Sunday 25 June 2023

Hegel's Political Uses

Reading Shlomo Avineri's Hegel's Theory of the Modern State was a shaming experience. Not having read Hegel nor ever likely to do so, I've got by with the famous contempt the Althusserian and Deleuzian traditions have for him. For Althusser, you might recall, it was the residues of essences and humanism Hegel left in Marx's work that he had beef with. For Deleuze, it was more explicitly political. Hegel was the pre-eminent philosopher of and apologist for the state. Its representative character, which was a virtue for Hegel, justified discrimination and oppression and squeezed human beings into arbitrary categories. The state was an instrument of class, and an irreducibly stunting, violent organisation. Life itself was in rebellion against it as the state worked to channel all that was positive and pregnant with potential into blind alleys or, worse, modes and codes of oppression. While true, these takes warded me off from seeing what Hegel himself had to say. And, which won't be a surprise to anyone more familiar with his work, Hegel was a much more complex and nuanced thinker than is often given credit.

Avineri's study set out to restate Hegel's political theory in his own words, and the result is something much more satisfying and interesting than the prophet of totalitarianism (Karl Popper) and mystical authoritarianism (Bertrand Russell). Nor, Avineri argues, are the interpretations that place Hegel as a radical young man and a conservative old man who apologised for and identified reason with the Prussian state. Again, the story is much more complex and these caricatures are given short shrift - backed by the weight of textual evidence, contextual evidence, and an appreciation of how Hegel was mistranslated into English in the past. With Avineri, we find a thinker who had the same concerns throughout his career, and offered a novel political philosophy that cannot be pigeonholed and boiled down to liberalism or conservatism.

As is generally accepted, for Hegel history was a process, a becoming of reason and freedom from the dark pasts of ignorance, superstition, and despotism. It had a shape and a direction, but was nevertheless open. In Hegel's philosophy this process was a necessity, but a necessity does not mean a guarantee. It's a necessity for me to consume food, but whether I can find some is an open question. It's a necessity that a company turns a profit, but that can be thwarted for all kinds of reasons. For this reason, history was open-ended. Second, despite the mystical-sounding language (spirit, the absolute, the universal), reason was an accomplishment, it was the consequence of our collective effort to make the world intelligible and re-order it according to our intentions. This was practice-oriented, or practical reason, and the job of philosophy is to describe what is. For Avineri, Hegel's famous statement that "what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational" is not a conservative endorsement of the world, but the world's amenability to analysis and sense-making. It's an injunction to not just describe appearances but get beneath them and find the hidden rationales and connections that keep the world going. As he put it,
Philosophy, Hegel reiterates time and again, deals with the world, with rationality, and it should not stop ... at external appearances, nor should it be deterred by conformist accommodation with the powers that be. But it does have rationality as its object, and this means that if something exists, there must ultimately be a reason for its existence, and this reason, hidden and elusive as it may be, must be brought out into the open. (Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, 1972, p.125)
Ultimately, the state is the highest expression and instantiation of reason. But how? As we have seen, freedom and reason come about through interacting with the world - or through mediations. Becoming conscious of freedom is a question of developing the will. At its most brute and base, we deal with what is immediately in front of us as is. This is, or was, the lot of peasants and those living in ancient (and oriental) despotisms. Everything appeared as if a natural law and was accepted as a fact if life. We then move to the second mediation, the process of reflection. We reflect and act, make choices, and develop a subjective morality that guides our actions. The third stage is the fusion of the two into an ethical life, where we are subject to, accept, and act on universal systems of ethics. This ethical life, for Hegel, can be sub-divided further: here we act in three contexts. There is the family, which is "natural" and immediate. I.e. We act to meet our families' needs without qualm or negotiation. It's altruistic behaviour toward a particular group of people. Then we have civil society, which is basically the economy. We participate here out of necessity. Whether as bourgeois or as labourers, we sell what we have to get what we need. This is the arena of securing the means of life, and as such it resembles an interconnected, interdependent web of relations where everyone, by pursuing their self-interest, more or less collectively meet the needs of the whole. It is particularistic and egoistic, but is universal - it's the way of the world. And then we have the state, which for Hegel stands above self-interest. It is the institution of the whole, the expression of ethical universality, the community, and our everyday cooperation/altruism. It's where we become conscious of being part of something bigger than our selves, our families, and our particular interests. We relate to one another as citizens bound by solidarity. The state then is the necessary counterweight to civil society. The market tends toward atomism and social disaggregation, unless regulated, while the state is the guarantor that holds everything together. The state, for Hegel, is not the expression of the general will. Rather the universal consciousness, the general will, is the outcome of the state's existence. And why is Hegel particularly concerned with the modern state? Because it offers the best means for us to become free and to exercise our faculties as we see fit. The state with reason at its heart is the state with the freest of peoples.

