Widening the Gyre

James Sparrow
3 April 2019

This is the first of three reviews in our series on Axel Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal (Polity, 2017).


Axel Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism seeks a new grounding for solidarity that is firmer than the industrial-age assumptions that shaped socialist thinking at its origins in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Honneth aims to recover those social and political energies that somehow managed to explode the dead husk of the Ancien Régime at the end of the eighteenth century, yet merely sputter on today when confronted by the recrudescence of a latter-day mercantile despotism. The key to doing so, he argues, is freeing ourselves from the conceptual shackles of modern capitalism’s industrial birth-pangs.


We are living at a moment in history when the destabilizing eruptions of the two industrial revolutions have long since been assimilated by “traditions” capable of yoking them (if never quite subordinating them) to equal self-government under law. They buffet the world still—those atomizing blasts unleashed by steam and commodification, and the synthetic fusions wrought by chemicals and cartelization—but we know how to deal with them, even if we currently lack the political will to do so. For this reason, Honneth is right to look beyond the conceptual horizons of the industrial age. What is needed is a New Democratic imagination capable of making the invisible new sources of power legible, and subjecting them to democratic problem-solving.


At the heart of this book, as in the last section of Honneth’s previous work, Freedom’s Right, lies the concept of social freedom: a collective condition predicating the fullest possible recognition and agency of individuals on their actions to enable each other’s independence. Honneth identifies the pursuit of social freedom as the proper object of an egalitarian politics that can thrive in our times, unconstrained by the original conditions of the industrial era.


The defining feature of Honneth’s social freedom, and the reason for his reliance on Pragmatic ethics, is a refusal of the economic determinism that ultimately hobbled the early socialists’ conceptions of revolution and solidarity, their two main antidotes to market society. When defined exclusively within the economic sphere, socialism proved insufficient to grapple with the variegated domains of the modern world. Honneth follows Luhmann in defining these domains according to a “functional differentiation” into discrete domains, each with its own logic and normative system. Three kinds of free association in particular attract Honneth’s sustained attention: those exercised in market exchange, civil association, and constitutional democracy.


To escape the monistic cage of historical necessity in which Marx, Proudhon, and the rest imprisoned themselves, Honneth substitutes a Neo-Pragmatist “historical experimentalism,” adapted from Hegel by way of Dewey. In socialism’s benighted days, “historical necessity” dictated the eventual triumph of class consciousness among the proletariat, which was destined to dissolve capitalist enterprise, private relations, and bourgeois politics into a revolutionary whole. Now, according to Honneth, the future belongs to all citizens of the public sphere, who must experiment conjointly to solve problems “for each other,” thereby placing their freedom on an objective foundation, removing barriers to ever-wider communication among all members of society, and harnessing the energies of “holistic individuals” to the collective genius of democracy to knit together all spheres of society without subsuming them into a monolithic economic “base.” This conceptual move expands the idea of solidarity for a world in which industry is no longer the dominant economic sector, wage earners are not necessarily the most decisive (or even the most abundant) agents of historical change, and the ideal of planning has fallen before more distributed modes of coordinated action.


This vision of communicative solidarity, flexible and capacious enough to hold liberty and equality together in productive tension, is bracing and generative. It opens a new way to account for and respond to various sources of exploitation—notably the gendered and sexed kinds, although race, empire, and cultural hegemony could just as easily fit—without reducing them to some a priori scheme determined by economic imperatives or psychological needs. It allows social citizens to summon all the energies unleashed by the market mechanism, by “free association” in civil society, and by political competition under constitutional government , while adding a reflexive principle of mutual recognition intended to counteract the fissiparous and centrifugal defections authorized by liberalism.


Most importantly, Honneth’s vision of solidarity refuses to accept early socialism’s subordination of liberty to equality and solidarity—the source of its most tragic compromises from the very beginning. Gone is the insistence that civil liberties are rationales for bourgeois domination under the sign of private property; rights are “perfectly compatible” with social freedom, requiring as they do the “same pattern of mutual supplementation.” This is a strategy, Honneth claims, that “overcomes liberalism from within” by replacing an economically administered society with the “free interplay” of a democratic way of life. It is well-suited to counteracting the perils of our contemporary society, in which computation, networked communication, and financialization have worked in concert to liquify the relationships on which older ideas of solidarity drew to reorganize power in a more democratic fashion.


