Theater of Cruelty

Political or despotic?

Political philosophy of common sense. Volume 2, Morality and Society: Immanuel Kant
Forfatter: Oskar Negt
Forlag: Steidl (Tyskland)
PHILOSOPHY / Oskar Negt asks how the modern political citizen came into being in the wake of the French Revolution. When it comes to political terror, he is clear – it is not political.


Then the American Congress was stormed by Trump supporters on January 6 this year, a seemingly "political" mark slipped into apolitical actionism at first glance. Was it really "political"? The same question can be asked about the media's description of the supporters as "protesters". For a protester, a message is uttered – violence, on the other hand, is dumb. Gathering during the invocation of the right to demonstrate, and then attacking precisely the democratic pillar, the constitution that first legitimizes such a right, is a contradiction in terms. The political is precisely defined by the management of common affairs and should and can not be characterized by identity politics.

In the wake of the often referred to political apathy among large sections of the population, it may seem that individual psychological affects and identity motivations pollute a rational political discourse.

Social philosophical politics

Such questions about democratic self-understanding, revolutionary tendencies, bourgeois publicity, social change and political violence are also asked in Oskar Negts' (b. 1934) recently published book about Immanuel Kant: Political philosophy of common sense. Volume 2, Morality and Society: Immanuel Kant ("The Political Philosophy of the Common Sense. Volume 2, Morality and Society: Immanuel Kant").

While violence without freedom and laws is barbaric, a democratic republic is precisely defined
through the combination of freedom and statutory, "state" violence.

Negt has studied under Horkheimer and Adorno, and has also had a multi-year collaboration with Habermas. He is one of Germany's foremost social philosophers and is considered one of the most important living representatives of the Frankfurt School and the so-called younger critical theory.

The book collects lectures given over two semesters between 1974 and 1975, on Immanuel Kant's transcendental philosophy in a social philosophical and political context – often in dialogue with Marx and Hegel. For Negt, Kant is the political philosopher par excellence, whose thinking has decisively shaped bourgeois self-understanding. It is precisely Kant's understanding of a reasonably constituted bourgeois public, sense of community and freedom that Negt strives to reactivate in a Marxist reinterpretation – which in many ways emphasizes Negt as a left-wing social democrat, in the tradition of the European labor movement.

An overarching thread in the lectures – in close dialogue with Kant – is the question of how the modern political citizen (the citizen) came into being in the wake of the French Revolution
- how it found its humanistic self-understanding. Central here is Kant's use of the term Gemeinsinn (lat. Sensus comunis) – which can be translated into something as "sense of community" or "common sense": This common sense is generally sensible in its support of universal maxims and laws, as it – according to Negt – «Does not restrict the individual's freedoms. What was previously self-willedness must become a sense of community, so one could formulate Kant's practical philosophy ».

An inner revolution of the way of thinking

The book's second series of lectures begins precisely with the derivation of the beginning of this bourgeois public by examining how Lace on the background of the ripple effects of the French Revolution establishes a proof of the general, a priori given morality of man. Not just in Kant's book Criticism of the judgment (1790, Norwegian 1995), but also in The dispute of the faculties (1797, "The Struggle of the Faculties"), Kant deals with the question of whether one can speak of historical progress at all – not least in the moral sense.

So is human morality something that is in a liberating process of development? Kant understands man's moral dispositions and abilities as a priori given, but only as potential, that is, as opportunity, which can – but must not – be expressed. To arrive at this, Negt emphasizes, Kant completes an interesting argumentative turn: Instead of turning his theoretical attention to the actual, empirical events of the revolution, Kant turns his gaze to the "spectators" of the revolution in secure Prussia, how many – including himself – enthusiastically solidarity with the events in France.

These, in contrast to the potential power interests of the revolutionaries, have no immediate personal interests in the revolution, but nevertheless express – and at the risk of reprisals – their support for it. Precisely these reactions to the revolution point for Kant towards the existence of an a priori given moral disposition in man, which precisely wants the universal good for all mankind, rather than cultivating purely selfish interests.

Negt interprets the RAF's actions not as political, but as subjective psychological despairing actions.

