“The only alternative to authoritarian liberalism is democratic socialism.” Hauke Brunkhorst on “Normative Orders in Crisis”

By Tatjana Sheplyakova

“Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible!” was one of the many slogans during the Paris May Days of 1968. Almost 50 years later, at the 2017 Annual Conference of the Normative Orders’ Cluster of Excellence Hauke Brunkhorst in his keynote lecture reminded us of the political task to revive the struggle for democratic socialism. Given the neoliberal turn in politics that can be observed since the 1970s, which resulted in a new formation of ever expanding authoritarian liberalism, this task seems even more impossible today. The prospects are bleak, he warned, but it is worth fighting for.

In his introductory remarks Christoph Menke addressed the question where to locate Hauke Brunkhorst within the tradition of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. Conventional account would be to speak of different generations of Critical Theory and to place its protagonists into one or the other generation accordingly. Hauke Brunkhorst’s philosophical, political, and legal thought, however, escapes any such classification. Brunkhorst’s work spans the range of critical social analysis, it includes in-depth reflection on the idea and shape of politics under the conditions of Modernity, on solidarity, democracy, not least the concept and history of law – it represents a self-reflection of theory at its best in the view of its social including its economic conditions and effects. Therefore, as Menke concluded, “it’s just a little exaggeration – but as Adorno said, only exaggerations are true – we can thus say that Hauke Brunkhorst just is the Frankfurt School”.

The floor was thus open for what was then to become a tour de force reflection on “Normative Orders in Crisis”. Against the ubiquitous “crisis” talk today, Brunkhorst reminded us that the “real” crisis is far more radical than any “justification crisis” (Rainer Forst) or the one associated with “legitimation problems” (Jürgen Habermas) within a (late-capitalist) society. If we deal with a crisis that is not external to the system but rather “a condition of its self-preservation”, then – as Marx knew – there is no solution to it other than “changing the basic structure of the system”. Following Marx’ insight, Brunkhorst in the first part of his talk outlined a theoretical framework of how to conceptualize a crisis of normative orders in its relation to the capitalist state. In the second part he suggested interpreting the social welfare state and the neo-liberal state as two different attempts to overcome the contradictions of capitalist production and democratic solidarity. The failure of these attempts, however, as he concluded, urges us to think, once again, about the unrealized alternative of the social democratic state.

Brunkhorst’s starting point to conceptualize a crisis of a normative order was the diagnosis that progress and regression here go hand in hand. The observation of a “fatal union of productivity and destruction, liberty and repression” (Marcuse) can be traced back to Adam Smith and Hegel. But Marx was the first who constructed a theory of how to analyze such crisis – a theory of how to explain the “violent destruction of capital” as “a condition of its self-preservation”, as Marx stated in the Grundrisse, the notebooks from which later Capital was written. To Brunkhorst, the way in which Marx traced back this causal connection between “unprecedented prosperity and self-generated crisis and catastrophe” still possesses remarkable explicatory value. Marx’ critique of political economy not only made clear – in the sense of a warning, of a “negative Kantian sign of history (Geschichtszeichen)” – that a system with an in-built self-destruction can and should be changed. Marx was also able to capture the dynamic of such self-destruction as he provided analytical tools of how to think about the specific societal and historical conditions under which crucial differentiations emerged in modern societies. As Brunkhorst showed, these most fundamental differentiations – system vs. life-world, system vs. horizontal periphery and system vs. environment – reside in the internal contradictions of capitalism, and they provide – until now – an explicatory basis for analyzing the three-fold consequences of those contradictions: the legitimation crisis, the crisis of migration and the ecological crisis.

Brunkhorst suggested interpreting the various types of interactions that occur at the borders of the capitalist system and its internal externalities – the social life-world, the horizontal periphery and the environment – as normative orders. Each of them is characterized by legal and moral dimensions which, in turn, would remain largely unintelligible unless we look at actual the social class struggles, conflicts and fights over domination and emancipation stirred up at those borders. The permanence of the crisis, however, that is inherent to the capitalist system affects the “entire normative infrastructure of modern society” as it constantly undermines the “fundamental normative advances of liberalism” – among them the egalitarian notion of individual freedom beyond instrumentalism and private property.

