Posts Tagged ‘philosophy of history’

A weary time

December 4, 2014

Two hundred years ago last month, Hegel wrote contemptuously to a friend about the patriotic vaunting of national identity (Deutschdumm, or ‘Germandumb’) that was sure to follow the Congress of Vienna:

[According] to a few rumours, the era after the Congress of Vienna is — apart from the political aspect, which does not concern us — to be assured by an interesting literary-artistic idea: the erection of the great memorial column dedicated to the Nation along with a comprehensive national archive for the conservation of Old German monuments and patriotic relics of all sorts, including the song of the Nibelungen, Imperial treasures, King Roger’s shoes, electoral capitulations, free constitutional charters, Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts, Norica, and so on.

It will be built on a quiet spot, so that its enjoyment will be more secure from the noise of the rest of reality…

The entire Congress, however, is to be concluded with a great ceremony, a torchlight procession with the ringing of bells and roaring of cannons to the ultimate rule of reason in which the German people [Pippel] will be trampled in the dirt.

Behind Pippel there follow, as valets and attendants, a few tame house cats, such as the Inquisition, the Jesuit Order, and then all the armies with their sundry commissioned, princely, and titled marshals and generals.

Romantic nationalism, tricked out with philosophical respectability by Fichte and Schlegel, was one cause for sarcasm.

Another was the conclave itself, where autocrats plotting Europe’s post-Napoleonic order had decorated their arcana imperii with liberal banners:

It is a new, unforgettable experience for the peoples to see what their Princes are capable of when they convene to devote themselves in mind and heart to discussion of the welfare of both their own peoples and the world  all, to be sure, according to the most noble declared principle of universal justice and the welfare of all.

For centuries we have only seen action taken by cabinets or individual men for themselves against others. The present phenomenon, however, is unique and calls for a brilliant result.

Kissinger Metternich

Of the War of Liberation that had expelled the French, Hegel commented scornfully: ‘if by chance I see any liberated individuals I myself will rise to my feet.’

There were ‘still many things to be asked about this Liberation of ours which is said to have taken place’:

I have already noticed that the public hopes that Imperial freedoms will be won back again, and the rabble is convinced. They hope to have back the good old days.

It will then once more be permitted, as one man puts it, to give a box on the ear for sixteen pennies — for that is what it cost under the Old Regime — while a second man thinks he will be free again to have his ears boxed.

[…]

Great events have transpired about us. It is a frightful spectacle to see a great genius destroy himself. There is nothing more tragic. The entire mass of mediocrity, with its irresistible leaden weight of gravity, presses on like lead, without rest or reconciliation, until it has succeeded in bringing down what is high to the same level as itself or even below.

Six years earlier, in October 1808, Hegel had appealed in gossipy tones to the poet Karl Ludwig von Knegel, demanding to learn ‘for my personal edification’ about Napoleon’s audience with Goethe at Erfurt:

What did Napoleon talk about at the ball with Wieland and Goethe?…

Tell me about it when you feel inclined. And tell me whether there was any delight in it for you, and whether even some honour slipped in along with it  I do not want to say for the Germans, but rather for those individuals of such great merit.

Goethe and Napoleon at Erfurt

In October 1806 Hegel had famously observed the Weltgeist trotting through Jena on horseback:

I saw the Emperor  this world-soul  riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.

Hegel’s enthusiastic evocation of the conquering hero is one of the more familiar, quotable, exoteric passages in an otherwise forbidding and obscure output.

So let’s renew our interest by reminding ourselves that, for him, Napoleon’s arrival heralded the onset of military occupation, with all its predictable depredations and rapine.

The latter began just before winter set in, and the philosopher soon complained to friends of French ‘plunder’ of food and timber for fires, along with ‘the inevitable inflation, thievery… Nobody has imagined war such as we have seen it!’

Moreover, the Grande Armée‘s advance had made Hegel’s own financial circumstances suddenly precarious.

In late September 1806 his publisher had imposed a final deadline for delivery of the remaining sections of his Phenomenology of Spirit, which hitherto had allowed Hegel a steady cash flow of 21 florins per page.

Accordingly, two days before the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt began, Hegel had entrusted the manuscript to a mounted courier, instructing him to pass south through French lines to Bamberg.