For Kant – according to Negt – the actual revolution is not the change of external forms of state, but rather an internal revolution of the way of thinking. The empirical, actual revolution in France is only an outward sign of the fundamental transcendental freedom of self-determined, rational man. Thus it is not the cause, but the indication of a moral development: In the face of the French Revolution, the modern citizen, which in principle has liberated itself from material interests and represents only the interests of general humanity, forward.

For Negt, these processes are characterized by the fact that they are not created through external action. Admittedly, changes in consciousness can be initiated in the face of external actions, but the latter do not necessarily have to be moral, since they can also be arbitrary or controlled by self-interest. Only the action-controlling maxim that is potentially universal constitutes the morality of an action, and thus moral progress. The universal moral maxim – and the right of universal humanity to freedom and humanity – causes enthusiasm as the modern civil the subject grows out of.

 "Political" Terrorism and the Rote Armee Faction

Interesting in the more current context of the American congressional storm is the lecture from 14 November 1974, in which Negt responds to many of his students' declarations of solidarity with the left-wing radical terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF). Four days before, its members had killed Judge Günter von Drenkmann in response to the death of RAF member Holger Meins – in protest of seemingly poor conditions of imprisonment, he had gone on a hunger strike.

In the lecture, Negt denies that the RAF can stand in the tradition of the European labor movement, in that the latter never sought to destroy bourgeois and republican understandings of freedom. The "limited" bourgeois freedom was to be brought into the liberating processes of the labor movement – towards a system characterized by more human equality and freedom. Defending republican and democratic freedoms is precisely a fundamental component of the labor movement. According to Negt, potential actual political change can never be achieved by stepping out of the democratic space of expression and instead making room for violent actions from the underground.

For Negt, Kant is the political philosopher par excellence.

Kant promotes a positive concept of violence that anticipates the modern state violent monopoly, by schematically outlining the combination possibilities of violence, freedom and laws. While violence without freedom and laws is barbaric, a democratic republic is defined precisely through the combination of freedom and statutory, "state" violence: Man, with certain natural moral facilities, cannot become "human" without "violence", that is, "violence" »Of a restriction and regulation through general laws and maximize. Reason structures violence – where pre-democratic, despotic violence has become superfluous.

In that sense, Negt interprets RAF's actions not as political, but as subjective psychological despairing actions. He does this, among other things, by referring to Frantz Dewlaps The damned of the earth (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961 [published in Norwegian in 1967]), which outlines the fanatical tendency in which opposition groups and individuals initiate actions that create clear facts and divisions, but make it impossible to return to bourgeois society – even if they wanted to. In this context, parallels can be drawn Rudy Giuliani #s speech to Trump supporters who would later storm Congress, in which he in a conspiratorial call for electoral fraud urged the masses to go "to duel", in accordance with circulating posts on alt-right online forum that they now had to "fight or die" for their country.

Crypto-fascist tendencies

Negt considers this erroneous belief that there may be legitimate political violence to be deeply problematic. Truly revolutionary "violence" – in the actual political sense, that is, the power of change – must, according to Negt, be borne by the working class and perpetrated within the democratic system, through strikes, political opposition in a "counter-public", as resistance to systemic errors and injustices, if it is to lead to actual political change.

The question is whether one can talk about historical progress at all.

Negt also outlines how the executive power in the Weimar Republic, for example, was to some extent still characterized by feudal power structures, with a majority of aristocrats in the police force, so that it was characterized by bourgeois, "despotic" elements. In this context, one can consider whether the executive power to this day is still characterized by non-bourgeois, yes, crypto-fascist tendencies – for example, it is striking that many of the Trump supporters who stormed Congress were off-duty policemen from many states.

One can therefore conclude that such an exercise of "political" violence – whether it be by the RAF or the alt-right movement – commits in the Kantian sense the philosophically worst sin of engaging in contradictions by using means such as destroys the goals. A more frightening conclusion, however, is that their goal is not precisely a more free and democratic society, but rather a regression to a despotic and barbaric society. But politics has nothing to do with the latter.

Luke Lehner
Lukas Lehner
Freelance writer.

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