Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Conspectus: Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns by Domenico Losurdo

Twentieth century history unfolded from battles in nineteenth century philosophy, which itself was a reaction to the French Revolution. One path of nineteenth century philosophy and twentieth century history objected to the French Revolution’s upsetting of the natural order of things (are all men really equal?). In this path, we find the liberals Burke and Toqueville, neoliberals like Hayek, and the philosophers of fascism. The other path developed a philosophical expression (and eventually, political implementation) of the values that sparked the French Revolution: all men are equal, and political rights are meaningless without economic rights. This path follows Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, and from there continues to Marx and Engels, to Lenin and leaders of socialist movements world-wide. Given the crucial role Hegel played in this second path, it’s worth understanding his philosophy in some depth, and Losurdo’s book delivers beautifully.

Losurdo starts by asking, “is Hegel a liberal or a conservative?” (I suppose I am a little jealous that these are the arguments in which Losurdo feels he must intervene; the misunderstandings I see of Hegel revolve around a sort of “that guy loves kings…. and Spirit??”) The answer is that neither binary fits Hegel well, and in fact presupposes the rather peachy view of liberalism that liberalism views to be self-evident about itself. A better axis on which to situate Hegel would be “Patrician or plebeian?” On this axis, liberals and conservatives alike end up in the former camp, while Hegel is clearly situated in the latter (for all his approval of kings!). Hegel’s political positions are complex, and, Losurdo argues, must be understood in the context of the historical events and debates of the time. Losurdo leads us through these battlefields, examining Hegel’s perspectives on revolution, the sovereign, education and the rights of the child, and the role of the state in addressing poverty.

The one gap I felt was missing from this book was an examination of Hegel's racist statements about other civilizations. These statements also have roots in his philosophy (nothing in history is eternal, the actual is rational, and so why did Europeans become the dominant force in the 19th century?), and I think they could have fit within the argument of the book.

I feel so much more confident in the philosophical and historical issues of the nineteenth century having read this work. It's surprising (even disappointing?) how current discussions tread the same ground as discussions from two hundred years ago. Or perhaps it is instead Losurdo's skill at picking out the most relevant conflicts to our times, and presenting these clashes in ways that feel fresh but familiar. Regardless, it's a valuable book to read for understanding both the past and the present, and I strongly recommend it. However, it was a little dense, so as both a guide for myself and for other apprehensive would-be readers, I summarized the main arguments of each chapter. 

 Chapter I: A Liberal, Secret Hegel?

Hegel wrote under times of harsh censorship — can we read Hegel at face value given the possibility of self-censorship? There is strong cohesion between his published books and his Lectures, and neither Hegel’s correspondence nor any remarks by his acquaintances question the authenticity of his philosophical works. However, self-censorship may also influence not only what Hegel put down to page, but also how he allowed his thoughts to develop over the course of writing them.

The re-interpretation of a text is accurate only insofar as it can also account for its history of interpretations, that is, for the ways in which others have (mis)interpreted the work. As one example of several: Haym takes issue with Hegel's view of ethicality (that is, the role of the State in addressing social questions such as poverty, instead of individual charity. See Chapter X), which he views as characteristic of collectiveness and the pathos of the French Revolution, and opposed to German Christian individualism. He accused Hegel of being servile, anti-liberal and unpatriotic. Modern critics of Hegel will reiterate this reading without understanding the issues of nationhood or the role of the State of the time — Haym’s value judgment prevails but not his concrete analysis. Those who think they are falling in Haym's footsteps even go so far as to accuse Hegel of being hostile to the French Revolution! (He's not, see chapters V and XIII). This reading of Hegel is inconsistent with that by Marx and Engels, who agree with Haym's interpretation (but with the opposite value judgement) that Hegel called for a constitutional monarchy opposed to Haym's preferred national-liberal party. In this new interpretation of Hegel, Losurdo retraces his work, putting his political positions in their historical context, foiled against the writing of his contemporaries.

Chapter II: The Philosophies of Right: A Turning Point or Continuity

“What is rational is also actual: and what is actual is rational.” That what is actual is rational means that you must understand how the present came into being, not ignore it nor flee into nostalgia. Actuality is the main current of progress (such as ending serfdom in the twilight of feudalism). But in every historical comment, there is also a reactionary counter-current, which is “inactual” (for example, attempts to revitalize serfdom).

