society can thus be assessed and discussed, there is no way to say that it is unfit for providing a justification of state power (MacGilvray 2004, p. 163-167; see also Festenstein 2010, p. 33). While MacGilvray provides a more interesting way of filtering issues fit for public (and political) discussion, his argument is no direct counterargument to Talisse’s. He carves out a role for Deweyan democracy, i.e. to offer a framework for determining the democratic meaningfulness of beliefs. While I think this is an interesting and in fact very useful and practical way of using the idea of Deweyan democracy, it limits it to a methodological tool.

Other authors such as Elizabeth Anderson have praised Dewey’s experimentalist account of democracy and yet other, such as Cheryl Misak, suggest that by using the more rigorous Peircean approach to inquiry as a model for understanding Deweyan democracy, one can exploit the inquiry/democracy analogy and apply methods of inquiry to the search for common solutions to social, political and even moral problems (Anderson 2006, p. 14-15; Misak 2000, see p. 45-47).


The question still remains whether and why Deweyan democracy should be chosen as an ideal, what kind of choice that would be, and what one has so chosen. I think this choice must be seen as a result of two related beliefs:

  1. Value articulation: The choice of democracy as a way of life implies accepting the claim that democracy is a necessary condition for articulating central activities, goods and values in community such as freedom and equality, education, public discussion, openness and opportunity.
  2. Opportunity creation: Democracy is a better way to create opportunities for inquiry, experimentation and in general solve problems using best available means and methods than other models of social organization.

If these beliefs can be sustained, one could see democracy as a prism through which certain values become articulated rather than itself a simple or core value. To reject democracy is therefore to refocus or rearrange social or moral values. If a democratic approach is not seen as basic, values such as the ones already mentioned, as well as many other central values of modern society such as pluralism, toleration and participation loose the meaning that democracy as a way of life gives them. Democracy thus should be chosen as “a way of life” in the sense of a principle of articulation and arrangement.

I depart from the authors I have mentioned in this paper since I want to show that the best argument for democracy comes neither from the independent standard that a Peircean model might create, nor from the experimentalist vision that it entails. The public action test does not per se provide an argument for democracy it only explains how we can make a useful distinction between issues that properly belong to public discussion and those that don’t. One might simply argue, of course, that there is no alternative. In a very practical way democracy is accepted as the only viable kind of social and political arrangement in modern society. The superficial acceptance of democracy does not mean that democracy is ideally practiced (or even practiced at all) in every case. It only reveals the dominance of the discourse of democracy.

There are however alternatives to democracy, some of them quite powerful. Sometimes these alternatives are presented as the necessary basis of democracy and there are social forces that promote them as necessary restrictions of democracy, since without certain restrictions democracy could lead to undesirable results.

As Bo Rothstein has shown, the correlation between democracy and good life is not always in democracy’s favor (Rothstein 2013, p. 15). Many surveys show it to be negative over a range of accepted indicators measuring quality of life. Good governance seems, on the other hand, to be strongly correlated to success in improving the lives of citizens, and increased democracy may lead to deterioration in governance. The alternative to democracy might thus be efficiency and justice in the design of institutions, as well as basic liberties that promote equality and individual freedom in accordance with liberal principles. It is clear in any case that if increased democracy is shown to go against improving the quality of life for citizens that indeed would deliver a strong argument against democracy.[1]

My contention is that by “choosing democracy” one is not choosing a particular method or procedure for a specific kind of decision-making but rather a general framework for public choice and deliberation. One could see such democratic commitment as a moral commitment. In such a case one would argue that the fairness of democratic approaches should commit one to them, even in cases when certain problems might seem better solved using a different approach. But the commitment is clearly epistemic as well: If there is an approach to problem solving best described as democratic to which one is committed, then one is also committed to the limitations of the approach. While Dewey seems not very keen on providing a moral justification for choosing democracy, he seriously attempts to provide an epistemic justification, i.e. argue that democracy will, in the long run, provide a better environment, better tools and on the whole better approaches to problem solving than other conceivable (or available) approaches.

From the Deweyan point of view the epistemic commitment must therefore be seen as prior to the moral commitment. It means that democracy should be seen as a way of dealing with and solving problems. It would not do to argue simply that democracy somehow ensures that the best methods are used or that solving problems democratically will always yield the best solutions. What it does mean is to take seriously the duty to seek not only solutions that can be had by majority decision or solutions that can be forged by negotiation and compromise but to seek the best solutions. If “real” democracy often (even most of the time) falls short of the democratic ideal, this does not make the idea of democracy any less clear. Quite the contrary, since it is the idea by which political decisions should be elucidated and criticized.



In the last part of the paper I want to sketch how I think that the idea of Deweyan democracy should be used to discuss and judge political and administrative practice. The objective is on the one hand to see how democratic practice falls short of an ideal of democracy (or not), on the other to provide a healthy angle of democratic criticism. Dewey’s emphasis on experimentation in connection with democracy, i.e. seeing democracy as the free exchange and discussion of ideas where the point is to have a generation and selection process based on making full use of “intelligence” is key to understanding this conception of democracy (Dewey 1985, p. 362). This means that in democracy as a way of life, individual contribution to decision and policy-making is matched with (conceivable) individual influence on decisions and policy.

In addition to the two basic democratic beliefs—that it is a framework for value articulation and opportunity creation—one should think of two central conditions of democracy:

  1. The efficiency condition: For each participating individual success does not necessarily entail being able to convince others of one’s point of view or being in the majority but on the efficiency of democratic process. Success is to be a part of a conclusion based on discussion, fact-finding, deliberation, debate and eventually (perhaps) voting that harvests the input of the participants.
  2. The integrity condition: A decision made, or policy adopted, must be a result of what has been democratically concluded. If the logical space of decision-making is different from the logical space of reason-giving, the procedure used is meaningless.

The efficiency condition deals with the ability of a group to come to a conclusion and the integrity condition with the relation between that conclusion and an eventual decision or action. Democratic failures may appear in both parts undermining either grounds for policies or legitimacy of decisions. The work of parliaments often evokes suspicion about the integrity of the democratic process when the connection between arguments and information revealed in deliberation and the eventual decision seems vague or absent; when positions are known in advance, more or less, and the debate carries only a symbolic function.

The give and take mentioned earlier need not be understood as individual willingness or commitment to participate in public debates or policy-making and therefore the efficiency condition does not depend on actual participation. Instead of seeking a standard to determine the content of public reason, one should seek a framework to connect participation and policy. The point should be access rather than inclusion, where the possibility of participating, not only in exercising free speech, but in actually providing input into policy, is at stake. The problem with participatory approaches taken by governments is often their reluctance to acknowledge the importance of public participation seeing it rather as a possible hurdle in successful governing. Therefore there is tendency to both limit the power of extra-institutional participation and place all kinds of security valves on the possible decisions to be reached by such extra-institutional participants. To illustrate this and at the same time probe the conditions of democracy and the basic democratic beliefs, I want to discuss four recent examples from Icelandic politics:

  1. National assemblies 2009 and 2010
  2. Annulment of the elections to the constitutional assembly 2011
  3. The first Icesave referendum 2011
  4. National referendum on the constitutional bill 2012

After the financial collapse in Iceland in 2008 there was considerable pressure on the government to use unorthodox methods to change the course in Icelandic politics and promote democracy. The first attempt to create a public voice in order to influence policy systematically was made by an independent group of people who formed an NGO called “The Anthill”. The Anthill organized a so-called National Assembly (Icel. Þjóðfundur) whose purpose was to articulate basic values and general policy goals for Icelandic society (Gunnar Hersveinn 2010). The National Assembly consisted of over one thousand people, a random sample from the general population, who were asked to participate in a meeting held in one day, 14 November 2009. The Anthill then planned to have the government accept the results of the assembly as guiding principles in the political renewal ahead.[2] Although it turned out to be problematic to simply adopt the results of the National Assembly and include them in the various tasks of the government, these results were taken seriously. The government adopted the methodology used in organizing National assemblies for public consultation regionally and nationally. In 2010 the Constitutional commission, whose task was to prepare for the Constitutional assembly, held a second National assembly elected in 2010 in order to revise or rewrite the Icelandic constitution.

There were several problems in the selection of participants for the National assemblies, which strictly speaking make it difficult to talk of participants as random samples of the population. Some other organizational problems have also reduced value of the results, but here I will focus on something else.

The task of the first National assembly was to articulate core values to guide governmental policy. The task of the second was to identify the core values to guide the revision of the constitution.[3] In both cases a number of general policy statements were also generated by participants to further identify policy goals. The problem with these results was their generality. The meetings neither provided priority rankings for goals nor any interpretation of value commitments and therefore policy-makers could hardly use them to plan policy. Therefore, even if the meetings were admirable exercises of public participation and engaged all kinds of people in thinking and talking about political issues—many had perhaps never been consulted except by occasional opinion polls—their overall usefulness was difficult to see. These meetings may have carried some meaning for participants who saw certain general value commitments articulated in a dramatic way as a result of the one-day meeting. They could however hardly have seen it as an opportunity for inquiry since the meeting was not deliberative. Its purpose was to express rather than critically engage the views of the participants. The assembly also fails both the efficiency and the integrity condition. The lack of systematic discussion created a gap between whatever was said during the meeting and the results published after the meeting. No problem was dealt with during the meeting and therefore nothing can be said about efficiency in doing so. Worse since the results were overly vague, it was difficult to see how the integrity condition could be fulfilled either. The relation between these results and eventual decision-making could not be spelled out. From the perspective of Deweyan democracy one could then say that the meetings were democratically meaningless, since while it allowed symbolic participation, it could not effect policy- or decision-making in any meaningful way.

Elections to the Constitutional assembly were held 25 November 2010. A large number of candidates ran for a place in the assembly – 525 competed for 25 seats. The elections were unusual in many ways. The government was criticized during and after the elections for many flaws in how the elections were conducted. There were certain problems with the design of the ballot, the ballot boxes, the voting booths and some of the procedures used. After the elections a group of citizens complained to the Supreme Court who then reviewed the elections and found it to be flawed in six respects. Although the flaws were technical and gave no reason to conclude that the elections had been rigged or the vote misrepresented, the Supreme court used its authority to annul the elections.

One might argue that a decision, made by a judicial body such as the Supreme Court, should not be evaluated in terms of democracy since it is based on the law and on judicial authority. It was clear however, that having pointed out certain flaws in the way the elections were conducted, the Supreme Court had a choice to annul or not annul the elections. Since the results were not in dispute, the Court had no democratic reason to annul, i.e. doing so did not serve to ensure that the democratic will of the electorate was protected, in fact the will of the voters was in this respect not considered to be the most important issue. The decision was thus undemocratic and one could even argue that it was anti-democratic, or, in other words, an attempt to put an end to a democratic process, rather than facilitate it.

From the point of view of Deweyan democracy one should argue that the Supreme Court had a duty to point out the flaws in the elections but also to base its decision on a commitment to serve democracy. As was later pointed out by critics of the decision, it is not in accordance with the rule of law that a judicial body may decide to annul a democratic election conducted legally, without significant failures and whose results clearly express the will of the electorate.[4] Here a commitment to democracy should have guided the Supreme Court. It is an epistemic commitment in the sense that the will of the people was known, it is also a moral commitment since serving democracy will then be seen as a more important value than technical perfection in the conduct of elections.

One of the bitterest issues debated in Iceland after the collapse of Iceland’s international banks, was the so-called Icesave case. Landsbankinn, one of the three big banks that collapsed in October 2008, had in 2007 started individual savings accounts in Britain and Holland that were quite lucrative for private savers. When Landsbankinn’s foreign operations were separated from its Icelandic operations and declared bankrupt, thousands of people lost their savings but were partially compensated by the British and Dutch governments in accordance with the European banking insurance policy. The British and the Dutch claimed that the Icelandic government was liable to pay the compensation and so they demanded to get back the amount paid to the individual savers. The Icelandic government to begin with accepted its responsibility and an agreement was negotiated. When the agreement was put to the parliament for ratification, a huge controversy ensued. Although the agreement was passed in the parliament it was clear that it created much anger among voters, who felt the Icelandic nation was being forced to pay debts created by irresponsible bank managers. The Icelandic president intervened by refusing to sign into law the bill on the agreement passed by the parliament, after having received petitions to do so from thousands of Icelandic citizens.

The Icelandic constitution stipulates that if the president refuses to sign a law, it must be put to a national referendum. As the referendum was being prepared, however, the government entered into new negotiations with the British and the Dutch. When the referendum on whether to accept the agreement passed by the parliament or reject it was conducted, the agreement was no longer relevant. It made therefore no difference whether the voters accepted or rejected the agreement since the government already had an offer that was clearly better for the Icelanders than the one they were voting on, even if not a formal signed offer or agreement. The referendum was therefore meaningless, and no democratic purpose in conducting it. One might argue that from some formalistic perspective it was unavoidable to conduct the referendum since it had already been scheduled. Parliament could however also have revoked the bill. The question here should be what would be more democratic to hold the referendum or abandon it. From the perspective of Deweyan democracy a referendum that fails to give a meaningful result—whatever the result—is not democratic. Other approaches might yield positions such as that holding the referendum is harmless; anyone who fails to see the point in participating could refrain from doing so, and so on. But it seems to me that if there is no problem–solving purpose in holding the referendum, and the whole point of doing it has become secondary, i.e. declaring support for (or opposition to) the government it has lost its democratic legitimacy. Whatever purpose there may be in participating (or not participating) it is different from the question being voted on.

Finally I want to discuss the national referendum on the constitutional bill submitted by the Constitutional Council.[5] The bill was submitted in the summer of 2011 and was meant to be passed before the end of the term in the spring of 2013. In October 2012 a consultatory referendum was held on the bill and at the same time participants were asked to express their view on six key questions on the content of the new constitution. While expressing support or opposition to the bill itself was relatively straightforward and yielded clear results (around two thirds were in favor of the bill, 50% of the electorate participated), the questions were vague and the results therefore begged the question. I will not go into detail in describing the various questions or the problems the evoked. It will suffice to take one example. One of the questions had to do with the national church. Iceland has not taken the step to separate the national church from the state. The current Icelandic constitution says that the state must “support and protect” the Evangelical Lutheran Church.[6] The question in the referendum was whether the voter thought that the new constitution should have a clause dealing with the national church. It did not ask what (if anything) the voter thought the constitution should say about the National church. Since (to many people’s surprise) the result was that the majority wanted there to be something on the church in the constitution, it was unclear how to interpret the will of the voters in that respect.

Again, from the point of view of some democratic theories this flaw in the referendum might not be taken to mean that it was undemocratic, but from a Deweyan perspective one would be able to conclude that since the result was democratically meaningless the referendum did not fulfill the epistemic conditions of democracy. The answer to the question made problem-solving more, rather than less, difficult, and the referendum therefore was meaningless for democratic problem solving.


Dewey’s discussion of democracy and the framework referred to as Deweyan democracy makes sense of a democratic commitment according to which we can assess democratic initiatives and results from an epistemic and moral point of view. The epistemic commitment is prior to the moral commitment since in many cases the moral commitment is a result of the epistemic commitment. Once democracy as a way of life is understood in this context, there is no need to fear that a democratic commitment amounts to committing oneself to a comprehensive doctrine such as an ideology or a religious belief. It is simply to make demands not only about democratic procedure, participation or deliberation but also in regard to the results of democratic decision- and policy-making.


Anderson, Elizabeth. “The Epistemology of Democracy.” Episteme (2006).

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, 1966.

—. Reconstruction in Philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

—. The Public and Its Problems. Athens: Swallow Press – Ohio University Press, 1954.

Festenstein, Matthew. “Pragmatism, Inquiry and Political Liberalism.” Contemporary Political Theory 9.1 (2010): 25–44.

MacGilvray, Eric A. Reconstructing Public Reason. Harvard University Press, 2004.

Misak, Cheryl J. Truth, Politics, Morality. Routledge, 2000.

Talisse, Robert B. “Can Democracy Be a Way of Life? Deweyan Democracy and the Problem of Pluralism.” Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society XXXIX.1-21 (2003).

—. Pluralism and Liberal Politics. New York: Routledge, 2012.


1 The terms democracy and governance are sometimes conflated. In his introduction to a collection of papers on democracy, Giorgio Agamben maintains that “the word democracy is used in most cases to refer to a technique of governing” (Agamben 2011, p. 1). While it is probably true that the term democracy is often used inaccurately, the distinction between governance and democracy is quite clear. Agamben probably overstates the confusion. There is however a tendency to describe administrative restrictions of democracy as part of a democratic framework.

2 The website created for the 2009 National assembly only has information in Icelandic. See thjodfundur2009.is. In the Q and A section of the page it is stated that the goal of the assembly is to create “a strong common vision” for the nation which will help “solve difficult and complicated problems”. In another section the intention to present them to the government with, as well as to institutions and associations whose role it will be to contribute to the recovery of the country after the crisis.

3 The National assembly (also referred to as National forum and National gathering) is described on its website, also available in English. See http://www.thjodfundur2010.is/english/ n.d.)

4 Reynir Axelsson, Athugasemdir við ákvörðun Hæstaréttar um ógildingu kosningar til stjórnlagaþings. Published 23 February 2011 at stjornarskrarfelagid.is.

5 The Constitutional Council was appointed by parliament after the nullification of the elections to the Constitutional Assembly. All 25 elected Assembly members were appointed except on who decided not to participate in the appointed body.

6 Constitution of the Republic of Iceland, Article 62. See: http://www.government.is/constitution/.

Mammonist Capitalism – Ubiquity, Immanence, Acceleration. And the Social Consequences


In this paper, I will elaborate on a conceptual sketch of nothing less than contemporary capitalism, whether we call it new capitalism, finance capitalism, flexible capitalism, or rentier capitalism, and some of its social and human consequences.


It is a bold undertaking. I put together concepts from both classical and contemporary social theory in order to develop images and conceptions of capitalism and what it does to society. I understand concepts as ”means of orientation”, as Weber (1988a, 536) defined his ideal types. Claims are on the one hand experimental or essayistic – an attempt, an outline that tries to approch this thing capitalism from different angles without enclosing it. I also will use the hyperbole – stretching descriptions, using generalizations. Brief, a reflection, an essay, certainly not founded on extensive research but on interest and extensions of other things I did. Hopefully, thus, the presentation will be a point of departure for an interesting discussion.


Some key concepts will be Mammonism, acceleration, ubiquity, self-dynamics, precariat, inertia, conformity, flexibility, specter of uselessness.


Among others, I will refer to classical modern thinkers like Marx, Simmel, Musil, Benjamin, and to contemporary ideas in the works of Deleuze, Rosa, Crouch, Illouz, Standing, Hochschild.







In his famous short essay on ”capitalism as religion”, Benjamin called capitalism a ”cult”, if not the cult, of modern culture. We all belong to it, and for all the differentiations it leads to, it also means a belonging – to which we cannot say no. Capitalism saturates and structures society and mentalities. It provides life with meaning – or it substitutes meaning for capitalist values and objectives. Capitalism also is the object of worship, the profit being its core ”ornament”.


Weber did not conceive of capitalism as a religion, not even a ”secular religion” (Voegelin 1993). But this prime manifestation of rationality, of the processes of rationalization which run through history and shape it, had one of its origins in religion – that is, in a most irrational phenomenon, if we limit rationalization to instrumental or goal-oriented rationalization.


Simmel talked less of capitalism and more of money – what we do with money and what money does to us. Money is an awesome instrument with which you may destroy and construct anything – ”creative destruction” in Schumpeter’s (1942) words.


But money emancipated itself from the mere function of an instrument a long time ago. It regulates life, it deprives everything of its inner value and attach to it an alien, quantitative value and so reduces everything to one and the same level. On the marketplace, everthing becomes a commodity, whether we talk of material goods, services, thoughts, bodies, competences, subjectivities. And money, according to Simmel (1999, 17), emerges as divinity: the Mammonism of modern, capitalist society.


Religion, says philosopher Hermann Lübbe (1975, 177), is first and foremost a ”praxis of coping with contingency”. Obviously, this would be a core definition of capitalism as well. Not the invalidation of contingency, but its optimal exploitation.







Capitalism and money replace society, community, religion. And they replace or at least define time. ”Time is money”, Benjamin Franklin wrote – a modern, quantifiable answer to that eternal question what is time. And inversely: ”money is time”, writes Samuel Weber (2009).


Time, especially when expressed through speed and acceleration, is a core element in contemporary capitalism, whether we talk of the productive or the non-productive, financial capitalism.


Trade with shares and other sophisticated, esoteric securities – funny label – are chiefly made by computers. Algorithms are the core component in selling and buying – not human decisions. The quicker the reactions, the more likely the profit; the closer the location of the computer to the main servers, the more milliseconds to gain. Average time of retaining shares has imploded to less than half a minute. (Who, then, is the owner of companies? Who is responsible for their business?) Wall Street rather employs mathematicians than financial analysts. Time is money. And the more resources, the more time to gain.


