New Wine in old bottle? Classical notions of political philosophy in a changed political reality


 Undeniably, we are witnesses and sufferers of a paradigm-shift; this process has been on-going for decades of course, but it has become explicit due to the climate crisis, Covid pandemic, and Russian invasion of Ukraine. These events are parts of a great historical transformation—a civilizational crisis, in other words a modernity crisis, that questions the inherited patterns in which modernity articulates itself for a given historical period. This is not a new phenomenon in modern history. A very similar crisis emerged after the First World War (1914–1918); the Great War proved to be a watershed. It dissolved the economic, social, political, and cultural patterns of 19th century capitalist civilization in a storm of blood and steel, borrowing the term of Ernst Jünger, and contemporaries lost their 19th century pseudo-religious faith in an unrestricted human progress that civilizes all spheres. An age of a modernity crisis is an epoch of calamities. It is not a calm, heart-warming historical period. We did not choose it, but rather we have been thrown into it by God or Fate, and we are condemned to live in it.

* This article was written in the framework of the project entitled The tradition of “sensus communis” in Hungarian thought: Philosophy and the public realm; public philosophy, national philosophy, national characterology – NKFIH-number: K 135 638.

The crisis of our great-grandfathers in the inter-war decades began at the completion of a world war and concluded with the end of another one. Our modernity crisis began sometime in the 1980s with globalization. The collapse of East-European bureaucratic socialism and its associated command-economy and one-party political system was a watershed between the ages of stability and instability. It was succeeded by a transitional period with a new geopolitical situation of one superpower, a world-wide emerging wave of political democracies, and faith in a bright future realized by the beneficent agency of global digitalized capitalism conquering every part of the world connected by the internet.

The problem facing us is far from being a new one. Practically, it has been accompanying us since the second half of the 19th century. Hannah Arendt, one of the most renowned political thinkers of the 20th century, put it into the center of her theory. Philosophy, according to her, finds itself in an uneasy situation from time to time. The problem is that our notions, by their very nature, are prone to becoming petrified. However, the experience is changing and the framework of the notion is static and endurable. So, at the moment a political theory’s inception, notion and experience converge. The notion is an authentic expression form of the actual, living experience that adequately interprets the reality we are living in. However, inevitably, there comes the moment when philosophical concepts lose their contact with reality; experience no longer feeds them and instead of explaining reality they enforce themselves upon it. This is the moment of the exhaustion of a philosophical tradition. What has to be done by philosophers in such uneasy intellectual situations? Their first reaction, because of the burden of tradition and the inertia of things, is to continue business as usual (i.e., insist on old inadequate notions in the interpretation of our new experiences). However, the breaking point of the philosophical tradition is reached when the discrepancy between notion and experience becomes conspicuous and unbearable. Arendt asserts that great philosophers, such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, stood before the breaking point. They tried to theorize a new experience having come from a changed reality with the help of our inherited intellectual heritage.[1] However, we, living after the breaking point, are being forced to look for a new intellectual tool-box. This is a very urgent requirement in the field of political philosophy.2

The problem

The notions of our political thought have been inherited partly from antiquity and partly from early modernity.  The political thinkers of early modernity were living after the breaking point of the medieval tradition, so they had to invent a new political vocabulary and construct the tools for a new intellectual tool-box.  Certainly, as usual, it was a gra dual process. In the beginning they used the old notions but gradually filled them with new meaning. One of the best illustrations for this intellectual strategy was the way they used the idea of revolution. Originally, as Arendt points out, this simultaneously both designated the circular movement of the celestial bodies and, in political philosophy, referred to the circulation of political arrangements, which, in antiquity, inclined to corrupt from the good forms to the bad ones. Revolution, in premodern political thought, refers to the completion of the cyclical motion; it meant the restoration of the initial state, when the original good constitution prevailed again. The revolutions of modernity, contrary to the premodern situations, from the 18th century to end of the 20th century, assumed the meaning of a linear movement from a former bad state of things to a later and better arrangement. This notion involved the idea of amelioration instead of restoration.3

