Thursday, February 11, 2016

Martin Eden

The most famous passage in Jack London’s Martin Eden is the final paragraph, describing the hero’s suicide by drowning:
He seemed floating languidly in a sea of dreamy vision. Colors and radiances surrounded him and bathed him and pervaded him. What was that? It seemed a lighthouse; but it was inside his brain – a flashing, bright white light. It flashed swifter and swifter. There was a long rumble of sound, and it seemed to him that he was falling down a vast and interminable stairway. And somewhere at the bottom he fell into darkness. That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.
How did Martin arrive at this point? What pushed him to suicide was his very success – the novel presents the crisis of investiture in its simple but most radical form: after long years of struggle and hard work, Martin finally succeeds and becomes a famous writer; however, while he is floating in wealth and fame, one thing puzzles him,
a little thing that would have puzzled the world had it known. But the world would have puzzled over his bepuzzlement rather than over the little thing that to him loomed gigantic. Judge Blount invited him to dinner. That was the little thing, or the beginning of the little thing, that was soon to become the big thing. He had insulted Judge Blount, treated him abominably, and Judge Blount, meeting him on the street, invited him to dinner. Martin bethought himself of the numerous occasions on which he had met Judge Blount at the Morses’ and when Judge Blount had not invited him to dinner.

Why had he not invited him to dinner then? he asked himself. He had not changed. He was the same Martin Eden. What made the difference? The fact that the stuff he had written had appeared inside the covers of books? But it was work performed. It was not something he had done since. It was achievement accomplished at the very time Judge Blount was sharing this general view and sneering at his Spencer and his intellect. Therefore it was not for any real value, but for a purely fictitious value that Judge Blount invited him to dinner.1
This little puzzling thing grows larger and larger, turning into the central obsession of his life:
His thoughts went ever around and around in a circle. The centre of that circle was “work performed”; it ate at his brain like a deathless maggot. He awoke to it in the morning. It tormented his dreams at night. Every affair of life around him that penetrated through his senses immediately related itself to “work performed.” He drove along the path of relentless logic to the conclusion that he was nobody, nothing. Mart Eden, the hoodlum, and Mart Eden, the sailor, had been real, had been he; but Martin Eden! the famous writer, did not exist. Martin Eden, the famous writer, was a vapor that had arisen in the mob-mind and by the mob-mind had been thrust into the corporeal being of Mart Eden, the hoodlum and sailor.
Even his beloved Lizzy who didn’t want to marry him, is now desperately throwing herself at him, proclaiming that she loves him totally; when she proclaims that she is ready to die for him, Martin tauntingly replies:
Why didn’t you dare it before? When I hadn’t a job? When I was starving? When I was just as I am now, as a man, as an artist, the same Martin Eden? That’s the question I’ve been propounding to myself for many a day – not concerning you merely, but concerning everybody. You see I have not changed, though my sudden apparent appreciation in value compels me constantly to reassure myself on that point. I’ve got the same flesh on my bones, the same ten fingers and toes. I am the same. I have not developed any new strength nor virtue. My brain is the same old brain. I haven’t made even one new generalization on literature or philosophy. I am personally of the same value that I was when nobody wanted me. And what is puzzling me is why they want me now. Surely they don’t want me for myself, for myself is the same old self they did not want. Then they must want me for something else, for something that is outside of me, for something that is not I! Shall I tell you what that something is? It is for the recognition I have received. That recognition is not I. It resides in the minds of others.
What Martin cannot accept is the radical gap that forever separates his “real” qualities from his symbolic status (in the eyes of the others): all of a sudden, he is no longer a nobody avoided by respectable public but a famous author invited by the pillars of society, with even the beloved woman now throwing herself at his feet – but he is fully aware that nothing changed in him in reality, he is now the same person as he was, and even all his works were already written when he was ignored and despised. What Martin cannot accept is this radical de-centering of the very core of his personality which “resides in the minds of others”: he is nothing in himself, just a concentrated projection of others’ dreams. This perception that his agalma, what now makes him desired by others, is something that is outside of him, not only ruins his narcissism, but also kills his desire: “Something has gone out of me. I have always been unafraid of life, but I never dreamed of being sated with life. Life has so filled me that I am empty of any desire for anything.” It is this “conclusion that he was nobody, nothing,” which drove him to suicide.
Insofar as symbolic castration is also one of the names of the gap between my immediate stupid being and my symbolic title (recall the proverbial disappointment of an adolescent: is that miserable coward really my father?), and since a symbolic authority can only function insofar as, in a kind of illegitimate short-circuit, this gap is obfuscated and my symbolic authority appears as an immediate property or quality of me as a person, each authority has to protect itself from situations in which this gap becomes palpable. For example, political leaders know very well how to avoid situations in which their impotence would have been revealed; a father knows how to hide from the gaze of his son his humiliating moments (when his boss shouts at him, etc.). What is protected by such strategies of “saving one’s face” is appearance: although I know very well my father is ultimately impotent, I refuse to believe it, which is why the effect of witnessing the open display of his impotence can be so shattering. Such humiliating moments fully deserve to be called “castrating experiences,” not because father is shown castrated-impotent, but because the gap between his miserable reality and his symbolic authority is rendered palpable and can no longer be ignored by way of the fetishist disavowal.

For Hegel, the definition of a king is a subject who accepts this radical decenterment, i.e., to quote Marx, the fact that he is a King because others treat him as a King, not the other way round – otherwise, if he thinks that he is a King “in himself,” he is a madman (recall Lacan’s claim that a madman is not only a beggar who thinks he is a King but also a King who thinks he is a King). According to a legend, during the decisive battle between the Prussian and the Austrian army in the 1866 war, the Prussian king, formally the supreme commander of the Prussian army, who was observing the fight from a nearby hill, looked worried at (what appeared to him) the confusion in front of his eyes, where some of the Prussian troops even seemed to be retreating. General von Moltke, the great Prussian strategist who planned the battle deployment, turned to the King in the middle of this apparent confusion and told him: “May I be the first to congratulate your majesty for a brilliant victory?” This is the gap between S1 and S2 at its purest: the King was the Master, the formal commander totally ignorant of the meaning of what went on in the battlefield, while von Moltke embodied strategic knowledge – although, at the level of actual decisions, the victory was Moltke’s, he was correct in congratulating the King on behalf of whom he was acting. The stupidity of the Master is palpable in this gap between the confusion of the master-figure and the objective-symbolic fact that he already won a brilliant victory. We all know the old joke referring to the enigma of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays: “Not William Shakespeare, but someone else with the same name.” This is what Lacan means by the “decentered subject,” this is how a subject relates to the name which fixes its symbolic identity: John Smith is (always, by definition, in its very notion) not John Smith, but someone else with the same name. As already Shakespeare’s Juliet knew, I am never “that name” – the John Smith who really thinks he is John Smith is a psychotic. This key point was missed by the young Marx in his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; after quoting the beginning of Par 281:
Both moments in their undivided unity – (a) the will’s ultimate ungrounded self, and (b) therefore its similarly ungrounded objective existence (existence being the category which is at home in nature) – constitute the Idea of something against which caprice is powerless, the ‘majesty’ of the monarch. In this unity lies the actual unity of the state, and it is only through this, its inward and outward immediacy, that the unity of the state is saved from the risk of being drawn down into the sphere of particularity and its caprices, ends and opinions, and saved too from the war of factions round the throne and from the enfeeblement and overthrow of the power of the state.2
Marx adds his comment full of (all too commonsensical) irony:
The two moments are [a] the contingency of the will, caprice, and [b] the contingency of nature, birth; thus, His Majesty: Contingency. Contingency is thus the actual unity of the state. The way in which, according to Hegel, an inward and outward immediacy [of the state] is to be saved from collision, [due to caprice, factions,] etc., is incredible, since collision is precisely what it makes possible. /. . ./ The prince’s hereditary character results from his concept. He is to be the person who is specified from the entire race of men, who is distinguished from all other persons. But then what is the ultimate fixed difference of one person from all others? The body. And the highest function of the body is sexual activity. Hence the highest constitutional act of the king is his sexual activity, because through this he makes a king and carries on his body.3
Marx concludes with the sarcastic note that the Hegelian monarch is nothing more than an appendix to his penis – to which we should say: yes, but that’s precisely Hegel’s point, i.e., such an utter alienation, such a reversal by means of which a person becomes an appendix of its biological organ of procreation, is the price to be paid for acting like the state’s sovereignty embodied. (Note also the irony of the situation: insofar as the gap between my immediate bodily being and my symbolic identity is the gap of castration, being reduced to one’s penis is the very formula of castration.) One can clearly see, from the quoted Par 281, how the institution of hereditary monarchy is for Hegel the solution to the problem of caprices and war of factions, in short, of the contingency of social life of power. One overcomes this contingency not with a deeper necessity (say, in the sense of Plato’s philosophers-kings, rulers whose knowledge legitimizes their power), but with an even more radical contingency: one posits at the top a subject reduced to an appendix of his penis, a subject who did not make himself what he is (through the labor of mediation), but is immediately born into it. Of course, Hegel is fully aware that there is no deeper necessity secretly pulling the strings and guaranteeing that the monarch will be a wise, just and courageous person – on the contrary, in the figure of the monarch, contingency (of his properties and qualifications) is brought to an extreme, all that matters is his birth. (Also in inherent philosophical terms, we can see here how radical Hegel is in his assertion of contingency: the only way to overcome contingency is through its redoubling.) In socio-political life, stability can only be regained when all subjects accept the result of this contingent process, since the contingency of birth is exempted from social struggles.

