Monday, July 09, 2007

A Night in Which All Cows are Totalitarian

Daniel Larison does the Lord's work by pointing out that Karl Popper's case that Hegel was the father of modern totalitarianism (soon to be revisited by laptop-CN-Tower-bombadier Jonah Goldberg) is not based on Hegel's own actual political views.

One always hesitates to get involved in a fight about interpreting history's most obscure Prussian. But by Hegel's standards, the Philosophy of Right is relatively clear on where he stands politically. Hegel endorses private property, freedom of contract, the autonomy of family life and civil society. Hegel isn't a democrat -- the state should mix democratic, aristocratic and monarchical elements, but he does favour a broadly responsible government. He believes that a politically-involved life is "higher" than existence solely in civil society. In the Phenomenology, he has a penetrating analysis of the French Revolution and how it led to the Terror, while at the same time seeing the way that it led to a conception of universal human rights as a positive development in the self-understanding of Spirit. In other words, there is nothing in Hegel's political views that should offend a fan of Edmund Burke.

It turns out that the objections to Hegel amount to pointing out that he was not a thorough-going 19th century classical liberal (what we would now call a libertarian). To some people, the possibility that the state might exist for more than the preservation of property and freedom of contract amounts to totalitarianism. These are not subtle souls. I suppose the nicest thing you can say is that it is better that doctrinaire personalities gravitate to libertarianism than to Marxism or white nationalism.

Which is not to say that Hegel is without danger. Take Paragraph 345 of Philosophy of Right:

Justice and virtue, wrongdoing, power and vice, talents and their achievements, passions strong and weak, guilt and innocence, grandeur in individual and national life, autonomy, fortune and misfortune of states and individuals, all these have their specific significance and worth in the field of known actuality; therein they are judged and therein they have their partial, though only partial justification. World-history, however, is above the point of view from which these things matter. Each of its stages is the presence of a necessary moment in the Idea of the world mind, and that moment attains its absolute right in that stage. The nation whose life embodies this moment secures its good fortune and fame, and its deeds are brought to fruition.

There is something undeniable here. We don't, in the end, judge the Norman Conquest on whether William's claim to the throne was a legitimate one under Anglo-Saxon law, or a moral one from the point-of-view of the deaths it foreseeably caused. Even less does it makes sense to ask whether modernity and the consequent domination of the West was a good thing. We who ask the question are too much a product of the event to stand outside it. Even the denunciation of Western actions since the fifteenth century as imperialist necessarily presupposes norms and principles that this Western domination made conceivable. In this sense, when we engage in "world history", we necessarily suspend the ordinary ethical way of looking at things.

However, it is critical whether this ethical suspension is retrospective or prospective. If I think my nation embodies a necessary moment in the Idea of the world mind, do I get to ignore justice and virtue? In Hegel's own case, the Owl of Minerva flew only at dusk -- there were to be no more necessary moments, so there was no one to suspend the rules. The days of the heros who founded states were over.

But I think it's fair to point out that the important readers of Hegel -- none more important than Lenin -- read him prospectively. That's the trouble with the Hegelian neoconservatives. They have decided that America embodies the historical moment, and therefore must be kept above any order of right/law or morality. But what they ignore -- like the Leninists before them -- is that they can't know whether this is true yet.

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