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The Abyss of Right: Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and the Question of Poverty

L’abîme du droit : La philosophie du droit et la question de la pauvreté de Hegel
Tomás Lima Pimenta
p. 729-757


La position de Hegel sur la question de la pauvreté dans les États modernes a constitué un sujet important pour les études hégéliennes. L’intérêt précoce de Hegel pour l’économie politique (par exemple, John Locke, Adam Smith et James Steuart), ainsi que son attention pour les phénomènes sociaux, expliquent l’importance particulière qu’il accorde à la portée éthique de la pauvreté. La pauvreté constitue, pour Hegel, un paradoxe : elle paraît, d’une part, comme la conséquence nécessaire et inévitable de la modernité – un mode vie rationnel éthique –, et, d’autre part, comme un échec éthique qui mine les fondations mêmes de ce mode de vie. Cet article articule et défend la compréhension de la pauvreté exprimée par Hegel, à savoir la pauvreté comme échec éthique, qui fait obstacle à certains aspects fondamentaux de l’actualisation du concept de liberté. L’article suggère également que le paradoxe mentionné plus haut, à savoir que Hegel est incapable de connecter la nécessité du problème de la pauvreté avec les raisons du mode de vie éthique, résulte du fait qu’il ne pouvait pas comprendre qu’il existe une autre loi opérationnelle dans les marchés modernes, à savoir la loi de la valeur, qui ne correspond pas à la justification rationnelle des marchés telle qu’il la théorise dans son idée de « société civile ». Enfin, je défends l’argument selon lequel l’impasse de Hegel reflète un déficit de rationalité dans la société civile moderne en soi. En développant cet argument, on remet en lumière certains aspects de la conception de la modernité chez Hegel et on montre qu’un philosophe peut produire des vues intéressantes même dans ses impasses.

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  • 1 Since the 1960s a series of works on the role of political economy in Hegel’s account of civil soci (...)

1The question of poverty and inequality torments modern societies and also tormented Hegel’s normative theory of liberal states. In recent years there has been an increasing interest in the theoretical and political consequences of poverty to Hegel’s systematic construction of modern ethical life. The problem of poverty is inscribed into a more general analysis of the role of markets and the influence of political economy in his Philosophy of Right (PR, henceforth). The centrality of economics—and its theories of labor and exchange—to Hegel’s philosophy was acknowledged by some of his immediate successors, including Karl Rosenkranz (2004, 101) and Karl Marx, who famously claimed that “Hegel’s standpoint is that of modern political economy” (Marx, 1988, 150).1

2In order to bring into view the ethical significance of the question of poverty, it is important to situate it in the general economy of the text. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is a doctrine of freedom. According to Hegel, a free life is the result of conscious participation in a series of social practices and institutions that are recognized and willed as rationally valid by their participants. Each of these practices and institutions offer a certain image of freedom and each is conditioned by and limited by other shapes of freedom. In that sense, the book is a systematically arranged exposition of these different and reciprocally mediated determinations of freedom. As a general hermeneutical approach, I follow Honneth’s thesis according to which the Philosophy of Right is, at the same time, a normative reconstruction of modern states and a diagnosis of (possible) social pathologies immanent to the development of those states when societies stick to deficient conceptions of freedom (Honneth, 2017a, 42). Nonetheless, it should be emphasized, I draw very different conclusions from the same hermeneutical principles.

3The question of poverty is particularly troubling for Hegel’s normative theory for the following reasons. Hegel is truly committed to the idea that moral subjectivity is a fundamental aspect of modern freedom. It belongs to morality the positive claim that subjects should attain satisfaction and welfare in their actions and activities. Second, Hegel is also truly committed to the idea that the active participation in markets, which comprises the acquisition of material subsistence trough one’s own activity as well as social honor and recognition, is also a fundamental aspect of freedom. Nevertheless, Hegel recognizes that the functioning of markets necessarily produces the condition of poverty, which not only frustrates the promises of social freedom of markets but also the moral freedom of wellbeing.

4Overall this paper sides with those who argue that Hegel is unable to formulate a satisfactory solution to the question of poverty and that this failure represents a challenge to his project as whole (Avineri, 1974; 1973; Plant, 1977; Ruda, 2011). Hence, I argue that the functioning of markets undermines the normative architecture of right. In order to so, it is necessary to show how the condition of poverty violates important determinations of right that are articulated throughout the book. In general, the literature on Hegel’s account of poverty fails to acknowledge the moral sources of the revolt against poverty that are, I contend, crucial to understanding the normative failure of right. In order to make this point, I argue, in the first part of this paper, that Hegel develops a certain positive account of a “right to life” that is essentially negated by the condition of poverty. By fleshing out this positive right to life, I expect to show that poverty appears to modern subjects as the moral failure of societies. In the second part of the paper, I present Hegel’s account of civil society and his conception of markets. There I show how poverty necessarily emerges from the immanent motion of markets and how the mechanisms to attenuate poverty presented by Hegel fail in their purpose. In that connection, poverty frustrates the promise of social freedom of markets and takes the shape of a social injustice. To conclude this paper, I defend the thesis that the persistence of poverty should be read as a normative deficiency of Hegel’s account of liberal states.

1. The Right to Life

5The idea of a “right to life” may sound awkward and ill-formulated for interpreters of Hegel’s philosophy of right. In fact, Hegel does not devote any section of his work to such a right and, from the standpoint of a doctrine of freedom, a right to “life” as such seems unjustified, since freedom does not concern the bare corporeal existence of individuals, but rather a complex conception of free human life that encompasses many determinations, practices and institutions. Even more, a right to life would appear to contradict Hegel’s defense of capital punishment. Nevertheless, life is an important determination of right that deserves some attention. I contend that in each further determination of the idea of freedom, one can identify a new and more concrete version of a certain right to life: beginning with the mere assertion of the inviolability of my corporeal life, passing on to the moral claim of wellbeing and culminating with the demand for subsistence and employability through the mechanisms of civil society.

6The most basic and immediate form assumed by the right to life is to be found in the section on “abstract right.” Abstract right is the most immediate and thus least determinate way through which individuals objectify their freedom and, from that viewpoint, each individual is recognized as a person (PR, §§34-35). In personhood individuals objectify their freedom by giving to themselves an “external sphere of freedom” in which they are autonomous. For Hegel, it is fundamental that individuals have a certain space in which they can act freely. The exterior form of freedom can be objects, inventions, creations, talents, and, most immediately, our body. Since humans are living beings, the most immediate existence of personhood is the organic body, i.e. their natural existence. In that sense, the person possesses her own body and life insofar as they are invested with the person’s will (PR, §43 and §47). This living body is the “undivided external existence” of the person and the “real potentiality of all further-determined existence” (PR, §47). Based on this conception of personhood and life, Hegel argues that persons are free for others as long as they are in immediate possession of their body, that is, just by physically existing one should be treated as a person (PR, §48). In turn, one is actually free only as long as one has control over one’s body and one is freer the more one develops the capacities and skills of one’s body. Against Fichte and Rehberg, Hegel emphasizes that the external, bodily existence is a fundamental determination of right and any violation of physical integrity, for instance by physical punishment, slavery or torture, is a major offense against our personhood (PR, §48; VRP, IV, 196). By the same token he is establishing a distinction between an offense (Beleidigung) committed against a person and an infraction (Verletzung) committed against someone’s external property, which will become decisive to his conception of Notrecht (PR, §48; VRP, IV, 197). The severity of a crime is given by its “extension” and a crime committed against someone’s life has a larger extension than a crime committed against someone’s property. Abstract right is hence determined by the absolute right to personhood and life (PR, §96; VRP, III, 215, 302; VRP, IV, 278; DH, 85; see also Teichgraeber, 1977, 55).

7Hence, the first determination of the right to life refers solely to the inalienability of our immediate corporeal existence. As long as corporeal existence is a fundamental aspect of the actualization of freedom, one has the right to physical integrity. But as Hegel will point out a few paragraphs later, the right of personhood is merely negative, it is merely a “warrant” or “permission” (PR, §35-38). Accordingly, it establishes no positive right to life that can impose normative demands on others, rather it only determines that one shall not interfere with other’s bodies and lives, it is hence a negative obligation.