An obvious counter-argument arises here: does Hegel not remain caught in an illusion of purity – namely of the purity of expert knowledge of state bureaucracy which only works rationally for the common good? True, he concedes an irreducible impurity (being caught in the contingent play of partial interests and factional struggles) of political life, but is not his illusory wager that, if one isolates this moment of impurity (subjective caprice) in the figure of the monarch, this exception will make the rest, the body of state bureaucracy, rational, exempted from the play of conflictual partial interests? Is thus, with this notion of state bureaucracy as the “universal class,” the state not depoliticized, exempted from the properly political differend? However, while Hegel is well aware that political life consists of the contingent “war of factions round the throne,” his idea is not that the monarch takes upon himself this contingency and thus magically turns state bureaucracy into a neutral machine, but that, on account of his being-determined by the contingency of biological descendance, the King himself is in a formal sense elevated above political struggles.

In Lacanese, the passage from inherent notional self-development which mediates all content to the act/decision which freely releases this content is, of course, the passage from S2 (knowledge, the chain of signifiers) to S1 (the performative Master-Signifier). (In a strictly homologous sense, the Hegelian Absolute Knowing is a knowledge which is “absolved” from its positive content.) Schelling was thus wrong in his critique of Hegel: the intervention of the act of decision is purely immanent, it is the moment of the “quilting point,” of the reversal of constative into performative. Does the same not go for the King in the case of State, according to Hegel’s defense of monarchy? The bureaucratic chain of knowledge is followed by the King’s decision which, as the “completely concrete objectivity of the will,” “reabsorbs all particularity into its single self, cuts short the weighing of pros and cons between which it lets itself oscillate perpetually now this way and now that, and by saying ‘I will’ makes its decision and so inaugurates all activity and actuality.” Hegel emphasizes this apartness of the monarch already when he states that the “ultimate self-determination” can “fall within the sphere of human freedom only in so far as it has the position of a pinnacle, explicitly distinct from, and raised above, all that is particular and conditional, for only so is it actual in a way adequate to its concept.”(Ibid.) This is why “the conception of the monarch” is
of all conceptions the hardest for ratiocination, i.e., for the method of reflection employed by the Understanding. This method refuses to move beyond isolated categories and hence here again knows only raisonnement, finite points of view, and deductive argumentation. Consequently it exhibits the dignity of the monarch as something deduced, not only in its form, but in its essence. The truth is, however, that to be something not deduced but purely self-originating is precisely the conception of monarchy.
In the next paragraph (280) Hegel further elaborates this speculative necessity of the monarch:
This ultimate self in which the will of the state is concentrated is, when thus taken in abstraction, a single self and therefore is immediate individuality. Hence its ‘natural’ character is implied in its very conception. The monarch, therefore, is essentially characterized as this individual, in abstraction from all his other characteristics, and this individual is raised to the dignity of monarchy in an immediate, natural, fashion, i.e., through his birth in the course of nature.
Remark: This transition of the concept of pure self-determination into the immediacy of being and so into the realm of nature is of a purely speculative character, and the apprehension of it therefore belongs to logic. Moreover, this transition is on the whole the same as that familiar to us in the nature of willing, and there the process is to translate something from subjectivity (i.e., some purpose held before the mind) into existence. But the proper form of the Idea and of the transition here under consideration is the immediate conversion of the pure self-determination of the will (i.e., of the simple concept itself) into a single and natural existent without the mediation of a particular content (like a purpose in the case of action).

In the so-called ‘ontological’ proof of the existence of God, we have the same conversion of the absolute concept into existence. /. . ./

Addition: It is often alleged against monarchy that it makes the welfare of the state dependent on chance, for, it is urged, the monarch may be ill educated, he may perhaps be unworthy of the highest position in the state, and it is senseless that such a state of affairs should exist because it is supposed to be rational. But all this rests on a presupposition which is nugatory, namely that everything depends on the monarch’s particular character. In a completely organized state, it is only a question of the culminating point of formal decision (and a natural bulwark against passion. It is wrong therefore to demand objective qualities in a monarch); he has only to say ‘yes’ and dot the ‘i’, because the throne should be such that the significant thing in its holder is not his particular make-up. /. . ./ In a well organized monarchy, the objective aspect belongs to law alone, and the monarch’s part is merely to set to the law the subjective ‘I will’.

The speculative moment that Understanding cannot grasp is “the transition of the concept of pure self-determination into the immediacy of being and so into the realm of nature.” In other words, while Understanding can well grasp the universal mediation of a living totality, what it cannot grasp is that this totality, in order to actualize itself, has to acquire actual existence in the guise of an immediate “natural” singularity. (The Marxists who mocked Hegel here paid the price for this negligence: in the regimes which legitimized themselves as Marxist, a Leader emerged who, again, not only directly embodied the rational totality, but embodied it fully, as a figure of full Knowledge and not merely the idiotic point of dotting the i’s. In other words, a Stalinist Leader is NOT a monarch, which makes him much worse . . .) One can also say that Understanding misses the christological moment: the necessity of a singular individual to embody the universal Spirit. – The term “nature” should be given its full weight here: in the same way that, at the end of Logic, the Idea’s completed self-mediation releases from itself Nature, collapses into the external immediacy of Nature, the State’s rational self-mediation has to acquire actual existence in a will which is determined as directly natural, unmediated, stricto sensu “irrational.”

