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The very idea of ​​freedom

In his new book, Axel Honneth blends socialism and solidarity, thereby losing sight of the true idea of ​​freedom.


Axel Honneth:
The idea of ​​socialism
Suhrkamp, ​​2015.

"Social freedom is the real idea of ​​socialism," reads paroletically on the revolutionary red book cover of The idea of ​​socialism by Axel Honneth. The question arises: Why is a book published by the world-renowned philosopher right now, with precisely the word socialism in the title? Upon completion of the reading, the question can be answered in different ways. It makes the book readable, but also problematic.

Freedom through others. According to Honneth, socialism has lost its power – and therefore its real idea must be actualized: what he calls "the ethical demand of the French revolution, namely freedom, equality and solidarity". Honneth also bases "socialism" on his own concept of "social freedom". In the book, this is defined as "individual freedom through others". In doing so, Honneth criticizes the negative understanding of freedom: the absence of the interference of others in one's own life, and which many believe is dominant today.
He does this by reconstructing the history of ideas of socialism from the time before the French Revolution until today. Here he draws on such diverse thinkers as Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, to name but a few. During the time period Honneth deals with, he argues that the concept of socialism changed content from natural law to political-ideological.

Injustice. Since the classic Fight for recognition (1992, in Norwegian in 2008), Hegel's idea of ​​recognition has been Honneth's motive. He distinguishes three forms of recognition: love, respect, and solidarity – all of which mutually confirm the personality of the individual.
From around 2000, Honneth supplemented his conceptual toolbox with freedom, which has so far culminated in the book The right to freedom (2011, in English in 2013). This year's book further develops this perspective when socialism is based on Honneth's social loss of freedom.
In recent years, Honneth has gone from thinking about work as a basic human activity, to social work. This reconstruction is nevertheless one of its most interesting when it refers to precisely the value of the work as both financial earnings and personal development. In a newspaper interview last year, Honneth stated that since his recognition theory focuses on the valuation of community members' performance, this contributes to reducing the inequality Thomas Piketty problematizes. In doing so, the economic analysis in Honneth's Socialism Book is interesting to read against books like Piketty's Capital (2014) and Anthony Atkinsons inequality (2015)

Meta-policy. According to the introduction, the aim of the book is to re-establish socialism as what the author calls "meta-politics". It means “a source of political-ethical orientering». Honneth believes that his concept of socialism is "ethically-politically neutralized".
When Honneth even defends liberal freedoms as the terms of socialism, he reads like an echo of Rune Slagstad on the relationship between socialism and liberalism in Norwegian discourse: “As political and legal theory liberalism is Marxism superior, as economic and social theory Marxism is superior to liberalism. »
After reading the book, it remains unclear what is the normative basis of meta-politics – political ideology or political philosophy?

Ideological criticism. "Norwegian politics appears as an ideology-free zone," commented writer and writer Linn Stalsberg in VG the other day. In an interview with Denmark's Radio already in 2006, Honneth called for the updating of old or the construction of new ideologies, while criticizing Jürgen Habermas' "pessimism" because of his focus on religion as a source of solidarity. In the preface, Honneth explains this as one of the book's motives. He thus rejects the thesis of "the death of ideologies", and instead offers the ideology of socialism in response to Stalsberg's demand.
However, it is problematic, at least philosophically, when Honneth confuses socialism with solidarity. Especially since he initially explains to the reader that he just for is out in party politics. He points to John Rawls, although Rawls argues that freedom and justice must be justified independently of "comprehensive doctrines" – the diversity of citizens' ideologies or other views on good life. Here I mean Honneth's concept of socialism decreases political philosophy (non-comprehensive doctrine) – including the concept of freedom – to political ideology (comprehensive doctrine), such as socialism.

In the book, this is defined as "individual freedom through others". In doing so, Honneth criticizes the negative understanding of freedom: the absence of the interference of others in their own lives.

And thereby, ideological criticism (in the book called "immanent criticism") is reduced to ideological criticism. Honneth makes a logical fallacy when he goes from Rawls's "liberal solidarity" to his own "socialist freedom." The reason is that when he uses ideology criticism – one of the hallmarks of the Frankfurt School – this socialist starting position results in him already before The analysis of society has decided on the solution in the sense of one particular ideology. With a view to freedom in pluralistic and tolerant democracies, citizens must be free to choose doctrines, thus casting the foundations of society on the basis of what Rawls calls "overlapping consensus". Honneth could well have spent more space on this tension between philosophy and ideology.

Democratic solidarity. "Just societies are based on democratic solidarity," Honneth writes, citing Rawls' theory of justice. This means that democracy is legitimized through the solidarity and cooperation of the citizens. As Hauke ​​Brunkhorst documents, the concept of solidarity (non-comprehensive doctrine) can achieve overlapping consensus on across of the citizens' various political-ideological orientering (comprehensive doctrine), such as social democracy or Christian conservatism.
Therefore, Honneth's "socialist turn" is unnecessary. In addition, it is inconsistent with his overall theory of recognition, which already consists of the concept of recognition as solidarity. And, not least, the idea of ​​"democratic solidarity" is the basis for the concept of freedom in Honneth's previous book. In short: It is sufficient to define "the social" in freedom on the basis of solidarity (non-comprehensive doctrine) over socialism (comprehensive doctrine). Therefore, it is surprising when Honneth does not develop the concept of democratic solidarity as an alternative and non-doctrinal concept of community. Here he could also have drawn on what he has described in his earlier works as "existential recognition", since this is freedom's common human, and thus pre-ideological, foundation.

The future of the Frankfurt School. Honneth's intellectual will can be read in the book of socialism, since it was published after he recently resigned from the professorship of social philosophy at the University of Frankfurt (he is still director of the Institute of Social Research, as well as professor at Columbia University), which held both Max Horkheimer and Habermas before him. . Thus contributing The idea of ​​socialism, authored by the current head of the Frankfurt School, to the discourse on the future of this tradition. Then Honneth's mix between socialism and solidarity becomes essential.
For key contributors to the Frankfurt School – already mentioned Habermas, and Brunkhorst, as well as Albrecht Wellmer and Jay Bernstein – argue that its continuation should include the political-philosophical idea of ​​democratic solidarity, but without calling into question socialism political ideology. Thus, Honneth seems to be quite alone among the Frankfurters about his choice of road.
However, had his recognition theory still been based on democratic solidarity, Honneth's latest book would probably have been closer to an actualization of the very idea of ​​social freedom.

Lysaker is a philosopher and associate professor at the University of Agder.

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