The power of the sovereign is an oft-misunderstood aspect of Hegel, who is portrayed as a monarchist. Hegel emphasizes the importance of politics and institutions throughout his writing, and viewed the carrying out of political tasks as something done by individuals subordinate to their role (i.e., not leaving the tasks to the whims of their personalities) — and this includes the monarch, in a “modern” state. Hegel was also writing in a time when constitutional monarchs tended to be more progressive than the representative bodies, which were primarily comprised of (reactionary and nostalgic) aristocrats. In the case of a mismatch between the spirit of the people and the existing state, the monarch could be the instigator of “revolutions from above”, in contrast to “revolutions from below”, which would be more violent. It is not so simple to categorize Hegel as liberal or conservative or monarchist. Instead, Hegel must be situated in the historical context of German nationalism and struggles that were erupting across Europe during his life.

Chapter III: Contractualism and the Modern State

One (Hobbesian) definition of contractualism is the idea that individuals (who are self-interested) will rationally submit to the authority of the state because it is the strategic course of action. How does one change this contract? Contractualism can be reactionary — change is impossible because it violates the contract. Hegel views the relationship between the people and the State as one that should change when the existing state opposes liberty (e.g., slavery) — ideally by reform. Hegel criticizes the concept of Natural Rights — inalienable, inherent rights — insofar as it views these rights as eternal; the nature of inalienable rights is itself historical, something that develops overtime as society progresses.

This insight from Losurdo is important to keep in mind for the remainder of the book:

Hegel does not begin his re-reading of the contractual theory, or that of Natural Law, in a vacuum. Indeed, he constantly confronts the problems of his day, and his main concern is not the solitary construction of his system, but first and foremost intervention in the actual debates and struggles of the time.

Chapter IV: Conservative or Liberal? A False Dilemma

Is Hegel a conservative? The prosecution arguing yes (which includes Bobbio as well as modern liberals) points to his preferences for the State over individuals, authority over freedom, the cohesion of the whole over the independence of its parts, obedience over resistance, the top of the pyramid (monarch) over the base (people). This claim is a false dichotomy (see Chapter V), ignores the historical-political context, and allows liberalism to set the terms for what is considered progress. But let’s look at these claims anyways.

Hegel often espoused anti-authoritarian values (such as limiting the authority of parents or capitalists), while if someone today were to promote the views of Hegel’s liberal contemporaries (such as putting children to work in factories), they would be considered reactionaries! In his advocacy for positive economics rights, Hegel also insists upon the importance of the individual — the freedom of the individual over property rights — where the liberal tradition extends the definition of the “individual” deserving of freedoms as far as property owners. Finally, Hegel’s views are often more closely entwined with the base than with the top of the pyramid — more than anything his views can be considered with the plebeians (see Chapter V).

Hegel’s perspective on the right to resistance (he rejects it) is particularly interesting. There is a paradox in the right to resistance being a constitutionally protected method of disobeying authority. Further, historically, liberals who promote the right to resistance had in mind armed resistance against a government taken over by the majority (the masses). He approves of many revolutions (see Chapter VI), because they demonstrated the World Spirit was at odds with the existing order. This is a sort of post-hoc justification of the resistance, but the resistance of the existing order cannot be done within the constraints set by that order.

Chapter V: Hegel and the Liberal Tradition: Two Opposing Interpretations of History

Hegel was a fan of the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the English Revolution and the Dutch Revolution, as well as the (unsuccessful) Peasants War and Roman Empire slave rebellions. What unites these examples is that they were all instances of fighting for liberty and increased universality (and their successes or lack thereof were indicative of the historical ripeness for political transformation). In these revolutions, he speaks understandingly of the use of violence, acknowledging it results from those with privileges not yielding them. Hegel's analysis of Julius Caesar's assassination will be familiar to those who read Michael Parenti's book on the subject: a struggle between Caesar, fighting on behalf of the people and the universality of man, and the Senate, who represented the interests of the aristocracy.