Recall here Chesterton’s appraisal of the guillotine (which was used precisely to behead a king):
The guillotine has many sins, but to do it justice there is nothing evolutionary about it. The favourite evolutionary argument finds its best answer in the axe. The Evolutionist says, ‘Where do you draw the line?’ the Revolutionist answers, ‘I draw it here: exactly between your head and body.’ There must at any given moment be an abstract right or wrong if any blow is to be struck; there must be something eternal if there is to be anything sudden.4
It is from here that one can understand why Badiou, THE theorist of the Act, has to refer to Eternity: act is only conceivable as the intervention of Eternity into time. Historicist evolutionism leads up to endless procrastination, the situation is always too complex, there are always some more aspects to be accounted for, our pondering of pros and cons is never over . . . against this stance, the passage to act involves a gesture of radical and violent simplification, a cut like that of the proverbial Gordian knot: the magical moment when the infinite pondering crystallizes itself into a simple “yes” or “no.”

A propos school exams, Lacan pointed out a strange fact: there must be a minimal gap, delay, between the procedure of measuring my qualifications and the act of announcing the result (grades). In other words, even if I know that I provided perfect answers to the exam questions, there remains a minimum element of insecurity, of chance, till the results are announced – this gap is the gap between constatif and performatif, between measuring the results and taking note of them (registering them) in the full sense of the symbolic act. The whole mystique of bureaucracy in its most sublime hinges on this gap: you know the facts, but you can never be quite sure of how these facts will be registered by bureaucracy. And, as Jean-Pierre Dupuy points out, the same holds for elections: in the electoral process also, the moment of contingency, of hazard, of a “draw,” is crucial.5 Fully “rational” elections would not be elections at all, but a transparent objectivized process. Traditional (pre-modern) societies resolved this problem by invoking a transcendent source which “verified” the result, conferring authority on it (God, King . . .). Therein resides the problem of modernity: modern societies perceive themselves as autonomous, self-regulated, i.e., they can no longer rely on an external (transcendent) source of authority. But, nonetheless, the moment of hazard has to remain operative in the electoral process, which is why commentators like to dwell on the “irrationality” of votes (one never knows where votes will swing in the last days before elections . . .). In other words, democracy would not work if it were to be reduced to permanent opinion polling – fully mechanized-quantified, deprived of its “performative” character; as Lefort pointed out, voting has to remain a (sacrificial) ritual, a ritualistic self-destruction and rebirth of society.6 The reason is that this hazard itself should not be transparent, it should be minimally externalized/reified: “people’s will” is our equivalent of what the Ancients perceived as the imponderable God’s will or the hands of Fate. What people cannot accept as their direct arbitrary choice, the result of a pure hazard, they can accept if it refers to a minimum of the “real” – Hegel knew this long ago, this is the entire point of his defense of monarchy. And, last but not least, the same goes for love: there should be an element of the “answer of the Real” in it (“we were forever meant for each other”), I cannot really accept that my falling in love hinges on a pure contingency.7

Even such a superb reader of Hegel as Gerard Lebrun falls short here in inscribing Hegel into the Platonic tradition of “philosophers-kings”: every exercise of power has to be justified by good reasons, the bearer of power has to be properly qualified for it by his knowledge and abilities, plus power should be exercised for the good of the entire community – this notion of power sustains Hegel’s concept of state bureaucracy as the “universal class” educated to protect state interests against the particular interests of members and groups of the civil society. According to Lebrun, Nietzsche counters this received notion by questioning its underlying premise: what kind of power (or authority) is it which needs to justify itself by evoking the interests of those over whom it rules, i.e., which accepts the need to provide reasons for its exercise? Does such a notion of power not undermine itself? How can I be your master when I accept the need to justify my authority in your eyes? Does this not imply that my authority depends on your approval, so that, acting as your master, I effectively serve you (recall Frederick the Great’s famous notion of the King as the highest servant of his people)? Is it not that authority proper needs no reasons, since it is simply accepted on its own? As Kierkegaard put it, for a child to say that he obeys his father because the latter is wise, honest and good, is a blasphemy, a total disavowal of the true paternal authority. In Lacanian terms, this passage from “natural” authority to authority justified by reasons is, of course, the passage from the master’s discourse to the university discourse. This universe of justified exercise of power is also eminently anti-political and, in this sense, “technocratic”: my exercise of power should be grounded in reasons accessible to and approved by all rational human beings, i.e., the underlying premise is that, as an agent of power, I am totally replaceable, I act in exactly the same way everyone else would have acted at my place – politics as the domain of competitive struggle, as the articulation of irreducible social antagonisms, should be replaced by rational administration which directly enacts the universal interest.

Is, however, Lebrun right in imputing to Hegel such a notion of justified authority? Was Hegel not fully aware that true authority always contains an element of the tautological self-assertion? “It is so because I say it is so!” The exercise of authority is an “irrational” act of contingent decision which cuts short the endless chain of enumerating reasons pro et contra. Is this not the very rationale of Hegel’s defence of monarchy? The State as a rational totality needs at its head a figure of “irrational” authority, an authority not justified by its qualifications: while all other public servants have to prove their capacity to exert power, the king is justified by the very fact that he is a king. To put it in more contemporary terms, the performative aspect of state acts is reserved for the king: the state bureaucracy prepared the content of state acts, but it is the signature of the king which enacts them, enforcing them upon society. Hegel was well aware that it is only this distance between the “knowledge” embodied in state bureaucracy and the authority of the Master embodied in the king which protects the social body against the “totalitarian” temptation: what we call “totalitarian regime” is not a regime in which the Master imposes its unconstrained authority and ignores the suggestions of rational knowledge, but the regime in which Knowledge (the rationally justified authority) immediately assumes “performative” power – Stalin was not (presenting himself as) a Master, he was the highest servant of the people legitimized by his knowledge and abilities.

Hegel’s insight points toward his unique position between the Master’s discourse (of the traditional authority) and the university discourse (of the modern power justified by reasons or the democratic consent of its subjects): Hegel knew that the charisma of the Master’s authority is a fake, that Master is an impostor – it is only the fact that he occupies the position of a Master (that his subjects treat him as a Master) which makes him a Master. However, he was also well aware that, if one tries to get rid of this excess and impose a self-transparent authority fully justified by expert knowledge, the result is even worse: instead of being contained to the symbolic head of State (King), “irrationality” spreads over the entire body of social power. Kafka’s bureaucracy is such a regime of expert knowledge deprived of the figure of the Master – Brecht was right when, as Benjamin reports in his diaries, during a conversation on Kafka, he claimed that Kafka is “the only genuine Bolshevik writer.”8

