Hegel revisited: the relevance of Hegel’s philosophy in contemporary European politics

Dorte Jagetic Andersen

1. Introduction

To write about Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the idea of Europe is not an easy task. During the 20th century, Hegel’s philosophy went from being fairly central in a European context to becoming absolute periphery; some would even say it died. This development speaks to a historical reality after the Second World War where European intellectual culture found itself reduced to debris because of, on the one hand, its involvement in generating totalitarian political systems splitting Europe into devastating violent conflict and, on the other, the way it fed colonialism and racism culminating in ethnic genocide internally as well as externally to Europe. If the later part of the European 20th century is a response to these culminations with its human rights declarations and the establishment of supra-national organizations, then it was most certainly not the time of Hegel.

Or — more precisely, perhaps — the trouble with Hegel and Europe is his Eurocentrism. For Hegel Europe at his time was an expression of the ultimate development of thought, social organization and culture. Reading his lectures on the philosophy of history it is obvious how no other geographical location had the same significance for Hegel as did Europe (1892). As stated by Mate in his memory of the West:

In this sense we can speak of the end of history, if we specify that this end is not abstract and does not occur in a non-place. On the contrary, this is the consummation of Western political thought that occurs in Europe. The World Spirit realizes itself in Christian, Germanic Europe. Hegel leaves no room for doubt.

(Mate 2004: 98)

In Europe — and not in the Americas, nor in Asia — science, politics and art found their ultimate expression at the beginning of modernity (see also Hegel 1975).

The fact that European civilization at his time was an expression of the end of history and the ultimate realization of the absolute idea makes Hegel a thinker who exposes us to a strong, philosophically argued Eurocentrism. To underline this aspect to Hegel’s philosophy, one must just mention that there is a peculiar absence of Africa in Hegel’s philosophy of world history.

And by way of continuation, Mignolo points out that the importance for European developments of Spain and Portugal are underplayed in Hegel’s descriptions of world civilization:

The silence becomes even louder when Hegel mentions that the second portion is the “heart of Europe.” “In this center of Europe” — Hegel clearly stated — “France, Germany and England are the principal countries.” That is, these were the three countries in the process of becoming the new colonial powers, replacing Spain and Portugal. The third part of Europe (the northeastern states) presents a new scenario that connects Europe with Asia.

(Mignolo 2000: 165)

Not only was Hegel dismissing the contributions of most of the rest of the world to the developments of human civilization. He also promoted the Knlturwelt of Britain, France and Germany, as the new European powers able to carry the entire world into modernity proper.

Then there was silence. Unless, of course, we apologetically dismiss the obvious deficits of Hegel’s philosophy of history by saying that the mistakes are timely matters because “how could he have known any better?” to then turn discreetly to the dialectics, pointing out how Hegel’s critical and social philosophy contributed positively to critical continental European philosophy and sociology of the 19th and 20th centuries (cf. Brennan 2014).

However, the true significance of Hegel’s philosophy rests not solely in the rationality of his thought — its inherent logic — but rather in how he turned philosophy on its head, so to speak, and introduced philosophical logic to multiple realities (Rosza 2012). Its constant attempts at unifying normative ideals with reality — because, as Hegel says in the Philosophy of Right, “What is rational is real; And what is real is rational” (Hegel 1967: 25), provides the critical thrust to Hegel’s entire philosophy (Horkheimer 1972; Andersen 2008). More importantly perhaps, even though Hegel’s social philosophy praised the achievements of Europe — Germanic Europe in particular — it was never simply a triumphant story of the all-inclusive march of European civilization on its way to the end of history. Paying attention to what Hegel says about history and progress, he was obviously not afraid of confronting conflicts and contradictions or, as he would have put it, of “tarrying with the negative” (Hegel 1977: 19). Together with the unification of philosophy and our social-historical reality, it is his way of dealing with contradictions in and of this reality, which constitutes the true contribution of Hegel’s philosophy.