8The second determination of the right to life is developed in the section “Morality” of the Philosophy of Right. Most analyses of this section seem to reduce it to the confrontation of Kant’s formal morality with Hegel’s “emptiness charge” (Brooks, 2007, 55). Nonetheless, I would like to show that there is something else going on in this section that is fundamental for the understanding of Hegel’s account of poverty, namely the fact that he posits welfare (Wohl) as an important aspect of morality. If abstract right concerned the exteriorization of the will through the establishing of an exterior sphere of freedom, morality represents the will’s movement towards the inside. Moral subjects are not free because they invest external things with their will, but rather because they determine themselves by stating principles and interests, and ultimately by orienting their actions according to their own criterion of what is good. The essential aspect of morality is thus self-determination. The dimension of freedom brought about by morality has fundamental implications for modern societies, insofar as the social order has to satisfy the most important right of moral subjects, i.e. the right of the subjective will: “The right of the subjective will is that whatever it is to recognize as valid should be perceived by it as good” and “the right to recognize nothing that I do not perceive as rational” (PR, §132). Moral subjects refuse to accept whatever is imposed upon them and tend to reject any reality that contradicts their own principles of what ought to be.

9Let’s now turn to the emergence of a certain moral right to life. In his account of moral actions, Hegel insists that the subject has the right to find satisfaction in her actions. Actions are motivated by certain ends established by subjects and these actions can generate pleasure and benefits, such as fame and honor. Taking satisfaction in actions is not contrary to morality and does not impoverish the moral value of actions. By doing so, Hegel opens up a space for actions motivated by self-interest and by desire for welfare. The question of life and the body reemerges in morality: “is it an essential determination of the living [being] to be a particular? Is it necessary, according to the concept, to be thus determined?” (VRP, III, 384). Hegel is assertive: “the fact that he is a living being is not contingent, but in accordance with reason, and to that extent he has a right to make his needs his end” and “there is nothing degrading about being alive, and we do not have the alternative of existing in a higher spirituality” (VRP, III, 384-385). In contrast to abstract right, in which the living body was regarded as the mere existence of a person, the will attains here the right to satisfy its own needs and to pursue its welfare. This right is what Hegel calls “the right for particularity”—a very essential right, whose principle is “generally the principle of modern times” (DH, 98). The satisfaction of these needs is crucial given that the living body is the “real potentiality of all further-determined existence” (PR, §47). Thus, to pursue one’s own welfare is a “moment of rationality” (PR, §132). Actions motivated by welfare are not thoughtless expressions of our natural inclinations and needs, but rather they are motivated by the postulation of welfare as a valid and rational end to be pursued. Here the right to life does not express only the negative warrant that no one is allowed to injure my body, but also the positive claim that I have the right to wellbeing.

2. “Not, This Holy Word”

10An important theme explored by Hegel in his Philosophy of Right is the conflict and collision of different shapes of right. As he argues in §30, particular shapes of right embody certain aspects of the general idea of freedom and different claims of right can collide with each other. A major confrontation of rights in modernity is the one between the right of subjectivity and the abstract right to property. As Hegel insists, the crucial determination of property is not the satisfaction of needs, but rather the fact that through property the will gives itself existence in the world (VRP, III, 204). The demand for welfare is, in turn, indifferent to the right to property and their agreement is only a possibility. Actually, claims to the right of subjectivity constantly collide with claims to property rights. At that moment, the question is raised: “which of both determinations have right before the other?” (VRP, IV, 339). The immediate answer is “neither one”, after all, taken and held one-sidedly both are abstractions that lack truth: “the concept of freedom without reality is something empty, untrue” and welfare for itself “without the concept” is “something empty, merely natural and formally external” (VRP, IV, 339-440).

11On closer inspection, Hegel offers some insights that are pivotal to the understanding of his conception of a right. To start with, Hegel argues that the appropriate criterion to approach this problem is: “the totality of one has a priority (Vorrecht) over the particularity of the other” (VRP, IV, 340). For instance, a moral action that follows moral emotions and seeks personal welfare or the welfare of others, but does not take right into account, is an empty and valueless action. Such an action is just a common crime, as Hegel likes to illustrate with the example of Saint Crispin who used to steal leather to help the poor.

12Nevertheless, when the category of life makes its appearance, the collision between abstract right and welfare attains a different shape. Life represents totality, for it is free and infinite (VRP, III, 401). It is in a living body that personhood attains its immediate existence and, only through it, can the will enjoy any determination of freedom; consequently, the end of life means altogether the death of an individual’s freedom. “If life is denied to a man, his whole freedom as person is thus denied” (VRP, III, 401). Based on that, Hegel argues that whenever life as totality is threatened, the subject has the absolute right to violate someone else’s property. Such right attained by life is called the right of necessity (Notrecht). Hegel takes the old right of necessity (jus necessitates in Roman Law), which had also been discussed by Kant and Fiche, and imprints on it a radically different meaning. In his account of Notrecht, Kant refers to the context of a shipwreck, in which two individuals are drowning in a sea and there is only one plank available, so that the life of one can only be assured by means of the death of the other. In that case, the individual cannot be punished for the death of the other. For Kant, Notrecht is not a real objective right, for it would be a contradiction of right itself, but rather a “subjective impunity” granted by the court given the extreme context (Kant, 1977, 343-344). In contrast to Kant, Hegel fixes Notrecht as a fundamental right and transposes it to a context of social harm, namely to the context of poverty (Losurdo, 2004, 156ff).

13Though Hegel does not ignore the Kantian sense of Notrecht (WH, 84-85, 244-245), he seems to be increasingly less interested in such exceptional situations, rather he pays attention to a conflict between morality and right that lies at the center of modern societies. The modern social condition that fosters the direct collision between (abstract) right and welfare is poverty, which exposes a mass of individuals to physical and social death. Hegel’s example is unequivocal: “a starving man has the absolute right to violate the property of another; he violates the property of another only according to a limited content; in Notrecht lies that he does not violate the right of another as right” (VRP, IV, 341). Nonetheless Hegel does not stop short at the exceptional situationof a starving man that steals a piece of bread; in Hotho’s notes to the lectures of 1822/23 it becomes clear that starvation here amounts to a broader condition of poverty or misfortune:

This can be also found in common life, whereby a great accumulation of misfortune is a so unutterable amount. The misfortune of many would be redressed with few means, which are in the free property of others. Thus, one can see the struggle of misery (Not) and, right next to it, the means that could redress it; yet an insurmountable abyss separates both. This abyss is right, whose opposition to welfare is not a merely casuistic collision, rather one that is always present, and necessary <>, and the most conspicuous [and] dazzling in the civilized society (VRP, III, 397-398).

14In that context of social harm life attains the inviolable right (DH, 100). This constitutes a curious case in which the natural attains a primacy in relation to “freedom” (Ruda, 2011, 18). What underlies Hegel’s defense of that “absolute right” to life is the distinction between a harm committed against property and harm committed against a person. If one takes the standpoint of the starving man who violates someone’s property, it is a matter of “negative judgment”, where a particular right is denied, whereas right as such and the recognition of the proprietor as a free person are preserved. As Hegel defines it in his Science of Logic, an infinite judgment is one “that negates, not only the particular right, but the universal sphere, the right as right” (WL, 567; see also PR, §§94-96; VRP, IV, 277). So, if the starving man dies because the proprietor denied him his welfare, then it is a matter of “negatively infinite judgment”, for to negate someone the right to life, by stubbornly defending your right to property, harms right as such and the criminal’s “legal capacity” (VRP, II, 163ff). As Ruda beautifully formulates it, “the right of distress [Notrecht] is a right to avoid the victims of right.” (Ruda, 2011, 17). Finally, Hegel argues: “this life has this right against right, because the freedom shall not perish against the particular right of a singular” (VRP, I, 286). Or else: “Life has also a <true> right against formal right” (VRP, II, 459).

15What is really interesting about Notrecht is not the possibility that this right could mediate the conflict of poverty and inequality, for it is a right of exception and no right can sustain exceptions. Hence what is really significant here is Hegel’s acknowledgment of the revolt of moral subjectivity in the face of poverty. In that sense, Notrecht is the juridical recognition of this revolt. Along these lines Hegel sketches in his lecture notebooks: “the revolt of misery of life” and “misery (Not) is a holy word” (VRP, II, 461). He also states: “misery (Not) has this feeling, this revolt. This right has to be conceded to men in the revolt of misery” (VRP, III, 402). Hence it is clear that what Hegel has in mind when he introduces the notion of Notrecht is the recognition of the rightfulness of the revolt against misery. This is fundamental for the understanding of the ethical significance of the question of poverty, because poverty is not only a question of distribution but a question of the rational validity of the system before the court of the moral subject.