Since the financial crisis some five years ago, a financial crisis largely provoked by computers and algorithms, a number of studies have been made on this ”doomsday machine” (Lewis 2011), this ”monster” (Hudson 2010), which is financial capitalism. Frank Schirrmacher (2013) talks of the financial markets as a ”cyberwar” where players are predominantly machines and man himself has become an egoistic, narcissist machine nourished by self-interest, anxiety, distrust (bellum omnium contra omnes – also a core characteristic of Tönnies’ Gesellschaft). To understand this reality, a mere rational choice theory would do. In fact, Schirrmacher says, the influence of rational choice theories and of game theories have brought forward this new anthropological form which we call homo economicus. They are, like any other theory, especially economic theories, performative, are, in the words of Donald MacKenzie (2006, ), ”engines”, not ”cameras”. However, they change not just man, but the entire world: the world as ”arithmetical problem” (Simmel 1989, 612).


(Man becoming a machine…: he is attracted to machines since he resembles them, envies them, worships them – the machine as fetish. And: machines invade him, literally – drugs regulate his moods, communication devices govern his attention, channel his thoughts.)


German sociologist Hartmut Rosa (2003, 2006) talks of that ”acceleration” which is characteristic of a global and globalizing ”high-speed society”. Acceleration defines virtually all segments of society, but emerges as most significant in and through technology. Technology in turn, especially information and communication technology, penetrates and saturates social structures and individual lifeworlds – and occasionally invades or replaces subjectivity, ”the human factor”. Identity, Rosa says, becomes ”situative”, and actions are characterized by ”reactive situativity”. Brief, identity defined in subsequent situations and moments, actions being immediate responses to situations; identity, action and situation as elements of an immanent game without past and future.


Some variations of Rosa’s elaboration would be:


In his discussion on flexible capitalism, Richard Sennett (1998) portrays a fragmented, ”corroded” social character, by nature slow, now facing swift, permanent, uncontrolled and uncontrollable technological and organizational transformation that shapes a life in ”episodes”.


Philosopher Odo Marquard (1987, 126) side immediately with Rosa. Modernity is not merely permanent transformation, but permanently ”accelerated transformation”; accordingly the ”rate of obsolescence” increases. Acceleration has become the ”usance of modernity”, a modern commonplace.


Korean media theorist Han (2012), in turn, talks of ”hyperacceleration”: productivity and communication occur far beyond their ‘own’, ‘original’ goals and consist of ”hyper-productivity” and ”hyper-communication”. On an ordinary human level, uncontrolled behaviour in the form of ”hyper-activity” is a common characteristic. We may receive medical treatment for that. What about society?


Acceleration appears as a modern, contemporary category. Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1978, 402) conceived of it as ideal and ideology too as he talked of the ”accelerism” which characterized especially economic life. An ideology that promotes oblivion and undermines memory, cultural as well as individual.


Back in 1848, Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto stated that modernity turns everything that used to be solid into air.







Does acceleration move in a linear direction, does it mean progress? If we mean technological, logistical progress – obviously. With regard to other aspects of life – not necessarily. With regard to some issues, for instance climate – no.


Contemporary society and capitalism take place in what appears as an eternal present. Bauman and others have varied this fundamentally aesthetic view. Activities lack collective direction. They lack origin. They occur, they happen, the entire society is in permanent movement, a mobile society where social and economic and financial mobility is praised. An endless process of trial and error, an eternal and changing loop, a ”blind flight”, as Norbert Bolz (2005) writes.


Time not as linear, not as evolution and not as cycles, but in the shape of a expanding and contracting ”sphere”. (Bernd Alois Zimmermann) A sphere that contains, that consists of, that expresses emergences and disappearences, immense manifoldness and multiple movements. A sphere constituted by the simultaneousness of differences and of differerent times. (Cf. Koselleck [1992, 323ff] and Blumenberg [1986, 249]: Gleichzeitigkeit des Unglichzeitigen.) A temporal expression of Durkheim’s anomie.


Ivor Southwood (2011) discusses this state of contemporary capitalism with regards to individuals on the job market. The individual is constantly on the move. Navigating in a world of ”unknown unknowns” (Rumsfeld), he or she is working (at best) and simultaneously working for labour (more job, other job, securing job).  It’s a 24/7 activity, a hyper-activity – a ”non-stop inertia”, Southwood writes, a furious standstill, in the words of Paul Virilio (1999) a ”polar inertia” (cf. Rosa). Immobility is for those socially excluded only.


Individuals on the flexible labour market have to achieve this and that simultaneously, have to be proactive, to be able to ”let go”, have to live ”on the edge” (Sennett 1998). And capitalism and its transforming logics are present everywhere, all the time – un unstoppable chain reaction of the same and of differentiations. The ubiquity of capitalism.




Sovereignty, autonomy, self-sufficiency



Capitalism emerges as the perhaps most viable institution in world history. No institution has changed society that much, no institution has proven so able to adapt to new circumstances (those circumstances that capitalism itself brings forth). The entire classical sociology agreed on this. And was itself a response to the transformation which capitalism generated.


Classical sociology observed how capitalism was not merely an instrument in the hands of capitalists, but a force in itself, instrumentalizing the capitalists, for whom only the exploitation of the workers remained.


Simmel (1996) developed the dual notion of ”objective culture” and ”subjective culture”. Man created money, machines, laws etcetera in order to regulate and facilitate life. Yet money and machines tended to emancipate themselves from their creators. They developed a life on their own, manifested a self-dynamics, gained autonomy and sovereignty. Man was subordinated under his own creations – ”isolated”, ”alienated” (1996, 405). Simmel spoke of ”the tragedy of culture”.


After Simmel, who might not have been first, we have seen many conceptual variations of this theme. Simultaneously, experiences of the self-dynamics of institutions grow.


The most suggestive expression today might be the banking system. Banks are absolutely necessary and relevant for the system, we are told. Without them, the system fails – society, economy, family…


The financial and economic crisis in 2008 meant not the collaps of banks (except for the very worst), but their momentum. Colin Crouch (2011) speaks of their survival and in general of the ”strange non-death of neo-liberalism”. Banks and global enterprises under neo-liberalism are less interested in free markets and more in dominance and support. And in that very ideology which tells us they are necessary. It is an ideology that makes it possible to exploit states and tax payers and borrowers. Banks embrace states, states embrace banks – which in turn generate ever larger profits (the states taking the losses). Banks are at the heart of that financial capitalism which is non-productive.


Politics grant bad banks financial support. Power and responsibility are separated: banks make profits, tax-payers take the losses, there are the fortunate ones and those plagued with misfortune. Protests have been occasionally fervent, bu no cause for alarm. Foucault (2003) might explain. He writes about the nature of sovereign power: it is not essentially brought forward from above, but from below, by the subordinated, those who fear for their lives, their well-being. They manifest a ”radical will to life” just as the child does to its mother.


Money (banks, financial or rentier capitalism): ”a creative, specialised manifestation of violence”, Musil (1978, 508) wrote, emancipated from society, community, those 99 per cent of the individuals.


And too big to fail. There is no alternative – TINA. An insult to reason, to imagination.




Precarious life



A new social class is emerging, writes Guy Standing (2011): the precariat. It is described also by for instance Richard Sennett, Arlie Russel Hochschild, Saskia Sassen and Barbara Ehrenreich.


The precariat is swelling, differentiated and universal. It is populated by people coming from the dwindling middle class, from the working class and from the remainder – ”the outer class”, which Bill Clinton spoke of, Lumpenproletariat in Marx’ vocabulary, in the Weimar Republic the Luftmenschen, scattered characters living from this and that. It consists of people who have jobs and who may have lost them soon, and of people who have no jobs and weak prospects. Of the internship generation and the post-crash generation. Of the digital bohemians. Of people who are haunted by what Sennett (2005) calls ”the specter of uselessness”. Of people in permanent suspense. Of people accustomed to continuous availability and persistent debt (study loans, mortgages). They find themselves responsible for their own life but have insufficient means to govern this life.


Competition is sleepless and restless, fierce and global, right down to the simplest business. (On competition as permanent state, see Simmel 1995 and Rosa 2006.) Decisions about existing and potential positions are taken elsewhere. Labour hiring companies, providers of HR solutions are the specialists in managing that contingency which is flexibility (they may have peculiar names, for instance CoCo Job Touristik GmbH). They manifest contemporary labour life as ”space of flows” (Castells 2000) or it’s ”non-place” character (Augé 1995): work disembodied from local and geographical context and meaning and rather a matter of functional, contingent networks (shopping malls, internet retailers).


Precarious people have but insufficient means to master flexibility’s permanent instability. The salariat, in turn, the well-paid managers, professors and government officers, lives off flexibility and knows how to manage their lives and hearts; they also manage the precariat and its hearts, its habits. The elite, the upper one per cent, the oligarchs, is emancipated from social realities. Their conspicuous wealth is created out of wealth and smartness. Reality is abstracted and emerges as investment options.


”Rage” is growing, writes Peter Sloterdijk (2009). It grows with uncertainty, with increased ”unknown unknowns”. It may or it may not have obvious reasons, but the potential is massive. Spain and Greece, London and Paris have seen rage in different forms, some emptied of all meaning and legitimacy, but most expressing protest or despair of citizens threatened to become ”denizens” (Standing 2011).


The Occupy movement exists no more, but the context that brought it forth has changed little.


Where is the tipping point? Is there a tipping point?




Human optimization



A century ago, Max Weber (1998b, 521) described modern man as ”not an integrated human being but a combination of singular useful and functional qualities”.


His description easily fits as ideal and ideology today. Optimization is required everywhere – swift, complete, compliant, life-long, reactive, proactive optimization. (Makropoulos 2002) And possibly happy – ”smile or die” is our recurrent daily ultimatum, writes Ehrenreich (2010).


Optimization concerns individuals, concerns organizations, concerns markets, concerns societies (which turn in to markets). The functional, adaptive, compatible network is the general form. Man, organization, market, society and further products and consumers constitute unimpaired continua.


Niklas Luhmann (197) writes about what he calls the most significant social quality or competence today: ”connectivity”. We relentlessly re-apply for jobs, demonstrating our employability and our compatibility (to men and to machines); we persistently re-apply for social roles, adapt to social settings, using our ”radar” (Riesman 1950).


Gilles Deleuze (1990) develops the image of the dividual: a contemporary human form divided into different parts, functions, segments and optimized for different roles and settings. For multi-tasking. The disciplinary individual, of which Foucault talked, was a specialized, discontinuous producer whereas the dividual is ”undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network”. Contemporary man prefers ”surfing” rather than isolated, specialized sports, writes Deleuze (1990, 244).


No project is forever; any time is the time to move on.


To be undulatory, to adapt – to be conform. The large majority stay there. Some reside at the front edge of conformity. They are not the avantgarde, just hyper-active, hyper-functional, being the fittest and possessing the strongest impulses for survival. Those who are up for a career must be cunning cutting-edge conformists.


One indispensable quality in the optimization of individuals regards the competence to control and deploy emotions in the presentation of self and the management of impressions of the other. Eva Illouz (2007) and Arlie Hochschild (2011, 1983) discuss how emotions have become not merely elements in consumption and marketing, but a force of production to the extent that we may talk of capitalism as emotional capitalism, as capitalist emotionalization, especially in the service industry. Emotions become technically reproducible, varied, enhanced (Benjamin); they are no longer the adversary of reason and rationality, but their manifestation in the age of technology. Just as there are social and economic forms of capital, there is emotional capital, which may be individual or organizational. Emotional capitalism, capitalist emotionalization: manifestations of the collapse of the frontiers between private and public (labour life), manifestations of intimacy as means of optimization.


The classical modern assembly line produced material goods. It manifested standardization, routines, repetition, fragmentation, simplicity, and looked just about the same in Detroit, in Stalin’s factories and in the handbooks of the management schools.


A century later, an assembly line 2.0 has appeared, populated by the well-educated and continuously upgraded information engineers, project coordinators, symbolic analysts, and communicators, and below them the simple office executors. They are all functionaries absorbed in abstract processes and systems. Expected and actual results are blurred and replaced by evaluations. Informality (Informalism) is natural. Each and everyone has to be reachable anytime, everyone is armed with smartphone and laptop. Everything is temporary and everything that has been done can be, ought to be, will be made undone. The new assembly line: information processing and partial implementations, imperfection, dependence and ambiguous origins and goals, all of it ”lean”, naturally. Marx would have recognized it all: the executors of ”virtualism” (Crawford 2009) constitute a progressive derivative of the alienated working class.




Democracy, post-democracy, society, post-society…



At the end of these sweeping, uncompromising conceptual generalizations – a few questions.


How will society be possible when characterized, constituted by accelerism and fierce, increasing competition (individual, organizational, national)?


How will vast unemployment, insecure labour markets, and generational cleavages affect solidarity?


What are the alternatives when markets invade and replace politics and the public sphere?


What are the possibilities of civil society? (Perhaps a question most interesting in societies where previously a strong welfare state had marginalized civil society, and now neo-liberalism assumes this dominating role. I think of Sweden, for instance.)


How may individual lives hold together when torn to pieces by availability, employability, competition, flexibility? Relations, families?


What do political alternatives, alternative politics look like when established parties, from leftist to conservative parties, all embrace privatization, deregulation and new public management as both ideology and practical solution? When politics emancipate itself from responsibility and transfer it to enterprises and consultancies – none of which can be accused for having anything to do with democracy? Or when decision making actually becomes so complex that outlines of future societies are impossible?


What is, accordingly, the meaning of democracy, when alternatives are blurred, power diffused and responsibilities outsourced? What’s there to vote for? Are we entering a ”post-democratic” society? (Crouch 2004) What would be new forms of democracy – forms which would attract the interest of the 99 per cent.





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A reply to the reviewer of “Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica”

As it is written in the foreword, what the book offers is, immediately, an overview on the current status of the moral and political philosophical debate (each chapter is a sort of piece of this mosaic). But reading deeply the book is possible to find, as is normal, a fil rouge, a background thesis, that runs through all the chapters: an attempt to define in a critical way the moral and political framework of the current society, trying to delineate alternatives in the way in which we intend our aggregative forms – especially starting from the idea and the practice of democracy, nowadays reduced into formal mechanisms –, and possible escape lines.


As for the quoted authors, as ever happens in the essays, I made a selection – it’s strange having to specifying this. And so, I chose the authors that, for me, are fundamentals and those that are secondary, in the economy of my speech, deepening the first – and the same with the arguments, some are main themes same are collateral analyses for me. And so, I criticized the authors with which I disagree, specifying why – without obscure them from the philosophical scene, for their impact on that –, and I used quotations with which agree, specifying the source – for not assign to me those ideas – but declining them in the economy of my personal speech. And about some mentioned contents of my discourse, I would like to clarify in short at least two important issues. First, Arendt and Jonas sit well together for me because in Arendt is possible to find an indirect but very cogent critique to the naive and dangerous stances of Jonas: the sacralization of biological life, the mythologizing and the normative use of the nature, is at the ground of the Nazi ideology, as Arendt shows speaking about the modern triumph of the anthropological figure of the animal laborans, emblematically represented by Eichmann. Second, to affirm that the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is universal, modern and Western, is not a disclaimer of its advancements – why should it be so is not clear for me – but is a reasoning on another level than that of the socio-political decisions: that of the conceptual background of our society – that contains also its advancements. This critical view is extremely important because permit us to intend our society – and its advancements – not as the only one possible society – like for example in the Eurocentrism or now, we can say, in the “Westerncentrism” – but as a possible society; avoiding so also the theoretical “Westerncentrism” that is given in the reading of authors that are not modern and/or Western with the eyes of a modern and Western person – e.g. the sui generis Popperian reading of Plato, Hegel and Marx.


For me too the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography, it is a pity that the publisher has not made, however, as is written in the premise, the footnotes are enriched with the necessary bibliographic details.

Axel Honneth: The law of freedom – Institutionalization of freedom in modern societies – A reconstruction and some remarks



Introduction: A theory of institutionalization of freedom

I understand Honneth’s book Das Recht der Freiheit (Suhrkamp 2011) as an argument for human freedom and autonomy in modern society that is based on a normative interpretation of legal, moral and social institutionalization of freedom in modern societies. In this sense Honneth’s book represents a re-interpretation and application of G.W.F Hegel’s concept of Freiheit als Sittlichkeit der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. I would argue that the central theme of the book is the description of processes of institutionalization that lead to the emergence of freedom as the most important legal, moral and social value of the modern society.


The book begins with a presentation of Honneth’s method that can be characterized as a kind of normative sociology or sociological philosophy in the sense that he characterizes theory of justice as analysis of society. The method is based on “normative reconstruction” of the basis of the social institutions of liberal democracy. Here we can say that the starting point is closer to the later Habermas’ idea of facticity and validity and to the later Rawls’ idea of overlapping consensus than it is to the more idealist and metaphysical positions proposed by these authors in their early works (p. 21). Honneth describes the prevailing norms of justice and morality of freedom in liberal democracies of the Western world with Hegel’s philosophy of rights as points of inspiration. Normative reconstruction also means reconstruction of the legal and moral legitimacy of the institutions of liberal democracy. Normative reconstruction leads to an analysis of the social reality of liberal democracies. The idea is to describe the institutionalized conditions of normativity. The premises for this are: 1) Social reproduction of a society is determined by the shared universal values of such a society; 2) Justice cannot be understood independently of these generally shared values and ideals; 3) The plurality of these values and ideas can be found in the social practices of this society that must be distilled out of the society; 4) This leads to the understanding of the Sittlichen institutions and practices of this society (p. 30). This concept of justice is to be considered as a post-traditional concept of Sittlichkeit in society.


Honneth begins by considering the historical conditions of the emergence of the values and ideals of justice of modern society (p. 35). Important for the emergence of modern society is the idea of individual autonomy and authenticity as the meaning of life. Individual freedom has replaced collective conceptions of the good. Honneth sees the focus on autonomy and self-determination as essential to modernity. In particular we can speak about a negative, a reflective and a social conception of freedom that express a differentiation of the concept due to the complexity of modern society. Negative freedom is linked to the philosophy of the social contract coming from Hobbes. But we also find this concept of negative freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and finally in Nozick’s his philosophy of the social contract. Honneth argues that this concept is not enough to constitute the goals for the subject, because something must be presupposed. Therefore the reflective and the social conception of freedom become important. The reflective concept implies that the free individual can determine rationally his or her actions. This is based on a distinction between heteronymous and autonomic action. Rousseau and Kant are representatives of this conception. Autonomy and self-realization according to the idea of rationality are important dimensions of this concept, which forgets however the institutional dimension of freedom that we find in the social concept of freedom. This concept of freedom goes beyond the individual concepts of freedom in Habermas and Apel and goes back to the concept of freedom in Hegel’s philosophy of right. Mutual recognition in social institutions is an important part of this idea of freedom (p. 85). This is what Hegel calls the mutual institutions of mutual recognition. In this context, the central aspect of Honneth’s argument is Hegel’s concept of recognition of freedom as essential to the institutions of liberty in the modern society that are realized not only in the state, but also in the market and in civil society. Honneth gives a detailed account of the concepts of recognition and institutions at the basis of Hegel’s concept of law and justice as emerging as a part of the social institutions of the “Sittlichkeit of society” (p. 85-118).


On the basis of this discussion of Hegel, Honneth is able to present his own conception of “democratic Sittlichkeit” as essential to the institutions of freedom in modern liberal societies (p. 199) . Here Honneth understands his theory of democratic freedom as a theory of the legitimacy of the social order. He researches into the institutionalizations of values and conceptions of justice in liberal democracies where the value of freedom and equality through recognition become integrated in the institutional spheres of action in society. In this sense the idea of freedom is essential to justice and we can use this concept of universal freedom and recognition as a defense for correction of social pathologies and deviances in relation to the generally accepted normative ideas of freedom and justice. In this, through the research on the conditions for freedom and justice, the normative ideas of the democratic Sittlichkeit are explained.


On this basis Honneth discusses the possibility of freedom (p. 129) in relation to law and ethics. He begins with the presentation of the concept of legal freedom. This freedom is the condition of collective autonomy in civil society’s cooperation and also for democratic decision-making based on collective autonomy. The ethical idea of legal freedom is the effort to ensure private autonomy. In this sense legal freedom is understood as individual freedom. Honneth defines legal freedom on the basis of Hegel’s concept of personal rights (p. 134). Hegel proposed a system of positive rights in modernity. With Hannah Arendt we can refer to legal personhood as “protective mask” of the individual. The law of freedom implies this development of the legal rights of the subject. Subjective and negative rights are essential for the freedom of individual action, as suggested by Mill in his defense of the rights of belief, opinion and freedom of expression. This category of subjective rights includes rights of freedom and of participatory rights as the foundation of democratic communication and decision-making. However, it is also a limit to this idea of freedom that it is built on private autonomy and rights defined by its negative character. It is true that the law shall protect personal autonomy and freedom, but this is not enough – behind this lies the development of a society built on communal practices and cooperation in civil society (p. 156). 