The claim made in this chapter is that Hegel’s philosophy offers valuable insights into what are the foundations of modern European society, including an identification of problems structurally inherent to modernity’s founding principles. For Hegel, these insights sprung from a heartfelt concern with how liberalism, individualism and rationalism promote an atomistic approach to human life with none or very little understanding of what constitutes social reality. Reading Hegel 200 years after his death thereby opens a way to criticize the liberalism promoted in European politics over recent decades and, by way of continuation, fundamentally reconsider the road chosen by a united Europe, which finds itself amid a crisis, thereby also suggesting possible solutions to the most troubling troubles of our times.

2. Who is the European subject?

For this argument to develop and before turning more explicitly to Hegel, it is essential to recognize some substantial problems inherent to the liberal ideology guiding the European Union (EU) in its policy making. From a Hegelian perspective, the most significant problem is a denial of contradictions, which keeps influencing the way problems are handled practically by the community (see, for instance, Andersen and Sandberg 2009; Lemberg-Pedersen 2012). This expresses itself today in, for instance, contradictory responses to how Europe should deal with the unprecedented number of refugees knocking on its doors. Here there is ongoing tension between the normative basis of the union, the protection of human rights, and the way the refugees are dealt with in practice, especially before and at the point of entry into the EU (Lemberg-Pedersen 2015). However, rather than understanding these problems as caused by a contemporary policy issue, we should understand how the contradictions have been with the community since its founding moments.

In its attempt to reinvent itself after the Second World War the founding fathers of the European Coal and Steel Community wanted to stay on safe ground by adhering to the abstract and a-historical universal rationality of a liberalism (economic as well as humanitarian) as a way for the continent to overcome its colonial past and thus the atrocities imposed over centuries on other parts of the world. Instead of consciously reflecting on the reasons why problems were caused, a Stunde Null was invented, attempting to erase any trace of historical events. The result has been that Europe after the Second World War is in denial of what Hegel calls its spirit and it consequently lacks what he calls self-consciousness, the mindfulness of spirit who does not reduce its mistakes to pure negativity but moves on by learning from self-contradictions (1977: Preface).

To understand this, we must pay closer attention to the liberal ideas, which found the community. As argued by several scholars (cf. Wallace and Wallace 1996: Introduction; Nicoll and Salmon 1994), visions for Europe are driven by the wish for economic development and thus an understanding of European integration guided by the logic of the market. However, if we want to understand the way Hegel can contribute to the visions for Europe, we should focus at how the liberalization of market forces in the context of the EU is supported by a specific understanding of the role of the subject in political processes. To quote Romano Prodi a previous president of the European Commission:

  • 1 believe the concept of European citizenship should stand at the heart of the European project. We are all citizens of a Union based on the principles of liberty, democracy, human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law: these principles are all enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. . . . Building a Europe-wide democracy does not mean building a superstate. It means building a society in which we assert our European-ness by exercising the rights and duties of European citizens. A society capable of finding new solutions to problems we all share and responding to the concerns that are common to our citizens.
  • (Prodi 2002)

As Prodi says, the intention with the EU project is not that of building a superstate in the context of which a European-wide representational democracy develops. Rather, the job of the EU acquis1 is to provide a juridical structure that unites the European citizens based on rights and duties, not as a formal framework but as formal procedures by way of which the European populations will be better able to understand the visions of the project, understand themselves as part of the project, and actively participate in the project. The acquis should, in other words, be understood as the foundation of both the single European market and a community of rights (Rechtsgemeinschaft). The latter includes a dynamic process by way of which the European populations can also become conscious of their identity as European citizens who are part of a Europe-wide community of rights.

Hence, the founding ideas of the European community rest, on the one hand, on an economic liberalism, which turned in the 1980s into neoliberalism — a development escalating in recent years due to a stubborn belief in the importance of global economic competition — and, on the other hand, on an idealist liberalism emphasizing the moral responsibility and human rights of the single individual. Here we must do with a practical reasoning having its roots in Kantian philosophy. Kant draws on the categorical imperative and duty as a guideline for the individual to take the morally right choice (1976, 2005). To make those decisions, one must not depend on one’s worldly needs and desires but purely on universally recognizable rights that apply to all. People should abide to the universal laws, and then it would also guarantee the freedom of everyone.