Hegel-and-Napoleon-in-Jena-1806

For the most part, Hegel did not exhibit a giddy Schwärmerei for the person of Napeleon, the military genius.

He warned a student against ‘marvelling speechless at events like brutes  or, with a greater show of cleverness, from attributing them to the accidents of the moment or talents of an individual, thus making the fate of empires depend on the occupation or non-occupation of a hill.’

Rather, Hegel welcomed Napoleon as the ’emanation’, the ‘outward diffusion’ of the French Revolution to the rest of Europe:

Thanks to the bath of her Revolution, the French nation has freed herself of many institutions which the human spirit had outgrown like the shoes of a child. These institutions accordingly once oppressed her, and they now continue to oppress other nations as so many fetters devoid of spirit…

This is what gives this Nation the great power she displays against others. She weighs down upon the impassiveness and dullness of these other nations, which, finally forced to give up their indolence in order to step out into actuality, will perhaps  seeing that inwardness preserves itself in externality — surpass their teachers.

Years later, in his Philosophy of History, Hegel would include Napoleon alongside Caesar and Alexander the Great as ‘World-Historical persons, whose vocation it was to be the agents of the World-Spirit’:

[Thinking] men, who had an insight into the requirements of the time  what was ripe for development.

This was the very Truth for their age, for their world; the species next in order, so to speak, and which was already formed in the womb of time. It was theirs to know this nascent principle; the necessary, directly sequent step in progress, which their world was to take; to make this their aim, and to expend their energy in promoting it.

World-historical men  the Heroes of an epoch  must, therefore, be recognized as its clear-sighted ones; their deeds, their words are the best of that time.

What was Napoleon’s world-historical mission, according to Hegel?

It was to act as a pawn or tool of Reason, spreading abroad by military conquest the achievements of France’s bourgeois revolution.

After its defeat at Jena, the agrarian mainstays of Prussian absolutism had been reinvigorated, rather than overturned, by Stein and Hardenberg’s reforms.

The Bauernlegen (Enclosure movement) seized yet larger manorial estates for the wealthiest members of the Junker class. Consolidation via land sales was especially pronounced east of the Elbe.

Nonetheless, in Vienna Metternich could sniff that the Prussians were ‘German Jacobins’, their military ranks infested with a ‘Jacobin spirit.’

Commons and Smallholder losses under land reforms

Prussian farm structure

Even decades later, writing in the dark European night of the Holy Alliance, having renounced his youthful opinions and reached a philosophical accommodation with the Prussian state, Hegel would recall the great French Revolution as a ‘glorious mental dawn’:

All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world, as if the reconciliation between the Divine and the Secular was now first accomplished.

[…]

Objective or Real Freedom: to this category belong Freedom of Property and Freedom of Person. Those relics of that condition of servitude which the feudal relation had introduced are hereby swept away, and all those fiscal ordinances which were the bequest of the feudal law  its tithes and dues, are abrogated.

Real [practical] Liberty requires moreover freedom in regard to trades and professions  the permission to every one to use his abilities without restriction  and the free admission to all offices of State…

Germany was traversed by the victorious French hosts, but German nationality delivered it from this yoke. One of the leading features in the political condition of Germany is that code of Rights which was certainly occasioned by French oppression, since this was the especial means of bringing to light the deficiencies of the old system. The fiction of an Empire has utterly vanished. It is broken up into sovereign states. Feudal obligations are abolished, for freedom of property and of person have been recognized as fundamental principles. Offices of State are open to every citizen, talent and adaptation being of course the necessary conditions.

In 1807, Hegel had written in tremulous anticipation about the Confederation of the Rhine and introduction of the Code Napoléon:

Everyone here awaits the great reorganization soon to break in upon us. I have reported in my newspaper that the land is to be divided into prefectures. There is, moreover, talk of a great assembly of princes and magistrates of the Empire. The crucial decision will surely come from Paris.

Already the crowd of little princes who have remained in northern Germany makes a stronger tie necessary. The German professors of constitutional law have not stopped spewing forth masses of writing on the concept of sovereignty and the meaning of the Acts of Confederation.

The great professor of constitutional law sits in Paris…

Napoleon will have to organize all this.