Like the idea of revolution, most concepts of modern political thought were invented in early modernity and associated with spatial metaphors, reflecting the fact that the territorial nation-state was the exemplary political unit of modernity to the end of the 20th century. The notion of sovereignty, albeit being rooted in medieval political thought and practice, played a central role in the political theory of Thomas Hobbes. In his conception, sovereignty transcends the community of individuals bound to each other by a hypothetic social contract and becomes an overarching Leviathan imposing itself on society. Rousseau modified Hobbes’ theory; his republicanism is based on direct democracy, but volonté generale homogenizing individual wills constitutes a transcendent sovereignty as well. One of the main axioms of modern political thought is that the only relevant frame of political community is the nation-state, the exclusive possessor of sovereignty. In other words, political space in classical modernity was guarded by the boundaries of the nation-state based on sovereignty. This was a lasting constellation that just altered in late or postmodernity, at the end of the 20th century. Jürgen Habermas writes about the coming of the constellation of post-nationalism, and Manuel Castells in his magnum opus titled The Information Age describes this new situation as the following: “(…) the growing challenge to states’ sovereignty around the world seems to originate from the inability of the modern nation-state to navigate uncharted, stormy waters between the power of global networks and the challenge of singular identities” (Castells 1997: 243–244). Castells writes on the emergence of a new kind of political arrangement that he calls “network society.”[2] The territorial state, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri assert in their book titled Empire (2000), has already partly been replaced by a network-like postmodern empire, which with its flexible structures, can be an efficient political unit, a new response to the challenges of globalization.

We have to pose the question: what does the notion of the political mean in these circumstances, in the age of high, late, or postmodernity? Is the distinction between private realm and public realm yet tenable? Is the deconstruction or reconstruction of political space occurring?  However, the subsystems of modernity based on binary codes are not able to function properly any more. The new situation is un-interpretable with the classical notions of modernity: inner–outer and private–public. The differentiation of private space and public space has been the foundation of political philosophies since the beginning of modernity. According to this way of thought, the space of politics is a public space in which individuals strive for gaining the respect of others; opposite to this, private space is the field of particular human needs and human rights that must be separated from public space. The classical political ideas of modernity (i.e., republicanism, conservatism, liberalism, and socialism) are in common making differences between the spaces of civil and private existence.

Ulrich Beck, in his theory, asserts that there are two modernities—first and second modernity—each with different characteristics. First modernity was the age of industrial society dominated by some kind of naiveté about the possible outcomes of industrialization. The citizens of industrial democracy believed that technological decisions would not influence the foundations of social coexistence and would not change the rules of politics. It was a common belief that the harmful side-effects of technological progress could be eliminated by technological means (Beck 1997: 41). In the age of first modernity, instrumental rationalization and functional differentiation were the movers of social transformation. Instrumental rationality seemed to be a linear and one-dimensional process. The process of linear modernization had broken up the foundations of industrial society and introduced the age of reflexive modernization. While in the era of simple modernization the main social goal was to realize something with the assistance of technology, in the age of reflexive modernization the main goal is to avoid risks or side-effects that inevitably emerge during social activities based on industrial technology. So, progress is no longer a central notion.[3] It has been replaced by the effort of avoiding side-effects that cannot be localized or externalized and inevitably become globalized. Reflexive modernization is deeply sensitive to the problems of nature pollution, and one of its main consequences is the emergence of ecological rationality (Beck 1997: 16-17).