Introducing European citizenship with the Maastricht treaty (Paragraph 8 of The Treaty on European Union) may appear formalistic, especially when it is conceived as political initiative but it is an institution at the legal level of the fact that throughout the process of integration in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, the singular individual has become more and more important as driving force in the integration-project (Strath 2000: 401ft). The neoliberalism influencing visions for European economic integration in the 1980s thus received its counter-weight expression at the level of legal institutions with the introduction of the European citizenship.2

Hence, when the Maastricht treaty was introduced, the aim of the EU project was to unite every individual human being in Europe for more (and ultimately all) individuals to become the generators of their own welfare. The unity of the economic dimension with the political, social and cultural dimensions — an idea of unity which was instituted in the Maastricht treaty — was to be mediated by every European. This European community (of rights) is (to be) constituted based on the individual who is at the same time (to be) the creative force behind economic developments in Europe as well as the implementation of rights. The central role of the individual is of course emphasized by the attempt to strengthen the importance of the European citizenship in the following treaties. But the central role of the individual is also interrelated with the status of human rights, or fundamental rights as they are called in this context, as granted in the Lisbon treaty where The European Convention of Protection of Human Kights and Fundamental Freedom ratified by the Council of Europe is inscribed.

A Kantian framework of practical reason thus supports the more (neo)liberal values of the community as economic union. There is an almost non-reflected relation between rights and duties associated with European citizenship, so-called common values for all European peoples (dignity, equality, freedom, solidarity) and the centrality of the individual referred to as citizen and human being. Any institution (and institutionalization) in the European Union must correspond to and take account of the idea of a European citizen, who is the bearer of universal human values. The European citizens are thus the agents activating the normative foundation for the economic, political and cultural community, and the future social unity of Europeans, the European civil society, is to develop based on individuals who actively act out the founding values of the community.

3. Hegel’s project of reconciliation

For Hegel, as for many of his contemporaries, the problem of subjective freedom and the designation of the individual’s place within the social was the most important problem to solve (Franco 1999; Peddle 2000). This was a question of reconciling the fundamental conflict between the self-interest of man in the state of nature, homo economicus, and the practical rationality of the just homo politicus. Basing his reflections on the constitution of the modern state in the Philosophy of Right on a criticism of Kantian practical philosophy and Rousseau’s’ understanding of freedom, Hegel provides us with a vision of society where relations between and within family, civil society and the legal frame of the state are driving principles, not the single unit of the individual.

Per Hegel, Kant asserted the absolute primacy of the individual over the social and he thereby made the organization of our societies depend on the arbitrary will of the individual. In the Kantian view, socially mediated traditions and customs, as well as established institutions and laws, have no validity unless individuals have accepted them voluntarily and subjective freedom consists precisely in this voluntary acceptance of the law. One problem with the Kantian conception of legal subjectivity is the remaining dualism between individual autonomy and the authority, sovereignty and ultimately violence imposed on the individual by the political community, also when it appears in the form of a Rechtsstat (Peddle 2000). Hegel states in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy:

The opposite to Plato’s principle is the principle of the conscious free will of individuals which in later times was more especially by Rousseau raised to prominence: the necessity of the arbitrary choice of the individual, as individual, the outward expression of the individual.

(1892: 114—115)

The dualism is irresolvable unless social relations are thought of differently than in terms of voluntary or contractual participation and it generates a vast amount of contradictions located in the very structure of the political community.

Hegel believed that ethical life (Sittlichkeit), understood as the way societies are organized, must provide perfect conditions for the individual will to unfold. The will of the individual is not inherently designated to act in a socially just manner; it could act out good as well as evil and it would not in itself guarantee ethical life. Ethical life is thus the necessary condition for realizing freedom of will at the same time as it legitimizes the presence of the sovereignty of the state in modern life. This also infers that persons simply cannot remain what they were before, in the state of nature, after entering the political community. They must either restrict their freedom or go through an educational process where they transforms their nature; Hegel advocated for the latter (see also Honneth 1995).