Thus Hegel’s effusions did occasionally lapse into a certain awestruck fascination with Napoleon.

Tilsit treaties

Later he counselled tranquility in the face of the Restoration, judging its reversals to be transient and minor, with the Prussian reforms largely intact:

I adhere to the view that the world spirit has given the age marching orders. These orders are being obeyed.

The world spirit, this essential [power], proceeds irresistibly like a closely drawn armoured phalanx advancing with imperceptible movement, much as the sun through thick and thin. Innumerable light troops flank it on all sides, throwing themselves into the balance for or against its progress, though most of them are entirely ignorant of what is at stake and merely take head blows as from an invisible hand.

Yet no lingering lies or make-believe strokes in the air can achieve anything against it. They can perhaps reach the shoelaces of this colossus, and smear on a bit of boot wax or mud, but they cannot untie the laces. Much less can they remove these shoes of gods… once the colossus pulls them on.

Surely the safest thing to do both externally and internally is to keep one’s gaze fixed on the advancing giant. To edify the entire bustling zealous assemblage, one can even stand there and help daub on the cobbler’s wax that is supposed to bring the giant to a standstill. For one’s own amusement, one can even lend a hand to the enterprise that is being taken so seriously.

I have anticipated the Reaction of which we presently hear so much…

The Reaction is still far removed from genuine resistance, for it already stands entirely within the sphere over against which resistance stands as something external. Even if it intends to do the opposite, the will of the Reaction is chiefly restricted to matters of vanity. It wishes to place its own stamp on the events it thinks it most vehemently hates, so as to read upon them: “This have we done!”

The essential content remains unaltered. The addition or subtraction of a few small ribbons or garlands changes matters as little as actual injury that is no sooner suffered than healed. For when such injury pretends to a more significant relation to the whole substance than it is capable of having, it proves ephemeral.

Thus  if we largely ignore all the fuss and paltry paper successes of human ants, fleas, and bugs — has this most fearsome Reaction against Bonaparte in essence changed so much, whether for good or evil?

We shall allow these ant, flea, and bug personalities to appear to us just as the good Creator has destined: that is, chiefly as a subject for jokes, sarcasm, and malicious pleasure. If need be, what we can do, in light of this provident design, is to help these poor vermin along to their destiny.

What then happened, amid the conservative post-Napoleonic scene, to this confident vision of the ‘world-historical individual,’ after the established order of dynastic regimes had been reinstated at Vienna and the ageing Hegel was succeeded by his many squabbling legatees?

The philosopher himself was haunted by ‘confused fantasies’ that his work was ‘mere irrelevancies, mere packaging.’ Upon waking from such torrid dreams, ‘it seemed difficult to me to have to go to class and lecture on law.’

Meanwhile nineteenth-century European capitalism, safe beneath the clerical shield of the Holy Alliance, devoted itself to the tame, tawdry, internally pacific business of enrichissez-vous.

Nobody mistook Gladstone, Guizot or Cavour for the World-Soul.

Europe 1815

There matters stood until the mid-twentieth century.

Then, in 1930s Paris, Alexander Kojève appealed to Hegel’s scriptural authority to anoint Stalin, in place of Robespierre-Napoleon, as leader of a ‘universal and homogeneous state’ (enthusiasm he later transferred to the European Economic Community).

Hegel’s sequence of social forms had culminated in Kremlin tyranny, beyond which, for Kojève, no systemic progress was possible: ‘the vanguard of humanity virtually attained the limit and the aim, that is, the end, of Man’s historical evolution.’

In the person of Stalin, once again ‘politics is a tributary of philosophy’, the Georgian seminarian having learnt at the feet of Marx, himself an inheritor of Hegel:

[The] statesman who actualized the first effective step had been educated by a disciple at the second remove from the theoretical initiator… The tyrant who here inaugurated the real political movement consciously followed the instruction of the intellectual who deliberately transformed the idea of the philosopher so that it might cease to be a “utopian” ideal… and become instead a political theory on the basis of which one could give concrete advice to tyrants, advice which they could follow.

Thus, while recognizing that the tyrant has “falsified” the philosophical idea, we know that he has done so only in order to “transpose it from the realm of abstraction into that of reality.”