Is, then, Hegel’s position cynical? Does he tells us to act as if a monarch is qualified by his properties, celebrate his glory, etc., although we know well that he is nobody in himself? A gap nonetheless separates Hegel’s position from cynicism: the Hegelian (utopian?) wager is that one can admire a monarch not for his supposed real qualities, but on behalf of his very mediocrity, as a representative of human frailty. Here, however, things get complicated: is the excess at the top of the social edifice (king, leader) not to be supplemented by the excess at its bottom, by the “part of no part” of the social body, those with no proper place within it, what Hegel called Poebel (rabble)? Hegel fails to take note how the rabble, in its very status of the destructive excess of social totality, its “part of no-part,” is the “reflexive determination” of the totality as such, the immediate embodiment of its universality, the particular element in the guise of which the social totality encounter itself among its elements, and, as such, the key constituent of its identity.9 (Note the dialectical finesse of this last feature: what “sutures” the identity of a social totality as such is the very “free-floating” element which dissolves all fixed identity of any intra-social element.)10 This is why Frank Ruda is fully justified in reading Hegel’s short passages on rabble (Pöebel) in his Philosophy of Right as a symptomatic point of his entire philosophy of right, if not of his entire system.11 If Hegel were to see the universal dimension of the rabble, he would have invented the symptom (as Marx – who saw in the proletariat the embodiment of the deadlocks of the existing society, the universal class – did).12 That is to say, what makes the notion of rabble symptomatic is that it describes a necessarily produced “irrational” excess of modern rational state, a group of people for which there is no place within the organized totality of the modern state, although they formally belong to it – as such, they perfectly exemplify the category of singular universality (a singular which directly gives body to a universality, by-passing the mediation through the particular), of what Rancière called the “part of no-part” of the social body:
§ 244 When the standard of living of a large mass of people falls below a certain subsistence level – a level regulated automatically as the one necessary for a member of the society – and when there is a consequent loss of the sense of right and wrong, of honesty and the self-respect which makes a man insist on maintaining himself by his own work and effort, the result is the creation of a rabble of paupers. At the same time this brings with it, at the other end of the social scale, conditions which greatly facilitate the concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands.
We can easily perceive here the link between the eminently political topic of the status of the rabble and Hegel’s basic ontological topic of the relationship between universality and particularity, i.e., the problem of how to understand the Hegelian “concrete universality.” If we understand “concrete universality” in the usual sense of the organic subdivision of the universal into its particular moments, so that universality is not an abstract feature in which individuals directly participate, and the participation of the individual in the universal is always mediated through the particular network of determinations, then the corresponding notion of society is a corporate one: society as an organic Whole in which each individual has to find its particular place, i.e., in which I participate in the State by fulfilling my particular duty or obligation. There are no citizens as such, one has to be a member of a particular estate (a farmer, a state official, mother in a family, teacher, artisan . . .) in order to contribute to the harmony of the Whole. This is the Bradleyian proto-Fascist Hegel who opposes atomistic liberalism (in which society is a mechanic unity of abstract individuals) on behalf of the State as a living organism in which each part has its function, and within this space, rabble has to appear as the irrational excess, as the threat to social order and stability, as outcasts excluded and excluding themselves from the “rational” social totality.

But is this truly what Hegel aims at with his “concrete universality”? Is the core of the dialectical negativity not the short-circuit between the genus and (one of) its species, so that genus appears as one of its own species opposed to others, entering a negative relationship with them? Recall Ambedkar’s rejoinder to Gandhi: “There will be outcasts as long as there are castes.” As long as there are castes, there will always be an excessive excremental zero-value element which, while formally part of the system, has no proper place within it, and as such stands for the (repressed) universality of this system. In this sense, concrete universality is precisely a universality which includes itself among its species, in the guise of a singular moment lacking particular content – in short, it is precisely those who are without their proper place within the social Whole (like the rabble) that stand for the universal dimension of the society which generates them. This is why the rabble cannot be abolished without radically transforming the entire social edifice – and Hegel is fully aware of this; he is consistent enough to confess that a solution of this “disturbing problem” is impossible not for external contingent reasons, but for strictly immanent conceptual reasons. While he enumerates a series of measures to resolve the problem (police control and repression, charity, export of rabble to colonies . . .), he himself admits that these are only secondary palliatives which cannot really resolve the problem – not because the problem is too hard (i.e., because there is not enough wealth in society to take care of the poor), but because there is too much excessive wealth – the more society is wealthy, the more poverty it produces:
§ 245 When the masses begin to decline into poverty, (a) the burden of maintaining them at their ordinary standard of living might be directly laid on the wealthier classes, or they might receive the means of livelihood directly from other public sources of wealth (e.g., from the endowments of rich hospitals, monasteries, and other foundations). In either case, however, the needy would receive subsistence directly, not by means of their work, and this would violate the principle of civil society and the feeling of individual independence and self-respect in its individual members. (b) As an alternative, they might be given subsistence indirectly through being given work, i.e., the opportunity to work. In this event the volume of production would be increased, but the evil consists precisely in an excess of production and in the lack of a proportionate number of consumers who are themselves also producers, and thus it is simply intensified by both of the methods (a) and (b) by which it is sought to alleviate it. It hence becomes apparent that despite an excess of wealth civil society is not rich enough, i.e., its own resources are insufficient to check excessive poverty and the creation of a penurious rabble.
Note the finesse of Hegel’s analysis: he points out that poverty is not only a material condition, but also the subjective position of being deprived of social recognition, which is why it is not enough to provide for the poor through public or private charity – in this way, the poor are still deprived of the satisfaction of autonomously taking care of their own lives. Furthermore, when Hegel emphasizes how society – the existing social order – is the ultimate space in which the subject finds his/ her substantial content and recognition, i.e., how subjective freedom can actualize itself only in the rationality of the universal ethical order, the implied (although not explicitly stated) obverse is that those who do NOT find this recognition have also the right to rebel: if a class of people is systematically deprived of their rights, of their very dignity as persons, they are eo ipso also released from their duties toward the social order, because this order is no longer their ethical substance. The dismissive tone of Hegel’s statements about the “rabble” should not blind us to the basic fact that he considered their rebellion rationally fully justified: the “rabble” is a class of people to whom systematically, not just in a contingent way, recognition by the ethical substance is denied, so they also do not owe anything to society, are dispensed of any duties toward it.

The negativity – the non-recognized element of the existing order – is thus necessarily produced, inherent to it, but with no place within the order. Here, however, Hegel commits a failure (measured by his own standards): he doesn’t venture the obvious thesis that, as such, rabble should immediately stand for the universality of society. As excluded, lacking recognition for its particular position, the rabble is the universal as such. At this point, at least, Marx was right in his critique of Hegel, since he was here more Hegelian than Hegel himself – as is well known, this is the starting point of the Marxian analysis: the “proletariat” designates such an “irrational” element of the “rational” social totality, its unaccountable “part of no part,” the element systematically generated by it and, simultaneously, denied the basic rights that define this totality, as such, the proletariat stands for the universality dimension, i.e., its emancipation is only possible in/through the universal emancipation. In a way, EVERY act is proletarian: “There is only one social symptom: every individual is effectively proletarian, that is to say, he does not dispose of a discourse by means of which he could establish a social link.”13 It is only from such a “proletarian” position of being deprived of a discourse (of occupying the place of the “part of no part” within the existing social link) than an act can emerge.

How, then, do the two excesses (the excess at the top and the excess at the bottom) relate to each other? Does the link between the two not provide the formula of a populist authoritarian regime? In his 18th bru- maire, the analysis of the first populist-authoritarian regime (the reign of Napoleon III), Marx pointed out that, while Napoleon III played one class against the other, stealing from one in order to satisfy another, the only true class base of his rule was the lumpenproletarian rabble. In a homologous way, the paradox of fascism is that it advocates hierarchic order in which “everybody at his/her proper place,” while its only true social base is rabble (SA thugs, etc.) – in it, the only direct class link of the Leader is the one which connects him to rabble, it is only among the rabble that Hitler was truly “at home.”

