Hegel’s “Concrete Universal” And The Problem Of Community – The “Citizen Subject” Under The Regime Of Neoliberalism, Part 1 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the first of a two-part series.  The article will be part of a published volume of presentations at a conference sponsored by the Institute for the Human Sciences in Vienna in May 2018.

As the philosopher Hegel clearly understood, the question of community is intimately bound up with the realization of what he termed “concrete universality.”  Community is not merely a sociological phenomenon.  It is a phenomenological challenge as well.

The problem of inclusivity, which pulsates at the epicenter of the communitarian project, cannot be resolved commutatively or algebraically.  Nor can it be approached through the all-too-familiar calculus of an “identity politics” that names who, or what, is routinely excluded from the prevailing social constellation, blaming and shaming who or what refuses or neglects to recognize its significance.  The conundrum of community cannot be disentangled from the predicament of subjectivity, which is at the same time the problem of intersubjectivity, of the deflections, displacements reversals, and negotiations that become inescapable during the confrontation with alterity.

As Hegel throughout his various writings made clear, the experience of alterity, together with the gawky task of coming to terms with the presence of a profound “other”, is what not only drives history, but feeds relentlessly into the rising and dissipation of countless historical iterations of human solidarity.

In his introduction to the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, published in 1821, Hegel sought to redefine the locus criticus for Western political philosophy as the “ethical” engagement with the other.  Taking up Kant’s pronouncement in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals that the term “good” cannot be imputed in any sense to the aim or outcome of ethical action, but only to the will containing the motive to carry it out, Hegel hammered together the scaffolding for a more expansive political theory by arguing that it is the infinite assignment of the will to attach itself to, and to imbibe within itself, what is not itself.

This spiral movement of both self-consciousness and corporate consciousness as a process of “othering” (Entäusserung) oneself and rediscovering oneself within the other is what makes both history and the formation of human community possible.   The will in itself is the self-activating principle of human subjectivity that strives to fill itself out with and make its “own” everything that comes into contact with it.  “The will contains (a) the element of pure indeterminacy or of the ‘I’ ’s pure reflection into itself, in which every limitation, every content, whether present immediately through nature, through needs, desires, and drives, or given and determined in some other way, is dissolved.”(37)

The omnivorous enterprise of a self-transformative subjectivity is what provides “substance”(Wesen)  to all human types of affiliation, according to Hegel.  It is what produces the “rationality” of functioning social relationships and institutions.  The boundless project of the will, and the imagined scope of its operation which manifests itself only to a self-conscious moral personality, propels it into the space of other self-mobilizing subjects, precipitating inevitable, multi-sided struggles between different historical actors and collective agencies.

The result is both the sifting out and reciprocal limitation of these subjective ventures, and it gives rise to what we term the “objective” order of things.    As Hegel writes, “the entire determination of the subjectivity of the will is again a whole which, as subjectivity, must also have objectivity.”(136)  In The Philosophy of Right Hegel construed that “objectivity” as the political order, what regularly comes to be translated in the various editions of his work as the “state.”

But Hegel’s conception of the state, as Alan Wood notes in his editor’s introduction to the volume, is something that differs appreciably from the connotation that routinely goes along with such a term in the history of political thought.  From Hobbes forward the “state” has come to signify the structural regimen of any political system with the unique privilege of imposing the norms of common life through force, as implied in the monarchial precept of raison d’etat (“reason of state”).

Walter Benjamin famously identified the coercive role of the state in his Critique of Violence, written amidst the chaos and revolutionary upheavals of post-World War I Weimar Germany. It is both in the establishment of the state and the administration of its laws that “violence” (Gewalt) becomes a necessity.  In short, there can be no political life, or what the Greeks termed politeia, without the capacity of the state to intimidate its subjects, whether it be deployed toward moderate or draconian means.

But, as Wood emphasizes, Hegel pioneered the novel insight that the state cannot simply be conflated with “civil society” (bürgerliche Gesellschaft).  As members of civil society, “individuals have the duty to support themselves through labour which benefits the whole, while civil society as a whole owes each individual the opportunity to labour in a way which provides a secure, respected and self-fulfilling mode of life.”(xix)  It is this reciprocal responsibility of each person to each another that qualifies the genuine meaning of the expression “civil society”, while specifying what Kant had in mind with his notion of the “moral commonwealth”, or the “kingdom of ends.”