In Hegel’s time, there was a struggle between the monarch (who strove to maintain his crown) and the aristocracy (who wished for more power and freedom from the monarchy), and between the aristocracy (who wished to increase their incomes) and the peasantry (who strove for survival). Because of these dynamics, it could be expedient for the monarch to ally with the peasants, to grant them concessions to maintain their allegiance against the aristocracy. Beneficent or strategic, changes enacted by the monarchy (revolution from the top-down, enlightened absolutism) could be both despotic and good, if they increased the liberty of the masses. So here we see Hegel celebrates revolutions from the top-down as well as from the bottom-up, but that he opposes counter-revolutionary or reactionary revolutions (ex, Poland’s rebellion of the barons against the monarch), which differ in their reduction of liberty.

The liberal tradition splits with Hegel on many of these revolutions, illustrated perhaps best by Madame de Stael lamenting the shift in the French Revolution from the ideal of freedom (that is, property rights, an aristocratic revolution) to equality (that is, economic rights demanded by famine-starved peasants, a mass revolution).

It's clearly absurd to create an axis of liberal versus conservative and try to place Hegel on a point on the line, because he aligns with neither the liberal camp (who prioritize property rights) nor the conservative camp (who are against all revolutions). A better lens to use is that of plebeian versus patrician, and, when the specific political and social contents of every revolution — from the struggles of Ancient Rome to the British Civil War — is examined, it is clear that Hegel lands decidedly on the side of the plebeians.

Chapter VI: The Intellectual, Property, and the Social Question

So Hegel is neither liberal nor conservative — is he revolutionary? Hegel emphasizes the objectivity of ethical and political institutions, understanding that real change requires the intervention of institutions. Theories opposed to revolution tend to emphasize instead the inner dimensions of conscience and the actions of individuals.

Liberalism views wealth to be attributable to merit, and it is this belief that makes it accepting of the status quo (if you’re rich, it’s because you deserve to be, changing the system is a deviation from what is natural). In contrast, Hegel recognizes poverty (the social question) to be separate from the laziness of the poor (see also, Chapter VII).

Otium is pure leisure, which several philosophers (particularly Nietzsche, but also Locke) view as necessary for creativity and culture, and something that a certain class of people are entitled to. This is absent in Hegel, who instead celebrates labour for driving progress and for creation (for example, in the master and servant dialectic). Achieving something requires focusing oneself on a task, precision, and education to the task, all of which are found in labour (physical or intellectual). Hegel is criticized (by Nietzsche), in a sort of ad hominem, for being a “labourer” of philosophy. Because Hegel needed to work for a living (He was a school teacher, among other pursuits), he allegedly could not fully dedicate himself to intellectual activity. Similar logic — that labour prevents sober thought, independence, etc — was used by the liberal tradition to exclude the propertyless from political action.

Chapter VII: Right, Violence, and Notrecht

When can the right to property be subordinated to the right to life? Notrecht is the right of extreme necessity — for example, a starving man. Can a starving man take the property of another man to stay alive? Kant and Fichte take the position that in these cases of extreme and unusual need, the starving man is beyond the bounds of law or society, and so although he does not have a right to take the property the transgression is considered non-punishable. Hegel takes this considerably further, that man has the right to this “unjust” action: in a world where all land is claimed, a starving man has no choice but to take someone’s property to sustain his existence. This need is not an exception nor outside of society but instead is an everyday occurrence produced by society itself. Poverty is not the failing of an individual but instead a responsibility of society, and condemnation of broad parts of society to poverty is a form of violence.

A man who is starving has the absolute right to violate another person’s property, since he is violating property only in a limited fashion: the right of necessity requires him not to violate another person’s right as such: he is only interested in a piece of bread, he is not treating the other person as an individual without rights. Abstract intellect is prone to consider any legal violation as absolute, but a starving man only violates the particular. He does not violate right per se. [Hegel, Lectures]

The particular versus the absolute also informs Hegel's perspective on the solution to poverty: while charity is based on the (narcissistic) decisions of one individual acting as they thinks the beneficiary might wish without really knowing the particulars of the beneficiary, the State is able to (with its accumulation of experience and knowledge) address the problem in the universal sense. 