Corresponding to this three-fold structure are the classes of Hegel's system. The peasantry are fundamentally conservative because, effectively, they are outside history. They carry on tilling the land and raising animals pretty much as they always have done. The work never changes, nor do the social relations that constitute and bind their existence. Hegel also locates the aristocracy here too. Like the peasant they have no interest beyond what is and can live their lives insulated from the market and the state. Their consciousness is constituted and enclosed by "natural relations": the immediate and the trusted. This business class are more advanced because through its settling of self-interest, it is predisposed toward freedom but also the order that enables their choices - hence a respect for stability and the law, both of which are preconditions for regular exchange and the acquisition and accumulation of property. Lastly, there is the civil service class. Like the bourgeois, they participate in civil society but are guided not by particularism but by the universal interest. I.e. Society's interest as a whole. For Hegel, to bring out the universalist character of the civil servant they have to be liberated from direct labour, but are appointed to their position as administrators of the state by merit measured against universal criteria. They are, therefore, best placed to manage the state - the institution that exists beyond particularism.

This is not a recipe for meritocratic authoritarianism. At least on paper. Through classes' interactions in civil society (and strata within those classes), their interests coalesce into estates, which work to pressure the state and, in turn, the state works to incorporate and reflect those interests. These are crucial for political integration and, crucially, pluralism in any given system. Estates work as mediators that bridge the gap between the particular individualisms of civil society and the collective character of the state. It was also for this reason why Hegel was sceptical of universal suffrage. Again, not because of anti-democratic reasons but because it's premised on the abstract rights of the abstract individual. It imports into the state the corrosive logics of civil society. That is the pursuit of self-interest is fair enough to make a living from but not for fostering the universal purposes of political life and therefore the state. Instead, better one should participate in politics through the mediation of the estate. Democracy, elections, etc. should be tied to corporate entities who would have so many guaranteed seats in the legislature. Avineri observes that most liberal democracies have not developed in that direction, and instead the interest aggregator role has been taken up by the modern political party. Either way, the state also had a role in regulating the estates to maintain their health by ensuring their openness to new entrants, and that no one estate predominates over the others. A culture of interdependence reflecting its actuality has to be embedded as a means of guarding against any attempts to dominate.

Hegel was aware of the gaps in his system. He argued that "need" was always more than something physical. There were intellectual, spiritual, and social needs too. He also believed that the market was the best means devised for meeting them. Hence the passion for commodities and their production was self-sustaining and infinite. He also noted the activities of certain producers that marketed their goods to try and shape needs to their advantage. But owning something was more important that gratifying a need - it was a means of earning recognition. This has a basic day-to-day function in that, for example, an employer and employee recognise one another because each possesses property the other needs. But more than that, property is an embodiment of the will. What we buy and what we own says something about the choices we make, and that cannot but be recognised by others. It's a means of asserting our individuality and character, which is only possible in a social context well versed in the idiom of property functioning thus. For this reason, Hegel was opposed to communism because the means by which we recognise each other disappears. Second, poverty and want, which he acknowledged was inherent to modern political economy, not only deprived the poor of the means of life but, by denying them property, they are denied personality and humanity. The solution, for Hegel, was a guarantee of some property (rather than redistributing it) to give them a stake in society. The extent to which pauperisation existed in any given society offered a normative measure by which it could be judged. However, while the poor were outside of his estates system, there is no reason why they should combine together and establish a position in competition with the other estates. For Hegel, not only would this integrate the poor into the system but confer legitimacy upon their plight. But because of the inevitability of poverty, he knew this was a problem that could never properly be solved.

The second gap in his philosophy is glaring, and that is the absence of the workers. Hegel's recognition of the working class was not confined to his discussion of the poor. In early work unpublished in his life time, he noted that while property was social, who it was related to and owned by was arbitrary. And its acquisition was always mediated by labour. Property was key to recognition, but so was labour. Everyone has to labour, we relate to each other and recognise each other as labourers, and the brute reality of this truth was the wellspring of the universality and acceptance of property's status. In other words, the property was the appearance. Labour, the essence. What labour produces is actualised need and actualised intention, and is the mediation through which the objective and the subjective are synthesised. But labour does much more than make things. Labour is always social because it produces for needs outside of the individual labourer. It always presupposes a labouring other. But from that individual standpoint, production in totality looks and is experienced as something abstract. The process of labour appears separate from need, and is viscerally experienced as such because what is produced is for exchange and not for the labourer. This has a couple of consequences. Social labour, as something abstract, becomes an alien power organised by and subject to its own rhythms. Second, because labour is undertaken in exchange for the universal equivalent - money - and because the whole process is blind, labour descends from a means of recognition to a means of dependence in relation to the products of labour. Their labour is needed for as long as their products are needed, and if the whims of fashion take a particular turn livelihoods dependent on that department of production are destroyed. The labourer's life therefore is fundamentally precarious. Nevertheless, despite Hegel's keen insights into capitalism and alienation, there is no acknowledged space for the workers in his system. His dissection of one aspect of production does not follow through into the recognition of opposing interests between employee and employer. What takes precedence is not the substance but the appearance of the relation, where it appears the two are exchanging equivalents and therefore pursuing their own self-interests in a manner no different to buying and selling in a shop. And Hegel's deference to its appearance was probably more than an oversight. Had he enquired further with the same degree of analytical clarity as his discussion of alienation, the elaborate ties of his philosophical system would easily have come undone.