16Taken as one-sided abstractions, however, abstract right, welfare and Notrecht are unintelligible. In order to make sense of the conflict between claims of right to life and to property in its full determinations it is necessary foremost to understand how this conflict takes place in a more concrete social formation and show how those rights are subsumed under and subordinated to the “right of the actual [and] concrete spirit” (VRP, II, 458). In the next section I will show how this conflict resurfaces in Hegel’s account of markets.

3. Qualified Life: Market, Labor and Recognition

17A free life is the result of the individual participation in a series of social institutions and social practices that provide recognition and meaning to existence. According to Manfred Riedel, Hegel is the first philosopher who acknowledged that, in the modern world, there appears a fundamental institution or social realm between the spheres of the family and the state, namely civil society (Riedel, 1975). Hence the concept of freedom encompasses the successful participation in this mediating sphere, which produces its own images and promises of freedom.

18It is in the sphere of civil society that abstract right and morality attain concreteness. There, persons form contracts and subjects act according to their interests and principles, pose demands and formulate conceptions of a good conduct. Also, in civil society individuals find the mediations, through the market, for livelihood and welfare. Though needs are not restricted to mere livelihood, the preservation of life is conditioned by the satisfaction of subsistence, a category that becomes central in this section. In the context of civil society, the moral right for particularity demands that resources are distributed in such a way that individuals may guarantee their subsistence and, further, their welfare. But the ethical significance of markets goes far beyond the mere subsistence. By participating in a certain industry or estate, individuals become socially useful and are recognized as such, they find their subsistence through their own activity and they have the knowledge that they contribute to the universal welfare. What is truly at stake, and this is precisely the promise of freedom entertained by civil society, is the capacity of providing for one’s own subsistence through a socially recognized activity. Here we can see a still more concrete version of the right to life. Again, according to the right of subjectivity, subjects demand a certain notion of welfare. Now, in civil society, individuals demand the conditions under which they can provide their own welfare and livelihood as the outcome of their own activity (Brooks, 2015, 4) and, furthermore, that this activity should be recognized by others.

19At first sight, civil society has no organizational principle, it seems to be a collection of atomic individuals establishing random connections ruled by a blind necessity (DH, 147ff; VRP, III, 587; VRP, IV, 473, 480). In contrast to civil society, says Hegel, in our engagement in the state, the principle of universality is explicitly formulated and willed (VRP, IV, 479ff). Despite its blind and contingent movements, there is in civil society a certain articulation of universality and this is what particularly interests Hegel. He shows this by pointing to four aspects of civil society. First, in civil society the needs of different individuals are entangled in such a way that the satisfaction of someone’s need entails the satisfaction of someone else’s need. Second, civil society is not only a place where one can find the mediations of livelihood, but also a sphere of social recognition in which individuals can articulate a meaningful life. Third, Hegel hopes that in participating in civil society and its institutions, for instance corporations, individuals form a certain knowledge and desire for the universal that allow them to participate in state functions. Finally, the functioning of markets follows a certain logic and necessity that is the subject-matter of an emerging science, namely political economy. Political economy is the science of the understanding that discovers the laws behind the mass of contingencies in civil society (DH, 152; VRP, III, 587; VRP, IV, 486).

20Civil society is based on two principles. First, the concrete person, which is a “totality of needs and a mixture of natural necessity and arbitrariness” (PR, §182; cf. VRP, III, 566). On the one hand, individuals are living beings who must find their livelihood and the objects to satisfy their needs in the market place. According to the principle of civil society, individuals are formally free to choose a profession according to their arbitrary preferences. Moreover, they are required to perform a certain valid and recognized activity and allowed to gain satisfaction, recognition and status by participating in this activity. It is by being part of this specific profession, and by obtaining their livelihood thereof, that individuals give themselves a socially recognized existence. The second principle is that each person is in relation to other particular persons, for in order to satisfy one’s own needs one necessarily refers to the needs of others. Therefore, civil society is a system of reciprocal dependence, through which individuals are bound up together by want (Not). Thus, Hegel refers to it as the state of necessity (Notstaat) (DH, 147ff; VRP, III, 567; VRP, IV, 473).

21Through the movement of civil society, the needs of individuals undergo a process of complexification. First, they are not immediate needs to merely satisfy their biological and corporeal existence, given that all needs are spiritualized. Humans transcend their immediate needs in two ways: by multiplying their needs and acquiring the means of satisfying them; and by breaking down a concrete need (e.g. nourishing) into a set of differentiated and abstract needs (e.g. utensils, restaurants, culinary tourism and so on) (PR, §190). Hegel’s dialectical approach refuses any stiff separation between the “natural” and the “spiritual”. The distinction between these two aspects is the result of the theorist understanding, who, looking at the phenomenon, cannot comprehend it in its entirety (Waszek, 1988, 148ff.). Hegel keenly argues “in the end, it is no longer need but opinion (Meinung) which has to be satisfied” (VRP, III, 588). This does not mean that the satisfaction of needs is irrelevant or contrary to freedom; on the contrary, as considered above, the moral demand for welfare means that moral subjectivity posits the satisfaction of needs as a rational and free end.

  • 2 On the notion of Formierung in Hegel’s philosophy see PhG (§195), DH (156), VRP (III, 617), and VRP (...)

22At this point, Hegel brings into view the importance of labor and technology for the creation and satisfaction of complex needs. This working through the material of nature is a fundamental aspect of spiritual independence, a theme already developed in the famous Master-Slave dialectics.2 Nature becomes a mere material for the satisfaction of spiritual needs and spirit deals only with itself, with the human form (VRP, IV, 499ff.) The complexification of needs yields the complexification of the division of labor: (i) labor as a process of practical education, through which human beings are accustomed to being occupied with and developing their skills (PR, §197); (ii) the multiplication of needs gives a new form to the division of labor, making labor more abstract, skillful and productive (PR, §198).

23The division of labor yields the abstraction of labor, since the worker is restricted to one specific fraction of the production process and thereby loses the concrete aspect of production (VRP, III, 609ff). The division of labor increases productivity and is the “highest moment” of political economy. On the other side, the specialization of labor brings about the dependence of workers, makes their activity mechanical and degrades their spirit (DH, 159; VRP, III, 611ff; VRP, IV, 502). Hegel develops here a proto-theory of labor alienation that echoes early concerns of his youth (SdS, 117-118; HFS, 33). The division of labor paves the way for the introduction of the machine and the replacement of the worker: first, the worker is confined to mechanical labor and becomes dull; second, the machine substitutes for human labor (technological unemployment); finally, unemployed workers lose their subsistence (VRP, IV, 503). Hegel establishes a relation between the intensification of the division of labor, the abstraction of labor and the impoverishment of individuals (Waszek, 1988, 211) The abstraction of labor results in an always-larger misery (Not): workers are forced to work in this determinate way to acquire their means of subsistence and, when they lose this job, they are left with no subsistence (brodtlos). Thus, the development of industry and the division of labor represent a constant threat to the livelihood of workers (VRP, III, 610; VRP, IV, 503).

24The last aspect to be considered in relation to civil society and political economy is the particular way through which the universal resources of society are established and how individuals take part in them. What is “wonderful” in the system of needs, says Hegel repeating Smith’s formula, is the internal necessity that “while each believe to be working for itself, the selfishness turns around, and in handling its own end it realizes the ends of others” (VRP, III, 614). Nevertheless, participation in the universal resources is merely a possibility and it is conditioned by a number of contingent situations: birth, immediate assets, capital, skills etc. (PR, §200). Consequently, particularity and inequality perform a great spectacle (DH, 161) and this inequality assumes the form of a wrong (Unrecht) (VRP, IV, 513). Consequently, not only is life threatened by the inherent development of industry, but it also becomes subordinate to contingent determinations and movements of the market. In that sense, the principles of political economy frustrate the demands of the right of particularity and right to welfare that have been determined as essential moments of modern subjectivity.

