Hegel – Freedom, stability, and social change
Wikipedia – “Simple systems that clearly separate the inputs from the outputs are not prone to systemic risk. This risk is more likely as the complexity of the system increases, because it becomes more difficult to see or analyse all the possible combinations of variables in the system even under careful stress testing conditions. The more efficient a complex system is, the more likely it is to be prone to systemic risks, because it takes only a small amount of deviation to disrupt the system. Therefore, well-designed complex systems generally have built-in features to avoid this condition …These factors amount to an inefficiency, but they are necessary to avoid instabilities.”
Liberal, capitalist, western, market based civilisation for the last fifty years shows a remarkable stability.
It has somehow learned the art of continually making changes in order to leave everything the same. Is this because in civilisation we have reached ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ in the sense that Francis Fukuyama meant in his much read, much argued over book? Must we accept the pessimistic proposition that liberal, capitalist, western, market based civilisation is the worst form of society, except for all the others? It would be regrettable if this were true, since there are many, many social, political, and economic problems waiting a solution. Social stability has many virtues it is true. But being unable to change for the better is not one of them.
Adopting a Hegelian-Aristotelian perspective; viewing society as a quasi-organism and social concepts as quasi-autonomous ideas we might hazard that the ‘dialectic of history’ can get stuck instead of continuing to unfold its internal logic. We might also suppose that the organic development of the ‘dialectic of history’ can get prematurely arrested leaving a civilization or a society in a permanent state of adolescence. It is unlikely that liberal, capitalist, western, market based civilisation is superior to any other that could evolve. It is rather more plausible that certain stabilising mechanisms have been incorporated into the system that make it unable to change on any large scale, so it is inhibited from moving to any further stage of development.
Stability through distraction
Any genuine movement for social change is often co-opted by big business, so allowing people to feel the excitement of social change without ever entertaining the prospect of getting involved in it. Would-be eco-warriors become content to have a notice printed on their emails asking for assurances that the recipient will think seriously before printing it. Foods can be bought that allow the purchaser to help people in the ‘rainforest’. Astute advertising can accomplish much. Just as an example, in the seventies, Watneys brewery decided to change the name of their Red Barrel beer to just Watneys Red. Advertising was based on the Russian Revolution. A billboard advertisement from London in the summer of 1971 showed Khrushchev, Mao and Castro all enjoying a pint of Watneys Red. More recent technology from the likes of Facebook and Netflix provides constant availability of entertainments and communication to soak up any spare moments.
The link between jobs and material production becomes more and more tenuous. As real production is off-shored and automated, the search for productivity becomes focussed on driving efficiency gains from those ‘real jobs’ still in existence. Those still in ‘real jobs’ are submerged in a host of additional customer service and devolved administration tasks while those in the ‘weightless’ part of the economy are occupied with a 24 hours by 7 days round of emails, corporate Facebook, project plans, and meetings which leave little energy or time for worrying about social issues.
The financial crisis of 2008 led to widespread unease that economics curricula in universities were not teaching the subject in a sufficiently broad based way. The Financial Times reported in an opinion piece in 2014 the view that ‘…over the past three decades, undergraduate courses have been increasingly dominated by the quantitative methods of the neoclassical school. Almost six years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the standard university course has barely changed’.
The media is often unfairly criticised for its influence over popular opinion but it is hard to deny that it is effective. The ability to choose the story and how it is told is profoundly important – few people would maintain that editors opinions will be entirely divorced from those of the editor’s employers or the media owners. Shows like ‘Have I Got News for You’ send us off to bed with the comfortable feeling that with a bit of cynical disparagement and a few laughs everything is, after all, pretty much well in hand.
Stability through policing
If any movement for social change is unwise enough to arm itself in response to perceived threats and injustices it is sometimes eliminated with ‘extreme prejudice’. The FBI raid on the Black Power apartment in Chicago and the death of their organizer Fred Hampton in 1969 is an extreme case. The story of the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and Sovereign Citizen movements and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 provides a more recent example.
When the unlikely proposition that psychedelic drugs might be implicated in radical social and political change was entertained in the sixties, laws and prison sentences soon followed. Throughout the sixties and the seventies for example Timothy Leary was either on the run or in prison or fighting criminal
charges for drug possession.
More recent ‘whistle-blower’ cases involving allegations of tax evasion and security service abuses where proponents and initiators of social change have attracted legal and police attention include those of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. Julian Assange is still in the Ecuadorian embassy building in London, Chelsea Manning has recently been released from a long prison sentence and Edward Snowden is in precarious exile in Russia.
Perhaps few people would argue that any of these movements were an especially good idea, but the imposition of such an extreme police response can only have a chilling effect on more judicious movements for social change. After all, none of these movements became causes célèbres as a result of nobody finding them significant or relevant.
Stability through institutions
Everyone will be familiar with most of the institutions of liberal, capitalist, western, market based civilisation. A partial list could include state education, the rule of law, public consultations, voting, trial by jury, freedom of speech, equality of opportunity, reform, the family, money debt and banking, the civil service, parliamentary democracy. It is remarkable how seldom these come up for serious public debate or for a genuine search for improvement in their operation outside old-fashioned student debating societies.
Public consultations are an example. Even in 19th century the possibility of sometimes cynical abuse of these institutions to promote stability was understood. Hegel in ‘Outlines of the Philosophy of Right’ describes how “…everyone wishes to have some share in discussion and deliberation. Once he has had his say and so his share of responsibility, his subjectivity has been satisfied and he puts up with a lot. In France freedom of speech has always seemed far less dangerous than silence, because with the later the fear is that people bottle up their objections to a thing, whereas argument gives them an outlet and a measure of satisfaction…”
The rule of law is an important and valuable principle but there is no guarantee that its individual provisions will be fair or just. Legal rules about debt and property are essential for upholding social stability but, for example, the current law of tenure adds a permanent overhead of insecurity and instability to renters lives leaving little energy or time for worrying about social engagement.
Freedom of employment was an important step away from the feudal social system of Europe and the abolition of slavery an important step away away from the social systems of the ancient world. But freedom of employment by no means guarantees the freedom to survive financially in the midst of plenty. The owl of Minerva takes flight A reading of Hegel’ s ‘Outlines of the Philosophy of Right’ clarifies that we have attained to a certain concept of Freedom as conceived of by 19 th and 18 th century political thinkers. But we have not moved past the 19th and 18th century understanding of that concept.
Hegel conceived that every social idea contains it opposite and that this hidden opposite must be understood, developed and grown to reach a new understanding. This dialectical style was satirised in and will be familiar to anyone who has read George Orwell’s ‘1984’. In fact it derives originally from Hegel’s unique interpretation of Plato’s ‘Parmenides’ dialogue. In Hegelian dialectical terms each of these big ideas and institutions of society must be living and moving ideas that continually develop and grow in our understanding and their application. Otherwise they risk becoming only shibboleths. Do we really want to remain stuck with a 19 th century concept of Freedom rather than continuing to develop and expand it?
By Ron Ellis