In 1989, in turn, Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘End of History’, with liberal capitalism now the ne plus ultra of political-economic arrangements. Following the collapse of European Stalinism, all ‘viable systematic alternatives’ to the status quo were henceforth eliminated from the scene.

Benjamin’s ‘storm blowing from Paradise’ turned out to have been but a passing squall. The Angel of History now idled limply in the doldrums, its job complete.

Fukuyama’s conjecture attracted little open assent, smacking too brassily of State Department hubris, if not misguided complacency.

Yet, whether embraced or not, Fukuyama’s dismissal of alternative futures today haunts our Restoration epoch, its tacit assumption so universal that it needn’t be spoken aloud. All the wisdom of the age shares a resigned certainty that socialism was tried once and failed prohibitively, leaving its chastened, disabused epigones with no possibility of progress beyond our existing world of private ownership and paid employment.

In 1977, as French intellectuals underwent full-blown de-Marxification, Jean-François Lyotard had famously announced the death of ‘le grand récit marxiste. From Hegel’s Phenomenology to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag there ran a clear path.

By 1990, tucked in Fukuyama’s slipstream, Lyotard was registering his own reactions to the Persian Gulf crisis and collapse of European Stalinism:

The fall of the [Berlin] wall… provides evidence that the more open the system, the more efficient it is; while on the other hand it shows that closed and isolated systems are doomed to disappear, either by competition or merely by entropy (Brezhnev should have studied thermodynamics a bit).

‘When the Berlin Wall fell,’ it became clear that all competitors to liberal capitalism had ‘failed definitively’:

The bourgeois discourse of emancipation and the communal organization connected with it, that is, liberal “late” capitalism, now look like the only survivors and winners after two centuries of struggle that sought to impose another way of reading and leading human history. This system has good reasons to claim to be the true supporter of human rights and freedom.

In this ‘present historical situation,’ Lyotard felt entitled to indulge in an imaginative exercise, ‘a postmodern fable… the unavowed dream that the postmodern world dreams about itself:’

[It] happened that systems called liberal democracies came to be recognized as the most appropriate for the task of controlling events in whatever field they might occur. By leaving the programs of control open to debate and by providing free access to the decision-making roles, they maximized the amount of human energy available to the system.

The effectiveness of this realistic flexibility has shown itself to be superior to the exclusively ideological (linguistic) mobilization of forces that rigidly regulated the closed totalitarian systems.

In liberal democratic systems, everybody could believe what they liked, that is, could organize language according to whatever system they liked, provided that they contributed to the system as energetically as they could.

Given the increased self-control of the open system, it was likely that it would be the winner in the competition among the systems all over Earth.

Nothing seemed able to stop the development of this system except the Sun and the unavoidable collapse of the whole star system. In order to meet this predictable challenge, the system was already in the process of developing the prosthesis that would enable it to survive after the solar sources of energy, which had contributed to the genesis and maintenance of the living systems, were wiped out…

The natural sciences were ‘thus preparing for the first exodus of the negentropic system far from Earth with no return.’

Why was this demented cosmic fantasy not a grand narrative, and therefore, on Lyotard’s own terms, suspect?

Because, he explained, it did not describe a ‘promised emancipation.’ It was not a ‘narrative of a promise to be kept… an emergence from an initially alienated condition toward the horizon of the enjoyment of selfhood or freedom.’

Rather, in it ‘the contemporary world’ had been liberated from the ‘horizon of history or historicity in which emancipation was a promise.’

Here, in Lyotard’s ad hoc refinement to his theory, arrived a new intellectual prohibition. Hope for an improved world or better society was now the unacceptable element in any philosophy of history.

Henceforth all that remained was the ‘tangible emancipation’ provided for by capitalism itself: ‘programs that improve what already exists are inscribed in its very mode of functioning.’

Emancipation lay not in an alternative social order, but was ‘an ideal that the system itself endeavors to actualize in most of the areas it covers, such as work, taxes, marketplace, family, sex, race, school, culture, communication.’

Time September 1977 - Nouveaux Philosophes

Thus for contemporary opinion, academic and journalistic, the idea of history as a unique linear ordering has fallen out of favour, convicted of assorted lapses and defects.

