Populism, neoliberalism, and globalisation are just three of the many terms used
to analyse the challenges facing democracies around the world. Critical Theory
and Sociological Theory examines those challenges by investigating how the
conditions of democratic statehood have been altered at several key historical
intervals since 1945. The author explains why the formal mechanisms of
democratic statehood, such as elections, have always been complemented by civic,
cultural, educational, socio-economic, and, perhaps most importantly,
constitutional institutions mediating between citizens and state authority.
Critical theory is rearticulated with a contemporary focus in order to show how
the mediations between citizens and statehood are once again rapidly changing.
The book looks at the ways in which modern societies have developed mixed
constitutions in several senses that go beyond the official separation of
legislative, executive, and judicial powers. In addition to that separation, one
also witnesses a complex set of conflicts, agreements, and precarious
compromises that are not adequately defined by the existing conceptual
vocabulary on the subject. Darrow Schecter shows why a sociological approach to
critical theory is urgently needed to address prevailing conceptual deficits and
to explain how the formal mechanisms of democratic statehood need to be
complemented and updated in new ways today.
Since the Enlightenment, liberal democrat governments in Europe and North America have been compelled to secure the legitimacy of their authority by constructing rational states whose rationality is based on modern forms of law. The first serious challenge to liberal democratic practices of legal legitimacy comes in Karl Marx's early writings on Rousseau and Hegel. Marx discovers the limits of formal legal equality that does not address substantive relations of inequality in the workplace and in many other spheres of social life. This book investigates the authoritarianism and breakdown of those state socialist governments which claim to put Marx's ideas on democracy and equality into practice. It offers an immanent critique of liberalism, and discusses liberal hegemony, attacking on liberalism from supposedly post-liberal political positions. Liberalism protects all individuals by guaranteeing a universally enforceable form of negative liberty which they can exercise in accordance with their own individual will. Immanuel Kant's critical philosophy both affirms and limits human agency through the media of rationality and legality. The conditions of liberal reason lay the groundwork for the structure of individual experience inside the liberal machine. The book also shows how a materialist reformulation of idealist philosophy provides the broad outlines of a theory of critical idealism that bears directly upon the organisation of the labour process and the first condition of legitimate law concerning humanity and external nature. Mimetic forms of materialism suggest that the possibilities for non-oppressive syntheses and realities are bound up with a libertarian union of intellect.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book argues that an immanent critique of liberal epistemology leads to a re-examination of the question of the conditions of political legitimacy. It attempts to challenge the liberal democratic interpretation of the Enlightenment without advocating a return to metaphysical conceptions of the good or the establishment of a dictatorial order necessary to impose any political programme. The book seeks to provide the philosophical and political impetus for a relaunching of the Enlightenment project and the centrality of reason and law involved in that project. From the liberal democratic perspective, the ideals of the Enlightenment are thus best preserved through free institutions which do not attempt to impose a metaphysical and tyrannical vision of political legitimacy.
Limiting human agency in the name of negative liberty
This chapter is centrally concerned with discourses of legality. The priority of legality over legitimacy which lies at the heart of liberalism from Immanuel Kant to the present is both the source of liberalism's critical power and its crucial weakness. Advocates of liberalism insist on the priority of legality over the forced acceptance of one of the variously contestable forms of legitimacy. Privacy and negative liberty, sanctioned through liberal discourses of legality, are thus able to pose as the absent truth of free individuals in their struggle against the existing lie of public authority. Kant's critical philosophy affirms and limits human agency through the media of rationality and legality. In the history of political thought, and especially with Kant, legality appears to be closely wedded to an idealist and deeply individualist notion of human subjectivity which, despite Kant's critique of metaphysics in the Critique of Pure Reason.