To re-conceive solidarity as free association Honneth relies on a Pragmatist ethics, which opens his analysis up to new conclusions about how much liberty an egalitarian politics can sustain. Just as the Pragmatists believed the old myths of sovereignty and property could be discarded for new ones with greater modern “cash value” (to paraphrase James’ Meaning of Truth), Honneth believes liberty and equality can be redefined to contain each other simultaneously, thereby escaping the categorical opposition on which liberal political philosophy is founded, and through which neoliberals have made socialism seem antiquated, dangerous, or inconceivable. And certainly the Pragmatists were not wrong, if their extraordinary social and institutional accomplishments at all scales—municipal, regional, national, or international—were any indication. (See the reviews by William Novak and Stephen Sawyer in this exchange.) This is why Honneth insists the way forward depends on an institutionalism operating through a “plurality of functionally specific actors” and roles motivated by resolutely heterogeneous subjectivities. He understands this is necessary for the “holistic individual” to “participate equally at every central point in the mediation between the individual and society,” thereby guaranteeing that freedom does not undermine the “superordinate entity of society.”


As Honneth’s exploration of social freedom makes clear, our notions of a positive democratic power are woefully under-developed. (This was also true of the idea of positive liberty in the nineteenth century as it strained against liberalism’s negative.) Too often democratic theory adopts a liberal conception of power as the great evil whose containment, counterbalancing, or extirpation defines the very purpose of “liberal democracy.” Clearly this will not do for a politics predicated on solidaristic work to build a public sphere. The need for a more developed conception of democratic power reveals itself with particular clarity toward the end of The Idea of Socialism, where Honneth concludes with a defense of the “democratic way of life” as the guarantor of social freedom. The ecological influence of this life world is distinguished by its capability to “overcome social dependency and exclusion”—indeed, to counteract all forms of domination and coercion in all spheres of modern society. A “modern society cannot be genuinely social,” he argues earlier, “as long as the spheres of personal relationships and democratic politics have not been freed of coercion and influence.”


The problem of how to unleash and safeguard democratic power in the world still needs to be worked out, one experiment after the other. Liberal theory is probably not equal to the task of doing so, as democratic power requires more than solving collective action problems to maximize preferences or solve security dilemmas. This is the challenge of democratic sovereignty: it is constitutive of the very public itself. The persons who convene, sustain, and defend the public—against enemies internal and external—are the sovereigns. In sharp contrast to Schmitt’s sovereign, only they can prevent emergency from devolving into exception while unleashing a political will as boundless as the problems it takes on. They are the ones who define the public welfare and decide how to direct the public purpose. Unfortunately, they may also elect to divide or misdirect the latter in order to traduce, privatize, or seize hold of the former, as Honneth is well aware. Widening the gyre of conjoint interest and action may unleash the social power of modern society, but it will not necessarily bring contingent, open-ended democratic solutions—and could invite solutions of a more final variety.


In addition to this constitutive, inward-facing conundrum of how to constitute a sustainable public, the problem of democratic sovereignty also has an outward-facing aspect. This has to do with the scope and boundaries of egalitarian politics. Honneth’s sovereign, the citizens constituting the democratic public sphere, can theoretically extend as far, geographically and socially, as the problems they choose to solve together. Ultimately he wants a public produced by experiments unbounded by the exclusions of the nation. But to get there he thinks it inadvisable to leap to a post-national cosmopolitanism that would abandon robust regulations (like social welfare or gay marriage) that nonetheless still institutionalize the collective work of democratic politics.


Although Honneth argues that socialist experimentation “needs to be transnationalized” to operate on an equal footing with capitalism, he recognizes that there is still much work to be done to “clarify its relationship to the nation-state”—perhaps by articulating and reinforcing “international interdependence.” Yet he does not look to the European Union for salvation, since its coordinating matrix is a common market whose institutions were built almost exclusively on liberal principles. The only kind of public authority he finds credible beyond the nation-state would appear to be an international coordinating bodies modeled on NGOs like Amnesty International. In this regard it would be interesting to know what he thinks of the historian Samuel Moyn’s critique of human rights and humanitarian internationalism as a Last Utopia, which is Not Enough to secure social citizenship.


This brings us to the final conundrum of democratic power; the challenge of robust yet open-ended membership. Honneth makes the social citizen both his ideal political subject and his democratic sovereign: “the citizens assembled in the democratic public sphere are the only ones who can be convinced to tear down existing limitations and blockages cautiously in order to enable free cooperation in all major social spheres.” Yet citizenship is a much older model for belonging and obligation than the economic interdependence and functional differentiation on which socialist solidarity is supposed to be based. If we are moving into a world run by the one percent and defined by automation, artificial intelligence, and financialized detachment from broader social reproduction, it is unclear that the “organic analogy” Honneth wishes to deploy will guarantee that citizens of any polity will recognize those outside the city walls, or even subject themselves to the “superordinate” priority of the social, no matter how it is defined. What Yeats observed almost exactly a century ago holds even truer today: “the centre will not hold.”


A solidarity sufficiently capacious to balance equality and freedom in a dynamic society requires a clearer understanding of the nature of democratic power as much as it does a suppler restatement of liberty. Honneth’s new book makes major strides toward the latter goal, and sets the stage for pursuing the former. Our understanding of social citizenship is immeasurably enriched as a consequence—and just in time for the next widening of the gyre.


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