Civil society is the domain of moral freedom that has been incarnated in a system of complementary affect and accountability, one which is something “essential” and positive with respect to human flourishin.  The positive freedom of civil society can be contrasted with the negative freedom sanctioned by the theory of the minimalist state in libertarian philosophies.  Thus civil society becomes the authentic “sphere of politics,” as Hegel describes it, as the “sphere of the highest concrete universality.”(344)

Generally speaking, there can be no political reality without a social order realm that satisfies these conditions.  The very notion of “right”, or “rights”, is derived from this state of mutual recognition.  The late twentieth and early twenty-first century worldwide campaign for human rights amounts, as Francis Fukuyama in his more recent work has dubbed it, to the “democratization of dignity.”   This proposition turns on the often undervalued philosophical premise that what Hegel referred to as the “rationality” of political arrangements are lodged within the fabric of mutual recognition within in a society, at least in theory.

It is a theory of recognition that stresses each person’s infinite value,  which can only be actualized by weaning politics away from a focus on collective identities and placing the emphasis more on the importance of intersubjectivity.  Fukuyama and others, who rely in different measures on the Hegelian model of the self-reflective and self-actualizing subject in engaging human alterity, have called this new schema the “politics of recognition.”

Hegel’s schema, of course, was ruthlessly criticized by Marx and his followers as hypocritical and as pseudo-universal in both its formal and concrete ramifications, because it accounted only for “bourgeois” rights and ignored the disenfranchisement and immiseration of the proletariat, or working class.  According to Marx, Hegel had not in any way humanized the state by reconstituting it as the ethical “substance” of society .

Instead he had merely performed an intellectual sleight of hand.  Hegel’s version of the concrete universal slyly vaunted the bourgeois (bürgerlich) element within the historical phase where Absolute Spirit realizes itself in all its shapes and dimensions, in that efflorescent moment of  self-consciousness he claimed can be glimpsed in the organization the Prussian state.

Yet, Marx stressed, the Hegel’s claim that the Prussian “state” amounts to a historical apotheosis where “freedom” putatively finds its fullest expression must be exposed as a total sham.  There is still what remains invisible to the bourgeois sensibility,  that “indivisible remainder” we know as the “proletariat”, what Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto refer to as “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority“.

It is this mass of the populace – what today we would term the “99 percent” – that is permanently excluded, according to Marx, from the Aufhebung of political subjectivity as reciprocal self-recognition.  “Hegel proceeds from the state and makes man into the subjectified state; democracy starts with man and makes the state objectified man.”(30)  Contra Hegel, Marx pressed the case that it is the conditions of material labor (the “relations of production”) rather than what might be called the “civic sensibility” which predispose the character of social and political life.

Marx had drawn such an insight, as did many of his successors such as Alexandre Kojève, from the passage in Hegel’s Phenomenology on the so-called “master-slave dialectic.”  In that well-known passage it is the “slave”, or bondservant (Knecht), who through his unrequited labor achieves the true state of self-reflective, communitarian self-consciousness rather than by any gambit of speculative philosophy.   Hegel, in fact, had mystified the state, according to Marx, which is “nothing but the modes of existence and operation of the social qualities of men.”(22)

It is not our task here to rehash the dispute between Marxists and Hegelians.  What can serve as our point of departure, however, is the central thread in Marx’s critique, which comes down to the interlinkages between social inclusivity and political participation.  The deeper issue of what constitutes “community” in the twenty-first century context hinges decisively on our ability to map out these interconnections.  The issue itself cannot be settled sociologically, inasmuch as much of our operative terminology concerning the nexus of human solidarity has become outmoded.

For example, Ferdinand Tönnies celebrated distinction between Gemeinschaft as an ideal type that could be applied to kinship-based societies and Gesellschaft, a more calculative and contractual system of relationships that began to dominate in the nineteenth century because of the new industrial economy, has very often been taken as the sole standard by which we can assess the nature of human associations.  Much of the totalitarian project, as Hans Maier and others have pointed out, in the first half of the twentieth century can be understood as an effort to engineer a technological and bureaucratic simulacrum of the mythic image of Gemeinschaft.