This is nothing new. As Paul Franco states:

The trend has been to see Hegel as a thinker who, without abandoning many of the principles associated with liberalism, provides a penetrating critique of some of its key assumptions deriving from the Enlightenment — for example, its atomistic conception of the self, its negative conception of liberty, its rationalistic and ahistorical conception of society, and its impoverished conception of community and the social good.

(1999: ix)

To transform our conception of community and the social good, we must go through a learning process. Part of this learning process must do with the history of thought that has taught us selfconsciousness. Yet another part must do with the learning process implicit in the organization of our modern societies and how they secure subjective freedom. Sittlichkeit is the ideal of modern social organization that can educate the individual into a good citizen and it finds expression in the triad of the family, civil society and state (Hegel 1967).

According to Hegel, the immediacy of ethical life is the family grounding the subject’s moral development and thus needed as educational instance in the life of a human being. To most contemporary ears, Hegel’s proposition might sound conservative, but the point here is that the family teaches the subject how his or her identity is constituted in relation to others. Instead of understanding the human being as an atom floating freely in the world, Hegel understands — and rightly so — individuality as constituted in social relations. Being part of a family teaches us that our identity is mediated by relations to others: you are a child because of your relation to your parents; you are a husband because of your relation to your wife; you are a sister because of your relation to your brother, sibling to sibling; and so on and so forth. The subject learns about himself or herself being an individual by relating to others because each member of the family is an individual not in and for themselves but as part of a large whole consisting of relations between individuals.

Being an individual is thus a mediation of self and other implicitly accomplished in the feeling of love which family members have for each other. It is, however, a very immediate relation, basing a limited form of ethical life. For the individual to develop its full potential, they must leave the family and enter a social sphere where human relations are less immediate than those of love and more reflected. One could argue that the very purpose of the family is to make the child equipped to let the family go and attain an independent existence. In this sense, the immediate union of the subjective and the community ends when the child leaves the family but — as is usual in Hegel’s philosophy — the experience (Erfarung) is still with the individual as a very basic experience of the importance of social relations for who we are as individuals.

Per Hegel, all further development of individuality takes place in civil society, a sphere which he calls ethical life in “its stage of division” (1967: §184), indicating that this is a sphere of con-flictual relations. In civil society, the individual’s interests are at the centre, or as Hegel phrases it, the individual subordinates the universal good to his own private interests (1967: §184). However, unlike Kant and Rousseau, Hegel argues that this happens within a social organization, not just in a state of nature. In civil society, individuals are independent persons related to each other through organized self-interest, with the estates at one end of the spectrum and law at the other end. Through his or her acts, the subject can realize his or her freedom in the context of civil society as they are embodiments of freedom, mediated by social relations and ultimately, according to Hegel, by law.

Individual personality is thus never expressed in isolation in Hegel’s optic; as human beings, our interests express in communality. Being part of civil society, the subject realizes not only that they have interests, but many others have similar interests and we are stronger if we cooperate and express our interest in an organized way. Even when they fight for their personal interests, in civil society individuals are thus united by the ethical education they received in the family, by the experience of cooperation and by common customs (1967: §181).

In civil society, the subject passes through an education starting from his own self-interest and moving towards universal ethical life, where the wills of everybody in the society are taken into consideration, a process whereby the individual is socialized and his or her talents, personality and habits take on a social character (for a more contemporary version of this argument, see Honneth 1995). As part of this argument, Hegel assumes that there is a set of specific institutions which have legitimacy for the development of free will? In its most general sense, institutions are legitimate in so far as economic and moral freedom presupposes them — like the institution of property rights, or freedom of speech. It is a civic sphere where individuals seek to satisfy each other’s needs through work, production and exchange; there is division of labour and social classes; and it has law courts, corporate bodies and public regulatory bodies; and the police secure property, livelihood and other rights. When Hegel uses the term civil society, it is, in other words, a description of a specific state construct and its institutions.

