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  • Andrew O'Brien

Hegel, “civil society” and business

Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel was a giant of 19th century philosophy and dominated the field for over half a century after his death. Yet despite his huge corpus of work, British conservativism has largely ignored him.


Some of this is purely the language barrier. Conservatives often turn to Burke who wrote wonderful English prose, rather than the dry formal language of German thinkers such as Hegel. Unfortunately, there is also a school of thought spread by philosophers and historians such as Bertrand Russel and A.J.P Taylor in the early 20th Century, which saw Hegel as a foreshadowing of Nazism. This is completely unfounded and has been widely discredited through recent scholarship, but sadly the taint is still there.


At a time when Conservatives are struggling to articulate fresh ideas and vision for the 21st Century, there has never been a better time to for British Conservatives to cast their intellectual net wider. What could Hegel tell us about the modern economy?


Philosophy for the world as it is


One of Hegel’s great abilities is to see human development in a holistic way. For some, this is pure philosophism and makes too many grand leaps. However, unlike many thinkers, Hegel was able to see how emerging developments were connected by a chain of previous thoughts and ideas. In modern parlance, we often talk about “path dependency” – where previous decisions constrain future choices. Hegel was arguably the first philosopher to recognise this.

G.W.F. Hegel 1770-1831

Hegel’s dynamic philosophy based on “dialectics” works in a similar way where reason and ideas interact with the world and through a process of reflection are further refined, building one on top of the other. The evolution is constant but always within each new “moment” is the seeds of the previous ideas. This is what makes Hegel a “conservative” thinker, he is not an abstract philosopher in the sense that Kant or Marx can be seen, he is rooted in the world and respects the different pathways that different societies have taken. This understanding underpins, Hegel’s criticism of the French Revolution, for example. Whilst he welcomed the discussion of freedom, the Revolution offered only “abstract” ideas that were not grounded in any realistic institutional form because it rejected everything that came before it. Interestingly, this was similar to Burke’s analysis of the Revolution, yet whilst modern Conservatives often draw upon Burke, they don’t use Hegel.


Unlike Burke, Hegel brought his insights to society and the economy, seeing the emerging industrial society as part of a historical process related to human being’s natural desire for self-expression and freedom.


In broad terms Hegel saw individuals through three main lenses. Firstly, there was the family. Here, we lose ourselves in others. It is based on love and not subject to “reason” in the sense that we do not engage with our loved ones on the basis of rational self-calculation. Here we demonstrated one aspect of our humanity. Then we have the state, where we come together to form an institution and through it seek to create values, culture and shapes our lives based on rational thoughts and reflections of what a “good life” is and how it should be led.


Returning to the roots of “civil society”


Alongside these two spheres, we have a third sphere “civil society”. Civil Society is a term that we see used a great deal in our modern world. We have an “Office for Civil Society” within HM Government. Newspapers will talk about “civil society leaders”. There is even a magazine called “Civil Society”. But broadly speaking, today when we refer to civil society we are thinking about voluntary action and charity. Hegel would have recognised this as part of civil society but not its exclusive remit, he also saw business as part of civil society.


For Hegel, business and charity were two sides of the same coin. In “civil society” people come together to fulfil their individual needs and to express their individual identity. I want to buy a property, people sell it to me. Some people need food, I give to charity so that they can do so. These decisions allow me to express who I am. This may sound incredibly basic, but it reminds us that the economy and society are not abstract concepts but are based on the needs (physical, emotional, spiritual) of millions of individuals.


How we should judge the effectiveness of “civil society” is how it enables individuals to fulfil their needs and aspirations.


Using a historical lens, Hegel saw the evolution of civil society coming in several phases. First through churches and religious charitable institutions, which enabled us to express ourselves spiritually. Then through the development of the guild systems and these associations which provided dignity through work and a chance to develop and perfect skills. Towards more modern institutions of free associations and “corporations” which are based on more “rational” foundations and self-expression.


The key point being that through generations, things change and adapt. The needs are constant and growing, but the methods of delivery change. Nothing is lost in that process, we still have churches and charities for example, but there are shifts in emphasis and new institutions and models emerge as human society refines its own ideas.


Hegel’s work places civil society in an important position, not as something that just exists but as one of the ways that human beings express themselves and their choices. This provides a useful perspective for Conservatives. To what extent does our modern economy and society, particularly the institutions within it, allow for this meaningful self-expression?


The Corporation as a “moral pillar” within civil society

Civil society as being based on individual need and self-expression sounds like a recipe for mass egotism and this was a concern that Hegel recognised in his own day. Individuals would become alienated from each other as they treated everyone else purely as a means to an end. For that reason, Hegel was interested in the emerging associations and “corporations” which people were creating for the purposes of trade and business.


Unlike modern conceptions of civil society where we see “charity” as the moral pillar and businesses as an a-moral space (the business of business is business), Hegel saw businesses as a moral space. By bringing individuals together for their self-interest, Hegel thought that this would encourage social solidarity as people thought through the implications of their collective actions. Rather than just basing all economic activity on “contract”, corporations would give people dignity and meaning in their life as people saw themselves as a collective unit with shared goals and aspirations.


Hegel would have been aware of individuals such as Robert Owen in Scotland, creating proto-social enterprises. His hope was that Owen would not be a one-off. Rational businesses would see that it is was for their own good that they treat their workers with respect and dignity. If every business acted this way, everyone would benefit.


In this regard, Hegel is different from the “paternalist” strand of conservatism. 19th Century Conservatives such as Lord Shaftesbury have been rightly praised for regulations on child labour and working conditions. Hegel would have applauded that too. However, Hegel was interested in the rational development of individuals and institutions, and reflected on why it was that businesses themselves could not rationally come to the obvious conclusion that child labour, poor working conditions etc. were wrong. Although the individual philanthropic element of civil society was important, Hegel looked to a more “rational” and consistent process.


Hegel would have looked at modern Corporate Social Responsibility with some scepticism as a consequence. The “moral pillar” of the corporation should run throughout the business consistently, not on an ad hoc basis.


A modern “Conservative” economy


It may seem odd to look back 250 years to see the future, but Hegel could see even in the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution that there would be a tendency for society to bifurcate. On the one hand, there would be families and individuals pursuing charitable and moral action. On the other hand, the “market” where individuals would only enter into legal and transactional relationships which would set people against each other.


A Hegelian approach would not be to continue this antagonism, hoping that “charity” could balance out “business” but to bring both aspects together building on historic legacies. Arguably, this is the challenge for the modern Conservative Party.


On Hegel’s 250th Birthday, perhaps there is some insight which can be used to build a One Nation economy?

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