Radical Transformations of Self and Society: Towards a Critical Theory of Democratic Protest

Why should we pursue a critical theory of democratic protest? Assuming that we should, what would such a critical theory look like today? My paper considers both questions, offering some partial answers. On my understanding, critical theory addresses normative questions relating to the good life for humans, to the kind of society that would enable a good life, and to protest as a means for the social transformation required for this purpose. I see the modern democratic project—currently under threat—as one important vision of the good life in a good society. Focusing on civil disobedience as a form of democratic protest, I argue for an account of social transformation that is intimately linked to ethical self-transformation. This places me at odds with most contemporary configurations of critical theory, in which the connection between social transformation and self-transformation is dismissed or neglected. Though social transformation is the point of the protest, I claim that radical social transformation often calls for radical ethical self-transformation. The challenge here for critical theories is a double one. The theory must offer an account of ethical self-transformation that is normatively robust, in the sense of permitting evaluative discrimination between ethically good and ethically bad kinds of self-transformation. At the same time, the theory must be non-authoritarian, in the sense that it may not determine in advance what counts as ethically valid self-transformation, independent of the reflective experiences of the human individuals concerned; for this, a non-authoritarian conception of ethical validity (“ethical truth”) is required.

Maeve Cooke is Professor of Philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. Her current research interests centre on the relation between freedom and authority, and on related questions of protest, resistance and violence. Her next project will be a critical theory of the Anthropocene. She has published two monographs in critical social theory: Language and Reason: A Study of Habermas’s Pragmatics (MIT Press, 1994) and Re-Presenting the Good Society (MIT Press, 2006) and is the author of many articles in the areas of social and political philosophy. She is on the editorial board of a number of scholarly journals, and has held visiting appointments at universities in the USA and Europe.

Co-sponsored by The Institute of European Studies (IES).