When you look at how individuality — ultimately the free will — develops in Hegel’s philosophy, the road is twofold. On the one hand, the actions and interactions of self-interested individuals, as well as the social relations and interests of groups of individuals, caused structuring of societal relations to occur. Here history and progress are the driving forces. On the other hand, the institutions which have developed over time also serve to discipline individuals and their interests so that the individual enacts rather than contradict the interests of the community. The institutions Hegel emphasizes are thus timely in that they teach the individual to be a social being and thereby objectify social relations.

However, in civil society, the optimal social organization is not quite there — as Hegel puts it, this system of interdependence “may be prima facie regarded as the external state, the state based on need, the state as the Understanding envisages it” (1967: §183), but only prima facie. The state understood as a sovereign political unit, which is also an ethical and cultural community implies more than the protection of the needs, civil rights and social welfare of individuals. As Hegel puts it:

The state is the actuality' of concrete freedom . . . but concrete freedom consists in this, that personal individuality and its particular interests not only achieve their complete development and gain explicit recognition for their right (as they do in the sphere of the family and civil society) but, for one thing, they' also pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal, — hence the individual finds himself in the universal will of the state and, for another thing, they know and will the universal; they even recognize it as their own substantive mind; they take it as their end and aim and are active in its pursuit — and the individuals are conscious of this being the case, that this is the only way they can possibly realize their individual freedom.

(1967: §260)

What is needed for the free will to develop fully is thus a public forum in which matters concerning the community are debated and decided upon, and the decisions carried out by a government. The state is in Hegel’s optics a sovereign political unity secured by law; a Rechtstatl The monopoly on violence is central here: The state legitimizes police and military force making sure the actors in civil society are secure. However, the state is not able to use its force randomly. Rather, it must legitimize its actions by securing the welfare of the populations. In this political arena, the needs of civil society' are appraised and evaluated, and the unity of private interests and community values are realized in a conscious and organized manner by securing them in legal principles — you need a legal system both internally and externally to secure the state; constitutional law and international law are central in Hegel’s philosophy.

4. Enter absolute sovereignty

One aspect to Hegel’s philosophy' where we have much to learn rests in his understanding of individual freedom and his ability to reconcile the individual with the social — here Hegel provides viable alternatives to an atomistic liberalism neglecting the ongoing educative force of social relations and giving the individual a far too central role to play. Hegel shows how the unfolding of the principles of modernity, including the concept of individuality', is a both historical and educational process uniting the individual and society. What is important to notice is how this is not a straightforward socialization process ending with a fully' integrated individual willing but a road of negativity where the subject struggles to attain self-consciousness, a self-awareness which can only be attained by confronting contradictions and conflicts to thereby overcome them. As the famous passage in the Phenomenology of Spirit reads:

Lacking strength beauty hates the understanding for asking of her what it cannot do but the life of spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. . . . It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being.

(1977: Preface)

Many of the problems the European community is faced with today owe to the fact that the community shies away from a confrontation with contradictions inherent to liberalism, thus inheriting an inability to deal with the systemic malfunctions in the ideals of the modern liberal democratic state. Moreover, after the fall of the communist east, Europe became influenced by a belief in liberal democracy as a final achievement. However, even if we consider the modern state realized in its full capacity, Hegel teaches us that it only involves a realization of the experiences needed to achieve a fully functional society where the individual has potential to realize. The experiences still need to be put into action and practiced, which is not a completely straightforward enterprise, but practice full of paradoxes and pitfalls.

The greatest paradox of them all is that it takes the presence of state sovereignty to realize the free will of the individual. To avoid confronting this paradox, liberal thought tends to shy away from discussions of the political community as a sovereign entity over and above the single individual, including a denial of the importance in Europe of the nation-state. In later years, the European community has avoided this discussion by continuously emphasizing how decisions are taken out of economic necessity, a necessity which secures the welfare of the single individual and works for its universal good. Not even the obvious contradictions between the ideals ofjust society build on moral responsibility and the economic rationality of the self-interested homo economicus are debated. In a Hegelian optics, this is a consequence of liberal discourses inability to recognize the importance of sovereignty for social organization (see also Zizek 1993, 1994).