Indeed, Honneth is well aware of the social pathologies of legal freedom in modern society. Social pathology is defined as something that emerges when people don’t understand the meaning of social norms of freedom and law and here we can speak about social pathologies. These pathologies can be people who misuse the system and ignore the rationality of subjective rights. They use the law to promote their own interest. This happens for example in the increasing tendency of legalization of the human life world and of life communities. This dynamics of the social pathology can for example be found in the movie with Dustin Hoffman Kramer vs. Kramer, where a divorce ends in a bitter fight about the custody of the child in court. The pathology is that the life world is ignored and the legalization of human affairs becomes an end in itself and we experience alienation and misunderstanding of the significance of moral freedom (p. 172).


Honneth describes the institutionalization of moral freedom in modern society as closely related to the institutionalization of legal freedom. Originally morality was the regulation of desire and a sort of rationalization of life in nature. Morality can be said to constitute the intersubjective limitations on actions. Moral autonomy comes from the idea of self-determination, as discussed in Rousseau and Kant. The Kantian idea of moral freedom is built on the concept of moral autonomy. This implies that human beings should strive to be moral persons and valued by others as moral persons. Respect and recognition of human dignity in the social life world is an essential dimension of this concept of morality (p. 181). To have dignity is not only due to intrinsic dignity as being created in the image of God, but indeed also a social dignity to which the individual him- or herself is important. Dignity can be defined as linked to the moral self-definition and self- creation of individuals with good moral identity. Kirstine Korsgaard has in this context defined the Kantian approach as an approach to the building and construction of one’s own practical identity. What are important are not only the categorical imperatives but indeed also the practical identity of the subject. To have a moral identity is to have a moral aim with your own life where you take responsibility for your own humanity. Self-legislation and moral autonomy in the Kantian sense means to take responsibility for your own life as the moral self-legislator of your life.


Habermas contributes to this discussion by emphasizing the importance of the moral socialization process. Legal freedom is interpreted through social freedom. Here we have the institutionalization of moral freedom in modern societies. We can refer to a cultural idea of moral in post-traditional societies where the cultural institutionalization of freedom is a part of this institutionalization of recognition. This process is a communicative and dialogical process where there is an on-going public discussion about conceptions of dignity and appropriate intersubjective moral norms in civil society.


Like his description of the legal social pathologies Honneth also describes the social pathologies of morality. Here we can observe a focus on personal absolute morality in contrast to intersubjective norms. The pathologies of morality could for example be the moralism of personal autonomy, where the duty to follow a certain kind of universalism means that the individual fails to take into account the social context (p. 209). This kind of focus on personal autonomy leads to rigid morals where the moral conception can lead to personal moral self-destruction. This is for example described in the novels of Henry James where the will to do good is in danger of leading to self-destruction (p. 212). Here personal autonomy leads to bad moralism and ignorance of social conditions of recognition and dignity. A similar pathology can be found in the moralist political extremism of terrorism, for example in the position of Ulrike Meinhof, who adopted a personal leftist moralism as the justification of her terrorist actions.


On the basis of this reconstruction of the foundations of freedom Honneth goes on to describe the reality of freedom in democratic liberal democracies. The reconstruction of the social life practice as based on recognition and personal autonomy in moral decision-making has to be demonstrated as being institutionalized as patterns of social action in different aspects of society. Honneth distinguishes between three important spheres of institutionalization of the norms of freedom and moral autonomy: 1) friends, love and family relations; 2) market relations; 3) relations in the political community. The intersubjective dimensions in these different groups illustrate different determinations of decisions based on freedom in the different institutions of society.


Honneth emphasizes that personal relations between friends and love relations in personal relations and in the family are based on freedom rather than on paternalism or pre-established social norms and hierarchies. Although it is considered informal, friendship may be conceived as social institution today. There is a difference between the ancient and modern concept of friendship, because friendship today is build on mutual affection without interest. Friendship is based on the romantic concept of the free encounter between friends. As an institution friendship can be said to illustrate the institutionalization of common ideas of community in a common normative structure. Even though it is based on freedom and mutual affection we can now say that friendship based on freedom has become an important institution in modern society.


With regard to love and intimacy, freedom is also considered an essential concept. Honneth argues that we can perceive the institutionalization of the principle of romantic love as the basis for intimate encounters. We are free to make our intimate connections and these are built on our own moral responsibility. Autonomous morality and freedom are proposed as the basis for sexual relations. The relations are based on love and freedom and the emergence of all kinds of couples or singles show this principle of freedom as essential in modernity.


The principle of free sexual relations has had an impact on the concept of the family where the encounter of man and women is also based on social freedom and the family as such is today becoming a place of social freedom. The family is now a place for individual self-realization. We see the emergence of different forms of constructed families that to a large extent are built on principles of free self-realization. Equality rather than authority is an important principle for organizing the family. Equality in families is indicated by the fact that the relation between man and woman is built on partnership between father and mother. Also recognition plays a much bigger role in the relations between children and parents in a situation where people live longer and mutual recognition between generations is emerging. In this sense moral autonomy plays a great importance in the social roles of family members. We see the institutionalization of a much more democratic family built on freedom and moral responsibility. This is a family based on mutual cooperation, love and recognition in contrast to a family based on authoritarianism and paternalism.


We can, according to Honneth, also see the emergence of the new law and morality of freedom if we look at the economic market. Honneth argues that the economic market also contributes to the institutionalization of social freedom in the capitalist economy. Honneth wants to provide a normative reconstruction of the contribution to social freedom of the market economy. He goes back to Adam Smith and takes up his problem about the morality of the market. The problem is how the market can be said to mediate social action. Here we can consider the market freedom as an extension of social freedom in the spheres of consumption and production. However, the question is whether this is an error in capitalism – a subversive doctrine that leads to the dissolution of capitalism.


Honneth defines capitalism and its markets as free economic exchange of goods and services. Historically speaking it was the legal subject (most of the time a man with property) who had the right to exchange in the market. The basis for behavior in the market was strategic utility maximization and calculation of cost/benefits. According to Honneth, both Hegel and Durkheim tried to investigate the normative dimensions of the capitalist system in order to go beyond that system and propose a new economic order with another value-orientation of the economic institutions. Honneth finds a paradox in this line of question that ask the questions about why the market should refer to pre-market norms when the market is about individual utility and utility maximization. The answer of Honneth is that intersubjective norms govern the market when we consider the market from the point of view of normative institutionalism, where morality is considered to be a part of the economic exchange. Honneth refers to Polanyi and Parsons to explain this dimension of the market economy. The question is “What is the Sittlichkeit of the Market System?” (p. 343) Such question have occupied the communitarian philosopher Etizioni and the German economist Hirsch and they search for the capacity of coordinating social action within the economy itself and contribute to legitimacy of the market system in society. With the focus on the principles of social cooperation it the market, Honneth wants to overcome Marx’s negative concept of capitalism and give a normative reconstruction of the concept of freedom within the market economy in liberal society.


Honneth focuses on the sphere of consumption and in particular the development of consumer culture where the market receives legitimation from the norms of the consumers. In fact, the culture of consumption can be seen as a medium for recognition, whilst the moral reaction of the consumers to corporations has an impact on the corporations. Honneth emphasizes that today the capitalist system requires its legitimacy from the consumer and these new conditions of consumption and production contribute to the legitimacy of the market through the consumer. We see how globalization of the market is realized through mass consumption and we see the emergence of morally and legally responsible critical consumers, what we can call “the consumer citizen” (p. 377). This critical consumer is aware of the necessity of having respect for human dignity (p. 377). At the same time reference to consumer citizens may be able to incorporate the critique of consumer society, since there is a struggle for recognition and a possible mutual recognition implied in the moral economy between seller and consumer where they struggle for the realization of the mutual legitimate recognition (p. 381). So Honneth emphasizes that the principles of legitimation are implicit in the consumer market. There is a search for ideal perfectibility regarding consumption built into the individual and corporations have to respond to this in order to get legitimacy. Moreover the consumer citizen takes up the criticism of mass consumption (Adorno, Arendt) and act critically in relation to this. In contributing to establishment of international institutions the consumer citizen also pushes for the establishment of national and international institutions that contribute to the moralization the economy.


After this normative reconstruction of market mediated consumption Honneth looks at the labor market. He reminds us that work was important for Hegel in his Philosophy of Right. Honneth also considers work and the labor market as central for the emergence of a moral economy. The capitalist organization of work has historically implied manipulation and oppression of the workers. Then they organized themselves in workers movement and organized struggle for recognition and social freedom on the labor market. This fight for social freedom implies a struggle for cooperation and recognition in the labor market (p. 431). The organization of workers in trade unions is an important dimension for establishing freedom in the capitalist system. It is important to humanize the work in this world. In particular, democratic organization of the economy and of business can contribute to this. Honneth argues that social freedom in the organizational sphere of corporations and business is dependent on the struggle for recognition by the workers. It is important to contribute to this humanization of work. Since the 1970s there has however been a neoliberal rationalization and technification of the capitalist system and workers have more to fight for in order to achieve freedom in the organized capitalism of the Western world. Here, all kinds of organizations, for example trade unions or welfare organizations, can contribute to the mutual recognition. In particular transnational unions in times of globalization are important for creating freedom in a civilization of capitalism.


The final section of the book presents the reality of democratic will formation in liberal democracies in a historical perspective. Honneth focuses on democratic public spheres, the democratic legal state and political culture. He begins by emphasizing that the potentiality of public deliberation in a free public sphere is essential to understand the reality of freedom in a modern society. Since the French revolution and the enlightenment this has been essential for creating social freedom in the public sphere. Deliberative decision making in a public sphere is an essential legitimation principle of a liberal democracy. We can say that we have experienced the social institutionalization of principles of democracy through the emergence of the free public sphere in Western democracies. Here equality of citizens and liberal rights of freedom based on the constitution are essential for creating a democratic public sphere. The morality of citizens is created through the institutionalization of social and democratic public spheres and debates. The normative idea of social freedom is a result of a democratic public sphere (p. 500). Public exchange of opinion is essential for this democratic public sphere in modern society. As Arendt and Habermas have shown, the media are important for democratic politics. Communicative freedom and the deliberative public sphere contribute to exchange of opinion and different points of view. With Habermas we can emphasize the importance of having both a national and international public sphere. With the new media and digital divide and the development of the internet we face, however, both possibilities and possible limitations of democratic freedom in open and free public spheres.


The democratic legal state built on the rule of law implies the realization of social liberty. The rule of law is a reflexive dimension of the state. The state is a reflexive notion and the democratic state was conceived as the opposite of National Socialism. This state is based on the legitimation by the people’s sovereignty in democratic legislation processes. Constitutional states follow specific norms of Sittlichkeit with a reflexive distance to the democratic legal state. The normative self-understanding of the European states implies a reaction against totalitarianism and in particular the rule of law against Hitler. In particular, we can talk about totalitarianism as the opposite to democracy. The universal declaration of human rights that was very modern even for modern democracy was established as a counter-reaction to the totalitarian regimes of the Second World War. We can also talk about the tension between nationalism and the rule of law in the Rechtsstaat or the tension between nationalism and people’s democracy. The concept by Habermas about Verfassungspatriotismus has been proposed to deal with this topic.


Finally Honneth discusses the concept of political culture as essential to the reality of the Rechtsstaat. Political culture is the reality of the realization of freedom in a democratic society. This institutionalization of the rule of law of the Rechtsstaat today also has an international dimension in the sense that the political public sphere, for example in the EU goes beyond the national borders towards the international community.


Some critical remarks to Honneth’s theory of the liberal state follow.

How should we evaluate his approach to the institutionalization of freedom in modern society? I will now propose three critical remarks for discussion.


The first remark concerns Honneth’s method of analysis. This method is very promising and I think that this constitutes the real novelty of the book. The focus on institutions and institutionalization is very important to make the bridge between philosophy and the social sciences. Moreover, I agree that this approach is very important for the definition of the relation between ethics and law in modern democratic states. However, it may be argued that this approach has already been worked out before. This is for example the case in Ricoeur’s work One-Self-as-Another from 2002, where the concept of institution as inspired by Hegel is a central concept. Ricoeur has an advantage with regard to Honneth because Ricoeur is able to introduce the concept of the good life that is not really there in Honneth’s approach. Ricoeur talks about “the good life for and with the other in just institutions”. Moreover there is no reference to the whole tradition of institutional theory within the social sciences in Honneth’s book. This is sad because then we don’t really have the dialogue between philosophical institutionalism and other kinds of institutionalisms. Moreover, it may be argued that the kind of combination of normative and descriptive analysis that Honneth proposes makes it difficult to advance any real argument of normative ethical, legal or political theory. In fact, this book is not so much a normative argument as a presentation of some lines of development in modern society. As such the book is confronted with competing arguments, as for example the Danish professor of political science Ove Kaj Petersen with his book about the recent developments of the state from welfare state to competition state in the book Konkurencestaten (the competition state). Why is the story that Honneth presents more compelling than the more negative story that is presented by Ove Kaj Pedersen? Here we need better and more advanced argument.


The proposal of the theory of law and morals may be conceived as the strongest part of the book. However, we can also propose some critical questions to this theory. In particular, we can address the substance of the theory that focuses so much on individual rights. I may be argued that it is not individual rights that are so important in the Rechtsstaat but rather democracy as community. It is not clear how this focus on individual rights makes the move from negative freedom to positive freedom. Indeed, it may be argued that the concept of rights may destroy the possibility of really founding a political community based on shared interests in the good. What Honneth seems to propose seems to be a very liberal theory that does not really correspond with his Hegelian starting point. Moreover, we may criticize his use of Kant to define the basis of his approach to the morality of freedom. It seems very idealistic to presuppose that people today act according to the moral law when they create their identity. Rather, we may refer to existentialist or postmodern concepts of identity, which seem much closer to the reality of life in the modern state and correspond to the elimination of politics in favor of individual rights. I cannot see that Honneth really achieves his point by reintroducing the Kantian concept of morality as a case of identity. In fact, Honneth’s position also becomes nearly neo-liberal, because so much emphasis is laid on individual rights rather to present the common good in the Res Publica as important. Here I also think that Ricoeur’s concept of the good life with and for the other in just institutions gives the communitarian elements of analysis that we really need to make Honneth’s argument convincing.


When we deal with the reality of freedom in modern society there are many problems in the book. The analysis of the spheres of recognition in the family seem to forget all the power relations that still persist in society and a Foucauldian approach to the family would be able to show many contradictions of the freedom of individuals in the family. Moreover, there are many critical questions to ask in relation to Honneth’s analysis of romantic love as the basis of intimacy. There may also be the manipulation of individual through forcing them to be free. As Rousseau says “L’homme est libre mais partout il est en fer”.


Moreover, the analysis of economic life and freedom in the market is far from convincing, although the general intention of moralizing the economy is very important. Honneth has understood the necessity of rethinking the capitalist economy in the perspective of virtues and ethics, but his Marxist basis of analysis and the prejudices of critical theory make it impossible for him to take the final step and understand the real emancipator elements of the idea of the moral economy. Here we should look at the whole basis for ethical interaction in the economy and, taking the Weberian perspective of looking at the ideal values of economic exchange, make it possible to understand much more of the functions of the moral economy. Honneth mentions the work of Etizioni on this point but he does not get into deeper analysis of much more recent literature on business ethics and corporate social responsibility and this makes his analysis rather general and not very innovative in relation to the recent debates in business ethics and management ethics.


Honneth has a good argument for the political consumer and legitimacy of consumption but he does not include recent literature in business ethics and institutions and therefore he does not really contribute something new or relevant. To propose unions as the basis for political freedom in the workplace also seems to be not very new in today’s discussions. Much more detailed analysis is needed here. For example of the interactions between unions and top management and how they contribute to develop stakeholder management in large corporations.


Indeed, in his final discussions of the deliberative politics and the importance of critical public space as essential for a democratic political culture, I can hardly see that Honneth presents anything new in comparison with Habermas. In fact we may argue that Honneth is much too positive to the reality of this political culture and that he does not take into account the many recent distortions of that culture. However, the critical remarks on the internet and the digital divide and democracy show a certain awareness of the important contradiction of democracy in the present context of society.



Axel Honneth: Das Recht der Freiheit. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2011.


The Dialectics of Democracy



Modern democracy cannot be conceived only in terms of political equality, mass participation, competition, or tolerance. Nor can it be defined as a system where the public good is determined through rational or ethical deliberation. All these are, at least in principle, possible even in autocratic or oligarchic systems. What is peculiar for modern democracy is that opposition and dissent are not only tolerated, but they are recognized as necessary aspects of the system. Governments need oppositions, because their right to govern is legitimized only through the presence of an opposition. The task of the opposition in a democratic system is to express distrust: to criticize the actions of the government and to provide an alternative. The opposition institutionalizes distrust, and, paradoxically, the presence of this institutionalized distrust is, for the citizens, one important reason to trust the democratic system. Insofar as the opposition is incompetent, or bribed or otherwise made toothless, the system appears as less democratic, and the democratic legitimacy of the government is consequently diminished.

The idea that an organized or institutionalized distrust embodied in the opposition could ultimately be the basis of legitimacy is complex and even paradoxical. It is no wonder that the classical normative theories of democracy have not been able to conceptualize the role of opposition. The idea of democracy as the sovereignty of the People was born in the French Revolution. Typically it conceived the People as united and homogeneous. The Marxist and nationalist conceptions of democracy (for example, that of Carl Schmitt 1985; 2008) are direct descendants of this idea. Even when it was admitted that the “Will of the People” could, in practice, only mean the will of the majority, the unavoidable presence of a distrusting minority was conceived as a defect, a deviation from the pure ideal of democracy. The perfect democracy was, ideally, based on unanimity and a complete identity between the rulers and the ruled (see Rosanvallon 2006, ch 3.). There was no room for organized opposition in this conception.

The liberal version of popular sovereignty presented in John Locke’s Second Treatise (Locke 1988) was not based on the hypothetical identification of the rulers and the ruled. According to Locke, the government was based on trust. Trust was, unlike a contract or identity, an asymmetrical relationship. The people or the community could unilaterally withdraw its trust and replace the government by another. If the rulers refused to obey, the ruled had a right to resist the rulers, and if necessary, rise to arms. Nevertheless, trust was for Locke, the normal and natural situation. Distrust remained exceptional and external.

The epistemic conception of democracy as a method to find the true, best or most justified solutions to problems which concern all derives from Aristotle’s Politics. There, Aristotle famously argues that a decision-making group may be wiser or better informed than any of its individual members. In The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed this idea in the following terms:

When in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, when giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so. (Rousseau 1973, p. 250)

In this conception, disagreement is the starting point. Yet, opposition becomes irrational and unjustified when the democratic decision has been made. The legitimacy of democratic decisions is based on the hypothesis that a democratic majority is more likely to find the correct solution than any individual voter or a sub-group of voters. Hence, post-decisional opposition must be a sign of irrational stubbornness. The contemporary theories of deliberative democracy (for example that of Jürgen Habermas 1986) are partly based on the epistemic conception. Habermas and his followers (Benhabib 1994; Cohen 1989) argue that in the ideal conditions constituted by free, unlimited discussion, the discussion partners would ultimately agree on reasons as well as on conclusions. This rational consensus would guarantee the truth or validity of the conclusions, for, ideally, it would incorporate into itself all imaginable counter-objections and criticisms. The deliberative theorists are ready to admit than in the real life, disagreements are unavoidable. But, again, such disagreements only show that the democratic process falls short of the ideal. Again, the presence of a persistent opposition appears as a (perhaps unavoidable) defect.

Finally, the “realist” theorists of democracy (for example, Weber 1994, or Schumpeter 1962) conceive democracy in terms of power struggle. For them, struggle for power is the essence of all politics, and democratic competition is one form of it. The “realists” admit the unavoidability of disagreements in democratic politics. However, when conceptualizing democratic politics as “war by other means” they neglect an important difference between the democratic competition and other forms of power struggle. In democracy, unlike, say, in international politics, the relations between the competing parties are internal rather than purely external and contingent. True, parties compete for power. However, power in a democratic society is not simply an ability to realize one’s own will. The winning party, which forms the government, has power only because it is obeyed by the citizens, and it is obeyed (at least partly) because the citizens see its claim for power as legitimate; it deserves its power. It is perceived as legitimate because it has temporarily won its opponents in a fair competition, yet those opponents may challenge it again. Hence, the permanent presence of an opposing force is a necessary condition for the power of the government. Within the democratic political body, the idea is thus not to press into consensus, or to silence the parties which do not belong to the government after the last elections. The winners are winners because there are losers who recognize their defeat, but still continue to disagree. While competition for power may be a near-universal phenomenon (as the “realists” claim), this mutual dependence between competitors is a unique property of democracies.