The four-stage theory, which grew out of the Scottish Enlightenment, held that:

There are four distinct states which mankind pass thro:—1st, the Age of Hunters; 2dly, the Age of Shepherds; 3dly, the Age of Agriculture; and 4thly, the Age of Commerce.

This schema was carried over wholesale by a certain kind of Marxism (though the latter’s view of history was, for the most part, traduced by Cold War enemies like Popper).

Popper, for his part, promoted the explanatory power of unintended consequences and spontaneous order over what he mistakenly saw as Marxism’s belief in ‘inexorable laws of social development’.

This preference for fortuitous cosmos over purposive taxis upheld, thought Popper, his favoured political programme of ‘piecemeal’ tinkering and meliorist reform. It gainsaid, on the other hand, any Promethean, ‘totalitarian’ ambitions to social planning, which relied on accurate prophecy of the future.

Yet  however apt these strictures against historicism and the latter’s presumptuous claims to forecast the future from past evidence  Popper’s arraignment misfired wildly, letting its intended target off the hook. The ‘fundamental idea that it should be possible to predict revolutions just as it is possible to predict solar eclipses’ was no maxim of Marxism, but largely a figment of the Viennese philosopher.

And, as is well known, Hegel’s ‘ruse of Reason’ was itself drawn from the unintended outcome or ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith and the Scots.

To be sure, Hegel’s pre-scientific world of German idealism is separated from our own by a Big Ditch of cognitive style. If ‘every philosophical baby that is born alive is either a little positivist or a little Hegelian’, then sex ratios are increasingly skewed. Hegel’s account of Spirit evolving through successive transitions in the ‘ethical life of a nation’ was indeed, as Popper declared, ‘sheer historicist superstition.’

Yet its commonsense rejection today is, whatever the theoretical rights and wrongs, a symptom of blocked historical imagination, of lowered horizons and world-weary renunciation, an inability to imagine a society fundamentally different from our own perpetual present.

Does such despondency rest  as today is claimed from Paris-Nanterre and the LSE to the US State Department  on a more realistic, hard-headed appraisal of historical possibilities?

Historical reversals are plainly possible: restorations have followed regicide, and chastened ‘post-capitalist’ societies have trudged back to capitalism. Thus disproved is any view of history as a consecutive, strictly ascending sequence, ‘from rudeness to civilization.’ Societies need not progress from the Age of Hunting to the Age of Commerce.

That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t secular evolution, or a preferential path of development, which imparts a bias to history, appearing retrospectively as ‘progress’.

For there to be a secular evolution of modes of production such that mode of production B tends to supersede A (say B = capitalism and A = feudalism), it must merely be the case that the transition probability Pr (A → B) exceeds the reverse transition probability Pr (B → A), and that the latter tends to falls over time.

In the table below, the rows and columns measure the probability per unit of time of a transition from each initial state to each end state. Each state is accessible from any other, but the transition probabilities are asymmetric (i.e. reversions from capitalism to feudalism are unlikely) and non-constant over time, as a system consolidates or undermines itself (e.g. by moulding technology, political or juridical arrangements to fit its purposes).

Transition matrix - modes of production

An eerie stability (juste équilibre européen) prevailed throughout Hegel’s Concert of Powers during the age of Metternich, Talleyrand and Castlereagh, granted ‘perfect security against the revolutionary embers more or less existing in every State of Europe.’ The stultifying continental peace was broken only by the independence of Greece and Belgium, and later the stillborn revolutions of 1848. Outside Europe, imperial bellicosity proceeded unchecked.

Today, following Gorbachev’s Mediterranean conversion to ‘democratic values’, we are similarly stuck without apparent breath or motion on a flat sea, stupefied as capital blares, noisily and garishly, its hour of triumph. A bellum Americanum contra omnes rampages unchallenged. Respectable opinion agrees that development of social institutions and mutations in property rights is forever over.

Political events and social skirmishes would continue to occur, said Fukuyama. But in the advanced capitalist countries there would be no more structural ruptures or capsizals of the sort that transformed society’s basic institutions.

Such illusions in the status quo’s stability are certain to be punctured.

When the July Revolution broke out one year before his death from cholera, Hegel met it as ‘a crisis in which everything that was formerly valid appears to be made problematic… [These are] anxious times in which everything that previously was taken to be solid and secure appears to totter.’

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