Issue 2, 2016

The Cunning of Democracy: reflections on Hauke Brunkhorst’s Das doppelte Gesicht Europas

Sjaak Koenis

Hauke Brunkhorst’s book Das doppelte Gesicht Europas and the article based on this book ‘European Crisis: The Kantian Mindset of Democracy under pressure of the Managerial Mindset of Capitalism’ are very interesting to read (Brunkhorst 2014 and 2015). Many years ago I wrote my dissertation about the classical Frankfurt School (Koenis 1990) and I remember that after a while I was a bit put off by the gloomy pessimism that – for perfectly understandable reasons – characterized the critical project of Horkheimer and Adorno. Hauke Brunkhorst places himself in the tradition of Critical Theory, but he is far from gloomy, and that is refreshing.

Whether or not critical thinkers are optimistic or pessimistic should not determine our appreciation of their work. In this case the optimism is relevant, though, because it seems to be written into the model with which Brunkhorst tries to make sense of the evolution of the European Union. To be more precise: the optimism is located in the Kantian mindset which represents the logic of emancipation – Dr Jekyll – the location of normative learning processes and cognitive adaptation processes. These processes determine what is possible in terms of solidarity and emancipation, whereas the managerial mindset – Mr. Hyde – the logic of technocratic administration, represents the realm of processes of blind adaptation.        Brunkhorst denies that this is a modernist vision, since there is no telos in this process, no end-state in which the final victory can be celebrated, and things can go seriously wrong. But the sheer fact that he locates normative rationality on one side of the dualism still makes him in my mind a member of the modernist family, maybe better called an ‘everyday modernist’ who believes in progress, in what Cristina Lafont in a review of Critical Theory of Legal Revolutions has called the Cunning of Law (Lafont 2014).

The logic of emancipation embodies rationality and normativity, whereas the logic of technocratic administration lacks this rationality and normativity. It represents blind systemic adaptation. Here we recognize the old distinction between emancipative and instrumental reason. But the dialectic between the two is in the case of Brunkhorst a lot more complicated than in that of the classical Frankfurt School. One of the claims in my dissertation, which I’m sad to say is not available in English, is that whereas in their philosophical work Horkheimer and Adorno don’t really get a grip of what politics and democracy are and can do, they do develop a more realistic and perceptive conception of politics and democracy in their scientific work, for instance in their cooperation with the American psychologists working on The Authoritarian Personality. Apart from this, scholars like Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer, not really members of the inner-circle of the Frankfurt School, also had a much more perceptive and interesting conception of politics and democracy than Horkheimer and Adorno. Now, being realistic may not be a recommendation for a critical theory, but I want to point to a couple of elements in the reconstruction of the Werdegang of the European Union which I find problematic.

First, by locating reason in the logic of emancipation, in the Kantian mindset, and blind adaptation in the managerial mindset, we get an interpretation of democracy which doesn’t do justice to modern democracy. True democracy, according to Brunkhorst, resides in the classical form of popular sovereignty, epitomized in the ‘Kantian power of the people’. That is the locus of egalitarian decision making, and this true democracy (my word, not his) is threatened by the hegemony of the managerial mindset. The former stands for democratic government and parliamentary responsibility, whereas the latter represents the grey networks of informal government, so-called good governance, administrative accountability and also deliberative democracy. The former represents emancipation, the latter individual empowerment. In this way of looking at democracy the only true way of representation of the people comes through elections, whereas we see in Europa (just as in our national democracies) all kinds of forms of what Rosanvallon has called counter-democracy (surveillance, oversight and critical evaluation) which are crucial for the democratic working of nation-states and the EU (Rosanvallon 2008). They don’t produce the legitimacy of popular sovereignty through elections, but they represent other kinds of political participation not dependent on elections. It might very well be that in the current age of distrust (again: Rosanvallon) in which the ‘voice of the people’ is not very ‘Kantian’ in the sense of calling for egalitarian emancipation, these forms of counter-democracy are becoming ever more important. Relegating these forms of counter-democracy to the managerial mindset, as forms of blind evolutionary adjustment from which by definition no emancipation can be expected, is too simple, in the same way that the overestimation of popular sovereignty which is ideally established at constitutional conventions, is dangerous. Democracy thrives by the interplay between the direct articulation of the will of the people with various forms of institutionalization of this will, including forms of surveillance, denunciation and evaluation. It is true that these forms of institutionalization, let’s say the institutional framework of the European Union, have been more the projects of political elites than of the people, but they were not blind adjustments, and they form an integral part of democracy in the European Union. And with the slowly but steadily increasing power of the European Parliament, the balance is shifting step by step to more parliamentary responsibility and popular sovereignty.