Opposition as an internal controller

I would characterize democracy as a necessarily contradictory whole, in which the parties are internally related to each others. The idea is to continue the struggle over matters which concern “all”. This internal struggle between mutually contradicting parties serves democratic purposes. There can, of course, be no opposition without a government which it opposes, but equally, there cannot be a democratic government without an active opposition. The opposition provides, by its public criticism and inspection of the government’s actions, a “system of checking” of whether the government is doing what it has promised to do and whether it is acting in the best interest of “all”. In fact, the role of the opposition is to try to reveal that the government is actually not acting in the best interest of the community as a whole, but, instead, pursues more or less parochial aims i.e. it pursues too much the aims of the party which has last won in the elections. Interestingly, a system which comprises of a government, checked and radically criticised by a sort of “internally external” opposition that also provides an alternative choice for voters in the next election, is considered a trustworthy democratic system. While an external controller, for example a Supreme Court or a body of scientists or experts, are supposed to present impartial, disengaged, neutral and apolitical (“power-free”) evaluation, the role of opposition is to be fully engaged concerning the things under discussion. One important aspect of the opposition is to criticise the rationale, by which the government legitimizes its decisions, for being biased or parochial.

In her article ‘Unpolitical Democracy’ Nadia Urbinati (2009) discusses the role of contestation and criticism in various theories of democracy (for example, in those of Pierre Rosanvallon and Philip Pettit). She promotes the idea that democracy, as a system in which things that concern “all” are decided by all, should not diminish the role of partisan, engaged opposition. If the evaluation of things is transferred away from the area where politically engaged parties confront each others, into an area where neutral parties are supposed to evaluate or judge the public good impartially (from the point of view of an apolitical judge or a scientist), democratic decision making is compromised. Power becomes hidden behind the veil of a neutral judge or some other external evaluator. Issues under discussion become easily divided into “political” and “apolitical” parts, into issues which can be struggled upon politically and issue which are thought to belong to the sphere of external evaluation. Urbinati writes:

It prefigures a transformation of the meaning of politics according to goals and criteria that recall the nineteenth-century utopia of the rational power of the experts. It suggests that politics is a cognitive practice for reaching true outcomes, solving problems, and moreover eradicating “politically-relevant reasonable disagreement. (Urbinati 2009, 74)

For Urbinati, one problem with the external controlling is that experts typically give evaluations on a restricted frame of questions, the framing of which is not part of the political process itself:

in the deliberative fora the formation of the agenda and the frame of questions to be discussed by the selected citizens are not part of the political process. They are instead kept outside the forum as the task of the mediators and organizers of these deliberative experiments. In clear violation of the democratic principle of autonomy, both the issues to be discussed without prejudice, and the procedures regulating the discussion, are not decided and chosen by the participants. (Urbinati 2009, 74)

The practice of splitting issues into political and apolitical aspects is not itself part of the democratic (political) process. It is done externally by actors which are not themselves exposed to democratic criticism. The grounding idea of democracy is that it exercises autonomous power over things which concern “all” (res publica). There is no party external, beyond or not accessible to it, which would determine the problems to be discussed, or which would set the frame, outline or circumscribe the politically relevant aspects of things under discussion. When issues are divided into those aspects which are discussed politically and into those which are left to neutral, external experts, it can be forgotten that there are hardly any aspects which do not relate to questions of power or carry ethical implications. Few aspects are purely technical, power-free or abstract. Moreover, even that neutral parties, like judges, scientists or various selected citizen bodies are important sources of knowledge and opinions, they are not external in the sense of being completely “power-free”. Scientific or legal expertise is always practiced in a cultural context and, hence, it should not be considered as beyond democratic criticism and analysis.

Hegel and the dialectics between the self and the Other

The claim defended here is that the relationship between the government and the distrusting, internal opposition can be understood in terms of Hegel’s dialectics. At the first sight, Hegel is not a promising starting point for democratic theorizing. His main political work, Philosophy of Right, is not a particularly democratic work. Admittedly, Hegel does defend representative institutions, constitution, and the basic rights. Thus, the once widespread claim that Hegel was simply an apologist of the contemporary Prussian state is mistaken, for Hegel’s Prussia had none of these. Moreover, in the lectures held before the publication of Philosophy of Right Hegel did discuss the principle of opposition (see, for example, Hegel 1974, 707-9). Nevertheless, in the published version of Philosophy of Right Hegel conceived the State basically in terms of a unity. Conflicts appear at the level of the civil society where parochial aims are pursued; nevertheless, they are superseded and reconciled rationally at the level of the State. Thus, it is not surprising that both Hegel’s right-wing adherents and his liberal and leftist critics have emphasized the unifying aspects of his philosophy: disagreements are solved by rational communication. Even his radical interpreters, who – like Alexandre Kojève – have emphasized the more conflictual aspects of Hegel’s theory, have seen a “homogeneous state” as the ultimate outcome of the historical process.

However, other readings are possible. The British Idealist political theorist Sir Ernest Barker (1942; 1951), while accepting the standard liberal criticism of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, nevertheless argued that the other aspects of Hegel’s philosophy had democratic potential:

His conception of the eternal debate of thesis and antithesis, and of the opposition of thought to thought in the operation of Mind [Geist], involves the necessary conclusion that debate and discussion must always be at work in any society of minds, now emphasizing this idea, and now emphasizing that, but always seeking to achieve a synthesis, or as we also say, in one of our common terms, ‘to find a compromise’. If we think of political parties as representing thesis and antithesis, and of Parliament as seeking to find a reconciling synthesis, we can defend parliamentary democracy in terms of Hegelian ideas. We can even argue that Hegel himself was untrue to his own ideas when he became a political absolutist. He failed to see that the sovereign thing in political thought, as in all the thought of the world is the process of thought itself, as it works its way between the clashing rocks of thesis and antithesis. (Barker 1951, p. 23)

According to my interpretation, the dialectics between the self and the Other, presented in Hegel’s earlier work, Phenomenology of Spirit, offers still a valid theory of why the on-going clashing of thesis with antithesis is the base for democratic equality and freedom between people. An important instance of this dialectics appears in the contemporary parliamentary systems where the government clashes with the opposition. In the next chapter I will go shortly through Hegel’s theory of the dialectics between the self and the Other. Then I will offer an interpretation of how it relates to the theme of democracy and distrust.

For Hegel, self-consciousness – in short, “self” – is a complex construction. The basic feature of the self is thinking. Thinking is situated: it is conditioned by time, place, cultural context and various individual, personal and material factors. Consequently, thinking makes up a limited, interpretative system, a particular universe. Thinking is a universalizing and generalizing activity, yet, at the same time it is parochial and limited. By conceptual and abstract thinking the thinker may obtain a critical distance towards itself and its cultural limits. However, even abstract thinking is situated because it is internally linked to, and it mediates with, the subjective parts of the thinking system. Thinking is always subjective. The Other is, like the self, a complex construction: subjective particularity is one of its features. Like the self, the Other is an interpretative, meaning-giving system: a particular universe. A grounding idea in Phenomenology of Spirit is that with the Other or, ideally, from a point of view which is constituted jointly by the self and the Other, the self can go over its respective limits. In fact, only by trying to see the world from the point of view of the Other, the self can acknowledge that it’s own universe is particular and limited. With the Other, the self may go over its limits and see the world, including its own self, from a new perspective which can be called a more democratic perspective, even that democracy did not belong to Hegel’s terminology. However, the new perspective is also a located perspective. The self cannot rise above perspectivity as such, because subjectivity continues to be a basic feature of its thinking. (Hegel 1977, pp. 109-112)

Self’s way to relate to the Other is, however, not easy. The relationship between the self and the Other can be called a radical difference, or, mutual otherness. It might, however, be also called a radical similarity. The Other is, like the self, its own, self-determining, internally differentiated system of subject-object-relations. Both the self and the Other are centres of their own universes. Consequently, both selves appear to be, from the point of view of the other, threatening. Freedom of the Other – the Other as a self-determining being and a universalizing, generalizing being (a being who has views about things which concern “all”) – appears as a threat. (Hegel 1977, pp. 111-119.)

Nevertheless, the dialectical narrative in Phenomenology shows that the self is not satisfied until it creates a relationship of reciprocal recognition with Other. What self yearns for most is freedom and only reciprocal recognition – or, actually an ethical society which is based on reciprocal recognition of parties which are “other” to each other – satisfies this yearning.

According to Hegel, the self strives for a contact with the Other because, ultimately, it wants to be free. Freedom includes various inter-related aspects such as epistemological freedom (knowledge which is not parochial, instead, constituted in mutual recognition, for self and for Other), inner freedom at a psychological level, and social freedom. For Hegel, the self can live a satisfactory life – at these various levels – only if it acknowledges Other as its equal and enters into a recognizing relationship with it. In recognizing the Other as an equal self and, reciprocally, recognizing itself as the Other’s Other, the self is able to reconcile contradictions at the aforementioned levels. In Hegel, freedom means that people and societies can, both, reconcile contradictions, and, at the same time, see contradictions as the permanent part of a free, ethical society. This means that both the self and the Other, as bearers of mutually contradicting world-views, are recognized as valid sources of knowledge, views and opinions over things which concern “all”. A free society does not try to silence contradicting world-views because that would mean that some specific, parochial world-view, of some specific particular self, would gain a dominating position in the society. Freedom as reciprocal recognition is a process where the existence of, and the on-going clashing together, of contradicting world-views are recognized as a permanent part of the society. Contradicting world-views clash together, yet, the clash is considered a source of freedom and good, ethical life. Mutually contradicting selves can all contribute to the constructing of the society, its basic principles, institutions and laws. The clashing together of mutually contradicting selves cannot be disposed of because, at any given time, the particular synthesis which governs or which has a hegemonic status in the society (i.e. displayed at the level of, for example, commonly shared beliefs) cannot take all possible views into consideration equally.

In Hegel, the complex structure of the thinking self is shown also in the complex structure of the things, which are thought by the self. Thought things are complex structures which means, for example that limited subjectivity is always an internal aspect of them. Things cannot be divided into parts which are external to each others in the sense that they would not affect each others. We can not bracket off subjective aspects from things and think of them as pure abstractions. When things are thought rationally, or as abstractions, subjective limitedness continues to be present, too. Things are complex constructions in which political, ethical, cultural and personal aspects are internally mediated with each other.

Hegel, democracy and distrust

According to my interpretation Hegel’s seemingly abstract figures “self and “Other” may be seen to stand for groups, comprising of like-minded individuals. Thinking, which is the basic feature of both the self and the Other, does not develop in a social vacuum. Instead, individuals are, to a great extent, born into those “particular universes”, which render them social subjects. By linguistic, communicative internalization of selfhood, individuals become thinking selves and subjects. Like-minded individuals can be thus seen to constitute the particular universes. These universes may be also called as discursive, cultural contexts. Within them meanings, ethical and moral principles and world-views are generated and kept alive by the individuals committing to them and reproducing them. Hegel suggests that in order for the society to be free, these groups as well as individuals comprising them, need to acknowledge that there is an outside (Other) to their own group. In order for the society not to be parochially constituted – which would mean the suffocation of some groups and closing them out from amongst those who determine what the society as a whole is like – the groups and their world-views would need to clash together. This clashing together of one particular universe with another, or, one thesis with its antithesis, would mean that contradictions are acknowledged as an internal part of the society.

How can Hegel’s theory of the need for contradicting parties to clash together inside a social community be seen to promote an idea of the need for an institutionalized distrust in democracy, embodied in the government-opposition-relationship? As said above, Hegel is often seen to promote the idea of unifying and synthesizing rationality as the way to reconcile disagreements at the level of the state. Theorists like Habermas, with his idea of communicative ethics, draws from this line of thought. To claim that Hegel’s theory would support an idea of an institutionalized distrust and government-opposition- relationship would mean that conflict or distrust between parties, which decide about matters of state concerning “all”, is seen as an internal aspect of a free society. Freedom as reciprocal recognition between its members would not be understood in terms of reaching consensus by rational communication only, say, in the ordinary way of continuing discussion until agreement, compromise or consensus is found. Instead, it would emphasize the clashing together – feature of the mutually recognizing parties as well as the idea that genuine and even passionate conflicts and distrust are a necessary part of how the parties relate to each other in order to produce ethically sound and free decisions concerning “all”. This way to interpret Hegel’s notion of freedom as the on-going clashing together of the self and the Other – thesis with its anti-thesis – implies that the syntheses are temporary and open for further debate and revision.

For Hegel, the self, as a thinker, is a complex system where different aspects influence each others internally. This implies, importantly, that rational thinking, also at the state level, is not neutral or impartial in the sense that it would take place in a power-free or apolitical vacuum. It also supports the idea that any synthesis, resulting from the clashing together of selves and Others with their theses, makes up a new thesis, a particular universe, which should be open to further dialectical revision. Every state-level synthesis is limited because one of its aspects is material objectivity, i.e. the level of limited economical and material resources. When ever a synthesis is made, it is based not only on what the outcome is from the struggle between the conflicting parties in the last elections. When elections are over, the parties, forming the government, make decisions, on how various material resources are concretely distributed between all the members of the society. The government often also makes some alterations to laws, institutional principles and so forth, according to the deliberations of its member parties. In other words, the struggle between conflicting groups leads, through elections, to the formation of a new government and, by the government’s deliberations, to some alterations at the level of the objective reality. The transformation of any synthesis into a new thesis, open to the criticism of opposition, takes place at this point. The government is formed by some parties, enough like-minded to be able to make decisions and compromises together and execute its will through administrative and bureaucratic bodies. The decisions must be particular and limited in order to mean something concrete. The decisions cannot be vague or ambivalent; otherwise they would give room for arbitrary interpretations and arbitrary application. Nevertheless, this rationality, shared by the “like-minded” members of the government renders the government also a “particular universe”. The government provides rational arguments for the decisions it executes, and claims to act in the best interest of all. This claim becomes, however, the base for criticism – or, in Hegelian words claim for recognition – coming from those who claim that it, nevertheless, acts more in the interest of just some, not all. It needs to be checked and critically analyzed by its outside, and clash with its outside (the Other as opposition), in order for its rationality not to fall into parochialism which compromises the democratic idea that the state ought to be governed by “all”.

The agonistic theory of democracy

The Hegelian dialectic insight of democracy, presented in this paper, resembles in some ways the agonistic theory of democracy. Especially the political theorist Chantal Mouffe has spoken for an idea of democracy in which a permanent, agonistic conflict between mutually contradicting parties (between “we” and “them”) is considered as a constitutive and an indispensable feature. Mouffe’s idea of the relationship between “we” and “them” resembles in some ways the dialectical relationship between the self and the Other, defended in this text. However, there are important differences between the dialectical notion of democracy defended in this paper, and the theory of Chantal Mouffe. I shall argue that the idea of agonism as formulated by Mouffe is actually incoherent.

In criticizing consensus-oriented authors like Rawls or Habermas, Mouffe uses the following argument: The criticized authors try to solve the “paradox of democracy” by presenting a comprehensive theory of democracy, and claim that all consistent democrats should agree with them. However, an actual consensus on the truth of any particular interpretation of democracy would, in effect, destroy the agonistic tensions which are central for democracy. An agreement on the basic principles of democracy would stop the movement of democratic society, create a stasis. It is this very process, produced by the tensions and differences that is really important and valuable in democracy. Thus, all attempts to provide a comprehensive theory of democracy are (indirectly) self-defeating. If the correct, true theory of democracy were to be found, and if it were generally accepted it would undo the whole democracy. If a theory of what the relations between the various mutual “others” (the political subjects) were recognized by the political subjects themselves, there would be no attitude of exclusion any more. The political subjects (which constitute each others “others”) would not exclude each others any more from their vision of the ideal society, and try to gain universal recognition just for their own particular ideal any more. This kind of “reciprocally recognitive” attitude would undo the democracy itself:

To believe that a final resolution of conflicts is eventually possible – even if it is seen as an asymptotic approach to the regulative idea of a rational consensus – far from providing the necessary horizon of a democratic project, is something that puts it at risk. Indeed, such an illusion carries implicitly the desire for a reconciled society where pluralism is superseded. When it is conceived in such a way, pluralist democracy becomes a “self-refuting ideal” because the very moment of its realization would coincide with its disintegration (Mouffe 2000, 32)

For Mouffe, pluralism and difference are themselves positive goods. They are something we should “valorize” and “be thankful for” (Mouffe 1993, 139). All attempts to “close” the democratic process are dangerous because conflicts and confrontations are the very essence of democracy:

One of the keys to the thesis of agonistic pluralism is that, far from jeopardizing democracy, agonistic confrontation is in fact its very condition of existence (Mouffe 2000, 103)

Of course, not any confrontation or conflict would do. Pure power-struggles between self-interested actors or clashes of forces between fanatical groups are not radical in the required sense. A radical agonist does not praise all conflicts. Democratic conflicts are, in a sense, always conflicts about democracy, about its content. They arise between principled and sincerely held views:

Without a plurality of competing forces which attempt to define the common good, and aim at fixing the identity of the community, the political articulation of the demos could not take place. (Mouffe, 2000, 56)

According to Mouffe, the existence of different genuinely competing conceptions is essential:

Ideally, such a confrontation should be staged around the diverse conceptions of citizenship which correspond to the different interpretations of the ethico-political principles: liberal-conservative, social-democratic, neo-liberal, radical-democratic, and so on. Each of them proposes its own interpretation of the ‘common good’… A well-functioning democracy calls for a vibrant clash of democratic political positions. (ibid.., 103-4)

Thus, Mouffe shares the idea that a dialectical conflict is fundamental for democracy. However, her own view remains thoroughly relativistic. No dialectical synthesis is possible. This makes her own position ambivalent. Obviously, all the proponents of the different democratic conceptions are expected to defend their own conception as true (correct, valid). Otherwise the views would not “clash”. The theorist of agonistic democracy appears here as a stage-master, as someone standing outside and above the confrontation. She knows that none of the protagonists playing their part in the democratic drama is actually defending the true view, for there cannot be any correct interpretation of the common good or the democratic basic principles – that was her starting point. Nevertheless, because the confrontation between different conceptions of citizenship and/or common good is the very condition of the existence of a working democracy, it is important that there are sufficiently many people around who sincerely hold these various convictions, however misguided they might be.

To conclude, Mouffe’s theory can be criticized by using the same form of argument she herself uses against Rawls and Habermas. The theory of agonistic democracy is self-defeating in the same way as the criticized theories are claimed to be. If all (or sufficiently many) citizens would actually accept the agonistic view that there are no justifiable solutions to the problems of justice and of common good, the essential agonism would disappear. In order to work, the agonistic democracy has to presuppose that most people do not share the agonist view. To put it in Hegelian terms, it presupposes a Lord-Bondsman –relationship.

For this reason, the agonistic theory cannot work as a basis for the self-understanding of those subjects who themselves participate in political struggles. In Mouffe, politics is divided dualistically into two realms. There is concrete politics, where hegemonic claims are made. This realm is conflictual, and its processes take place through a “struggle for recognition”. Then there is the realm of the observing theorist, who does not itself take part in the struggle for recognition. Instead, the external theorists just observes how the various “terms” such as “common good” become politically constructed within the various struggles. This agonistic democracy is possible only when most people continue to believe in something which, according to this theory, is actually impossible, a “necessary error”. I claim that my account does not have these paradoxical consequences. The rival parties are not simply clashing and struggling for hegemony. They may also recognize each others as legitimate rivals who are continuously needed as rivals, because only their continuous presence makes the process itself democratically legitimate.

Conclusion: distrust as the basis for trust

In modern western democracies people are expected to trust a political system which consists of a government and a contradicting, distrusting opposition. Acting and decision-executing government ought to be controlled and checked by an alert opposition, in Hegelian words an Other. The Other provides a necessary “look from the outside” which cannot be disposed of in order for the political system to be considered democratic. According to my analysis Hegel’s theory of the dialectics between the self and the Other, presented in Phenomenology of Spirit, supports this idea. Through it, it can be argued that any government which produces particular decisions, based on specifically circumscribed arguments and rationale (as governments always necessarily and rightfully do, in order not to give room for arbitrary governing) constitutes a “particular universe”. Particular universes carry within them an aspect of particular political subjectivity, democratic checking of which cannot be left to the hands of disengaged external controllers, like judges or experts. Instead, internal controlling of those Others who are fully engaged and fully affected by the governments decisions, is necessary, in order for not only some specific aspects of government (falling under the expertise of for example juridical experts) to be scrutinized. In order for the various inter-related aspects of the acting governments actions to be critically evaluated “from the outside”, the political realm of the outside opposition should not be diminished. The central and seemingly widely acknowledged reason why the existence of an institutionalized opposition is considered as the base for the legitimacy of the political system is that democratic changes in the substantive inside of the government takes place through the distrusting criticism, coming from the outside. The criticism comes from those who are inside the democratic society yet not under the pressure to consent to or comply with the government’s rationale, because of a joint membership in the present synthesis (unity) of the government. In fact, it is considered the ultimate role, even a democratic and ethical duty, of the opposition to look at the government from a critical distance.

