Burdens of Political Theory (politikaelméleti workshop)

   2020. október 15. 9:00 - 2020. október 15. 16:00

Burdens of political theory

October 15, 2020

online workshop

at Centre for Social Sciences, Budapest


The online workshop will be dedicated to three topics that have played a central role in contemporary political theory: the attraction of the impossible, the inalienability of pluralism, and the autonomy of politics. The challenges these three issues raised have been looming over every attempt to provide answers to the most pressing questions of our time ever since modern political theory reemerged from its ashes in the early 1970s. We can hardly avoid facing these challenges while looking for our answers to the problems of distributive justice, political legitimacy, authority, and obligations, democracy, oppression, migration - to mention just a few examples. Contemporary schools in political theory have divergent responses to them and some of these responses might be rightly seen as characteristic to their approaches. The workshop organized by CSS (Attila Gyulai and Zoltán Gábor Szűcs) invites the participants to make some comments about what response they offer to these challenges in their own research



Janosch Prinz (University of Maastricht): A realist political theory of public debt in the EMU

Research in economics (and economic history) suggests that it was private, not public debt that was a major factor in precipitating the Great Financial Crisis that began in 2008. However, in the aftermath, especially in the EMU, public debt has been at the forefront of discussion. Many countries adopted measures of fiscal austerity, the effects of which hit the disadvantaged portions of the population disproportionally harder. Only in the Greek case was there a bailing in of the holders of public debt. This set of events that has arguably stabilized into a structural condition raises the following question: How should public opinion-formation and decision-making about public debt be guided and evaluated? What role could democratic concerns play in such evaluations? In what ways is the depolarization of public debt and the monetary policy itself a political process that needs to be scrutinized? In this paper, I try to elaborate on these questions and sketch for how to address within a realist framework in political theory. I do so against the background of viewing the EMU as a complex project of supranational integration, in which some areas of integration (monetary) are much further advanced than others (fiscal, political) and in which democratic aspirations are in tension with an economic constitution.

Anna Ujlaki (Corvinus University): On the Edge: Why Is It So Difficult to Provide a Political Theory of Migration?

Normative debates about migration are far from being comprehensive or satisfactory. The presentation addresses the political theory of migration from a meta-perspective: it criticizes the generally accepted divisions (i.e. cosmopolitanism/nationalism) for their bias towards methodological nationalism. The aim of the presentation is to demonstrate that migrants, migration, and movement are either a problem for political theory or simply absent because of two fundamental reasons. First, a theoretical division of the world to a (’closed system’) of society and to a separate (’outside’) world of international relations makes it impossible to theorize properly phenomena that do not belong exclusively to one of these dimensions of the world. Second, hence the language of political theory primarily concentrates on a relationship between the state and its citizens, it necessarily determines the migrant a role of the exception. Opposed to mainstream arguments about migration, the presentation attempts to show that migration is a natural element of everyday human life and human history, and it offers a sketch of a phenomenology of the migrant that emerges from real human experience and vulnerability.


Szilárd János Tóth (Corvinus University): Republicanism, liberalism, and the critique of dominating power

Republicans tend to assert that republicanism is preferable to liberalism, among other things, because it offers better foundations for ‘progressive’ aims and justifies a posture that is ‘socially more radical’ (Pettit). Behind all this is the common assumption made by republicans according to which liberalism, due to its emphasis on the ideal of freedom as non-interference, is insensitive to the wrongs done by severe inequalities of power and is, therefore, somewhat ill-equipped to tackle the injustices of the market.

I challenge this assumption. I accept that freedom as non-interference does not say anything about power. But liberalism as a whole does have other resources that may fill the gap. I argue that the republican concern about domination may be covered by the relational version of liberal equality. In fact, non-domination is merely a somewhat restricted version of relational equality – and is neither particularly strong nor really progressive compared to some versions of liberalism.