In seeking to establish more democratic and pluralist forms of politics, liberalism's critics seek to break with the legal epistemology and the correspondingly limited forms of legitimacy that the dichotomies entail in practice. Increased legitimacy beyond liberal legal form is pursued by widening the scope of what counts as valid political-epistemological experience in liberalism, in order to reconcile theory and practice beyond the limits of liberal guarantees of non-interference. Much of post-1968 social and political theory has set itself the task of moving beyond metaphysics and idealism to the real world of subjective experience and agency of actually existing social actors and groups. Liberalism was compelled in practice to evolve into liberal democracy and social democracy, though not before passing through a period of authoritarian transition in countries like Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
This chapter shows that liberalism undertakes the project of liberating humanity from nature through reason in hostile antagonism toward nature in the two senses used. The twofold result is that reason is reduced to its instrumental dimension both in the economy and in the polity, and law becomes a tool of oppression. A viable alternative to liberalism has to begin by venturing to the centre and periphery of the liberal machine, though without immediate political aspirations to take it over and operate it for ostensibly non-liberal aims. Liberalism undermines the utopian moment in idealism by 'naturalising' the separation between ethics and politics, private and public, state and civil society, theory and praxis, as well as legality and legitimacy. As a hegemonic movement capable of changing tactics and engineering passive revolutions, liberalism has been more politically astute on this fundamental point than any of its rivals.
This chapter shows how a materialist reformulation of idealist philosophy provides the broad outlines of a theory of critical idealism that bears directly upon the organisation of the labour process and the first condition of legitimate law concerning humanity and external nature. It argues that the theorisation of a feasible reconciliation between humanity and external nature turns on the possibility of formulating a revised form of idealism. The chapter establishes the links between idealism, legality and the institutional bases of reconciliation. In accordance with the critique of metaphysics, rational thought is thinking that liberates humanity from the dependence on faith and the darkness of superstition, but only on condition that the mind is able to recognise and apprehend the products of thought as its own productions.
In conjunction with critical idealism, mimetic forms of materialism suggest that the possibilities for non-oppressive syntheses and realities are bound up with a libertarian union of intellect and feeling, planning and spontaneity. Reconsidered in the light of critical idealism, politics becomes an end in itself which is concerned with freedom and legitimacy in epistemological terms rather than with power and hegemony in disciplinary terms. The problems related to coerced reconciliation are especially difficult to pinpoint in liberal democratic legal systems, where authorisation is indirect and hegemony is more prevalent than outright force and propaganda. Reconciliation with external nature through libertarian socialism enables the expression of values to enter an aesthetic and cognitive dimension. The systematic appropriation of the knowledge of human nature of some citizens by others can be described as an appropriation of individual aesthetic value.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book considers the point of departure for the theories of reconciliation and critical idealism. It focuses on four principal sources: libertarian socialism, a drastically modified form of idealism, critical theory and legal theory. The four sources are synthesised to articulate four theories intended to project thinking about political legitimacy beyond the restatements of Immanuel Kant and the sociologically reconstructed versions of Aristotle which in various combinations continue to dominate mainstream social and political thought. Liberal democratic and radical modernist attempts to realise the promise of Enlightenment by liberating humanity from the danger and unpredictability of nature. The imaginative power of traditional idealism taken up by Kant lies in the discovery that the transcendence of necessity is contingent upon factors which are external to and internal to humanity.
On the sociological paradoxes of weak dialectical formalism and embedded
Law, money, educational training, knowledge, politics, and power play some
role in the workings of each social system. Yet it would be wrong to suppose
that social systems are states in miniature. It would also be wrong to
suppose that social systems function like regional states within an
overarching nation state. Modern societies are constituted in ways that
enable a specific social system, designated as the political system, to
emerge and assume responsibility for the impersonal sharing and transfer of
power. Attempts to strategically de-differentiate systems for the purposes
of taking control and steering them have lead in some instances to the
re-personalisation of the exercise of power, corruption, and other kinds of
democratic deficits. It is no longer feasible to imagine political authority
as having a pyramidal structure that absorbs democratic inputs in a
vertically structured process culminating in the state. Similarly, it is no
longer possible to see the fundamentally important constitutional dimension
of statehood as being limited to the official separation of legislative,
executive, and judicial powers. Statehood today has to be reappraised in
light of the potentially constitutional dimensions of social systems and the
possibilities for inter-systemic communication.