The idea that an institutionalized and internal conflict (carried by an institutionalized distrust embodied in the opposition) is the source of general good and ethical life is a novel development. It challenges most of the traditional political theories which considered conflict as a potentially dangerous defect, feared to lead into disorder or possibly even to a violent disintegration or fragmentation of the political body. The important idea in the internal conflict and its capacity to give legitimacy to the political system, lies in the fact that through the dialectics between the government and opposition, things concerning “all” (the present synthesis, unity or “substance” of the state, shown as positive laws, institutions, distribution of material resources and so forth) is in a constant democratic process and under critical ethical evaluation “from the internal outside”.

I have argued that an organized distrust, in the form of opposition, is the fundamental source of trust in democratic societies, and that this paradoxical unity of trust and distrust can be conceived in terms of the dialectics of Hegel’s early philosophy. Would this kind of view help us to understand any real-life political phenomena? Let me conclude this essay with an example. An example of a political community which is often said to suffer from a “democracy deficit” is the European Union. One possible reason why the EU is perceived as undemocratic is the absence of a recognized government-opposition dimension. The Commission is officially an “apolitical” government of technocrats, while in the European Parliament the majorities are built on issue-by-issue basis. While the Parliament is constituted in a democratic way – by free and equal elections – the lack of a responsible government and of an organized opposition which would channel the distrust is the main cause of the perceived “deficit”. According to my hypothesis, the low turnout in the elections of the Parliament and the increasing scepticism and even cynicism towards the Union itself reflects this problem. The Euro-citizens, in Finland for example, are not convinced that the power-holders within the Union have really deserved their power in a meaningful, democratically dialectical process. Without an opposition, this distrust may take a malign form.




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From Pericles to Plato – from democratic political praxis to totalitarian political philosophy


  1. From democratic praxis to totalitarian political philosophy

It is my thesis that political philosophy has its historical origin in democratic praxis and government in the democratic city-state Athens and that it is taken over by sceptics and anti-democratic critics like Plato. The consequence is a break between democratic praxis and antidemocratic political philosophy that has lasted until our day where the global dominance of democracy is taken to force a reconsideration of the inner relation between democracy and political philosophy (Roberts 1994: 6 ff.; Castoriadis 1997: 227).

In the following I want to consider this thesis. I will first consider Plato’s political philosophy as it has been formulated in his Republic from around 380 and second I will consider Pericles’ funeral oration from 430 as an example of the existence of a democratic political philosophical alternative that was grounded in the democratic praxis of Athens.

  1. The origin of political philosophy in the democratic city-state Athens

Democracy is a form of government that was invented and developed in the Greek city states, first and foremost in Athens. Democracy is first named around 472 in Aeschylus’ The Suppliants (Aeschylus 1970: 102, line 604). The word ‘democracy’ consists etymologically of the word demos, which means the broad population or the people, and kratos, which means power (Aeschylus 1980: 490 – 492; Ehrenberg 1965: 266, 270 – 272). The two words together form the word democracy, which can be translated as the exercise of power in the polis, the city, by the people (Larsen 1990: 15 ff.).

It is significant from a historical perspective that democratic governments have many different forms from antiquity to our times and the historian therefore has a tendency to emphasize these differences instead of the similarities (Vidal-Naquet 1990: 121 ff.; Hansen 2005: 41 ff.; Hansen 2010: 15 ff.).

From another perspective, the different forms of democratic government all share a concern about what should be understood by democracy and whether the given form of government is a real democracy. This discussion raises the question of the validity or the legitimacy of the concrete instantiation of democratic government. This perspective or discussion was conceptualized as philosophy or more specific political philosophy. It is in the Greek democratic city-state that political philosophy has its origin and became determinant for how we discuss modern democracy as well.

From a historical perspective, political philosophy can at best be regarded as a form of ideology (Hansen 2005: 46 ff.; Hansen 2010: 39) because the historian does not accept a political philosophical concept of truth, whatever it might consist in. The historian thus has a tendency to bypass the fact that democracy can only persist by being permanently determined as valid or legitimate. Political philosophy has a definite practical significance in its function of raising the discussion about what ought to be regarded as the right, or, at least from a pragmatic perspective, the best, government and what could be the basis of such a government. This discussion was already raised in the democratic city-state Athens and it continues to our day.

  1. Plato’s political philosophy and the contempt for democracy in the political philosophical tradition

Plato is regarded as one of the founders of political philosophy and many will even say that he is the real founder in so far as Plato’s work is so monumental and forms a beginning where even Aristotle is a scholar of Plato. It is not at least Plato’s Republic that has had a definitive significance as one of the fundamental works in the political philosophical tradition.

Plato’s Republic has been read in many ways but one common distinctive feature in the many readings is that Plato regards philosophy as a special way of thinking that is connected with a special insight that the political leader in the aristocratic republic should have. It is only by this insight that the leader is able to lead in a way that is superior to the leadership that is dominated by desire, which was the case in timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny – the forms of government that Plato brings on concept, describes and criticizes in the Republic (Plato 1970: 545c ff.).

In this perspective, philosophy is elevated over the concrete political fight in the city-state. Philosophy has a special insight which can classify different forms of politics and government in a hierarchical organized history of decline where democracy is surpassed only by tyranny as the worst form of government (Plato 1970: 564a).

This understanding of democracy has not been seriously problematised in the later history of philosophy until recent time. Certainly, Aristotle has formulated a different schema where he poses a contrast between three good forms of government and three bad forms of government: kingdom versus tyranny, aristocracy versus oligarchy, republic (politeia) versus democracy (Aristotle 1977: 1279b 6 ff.). Aristotle regarded also democracy as a deviation or a form of decline.

When we are looking at the later history of philosophy, we find only very few who are emphasizing democratic government like Locke, Rousseau, Madison and Jefferson. But many others like Hobbes, Kant and Hegel did not prefer the democratic form of government. Here one might also mention Karl Marx; although he was one of the significant theorists and leaders in the socialist movement, he did not emphasize democracy. In so far as society was a class society, he could not believe that democracy had an essential role to play.

John Stuart Mill is one of the first who in Considerations on Representative Government from 1861 emphasizes representative democracy as the best form of government for big modern states, where it is not possible to meet in a popular assembly as in the ancient democratic city-states (Mill 1991: 55 – 80). For Mill, the difference between direct and representative democracy is a merely practical matter and has no principled significance (Mill 1991: 80).

It is first in the beginning of the 20th century that political philosophers and sociologist more generally begin to emphasize a form of government with certain advantages (Durkheim, Weber, Schumpeter) or even as a good form of government (Dewey), and it is first after the Second World War that we find serious discussions dominated by the perspective of democracy as the best form of government (Popper, Rawls, Habermas and many others). This corresponds to Mogens Herman Hansen’s periodisation when he emphasizes that democracy first became a positive concept after 1850 and finally became the dominant positive concept of government in the 20th century (Hansen 2005: 47).

  1. Democracy as the new hermeneutical perspective

Just after the Second World War, Karl Popper was one of the first who pointed at this in The Open Society and its Enemies where he claims that the fundamental problem in western political philosophy is that the totalitarian way of thinking has had primacy over the idea of the open democratic society (Popper 1962 a; 1962 b). From this perspective, Plato derailed the political philosophical discussion that was taking place in the democratic city-state of Athens, an event of great significance for the development of the main topics in the political philosophical tradition.

This derailment raises the question what we in modern democratic society should understand by political philosophy and especially how we should understand Plato’s Republic, which is where political philosophy, first off all, is grounded.

One possibility could be in a banal way to pass over Plato and maybe even a large part of the political philosophical tradition. This is also what is partly done in political science, where political philosophy does not play any significant role for empirical research in so far as facts are taken to be more relevant than broader hermeneutical justifications. However, there can be good reasons to hold on to political philosophy because political life in a democratic society constantly raises value-oriented political-philosophical problems that ought to be taken up as a challenge for empirical political science. Here it becomes evident that political philosophy has its origin in the democratic city-state and especially Athens and that we in a conceptual, theoretical and substantial sense are totally dependent on the formation and discussion of political-philosophical concepts in the schools of ancient Athens (Ober 1994: 154 ff.). From a democratic perspective, there are so many similarities that it is possible to speak about a unity between the ancient Greek and the modern political-philosophical discussion (Kagan 1990: 5 ff.; Ober 1994: 171; Ober & Hedrick 1996: 3 ff.; Wallace 1996: 105 ff.).

The consequence is that we have to find a strategy that gives us the possibility of maintaining democracy as our hermeneutical perspective which can be applied in the interpretation of Plato’s Republic as well.

This should not be understood to say that Plato’s critique of democracy should not be essential. On the contrary, Plato’s critique of democracy suggests fundamental and unavoidable political-philosophical problems in the democratic form of governance, and these should be discussed. The problem in Plato’s critique is that democracy as mentioned is situated in a totalitarian perspective of declining forms of government, where aristocracy, timocracy and oligarchy are regarded as better forms of government than democracy. We must not forget that timocracy translated to modern language is a form of totalitarian military dictatorship and oligarchy a government of the few wealthy people. From a democratic perspective, such forms of government were as unacceptable in Plato’s time as they are today.

The problem is that Plato’s political-philosophical hermeneutic perspective is grounded in an ideal of a city-state, politeia. As a counterpoint, it is necessary to create another hermeneutical perspective while Plato’s Republic is at the same time acknowledged as an essential work for the discussion of the political-philosophical problems in the antique democratic city-state and the modern democracy as well.

In other words, it is not possible to follow Plato in all his construction of the political-philosophical architecture such as it is to be found in the Republic, where he moves from the primitive city-state to the constitution of the ideal city-state, aristocracy, which forms the point of departure for the critique of the other forms of government in decline. There is an inner logic in this construction, one that cannot simply be reconstructed as an opening to a political philosophical dialogue about democracy. Plato’s Republic stands as a political philosophical monument; it is a fort that can only be hermeneutically conquered through a new reading strategy where we do not follow Plato’s construction but on the contrary try to deconstruct Plato’s politeia. There is with other words a need for a deconstruction of all Plato’s enormous construction of politeia with the aim to get in contact with the fundamental problematic in Plato’s philosophy that is relevant for the discussion of antique and modern democracy.

  1. Plato’s way from democratic politics to political philosophy

As an introduction to this deconstruction, it is essential to remark on the dialogical form of the Republic. The dialogical form is the political form of democracy and therefore the reader gets the immediate impression that the Republic must be related to democracy. This impression becomes strengthened because Plato lets Socrates be the proper narrator in the Republic. We know very little about the historical Socrates, but the few sources we have tell us that Socrates was one of the many that walked around at the Athenian agora and discussed the political problems in the city state (Larsen 1990: 35 ff.). Socrates is described as the person who poses questions rather than giving answers. In this way Socrates took part in the public political discussion in the democratic city-state. It is this political discussion that Plato gives a philosophical form. This can be seen as a formative transformation of Socrates’s lively critical outspoken questioning in the political discussion in the agora in Athens to a positive written formulation of a political philosophy in dialogical form in the Republic (Larsen 1990: 53 ff.).

When we start to read the Republic, we immediately become uncertain about what we are dealing with. The reader is presented with a discussing and lecturing Socrates in dialogue with Adeimantus, Glaucon, Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus and several other persons. But who is the discussant Socrates and where is Plato in the dialogue? Is it the historical Socrates who speaks in the dialogues or is Socrates a marionette or spokesman for Plato? Plato does not give any explanation in the Republic or in his other dialogues (Roberts 1994: 72 ff.).

However, in Plato’s letters we can get an impression of the historical content of the formative transformation of Socrates’ living political discussion in the agora to the positive philosophical written discourse in Plato’s dialogues. It is here, especially in Plato’s Seventh Letter to Dion’s relatives and friends that is of interest (Platon 1991c: 323d – 352b). Dion (409 – 354) belonged to the dominant old family in Syracuse on Sicily who Plato visited in 389 – 388, 366 – 365 and 361 – 360. Dion was father-in-law and brother-in-law to Dionysius the Younger who governed in Syracuse 367 – 355 and 346 – 344 and who Plato tried without success to educate to be the philosopher king he had described in the Republic.

The authenticity of the letter has been discussed but it is a widely held among classical philologist that nothing speaks against the authenticity of the source and that it can therefore be used as a historical source (Raven 1965: 25 f.; Gadamer 1985: 249; Larsen 1990: 54; Castoriadis 2002: 121).

At the beginning of the Seventh Letter, Plato presents his understanding of the transformation from politics to philosophy (Platon 1991c: 324b – 326b; Gadamer 1985: 249 ff.). It is essential to make this transformation clear because the key to Plato’s political philosophy should be found here (Ober 1998: 162 ff.). According to the letter, as young man Plato defined the aim of his life as a participation in the public affairs of the city-state, fulfilling the ideal of the son of a citizen with high status. This life perspective collapsed for Plato because of the political events in Athens which he interpreted through the life and death of Socrates.

What characterizes Socrates according to Plato is his righteousness. It is this righteousness that first brought Socrates into conflict with the thirty oligarch’s tyranny in the year 404 – 403 and, later on, with the democrats who ultimately charged him by the people’s court and finally executed him in 399. Plato interprets these events to mean that those at the head of affairs were no longer guided by traditional morals and that the written laws and traditions had lost their significance. In this way, the Seventh Letter expresses a deep political existential crisis in Plato’s life where Plato’s fundamental understanding of life in the city-state collapses.

This is the reason Plato decides to reconstruct the city state in an ideal philosophical form, which he calls ‘the right philosophy’. Plato will with the right philosophy give an account of what is just, both in the city-state and for the single citizen. What follows is that it must be the people who have this insight in the right that should govern the city-state or eventually that it should be the people that govern the city-state who should acquire this insight.

The interesting thing here is that there is no positive mediation between the collapse of Plato’s existential understanding of the city-state and the formulation of the positive political philosophy. Plato identifies all this political-existential collapse figuratively with the judgment and the execution of Socrates who becomes the form through which the new political philosophy can be formulated in the written dialogue. Herewith Plato gets the possibility to formulate his political philosophy in the dialogical form of the democratic city-state at the same time as the content of this philosophy is a trenchant critique of democracy as a form of governance. Plato’s anti-democratic political philosophy is veiled as democratic through the formal form of dialogue that only could and only can take place in a democratic state. Plato’s political philosophy thus gets its place in the democratic city-state just as its content is turned against the democratic city-state’s inherent philosophical problems and institutional arrangements (Monoson 1994: 185 ff.).

In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates discusses with Gorgias, Polus and Callicles. Socrates starts with a critique of Athen’s great politicians, first of all Pericles (Platon 1991a: 515b ff.). Socrates’s main question is whether the great politicians have had the good as ground for their politics and whether they on this ground have had as the only aim to make the Athenians as good as possible: Have the Athenians really been ameliorated by Pericles? Have the Athenians not, on the contrary, been brought into depravation such as it has been told that Pericles made the Athenians lazy, cowardly, chatty, and money-grubbing, because he instituted payment for holding a public office? (Platon 1991a: 515e).

These critical questions go to the root of the Athenian democracy because payment for public offices was a necessary precondition to ensure that all citizens, not at least citizens with limited means, could participate in the political institutions of the city-state (Euben 1994: 202 ff.). The oligarchs regarded this arrangement as the final decline of the city-state that the citizens should be paid for participating in the political life (Dodds 1959: 357).

In contradiction to this arrangement, Socrates poses himself – as Plato’s spokesman – as the only Athenian who tries to preserve true statesmanship (t? a?th?s politik? tekhn?), and the only one who transforms it in practical politics by always taking the best (to beltiston) into consideration and never merely pleasantness (to h?diston) (Platon 1991a: 521d).

Herewith, the contradiction is brought to its extreme between on the one hand the leading Athenian democrats with Pericles in front and on the other hand Plato with Socrates as spokesman. Socrates is according to Plato the only representative for the true statesmanship which is a profession (tekhn?), namely, political philosophy as a tekhn? building on insight into the good (Platon 1991a: 521d). In this way, Socrates becomes the only one who puts political philosophical tekhn? into practical politics, the philosophy Plato in the Seventh Letter named ‘the right philosophy’. This is the fundamental contradiction that is developed in the entire Republic.

  1. Republic – From totalitarian political philosophy to antidemocratic political ideology

At first it is not useful to go into details to determine whether Plato is right in his critique of democracy. The problem lies in the general construction of political philosophy. Under cover of democratically formed dialogue, Plato, with Socrates as his spokesman, constructs the ideal city-state in a long monologue. It is hierarchically constructed with three classes, namely, the leaders with insight, the soldiers with courage and the artisans with sober-mindedness where the right order between classes is determined as justice (Platon 1991b: 432b – 435d). The leaders of the city-state should keep desire under control. This should be done by living promiscuously instead of having a wife and children in one family, by not having any property and by being maintained by the third class or estate (Platon 1991b: 450b – 461d). The coming leaders, finally, should be educated through a long philosophical education which should give them an insight in justice (dikaiosyn?) and virtue or the ability to exercise the good government (Platon 1991b: 444d). The ideal city-state is called a kingdom when it has a single leader, and an aristocracy, which means the government of the best, when it is governed by the few (Platon 1991b: 445d).

This ideal, however, appears to be a perverted ideal model of a city-state which in modern language is governed by something like a combination of consistent rationalized technocracy and a military dictatorship. Plato uses the so-called aristocratic form of government as a platform for criticizing the four known forms of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. It stated in advance that aristocracy is not only a good but also the only and incomparable best form of government, which stands in contradiction to all the other forms of government. If the aristocracy is the right form of government, all the other forms of government must be wrong.

Unfortunately, it is not so easy to reject Plato’s critique of the different forms of government. Plato presents a sharp and precise critique of the four mentioned forms of government, not at least of democracy where the problem of freedom is discussed. Since all forms of government are exposed to a sharp critique, it becomes difficult for the democratic-minded reader to reject the critique as irrelevant. The reader can even come to the conclusion that the Republic is a magnificent philosophical work, which is of course the dominant opinion in the history of philosophy.

However, the problem in Plato’s critique is that, if we accept the critique, it follows that we should also accept the premise of the critique. We must then abandon dialogue because the selected leaders have raised themselves, through their insight, above the dialogue with the many who, according to Plato’s allegory of the cave, have not understood anything (Platon 1991b: 514 ff.).

If the reader does not accept the ideal aristocratic state at the outset, he can assume the political realistic perspective and move further on in the historically well known forms for government. Here we meet, first, timocracy, which is signified as the second best form of government after the kingdom or aristocracy. In modern English usage, this could be determined as a form of military dictatorship while it in the ancient context is most similar to the form of government in the city-state Sparta, what Plato also explicit mentions (Platon 1991b: 544c).

For the democratic minded reader this form of government is not acceptable. He can therefore choose to go on in Plato’s hierarchy of governments to the oligarchy where the few have government by means of their fortune. This model is neither acceptable.

This brings us to democracy where the problem, according to Plato, is that all on equal footing are obsessed with unrestrained freedom and no one has the necessary philosophical qualifications to relate to it. What Plato does not mention is that it is only in the democratic city-state that there is developed a genuine political philosophy through the open and public discussion in the city-state and that all this political-philosophical discussion focuses on the concept of freedom and what follows of it (Hansen 1996: 91 ff.). Plato’s political philosophy is in itself a testimony to open discussion in the democratic city-state. It is not developed in the city-state Sparta he praises but in Athens whose democracy he criticizes (Popper 1962a: 198 – 201).

Plato has a point in his critique of the handling of freedom in the democratic city state. It was a problem how freedom should be handled in the same way as it is a problem in a modern democracy. The excessive desire for freedom leads according to Plato to the dissolution of any authority (Jones 1957: 44 ff.). The examples Plato emphasizes are so ironic and living that they could have been examples taken out of our own time such as the dissolution of the authority in the relation between children and their parents, between teacher and pupil, etc. (Platon 1991b: 562e – 563e). In this connection Plato has also some grotesque and humorous descriptions when he makes ironic remarks about freedom that gains ground overall, even among domestic animals where horses and donkeys have been so conscious of freedom and self-confident that they push against everyone who is standing in their way (Platon 1991b: 563c). In the middle of the irony and the grotesque, Plato asserts that freedom in the democratic city-state only deserves critique.

  1. Popper: How can we organize the political institutions so that bad or incompetent leaders can be prevented from doing too much damage?

On this background, it could be a temptation to recognize Plato’s critique but in that case there is only the possibility in Plato’s universe to move upwards in the hierarchy of forms of government to an oligarchy, a timocracy or an aristocracy. But neither of these forms of government is acceptable and we therefore lack a passage from Plato’s critique to an open discussion of how the problems Plato has pointed at should be understood in a democratic philosophical perspective and how they eventually could be handled in praxis. The reader is enclosed in Plato’s hierarchy where there is no way up the ladder because the one form of government is worse than the other and where there is also no way down, where one man’s tyranny is the only possibility. In short, there is from a democratic perspective no possibility to maneuver in the political philosophical universe of hierarchical forms of government. The reader is enclosed in this philosophical construct which thereafter, as mentioned, is presented as an open philosophical universe which is supported by the Socratic and the democratic deliberation, two sides of the same coin.