In fact, the National Socialists routinely referred to their Aryan Volkstaat as die neue Gemeinschaft.  And it becomes clear in reading the early Marx that his own portrait of the revolutionary proletariat bore an uncanny resemblance to the peasant and artisan guilds that had lost both their cohesion and their social leverage under the impact of rapid industrialization.

Today we are witnessing the most rapid, broad-reaching, and fateful planetary transformation in the history of the world.  The process usually goes by the relatively inconspicuous caption of “globalization” (even though, as theorists and historians are wont to remind us, it is not something new, only a long-term trend that has become ever more evident).   Global webs of transportation and communication as well as cultural and economic exchange are infiltrating implacably into corners and crevices of the world that had been isolated since time immemorial.  Movements of not only goods, but people, inventions, and ideas are following the very tracery of this transformation.

Nations that were of marginal importance only one or two generations back are becoming international players, and vice-versa.  These changes have been carefully graphed by geopolitical researchers, but one aspect of it all that remains curiously absent from their deliberations is how we are beginning to view not just the terrain, but the experience of each other, in the midst of everything.  It is this cognitive conundrum of the other in the age of globalization that emerges as our supreme philosophical concern for the foreseeable future.

The Hegelian problem of the concrete universal, therefore, translates directly into the political question of how a community achieves within its own peculiar mores and institutions the ethical capacity for mutual recognition and respect among its constituencies.  All in all, we would describe this challenge as how  “justice” is to be established throughout the multiplicity of social milieus.

The fraught and often elusive, if not sometimes abusive, quest within a community for social justice corresponds materially to the attainment of the kind of political “rationality” Hegel held up as the controlling attribute of civil society.  Civil society, almost by definition from both an Hegelian and non-Hegelian point of view, must embody for the sum of its members a “universal” dimension of intersubjective awareness and experience where freedom, dignity, and the desire of each person, at least in principle, to treat everyone else as what Kant termed an “end in themselves”.  We know, to be sure, that this prototype of civil society has rarely, if ever, been realized even within these parameters.  But it is at the same time the ideal metric for an aspiring world civilization that treats all human beings, regardless of status or origin, as having rights as well as what Hannah Arendt has famously dubbed the “right to rights.”

In certain respects the entire struggle in our current fledgling century between cosmopolitanism and populism, between those who defend the sovereignty of the nation-state and utopians yearning for a world without borders, or between transnationalism and ethnocentrism can be said to approximate to the larger argument between Marx and Hegel.  But it is far more than an argument over whether there can be anything, as Marx maintained, resembling a “universal class”, which in its rage for recognition somehow succeeds through a strange, dialectical alchemy in transmuting the dross of social ostracism into the gold of an inclusive commonwealth without status distinctions, or habits of discrimination.

The political dilemma that ultimately crystallizes the problem of community is what one means exactly by the term citizen.  In The Social Contract Rousseau effectively turned the legacy of Western political theory on its head by foregrounding the question of “citizenship”, one which in many respects can be seen as the immediate cause, and the reason for the failure, of the French Revolution.  Prior to Rousseau, or at least in the late Medieval and early modern context, the prerequisite for citizenship remained totally dependent on the disposition of the sovereign.  Sovereignty, in turn, was invariably located in a person, an entity, or a corporate body that conferred “rights” and “privileges”, normally in accordance with one’s “standing” (German=Stand, French= état) as part of an hierarchical grid of interlinking obligations.  In short, sovereignty was constitutive of “citizenship” rather than the other way around.

Rousseau’s departure from his predecessors was to embed the right to citizenship within a theoretical matrix of universal human equality.  This coup de main can be found in the Social Contract, where Rousseau writes that “the social pact establishes such equality between citizens that they all engage themselves under the same conditions, and must all enjoy the same rights. Thus by the nature of the pact any act of sovereignty, that is to say any authentic act of general will, obliges or favours all Citizens equally, so that the Sovereign knows only the body of the nation and does not distinguish any one of those who make it up.  So what really is an act of sovereignty? It is not a convention between a superior and an inferior, but a convention between the body and each of its members.”(119-20)

Rousseau derived the thesis of universal equality from his construct of the “state of nature”, which any genuinely just social order must strive to approximate.  It is this presumption of natural equality to which the other two slats of the French revolutionary triptych – “liberty” and “fraternity” – are attached as well.