4. The Limits of Civil Society: Poverty and Misrecognition

25As I mentioned in the introduction, Honneth (2017a) plausibly claims that Hegel’s philosophy of right is at the same time the acknowledgment of the rationality of modern societies but also of the possible pathologies of this society. In the exposition of the System of Needs, Hegel shows that the process of multiplication and refinement of needs entails a differentiation between luxury and comfort on the one side, and dependence and want (Not), on the other, a “spectacle of extravagance and misery as well as of the physical and ethical corruption common to both” (PR, §185). He acknowledges that, in capitalist societies, through the development of industry, “wealth and poverty increase simultaneously” (DH, 193) and that "in regard to poverty, it will always exist in society and all the more the greater its wealth has increased" (VRP, III, 702). Inequality and poverty are hence necessary outcomes of the mechanization and abstraction of labor discussed before and, consequently, both have an economic-technological fundament. Consequently, Hegel concludes that: “despite an excess of wealth, civil society is not wealthy enough—i.e. its own distinct resources are not sufficient—to prevent an excess of poverty and the formation of a rabble” (PR, §245; cf. DH, 199). The problem of civil society, therefore, is not the scarcity of wealth, or the incapacity to provide welfare to all its members; on the contrary, the complete lack of resources of some is intertwined with the excess of wealth of others (DH, 197).

26Moreover, Hegel describes in detail how the poor are deprived of “all the advantages of society” (PR, §241). The poor cannot provide to their children with the opportunity of obtaining a skill and hence of finding a job; the poor also lose access to the legal system, since “without costs no right is achieved”. Likewise, the poor lose health care. Finally, the poor lose even the comforts of religion, for “clerics prefer to go to rich’s houses than to poor’s shacks to comfort them on the deathbed” (VRP, IV, 606).

27Of course, poverty is not a problem exclusive to modern societies and its causes are many: so, what is particular to poverty in modern societies? Hegel offers at least four answers to this question. First of all, in modern societies kinship ties are dissolved and individuals are ripped out of family bonds; they become self-subsisting persons and their poverty is the direct outcome of their failure to provide their own subsistence (PR, §241; VRP, III, 700; VRP, IV, 605). Second, individuals are deprived of the natural acquisition of subsistence. Given that private property became pervasive, individuals cannot immediately acquire their subsistence in nature: “everything is already owned: he [the poor] cannot fish, hunt, pick fruit etc.” (VRP, IV, 605). Third, modern subjects know that they have the right to satisfy their own needs and, consequently, to demand from society the means to preserve their own life, viz. the right of subjectivity discussed in morality. Fourth, poverty is now a necessary outcome of the free development of civil society and market mechanisms; it became a socio-economic matter and it has lost the medieval status of sanctity: “Luther profanes poverty”, states Ruda (2011, 6). Consequently, poverty is not regarded anymore as a misfortune or God’s punishment, rather it assumes the social character of an injustice (Unrecht) committed by a class against another: “in civil society, the poor do not have to struggle with a mere natural calamity (Naturnot); the nature that the poor are forced to face is not a mere being, but my will” (DH, 195; transl. Losurdo, 2004, 157). He follows:

The poor are faced with arbitrariness, with human contingency, and in the final analysis, the fact that they are forced into this contrast by arbitrariness is revolting. Self-consciousness appears to be pushed to an extreme point where it is left with no right at all, where freedom has no existence. At this point, where the existence of freedom becomes something totally contingent, the internal revolt is necessary. Since the freedom of the singular has no existence, the recognition of universal freedom disappears with it. From this condition comes about that shamelessness, which we find in the rabble (DH, 195; transl. Losurdo, 2004, 157).

28Here a comparison between Kant’s and Hegel’s account of the question of poverty may illuminate the specificity of Hegel’s account of the meaning of poverty to modern theories of state. Kant’s doctrine of freedom is fundamentally based on the notion of independence or being one’s own master (Kant, 1977, 345). Poverty is a problem for Kant to the extent that it violates the idea of independence, for the poor becomes subject to someone else’s arbitrariness. But the question for Kant is not that the poor has a positive right to livelihood and welfare (Kant, 1977, 437, 446ff.; Weinrib, 2008, 8; Ripstein, 2009, 280). Rather, poverty makes the civic condition itself unintelligible and its persistence makes all rights provisory; therefore, public assistance to poverty is immanent to the very concept of distributive justice and conclusive rights (Ripstein, 2009, 283).

29In contrast to Kant, Hegel develops a certain positive right to life and welfare, as discussed in previous sections. Poverty, the condition of ill-fare, violates the moral right to subjectivity and the subjectivity of the poor cannot anymore find itself in a world that systematically frustrates the determinations of freedom from morality and from civil society. Individuals cannot find welfare, nor the livelihood through their activity and even less the recognition of being “someone” in a society of labor. The condition of poverty produces a detachment from the subjectivity of the poor from the objectivity of civil society, a moral revolt of the social that operates analogously to what Hegel calls “evil”. Individuals reduced to the condition of poverty cannot recognize as rationally valid a society that generates such condition and frustrates their promises of freedom. Given that in modernity the poor are conscious that they have the right to find their subsistence and recognition in civil society, this consciousness necessarily turns into a revolt, which gives rise to a singular political subject, namely the rabble (der Pöbel) (VRP, III, 703; VRP, IV, 609).

  • 3 But on the opposite side of the spectrum there are those who, in spite of not working, have abundan (...)

30The rabble comes into existence when a mass of people is both degraded to a level that is below a certain standard of living and loses the “feeling of right, integrity (Rechtlichkeit), and honor which comes from supporting oneself by one’s own activity and work” (PR, §244). Thus, what constitutes the rabble is not the condition of poverty; poverty is a historical-cultural condition, and, for that reason, it varies among different countries and different historical times. Poverty is usually related to a “minimum of subsistence”, which can be known simply by visiting charity institutions or hospitals: “where only the necessary is provided” (VRP, IV, 608). Nevertheless “poverty in itself does not reduce people to a rabble” (VRP, IV, 609). The rabble is a subjective disposition (Gesinnung) derived from the fact that poverty in modern times assumes the character of an injustice (Unrecht) and this disposition becomes an “inward revolt against the rich, against society, the government, etc.” (ibid.). The rabble is thus the result of the frustration of the promise of freedom, honor, self-respect and independence that is announced by civil society. This fact gives rise to the evil thatthe rabble does not have the honor of earning its livelihood through its own labor, yet it articulates the demand for earning a livelihood as a right” (ibid.).3

31The constitution of a rabble involves a process of subjectivation of the objective conditions of poverty and the experience of it as a radical injustice. Hegel recognizes that this injustice is actual for, within society, hardship assumes the form of a wrong (Unrecht) committed against the individuals (Wood, 1990, 253). Hence the rebellion against wrongness is necessary: “at this point, where the existence of freedom becomes something totally contingent, the internal revolt is necessary” (DH, 195). Hegel’s insistence on the necessity and legitimacy of the revolt against poverty reminds us that poverty is such a central fact for his systematic approach to right because it entails the frustration of important aspects of his conception of a free life. Consequently, the whole significance of Hegel’s theory of right relies on the question of whether civil society can solve the problem of the rabble (Ruda, 2011, 166) and he was well aware of that when he stated: “If there is a high number of unequal members in society, the latter would be dissolved. A nation (Volk), whose conditions are entirely characterized by universal misery, is about to dissolve, because the conservation of universality is, for its turn, founded upon the welfare of particularity” (VRP, III, 573). Or else: “on the one hand, there is thus the passive abjectness (Verworfenheit) of misery and the active abjectness of revolt (Empörung) in and against misery (Not). One can paint a sad picture about the consequences of this condition, in this case, however, the state as such, which should overcome this abjectness (of misery), is sick and sinking. Here lie the roots of the ruin of the state” (VRP, III, 577).

32Therefore “the important question of how poverty can be remedied is one which agitates and torments modern societies especially” (PR, §244). In the next section, I will discuss Hegel’s account of the mechanisms of civil society that may remedy poverty.

5. Combating Poverty

33Hegel’s theory of right relies on the question of whether civil society is able to solve the problem of poverty. If poverty is constant and necessary, life is under permanent threat and the absolute right of particularity, achieved by modern subjectivity, is constantly denied. Richard Teichgraeber, in his interpretation of §194, draws the false conclusion that “thinking men are not to be obsessed with securing material goods” (Teichgraeber, 1977, 58). On the contrary, Hegel regards the security of material livelihood a fundamental rational aim precisely because humans are thinking beings, for this security means precisely the overcoming of the dependence on nature and a fundamental step towards the kingdom of freedom. Moreover, poverty also frustrates the sense of social independence and honor that is offered by civil society. Thus, it is important to consider the instruments of civil society that counterbalance civil society’s tendency towards impoverishment of many and investigate whether they are successful or not. The first instrument is the police, while the second is the corporation.

