Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 25 May 2016

The Miserable Life of Worms or, the Society of Savage Capitalism

Hegel’s diatribe against the liberal State – delivered obliquely by reference to the Roman State under the emperors in The Philosophy of History– is perhaps as impassioned as it is devastating:

We observed the

Romans proceeding from the principle of abstract Subjectivity,

which now realizes itself as Personality in the recognition of

Private Right. Private Right, viz., is this, that the social unit as

such enjoys consideration in the state, in the reality which he

gives to himself — viz., in property.

There is nothing wrong with Subjectivity, says Hegel here. But Subjectivity cannot be “abstract”; it cannot, that is, assume a Personality that stands against the State even as the State is necessarily the political expression of not just human society, but of human society as an ineradicable aspect of human being. “Extra Ecclesiam, nulla salus” was the Scholastic saying encapsulating this very thought: there is no safety, indeed no life is possible, outside of the Church – and by “Church” here we understand the State. The individual taken abstractly, outside of its “sociality” realised in the State, is only an empty, phantomatic abstraction.

Such a condition is Roman life at this epoch: on the one

side, Fate and the abstract universality of sovereignty; on the

other, the individual abstraction. “Person,” which involves the

recognition of the independent dignity of the social unit — not

[G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 336]

on the ground of the display of the life which he possesses — in

his complete individuality — but as the abstract individuum.

For the State is the “objective” being of Subjectivity: the State allows the individual to realise its individuality fully – its “complete individuality” - because no individuality is complete outside the State. Equally, a State that fails to objectify, to realise, to make real, the incipient sociality of individuals – such a State is a non-State, it is tyranny or anarchy, not a democracy, as the Greek philosophers had realised early in the story of our civilisation.

It is the pride of the social units to enjoy absolute importance

as private persons; for the Ego is thus enabled to assert

unbounded claims; but the substantial interest thus

comprehended — the meum — is only of a superficial kind, and

the development of private right, which this high principle

introduced, involved the decay of political life.

But a State made up of abstract Subjectivities, made up purportedly, in law alone, of isolated individuals, of “private persons”– such a State already abdicates ab initio all claims to being “the living political body”, that is to say, the political realisation of the individualities of its members:

The living political body

that Roman feeling which animated it as its soul — is now

brought back to the isolation of a lifeless Private Right. As, when

the physical body suffers dissolution, each point gains a life of

its own, but which is only the miserable life of worms; so the

political organism is here dissolved into atoms — viz., private


Liberalism, which is the political ideology of capitalism and its bourgeoisie, rests entirely on the notion of a society of “individuals” whose existence is dissected into private property, on one side, and personality (opinions, beliefs, “life-style”), on the other. The interaction of these “individuals” is made possible, so far as private property is concerned, by the exchange of goods and services through the market mechanism – and, so far as personalities go, by the public sphere of “life-styles” and the pursuit of a myriad “rights” and “isms” (animal rights, environmentalism, feminism, gay rights, transgender rights, animal rights, refugee rights, right to housing, right to work and so on ad infinitum). The cohesion of this “society of individuals” is ensured and guaranteed by the liberal State which is the product of a social contract between individuals inter se (between themselves) whereby the function of the State is to keep separate the private sphere of the exchange of goods and services between individuals from any interference on the part of the public sphere. And the powers of the State must be kept to the minimum necessary to ensure the independence of the private sphere from any such possible interference from the public sphere.

A necessary corollary of this premise is that the State must remain “neutral” with regard to the social contract, that is, to the private rights entered into by the individuals collectively and inter se in erecting the State as the arbiter of their private property by guaranteeing their possessive rights. Again, this “neutrality” of the liberal State with regard to the enforcement of private rights between individuals can be assured if and only if there is a rational scientific basis on which the exchange of goods and services between individuals in the private sphere can be guaranteed to maximize their individual welfares.

Hence, the Political existence of the State can be legitimized only through the possibility of a scientific operation of the private sphere – that is to say, only through the possibility of a scientific Economy by means of which the State can orient and legitimize its enforcement of private property rights as well as the non-interference of the public sphere with the private sphere. This is the essence of the “science” of Political Economy. The liberal State is founded on possessive individualism – and Political Economy enables it to become a State of Law or a “negative State” whose function and powers are confined to ensuring the separation of the private economic sphere from the public political sphere.

The foundations of the liberal State therefore rest, first, on the legitimacy of private property rights; second, on the possibility of a scientific determination of the exchange of these private property rights between individual owners; third, on the recognition on the part of individuals that are party to the social contract that such a scientific determination exists, and finally on their agreement that it can be administered scientifically by the liberal State without any political interference from the public sphere. Thus, the scientisation of the economy is a condition for the neutrality of the State. But this scientisation is still entirely dependent on the agreement on the part of individuals that not only such a science of economics is possible but also that individuals are sufficiently rational to accept this scientisation as a way of maximizing their self-interest or individual welfare or private property. Yet here the notion of self-interest – which is egoistic, selfish and therefore irrational - clearly comes into conflict with the notion of science – which is by definition rational in the sense that it appeals to an “interest” that goes beyond self-interest!

It follows that the neutrality of the State and the scientisation of the private sphere – of the Economy – requires the conscious supersession on the part of individuals of their individual self-interest and egoism in favour of the adoption of rational-scientific measures to direct the Economy. Yet, such a rational recognition is itself ineluctably and incontestably an exquisitely “political” choice that is entirely independent of any “scientific” discourse and certainly independent of the private sphere of economic self-interest. Therefore, such an agreement can originate in and derive from the public sphere alone – from the political sphere of beliefs and opinions, of culture and “life-style” – and not just from the “rational-scientific” sphere that presumably governs the private sphere.

But here the insuperable difficulty arises that it is impossible to see how a “society” of selfish individuals can ever give rise to one of rational individuals. Indeed, it is far more likely instead that – far from agreeing on a scientific and rational conduct of the neutral State – the egoistic, self-interested individuals of a liberal society will rather manipulate the public sphere – the Political – in a way that “privatizes” the beliefs and opinions, the culture and the life-styles, in an endless pursuit of “rights” that far from converging toward a political consensus will diverge into a maelstrom of irreconcilable conflicts! And that is precisely what we are witnessing now with the spread of what we have dubbed “savage capitalism”.

It follows therefore that the hermetic separation of the private sphere – the sphere of private property and private rights, of the Economy – will contaminate the sphere of public opinion, pushing it into a virulent pursuit of private claims that quickly and inevitably lead to the disintegration of the State and of the polity, of the society. This is why even Kant – who certainly shared the liberal creed – referred to bourgeois-capitalist society as the “ungesellige Gesellschaft” – “unsociable society”, a contradiction in terms in which private interests lead to the dissolution of the body politic. It is why Schopenhauer – the philosopher of philistine individualism par excellence - thought it was sheer madness to think that the liberal State, or any State at all, could ever be founded on a “social contract” rather than be pure Police. But a State that has become so “negative” that its sole function is to protect “private rights” – such a State must perforce earn Hegel’s scathing and apocalyptic condemnation:

The living political bodyis now

brought back to the isolation of a lifeless Private Right. As, when

the physical body suffers dissolution, each point gains a life of

its own, but which is only the miserable life of worms; so the

political organism is here dissolved into atoms — viz., private


Life under the liberal State has become just that: “the miserable life of worms”.

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