Freedom's Right: Critical Social Theory and the Challenge of Neoliberalism

By Foster, Roger | Capital & Class, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Freedom's Right: Critical Social Theory and the Challenge of Neoliberalism


Foster, Roger, Capital & Class


Introduction

Axel Honneth (2007) has consistently argued that a distinguishing feature of critical social theory is its dependence upon an element of 'intramundane transcendence (pp. 64-65). Critical social theory is charged with the task of identifying within social reality itself the missing counterpart to its own critical perspective on the society. This guiding idea survives in Freedom's Right, although only in a form that is severely weakened by the deterministic implications of the methodological principle of normative reconstruction. In Freedom's Right, as in previous works, Honneth sets up this critique as a challenge to the abstraction of contemporary political philosophy, which focuses on normative principles in isolation from the concrete practices and institutions comprising social reality. Honneth discovers in Hegel's mature notion of Sittlichkeit or ethical life' a view of moral norms as essentially embedded in the practices and institutions of daily life. Honneth (2014) argues in Freedom's Right that the universal value expressed in the institutions and practices of modern society is freedom or the 'autonomy of the individual' (p. 15). In Hegel's political philosophy, this is allegedly developed into the form of a theory of 'social freedom', that is, of the social and intersubjective conditions that make possible the freedom of each. Subjects, in Honneth's formulation, come to perceive the free action of others as the condition of their own freedom. A subject is free, on this conception, if it encounters another subject within the framework of institutional practices, to whom it is joined in a relationship of recognition (Honneth 2014: 45). By participating in such practices, subjects become aware of their mutual dependence; they learn that the condition of their own freedom is the exercise of freedom by others. This can be seen fairly straightforwardly in the case of the modern idea of romantic love, for example, where the quest for a partner can only succeed when the other's love is freely given, as the result of a complementary process of self-discovery and self-realization. More fundamentally, however, participating in institutional relationships of recognition allows individuals to develop an intersubjective understanding of their own freedom (Honneth 2014: 49). Rather than perceiving themselves and others as pursuing purely private aims under conditions of state neutrality, individuals now begin to view themselves as 'self-conscious members of communities that guarantee freedom'. The three relational systems of action that guarantee freedom in modern society are, for Honneth, the sphere of personal relationships, the market, and the political public sphere. Honneth's method of normative reconstruction attempts to disclose the background normative assumptions that enable these spheres of social existence to work as guarantors of social freedom. This reflects Honneth's belief that the social order is rendered legitimate to its members by its adherence to certain ultimate values, which are realized not only in publicly declared principles but also in the habits and institutions of social existence. The book acquires an element of moral urgency from the fact that the current configuration of neoliberal capitalism has undermined the material conditions of autonomous life for much of the population.

Honneth's method of normative reconstruction focuses on disclosing the normative infrastructure of a social order, as embedded in its central institutions. This reflects a deeper assumption within Honneth's theory of recognition, namely that the intersubjective relations sustained through normatively embedded social practices enable individuals to realize themselves as autonomous individuals. In love relations, individuals acquire the confidence to assert their needs, in legal forms of recognition they come to see their claims to autonomy as universally respected, and, finally, they are granted self-esteem through the social recognition of the worth of their unique traits and abilities. …

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