5.1 Liberal Interventionism

34Considering that the welfare of individuals in the system of needs is a mere possibility, there has to be a mechanism of compensation, which fulfills the right of each individual for particular welfare, since “no one lives from the mere possibility of satisfaction” (VRP, III, 699). This mechanism is primarily the police, whose aim is to guarantee the security of all individuals; however, it does so in the sphere of contingencies and its effectiveness is not necessarily guaranteed. Hegel remarks that, formerly, polis politia meant the whole activity of the state; in modern times, however, it has been reduced to the activity of the state as an exterior state in civil society (VRP, IV, 587). So, the police are not only the apparatus of crime repression, but the institutional apparatus for governmental policies. It is a complex set of institutions that respond to a wide range of demands. It encompasses among other functions the repression and prevention of crime (VRP, IV, 589), public education, public health (VRP, IV, 604), oversight of public utilities (roads, public illumination etc.), and taxation (VRP, III, 695; VRP, IV, 595).

35Moreover, the police must regulate many conflicts between the abstract right to property and the welfare of society. Police must regulate and correct the use of property in relation to externalities (PR, §232; VRP, III, 693). The police are also responsible for the mediation between the conflicting interests of consumers and producers. Consumers constitute a universal demand, i.e. the public, and they have the right to demand goods in the correct amount and with correct specifications. The police are responsible for the public and technical inspection of such goods (VRP, III, 695; VRP, IV, 596-597). The police also require that producers regularly offer the correct number of commodities to the public (VRP, III, 696-697; VRP, IVS, 598). Finally, the police are in charge of commercial and industrial policies. For instance, the police ought to introduce new industrial branches whenever a certain industry is dismantled by external competition and a mass of workers become unemployed (VRP, IV, 601).

36There is an open debate on whether Hegel should be regarded as a liberal or interventionist thinker. Chamley (1963) terms Hegel a liberal interventionist, since he upholds the benefits of free trade, which is bound up to his notion of the principle of particularity proper to the modern world, but also mediates it with a regulation from above. However, this regulation must only “bring it back to universality” when necessary and shorten the periods of crisis. As Waszek claims, Hegel’s conception of police resonates with Smith’s and Steuart’s claim that “market failure is the cause and condition of any intervention” (Waszek, 1988, 203). Waszek suggests that Hegel is closer to an “undogmatic pragmatist” than to a “stubborn interventionist”.

37Losurdo (2004), in contrast, tries to portray a more radical picture of Hegel. First, he argues that the question of whether Hegel is a liberal is not correctly formulated. Hegel attempts to theoretically grasp the concrete implications of such “liberalism” and the contradictions brought about by the collision of different (claims of) rights. Hegel’s critique of liberalism is not against the principles of liberalism as such; rather it is directed against representations that hold fast to one-sided and abstract conceptions of freedom. According to him, Hegel has a much deeper insight into the absolute right of individuals to provision and welfare compared to the abstract liberal defense of individualism. Hegel’s individualism does not entail a defense of the inviolable right of a proprietor against political intervention; rather Hegel takes the standpoint of the plebeian, “who calls for political intervention in the economic sphere in order to guarantee his sustenance” (Losurdo, 2004, 81-82). The point is that Hegel is not only concerned with the assurance of the individual freedom in the abstract, but with each singular and concrete individual’s welfare. Against the arguments of market equilibrium, Hegel states: “It is said: in the universal the balance will always be established, this is right. However, it ought to be in the particular as well as in the universal; thus, the matter ought not to be done merely in the universal, rather individuals as particularity are an end and are vested” (VRP, III, 699). Here the balance seems to be reversed: liberals may be accused of (abstract) universalism while Hegel becomes the last foothold of (concrete) individualism, namely individualism as the actuality of welfare joined to freedom.

38The other point is that the police, Hegel argues, are confined to the realm of contingency, they are the “external” state, and the transition from the lower sphere of civil society to the higher sphere of the state cannot be brought about only by external coercion. There has to be, therefore, another institution that thwarts the destabilizing movements of civil society and raises universality out of the aggregate of contingencies. And this institution has to be an immanent principle of civil society, in contrast to the external force of the police. Hegel identifies this immanent principle in the corporation.

5.2 Corporations

39Hegel is skeptical about the capacity of the police to remedy the problems that the contingent nature of civil society brings about, precisely because the police also participates in the realm of contingencies. Hegel presents the corporations as a second instrument to remedy the pathologies of civil society. Corporations are guild-like associations of workers and producers, but as I will show below, Hegel is never very clear about what kind of institution he had in mind. By participating in corporations, Hegel believes that individuals can constitute a sense of universality and establish conscious ethical ties that overcome their atomization. Also, corporations seem to perform an important function in materially assisting their members and families. Moreover, in his systematic conception of ethical life, corporations also perform a fundamental role of mediating the mass of atomic individuals with the state.

40A close reading of Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of right shows that what is really at stake in Hegel’s defense of the corporations is his understanding of the limits and contradictions of economic liberalism (or Gewerbefreiheit). Priddat even claims that the “corporative economic constitution is the quintessence of Hegel’s critique of the ‘laisser faire’” (Priddat, 1990, 194). I hold this position against Brooks for whom “Hegel endorses laissez faire capitalism for his ideal state” (Brooks, 2015, 2). Hegel’s critique of liberalism is manifold and detailed, but here I limit myself to summarizing two essential lines of argumentation. First, Hegel rejects liberal claims that in general markets tend to a position of equilibrium and that individuals should be free to choose their professions outside of corporations. Hegel rebuts this by saying that those abstract principles are valid, but both fail to understand that in the end what matters is how they are actualized by singular and concrete individuals. Against the unilateral defense of free markets, Hegel places more importance on the acquisition of livelihood and recognition by each individual (VRP, III, 699, 712-712; VRP, IV, 624). The same kind of argument is formulated against the abstract defense of economic growth in spite of the livelihood and welfare of families (VRP, IV, 626), a case of conflict between antagonistic interpretations of the promise of market’s freedom (Honneth, 2017b, 421). The blossoming of industry and trade does not necessarily coincide with the improvement of living conditions and recognition, which is one of the ethical ends of civil society. Second, Hegel stresses the fact that self-interested liberalism reinforces and reifies self-interest disaggregating society and making subsistence and livelihood contingent and unequal (VRP, III, 713-714; VRP, IV, 619).

  • 4 In the last years, however, there has been an increasing interest on Hegel’s conception of corporat (...)

41Against these ominous consequences of economic liberalism, Hegel defends the institution of corporations. Even though Hegel ascribes to the corporation a crucial role in the constitution of an ethical life, nowhere is he clear about what kind of institution he has in mind (Herzog, 2015, 152). This obscurity has led many interpreters to skepticism towards this solution (Honneth, 2017a, 91).4 It is clear, nonetheless, that he conceives of corporations as the social organization proper to the second estate, namely the estate of trade and industry, and it is clear that they are an association of workers and producers of a specific branch of production, which share a particular skill (Geschicklichkeit) (DH, 206; VRP, III, 707).

42Although we have no clear image of the kind of institution Hegel had in mind, he offers a list of functions of such corporations. Corporations are communities that care for the subsistence of each of their members both by helping individuals to attain their subsistence through their professional activity and by helping them in exceptional cases of need. Hence, corporations assume an important role in remedying poverty, since “within the corporation, the help which poverty receives loses its contingent and unjustly humiliating character” and becomes a duty (PR, §253R; DH, 203). Corporations have an educational role, to form skilled laborers and to educate the children of its members (PR, §252; DH, 203). The last function is to provide recognition to individuals. As members of corporations, individuals are recognized as professionals of a certain trade and not mere isolated singulars. To belong to a corporation is to be committed to a “life bond” and to choose a profession is not merely to trade in a specific industry, but to “make something of oneself”. Furthermore, corporations breed a feeling of solidarity and trust among their members (DH, 203; Herzog, 2015).

6. Can Civil Society Attenuate Poverty?

43I have shown that Hegel’s doctrines of the police and the corporations are responses to the pernicious effects of the free development of civil society: the atomization of individuals and the persistence of poverty as a necessary outcome of the industrial development. Yet can these institutions eradicate poverty and pave the way to an ethical life in a rational state? In this section, I will explore a few of Hegel’s answers to this question.