Hegel uses similar language for slaves as the starving: where “a slave has the absolute right to break free”, “a starving man has the absolute right to violate another person’ property.” A poor person’s rights and freedoms are abridged because of their poverty: they do not have the same access to the courts to protect their freedom as the rich do.

Hegel takes a hard position against silly thought experiments involving men inexplicably floating on driftwood at sea. Extreme need is not something that can be examined without the social and historical factors that cause it.

This is one of the areas in which Hegel appears to assert a sort of right to revolution on behalf of the poor. As capitalism emerges, Hegel observes that wealth becomes ever more unequally distributed and the poor become increasingly needy. Property rights can be subordinated to the State, and even further can be subordinated to World Spirit. Crucially, Hegel emphasizes the idea of progress; for example, the Luddites were wrong in that they did not grasp the potentially liberating significance of machines. Nor does Hegel question the outcome of bourgeois development, rather, he views the invention of property as a form of progress. It is in the absolutization of property that he sees violence.

The universal must favor the introduction of new machines, but at the same time it must seek to support those who are left without sustenance.

The liberal tradition (eg, Locke) tend to weight private property versus life quite differently: one extreme case is Locke’s assertion that “For though I may kill a thief that sets on me in the highway, yet I may not (which seems less) take away his money, and let him go: this would be robbery on my side.”

Chapter VIII: “Agora” and “Schole”: Rousseau, Hegel, and the Liberal Tradition

Agora” referred to the meeting square for the activities of ancient Greek citizens. “ScholĂȘ” is the idea of leisure as a political end, necessitating otium.

Hegel criticized Rousseau for his ascetic rejection of luxury; while this could maybe be implemented through the moral choices of a few individuals, without the “presence of a moment of necessity” this lifestyle cannot become universal, and so therefore Rousseau’s philosophy would be unable to form the basis of a society. He also criticizes Rousseau for his use of the “social contract” as the basis for the state both because it was based in the concept of “private right” and because contractualism had come to mean diverse social and political arrangements. The discourse of the time used this concept in a conservative way, preventing change (which would violate the contract), and formulating the social contract as based on private right, like a joint stock company in which people are stakeholders in proportion to what they put in. Hegel’s critique differs substantially from that of his peers, who paint Rousseau’s desires to distribute the wealth of the rich (via taxes) to the poor as “ressentiment” (Nietszche) or a “grudge” (Taine) or the violation of legal equality (Constant, Hayek).

In contrast, Hegel speaks positively about Rousseau’s empathy for the poor, for highlighting the “contradiction between what they could demand and the condition in which they find themselves” and for then trying to address it, for recognizing the slave-like relationship of the propertyless to the rich. Both Hegel and Rousseau further criticize mere formal equality rather than effective equality under the law (e.g., rich having better access to courts of law), and argue for high taxes and redistribution of wealth. This is something Hegel does shift on over his life; seeing the failure of the Poor Laws in England, Hegel questions the “capacity of the State of his time to solve the social question.”

Both Hegel and Rousseau recognize a relationship between politics and economics (heresy to the liberal tradition) and argue for the existence of material rights (also heretical). Where liberals view the liberal tradition as the only guarantor of individual rights, Rousseau and Hegel also argue for the inviolable rights of the individual, they emphasize the difference between freedom and actual living conditions and ability to exercise that freedom. Returning to the ancient Greek concepts in the chapter title: because both Rousseau and Hegel celebrate a universal application of Agora, they abhor otium.

Chapter IX: School, Division of Labor, and Modern Man’s Freedom

Hegel views society as the “universal family”, and thus society has not only the right but also the duty to intervene in education. In contrast to liberal thought at the time, which viewed children as the property of their parents, Hegel also viewed children as having rights. Education is seen as crucial for the eventual participation of children, upon reaching adulthood, in civil society – education is necessary for obtaining work, which avoids poverty, and education is required for participation in the political community.

Losurdo includes this chapter more to contrast Hegel with others of the time than to explore Hegel’s philosophy specifically. Liberals view state intervention in the education of the child (which is viewed as the parent’s property) to be interference. Mandeville, for example, believes an uneducated populace to be crucial for the division of labour and law enforcement. Smith, also from the liberal tradition, believes some education of the masses is required for social stability and military strength. Nietzsche deplores the very concept of an educated society of worker bees, over the true culture of financially independent aristocrats.