One problem remains in Hegel’s philosophy, however: along with reconciliation in the Hegelian sense of the term comes a state construct, which is totalitarian in that it frees itself from contradiction and internal conflict (Adorno 1975, 1994). Especially in the Philosophy of Right, which is Hegel’s most prominent contribution to social philosophy, it appears as if the dialectics comes a halt and its driving force turns into a positive account of social organization, as it ought to be. But what exactly is it that is problematic about Hegel’s account of absolute sovereignty? Is it the fact that it is the state and not the individual who is sovereign?

Let us turn to Jürgen Habermas to clarify Looking at the development of Hegel’s philosophy, Habermas identifies an absolute principle of subjective reflexivity; that is, a subject-centred form of rationality he understands as the grounding principle of Hegel’s philosophy (1987). This notion of subjective reflexivity could be called the “actual positivity” of Hegel’s understanding of a moment of “absolute negativity” always present in philosophical discourse but supposedly impossible for this discourse to determine. It is a form of rationality, which has as its fundamental task to realize subjectivity as absolute reason (1987, 1989). According to Habermas, it is because of this directive principle of thought that modern philosophy was never really a social philosophy but rather remained an idealist and speculative enterprise (1987a).

It is consequently in an understanding of the “actual positivity” of this form of “absolute negativity” that reasons should be sought for why Hegel’s philosophy missed the turn to a truly modern and social rationality. To clarify matters very briefly, the same mythic elements involved in what used to be the traditional task of philosophy still contaminate Hegel’s thought. What modern metaphysics seeks in its conception of subjective reflexivity, and thus of freedom, is not a modern and truly social form of emancipation but an understanding of the freedom of the subject, which would only be achievable in a mythic return to an absolute unification of the social with nature. There is, in other words, an Aristotelian ethics underlying this understanding of freedom.4

5. Rescuing the political

Habermas meticulously identifies the sore spot in Hegel’s entire philosophy, namely the way Hegel conceives of subjective reflexivity. To my understanding, however, he is not patient enough with his criticism when he suggests a completely other way of thinking as the way to overcome Hegel’s problems (1987b).’ Most critical thinkers, Adorno being the most prominent among them, therefore understand it as necessary to tarry also with the negativity of Hegel’s sovereign state to move beyond it. It is in other words necessary to confront the limitations to the principle of law in its Hegelian version to find a way to move forward (or beyond).

In relation to Hegel’s political philosophy, the problem entailed in the principle of subjective reflexivity' is that there is nothing above and outside the sovereignty of the state. Ultimately, this reasoning denies an act of inclusion or exclusion, which is decisive in law-making processes, an act which will haunt any legal constitution. The Rechtstat in Hegel’s understanding of the term, in other words, also produces two subjectivities, the legal subject and the subject of law. This is exactly why the single individual is never confronted with the choice of either giving or not giving the law to himself or herself; the choice has already been made by the legal constitution itself. If we follow the arguments of the contemporary thinker Giorgio Agamben, rather than an absolute principle of sovereignty, the driving force of these socialization processes is the dialectical oscillation between included and excluded located at the systemic level where norm meets politics (cf. Agamben 1998). Whether the subject is included into or excluded from the law relies ultimately on a political decision located at a systemic level.

Looking closer at these dynamics, they also entail that the only real expression of choice — and thus, freedom of will — is the one taken by the subject who decides consciously not to give the law to himself or herself. By taking a conscious decision not to subjectify to the law, he acts against the law and thus on his own behalf. He or she is thereby a reminder of the political moment constitutive of legal authority, or, in a more Hegelian frame of mind, a reminder that the principle of sovereignty is not absolute (Laclau and Moufle 1985; Laclau 1994). In this sense, the subject who consciously defies the law — including Hegel’s notion of absolute sovereignty — is the political subject par excellence.

Because liberal thought denies the status of the subject of law, ultimately all liberal thought, Hegel’s included, ends up with a conception of the individual as a-political located firmly in the realm of normativity where authority does not mean anything. The subject simply acts out the rationality of the social order by his or her repetition of the structures of the order and the acts are neutral, not political. The ultimate expression of the social order is, tautologically the repeated constitution of law and legality — or, in the case of neoliberalism, the law of the market.

