Social systems and punitive regimes in the neoliberal constellation

Regina Silveira, Crash


Preface to the recently released book by Laurindo Dias Minhoto

For a university student in the 1990s, the practice of critique in social theory faced enormous obstacles, if not completely blocked. The post-Stalinist triumph of the market economy not only led to the disavowal of reflections on alternatives to capitalist society in different academic environments, but also to the tendency to exclude capitalism as a privileged object of social investigation. It was in this scenario that the normative project of modernity ("unfinished") conceived by Jürgen Habermas since the 1960s became hegemonic. Especially in the context of the so-called democratic transition, following the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution and the emergence of new social movements in the country. Brazil, a significant part of the national intelligence chose to adhere to the paradigm of communicative action.

As is known, this Habermasian project assumes a reconstruction of the Marxian category of work (and, by extension, of the value category), excluding from its composition the dimensions of symbolic and interactional mediation. Habermas polemically maintained that work in Marx would be reduced only to the sphere of productive activity and technical knowledge, taken without further ado as mere instrumental rationality. In addition to numerous empirical limitations, the artificial distinction work/interaction – which, throughout Habermas' work, was reconfigured into a system/lifeworld – seemed to subordinate the dialectic to liberal political philosophy. Looking back on things, there was a strong impression that “there was no alternative”.

I consider that I was a privileged student, who was able to maintain a relative distance in relation to this dominant horizon that was installed in social theory. In my first year of graduation, I was a student of Laurindo Dias Minhoto. At that time, he taught, together with Celso Campilongo, the subject General Theory of the State. In expository classes, the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann; in the seminars, the reading of the work Facticity and Validity, by Habermas. I believe that Minhoto's unusual research agenda was born there: to reflect on possibilities for renewing criticism through cross-reading between Luhmannian sociology and a certain legacy of the first generation from Frankfurt, especially aspects of Theodor W. Adorno's work.

At that point, the course enabled participants to confront the self-proclaimed anti-normative character of Luhmann's theory and its descriptive plausibility with Habermasian idealism around the promise of realization of modern reason. The first author had invested against the philosophy of the subject by indicating the differentiation between self-reference of consciousness and communication. With that, he substituted distinctions for identity and defined modern society as polycentric, complex and contingent, formed by systems that operate based on their own structures and codes, adding risks to each other. On the other hand, Habermas insisted on the promise of a rational-discursive organization of the social order. With a solid Marxist background, Minhoto guided this confrontation along two paths.

As for Luhmann, he indicated that the tendency towards differentiation could be apprehended as a re-updating of the debate on fetishism, in which systemic “autopoiesis” corresponded to the instrumental separation of the universality of the commodity-form into autonomous spheres indifferent to each other and to the human being. As for Habermas, Minhoto opened up the historical mismatch between the negative diagnosis of the (neoliberal) world and the normative impotence of the theory of communicative action. A mismatch – it should be noted – is ever-increasing if we think of the global advent of the extreme right and the resurgence of post-2008 capitalist expropriations. depending on the point of observation”, as can be seen from its presentation in this book.

While attending graduate school and wondering about real abstraction systems, Minhoto discussed the innovation potential of this postulate: in Lukács – the author pointed out – the combination of rationalization, commodification and autonomization had already achieved advanced formulation. How, then, to renew criticism without abandoning its negative mobilization? Minhoto has been dealing with this research agenda for a decade. His contribution is not exhausted in the unexpected dialogue between Luhmann and Adorno, but, with and beyond them, he offers sophisticated means to apprehend the destructive wake of neoliberalism.

In Minhoto's first formulation, Adorno was found in a latent form. Systemic concepts (“complexity”, “contingency”, “polycentrism”, “functional differentiation”, “autopoiesis”, etc.) functioned for Minhoto as a seismograph of dedifferentiating tendencies. In this key, the author verified the hypertrophy of the function and code of the economy, as well as its destructive power of the operative autonomy of the other social systems. This reading was articulated with Michel Foucault's view of the primacy of the corporate form that is inscribed in different instances of society. His objective, therefore, was to indicate the specific configuration of the contemporary neoliberal order.

As intellectual generosity, openness to dialogue and rejection of academic hierarchies have always been characteristics of the author of this book, I was allowed to contribute some exegetical analyzes that I had done at the time on Luhmann to the critical program that Minhoto was putting together – now with express reference to Adorno. In the mid-2010s, he began to ruminate more closely on the affinities between Frankfurt and Bielefeld as an object of his reflection.

The first of these connected the negative dialectic between subject and object and the system/environment distinction. The Adornian approach presupposes the identification between form-value and identity thinking, so that the exchange of equivalents as a condition for possible sociability in a disintegrated structure is considered to be correlated with the voracity of universal concepts that annul singularities. Despite the equalizing violence, Adorno considers that subject and object can be negatively reconciled, when, in the subjective attempt at separation, one recognizes, at the same time, the non-identical and its indispensability for the objectification of the whole. In Luhmann, the system is constituted by opposition to the environment due to pressures for functional specialization and self-referentiality. Minhoto shows that the difference category has a centrality in Luhmannian and Adornian theory. But if, in the first, it is already realized in social operations – “systems exist”! –, in the second the “negative reconciliation” is just a possibility, of a speculative nature.