According to Beck, industrial democracy is being replaced by reflexive democracy. He also declares that the dividing line between private and public space is being elimi nated. The political institutions of classical modernity have become empty shells. The political machine of multi-party democracy is still functioning, but it has emptied. There is no real difference any more between right wing and left wing parties. The conflicts of great social groups have individualized; not social groups but individuals are struggling for natural resources with each other. That does not mean the end of politics at all, but only the demise of the old-fashioned politics of industrial modernity. Politics must be reinvented, according to Beck. Classical institutional politics must be replaced by subpolitics, which means the politicization of what Habermas refers to as “lifeworld.” Specifically in of our time, two modes of politics are running together, but this is a transitory phenomenon (Beck 1997: 138).

In our postmodern era, classical notions of political thought—legitimacy, sovereignty, and democracy—must be reinterpreted, which is the starting point of Hardt and Negri in their book, the above-mentioned Empire, which declares the dissolution of public political space. The social and political history of modernity are depicted with the notions of „disciplinary society” and “society of control” borrowed from Foucault. In the process of postmodernization, power becomes all-pervasive and total, but not in terms of the outmoded and antiquarian 20th century totalitarianism. For this power paradigm shift, Hardt and Negri introduce the notion of biopower (Hardt–Negri 2000: 23-24). In the era of globalization, nation-state is replaced by empire, which is a new subject of sovereignty and a new object of legitimation. It is not easy to define empire; in contrast to res publica, it is not a territorial entity based on the difference of inner and outer space, and it has no visible boundaries and a well-defined center. It is a complexity of different networks, and its operational logic is the opposite of that of the nation-state. The space of imperial sovereignty is not closed, but open (Hardt–Negri 2000: 183204). However, this network-like structure does not conclude in the disappearance of power and master narratives. They are existing realities, but they have modified to a large extend.

Whatever we say about the changing nature of politics, we must face the problem of the extension of political community, warns French political philosopher Pierre Manent (Manent 2001). Modern democracy is founded on two pillars: self-determination and sovereignty. Nowadays these two principles, which are connected to the notions of human rights and identity politics, are being interpreted from an individualist point of view. This development is a logical continuation of the Kantian tradition of Enlightenment, which declares that a human individual is the lawgiver of his/her own self. This conception is able to prevent the perversion of democracy into totalitarianism, but it has a grave fault. Namely, it is unable to give criteria for the desirable extension of political community. In other words it does not define the nature of the political body. Which can we reconcile with democracy: township, city-state, empire? The concept of nationality, according to Pierre Manent, has a great advantage; it solves the problem of extension and gives the criteria for the belonging to nation. However, there is a strong stipulation that nation must be defined on a republican basis, as a political community, to exclude the concept of ethnicity, which is inseparable from the homogenizing and totalitarian tendencies inherent in it.


The European Union, as a political entity, embodies a new challenge to the theoretical inventiveness of political philosophy. What is the nature of the EU as a political entity? Is it a federation or confederation of nation states? Is it a post-modern project, as it is suggested by some thinkers?[4] Is it a new version of political arrangement, a networkstate, thus far unknown to political history and political theory, in which sovereignty is dispersing among sub-national, national, and supra-national levels, as Manuel Castells asserts it? Or, as it was remarked by Jacques Delors, is it an un-definable project? To give a response to the challenges of this new situation is one of the main tasks of contemporary political philosophy.


Arendt, Hannah 1968. Between Past and Future. New York, The Viking Press.

Arendt, Hannah 2006. On Revolution. London, Penguin Books.

Beck, Ulrich 1997. The Reinvention of Politics. Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order. Cambridge-Oxford, Polity Press.

Benjamin, Walter 1969. Theses on the Philosophy of History. In: Arendt, Hannah (edited and with an Introduction by): Illuminations. New York, Shocken Books, 257–258.

Castells, Manuel 1996. The Information Age I. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Castells, Manuel 1997. The Information Age II. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Hardt, Michael – Negri, Antonio 2000. Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts–London, England, Harvard University Press.

Manent, Pierre 2001. Cours familier de philosophie politique. Paris, Fayard.

Rifkin, Jeremy 2004. The European Dream. How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. Cambridge, The Polity Press.