Despite its obvious flaws, Hegel's philosophy was a clear advance over conservatism (rooted in the peasantry and aristocracy) and liberalism (the outlook of the merchant). Offering a novel analysis of society which incorporated, with modifications, Adam Smith's political economy, Hegel provided a justification for modernity and modernisation. As Avineri - and many other commentators - have observed, he was impressed with Napoleon because his march across Europe dispensed with petty states and jury-rigged dynasties. They were replaced by modern states that were variously democratic (or not at all), but did conform to the separation between civil society and the state, the law was codified and objectified, based on sound principles of evidence and legal independence, began to work as universal institutions, and were staffed by a professionalised and "objective" civil service. They were not perfect but were beginnings. With these states in the ascendant following the Napoleonic wars, in his academic appointments Hegel used his influence and standing to not just encourage these processes, but defend them as well. He was particularly fearful of the nascent stirrings of nationalism in Germany and how the unification of the country on that basis would have been a step backward because it owed its appeal to emotion, feeling and, as far as his scheme was concerned, particularism. Following Hegel's Berlin appointment and his transformation into supposed defender of the Prussian state, Avineri argues his support for repression was contingent on what was being repressed. And this was consistent with his opposition to elements within Prussia who wanted to turn the clock back, and reactionary new movements welling up from below. Indeed, Hegel's last published work - his reflections on the English Reform Bill - was partly suppressed by the Prussian state because he argued the problems in England, which were not too dissimilar to those at home, required social and political reform to bring the state in line with the more modern continental states (though, in reality, England definitely was not backward). Therefore Hegel was never a conservative. His philosophy justified the modernising impulses of his day, and where they were actualised he defended them against ideas and movements that would undo them.

Why bother with Hegel today? Hasn't his philosophy been subsumed by Marxism? In a world riven by interests, reason is eclipsed by politics. Indeed, Hegel's system forecast the possibility of such an eventuality. If the state retreats too much from civil society, self-interest elbows its way out of the sphere of social activity proper to it. It begins encroaching on the "lower" spheres of social life, increasingly subjecting intimate and familial relations to the logics of contract, And the state itself becomes transformed into an agency of particularistic interests. Its objectivity and universality, while paid lip service to, becomes more partial, more enmeshed in the competitions and struggles of civil society. This perspective explains a lot more than conservative and liberal diagnoses of our present malaise can manage. Hegel doesn't come with the overt political implications of Marx, and probably helps explain why two "respectable" traditions in sociology - the Durkheimian perspective and its functionalist descendents, and the "critical theory" of Jurgen Habermas's theory of communicative action owe a lot more to the former than the latter. Despite Habermas hailing from the Frankfurt School, his career has arguably worked backwards from Marx to Hegel.

I think Hegel is worth a candle though, for precisely the reason why Deleuze and Guattari abhorred him. What struck me about Avineri's careful selection of quotes was how accurately Hegel distilled the collective outlook of state administrators while this strata was practically microscopic. This might not seem a big deal, but Hegel's accomplishment lies in systematising and rendering explicit a world view that had barely been born when he was writing. We're talking about managerialism, technocracy, "sensible" adults-in-the-room statecraft. He captured the administrative imaginary that has since become absolutely indispensable to bourgeois politics. The ideal-typical bureaucracy that so exercised Max Weber a century after Hegel is all there in his philosophical system. The distinctions between the privatised worlds of the family, the self-interested character of civil society, and the universal objectivity of the state is very much the social reality of the last, of being perched up high and glancing at the great morass unfolding below. For Hegel, the state integrates by finding and assimilating the universal within the particular. In practice, that means state personnel knowing what motivates and is in the interest of different sectors of society and, crucially, knowing that better than those sectors themselves. In a British context, with the undesirables of Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, and Nicola Sturgeon removed from the scene the so-called professionals are back in the politics driving seat, and their view of the world absolutely drips with this elite conceit. Rishi Sunak's briefcase Toryism has it that interest rate rises and below inflation pay awards are in the ultimate interests of the electorate. Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves agree, albeit they come from the Fabian tradition, which carries more than an unconscious trace of Hegelian universalism. This, of course, isn't to say these three politicians know their Hegel. But to understand their mindset, their theory of change, their "ethics", and their attitudes toward the rest of society, as a diagram of how they think Hegel's philosophy illuminates them and the imaginary of their kind better than any other tool we have.


Ken said...

Avineri's "The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx", which I read decades ago and have just ordered a second-hand copy of, is very good on how Marx's thought develops out of a critique of Hegel. (It's also good on its subject in general.) Likewise useful on this is Hal Draper's Vol 1: State and Bureaucracy, which amusingly identifies the scrawl 'Oh, Jeez' at the end of 'Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State' as the exact moment of the break.

Braingrass said...

Nice post which I enjoyed reading. A bit harsh on Deleuze. Hegel might have been the enemy, but he did read him. Isn't one of the problems is that the state was meant to mediate the market, but what actually happened was it was totally captured by the market.