Based on this (dis)affinity, Minhoto manages to turn around Luhmann's claim to the existing and understands it, in the light of Adorno, as “ideology in the strong sense”. That is: although aspects of the Luhmannian description are appearance (the singular is not distinct, but determined by the commodified whole), its form presents what it exposes as effective, real; therefore, it is “taken seriously”. Note: because Luhmann's theory does not work with promises, Minhoto treats it as such. Descriptive non-correspondence is stated in normative terms. And systemic notions become criteria for investigating blockages to difference. This is how Minhoto draws from Luhmann a possibility of criticizing neoliberalism: while economicization of society, the latter is the negative of the “principle of functional differentiation” and “autopoiesis”.

Dense and creative, Minhoto's proposal continues the rich tradition of approaches based on the conception of immanent criticism, historically developed by USP sociology and inspired by the first generation of Frankfurt. I am referring, in particular, to reflections of great scope that have been dedicated to the turn of comprehensive, anti-normative, technocrat(?) or conservative(?) biased theories, showing how they bring, inscribed in their own concepts, the opposite of what enunciate. This is the task that Minhoto proposes in his critical reception of Luhmann. In the present book, such a reception understands that Luhmann's skeptical conception of a hypercomplex society open to risk (therefore, to future damage due to the operative closure of systems) contains the emancipatory horizon of overcoming capitalism, as it is averse to the irreducibility of the singular to the universalization of the commodity-form. The interversion of skepticism into its opposite creates an analytical framework that encompasses and extends previous theoretical acquisitions.

Minhoto does not propose a new systems theory or a critical systems theory. Rather, its critical program considers the systemic conceptual constellation as a sociological model whose empirical deficit is negatively converted into “involuntary normative force”. This force is replaced as a redescriptive strategy that, also constituted by norms that deny the principle of identification of commodification processes, is capable of mapping and clarifying trends that dedifferentiate society, specifically the hypertrophy of economic rationality. To explain the place of this hypertrophy in the contemporary context, Minhoto includes in his reflection the Foucaultian debate, especially contributions from Wendy Brown and Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, regarding the domination of the neoliberal subject. At the same time, through Luhmann and Adorno, he questions such analyzes by showing that social systems are corrupted by the expansionist pressures of global capitalism, today characterized by the expanded reproduction of financialization processes. Thus, Minhoto understands the critique of neoliberalism in its entirety.

This critique is completed with a typically Frankfurtian dialectical exercise. The “empire of neoliberal economic reason” is the result of the radicalization of the contradictions of the modern, that is, excess and acceleration of instrumental rationality that establishes the dynamics of an irrational rationality. Again, the emphasis on the negative. Minhoto, however, is cautious about the compatibility between the modern program of liberal democracy and barbarism. He prefers, on the contrary, to think about the amalgamation between authoritarianism and efficiency. At this point, he follows a certain Brazilian critical tradition for which the periphery of capitalism has not only been the place of observation of this primary contradiction, but has also become its focus of irradiation for world society.

Those who expect in the following pages to find only the theoretical design of a consistent reflection that, by articulating different approaches, dare to face the limits that social criticism had reached are wrong. Such boldness extends to the empirical universe. Minhoto's reflections expand to the analysis of a specific social process, namely, the current punitive system. Drawing on his reading of systems theory, the author examines actuarial justice, crime control, militarization, military urbanism, and the punitive economy of excess. In common, the denial of contemporary diagnoses of the sociology of punishment. Instead of accepting the hegemonic idea of ​​a supposed post-modern turn in criminal policies, Minhoto maintains that the government that controls risks and populations is, in fact, one more facet of the advance of capitalist instrumental rationality, which, moved by the tendency to appreciation and surplus, becomes an irrational rationality. The authoritarianism and violence of the conduct government are thus intertwined with neoliberal economic efficiency.

Not by chance, the chapter on racketeering of State points to a process of growing “militiaization” of society, that is, the constitution of politics, economy and urban space by the logic of militias, in a kind of updating Schwarzian findings on the contradictory coexistence between capitalism and slavery via from the discussion of the centrality of militias to the efficiency of certain markets.

Minhoto has been an astute observer of the “countless extra turns on the screws of rationalization and commodification” under the aegis of neoliberalism. I have been following for many years – first as a student, then, to my delight, as a partner – the steps of each observation. To that end, he has not avoided several more turns on the screw of sociological thinking. On the contrary, when he comes across them, he offers another one. Presented as a Habilitation thesis to the sociology department at FFLCH-USP, Laurindo Minhoto's book is a high point of this movement. I am, however, sure that many more turns are yet to come. It is, therefore, that, taking the negative diagnosis of our time seriously, he has contributed decisively to the continuity and renewal of the critical theory of society.

*Guilherme Leite Goncalves é professor of sociology of law at UERJ. Author, among other books by Right between certainty and uncertainty: Critical horizons for systems theory (Hail Jur).



Laurindo Dias Minhoto. Social systems and punitive regimes in the neoliberal constellation. São Paulo, ESA OAB-SP Publications, 2021, 300 pages.


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