Rousseau, by the same token, had a major, albeit indirect, influence on the thought of Kant.  As Ernst Cassirer suggests, Kant was inspired by Rousseau’s prospectus for a “civil religion” in developing his model of an “ethical commonwealth” swathed together through a “religion within the limits of reason alone”.  Kant’s notion of freedom as “autonomy” (the giving of a law to oneself) as opposed to the classical notion of liberum arbitrium (i.e., “free choice”) has its genesis in Rousseau’s idea of the citizen as one who follows his own, interiorized “universal voice”.

The “social bond” underwriting the social contract “cannot be something imposed,” writes Cassirer, “upon the wills of these persons from without; they must constitute and create it themselves. Accordingly all theories fail which seek to derive the ‘social contract’ in any form from a contract involving subjection, from a pactum subjectionis.”  At the same time this concept of the citoyen as someone who is no longer subject to an external sovereign (other than self-subjection to the general will) offers a feasible exit from the Marxist-Hegelian binary.  We can detect the same Rousseauian logic in Étienne Balibar’s distinctive hypothesis of the “citizen-subject,” a universal citizenship that is paradoxically both general and particular, national as well as transnational, local and global.  We will have more to say about Balibar’s ideas shortly.

The problem of who counts as the “citizen” becomes even more pressing as we confront the crisis of global economic inequality and social turmoil, spawning vast surges of human migration while threatening to dissolve national boundaries and the presumption of political sovereignty which these movements entail.  Today’s wave pulses of global migration  hark back to the Völkerwanderung that brought about the collapse of imperial Rome and defined the European Dark Ages a millennium a half earlier.   They are outgrowth of severe economic stress wrought by the breakdown of political order because of the ravages of the new global capitalism.

Rather than called into question, this new world disorder has been celebrated by many of today’s radical cosmopolitans who nurture a deep animus against the de facto racial, religious, and cultural exclusivity of the nation-state.  In pushing their demand for a borderless world – and by extension one without political authority of any kind whatsoever – they have both legitimated and enabled this disorder.

Such a grand vision of a universal statelessness, indistinguishable from planetary anarchy, is shaped presumably by a profound moral outrage against the social and economic inequities of globalization.   But it also mirrors both the political fantasies of the new, global ruling class, which I have analyzed in my book Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics

This new global “knowledge class” is one “that controls both the means of ‘material’ production (which is now essentially ‘virtual’) in the form of the global ‘symbolic economy’ of digitised media, computerised investment and currency transactions, an increasingly credentialled lifelong learning and professional service industry, and a vast intellectual cognitive and communicative machinery that rigorously defines and enforces a new ‘global-civic’ moralism of self-criticism and self-denial ostensibly aimed at the good of all humankind, all the while ruthlessly grinding down the dignity and physical livelihoods of workers of all races, cultures and ethnicities.”(7)

As the gigantic footprint of huge, international corporations accountable to no stakeholders other than the global financial elites spreads quietly and indefatigably all over the earth, the transnational carriage trade that speaks for the current neoliberal order is incrementally able through its control of the means of “knowledge” production to subject the planetary populace to “bondsman” status, not only in their livelihoods but in their cultural loyalties as well.   A borderless and stateless world well serves the interest of these elites, as it did throughout the nineteenth century while the European states plied their “civilizing mission” of colonialism that eradicated previous state formations from East Asia to Africa.

The neoliberal type of hegemonism, as I have argued, is constructed from strategy of differentiating as many possible elements within the social field, then reconstituting them not as a dialectical unity but as a profusive assemblage that stresses their competitive or conflictual character of the single components rather than their capacity for agreement.  The dogma of “multiculturalism,” for example, has become the axis around which neoliberalism hegemonism has spread its influence, as Slavoj Žižek has long argued.

Multiculturalism follows much the same internal logic as colonialism which, in keeping with the analysis of David Chidester, transposes the ancient Roman military maxim of divide et impera (“divide and conquer”) into the taxonomical method of “classify and conquer.”  Chidester attributes the latter slogan to Max Müller’s elaboration of the paradigm of the history of religions, or typological pluralism, as an essential factor in the elaboration of the idea of empire.But the argument works quite effectively as well for multiculturalism, which Žižek dubbed in the late 1990s the “logic of multinational capitalism,” a somewhat dated expression that more recently has been rebaptized as “neoliberalism”. 

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).  He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.


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