Reflecting on the European project, the process of self-legislation aimed at in the treaty is a process of self-determination setting the subject free from political decisions by constantly acting out the legal order. It is a process of de-politicization that appears to free the law from the political moment of its constitution; the subject does not take any real decisions with a life and death importance for himself or herself and for other human beings. Decisions are moments in a structure, and they are understood as were they carried out for purely instrumental reasons.

Understood as political system, not as ideology, liberalism has traditionally emphasized its ability to include any valid criticism as if it were an integral moment produced by the system itself. However, to maintain this as a driving force, space must be left for a proper understanding of the system. To build a liberal system, which is in denial of the question of authority and attempts to legitimize its political decisions based on graduated sovereignty, creates no ground for understanding. In other words, if legal and political decisions appear as were they the individual subjects own choice and as there were no authority determining the range of choices available to the subject, he or she will never understand the nature of the authority that limits his or her possibilities. It leaves the subject without any clear idea of the nature of authority, and it leaves him or her without any clear idea of how it is possible to respond to the authority as an authority. When the subject confronts limitations to his or her actions, the authority instituting the limitations is either non-existent, enter the process of reiteration in which sovereignty is represented as graduated or multi-levelled (see Hooghe 1996); or the limitations are justified on their other side the fundamentally unjust, enter terror as excuse for limiting our civil rights.

Moreover, the subjects of law who do not immediately recognize themselves and their dreams and wishes in the legislating authority constantly beg the question if they are human beings with a right to life. As Agamben recognized, an illustrative example of the problematic of the political subject is the refugee and his or her location in the system of nation-states. It is a subjectivity who locates somewhere in-between the legal subject (the citizen) and the subject of law:

If refugees (whose number has continued to grow in our century, to the point of including a significant part of humanity today) represent such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state, this is above all because by breaking the continuity between man and citizen, nativity and nationality, they put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis. Bringing to light the difference between birth and nation, the refugee causes the secret presupposition of the political domain — bare life — to appear for an instant within that domain. In this sense, the refugee is truly “the man of rights,” as Arendt suggests, the first and only real appearance of rights outside the fiction of the citizen that always covers them over. Yet this is precisely what makes the figure of the refugee so hard to define politically.

(Agamben 1998: 131)

As Agamben illustrates in the vocabulary of the modern nation-state, the refugee is not just produced by and excluded from the legal constitutional order. He is at the same time a subject who, by way of escape, transcends the universality of the legal order, and thus illuminates for an instant that the order is not neutral in its implementation. The figure of the refugee thus illustrates how the sovereignty of law is never universally constituted but always involves a decisive act in its implementation. Or more precisely, the refugee is one of the most powerful examples we have of how the distinction between included and excluded always involves a wilful decision. To institute law is not simply a question of systemic accordance with universal principles of rationality, not even in the sense of a Hegelian dialectics driven by necessity. Rather, instituting legal authority is always a decision expressive of contingent human acts of willing.

The post-Second World War liberal European tradition abstracts completely away from the nature of the political (and arbitrary) moment involved in law-making. In Europe, the consequence has to a large degree been that politics has been instrumentalized. An example of instrumentalization is the many terms introduced to describe subjects of law. The criminal, the terrorist, immigrants — these are only some of the terms used for the subjectivities produced by law. They are terms repeated to us so often that it naturalizes the legal and political processes whereby the subjectivities are produced. One of the popular terms used for immigrants that have not been granted asylum in the European countries, “illegal aliens” only illustrates how naturalized this production has become. We have reached a point where we refrain from asking the question: how can a human being be “illegal” or “alien”?