On this background, it will be right to characterize Plato’s political philosophy such as it has been presented in the Republic as a totalitarian political philosophy which from a democratic perspective is pointing toward some political philosophical choices where neither of them is acceptable because neither of them satisfy the fundamental democratic oriented demand to every form of government that it as a reflexive relation should be open for discussion.

That is not all that can be said, however. Plato is not only a political philosopher in Athens. He is also exactly what he characterize Socrates as, namely, a statesman or a politician, and he may have considered himself to be that outstanding statesman who had the insight everybody else lacked. This is Popper’s opinion: “Plato speaks here of himself” (Popper 1962a: 154). If this is the case, either Plato becomes at best a philosopher king in his political-philosophical hierarchy or, at worst, a philosophically seductive tyrant.

Popper’s fundamental critique of Plato in The Open Society and its Enemies is that Plato presents a closed universe where the essential thing is who with more or less insight should govern such as it is represented in Plato’s hierarchy of forms of government (Popper 1962a: 121). In contrast Popper claims with a reference to Stuart Mill’s mentioned Considerations on Representative Government that the essential question is not “who should govern” but that political leaders in all forms of political regimes, included democracy, potentially are dangerous and that the right question on that background is: “How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage” (Popper 1962a: 121). It is in extension of this question that Popper points at democracy, not because democracy in its positive determined sense should be the good form of government but on the contrary because democracy does not have this positive determination and therefore permanently has to be determined or legitimized and therefore contains the potential for a permanent critique of any political leader or any form of government.

It is therefore not that case that Popper rejects Plato’s critique of democracy’s tendency to let freedom become unrestrained. However, this was not Popper’s urgent problem when he during the Second World War was sitting as political refugee in New Zealand writing against the totalitarian Nazis and fascist regimes that dominated Europe and the rest of the world. Plato’s political philosophy is from Popper’s perspective totalitarian because it is, like in the allegory of the cave (Platon 1991b: 514a ff.), grounded on the idea that a single or some few persons should be able to reach an insight that all others are excluded from and that this insight thereupon should be able to legitimize the power that these few persons – kings, aristocrats and philosophers – without contradiction should rule over all others in the city-state.

In Popper’s perspective, Plato’s political philosophy can only be characterized as totalitarian whose significance in all its greatness is being worthy of critique because it is inevitable and therefore only can be bypassed with critique. In that sense Plato’s Republic can open an interesting discussion about the democratic city-state and of our modern democracy and in that sense can Plato’s political philosophy still have an inestimable significance for its critiques. Plato’s philosophy is unavoidable; it stimulates political-philosophical discussion to this day. In this connection it is, as a hermeneutical opening to Plato’s political philosophy, worth remembering that Plato not only was a philosopher, he was also a politician and political ideologue – a strong antidemocratic political ideologue in the democratic city-state Athens.

  1. Sophism and tragedy – The sophist’s political philosophy and the tragedy at the theatre as critical reflexive institutions in the antique democracy in Athens

Herewith has the question been raised: what is the alternative to Plato? From a hermeneutical perspective, it is not enough to exercise critique of the antecedent philosophers. The philosophers must first of all be seen in their own time and in their own social and cultural context. Here it is interesting that there is an alternative to Plato, namely the democratic city-state itself with its many cultural and philosophical expressions. In the Republic, Plato turned against all that which we in the light of history see as the great and sublime in the golden age of Athens which is connected to democracy. It lasted with short interruptions from its introduction with Cleisthenes in 507 until 322 where it was turned down by the Macedonians. It is in this relatively short period that democracy becomes developed as a form of government and that there is created the political, military, artistic, architectonic and philosophical institutions that in their unity form the democratic city-state. The summary of this form of government is that it is open. Herewith is meant that the last determinations of the city-state concerning government and social life always is standing to discussion.

It is in this context that philosophy arises as a big living discussion of the fundamental problems in Athens. It is here first of all the sophists that start the philosophical discussions in their teaching of the sons and young men in the Athenian upper class. Some of the sophists are known such as Protagoras (490 – 420), Gorgias (485 – 380), Prodicus (470 – 400) and Hippias (480 – 410), also because they are mentioned in Plato’s dialogues, but there has been ´many others. The sophist have through Plato got a bad reputation as seducers, deniers of truth and strategic rhetoricians and this reputation has been passed on through all the history of philosophy because there as mentioned was no understanding of the fundamental background of philosophy in democracy. From a cultural sociological perspective, Socrates and Plato belong to the same typology as the sophist. They are, from a sociological perspective, only different forms of philosophical schools responding in different ways on the open democratic form of government. When Plato claims that philosophy is something totally different compared to sophism, this can only be understood as a part of his anti-democratic rhetoric where he will repress that it is precisely in the democratic city-state that a living philosophical discussion is taking place.

The other big institution is the theatre, which challenges and emphasizes the reflexivity of life and politics in the democratic city-state. Here we have the three great dramatist Aeschylus (525 – 456), Sophocles (495 – 406) and Euripides (485 – 406) who created the Greek tragedy. It is first of all through the tragedy that substantial individual and common conflicts and dilemmas have been brought to reflection in the broad population in the democratic city-state. But in the Republic, Euripides and the other tragedians are related to tyranny and democracy and they should be forbidden to enter city-states with higher-ranking constitutions such as oligarchy, timocracy and aristocracy. In the Republic it is even said that the poets pass from town to town, letting eminent actors with winning and euphonious voices present their plays for the mob and that they in this way mislead the city-states step by step toward tyranny and democracy (Platon 1991b: 568a-d).

  1. Pericles’ funeral oration – the democratic alternative to the totalitarian political philosophy

Plato’s main adversary is Pericles (495 – 429), who is the great leader of democracy in Athens and who Plato see as the person before all others who has contributed to the decline of Athens such as Plato had experienced it (Rhodes 2010: 59 ff.).

Pericles’s speech in the popular assembly has never been published but Thucydides has a reproduction of the famous funeral oration for the fallen in the first year of The Peloponnesian War 431 – 404 (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXIV, 1 – XLVII, 1). In Pericles funeral oration, we find a positive and idealized reproduction of democracy in Athens which in any sense constitute a counterpoint not only in relation to Plato’s critique of democracy but also in relation to all Plato’s political philosophy such as it is presented in the Republic (Loraux 1981: 183 ff.). It is the dominating opinion among philologists that Thucydides’s reception of the funeral oration in all essentiality can be led back to Pericles and therefore can be used as a historical source (Sicking 1995: 404 – 425; Bosworth 2000: 1-16).

In Pericles’s edition of democracy, it is freedom which is presented before all other things as the foundation of the democratic city-state – just as Plato also is pointing at and criticizes in the Republic. Pericles makes a clear distinction between private and public life (Thunderbird 1967: Livre II, XXXVII, 1). The individual citizen should as a private person follow the city-states laws, but apart from that, the city-state should be governed by tolerance and every person should have the right to live in a way which he finds appropriate for himself. In contrast, public life is about doing the good for the benefit of the city-state (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXVII, 2).

In the democratic city-state, pleasure and joy is according to Pericles high evaluated. There are festive competitions in the city, beauty and pleasure has significance in the public and the private life, and there is a rich business with other states that gives access to all the worlds’ commodities (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXVIII).

In military practice, the democratic city-state is according to Pericles an open city where all can see what happens and where nothing is hidden for enemies because military strength not only builds on preparation and strategies but also on individual strength and the ability to exercise judgment in the situation (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXIX, 1). This personal ability is according to Pericles related to the education with a free training where the personality is educated to easily act on his own judgment in the concrete situation, contrary to the Spartan who is only able to make war with military discipline and who has no personal courage (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXIX, 2).

The citizen who does not take part in the public life of the city-state is according to Pericles useless. The public discussion takes place in the city-state in which all problems can be deliberated in common before action (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 3). In this way the Athenians are, according to Pericles, able with greater boldness to make a plan, because the largest inner strength is to be found by those who recognize both the horrifying and the pleasant and on that background does not fall back before the danger. In this context the Athenians should not according to Pericles be afraid of helping others instead of awaiting help from others (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 4).

Pericles presentation of the democratic city-state has a philosophical ground. Pericles says that “we are cultivating the beautiful in simplicity without resorting to the bombastic” (philokaloum?n te gar met’euteleias) (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 1). Herewith is meant that the beautiful is subordinated an aesthetic judgment which the Athenians are able to pronounce (Kakridis 1961: 47 ff.; Castoriadis 1997: 287 f.; Castoriadis 2008: 163 ff.). In the same way Pericles presents also a moral criteria for practice which is expressed as follows: “we take the philosophical deliberation serious without losing the determination (philosophoumen aneu malakias)” (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 1). This means that the Athenians are able to integrate the philosophical perspective, deliberation, and to let this deliberation be the ground for a decision and the following action (Kakridis 1961: 47 ff.; Castoriadis 1997: 287 f.; Castoriadis 2008: 163 ff.). This aesthetic, moral and practical deliberation gives the Athenians the possibility to take care of both their private affairs in the house (oikos) and the public affairs in the city-state (polis) with insight (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 2).

Pericles’s conclusion is, that “Athens is a mentor for the rest of Hellas” and Athens is the city where each single citizen autonomously in one person can unite the most forms of practice with a versatile happiness in life’s beauty (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXXI, 1).

It should be clear that Pericles’s funeral oration expresses many essential features of the democratic city-state. It applies both to the private freedom to live and act as desired and to the public freedom to deliberate together with citizens about the common affairs, commonly to establish the laws for the city and participate in the united warfare. This should all be done by developing the practical, the aesthetic and the moral sense, that is the philosophy which according to Pericles is included in every life situation.

Pericles’s funeral oration should have been kept around 430 and Plato’s Republic should have been written around 380. Historically, Pericles’ funeral speech is prior to Plato’s Republic, but it is also in a philosophical sense prior in the way that it is Pericles and in a broader sense the democratic city-state Athens that poses the agenda that Plato criticize fifty years later. According to Karl Popper, Plato’s critique of democracy is both an expression of a totalitarian political program and a totalitarian political philosophy (Popper 1962a: 86 ff.). Today, it should no longer be possible to maintain Plato’s hermeneutical political-philosophical perspective on democracy in Athens. The hermeneutic perspective should be turned around. It is Pericles and the democracy in Athens that are prior to the totalitarian critique of democracy. However, this is not the end of the reading of Plato. In fact, it has only just begun – and it should continue as a further deconstruction of Plato’s totalitarian political philosophy and practice – and in a further perspective it should continue in a deconstructive reading of all forms of totalitarian political philosophy.


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Loraux, Nicole (1981): L’invention d’Athènes – Histoire de l‘oraison funèbre dans la cité classique”, Paris: Mouton Éditeur.

Mill, John Stuart (1991, [1860]): Considerations on Representative Government, New York: Prometheus Books.

Monoson, S. Sara (1994): “Frank Speech, Democracy, and Philosophy: Plato’s Debt to a Democratic Strategy of Civic Discourse” i J. Peter Euben, John R. Wallach and Josiah Ober, Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, s. 172 – 197.

Ober, Josiah (1994): “How to Criticize Democracy in Late Fifth- and Fourth-Century Athens” i J. Peter Euben, John R. Wallach and Josiah Ober, Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, s. 149 – 171.

Ober, Josiah & Hedrick, Charles (1996): “Democracies Ancient and Modern” i Josiah Ober & Charles Hedrick, D?mokratia – A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, s. 3 – 16.

Ober, Josiah (1998): Political Dissent in Democratic Athens – Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Plato (1969). The Republic, Volume I, Books I-V, With an English translation by Paul Shorey, The Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann, London and Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Platon (1991a): Gorgias i Platon Sämtliche Werke II, Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag.

Platon (1991b): Politeia i Platon Sämtliche Werke V, Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag.

Platon (1991c): Siebenter Brief i Platon Sämtliche Werke X, Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag.

Popper, K. R. (1962a, [1945]): The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1, The Spell of Plato, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Popper, K. R. (1962b, [1945]): The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 2, The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift. Interviews & Debates 1974-1997 (translated by Helen Arnold; New York: Fordham University Press, 2010)

In the decades of “Socialisme ou Barbarie”, Castoriadis moved away form Marxist theory and further developed his powerful criticism of the Soviet Union, which he categorized as a bureaucratic party state and eventually a state defined by “stratocracy”, rather than a socialist one. In the beginning of the 1970s he became a French citizen, whilst also quitting his position as an economist at the OECD.

Still he was very active in shifts and turns of the political struggle and in addition to formal written and published texts, some of his important contributions were given in occasional papers and interviews. A selection of these occasional papers and interviews from this period of Castoriadis’ life are published in the book reviewed hereby, A Society Adrift. This is an English translation of the book, which was published originally in French, following a complex editorial affaire caused by the issuing of competing anonymous open-access online translations of Castoriadis’ writings.

The book is divided into two parts. The first one deals with Castoriadis’ basic concepts or problématique, such as the concepts of “autonomy” or the “Project of Autonomy” and “Imaginary significations”. In this part there is also a long interview and revealing reflection from 1974 on the period of “Socialism ou Barbarie”, entitled “Why I am no longer a Marxist”. In the second part of the book there are interviews and texts were his problématique is applied to specific issues.

All in all the collection of texts and the book structure give a comprehensive overview of part of Castoriadis’ career, especially the period after “Socialisme ou Barbarie” had been dissolved. As the editors of the book state in their introduction to the French edition, the book can serve a double purpose. On the one hand it can be a useful guide for those who encounter for the first time Castoriadis’ writings and ideas. On the other hand the book can also serve as a “handy résumé” of Castoriadis’ positions and stands on different issues. For both these purposes there is a useful addition to the texts themselves, because the book has a special chapter comprising an extensive chronology and bio-bibliography, which greatly facilitates the understanding of the context of the different publications and relates them to important facts in Castoriadis’ life. This adds greatly to the value of the book. By the same token, the editors’ note to the French edition and a good deal of their footnotes is very beneficial.

The publication of this collection of texts by Cornelius Castoriadis is in itself a worthy enterprise at any time. To publish it immediately following a major financial collapse in western liberal democracies, which Castoriadis dubbed “liberal oligarchies”, shows indeed an exceptionally good timing. The awakening of the public interest in politics and the general participation of common people in all sorts of protests and discussion on how to rebuild society is in essence an exercise in democratic thinking. It is an exercise in direct and participatory democracy. It questions the representative democracy that has been a “democracy” without “democrats”, leading to the withdrawal of citizens from public affairs, which Castoriadis criticized.

The concepts of the “project of autonomy” and also the notion of the “Imaginary significations” are in fact an interesting framework for the analysis of the present situation in western liberal democracies. They can become a meaningful contribution to the diverse discussion and understanding that is to be found in the wide variety of grass-root and protest movements calling for democracy, democratic participation and the democratic reconstruction of society.

Castoriadis has something to offer present-day radicals. He produces a general theoretical framework that emphasises autonomy in the sense that both individuals and society are aware that they themselves are the continuous creators of laws and regulations of society through direct democracy. But in doing so he also points out to the new radical generation that the answers are not to be found in some external forces, be they liberal phrases like the “rule of law”, the “market economy” or totalitarian conceptions of historical necessity of some sort.

The publication of Castoriadis’ texts and interviews in the book A Society Adrift is thus a well-timed and interesting enterprise. The book itself and its cover are a nice artefact of about 260 pages: the 1926 painting of the Dadaist George Grosz, “Eclipse of the Sun”, is a very fitting picture on the book’s cover!

Christian Joerges and Ernst-Ulrich Petersmann (eds.), Constitutionalism: Multilevel Trade Governance and International Economic Law (Hart Publishing: Studies in International Trade Law, 2011)

The overarching approach, as pioneered by the two editors, Christian Joerges and Ernst-Ulrich Petersmann, is to examine the practices of States and other international actors (principally the WTO) and explores these within the political and legal theory of constitutionalism. Where this work differs from much of the comparable scholarship on international economic law is the central place reserved for the individual as a key player (and beneficiary) of international economic relations. Much scholarship exists on international trade from States’ perspectives; and much has been devoted to exploring the contradictions and tensions between international economic law, individual rights and sustainable development. Recognizing that “human rights law and international trade law evolved as separate legal regimes” (p. 17) Constitutionalism, Multilevel Trade Governance and International Economic Law makes a positive case for interpreting international economic law and international human rights as complimentary systems that ought to be brought closer together; indeed, to form a single, coherent system of law. It is an implicit response to concerns about the fragmentation of international law and reflects the classical principle of interpretation of treaties as codified in the Vienna Convention in the Law of Treaties 1969 that: “There shall be taken into account, together with the context, any relevant rules of international law applicable in the relations between the parties” (article 31(3)(c)). With this in mind, international economic law is viewed as a tool to serve human interests, as opposed to the interests of States and multi-national corporations. Responding to the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ call for a “human-rights approach to trade,” (p. 22) the book provides both an account of the normative basis that would legitimise such an approach by the WTO and makes proposals for how that process might evolve.

The introductory chapter (Petersmann) provides a theoretical framework for what follows, examining different forms of constitutions and constitutional ideas (democratic constitutionalism, rights-based constitutions, national and international constitutionalism, international constitutional democracy and federal and con-federal constitutions) (p7-8). Petersmann also distinguishes process-based constitutional democracies (most common law models) and substantive rights-based constitutional democracies (the continental approach) which provides the setting for much of what follows (pp. 13, 16).

The later edition contains 4 new chapters exploring conflicts-law as constitutional forum and the role that various doctrines in international private law might play in dispute settlement in international economic law (Christian Joerges); the World Trade Organisation and global administrative law (Richard Stewart and Michelle Ratton Sanchez Badin); the interrelationships between different layers of domestic and international governance as a “Five-Storey House” (Thomas Cottier); and a research agenda on the future developments of international economic law (Petersmann).

Petersmann concludes with four propositions based on the contributions as well as his own research. First, the legitimacy of international economic law pivots on its congruence with international human rights standards (p. 539). Second, there is a need for constitutional constraints on international institutions as there is within domestic States based upon “constitutional pluralism,” meaning that there is a range of acceptable constitutional arrangements and no single system that should be required of all players (p. 540). Third, in order to protect global public goods, such as the atmosphere and climate, a “paradigm shift” is required and this involves moving from a system of industry actors to the centralization of human subjects and Petersmann points to the European Union for leadership to this end (pp. 571-2). Fourth, international constitutionalism is necessary to guarantee global public goods in the same way that domestic constitutions have protected supply of public goods on a national scale. The international constitutional system must be rights-based, participatory and democratic (p. 575).

When the first edition of this text was published in 2006, mainstream commentators were not yet ready to question the bases of the international economic order and the priority of trade liberalism. Two years later, the rapid declines of the Nordic and Mediterranean economies of Iceland, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain were met with attacks on human rights and human security. Both the original crisis and the responses of international institutions to the same have led to much soul searching about the principles and priorities of international trade and this volume is a welcome contribution to that debate, sometimes controversial and always challenging. On the other hand, recent events within the Eurozone raise some questions regarding to the extent to which the European Union can be considered a model of international, constitutional, democratic, rights-based governance (compare p. 21) especially if one considers the means by which Iceland (outside of the European Union) has crawled back to economic growth while attempting to protect its most vulnerable residents compared with the demands placed on the Eurozone economies. Something more seems to be needed even within an international organization that positions fundamental individual rights at the heart of its formal constitution. Perhaps the answers are to be found in multilevel trade governance; perhaps they await further research, and one can only hope that the scholars involved in this project continue to devote their considerable talents to challenging the paradoxes and contradictions of the current international structures to develop a regime that remembers it is an instrument for human development, instead of viewing human beings as instruments for its own development.

Die Versprachlichung des Sakralen: The Transformation of the Authority of the Sacred into Secular Political Deliberation in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action

Taking Weber’s thesis in consideration, it seems difficult to uphold Habermas’ thesis about a happy transformation of the sacred into deliberation. The consequence is that morality can only be successful in so far as the validity claims of communicative ethics can be institutionalized in modern society without any reference to holiness. This seems also to be the general conclusion in Habermas’ work – ironically apart from his theory of secularization.

Cornelius Castoriadis’ theory of the imaginary institution and Claude Lefort’s theory of the empty place of the political as a new insecure moral ground for modern society are presented together as an alternative theory of secularization which can serve as a new framework for Habermas’ theory of communicative ethics and deliberative politics in modern society.