Hegel is of course aware that objective poverty is not enough to generate rabble: this objective poverty must be subjectivized, changed into a “disposition of mind,” experienced as radical injustice on account of which the subject feels no duty and obligation toward society. Hegel leaves no doubt that this injustice is a real one: society has a duty to guarantee the conditions for a dignified free autonomous life to all its members – this is their right, and if it is denied, they also have no duties toward society:

Addition: The lowest subsistence level, that of a rabble of paupers, is fixed automatically, but the minimum varies considerably in different countries. In England, even the very poorest believe that they have rights; this is different from what satisfies the poor in other countries. Poverty in itself does not make men into a rabble; a rabble is created only when there is joined to poverty a disposition of mind, an inner indignation against the rich, against society, against the government, &c. A further consequence of this attitude is that through their dependence on chance men become frivolous and idle, like the Neapolitan lazzaroni for example. In this way there is born in the rabble the evil of lacking self-respect enough to secure subsistence by its own labor and yet at the same time of claiming to receive subsistence as its right. Against nature man can claim no right, but once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another. The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modern society.14

It is easy to discern the ambiguity and oscillation in Hegel’s line of argumentation here. He first seems to blame the poor themselves for subjectivizing their position as that of rabble, i.e., for abandoning the principle of autonomy which obliges subjects to secure their subsistence by their own labor, and for claiming as their right to receive means for survival from society. Then he subtly changes the tone, emphasizing that, in contrast to nature, man can claim rights against society, which is why poverty is not just a fact but a wrong done to one class by another. Furthermore, there is a subtle non sequitur in his argumentation: he passes directly from indignation against the rich/society/government to the lack of self-respect (implied by the demand to receive from society subsistence without working for it) – rabble is irrational because they demand decent life without working for it, thus denying the basic modern axiom that freedom and autonomy are based on the work of self-mediation. Consequently, the right to subsist without labor
can only appear as irrational because /Hegel/ links the notion of right to the notion of the free will that can only be free if it becomes an object for itself through objective activity. To claim a right to subsist without activity and to claim this right at the same time only for oneself, according to Hegel, therefore means to claim a right that has neither the universality nor the objectivity of a right. The right that the rabble claims for Hegel is therefore a right without right and /. . ./ he consequently defines the rabble as the particularity that unbinds itself also from the essential interrelation of right and duty.15
But indignation is not the same as the lack of self-respect: it does not automatically generate the demand to be provided for without working. Indignation can also be a direct expression of self-respect: since rabble is produced necessarily, as part of the social process of the (re)production of wealth, it is society itself which denies them the right to participate in the social universe of freedoms and rights – they are denied the right to have rights, i.e., their “right without right” is effectively a meta-right or reflexive right, a universal right to have rights, to be in a position to act as a free autonomous subject. The demand to be provided for life without working is thus a (possibly superficial) form of appearance of the more basic and in no way “irrational” demand to be given a chance to act as an autonomous free subject, to be included in the universe of freedoms and obligations. In other words, since members of the rabble were excluded from the universal sphere of free autonomous life, their demand is itself universal – their
claimed right without right contains a latent universal dimension and is itself not at all a mere particular right. As a particularly articulated right it is a right that latently affects anyone and offers the insight into a demand for equality beyond the existing objective statist circumstances.16
There is a further key distinction to be introduced here, a distinction only latent in Hegel (in the guise of the opposition between the two excesses of poverty and wealth) elaborated by Ruda: members of the rabble (i.e., those excluded from the sphere of rights and freedoms) “can be structurally differentiated into two types: there are the poor and there are the gamblers. Anyone can non-arbitrarily become poor, but only the one that arbitrarily decides not to satisfy his egoist needs and desires by working can become a gambler. He relies fully on the contingent movement of bourgeois economy and hopes to secure his own subsistence in an equally contingent manner – for example by contingently gaining money on the stock-market.” The excessively wealthy are thus also a species of rabble in the sense that they violate the rules of (or exclude themselves from) the sphere of duties and freedoms: they not only demand from society to provide for their subsistence without work, they are de facto provided for such a life. Consequently, while Hegel criticizes the position of the rabble as being the position of an irrational particularity that egoistically opposes its mere particular interests against the existing and rationally organized universality, this differentiation between the two distinct rabbles demonstrates that only the rich rabble falls under Hegel’s verdict: “While the rich rabble is, as Hegel judges correctly, a mere particular rabble, the poor rabble contains, against Hegel’s judgment, a latent universal dimension that is not even inferior to the universality of the Hegelian conception of ethics.”

One can thus demonstrate that, in the case of the rabble, Hegel was inconsistent with regard to his own matrix of the dialectical process, de facto regressing from the properly dialectical notion of totality to a corporate model of the social Whole. Is this inconsequence a simple empirical and accidental failure of Hegel, so that we can correct this (and other) similar points and thereby establish the “true” Hegelian system? The point is, of course, that, here also, one should apply the fundamental dialectical guideline: such local failures to deploy properly the mechanism of the dialectical process are its immanent symptomal points, they indicate a more fundamental structural flaw of the basic mechanism itself. In short, if Hegel were to articulate the universal character of rabble, his entire model of the rational State would have to be abandoned. However, does this mean that all we have to do here is to enact the passage from Hegel to Marx? Is the inconsistency resolved when we replace rabble with proletariat as the “universal class”? Here is how Rebecca Comay summarizes the socio-political limitation of Hegel:
Hegel is not Marx. The rabble is not the proletariat, communism is not on the horizon, and revolution is not a solution. /. . ./ Hegel is not prepared to see in the contradiction of civil society the death knell of class society, to identify capitalism itself as its own gravedigger, or to see in the disenfranchised masses anything more than a surge of blind, formless reaction, ‘elemental, irrational, barbarous, and terrifying’/. . ./, a swarm whose integration remains unrealized and unrealizable, an ‘ought’. /. . . / But the aporia, untypical for Hegel, points to something unfinished or already crumbling within the edifice whose construction Hegel declares to be completed, a failure of both actuality and rationality that undermines the solidity of the state he elsewhere celebrates, in Hobbesian language, as an earthly divinity.17
Is then Hegel simply constrained by his historical context, did he come too early to see the emancipatory potential of the “part of no-part,” so that all he could have done was to honestly register the unresolved and unresolvable aporia of his rational state? But does the historical experience of the XXth century not render problematic also Marx’s vision of the revolution? Are we today, in the post-Fukuyama world, not exactly in late Hegel’s situation? We see “something unfinished or already crumbling within the edifice” of the liberal-democratic Welfare state which, in the utopian Fukuyama moment of the 1990s, may have appeared as the “end of history,” the finally found best possible politico-economic form. Perhaps, then, we encounter here yet another case of non-synchronicity: in a way, Hegel was more right than Marx, the XXth century attempts to enact the Aufhebung of the rage of the disenfranchised masses into the will of the proletarian agent to resolve social antagonisms ultimately failed, the “anachronistic” Hegel is more our contemporary than Marx.