Further, I show that republicanism does not only fail to transcend liberalism with regards to egalitarian aims but also with regards to instruments for the achievement of these aims. According to the usual republican assertion, while liberalism inherently tends towards pro-market policy and a minimalist state, republicanism is by nature closer to supporting a democratically controlled redistributive state or even socialism. This assertion is also wrong, however. In response to it, I show that while the liberal freedom-principle does support it, liberal theory as a whole once again does not, and may, therefore, justify more or less the same policies that republicanism does.

Thus, with regards to anti-hierarchy and egalitarian credentials, the polemic edge republicanism purportedly has against liberalism is in fact unclear. Even if republican criticism is well-founded against certain streams within liberalism, it is not well-founded against liberalism in general.



Carlo Burelli (University of Eastern Piedmont): Realist legitimacy in Functionalist Key

Many realists wish political philosophers would focus more on legitimacy than on justice. Legitimacy is seen as a properly political normative standard that does not rely on pre-existing moral norms deductively applied to politics. Critics respond that it is difficult to see how the focus on legitimacy can ever hope to be independent of moral considerations, or if it is whether it could warrant the critical distance necessary to play a normative role. Here I argue that a genuinely political normative role can be found in the notion of functional normativity. Legitimacy is something that political institutions need in order to discharge their natural function. Like knives are good when they are sharp, and armies are good when they are trained to fight, political institutions are good when they are legitimate. The legitimacy will be understood in a descriptive Weberian sense, as the capacity of political institutions to generate beliefs in their right to command, as opposed to ruling through coercion alone. This descriptive fact will be shown to be a desirable feature of political institutions because it discharges a key functional role. Institutions that fail to convince people of their right to rule are bad political institutions, even if they satisfy all philosophical standards for possessing such right.


Attila Gyulai (Centre for Social Sciences / National University of Public Administration): Might is right: beyond realism, beyond politics?

Contemporary realist theory situates itself between – and is separated from both – idealism (or, in other cases, moralism) and Realpolitik. By now, an extensive literature has explored the former distinction arguing for the autonomy of politics. However, on the other side of the spectrum, the grounds of distinction have remained obscure and neglected. It is often merely assumed that Realpolitik is beyond politics inasmuch as it not only lacks normative justification, but it is incompatible with any. Realists claim that politics requires justification, but Realpolitik cannot offer any. My presentation aims to revisit the problem of Realpolitik in two respects. First, it seeks to examine how the notion of Realpolitik is related to some other similar formulations such as “might is right” or “the reason of the strongest is always best” and whether they can be brought under a common denominator. That is, the presentation aims to explore what exactly contemporary realism is differentiated. Second, the presentation will ask whether it is true that this other position is really devoid of genuine politics as realists seem to suggest or it can be accepted even by contemporary realist standards as having political character.

Paul Raekstad (University of Amsterdam): Shifting the Focus: A Transformative Conception of Political Legitimacy (paper co-written with Ugur Aytac)

Theories of legitimacy traditionally focus on developing normative principles determining acceptable forms of political power. These principles are traditionally used to assess existing power structures, with or without minor modifications. Given the urgent climate crisis and its demands for radical ecological and democratic political change, this approach has two limitations: (1) it is unsuited to making sense of the shifting norms of legitimacy required and entailed by any large-scale social transformation; (2) it can hinder such processes, insofar as one of the biggest obstacles to such transformation is arguably the risk of a legitimacy deficit. To address these limitations, this paper takes a different tack. We want to take a step back from these discussions to theorize how today’s social practices and innovative discourses can and should shape our conceptions of legitimacy, in order to further democratic and ecological social transformation. More precisely, we argue that political theorists should develop useful tools to eliminate potential legitimacy deficits for valuable new social institutions by helping to shape citizens’ future conceptions of political legitimacy. To do this, political theorists should develop an account of praxis leading to future legitimation of desired institutions that i) identifies certain social practices that would justifiably transform individuals’ desires, needs, and normative dispositions over time and ii) can normatively make sense of why individuals as they have reasons to engage in these practices today. This takes the first step towards developing a theory of legitimacy suitable not just to judge the world, but to change it.