  • Die Versprachlichung des Sakralen 

It has been astonishing to observe over the last decade a growing interest for religion not only in more or less premodern societies around the world, but also in the western world. The many theories about secularization seem to have been shocked by this reappearance of religion and this can give a good reason to reconsider what could be a common ground for a modern secular society. Here I find the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ thesis about die Versprachlichung des Sakralen, the linguistification of the sacred, especially interesting, because Habermas has formulated an optimistic theory about how the sacred could be safeguarded in a harmonious transformation into deliberation in modern society. By discussing this theory the aim should be to try to understand why secular society has not been safeguarded from discussions of religion such as has been the case in the last decade.

In connection with his development of the theory of communicative action, Habermas claims that the sacred is transformed in a positive way and can take the form of free deliberation in society (Habermas 1981, II: 118 ff.; Habermas 1989, II, 77 ff.). Habermas speaks in this connection about die Versprachlichung des Sakralen. The thesis is that the authority which could be found in religion, and which is of fundamental significance for the integration of pre-modern societies, is taken over by modern society in forms of deliberation.

Habermas develops this thesis in a discussion of Durkheim’s religious-sociological considerations about the transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity. Durkheim indicates this transformation of the authority of law from unconditional, which is exercised through punishment, to contractual, which is exercised through debate, proceedings and compromise. Habermas interprets this transformation of law in saying that the contract represents a linguistic transformation of law that has similarities with the linguistic transformation of the authoritative character of religions in modern society. But so far as I can see, this argument is not valid because we cannot compare religion and civil law in this way. Law can be compared to religion because law in different ways has its origin in religion. But this argument cannot be turned around. Religion cannot be explained by law. I should like to add that, in my opinion, Durkheim is not the most interesting of the classical sociologists with regard to religious-sociological considerations, because he is mostly occupied with primitive religions, which is the case in his main work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Durkheim 1960: 67 ff.; Durkheim 1995: 45 ff.).

Habermas would not have been able to make the same analysis if he had taken his point of departure in Max Weber’s religious-sociological investigations, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, which in my opinion are much more qualified and differentiated than Durkheim’s sociology of religion (Weber 1988). Weber studied most forms of religions to find out what significance they have had for the integration of different societies. Weber’s conclusion is that the essential significance of religion in society is to give an explanation of how the divine, and in that sense God’s world, can be just when at the same time injustice is dominant in society (Weber 1988a: 242; 571 – 573.). Religion has had the significance to give a solution to this problem of theodicy in all forms of society so that social injustice did not disrupt social integration. The Judaic and Christian religions have here a special status compared to other religions, because the theodicy problem in these traditions is displaced into a demand for a realization of justice in society. This religious claim of social justice is later secularized and integrated in the European tradition of jurisprudence.

  • Weber’s theory of secularization

Weber discusses the question of secularization in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1988b; Weber 1995). He shows in this analysis that the sacred, the absolute authority of religion, is dissolved in the secularization of European culture and that we therefore have lost the relation to religious authority. This is a much more interesting thesis than Durkheim’s thesis. It is also this thesis of Weber which is the real challenge for Habermas and which he discusses throughout his theory of communicative action. Therefore, we also find later on in Habermas’ analysis of the linguistic transformation of the sacred a discussion where Habermas relates directly to Weber’s theory of secularization, rationalization and differentiation of the occidental culture (Habermas 1981, II: 140; Habermas 1989, II, 92). Here Habermas, in the spirit of Weber, points out that neither occidental science nor art can be the heir of religion. The occidental science is founded upon the criteria of objectivity and art is founded upon the criteria of subjective taste.

According to Habermas, it is only communicative-oriented morals that are able to replace the authority of religion (Habermas 1981, II: 140; Habermas 1989, II, 92). However, this is not valid from Weber’s religious-sociological perspective. According to Weber, the authority of the sacred is dissolved through the secularization of modern society. This is the reason why Weber, in the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, concludes that we in the occidental culture are dominated by the technical-instrumental rationality because we no longer have a reference to the sacred, which at the end is necessary to uphold morality in any society (Weber 1988b: 202 ff.; Weber 1995: 180 ff..). The paradox is that Habermas follows Weber in this thesis, although he does not follow Weber in his analysis where he, as mentioned, tries to rescue the authority of the sacred in a new secularized form through his reading of Durkheim’s religious-sociological work.

With this background, I will try to sum up my own interpretation. Habermas’ first critique of Weber, which formed the starting point for all of Habermas’ analyses in his theory of communicative action, was that Weber had too narrow an understanding of the rationalization of the occidental culture, because he confounded the potentials of the cultural rationalization with the technical-instrumental rationalization that has taken place historically. I do not only follow Habermas in this critique of Weber; I try to strengthen it because I think that the occidental culture has also been historically rationalized in a communicative direction through historical events such as the Renaissance, the Protestant reformations in their various forms, and through political reformations and revolutions such as the British Glorious Revolution and the French Revolution. Weber does not take these forms of communicative rationalization into regard in his understanding of occidental culture; he is only concerned with the technical-instrumental rationalization. On this point, I think Habermas is right in his critique of Weber. However, I follow Weber in his theory of rationalization of the occidental culture in the sense that I think Weber is right in pointing out that the authority of the sacred is dissolved in this process of rationalization, which could also be called a process of secularization. The question is now what the consequences are for the understanding of the authority and validity of communicative ethics.

The question of the validity of communicative ethics depends on the rational communication in which there can be given good reasons for a specific moral opinion. This is a philosophical problem that Habermas to my mind has treated in a persuasive way. However, the problem is that good reasons are not enough. Habermas sees correctly that in moral questions there is also a problem of authority and he tries to solve this problem through his reading of Durkheim’s religious sociology. But if we follow Weber, the question is whether communicative ethics can acquire an authority in modern society that corresponds to the authority that religions have in pre-modern societies. In this connection, I think Habermas has too widespread an understanding of religion in pre-modern society. Habermas has the understanding that religion in general could give an immediate authority in pre-modern society. But to my mind this is not the case. We have to take into consideration that the authority of religion in pre-modern society was not a free-floating authority. On the contrary, it was mediated through the practice in religious institutions, first of all through cult and worship and secondly through theology in higher forms of religion. Therefore, the authority of religion was not free-floating but bound to institutions in pre-modern society. In the spirit of Durkheim we could even say that it is the institution that gives the authority to religion.

The consequence of this is that communicative action and communicative ethics should be seen in relation to institutions in the same way. From a sociological perspective the decisive point is whether communicative ethics can be institutionalized in modern society, which means the same as whether the institutions of modern society can take such a form that they can mediate communicative ethics in practice.

  • A tragic theory of secularization

The validity of communicative ethics depends upon a philosophical point of view on the tenability of the validity claims. But from a sociological perspective, this is not sufficient. Here the question is whether communicative ethics can be institutionalized in the same way as the authority of the sacred became institutionalized in religion in pre-modern societies. So far as I can see, this is also the line Habermas follows and which he tries to develop in the continuation of his theory of communicative action. But if we do not accept Habermas’ linguistic transformation of the sacred, which I, as previously mentioned, do not, then the consequence for the sociological understanding of communicative ethics is that the claim of its institutionalization is radicalized. Modernity has only a linguistic reference to itself; there are no other references. This internal self-reference can only be upheld if the philosophical validity claims can find their place in practice in the institutions of society.

Habermas presents his thesis about the linguistic transformation of the sacred as a harmonious theory of secularization and therefore it has been an easy target for his critics. However, if we follow Weber in his religious-sociological considerations of modernity, we reach a tragic theory of secularization that poses the real problem that the social ethical challenge consists in securing the institutionalization of the validity claims of communicative ethics in modern society.

The consequence is that Habermas’ theory of die Versprachlichung des Sakralen should be placed in an alternative theoretical framework. In this context, it can be fruitful to look at the philosophers Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort who have pointed at an alternative theory of secularization where they emphasize the imaginary of the political as an alternative to the imaginary of the sacred as the normative ground for modern democratic society.

  • Castoriadis – The imaginary institution of society

Cornelius Castoriadis developed the concept of the imaginary in his major work The Imaginary Institution of Society (Castoriadis 1975; 1987). Castoriadis defines the concept of the imaginary in this way:

The imaginary of which I am speaking is not an image of. It is the unceasing and essentially undetermined (social-historical and psychical) creation of figures/forms/images, on the basis of which alone there can ever be a question of ‘something’. What we call ‘reality’ and ‘rationality’ is its works. …… What I term elucidations is the labor by means of which individuals attempt to think about what they do and to know what they think. This, too, is a social-historical creation. The Aristotelian division into theoria, praxis and poiesis is derivative and secondary. History is essentially poiesis, not imitative poetry, but creation and ontological genesis in and through individuals’ doing and representing/saying. This doing and this representing/saying are also instituted historically, at a given moment, as thoughtful doing or as thought in the making (Castoriadis 1975: 7–8; Castoriadis 1987: 3 – 4).

According to Castoriadis, society is not only in a permanent historical creation but also in a permanent historical creation of imagination, which forms the ground for a following possibility of creation of objectivity, meaning, etc. that have to be interpreted. Castoriadis speaks of elucidations (élucidation), an enlightenment that must be understood in a hermeneutical sense, which harmonizes well with the fact that he takes his phenomenological approach to the interpretation of history from Heidegger. Thus, the imaginary is a critical hermeneutical interpretation of the social, an interpretation (une élucidation) that takes place ultimately in the political as a project (un projet politique). According to Castoriadis, the political is the ultimate horizon of interpretation for the social and societal.

The important thing is that Castoriadis’ definition of the imaginary can be understood as something historically created, which is to be interpreted through critical hermeneutics. The political forms the general horizon of understanding for hermeneutics. Thus, the political becomes an approach to the interpretation of the social and, secondarily, forms the basis for the interpretation of political institutions in a larger interpretation of social life.

In French, there is a clear linguistic distinction between the political (le politique) and politics (la politique), which is a limited form of action within particular institutions and systems in society (Interview with Marcel Gauchet, Philosophie Magazine N°7). In modern Anglo-American political science, this distinction is, for the most part, lost or maintained as a distinction between political philosophy and empirical political science. The problem with this approach is that the political then loses its meaning as a social fact that is generally determinative for politics, and that political science then loses its relation to the determinative horizon of understanding within the political.

The central point is that Castoriadis’ understanding of the creation of the imaginary in the form of the political can be seen as a competing concept to Weber’s concept of the sacred. In this connection it should be emphasized that according to Castoriadis, it is only in the Antique democratic city-state and later on in the modern democratic state that politics is conceptualized and, therefore, it is in the Antique democratic city-state that the political historically first is constituted. This coincides with the fact that it is only the democratic city-state and later on modern democracies that have freedom as the central focal point. In Castoriadis’ perspective history has mostly been dominated by totalitarian states and societies.

  • Lefort – … from the speech of power to the power of speech

This is also the premise of Claude Lefort’s analysis that most societies in history are of a totalitarian character and that the democratic city-states in antiquity and the democratic states in modern times form an exception or a breach with the dominance of totalitarianism. Lefort develops his ideas in a critique of the totalitarian Eastern European societies and states, and he uses the French Revolution as an important historical example of the transition from a totalitarian society to a free society.

What is important in Lefort’s analysis of the French Revolution is that the prince as the incarnation of the totalitarian state is replaced through the revolution by “un lieu vide”, an empty place (Lefort 1986b: 27; Lefort 1988b: 17 f.). Whereas power in the totalitarian state is substantial as an incarnation in the prince, it can only be representative and symbolic in the democratic state, because this lieu vide cannot be occupied substantially. In this way, a new symbolic order is constituted in which democratic society is instituted as a society without a body (sans corps), in which the organic totality in the form of the prince is brought to an end (Lefort 1986b: 28; Lefort 1988b: 18). Democratic society thus becomes a society that, from a philosophical point of view, is in permanent incertitude, because it can never have any real substantial definition. Any definition can only stand as long as it is not made problematic.

This is especially clarified in Lefort’s analysis in the essay ‘Interpreting Revolution within the French Revolution’, that the empty place, le lieu vide, presents the fundamental change in the imaginary of society from the regime of the powers word to the spoken words power, or with Lefort’s word: “But whereas it was once the speech of power which ruled, it is now the power of speech” (Lefort 1986c: 134; Lefort 1988c: 110).

It is this idea that provides the foundation for the understanding that language is the ground of democracy, insofar as it is the essence of language that any statement can only acquire validity by being made problematic. We can say that Habermas develops the idea in Lefort’s political philosophy in a differentiated way including the whole problem of practice and institutions in a modern democratic society. It is Lefort’s paradoxical political-philosophical thesis on permanent incertitude as the cohesive binding in modern society that makes it clear that it is only the possibility of criticism that can lead to the constitution of a morally founded order in modern society. The moral order in modern society is paradoxical; it cannot have a substantial character relating to the sacred or something similar as the moral order has been understood throughout most of history, including our own time. This moral order can only exist in modern society through the possibility for criticism – thus, the moral order cannot ultimately be defined but must be kept open in the sense that it always is in the process of being defined.

It is this abstract definition that we see play out in modern democratic society. Governments are changed regularly, presidents only hold office for limited periods and laws are reformulated when necessary. From a substantive moral and political point of view, this must all seem irrational and reprehensible. But the rationality consists of the fact that le lieu vide has replaced the substantive and, therefore, it would be irrational and totalitarian from this point of view to refer to a positive substantive morality. Norms are constituted by raising questions as to their validity.

  • The union of ethics and politics

Here we find the mediation between Lefort and Habermas. The central point in Habermas’ work is similar to Lefort’s, namely that language is constituting society and in that sense is its fundamental institution. Society has to be understood through language. This is the way whereby Habermas gives the key to understanding the mediation between ethics and politics. Ethics and politics become the two sides of one and the same matter.

Communicative ethics is a Kantian form of language-ethics in which it is possible in positive terms to determine the criteria for action. But Habermas goes beyond Kant’s ethics in three ways. Firstly, in Kant’s ethics, there is an impassable distinction between, on the one hand, the intelligible world, in which the free will and duty in the categorical imperative is found; and, on the other hand, the phenomenal world, which is dominated by desire, subjective motives and institutions (Habermas 1991: 20 f). In communicative ethics, this distinction is mediated through the common use of language. Secondly, communicative ethics transgresses through the public discussion the inner Kantian monologue about the maxims for action. Thirdly, the Kantian problem of the reasonable justification of ethics is transformed into a problem of universal argumentation in dialogue with the other.

The central thing is that discourse ethics is consolidated in the immediate use of language, and that it is not possible to transcend this usage because language is the fundamental instance which is simultaneously used in an immediate sense.

This leads us to the discussion of politics, which according to Habermas is also based on the immediate linguistic practice in the public sphere. This understanding represents a discourse-theoretical transformation of the Kantian understanding of politics. There is in this understanding of politics a moral dimension insofar as the ethical maxims should provide the basis for the general law. However, whereas Kant’s morals are bound to individual reason, morals in discourse ethics are bound to public deliberation where maxims are determined, which should be the basis for common law. In this way the same problems in Kant’s understanding of politics find their solution as in his understanding of ethics. These are the contradiction between the idealistic and the phenomenological perspective, the transgression of the monologue and finally the problem of the justification of norms. Following this, politics can, according to Habermas, be determined as a public deliberation between the implicated parties about problems which concern them all, and as a determination of the maxims which should be the basis for determination of the common law. There is in this way an inner connection between ethics and politics that makes them into the two sides of one and the same matter. On the one hand, ethics cannot be sustained without politics because ethical deliberation must take place between people in the public sphere, and this is also the determination of politics. On the other hand, politics can only be sustained on the background of the discussion of the maxims that underlie the common law, and this is also the determination of ethics. The public sphere is the common meeting place for ethics and politics because both ethics and politics demand the possibility of public deliberation.

  • Bifurcation – negation – validity claims

The public sphere is constituted through the immediate and free public dialogue between people. It is the use of language that constitutes the public sphere, and there is no public sphere except through the use of language. However, the public sphere can be institutionalized. That means that a possibility can be secured for a public dialogue in advance. This is the precondition for politics and political institutions in modern society insofar as there could not be any politics without a public sphere. This is an abstract ideal type in the Weberian sense, which can be further developed in a philosophical, sociological, political-scientific and historical perspective.

The essential matter is to maintain the fundamental unity between ethics and politics, which in principle cannot be divided. This is the positive Kantian perspective. This is broken up in practice, when we take the Hegelian perspective. Modern society, according to Hegel, is bifurcated (Entzweiung), which has the consequence that moral unity cannot be sustained. However, this principle does not abolish the close connection between ethics and politics but it makes the connection more differentiated and complicated. The public sphere can no longer be sustained in the singular. In practice, it takes the form of a plurality of voices that cannot form a harmonious symphony and where it is not consensus but dissent that dominates. Therefore, the public sphere and critical discussion should be viewed as existing together in modern society.

Habermas himself is aware of this and speaks in several works about das Nein-sagen-Können, i.e. about the possibility to negate, the determinate negation, and try out the validity of a proposition (Habermas 1981, II, 113 ff.; Habermas 1989, II, 73 ff.; Habermas 1992: 394, 515; Habermas 1996: 324; 427). However, the principle of negation does not suspend the Hegelian bifurcation. The consequence is that it is not possible from a sociological and a political-scientific perspective to retain the thought of consensus as the fundamental condition for politics in modern society. However, this is not the essential point. The essential point is that politics has its centre in the dialogues taking place in the many public spheres and that it is possible from a philosophical perspective to test the validity of a statement. This represents a negative reading of Kant and Habermas, which aims at retaining the validity claims that are the fundamental crux of the matter in their political philosophies. This negative reading of Kant’s and Habermas’ political philosophies is not in principle suspended by the reality principle, such as it is represented in the traditions of sociology and political sciences. In these traditions, politics must be regarded by necessity as a positive concrete matter, which is subject to the reality principle insofar as praxis is bound to positive action. Nevertheless, the validity claims are not sustained by the reality principle. They constitute the instance that makes it possible to justify human action in the perspective of the reality principle.

In this way we reach an understanding of politics that contains both a reality principle, in the form of the linguistic praxis under the conditions that are given in modern society, and a philosophical principle, which concerns the questioning of the validity of this praxis. The concept of praxis must by necessity be a positive determination; the concept of validity must by necessity be a negative determination. Therefore, there must by necessity be a contradiction in politics between the positive and the negative determinations, which neither can nor should be dissolved. It is fatal only to regard politics under the perspective of the reality principle, and it is an illusion only to regard politics under the perspective of negation, without any relation to the reality principle. It is necessary all the time to take both perspectives into consideration when we deliberate about politics. We have to have both a Kantian and a Hegelian perspective on politics all the time. This is possible in Habermas’ political philosophy.

  • Civil society

Habermas’ political philosophy is fundamentally a Kantian political philosophy, insofar as his fundamental problem is to discuss the possibility to raise the validity claims for moral and political action, which he imagines can be done through free deliberation between the implicated parties. The great problem arises when the Hegelian perspective is introduced, where Habermas has to explain how such a deliberation can take place in modern society. It could be said that Habermas introduces a communicative transformation of the Hegelian perspective. Habermas points, like Hegel, at the decisive significance of civil society for moral order in modern society. In civil society the citizens can form associations in which they can discuss their common business. Hegel relates civil society to these associations, whereas Habermas has a much broader concept of civil society, which contains many different forms of associations, societies, unions, organizations, and so on. However, at the same time he also restricts the concept of civil society, insofar as he has a tendency to regard state and economic reproduction of society from a pure systemic perspective, as he describes in his theory of communicative action.

It is not appropriate to restrict the concept of civil society in this way, because a large part of the interaction in modern society, in which state and economics have a great influence, is excluded. This concept of civil society excludes the many institutions in a modern welfare society such as schools, health care, childcare, care of the elderly, and so on, which are organized by states and municipalities, and economic institutions that also have a central role in this connection. Therefore, I work with the broadest possible concept of civil society, which not only contains the institutions that are organized immediately by citizens, but also institutions that are mediated through the state and economy insofar as they are related to the immediate life of the citizens. This concept can be claimed when we, in accordance with Habermas, focus on the public sphere as the centre of civil society, in that it is more the form of communication than the function that is essential for the determination of the institutions in civil society.

Civil society is characterized by a plurality of communication in a plurality of public spheres which all relate to the immediate life of the citizens. This interaction includes not only social movements and associations of citizens, but also state-organized institutions and corporations, insofar as they all play their role in the citizens’ communication in the public sphere. Herewith is raised the old Hegelian problem of whether it could be possible to sum up this variety of communications in the many public spheres in a common morality.

Hegel tried to solve the problem by saying that it should be the state that mediates the contradictions in civil society. The state was therefore seen as being prior to civil society. However, this had the consequence that there could be a tendency in Hegel’s concept of the state to disregard the interaction between state and civil society, and to focus instead on the sovereignty of the state in relation to civil society. This is the reason why Hegel’s concept of the state has often been regarded as a totalitarian concept. However, Hegel is right in saying that the state is prior to civil society in the sense that there could not be a civil society without a state. The problem is whether it could be possible to create mediation between civil society and state.