We can also see how wrong was Althusser when, in his crude opposition between overdetermined structure and the Hegelian totality, he reduced the latter to a simple synchronicity that he called “expressive totality”: for (Althusser’s) Hegel, every historical epoch is dominated by one spiritual principle which expresses itself in all social spheres. However, as the example of the temporal discord between France and Germany demonstrated, non-contemporaneity is for Hegel a principle: Germany was politically in delay with regard to France (where the revolution took place), which is why it could only prolong it in the domain of thought; however, revolution itself emerged in France only because France itself was in delay with regard to Germany, i.e., because France missed Reformation which asserts inner freedom and thus reconciles secular and spiritual domains. So far from being an exception or an accidental complication, anachronism is the “signature” of consciousness:
experience is continually outbidding itself, perpetually making demands that it (i.e., the world) is unequipped to realize and unprepared to recognize, and comprehension inevitably comes too late to make a difference, if only because the stakes have already changed. (6)
This anachronistic untimeliness holds especially for revolutions: “The ‘French’ Revolution that provides the measure of ‘German’ untimeliness is itself untimely. /. . ./ There is no right time or ‘ripe time’ for revolution (or there would be no need of one). The Revolution always arrives too soon (conditions are never ready) and too late (it lags forever behind its own initiative)” (7). We can see now the stupidity of those “critical Marxists” who propagate the mantra that Stalinism emerged because the first proletarian revolution occurred at the wrong place (the half-developed “Asiatic” – despotic Russia instead of Western Europe – revolutions ALWAYS, by definition, occur at the wrong time and place, they are always “out of place.” And was the French Revolution not conditioned by the fact that, because of its absolutism, France was lagging behind in capitalist modernization?

But is this non-contemporaneity irreducible? Is the Absolute Knowing, the concluding moment of the Hegelian system, not the moment when, finally, history catches up with itself, when notion and reality overlaps in full contemporaneity? Comay rejects this easy reading:
Absolute knowing is the exposition of this delay. Its mandate is to make explicit the structural dissonance of experience. If philosophy makes any claim to universality, this is not because it synchronizes the calendars or provides intellectual compensation for its own tardiness. Its contribution is rather to formalize the necessity of the delay, together with the inventive strategies with which such a delay itself is invariably disguised, ignored, glamorized, or rationalized. (6)
This delay – ultimately not only the delay between the elements of the same historical totality, but the delay of the totality with regard to itself, the structural necessity for a totality to contain anachronistic elements which only make it possible for it to establish itself as a totality – is the temporal aspect of a gap which propels the dialectical process, and far from filling in this gap, “absolute knowing” makes it visible as such, in its structural necessity:
Absolute knowing is neither compensation, as in the redemption of a debt, nor fulfilment: the void is constitutive (which does not mean that it is not historically overdetermined). Rather than trying to plug the gap through the accumulation of conceptual surplus value, Hegel sets out to demystify the phantasms we find to fill it. (125)
Therein resides the difference between Hegel and historicist evolutionism: the latter conceives historical progress as the succession of forms, each of which grows, reaches its peak, and then becomes oudated and disintegrates, while for Hegel, disintegration is the very sign of “maturity,” i.e., there is no moment of pure synchronicity when form and content overlap without delay.

So, back to Europe, perhaps we should conceive the very European trinity as a Borromean knot of anachronisms: the model-like excellence of each nation (British economy, French politics, German thought) is grounded in an anachronistic delay in other domains (the excellence of German thought is the paradoxical result of their politico-economic backwardness; the French Revolution was grounded in the delay of capitalism due to French state absolutism; etc. In this sense, the European trinity worked like a Borromean knot: each two nations are linked only through the intermediary of the third (in politics, France links England and Germany, etc.).

We should risk here a step further and demystify the very notion of a world-historical nation, a nation destined to embody the level the world history has reached at a certain point. It is often claimed that, in China, if you really hate someone, the curse you address at him is: “May you live in interesting times!” As Hegel was fully aware, in our history, “interesting times” are effectively the times of unrest, war and power struggle with millions of innocent by-standers suffering the consequences: “The history of the world is not the theatre of happiness. Periods of happiness are blank pages; for they are periods of harmony, periods of the missing opposition.”18 Should we then not conceive the succession of great “historical” nations which pass one to another the torch of embodying for a period progress (Iran, Greece, Rome, Germany . . .) not as a blessing of being temporarily elevated into a world-historical range but, rather, as a transmitting of a king of contagious spiritual disease of which one (a nation) can get rid only by passing it over to another nation, a disease which brings only suffering and destruction to the people contaminated by it. Jews were a normal nation living in a happy “blank page” of history until, for reasons unknown, god selected them as a chosen nation, which brought them only pain and dispersion – Hegel’s solution is that this burden can be passed on and one can return to the happy “blank page.” Or, to put it in Althusserian terms, while people live like individuals, from time to time some of them have the misfortune of being interpellated into subjects of the big Other.

So, back to rabble, one can argue that the position of “universal rabble” perfectly renders the plight of today’s new proletarians. In the classical Marxist dispositif of class exploitation, capitalist and worker meet as formally free individuals on the market, equal subjects of the same legal order, citizens of the same state, with the same civil and political rights. Today, this legal frame of equality, this shared participation in the same civil and political spaces, is gradually dissolving with the rise of the new forms of social and political exclusion: illegal immigrants, slum-dwellers, refugees, etc. It is as if, in parallel to the regression from profit to rent, in order to continue to function, the existing system has to resuscitate pre-modern forms of direct exclusion – it can no longer afford exploitation and domination in the form of legal and civil authority. In other words, while the classic working class is exploited through their very participation in the sphere of rights and freedoms, i.e., while their de facto enslavement is realized through the very form of their autonomy and freedom, through working in order to provide for their subsistence, today’s rabble is denied even the right to be exploited through work, its status oscillating between that of a victim provided for by charitable humanitarian help and that of a terrorist to be contained or crushed; and, exactly as described by Hegel, they sometimes formulate their demand as the demand for subsistence without work (like the Somalia pirates).

One should bring together here Hegel’s two failures (by his own standards), rabble and sex, as aspects of the same limitation. Far from providing the natural foundation of human lives, sexuality is the very terrain where humans detach themselves from nature: the idea of sexual perversion or of a deadly sexual passion is totally foreign to the animal universe. Here, Hegel himself commits a failure with regard to his own standards: he only deploys how, in the process of culture, the natural substance of sexuality is cultivated, sublated, mediated – we, humans, no longer just make love for procreation, we get involved in a complex process of seduction and marriage by means of which sexuality becomes an expression of the spiritual bond between a man and a woman, etc. However, what Hegel misses is how, once we are within the human condition, sexuality is not only transformed/civilized, but, much more radically, changed in its very substance: it is no longer the instinctual drive to reproduce, but a drive that gets thwarted as to its natural goal (reproduction) and thereby explodes into an infinite, properly metaphysical,
passion. The becoming-cultural of sexuality is thus not the becoming-cultural of nature, but the attempt to domesticate a properly un-natural excess of the metaphysical sexual passion. This excess of negativity discernible in sex and apropos rabble is the very dimension of “unruliness” identified by Kant as the violent freedom on account of which man, in contrast to animals, needs a master. So it is not just that sexuality is the animal substance which is then “sublated” into civilized modes and rituals, gentrified, disciplined, etc. – the excess itself of sexuality which threatens to explode the “civilized” constraints, sexuality as unconditional Passion, is the result of Culture. In the terms of Wagner’s Tristan: civilization is not only the universe of the Day, rituals and honors that bind us, but the Night itself, the infinite passion in which the two lovers want to dissolve their ordinary daily existence – animals know no such passion. In this way, the civilization/Culture retroactively posits/transforms its own natural presupposition: culture retroactively “denaturalizes” nature itself, this is what Freud called the Id, libido. This is how, here also, in fighting its natural obstacle, opposed natural substance, the Spirit fights itself, its own essence.
Elisabeth Lloyd suggests that female orgasm has no positive evolutionary function: it is not a biological adaptation with evolutionary advantages, but an “appendix” like male nipples.19 Male and female both have the same anatomical structure for the first two months in the embryo stage of the growth, before the differences set in – the female gets the orgasm because the male will later need it, just like the male gets nipples because the female will later need them. All the standard explanations (like the “uterine upsuck” thesis – orgasm causes contractions that “upsuck” sperm and thus aid conception) are false: while sexual pleasures and even clitoris ARE adaptive, orgasm is not. The fact that this thesis provoked a furor among feminists is in itself a proof of the decline of our intellectual standards: as if the very superfluity of the feminine orgasm does not make it all the more “spiritual” – let us not forget that, according to some evolutionists, language itself is a by-product with no clear evolutionary function. One should be attentive not to miss the properly dialectical reversal of substance at work here: the moment when the immediate substantial (“natural”) starting point is not only acted-upon, transformed, mediated/cultivated, but changed in its very substance. We not only work upon and thus transform nature – in a gesture of retroactive reversal, nature itself radically changes its “nature.” (In a homologous way, once we enter the domain of legal civil society, the previous tribal order of honor and revenge is deprived of its nobility and all of a sudden appears as common criminality.) This is why the Catholics who insist that only sex for procreation is human, while coupling for lust is animal, totally miss the point, and end up celebrating the animality of men.