44Hegel dedicates §245 to approach this question from the standpoint of the police. In this paragraph, which has England and the poor laws as backdrop, he introduces two ways of addressing the problem. On the one hand, poverty could be redressed by institutions, both public and private, financed by the wealthier class, such as hospitals, foundations, monasteries etc. that would assure the livelihood of the needy. Yet this solution is opposed to the principle of civil society, which asserts that each individual has the right to acquire her own welfare through her own activity. Consequently, the poor become lazy, producing the highest infamy (Unverschämtheit). On the other hand, it is possible to offer jobs and materials to the poor and to buy the products that they have produced. In that case they would have their subsistence mediated by their labor. Though this option seems to be the most adequate, its effects are even worse. Hegel begins with the assumption that unemployment, which here is the cause of poverty (DH, 197), is caused by the increase of productivity, especially with the employment of machines. If jobs are offered to the unemployed, other workers would consequently be pushed off the market and the market “equilibrium” would be reestablished in the same way, thus the evil (Übel) would persist (PR, §245). Therefore, the police cannot solve the problem of poverty without infringing its own principle or displacing the problem to another segment of the population.

45Hegel acknowledges that “it is very difficult to answer the question of how poverty has to be remedied” and ends up—surprisingly—claiming that the “best mean” is to leave the poor to their “destiny” and mendicancy (VRP, IV, 611). This claim, expressed with a taste of resignation, is completely strange in the context of his portentous construction of modern states, yet it reveals the theoretical stalemate yielded by this issue and the recognition of the incapacity of the police to address the problem of poverty. In that connection, Avineri states: “the only problem which remains open and unresolved according to Hegel’s own admission is the problem of poverty” (Avineri, 1974, 148).

46Waszek is not satisfied with Avineri’s and other Marxist oriented objections to Hegel in this regard and claims that Hegel indeed offered solutions to that problem: the first is exportation and colonization; while the second is the corporative system (Waszek, 1988, 224). In §246 Hegel introduces exportation as the first necessary sequel of the crisis of overproduction: “the inner dialectic of society drives it … to go beyond its own confines and look for consumers and hence the means it requires for subsistence, in other nations which lack those means of which it has a surplus or which generally lag behind it in creativity, etc.” (PR, §246). Hence Hegel determines exportation as a means to drain the excess of production. In a society of small producers, the mere increase of consumption, through exportations, would yield the provision of these producers (VRP, III, 704). Yet if one considers an industrial society with a high rate of mechanization, exportation is not directly a solution to the unemployed mass. This is an example of how Hegel vacillates in his comprehension of modern capitalist societies.

47In this sense, Hegel’s examination of exportation ends up not being directly concerned with the internal problem of poverty, rather it establishes the world-historical dimension and sets the ground for his analysis of colonization. In contrast to ancient colonies, modern colonies were subordinated to the metropolis, they had limited rights to commerce and their citizens didn’t enjoy the same rights as the citizens from the metropolis (PR, §248; VRP, III, 705; VRP, IV, 615). Even though Hegel fleetingly suggests that colonization is one possible solution to the problem of poverty, he is in no way able to demonstrate how it solves the problem. On the contrary, he acknowledges that modern systematic colonization implied the non-recognition of rights of other nations, so that colonization turns out to be a mere exportation of non-right (Unrecht). Moreover, even England, set aside the fact that it possessed the “whole world as market and as ground to colonization” (VRP, IV, 625), is the place where “poverty and rabblefulness (Pöbelhaftigkeit)” are present in the highest and most direful degree (VRP, IV, 611).

48One of the most important causes of poverty in England, believes Hegel, was the dissolution of corporations (VRP, III, 711). Therefore, corporations become Hegel’s last resort to argue for a rational civil society. It has been shown that an essential function of the corporations is the provision of subsistence of singular individuals. Consequently, they play a crucial role in the fight against poverty, since the help of the poor loses its charitable and humiliating character and becomes a duty (PR, §253). In this direction, he argues: “the two moments on which depends the welfare of civil society are, on the one side, the family … and, on the other, the honor of the corporation” (DH, 207). But as Ruda (2011, 24) correctly argues against Anderson (2001), corporations have a mechanism of exclusion and can only incorporate skilled members that are already part of a certain estate or profession. Corporations are powerless in face of the unskilled and marginalized poor. Corporations are thus thoroughly based on the ethics of labor, that is, on the belief that labor is the fundamental form of social mediation and social recognition in modern societies. Therefore, corporations cannot respond to those who lie outside of the society of labor.

7. Final Remarks

49Avineri’s judgments still stands. As does global poverty. If the illusion that poverty could be solved within the framework of global capitalism makes appearance from time to time, this illusion seems today to have once again been challenged. Besides, the inequality of the system has reached a point that one could have never imagined. If the “what and how much” of property is completely indifferent to its determination (PR, §49), the how much of inequality has a fundamental ethical significance.

50There is a general consensus in the scholarship that Hegel does not offer any conclusive answer to the question of poverty, besides pointing out to its troubling effects. Interpretations differ, however, in how to interpret this inconclusiveness within the overall structure of Hegel’s argument. Brooks attempts to organize the debate around the question of poverty in Hegel between those who regard it as an “economic” problem and those who consider it a problem of “political alienation”. I believe that this distinction is misleading for a few reasons. First, “economic” and “political” are not part of Hegel’s conceptual organization of the system of right and using both concepts brings more confusion than clarification. It is true that the questions of poverty and of the rabble are not “economic” if one understands by economic the mere allocation and distribution of goods. But this is not the image of the “economy” that one gets from Hegel’s appropriation of political economists. However, poverty is also not only a question of “political alienation”, it is rather the incapacity of actualizing a certain aspect of freedom that is proper to the domain of civil society. In that sense, it would be more precise to name it “social alienation”. But surely, an individual that is poor and hence socially alienated tends to have a limited and inconsistent participation in political life (Ruda, 2011, 13). In that sense, “social alienation” entails “political alienation”. Furthermore, my analysis of the right to life has shown that poverty also frustrates the moral demand for welfare and for subjective particularity. In that sense, the persistence of poverty manifests itself to subjects as the moral failure of a given society.

51From the standpoint of Hegel’s systematic concept of right, therefore, it is not a question of differentiating between the “economic” and the “political” aspects of poverty, but rather of showing how the condition of poverty, as a multi-dimensional phenomenon, frustrates different determinations of right. Poverty frustrates the right of subjectivity and the claim to welfare affirmed by modern morality (“moral alienation”); it frustrates the promise of being able to find one’s subsistence in a system of labor and exchange (“social alienation”); it frustrates the political participation in the state and the sense of citizenship (“political alienation”). The only determination of right that is completely indifferent to poverty is abstract right, for abstract right is merely negative.

52So how can one interpret the historical persistence of poverty and Hegel’s inconclusiveness in the face of this phenomenon, which transforms the actualization of right into its de-actualization (Entwirklichung) and Sittlichkeit into Unsittlichkeit (VRP, IV, 476)? Honneth (2017b, 326; 418) believes that all the contradictions of civil society would be solved if societies resorted to the immanent normative principles that legitimize them. Accordingly, poverty is be regarded as a deviation of the “normal” function of markets caused by the fact that the participating individuals have not yet fully recognized the implicit norms that govern the institutions in which they take part. In order to make this point, Honneth needs to establish the distinction between the normative reconstruction of the state and the possible sociological pathologies entailed by their actualization. Poverty is thus a sociological deviation of the norms of markets and individuals’ attachment to said immanent norms of markets would curb such pathologies. Against Honneth, I contend that the question of poverty cannot be reduced to the distinction between norms and sociological malfunction or, in other words, between norms and their anomalous actualization.

53As shown, poverty emerges in Hegel’s account of markets as a necessary and immanent outcome. Hegel sees, on the one hand, the ethical rationality of civil society, namely that the participation in markets is a fundamental moment of modern freedom according to the principles of self-activity and Smith’s socially advantageous self-interest; on the other hand, Hegel sees the brutalization of workers, mass pauperization, and the dissolution of the ethical foundation of society. Hegel is aware that markets are led by economic growth, that capitalists seek profit and capital accumulation, that profit seeking has a subjective effect, for capitalists tend to behave recklessly, and he is also aware that the dynamic of such a system, ruled by arbitrariness, generates the condition of poverty (VRP, 3, 619; VRP, 4, 494-495). Despite being aware of these two aspects, he cannot articulate them within a coherent theory of markets. In other words, although Hegel can see that pauperization is a necessary outcome of this system, he cannot fully make sense of it because he cannot map it onto the deep rationality of civil society. For that reason, the problem of poverty appears to him as an aporia that cannot be dialectically solved.