According to Habermas, it is through the political institutions of democratic society that the many discussions in the public spheres of civil society can be mediated to political decisions. Habermas speaks in his chief work concerning legal philosophy, Between Facts and Norms, about ‘sluices’ through which the deliberations in civil society can be mediated and transformed to decisions in the political institutions (Habermas 1992: 431 ff; Habermas 1996: 356). However, Habermas is not able to give a conclusive solution to the Hegelian problem of meditation between civil society and the state. On the one hand, the deliberations in civil society should only seek to influence the political institutions. In that sense, Habermas’ understanding of civil society relates very much to Hegel’s. But there is no necessity in this influence. On the other hand, the political institutions can only be representative through procedures which are acceptable to all parties in society (Habermas 1992: 449 ff.; Habermas 1996: 371 ff.). Finally, it seems that we are confronted with the same bifurcation as was thematized by Hegel. Therefore, it is not possible to say that there should be any necessary positive mediation of moral discourses that can constitute a real substantial social morality in civil society.

  • Testing deliberation as the form of morality in modern society

The question now is what the consequence of this could be. This is the central problem in the discussion of social morality and the solution, as mentioned, cannot be a positive substantial social morality. We here come back to the problem of how we should interpret Kant’s ethics. One way is to interpret it in positive terms as an attempt to constitute positive norms. However, it seems as if this way is not passable. The other possibility is to read Kant’s ethics in negative terms as a critical ethics, where the crux of the matter is the possibility to test the normative validity of the maxims of an action. This is in my opinion the right way to read Kant, and it is the same way that we should consider Habermas’ communicative ethics. This should also be read critically as the possibility to test the validity of the normative maxims for an action. The consequence is that it is decisive that the institutions of civil society and the political institutions take such a form that it is possible in praxis to have a testing deliberation about the normative maxims for an action. In this connection it becomes decisive that there are public spheres in each institution where such critical deliberations can be raised. It is not possible to constitute a positive substantial moral in society. But it should be possible under the aforementioned conditions to test critically the validity of the normative maxims, if there is sufficient freedom in the public spheres of the institutions to raise the validity claims in relation to dominant discourses and preconceived opinions. For this reason ethics in society can only be secured indirectly by the constitution of the conditions which are necessary for the critical test of the validity claims.

On the immediate level, we can here refer to Kant, who ascribes the individual with the capability to ask the reasons for the validity which lie at the root of the determination of social norms. We have to start here, because this is the precondition for posing the question of validity. On the next level there is the possibility that more people can question the validity of the maxims, which form the basis for common action. However, here we are still at a level that does not necessarily have any influence on the public discussions in society. The problem is whether these deliberations can become public and take their place in the political institutions in democratic society.

It is evident that the form that politics and political institutions take should be understood positively at first. The social must always be understood in a positive way. But the characteristic of the political institutions and the political system is that they cannot only be understood in a positive way, because they have to be legitimized. The question of legitimization always concerns the validity of the political action in the institutions. Here, we come back to the problem of a critical reading of Kant. According to Kant, political institutions are legitimate insofar as there is a fair chance to participate. This does not necessarily mean that political interaction in the institutions takes an ethical form. According to Kant, we have to make a distinction between ethics and politics (Kant 1966: RL § 43 – §49, p. 311 – 318). Therefore it is not possible to claim that there should be a necessary positive connection between ethics and politics. The consequence is that ethics cannot be directly secured in a positive way in the political institutions. This does not mean that it should not be possible to sustain ethics in the political institutions; but there is not necessarily an internal positive connection between ethics and politics. The connection between ethics and politics can only be created indirectly through the possibility of questioning political action from an ethical point of view. However, this demands that there is a real possibility of raising such a question. According to Kant, this should be possible, and Habermas is of the same opinion. However, we have to take into regard that this is a political and philosophical claim that cannot necessarily be argued from the perspective of political science and sociology. In reality, politics takes its own institutional forms, where it is not deliberation but power which is in the centre. This is the general opinion in political science and sociology. The discussion is whether legal order can be understood by itself or whether it necessarily implies a form of legitimization. As long as we regard the political institutions from a positive perspective, they can be regarded as a part of the legal order, which can be seen as a self-sustaining institutional arrangement without need of further legitimization. This is Hegel’s and Weber’s perspective. But when conflicts arise, this perspective becomes insufficient. It becomes necessary to question the legitimacy and thereby the validity of the political order. This is Kant’s and Habermas’ perspective. Such a questioning does not only concern the political order but also the ethical validity of political action.

  • The open society and the totalitarian temptation

Herewith we return to the problem of whether a critical ethics can be institutionalized. So far as I can see, this is not possible insofar as this would mean the same as that critical ethics could be regarded as a pre-given substantial ethics, which could be determined in positive terms. However, this does not have the consequence that the critical ethical investigation is excluded from the political institutions. On the contrary, it is part of the understanding of the political institutions in a democratic society that they should be a constituent part of the public sphere. This gives the possibility to formalize the rights to question the political institutions, and this is the case in a modern democratic constitutional state. However, we again have to take into regard that such rights are formal rights and therefore do not necessarily say anything about how they function in practice. In this connection Kant would say that it is not possible to go further from a philosophical point of view. In Habermas’ perspective, things are different because he takes Hegel’s perspective, in which the political culture is essential for the understanding of the political institutions in society.

The conclusion is that there should be a close relationship between ethics and politics in modern society. However, this connection can only be secured indirectly through the formalization of civil rights to take part in political deliberation and through the cultivation of these rights in the public spheres of society. Therefore, a philosophical discussion of the relation between ethics and politics is insufficient; at the same time we have to introduce the empirical perspective of political sciences and sociology. It is not enough to have the correct Kantian idea; we must conclude with Hegel that ideas have to be well-founded in social and institutional practice in society. Habermas has created this mediation between Kant’s and Hegel’s perspectives, which should be interpreted critically.

Here we meet the difficult problem which can contribute to explain why religion anew has become a central topic in the discussion of moral norms in modern society. In modern society, it is not possible to present the positive mediation of norms that could give a justification of positive substantial norms. Therefore one could say that there is a fundamental normative insecurity in modern society, or along Claude Lefort’s understanding, an insecure ground of an empty normative space, that can be upheld only as empty so long a time as there is in praxis a living that does not end discussion about norms and their justification, and concerns all forms of normative problems in democratic society. In praxis, it can be difficult to fulfil such a living discussion in a modern democratic society and therefore there can always be a temptation to revitalize substantial norms grounded in tradition and religion. From a modern perspective, this represents what Lefort would describe as an attempt to reinstall a totalitarian formation of society, which falls behind the French Revolution.


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Castoriadis, Cornelius (1987), The Imaginary Institution of Society, Polity Press, Cambridge.

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Durkeim, Émile (1960), Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, Presses Universitaire de France, Paris.

Habermas, Jürgen (1981), Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, Volume I-II, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.

Gauchet, Marcel, Interview: ‘Le politique permet à la société de tenir ensemble’, Propos recueillis par Martin Legros et Nicolas Truong, in: Philosophie Magazine N°7, philomag.com.

Habermas, Jürgen (1984), The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume I, Heinemann, London.

Habermas, Jürgen (1989), The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume II, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Habermas, Jürgen (1992), Faktizität und Geltung – Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.

Habermas, Jürgen (1996), Between Facts and Norms – Contribution to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Lefort, Claude (1986a), Essais sur le politique (XIXe-XXe siècle), Éditions du Seuil, Paris.

Lefort, Claude (1986b), ‘La question de la démocratie,’ in: Claude Lefort (1986a), Essais sur le politique (XIXe-XXe siècle), Éditions du Seuil, Paris.

Lefort, Claude (1986c), ‘Penser la révolution dans la Révolution française’,” in: Claude Lefort (1986a), Essais sur le politique (XIXe-XXe siècle), Éditions du Seuil, Paris.

Lefort, Claude (1988a), Democracy and Political Theory, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Lefort, Claude (1988b), ‘The Question of Democracy’, in: Claude Lefort (1988a), Democracy and Political Theory, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Lefort, Claude (1988c), ‘Interpreting Revolution within the French Revolution’, in: Claude Lefort (1988a), Democracy and Political Theory, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Weber, Max (1988a), Die Wirtschaftethik der Weltreligionen, in: Weber, Max (1988), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie I, 1. Auflage 1920, 9. Auflage, J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.

Weber, Max (1988b), Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, in: Weber, Max (1988), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie I – III, 1. Auflage 1920, 9. Auflage, J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.

Weber, Max (1995), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Routledge, London.

Francesco Giacomantonio, Introduzione al pensiero politico di Habermas. Il dialogo della ragione dilagante (Milano-Udine: Mimesis, 2010)

Our age of crisis has taken many more forms than just the widespread rejection of Enlightenment ideals. Possibly, its most visible contemporary manifestations are: (a) the devastation of the planet’s “ecological equilibrium” (25); (b) the consistent anthropological impoverishment and individualistic atomisation of human societies (e.g. “social conflicts” read as individual “psychic problems” [26]; “anomie” [31]; “confusion between… [individual] success and… [collective] understanding” [32]); and (c) the undiminished international instability (e.g. religion’s “self-destructive forms” [63]; “Western military interventions in various areas of the planet” [77] ).

Patiently and laboriously, Habermas has addressed in his complex oeuvre all of the aforementioned forms of crisis of our age. It is Giacomantonio’s task to survey Habermas’ accounts in this slender book (99 pages).

Specifically, Giacomantonio praises the erudite, articulate and abstract “theoretical wealth” of leading German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) as a rare exception to current scholarly and scientific trends (78). Avoiding academic partisanships and specialist parochialisms, Habermas is said to have scrutinised and engaged with an “ample spectrum of stances” in the attempt to provide a reasoned, synthetic as well as analytical understanding of the enduring age of crisis (77). Swimming against the current, Habermas believes the Enlightenment project—modernity itself—to have to be brought to completion, not discarded.

Habermas’ first major intellectual accomplishments are claimed to be his 1960s and 1970s studies in the economic and administrative structures of late-modern Western industrial societies. Then, Habermas focused primarily upon the legitimisation of such structures via political procedures of mass participation, as well as upon the growing class fluidity, which Giacomantonio describes as the “dissolution” and “fragmentation” of traditional class consciousness and discourses (25).

According to Habermas, the post-war decades had seen capitalist societies benefiting from large-scale entrepreneurial pursuits, under the cooperative scrutiny and sophisticated direction of the State, which allowed these pursuits to serve vastly accepted inclusive social aims (e.g. “urban and regional planning”, “research and development”, “unemployment benefits”, “public welfare”; 25). These aims facilitated the legitimisation of the pursuits themselves, as well as the State’s own authority. Then, this virtuous circularity ended. For Habermas, the 1970s mark the beginning of the age of crisis.

The 1970s “late” or “mature” capitalism (23) continued to display massive State intervention in the economy. Yet, an increasing outgrowth of private interests started to escape from State control, leading to “systemic” failures (24) and to a generalised loss of faith in the State. This reduction of legitimacy was indicated by declining political participation, which was due too to the opacity of class consciousness in now tertiary-dominated economies. A variety of rescue plans were implemented by national governments, often via ever-increasing State intervention and techno-scientific legitimisation thereof. Regularly, these plans proved of little success, at least as the previous inclusive social aims were concerned.

Rather, the recurring reliance upon science and technology as grounds for political action induced considerable “de-politicisation” (28) of collective life and institutional decision-making. Within this novel frame of reference, whereby political issues were turned into “technical problems”(28), the public opinion was morphed into a passive spectator or sheer recipient of the diktats of a self-enclosed—and often self-serving—“expert” bureaucracy. In any case, the vastly accepted inclusive social aims of the post-war decades started to wane, becoming a more and more remote memory of better, foregone times.

It is Habermas’ opinion that the highly educated “expert” bureaucrats of recent decades have failed consistently to perceive the unavoidable connection between factual scientific investigation and value-driven technical application. To counter this phenomenon, Habermas has recommended the establishment of a more open critical exchange amongst experts and between experts and the public at large. In this perspective, communication should serve as an antidote to the former’s intellectual insularity and to the latter’s political disaffection.

Concerned with the de-politicisation of socio-political phenomena and populations of democratic countries, Habermas began to explore the socio-political relevance of “communication and linguistic dimensions” that were to become the hallmark of his later intellectual production (31). Indeed, the 1980s witnessed a vast output of studies by Habermas on the deeper structures of anthropological impoverishment and atomisation in modern nations. In them, Habermas came to conceive of “society” as comprising: (a) the “system” of professional, formal networks of “strategic behaviour”; and (b) the personal, informal “life-world” of existentially meaningful behaviour (“Lebenswelt”; 31). On the one hand, human activity was being described by Habermas as the “success” or “influence” of the competitive individual; whilst on the other stood the truly life-defining, cooperative linguistic (“communicative”) praxes seeking mutual “understanding” and engendering shared “identities” (32).

Initiating the age of crisis, the former dimension had been invading the latter by using communication instrumentally, i.e. the shared linguistic means for genuine self-expression and social cohesion were turned into sheer means of self-maximisation. To respond to this invasion, Habermas has recommended the overcoming of national barriers and the creation of a “cosmopolitan… deliberative democracy” centred upon ethical and normative issues and aims (35). Roughly speaking, more conversation about justice, the common good and the like–as already anticipated in his reflections on science and technology of the 1970s–would mean more democracy; more democracy would mean more legitimacy; more legitimacy more effective laws; and more effective laws more social and socially acceptable results. All of this, however, should be taking place on a global scale.

Habermas’ reflections on democracy became even more relevant in the 1990s. Then, in the face of an even faster-paced post-Cold-War economic and cultural globalisation, it was the very cradle of modern democracy that was to experience its deepest crisis, i.e. the nation State as such. Apart from intensifying the problems that Habermas had already tackled in the 1970s and 1980s, fin-de-siècle globalisation further deprived States of the crucial means of control over the “economic dimension” (40). In particular, free capital trade robbed the State of those vital “fiscal” resources that were needed for its administrative functions (44). Weaker States became even less credible to the populations, whose interests they were still expected to serve. The legitimacy of their power and even their own raison d’être became shakier. In the process, the vastly accepted inclusive social aims of the post-war decadeswere even openly rejected by leading parties and statesmen, who engaged actively in the persistent reduction of the public sphere. Deprived of the State’s support, larger and larger sectors of the population found themselves poorer, marginalised, and more vulnerable.

In the final decade of the 20th century, Habermas stressed further his commitment to a “cosmopolitan” solution of the ongoing crisis (43). In his view, a global economy needs a global deliberative democracy. This is not the same thing as to say that the world needs a world State. Rather, the world needs actual world politics and actual world policies. International organisations are already in place (e.g. the “United Nations”, the “World Trade Organisation”, the “International Monetary Fund” [46]). What is missing is the democratic appropriation of those institutions as positive means for global governance.

Interestingly, the “European Union” has been described by Habermas as an example of existing trans-national coordination and a possible force for progress, which he understands as the generation of a new political community reflecting truly democratic values and substantial ethico-political aims, such as solidarity and social inclusion (45). As an opposite model of global governance, Habermas has often highlighted the “hegemonic unilateralism” of the United States of America, which has accompanied throughout an economic globalisation capable of producing a “more unjust… more insecure” world and a threat to our “survival” as a species (48).

In particular, Habermas has stressed of late the centrality of the rule of law for the proper functioning of any complex social arrangement. As opposed to the brutal force exemplified by military intervention, a binding legal framework springing from democratic deliberation would constitute in his view a powerful means to a noble, desirable end: “to include the other without assimilating him” (50).

As further explained and substantiated in Habermas’ works of the 2000s, democracy should be thought of as much more than just a set of public institutions and formal procedures, for it is also an array of informal social praxes and individual forms of conduct. Within his deliberative and cosmopolitan model of democratic rule, Habermas has ended up combining the “liberty of the ancients” with the “liberty of the moderns” (51). In other words, both republican active participation and liberal individual-rights-protecting public guarantees are embraced as important components of actual democracy. Societies need both enduring compromises amongst rights-endowed self-interested individuals and the formation and expression of collective will via societal “self-clarification” (37).

Habermas resolves in an analogous manner the tension between liberals and communitarians on the much-debated issues of multiculturalism (51-6) and religious tolerance (61-8). Both universal, trans-cultural principles and cultural rights are said to be important for the socially inclusive survival of democratic States in a more and more inter-connected international reality. Disagreements and problems are bound to arise; still, what matters most is to have enough institutional and conceptual resources as to be able to tackle such disagreements and problems without falling into either coercion or social disintegration, which destroy genuine social cohesion and solidarity (54-6).

This, albeit sketchy, is the overview of Habermas’ intellectual production that Francesco Giacomantonio offers in his new book. It is indeed a clear and effective account of Habermas’ nearly unique oeuvre, as the author of the Introduction to the Political Thought of Habermas cites Touraine and Castoriadis as the only other equally daring grand theorists of recent times (80). The book comprises six chapters, an introduction, some final considerations and an appendix by another author. The presentation waves between a thematic subdivision and a chronological organisation of the material. Either way, the book addresses all the essential aspects of Habermas’ vast production. By this feat alone, it deserves much praise.

If any criticism is to be passed on it, then it must be pointed out that the book could be even more slender: the appendix by Angelo Chielli is redundant and unnecessary (83-90); whilst the 6th chapter, which deals with Habermas’ relevance to contemporary academic pursuits (69-75), could have been reduced to, and included with, the author’s final considerations (77-81). Also, the book would benefit from an analytical index of cited topics and authors.

Thomas Jefferson, I dilemmi della democrazia americana, translated and edited by Alberto Giordano, with a preface by Dino Cofrancesco (Novi Ligure: Città del Silenzio, 2007)

On the contrary, the ruling political coalitions in the 1980s, centered on the two-prongs of the Christian Democracy and the Socialist parties, got rid of every sense of measure in spoiling public resources and making recourse to inflation and public debt – which, in those years, rocketed from a normal 60% of GNP to more than 100% (so that we, our daughters and sons, and a host of unpredictable future generations are, and will be, paying dearly for the glorious “statemanship” of those years). 1992 marked a turning-point for the old political establishment: the “Mani pulite” (“Clean Hands”) trials, filed by independent public prosecutors in front of an independent judiciary sent a lot of politicians and fellow transactors and businessmen into jail, and even a former prime minister, acclaimed by somebody as one of the greatest Italian politicians of the XXth century, flew abroad to avoid prosecution. After a while, however, old politicians found a way for taking advantage of the wise advice of Fabrizio, the beloved nephew of Prince Salina (“It is necessary that everything does change for everything to stay as usual”). This way was the founding of a new political party by an influential businessman. This businessman won three elections in the last fifteen-years, qualifying as a perfect demagogue (his party is being defined by his followers as a “charismatic party”), and putting his own private interests on the top of governement and parliamentary agendas. The public sphere deteriorated heavily in those years, and is still deteriorating, for the demagogue and his allies proceeded systematically to turn politics from a civil, though sometimes tough, confrontation of opinions among rival parties into a war against internal enemies, while at the same time undermining the foundations of the Republican Constitution.


In such a situation, the selection of eight writings and seventeen letters by Thomas Jefferson translated, edited, and clearly introduced by Alberto Giordano may indeed provide a sample of an ideal, good, politician, to be used as a standard for criticism and improvement in the Italian political life. For instance, Jefferson upheld free public education for all, as a way to provide future citizens with the learning necessary to control politicians and protect democracy; he opposed public debt, arguing that present generations have not the right to bind future generations to pay for it; he opposed religious “fanaticism”, we would now say “foundamentalism”, as one of the most serious dangers for a democracy, while upholding religious freedom and toleration, provided religion is properly considered as a private business of each believer.

Italians should take the Jefferson model, however, with two caveats.

To begin with, Jefferson supported a few, quite unpalatable, views, even for XVIIIth century standards: think about slavery (he was not an uncompromised abolitionist), women (their proper place is home and family management), and native Americans (to be civilized under the protectoship of wasps). But this is a minor drawback, from our point of view and the way society and culture have evolved in the meantime.

Furthermore – a point I consider the most serious flaw in Jefferson’s political thought – he deemed democracy to be capable, by itself, to protect and guarantee to citizens the individual rights he wisely wanted to be ascribed to them in a constitutional Bill of Rights. On this path, we cannot follow him (though we may appreciate his romantic idea of a democracy made up by small businessmen, small farmers, and small manufacturers, with a small government to decide upon). Nay, democracy by itself is prone to become the prey and toy of demagogues; and only a firmly established constitutional democracy, endowed with a sovereign constitution and judicial review, like the one Madison and Marshall cherished, can do the tremendously important trick of a serious protection of individual rights against abusing majorities and the interest-groups pulling its wires. So, to conclude: welcome to Jefferson’s essays, but, as Don Ferrante suggests, con juicio. The book also contains a learned “Preface” by Dino Cofrancesco, where the most recent essays on Jefferson are analyzed and discussed.