»Paradoxes of Capitalist Modernization«
The Foundations of a Comprehensive Research Project of the Institute for Social Research

Professor Dr. Axel Honneth


During the next three years the Institute for Social Research is planning to develop the conceptual basis for an extensive research project that will be carried out in close cooperation with scholars in different departments at the Goethe-University. This interdisciplinary project will examine structural transformations in contemporary societies, which we sum up under the title »Paradoxes of Capitalist Modernization«. First I would like to explain the general idea underlying our research plans, then I will introduce the individual projects.

The structural social transformations currently occurring in Western societies appear to be a highly contradictory process. On the one hand, we can observe undeniable moral, legal and material progress that has resulted from institutional changes, which have been characterized using concepts such as »reflexive modernization« and the shift to a »knowledge society«. Restrictive gender roles are disappearing, at least among certain social strata; the rigidity of the traditional nuclear family is giving way to a number of new familial arrangements; the legal equality of women has improved as much as that of the members of cultural or ethnic minorities; and, finally, the modern, knowledge-based economy makes possible enormous chains of value creation that substantially improve the material conditions of broad segments of the population. While all these developments can be understood as increases in the scope of individual freedom, they have also been accompanied socio-economic developments that have either made it structurally more difficult for increasingly large sections of the population to take advantage of these new options or that have, in the process of realizing principles of economic efficiency, eliminated the newly gained freedoms or even occasionally transformed them into their opposite. Thus, the growing tendency to deregulate the labor market along with the new forms of impoverishment and exclusion have increased the number of people who are unable to take advantage of normative progress, due to insufficient resources. On the other hand, economically established groups are also faced with the dilemma of having more flexible individual life patterns forced upon them in the form of economic imperatives that substantially reduce their gains in personal autonomy. Furthermore, the material benefits of the modern »knowledge economy«, which could provide an economic basis for improving the living conditions of broad sections of the population, are instead increasingly and one-sidedly concentrated in the hands of shareholders and professional elites, all in the name of a »shareholder value« capitalism. These contradictory tendencies represent only a small cross-section of the numerous processes, occurring within the contemporary transformation of Western societies, that we would like to conceptualize as »Paradoxes of Capitalist Modernization«. One can speak of such paradoxical processes in relation to social developments whenever one and the same structural transformation brings about moral, legal and material progress through mechanisms that at the same time place these normative accomplishments in danger, because in the process the social prerequisites for taking advantage of them are eliminated or the meaning and purpose of these accomplishments are subverted.

We believe that paradoxical developments of this type can currently be observed in at least five different areas, which we would like to examine in interdisciplinary exchange between sociologists, legal scholars, historians, developmental psychologists and philosophers:

1. We would like to investigate the aforementioned paradoxes at the most general level – which will also serve as the conceptual umbrella for the project as a whole – with a view to the structural transformation of the normative principles of integration themselves. With this we have in mind first of all a project in the general area of the sociology of culture that would examine the tendency toward a gradual erosion of the performance principle. While the performance principle, whose application has been limited to gainful employment until now, is beginning to be applied to other dimensions of socially useful labor (family, household and civic work, e.g.), it is also on the verge of degenerating into a mere success principle, which severs the last remaining normative links between gains in status and measurable performance, and which makes status gains dependent instead on actual market success. We suspect that another paradox of this sort exists with regard to the principle of responsibility. At a historical moment, in which ever more complexly interwoven webs of social action are making it increasingly difficult to assign individual responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, tendencies are also emerging in criminal law as well as social policy toward an increased individualization of responsibility. Finally, we also foresee this sort of paradoxical development with respect to ethnic relations. At a time when, on the one hand, ethnic minorities are able to attain a higher level of social recognition through legal guarantees and, on the other, the contemporary forms of social inequality are frequently »ethnified«, the expanded contestatory ability of ethnic minorities made possible by gains in legal recognition also gives rise to an »ethnic separatism« of both the majority (»dominant culture« [»Leitkultur«]) and minorities (»fundamentalism«), which can lead to intensified ethnic mobilization instead of ameliorating relations between ethnic groups democratically. One consequence of this is, for example, the social pressure to »ethnify« oneself, which can seriously erode individuals’ increased options for articulating social affiliation.

2. A second area, in which we want to examine the paradoxes of capitalist modernization, is the sphere of gainful employment in the industrial and service sectors. There is hardly another sphere where these paradoxes manifest themselves so palpably as here, where the raised quality standards of certain forms of labor, their increasing autonomization and demand upon workers, has been accompanied by a rapidly moving process of deregulation and flexibilization. At a time when employees’ normative expectations for the quality of their activities has begun to rise for a variety of reasons, a drastic transformation in the social organization of labor (i.e. contract manufacturing) greatly weakened the traditional position of wage-laborers, which in turn has placed large sections of dependent employees in socio-economic danger.

3. We would also like to examine these sort of paradoxical developments in the area of familial socialization, in which an accelerated process of detraditionalization is currently taking place that is leading to a deinstitutionalization of the [bourgeois] nuclear family. What appears as a possible paradox in this sphere are the negative consequences for socialization that could accompany the pluralization of familial forms. As a result of the radically transformed pattern of relations between father and mother, the symbolic triangularity in the socialization process may begin to disintegrate in such a way that children lose the ability to maintain stabile relationships and to interact successfully in group situations. Thus we would like to examine the consequences for socialization that result from the changed structure of relationships in so-called »postmodern« families.

4. One can also speak of a paradox in relation to the cultural development of highly advanced Western societies. As a result of a democratization of education and the public sphere, bourgeois culture no longer has an indisputable or exclusive monopoly on social validity in these areas, and this has also increased the legitimacy of minority and subcultural modes of aesthetic expression. But the delegitimation of bourgeois elite culture also provides new opportunities for the commercial culture industry, whose primarily media-oriented consumer products are created solely according to considerations of the profitability of mere entertainment. As a result, the level of substantive cultural education and aesthetic sensibility, as represented in popular cultural products, is tendentially in the process of declining, due to intense media competition. Furthermore, the commercial media culture favors those social groups, whose own lifestyle corresponds the most to the models peddled by the entertainment industry, while less conspicuous social groups usually have a smaller chance of being represented publicly.

5. Finally, we believe that one can also speak of a paradox with regard to the development of the welfare state in Western societies. The process of reflexively overhauling the overly bureaucratic welfare state, as it is taking place today with the creation, in diverse areas of civil society, of new models of public assistance that are more flexible and nearer to their clients, also brings with it the danger of eliminating social rights that have safeguarded recipients’ claims up to now. We are thinking here primarily of tendencies to restructure social services according to market principles, which would result in the replacement of social rights by a not yet fully transparent system combining paternalist care with concomitant individual obligations.