6. Conclusions

Even the most anticolonial of anticolonial thinkers cannot deny that Hegel’s social philosophy systematically accounts for important moments in the foundations of European social organization. If we think it remains relevant to problematize such foundations, there might in other words be sufficient reason to turn to Hegel to understand Europe. This is not despite but because we do not accept that the Western model of civilization, taking as its point of departure ancient Greece, is the expression of spirits self-disclosure and that the modern state represents an inherently rational social organization and politics.6

Instead of dismissing Hegel’s thoughts on Europe because of his Eurocentrism, it is therefore worth reading them as insights into what constitutes a European self-consciousness, also today. Hegel’s project was, as Hardimon (1994) argues, to bring the individual back into its home in society, to reconcile the individual with society from which it had already at his time been alienated; Versohnung (reconciliation) as against Entfremdung (estrangement). Considering the 200 years following Hegel, the call for reconciliation may be even more current than it was at the time of the Philosophy of Right and the decades that followed. Hence, reading Hegel today asks of us to think of social organization as located beyond the individualism and atomism that characterizes Western societies, and even when his vision of the just society is somewhat outdated, he provides tools to place the individual’s freedom in the context of the social, not by overcoming private interest and conflicts between them but by overcoming the greed and selfishness undermining social relations, also that of the family.

Understood in positive terms, Hegel thus tells us how the modern state is structured and how and why it became what it is. In negative terms, he offers an insight into why the liberal values influencing most European politics today remain abstract despite of their apparent realization in functioning institutions. Moreover, he illustrates why these institutions cannot provide answers to some of the structural problems faced in Europe today. Asking what contemporary Europe can learn from Hegel, the answer is thus to think about the social in relational terms, ontologically speaking, and to understand that conflicts and the confrontation with them is the source of change and maybe even of human progress. And because Hegel’s dialectics teach us that crisis and negativity can be productive it might, paradoxically, be through rather than against his Eurocentrism that we will reach a meaningful and relevant way of relating to what is not Europe, a way that allows for productive intersections of multiple cultures and societies (cf. Andersen 2016).

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel accounts for the kind of state that can offer solutions to some of the problems we face in Europe today. However, Hegel’s state remains totalitarian — and, for many, undesirable — because of historical experiences following Hegel’s time. It is a warning that for Europe to change its course and for us to create a socially viable economic, legal and political framework, the current visions guiding the European project must not turn towards conservative Hegelianism with its realist politics based on aggression towards and fear of the other. To rescue the political in European politics, we must learn from critics of Hegel’s philosophy and its understanding of law-making processes and find an opening to consider the actual possibilities opened by the experiences of the many subjects of law produced every day due to legal impositions and global power games. We, in other words, must remain true, if not to Hegel, then to his dialectics, moving on by thinking anew about political participation attempting to capture and revitalize the potential of the political subject.


  • 1 This is EU jargon for the current Treaty Constituting the European Union but also implicitly referring to the previous treaties which have been mended into the current one.
  • 2 Jean-Claude Juncker, the previous president of the European Commission, promoted the economic union and the union of rights and duties as to separate ways for the EU to develop in the future. This, however, fundamentally overlooks how the neoliberalism of the economic union depends on the justification of its actions in the political liberalism of the union of rights and duties.
  • 3 Hegel’s identification of specific institutions in this context is also why much further discussion arose in relation to Hegel’s political philosophy. Many political theorists have criticized his conception of modern state institutions for being bourgeois, Karl Marx of course being the most prominent to raise this critique (see Marx 1977).
  • 4 See also Michael Theunissen ’s interpretation of the ethical dimension to Hegel’s philosophy, especially his conception of intersubjectivity in Sein und Schein (1980). Jay Bernstein’s appeal to universal ethics in Recovering Ethical Life (1995) also has the resonance of such ethics.
  • 5 Habermas develops this form of thought fully in his Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987b).
  • 6 This argument is inspired by a Marxist appropriation of Hegel’s philosophy, which recognizes its contributions but also attempts to “stand Hegel on his head” (thereto also Brennan 2014).


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Further readings

Habermas, |. (2009). Europe — the Faltering Project. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Herzog, L. (2013). Hegel’s Thought in Europe — Currents, Crosscurrrents and Undercurrents. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mouffe, C. (1993). The Return of the Political. London and New York: Verso.

Zizek, S. and Horvat, S. (2013). What does Europe Want — the Union and its Discontents. New York: Columbia University Press.


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