Chapter X: Moral Tension and the Primacy of Politics

Hegel treats morality and ethicality as different. Morality relates to the obligations of (possibly poorly informed or whimsical) individuals choosing to act as they see fit, while ethicality relates to the State ensuring a just, rational and universal implementation of social good. For Hegel, the political/legal/ethical is more important than the moral, and the development of the modern world is a shift from the moral sphere to the ethical sphere, as what people view to be moral becomes formalized in law. That doesn’t mean that Hegel sees no role for morality; there is often a gap between the current existing version of the state and what the zeitgeist of the moment feels the state should do to alleviate suffering. However, Hegel views the moral obligation to be actions that eliminate the suffering (i.e., through a better State), rather than simple charity to alleviate suffering. This is unpopular with those who enjoy the narcissism of being a hero for their charitable acts.

Chapter XI: Legitimacy of the Modern and Rationality of the Actual

The “rationality of the actual” means that what exists has come to be so for a reason, and in Hegel’s view of history, means that history has progressed irreversibly towards a higher level of rationality (or, universality of man). This is very unpopular with those who view the world as continuously decaying from some period of perfection or mired in a new-found mediocrity, a sentiment expressed by Schopenhauer, Nietszche, Stahl, Humboldt, J.S. Mill, and Tocqueville.

In the rationality of the actual, Hegel also skewers the concept of Sollen, or moral duty (as extolled by Kant, Fichte), which is left to the whims of individual actors rather than acting with the accumulated knowledge and experience of the State. This is very unpopular with the liberal tradition, who views the State taking over the (moral) duties of individuals as tyrannical.

Hegel’s “rationality of the actual” also justifies the “terrible” seeds of the future, and for this Hegel is condemned from all sides for his role in the threat of Socialism.

Chapter XII: The Second Thirty Years War and the “Philosophical Crusade” against Germany

During the Second Thirty Years War (that is, the period from and including World War 1 to World War 2), the ideological debate “is but a harsher continuation of the military conflict”. The Anglo-saxon side or Western side (argued by representatives such as Popper and Hayek) touts itself as the side of individualism and freedom, however the boundaries of the categories of “freedom”, “individualism” and “western world” are flexible enough to accommodate whatever is expedient (see also, Liberalism: A Counter-history”). Germany also views itself as on the side of individualism and against the meddling of the State.

Both sides unite, however, in their resolute rejection of Hegel. The Germans, self-conscious about a degradation in power relative to other world powers, despise Hegel’s concept of “the real is rational” and his view of history as an irreversible process that aims to extend rights to all humans. The “Western” school points to Hegel’s outsized effect (via Marx) on the political shifts in the East (i.e., October Revolution) and for Hegel’s support of positive rights and the State. Both sides are iffy on if Kant counts as German or British (he’s German by nationality).

Chapter XIII: Liberalism, Conservatism, the French Revolution and Classic German Philosophy

The French Revolution was a tsunami more than a ripple in European philosophy, and there are two paths along which philosophy developed in response: (a) one path opposed to the revolution, which originates with Burke and is further developed by liberal thinkers, including Constant, Tocqueville, Haym, Guizot, Haller, and Hayek and eventually becomes incorporated into Nazism; (b) the other path which provides a theoretical expression of the revolution, taken up by Kant, Fichte and Hegel then later developed further by Marx and Engels.

The reactionary path — Losurdo cites Marcuse as saying that “liberalism evolves during the polemic against the French Revolution” — starts from the idea that the inherited political system reflects the wisdom handed down countless generations, and that must be preserved for generations to come, and that a revolution is lawful “to the extent to which it respects the status quo and is led by men of order; in other words, to the extent to which it is not a revolution”. Furthermore, the premise of equality of men — a key concept of the French Revolution — upsets the natural order of things (from this argument, it is clear how this branch develops into social Darwinism).

The pro-revolution path develops two concepts: (1) the universal conception of man (and in Hegel, history as the progressive recognition of that concept) and (2) the inseparable relationship between politics and economics. From this latter point springs the idea of positive rights — it is impossible to meet political rights if economics rights are not also met.

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