54This incapacity is partially explained by the fact that Hegel’s appropriation of political economy is highly selective. More precisely, Hegel neglects the importance of the classical theory of value, which is fundamental for grasping market’s dynamic. Hegel reduces value to the mere subjective stipulation of contracts and deprives it of its socially objective lawlike character (§64). For Hegel, even though political economy can discover quantitative ratios of different segments of the economy, “none of this yield either laws of measures (Gesetze von Maßen) or typical forms of it” (WL, 287). As Chamley notes, “it is difficult to be so close to the labor-value theory with more indifference” (Chamley, 1963, 27). Consequently, Hegel is unable to see that modern markets are subject to yet another norm of functioning, which I will tentatively call the “law of value”. In order to make this argument, it is necessary to articulate two different features of what is meant here by value, namely: first, that value is not a subjective aspect of contracts and trade, but rather a specific form of sociality that structures what Hegel would call “objective spirit” and, second, that this specific form of social ontology has its own law and norms.

55The first determination of value was first clearly formulated by Marx when, in his late works, notably after the second edition of Capital, he differentiated between exchange value and value. Marx’s important insight was to conceptually distinguish exchange value of an individual commodity as a form of appearance from the actual substance of value. Value as substance is constituted by social labor, as the collective labor force of society, that is, the collective activity of society. As Ege (2004) shows in an interesting comparison of Aristotle’s and Marx’s conceptions of value, Marx reframes the problem of value, of course building up on a tradition of political economists that preceded him, in terms of a productive activity. Value is a substance, but a substance that has already undergone Hegel’s transformation of substance into subject, i.e. substance conceived as the categorially mediated collective activity of a society: “Spirit, being the substance and the universal, self-identical, and abiding essence, is the unmoved solid ground and starting-point for the action of all” (PhG, 264). In a certain way, Marx’s concept of value takes place of Hegel’s notion of spirit as the fundamental mode of social mediation. By social mediation I mean that the activity of each member of civil society only becomes socially intelligible to the extent that it is apprehended under such category of value and, therefore, becomes something socially valid. Hence, the individual labor is socially intelligible because it is qua value part of the total activity of society. For Marx, in the values of the world of commodity it is presented the “total labor-force of society” (die gesamte Arbeitskraft der Gesellschaft) (Engels and Marx, 1962, 530). Surely, value ought not to be hypostasized as an abstract concept over and above society, but rather as social logic whose form of manifestation is the concrete commodity (Engels and Marx, 1987, 361). Here lies the core of his argument that in capitalist societies our collective existence appears as something strange and reified. This is crucial because what makes the labor of each socially intelligible is not honor or recognition, but rather the fact that it is a token of the law of value. That is, through the categories of commodity and value Marx translates Hegel’s conception of objective spirit into that of social labor (Adorno, 1993, 18) Hence, in capitalist societies, the realm of sociality corresponding to the objective spirit is structured by this specific mode of mediation named value.

56The second step of the argument is to show that this specific mode of mediation has its own lawlike logic, since it is conceptual through and through, as Adorno shows in his lecture on Marx’s theory of value (Backhaus 1997). The fundamental determination of this law is what Moishe Postone calls the “treadmill effect” (Postone, 1993, 288). Value is the historically specific mode of wealth production and mediation of modern societies whose fundamental determination is socially necessary time. The law of value is not law of markets, conceived simply as the sphere of exchange, but rather it is the historical dynamic of wealth production of modern society which subsumes and subordinates markets. This is what Marx’s intends to say when he emphasizes that it refers to the “total labor-force of society”. So, the law of value does not at all correspond to the naïve notion of market equilibrium and cannot be understood through supply-demand dynamic alone. Though supply and demand are subordinate moments of it, for the principle of equivalence is also essential to the application of this law. Markets that are operative under the constraints of such law are determined by the imperative of productivity growth which establishes a state of real competition (Shaikh, 2016, 290ff.) Real competitive markets are in a permanent state of warfare, in which economic agents permanently confront each other. Hence the survival of some is tied to the failure of others. Capitals must increase their productivity in order to profit and those who cannot produce according to the socially necessary time for production established by the law are ruled out of the market. Variations in productivity, prices of production and profit rates are followed by a turbulent mechanism of equilibration that provokes critical effects upon market agents. Thus, the law of value rules and conditions the movements of employment, population growth and wealth distribution behind the individual’s free self-activity. The lawlike character of value must be emphasized: it effectuates an imperative and coercive mechanism which eliminates agents (firms and individuals) who do not conform to it. Consequently, the economic, thus ethical, existence of these agents is dependent on their capacity to adequate to the current state of value determination. To this law, which affirms itself through the violent equilibration of prices and profit rates, the fulfillment of the economic activity of individual agents is utterly contingent. That is, it is necessary to the dynamic of capitalist markets, that firms bankrupt, and masses of individuals become unemployed.

57This deviation into Marx’s theory of value may seem inadequate or anachronistic, but it is essential to illuminate a blind spot of Hegel’s account of markets and poverty in modern societies. The central argument is that markets respond to two different sets of norms. As a moment of Sittlichkeit, markets are grounded on the ethical normativity of civil society that engenders the condition of possibility for their free functioning and rational intelligibility. As mediations of a historical mode of wealth production, markets are ruled by the law of value and thereby can only operate through the compulsive mechanisms of real competition. By bringing into view these two sets of principles, we can see how markets, hence civil society, are grounded on a fundamental contradiction. The law of functioning of markets makes the ethical principles, which it presupposes, completely contingent and often unactualizable. Each set of principles offers a different image of what should be the end of economic mediations, namely ethical fulfillment of self-activity or the valorization of value; and the actualization of one entails the suppression of the other. Hegel is unable to see this because, as Chamley stated above, he reduces value to a subjective determination of contract stipulation and hence misses its actual, essential and substantial dimensions, which the coming critique of idealism would grasp as a central determination of modern societies. The significance of the problem of poverty must be sought in this understanding of the duality of markets.

58Poverty, as a failure of civil society to actualize its conception of freedom, cannot be explained by the distinction between pure normative principles and poverty as a pathological deviation. As argued above, this approach can only lead to an aporetic understanding of civil society which dialectics cannot overcome. Such aporetic character comes clearly into view when one considers, for example, Hegel’s analysis of corporations. He considers the corporations a fundamental institution of civil society, precisely the one which builds individuals and raises to conscience the ethical content of civil society, preparing thereby the transition into the highest sphere of political citizenship. Nevertheless, Hegel witnesses the thorough dissolution of corporations in his lifetime. If corporations were a fundamental piece of civil society’s deep rationality, why corporations were outlawed in historical actuality? Hegel’s answer to this question seems to be epistemological: as a partial and one-sided view of society, hegemonic liberalism misrecognized the essential determination of corporations. A correct comprehension of the normative rationality of civil society would suffice to undue this misunderstanding. However, the corporations were outlawed because they were essentially antagonistic not only to the liberal doctrine but, more fundamentally, to the law of value itself. Corporations offer a completely different image of what economic mediations should mean.

59Modern markets are marked by a profound contradiction. They are grounded on certain ethical principles, but their actual functioning is compelled by a coercive mechanism which necessarily undermines the actualization of the ethical principles. Though Hegel acknowledges the ethical principles and their misfired actualization, he is not able to get into view this twofold normative structure of markets. Consequently, he is not able to well articulate the real meaning of the question of poverty. This leads him to an aporetic state that explicates the stalemate of his analysis of poverty. The fact that the irrationality of the law of value undermines the rationality of civil society reveals that modern states and its account of free markets suffer from a rationality deficit. Poverty emerges both as a deficiency in rationality and as an insurmountable limit to Hegel’s attempt to systematically defend the structure of modern ethical life. The stakes of such deficiency are high, since Hegel’s Philosophy of Right was probably the highest achievement of bourgeois thought in legitimizing modern society and was proclaimed to be, by Marx, the modern state raised into thought.