First observation Brunkhorst presented was that the capitalist system has become disconnected from the life-world of the laborer. This process began in the 17th and 18th centuries as living labor force, agricultural producers and artisans were expropriated from individual property by “concerted action of state power and property owning classes”. Here, “colonization” of the life-world begins, with irreversible effects: By exploiting the living labor force in the process of capitalist production since the 19th century, the capital destroys its own social basis. As “the limited resources of solidarity are eroding”, Brunkhorst called to mind with reference to Durkheim and Habermas, a crisis of legitimization becomes unavoidable, and with it the risk that it will grow into a potentially revolutionary crisis.  

Marx’s focus on revolutionary effects arising out of “vertical, social inequalities between capital and labor” made him completely blind for “the horizontal inequalities between homelands and colonies, Christian races and people of color but also between different genders, nations, regions, religions etc.”, as Brunkhorst diagnosed. And yet, Marx’s reflections on the colonial system can be made productive for the second crucial insight into the structural dynamic of normative orders in crisis – for the observation that the domination of the horizontal periphery by the global centers of modern capitalism inevitably leads to the crisis of migration. As Brunkhorst quoted from Capital I, to Marx the colonial system was “an unavoidable evolutionary fact of the bloody, violent and criminal ‘infancy of modern industry’”. Meanwhile, however, it has long become clear that “the violent destruction of capital’s own colonial and post-colonial periphery has become a condition of its self-preservation”. In his study Next to us the Flood (Neben uns die Sintflut, 2016) Stephan Lessenich has recently taken up this thesis of mutual dependency in order to demonstrate that the advanced political economies of the Global North (of the so-called “Western world”) are indeed “externalization societies” in that they live off the subordinated economies of the Global South.

Living off the resources, the life chances and the wealth of other societies, however, also means that the capital not only destroys its social and peripheral basis but also its natural basis. This last type of destruction, as Brunkhorst noted, by the second half of the 20th century turned into a global ecological crisis – a wide-reaching crisis that spans over from the “destruction of society’s external nature” to the “neglect of the internal nature of psychic systems” and further deepens the problem of the “exclusion of superfluous human bodies from access to all social systems”: “Don’t touch them, they could be infected!”, as Brunkhorst quoted from Luhmann’s reflections on exclusion after his visit to the Favelas.

Against these dreadful consequences of the capitalist system it is, not surprisingly, the capitalist state on which hopes are to be placed. Brunkhorst stressed that the capitalist system cannot survive a day without the state. This is most obvious if we think of law, police, and taxes not to mention the provided infrastructure that the markets depend on. More important, however, is the observation that the state operates according to its own logic which enters into productive tensions with the capitalist system in multiple ways. The state’s accumulation of bureaucratic power for its own sake, for instance, does not cohere with capitalist interests. The state is in constant need for services provided by non-capitalist social spheres including the spheres of science, education, traffic, international relations, health, etc. – they all go way beyond the logic of the market and private property. Finally, the structures of statehood that co-evolved with the modern state such as national and international, transnational and global law and politics have developed their own institutional frameworks partly conflicting with each other.

With democratization processes, the productive tensions between state and capital ultimately reached their peak. Not only did the pressures of democratic legitimization have had a significant impact on the relations of production and ownership. As the capitalist state has become democratic, the “existing contradiction” (Hegel) of capitalism and democracy also entered into its constitutional framework. Brunkhorst quoted Article 20 (1) of the German Basic Law on this matter which stipulates that Germany is “a democratic and social federal state.”

As Brunkhorst then exemplified on a brief discussion of various constitutional provisions in Germany, USA and France introduced in the aftermath of the global economic crisis of 1929 and World War II, the democratic social welfare state did bring about a number of normative advances. In particular, it succeeded in solving “the critical situation at the border that separates the capitalist system from the social life-world of living labor”. However, as orthodox Marxists and social democrats continued to concentrate on vertical inequalities between workers and capitalists within the nation state (like Marx did), they remained completely blind towards horizontal inequalities. They failed to see what became apparent since the global civil rights’ movement of the 1960s – that “national welfarism was white, male and heterosexual. Egalitarian democracy ended everywhere at the color line and the gender line,” as Brunkhorst put it, “and oppressed and exploited white, male and heterosexual people participated in the oppression of all other colors, genders and sexual orientations.”

