Hegel, the Family, the Market, and the State

I’ve been reading a lot recently about Hegel’s political thought, and one aspect in particular provoked me to comment, namely his division of social life into three ‘moments’: the family, the market, and the state.

(‘Moment’ is a quasi-technical term in Hegel drawn from its usage in physics. The moments of something are the constituent elements which compose it but which, unlike mere ‘parts’ cannot be separated from each other except by a simplifying abstraction but rather determine what each other are)

The three sorts of social life could be roughly characterised as ‘particular altruism’ (I care about my family members for their own sake, but this applies only to a contingent few people, not to all people), ‘universal egoism’ (in a market, although I respect the rights of each other person, I use them simply as means to my own satisfaction), and ‘universal altruism’ (in considering a state policy I concern myself with the common good of all other citizens, for its own sake).

Why is this worth remarking on? Isn’t it just an obvious little list? But what Hegel wants to say with this three-fold distinction is that the three are all different and all equally basic – none can be derived from or understood in terms of the others.

So most obviously this is a rejection of those political theories, typified by social-contract accounts as in Locke or Hobbes, and by a strong strand of minimal-state liberal conservatism, which try to understand the state as reflecting the same basic orientation as the market: independent self-seeking individuals make a contract with each other in order to safeguard their own personal rights and property. That is, the state is simply an instrument, which citizens regard as a way to secure their own individual interests. Such an account is both clearly false about how people really relate to the state, and also, Hegel says, a bad model for how the state should ideally be. He similarly criticises the occasional and slightly silly attempt to interpret family life as simply a matter of a contract between the partners.

There are other examples. Often in Medieval political discourse political and economic relations were understood through terms drawn from family life, with the relation of lord and subject being modeled on the relation of father and child (“sire”). This is represented for example, in ‘Patriarchia’ by Robert Filmer, a 17th-century English writer who occasionally leaves comments here. In this book it is argued that the king should be obeyed because he is part of a line of inheritance from, um, Adam. And because Adam was the father of all humans (except Eve, who was female), all humans had to obey him, because they had to obey their fathers.

And we have in recent centuries of course witnessed doctrines that made the state the ultimate basis of all society, to which all society was to be subordinated.

In this I think Hegel is being fairly sensible. But it will not have escaped the reader’s notice that the three moments he identifies, the family, the market and the state, are all the objects of radical critique. Are radicals then simply nihilists, wanting to do away with all of social life?

To see why not we must, to borrow a phrase from Marx, turn Hegel on his head. Where he saw in the family, the market and the state the three forms of social life, we must instead recognise the three anti-social perversions of social life. In each case (continuing the homage to Marx) the principle of that perversion is class: the separation of different aspects of activity into the roles of different groups of individuals.

So the family is the perversion of emotional life. In the sense in which feminists attack it, the family is characterised by the split between the male head-of-household, going out into the public sphere, and the female home-maker, confined within the private household. Obviously both the maintenance of the private sphere and the exit into the public sphere are necessary things: but when they are made into the restrictive identities and burdens of different groups, they distort them into a dominant (though still unfree) class and an oppressed class.

The market is the perversion of civil society. Confession: civil society is the standard English translation of Hegel’s term here, but saying market was more suited to the distinctions I wanted to make, so meh. Civil society – the seeking by individuals of interactions that benefit them both, is a perfectly good and worthwhile thing, but when it operates with property (as opposed to possession), which can accumulate and bring returns on itself, it separates people into those who work and those who appropriate the value produced by work, an exploiting class and an exploited class.

Finally, the state is the perversion of community. In community people combine the activities of making, applying, and obeying rules and policies: in the state, some people make laws, some apply them, and most simply obey them. Thus what should be characterised by collective self-rule and freedom becomes the unequal and forcible rule of some by others.

In this progression, we might note, the dominant group becomes smaller, but is always contained within the former. Thus property is disproportionately owned by men, and political power is disproportionately exercised by the well-off.

The final point is that just as Hegel warns against falsely absolutising one of the moments of society in theorising how to defend and justify it, we should avoid falsely absolutising one of its moments in theorising how to attack it.

For example, I would argue that Lenin and his progeny over-focused on the market, and in consequence ended up arguing, not for civil society and community against the market and the state, but for community/the state against civil society/the market. The result was that the USSR’s radical left-wing project ended up resembling in many respects the Fascists’ conservative right-wing project in its ‘totallitarianism’.

A converse mistake, I would argue, is made by market anarchists who over-focus on the state, and end up arguing for civil society/market against the state/community, hoping that all the state’s worthwhile functions (social security, support for the sick or disabled, self-defense, dispute-resolution) can be performed by marketplace institutions.

Against all such distortions, we should recognise and respect the diversity of basic sorts of social life, and the need to encompass all of them, even while rejecting and overturning the class systems that pervert them all.

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