Why is Christianity opposed to sexuality, accepting it as a necessary evil only if it serves its natural purpose of procreation? Not because in sexuality our lower nature explodes, but precisely because sexuality competes with pure spirituality as the primordial metaphysical activity. The Freudian hypothesis is that the passage from animal instincts (of mating) to sexuality proper (to drives) is the primordial step from physical realm of biological (animal) life to metaphysics, to eternity and immortality, to a level which is heterogeneous with regard to the biological cycle of generation and corruption. (This is why the Catholic argument that sex without procreation, whose aim is not procreation, is animal, is wrong: the exact opposite is true, sex spiritualizes itself only when it abstracts from its natural end and becomes an end-in-itself.) Plato was already aware of this when he wrote about Eros, erotic attachment to a beautiful body, as the first step on the way toward the supreme Good; perspicuous Christians (like Simone Weil) discerned in sexual longing a striving for the Absolute. Human sexuality is characterized by the impossibility to reach its goal, and this constitutive impossibility eternalizes it, as is the case in the myths about great lovers whose love insists beyond life and death. Christianity conceives this properly metaphysical excess of sexuality as a disturbance to be erased, so it is paradoxically Christianity itself (especially Catholicism) which wants to get rid of its competitor by way of reducing sexuality to its animal function of procreation: Christianity wants to “normalize” sexuality, spiritualizing it from without (imposing on it the external envelope of spirituality (sex must be done with love and respect for the partner, in a cultivated way, etc.), and thereby obliterating its immanent spiritual dimension, the dimension of unconditional passion. Even Hegel succumbs to this mistake when he sees the properly human-spiritual dimension of sexuality only in its cultivated/mediated form, ignoring how this mediation retroactively transubstantiates/eternalizes the very object of its mediation. In all these cases, the aim is to get rid of the uncanny double of spirituality, of a spirituality in its obscene libidinal form, of the excess which absolutizes the very instinct into the eternal drive.

It is easy to see the parallel between rabble and sex here: Hegel doesn’t recognize in rabble (more than in state bureaucracy) the “universal class”; he doesn’t recognize in sexual passion the excess which is neither culture nor nature. Although the logic is different in each case (apropos rabble, Hegel overlooks the universal dimension of the excessive/discordant element; apropos sex, he overlooks the excess as such, the undermining of the opposition nature/culture), the two failures are linked, since excess is the site of universality, the way universality as such inscribes itself into the order of its particular content.

The underlying true problem is the following one: the standard “Hegelian” scheme of death (negativity) as the subordinate/mediating moment of Life can only be sustained if we remain within the category of Life whose dialectic is that of the self-mediating Substance returning to itself from its otherness. The moment we effectively pass from Substance to Subject, from Life(-principle) to Death(-principle), there is no encompassing “synthesis,” death in its “abstract negativity” forever remains as a threat, an excess which cannot be economized. In social life, this means that Kant’s universal peace is a vain hope, that war forever remains a threat of total disruption of organized state Life; in individual subjective life, that madness always lurks as a possibility.

Does this mean that we are back at the standard topos of the excess of negativity which cannot be “sublated” in any reconciling “synthesis,” or even at the naive Engelsian view of the alleged contradiction between the openness of Hegel’s “method” and the enforced closure of his “system”? There are indications which point in this direction: as it was noted by many perspicuous commentators, Hegel’s “conservative” political writings of his last years (like his critique of the English Reform Bill) betray a fear of any further development which will assert the “abstract” freedom of the civil society at the expense of the State’s organic unity, and open up a way to new revolutionary violence.20 Why did Hegel shrink back here, why did he not dare to follow his basic dialectical rule, courageously embracing “abstract” negativity as the only path to a higher stage of freedom?

Hegel may appear to celebrate the prosaic character of life in a well organized modern state where the heroic disturbances are overcome in the tranquillity of private rights and the security of the satisfaction of needs: private property is guaranteed, sexuality is restricted to marriage, future is safe . . . In this organic order, universality and particular interests appear reconciled: the “infinite right” of subjective singularity is given its due, individuals no longer experience the objective state order as a foreign power intruding onto their rights, for they recognize in it the substance and frame of their very freedom. Lebrun asks here the fateful question: “Can the sentiment of the Universal be dissociated from this appeasement?”(214) Against Lebrun, our answer should be: yes, and this is why war is necessary – in war, universality reasserts its right against and over the concrete-organic appeasement in the prosaic social life. Is thus the necessity of war not the ultimate proof that, for Hegel, every social reconciliation is doomed to fail, that no organic social order can effectively contain the force of abstract-universal negativity? This is why social life is condemned to the “spurious infinity” of the eternal oscillation between stable civic life and wartime perturbations – the notion of “tarrying with the negative” acquires here a more radical meaning: not just to “pass through” the negative but to persist in it.

This necessity of war should be linked to its opposite, the necessity of a rebellion which shatters the power edifice from its complacency and makes it aware of its dependence on the popular support and of its a priori tendency to “alienate” itself from its roots, or, as Jefferson famously wrote, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing”: “It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”21 Both times, a “terrorist” potential is unleashed: the first time, it is the state which unleashes absolute negativity that shatters individual subjects out of their particular complacency; the second time, it is the people themselves who remind the state power of the terrorist dimension of democracy by way of shattering all particular state structures. The beauty of the Jacobins is that, in their terror, they brought together these two opposed dimensions: their terror was simultaneously the terror of the state against individuals and the terror of the people against particular state institutions or functionaries who got too identified by their institutional places (the reproach to Danton was simply that he wanted to raise himself above others . . .). Needless to add that, in a properly Hegelian way, the two opposed dimensions are to be identified, i.e., that the negativity of the state power against individuals sooner or later inexorably turns against (the individuals who exercise) the state power itself.

Apropos war, Hegel is thus again not fully consequent with regard to his own theoretical premises: if he were to be consequent, he would have to accomplish the Jeffersonian move, i.e., obvious dialectical passage from external war (between states) to “internal” war (revolution, i.e., rebellion against one’s own state power) as a sporadic explosion of negativity which rejuvenates the edifice of power. This is why, in reading the infamous Paragraphs 322–4 of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, where Hegel justifies the ethical necessity of war, one should be very careful to perceive the link between his argumentation here and his basic propositions on the self-relating negativity that constitutes the very core of a free autonomous individual – Hegel here simply applies this basic self-relating negativity constitutive of free subjectivity to relations between states:
§ 322 Individuality is awareness of one’s existence as a unit in sharp distinction from others. It manifests itself here in the state as a relation to other states, each of which is autonomous vis-a-vis the others. This autonomy embodies mind’s actual awareness of itself as a unit and hence it is the most fundamental freedom which a people possesses as well as its highest dignity.