The lesson to be learnt by the Left from the failure of the welfare state is to strive for democratic socialism that not only calls for massive redistribution but also for the rights revolution. For a moment in history, this project that unites efforts of “social critique” with “artists’ critique” (Boltanski/Chiapello) seemed realistic – it seemed “realistic to ask for the impossible”. But as the crisis of growth under the conditions of permanent under-consumption hit in the 1970s, the political Right pervasively won and managed to consolidate its power.

The political agenda of the Right can be named authoritarian liberalism, its characteristic features being the “financialization of the economy, the complementary deconstruction of the welfare state plus a neoconservative cultural roll back.” One of the reasons for the political victory of the Right, as Brunkhorst pointed out, was its success to globalize neoliberal state power – with devastating effects. By now, the politics of authoritarian liberalism has led to a dramatic increase of social inequalities. It threatens to “demolish the historical and actual justice of the global cultural and civil rights revolution” by turning rights into privileges as the neoliberal state power becomes globalized with an “ever-denser network of transnational private-law regimes”.

Brunkhorst demonstrated how critical the situation has become by referring to the “regressive reformism” of the US Congresslegislation since the 1980s and the Supreme Court judgments such as Citizens United (2010) which “constitutionalized the power of big money over the American party system”. He further reminded of the transformation of the General Assembly from the sphere of debate into that of the executive police of the Security Council. On the European level, not only the creation of the Eurogroup, its formalization under the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 and its actions during the Greek crisis served as an example; Brunkhorst also referred to the Article 2 of the EC Treaty that to him together with the activity of the European Court of Justice is a clear evidence that “competitiveness has become the hidden curriculum (Offe) of the constitutional law of Europe”.

The destructive logic of “market fundamentalism in permanent crisis” has already created a situation in which the ruling classes are legally “over-integrated” whereas the lower classes are “under-integrated” and excluded, a situation in which whole stratas of the population (citizens in the border regions, Coast Region and Great Lakes in the US, the banlieues in Europe, etc.) are actually deprived of their constitutional rights. This, in turn, is mirrored in the recent victories of the AfD, Front National, Victor Orban, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Steven Bennon, Sebastian Kurz and others.

Against these developments, Brunkhorst recalled once again that there can be no equal freedom (exercised through procedural rights) without social (distributive) justice. To counter-act authoritarian liberalism will only become possible by reviving the tenets of democratic socialism under today`s new realities. This would mean to renew the political fight for “the impossible”: Brunkhorst concluded his lecture by briefly sketching a 6-point political agenda that includes (1) massive redistribution, (2) a combination of a decent basic income with massive public investment, (3) green growth, (4) a transnational reconstruction of democracy and (5) deliberative egalitarianism, along with (6) a considerable socialization of the global media industry.

The outlined political agenda has prompted the question from the audience of how to deal with the undeniable problem that social political parties are in a major crisis. Social democracy has currently become “the dead elephant” in the room, as Albena Azmanova phrased it: The working class votes go to the extreme Right whereas it is the center Right that initiated the pillar of social rights. Given this situation the puzzling question is why the center Left is so impotent.

Brunkhorst agreed with this diagnosis, but nonetheless stressed that in the situation where multipolar national sovereign economies coexist with the global capitalist state, democratic socialism seems to remain the only way to oppose the expansion of authoritarian liberalism. Besides, there is still hope, he said, to win majorities for the outlined political demands as long as we live in societies in which the majority of the population, even though it belongs to the contemporary precariat, is well educated and of anti-authoritarian spirit.

The struggle is worth fighting for, as we are heading for trouble, Brunkhorst made unmistakably clear. The danger is already very real that we are increasingly moving towards a hypermodern “dual state” where authoritarian prerogatives and rule of law run parallel to each other. To be sure, the profile of this state formation is very different than the one of the pre-fascist dual state brilliantly analyzed by Ernst Fraenkel in the late 1930s/early 1940s. But the striking and disturbing similarities that do exist give us reason enough to worry and not to remain indifferent.


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