Towards the end of Brunkhorst’s book it becomes clear that the Kantian mind speaks the language of socialism or social-democracy. It is these political ideologies which contribute to the learning processes that will bring Europe to the next stage of emancipation. This place of honour is not reserved for liberals, who usually appear under the name of Ordo- or Neoliberals, both equally suspect and relegated to the managerial mindset, and so blind to Mr Hyde – kind of evolutionary adaptations to the progress of Emancipation and Reason. You don’t have to be a (neo)liberal to feel a bit surprised by this representation of politics in the European Union. The methodological choice of juxtaposing the emancipatory Kantian mindset and the managerial mindset translates itself into a skewed picture of European Union politics. Critical Theory prides itself in being able to both analyse and criticize society, but here criticism translates to a biased view of politics and the role of political ideologies. At the level of analysis we should treat social-democrats and socialists in the same way as liberals, ordo, neo or whatever, and as conservatives and populists, as representatives of the voice of the people, as political ideologies which should be taken seriously for what they are: ideologies that have different and divergent interpretations of what emancipation amounts to, where we should go with the European Union, et cetera. Then at the level of criticism we may single out one party above the others, we may feel that neoliberals have sold out Europe and that populists (conspicuously missing in Brunkhorst’s analysis) are exploiting the false consciousness of the ordinary people, but we should not confuse this political choice with scientific analysis.

Speaking of populism: what if ‘the people’ – think of the referenda in France and the Netherlands in 2005 – have lost all faith in the European Union? If it was only up to ‘the voice of the people’, Greece would probably not be a member of the European Union anymore and Le Pen, Farage and Wilders would lead a much more powerful group of Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament and breaking down the European Union from the inside. Populism doesn’t represent a blind adaptation in the evolution of the European Union, but a serious expression of the popular will. Only by taking it seriously as one of the expressions of the will of the people can we avoid the mistake that political elites at the national and European level have made in the last few decades, that is, in thinking that in due course these expressions of xenophobia and Euroscepticism would be swallowed up by the process of rational modernization and Europeanization. In this respect, the logic of emancipation of the Critical Theory of Hauke Brunkhorst and the logic of modernization in which the political elites of the European Union have been captured, amount to the same undervaluation of politics. Instead of reading too much of Rousseau into Kant (‘the Kantian voice of the people’) I prefer the Kant who embraced political pluralism instead of putting all our cards on popular sovereignty.



Brunkhorst, H. 2014. Das doppelte Gesicht Europas. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Brunkhorst, H. 2015. “European Crisis: The Kantian Mindset of Democracy under pressure of
the Managerial Mindset of Capitalism.” in: H. Brunkhorst, Ch. Gaitanides and Gerd Grözinger
(eds.) Europe at a Crossroad. From Currency Union to Political and Economic Governance?,
Baden-Baden: Nomos, 60-87.

Koenis, S. 1990. Tussen marge en professie; Frankfurt en Chicago: twee visies op de
praktische rol van sociologen. Amsterdam: Van Gennep.

Lafont, C. 2014. “The Cunning of Law: Remarks on Brunkhorst’s Critical Theory of Legal Revolutions” in: Social & Legal Studies, 23, 565-575.

Rosanvallon, P. 2008. Counter-Democracy; Politics in an age of distrust. Cambridge/New
York, etc.: Cambridge University Press.


Sjaak Koenis

Sjaak Koenis is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University since 2002. He held a special chair on Social Philosophy at Maastricht University between 2011 and 2016. He published (in Dutch) on the Frankfurt School, on liberalism and communitarianism in Dutch politics and on the role of culture in Dutch politics (Voices of the People; pluralism in Dutch Politics (1994-2014), Amsterdam, VU University Press). This fall his (Dutch) book an democracy and resentment will be published by Van Gennep Amsterdam.