60This failure does not, however, speak against the value of Hegel’s work. On the contrary, it speaks for his cleverness in expressing the irrationality of modern societies, even if unintentionally. This fissure in Hegel’s architecture of right opens up for a space for other theoretical incursions and ethical alternatives. In that connection, it is essential to rethink the category of the rabble and its political significance, a task taken on by Ruda (2011). As he correctly points out, a fundamental determination of the concept of rabble is not only the loss of the habit of working but also of being active in general. It should be recalled that labor functions for Hegel as the paradigmatic case of activity and as the fundamental form of social mediation in modern societies. Klikauer (2013) may be right to claim that this undermines Ruda’s attempt of establishing a direct line of development between Hegel’s rabble and Marx’s proletariat, if one restricts the proletariat to the working class habituated to work; and this may pose a problem for those who can only see social emancipation as the work of worker, i.e. of the members of a labor society. However, the fact that the rabble is a subjective form that is not attached to labor makes it even more important nowadays when one glimpses—despite the recurrent claim that the society of labor remains unimpaired, reiterated for instance by Honneth (2017a, 79)—the prospect of labor ceasing to be the main form of social mediation.

I thank Richard J. Bernstein for supervising the first steps of this research. I also thank Jay M. Bernstein, Cinzia Arruzza, Anna Rahel Fischer and the colleagues from the Prospectus Seminar at the New School for Social Research for helpful suggestions along the way. Finally, I thank the anonymous reviewers for fruitful comments and criticisms that have guided me toward this final result. All errors remain mine.

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Hegel’s Works

DH: Hegel, G. W. F. 1983. Philosophie des Rechts: Die Vorlesung von 1819-20 in einer Nachschrift. Edited by Dieter Heinrich. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

HFS: Hegel, G. W. F. 1974. Frühe politische Systeme. Ullstein.

GW: Hegel, G. W. F. 2014. Werke in 20 Bänden mit Registerband. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

VRP (I-IV): Hegel, G. W. F. 1973-74. Vorlesungen über Rechtsphilosophie (1818-1831). Vier Bände. Edited by Karl-Heinz Ilting. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog.

WH: Hegel, G. W. F. 1983. Die Philosophie des Rechts. Die Mitschriften Wannenmann (Heidelberg 1817/18) und Homeyer (Berlin 1818/19). Edited and introduced by Karl-Heinz Ilting. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

English Translations of Hegel

PhG: Hegel, G. W. F. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Müller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

PR: Hegel, G. W. F. 2014. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SdS: Hegel, G. W. F. 1979. System of Ethical Life and First Philosophy of Spirit. Harris, H.S.; Knox, T.M. Albany: State University of New York Press.

WL: Hegel, G. W. F. 2010. The Science of Logic. Translated by George di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Adorno, Theodor W. 1993. Hegel: Three Studies. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Anderson, Joel. 2001. Hegel’s Implicit View on How to Solve the Problem of Poverty: The Responsible Consumer and the Return of the Ethical to Civil Society. In Williams, Robert (ed.), Beyond Liberalism and Communitarianism. Studies in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. New York: State University of New York Press, 185-206.

Avineri, Schlomo. 1974. Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. Cambridge University Press.

Avineri, Schlomo. 1973. Labor, Alienation, and Social Classes in Hegel’s Realphilosophie. In Joseph J. O’Malley. et al. (eds), The Legacy of Hegel: Proceedings of the Marquette Hegel Symposium. 1970. The Haghe: Martinus Nihoff.

Backhaus, Hans-Georg. 1997. Dialektik der Wertform: Untersuchungen zur Marxschen Ökonomiekritik. Freiburg: Ca Ira Verlag.

Brooks, Thom. 2015. Hegel and The Problem of Poverty. Kilikya Felsefe Dergisi, 1: 1-9.

Brooks, Thom. 2007. Hegel’s Political Philosophy. A Systematic Reading of the Philosophy of Right. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Buchwalter, Andrew (ed.). 2015. Hegel and Capitalism. Albany: SUNY Press.

Chamley, Paul. 1963. Économie Politique et Philosophie chez Steuart et Hegel. Paris: Librairie Dalloz.

Chamley, Paul. 1965a. La doctrine économique et la conception hégelienne du travail. Hegel Studien, 4: 147-160. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.

Chamley, Paul. 1965b. Les origines de la pensée économique de Hegel. Hegel Studien, 3: 225-261. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.

Ege, Ragip. 2004. Aristote et Marx: d’un concept de valeur à un autre. Economies et Sociétés, “Histoire de la pensée économique”, 35(8-9): 1409-1430.

Ellmers, Sven. 2015. Freiheit und Wirtschaft: Theorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft nach Hegel. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Ellmers, Sven and Steffen Herrmann. 2017. Korporation und Sittlichkeit: Zur Aktualität von Hegels Theorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Hegel Forum. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.

Engels, Friedrich and Karl Marx.1987. Werke. Band 19. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Engels, Friedrich and Karl Marx. 1962. Werke. Band 23. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Harada, Tetsushi. 1987. Politische Ökonomie des Idealismus und der Romantik: Korporatismus von Fichte, Müller und Hegel. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Herzog, Lisa. 2013. Inventing the Market: Smith, Hegel, and Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Herzog, Lisa. 2015. Two Ways of “Taming” the Market. In Andrew Buchwalter (ed.), Hegel and Capitalism. Albany: SUNY Press, 147-162.

Honneth, Axel. 2017a. Das Ich im Wir. Studien zur Anerkennungstheorie. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Honneth, Axel. 2017b. Das Recht der Freiheit. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Kant, Immanuel. 1977. Die Metaphysik der Sitten. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Klikauer, Thomas. 2013. Hegel on Profits, Poverty, and Politics. Radical Philosophy Review, 16(3): 789-799.

Klikauer, Thomas. 2016. Hegel’s Moral Corporation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2004. Hegel and the Freedom of the Moderns. Durham: Duke University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1988. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: Prometheus Books.

Plant, Robert. 1977. Hegel and Political Economy (Part I). New Left Review, I/103(May-June): 79-92.

Postone, Moishe. 1993. Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Priddat, Birger. 1990. Hegel als Ökonom. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Riedel, Manfred. 1975. Materialen zu Hegels Rechtsphilosophie: Band 2. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Ripstein, Arthur. 2009. Force and Freedom: Kant’s Legal and Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rosenkranz, Karl. 2004. Vie de Hegel. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Ruda, Frank. 2011. Hegel’s Rabble. New York: Continuum.

Shaikh, Anwar. 2016. Capitalism. Competition, Conflict, Crises. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Teichgraeber, Richard. 1977. Hegel on Property and Poverty. Journal of the History of Ideas, 38(1): 47-64.

Waszek, Norbert. 1988. The Scottish Enlightenment and Hegel’s Account of ‘Civil Society’. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Weinrib, Ernest. 2003. Poverty and Property in Kant’s System of Rights. Notre Dame Law Review, 78(3): 795-828.

Wood, Allen. 1990. Hegel’s Ethical Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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1 Since the 1960s a series of works on the role of political economy in Hegel’s account of civil society has been published. Among others, the following deserve mention: Chamley (1963; 1965a; 1965b), Avineri (1973; 1974), Riedel (1975), Plant (1977), Harada (1987), Waszek (1988), Priddat (1990) and, more recently, Ruda (2011), Herzog (2013), Buchwalter (2015). The scholarship has discussed in detail Hegel’s account of political economy and has shown the crucial influence of Scottish Enlightenment (Sir James Stuart, Francis Hutscheson, David Hume, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith) to his notion to civil society.

2 On the notion of Formierung in Hegel’s philosophy see PhG (§195), DH (156), VRP (III, 617), and VRP (IV, 499).

3 But on the opposite side of the spectrum there are those who, in spite of not working, have abundant wealth. These also fail to actualize the image of freedom of civil society, which is based on the idea of subsisting by one’s own active participation in the labor market. For that reason, Hegel also entertains the idea of a rich rabble that is disconnected from society and from any sense of righteousness and respect for the community: “The rabble is different from poverty. Usually it is poor, but there is also a rich rabble” (VRP, IV, 608).

4 In the last years, however, there has been an increasing interest on Hegel’s conception of corporations. See for example Klikauer (2015) and Ellmers and Herrmann (2017).

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Tomás Lima Pimenta, « The Abyss of Right: Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and the Question of Poverty »Œconomia, 10-4 | 2020, 729-757.

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Tomás Lima Pimenta

The New School for Social Research,

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