We focus on the ethos of consumerism as an example of the key obstacles to the transition towards green economic orders. As the legitimation of capitalist institutions is often premised upon ongoing material prosperity and consumption, any radical transformation leading to a sharp decrease in the level of carbon footprints faces the lack of necessary democratic support. Insofar as the norms characterizing “good life” cannot be publicly revised and move in a less consumption-centric direction, it is going to be much more difficult, if not impossible, to democratically legitimize alternative sets of economic institutions that do not prioritize growth over other social objectives. Drawing on empirical studies regarding the measures of subjective and objective well-being, we offer a practice-based strategy to transform certain elements of well-being in an eco-friendly manner. We discuss three human needs: freedom, creativity, and leisure and argue that they can be reconstructed in a way that is substantially detached from overconsumption. Further, such reconstruction can be transferred from the domain of philosophical speculation to actual social life if certain social practices blossom and are supported by the wider institutional architecture in contemporary societies. This potential transformation in public attitudes would encourage a more radical transition towards alternative economic institutions in the long-run where market imperatives and growth are not the most important considerations. Lastly, in addition to the philosophical reconstruction of human needs and connecting their development to social practices, another task of the theorist is to show these social practices are supported by the pool of normative reasons in existing cultures even before the abovementioned transformation in public attitudes.


Katharina Kaufmann (University of Bayreuth): Theorizing injustice



Dirk Schuck (University of Leipzig): Social Isolation and Aloneness in Confucianism and Early Liberalism

The classic republican line of argument from Cicero argues that societies in which people isolate themselves from the public sphere show signs of degeneracy of a virtuous order. In other words, a correlation between self-isolation and moral degeneracy is assumed. What, however, if the public sphere itself puts totalitarian pressure on individuals? I assume that in totalitarian social environments often people which isolate themselves from society are actually the virtuous ones which try to keep up their proper moral conduct by such aloneness. I will validate this claim by looking at thoughts from Confucius, Adam Smith, and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury.

Kei Hiruta (Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies): Value Pluralism and the Critical Function of Political Theory 


Value pluralism is usually seen as a deflationary doctrine. It often does encourage us to lower our expectations and be realistic about our moral and political life, and to be skeptical about utopian theories that purport to solve value conflict once and for all. Does this mean that value pluralism entails a degree of conservatism? Must value pluralism impose limitations on the critical function of political theory? In this presentation, I suggest that value pluralism need not be conservative, or entail a status-quo bias, or renounce the critical function of political theory. Discussing concrete instances of value conflict, I hope to show that value pluralism can play a critical and action-guiding role, depending on the context in which it is mobilized. By way of conclusion, I consider in a preliminary manner if critically oriented value pluralists can go so far as to demand the impossible.  


Zoltán Gábor Szűcs (Centre for Social Sciences): What do we owe to authoritarian regimes?

There are pretty good reasons (with a venerable past in the history of political theory) to sincerely doubt that people living under the auspices of authoritarian regimes have genuine political obligations towards the exercisers of political power. First, we usually feel that sheer force cannot justify itself (even realists like Bernard Williams tend to think so) and authoritarian regimes by definition seem to be built more on force than on some moral justification. Second, we usually feel that it is not enough for a political regime to be accepted that it provides some moral justification. Justification has to be acceptable on some clear moral ground. And we tend to see authoritarian regimes as not providing any acceptable moral justification. In the paper, I will argue though that these two intuitions, albeit basically right, are not quite adequate to explain the normative sources of our political obligations and I will undertake to show why this is the case. Three points will be highlighted: that membership is a thick - context-bound - ethical concept that provides a clear moral ground for political obligations; that a strict distinction between what we owe as an obligation and what we ought to do in response to an authority claim (a distinction widely used to define obligations) is untenable; that various political regimes may not be equally well justified, but as stable forms of political order they make a substantive contribution both to the context of membership and the context of our all-things-considered response to them what ought to do the question and help to bridge the gap between these two.