§ 323 This negative relation of the state to itself is embodied in the world as the relation of one state to another and as if the negative were something external. In the world of existence, therefore, this negative relation has the shape of a happening and an entanglement with chance events coming from without. But in fact this negative relation is that moment in the state which is most supremely its own, the state’s actual infinity as the ideality of everything finite within it. It is the moment wherein the substance of the state – i.e., its absolute power against everything individual and particular, against life, property, and their rights, even against societies and associations – makes the nullity of these finite things an accomplished fact and brings it home to consciousness.
/. . ./ An entirely distorted account of the demand for this sacrifice results from regarding the state as a mere civil society and from regarding its final end as only the security of individual life and property. This security cannot possibly be obtained by the sacrifice of what is to be secured – on the contrary.

/. . ./ War is not to be regarded as an absolute evil and as a purely external accident, which itself therefore has some accidental cause, be it injustices, the passions of nations or the holders of power, &c., or in short, something or other which ought not to be. It is to what is by nature accidental that accidents happen, and the fate whereby they happen is thus a necessity. Here as elsewhere, the point of view from which things seem pure accidents vanishes if we look at them in the light of the concept and philosophy, because philosophy knows accident for a show and sees in it its essence, necessity. It is necessary that the finite – property and life – should be definitely established as accidental, because accidentality is the concept of the finite. From one point of view this necessity appears in the form of the power of nature, and everything is mortal and transient. But in the ethical substance, the state, nature is robbed of this power, and the necessity is exalted to be the work of freedom, to be something ethical. The transience of the finite becomes a willed passing away, and the negativity lying at the roots of the finite becomes the substantive individuality proper to the ethical substance.

/. . ./ In peace civil life continually expands; all its departments wall themselves in, and in the long run men stagnate. Their idiosyncrasies become continually more fixed and ossified. But for health the unity of the body is required, and if its parts harden themselves into exclusiveness, that is death. Perpetual peace is often advocated as an ideal towards which humanity should strive. With that end in view, Kant proposed a league of monarchs to adjust differences between states, and the Holy Alliance was meant to be a league of much the same kind. But the state is an individual, and individuality essentially implies negation. Hence even if a number of states make themselves into a family, this group as an individual must engender an opposite and create an enemy. As a result of war, nations are strengthened, but peoples involved in civil strife also acquire peace at home through making wars abroad. To be sure, war produces insecurity of property, but this insecurity of things is nothing but their transience – which is inevitable. We hear plenty of sermons from the pulpit about the insecurity, vanity, and instability of temporal things, but everyone thinks, however much he is moved by what he hears, that he at least will be able to retain his own. But if this insecurity now comes on the scene in the form of hussars with shining sabres and they actualize in real earnest what the preachers have said, then the moving and edifying discourses which foretold all these events turn into curses against the invader.

The function of what Hegel conceptualizes as the necessity of war is precisely the repeated untying of the organic social links. When, in his Group Psychology, Freud outlined the “negativity” of untying social ties (Thanatos as opposed to Eros, the force of social link), he (in his liberal limitation) all too easily dismissed the manifestations of this untying as the fanaticism of the “spontaneous” crowd (as opposed to artificial crowds: Church and Army). Against Freud, we should retain the ambiguity of this movement of untying: it is a zero level that renders open the space for political intervention. That is to say, this untying is the pre-political condition of politics, and, with regard to it, every political intervention proper already goes “one step too far,” committing itself to a new project (Master-Signifier). (Badiou also jumps all too directly from mere “animal life” to the political Event, ignoring the negativity of the death-drive which intervenes between the two.) Today, this apparently abstract topic is actual again: the “untying” energy is largely monopolized by the New Right (Tea Party movement in the US, where the Republican Party is more and more split between Order and its Untying). However, here also, every Fascism is a sign of failed revolution, and the only way to combat this Rightist untying will be for the Left to engage in its own untying – and there are already signs of it (the large demonstrations all around Europe in 2010, from Greece to France and the UK, where the student demonstrations against university fees unexpectedly turned violent). In asserting the threat of “abstract negativity” to the existing order as a permanent feature which cannot ever be aufgehoben, Hegel is here more materialist than Marx: in his theory of war (and of madness), he is aware of the repetitive return of the “abstract negativity” which violently unbinds social links. Marx re-binds violence into a process of the rise of a New Order (violence as the “midwife” of a new society), while in Hegel, this unbinding remains non-sublated.

One cannot emphasize enough how these “militaristic” ruminations are directly grounded in Hegel’s fundamental ontological insights and matrixes. When Hegel writes that the state’s negative relation to itself (i.e., its self-assertion as an autonomous agent whose freedom is demonstrated through its readiness to distance itself from all its particular content) “is embodied in the world as the relation of one state to another and as if the negative were something external,” he evokes a precise dialectical figure of the unity of contingency and necessity: the coincidence of external (contingent) opposition and immanent-necessary self-negativity – one’s own innermost essence, the negative relation-to-oneself, has to appear as a contingent external obstacle or intrusion. This is why, for Hegel, the “truth” of the external contingent opposition is the necessity of negative self-relating. And this direct coincidence of the opposites, this direct overlapping (or short-circuit) between extreme internality (the innermost autonomy of the Self) and the extreme externality of an accidental encounter, cannot be “overcome,” the two poles cannot be “mediated” into a stable complex unity. This is why Hegel surprisingly evokes the “solemn cycles of history,” making it clear that there is no final Aufhebung here: the entire complex edifice of the particular forms of social life has to be put at risk again and again – a reminder that the social edifice is a fragile virtual entity which can disintegrate at any moment not because of contingent external threats, but because of its innermost essence. This regenerating passage through radical negativity cannot ever be “sublated” in a stable social edifice – a proof, if one is needed, of Hegel’s ultimate materialism. That is to say, the persisting threat that the radical self-relating negativity will put at risk and dissolve any organic social structure points toward the finite status of all such structures: their status is virtual-ideal, lacking any ultimate ontological guarantee, always exposed to the danger disintegration when, triggered by an accidental external intrusion, their grounding negativity explodes. The identity of the opposites does not mean here that, in an idealist way, the inner spirit “generates” external obstacles which appear as accidental: external accidents which cause wars are genuinely accidental, the point is that, as such, they “echo” the innermost negativity that is the core of subjectivity.

1. Quoted from

2. All passages from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right are quoted from

3. Quoted from

4. K.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1995, p. 116.

5. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, La marque du sacre, Paris: Carnets Nord 2008.

6. See Claude Lefort, Essais sur le politique, Paris: Editions du Seuil 1986.

7. See Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 1991.

8. Quoted from Stathis Gourgouris, Does Literature Think?, Stanford: Stanford University Press 2003, 179.

9. I am here fully solidary with Benjamin Noys who, in his The Persistence of the Negative (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2010), emphasizes and deploys the link between the vicissitudes of the “purely philosophical” notion of negativity and the shifts and impasses of the radical politics: when one talks on negativity, politics is never far behind.

10. One can even establish a link between Hegel’s residual anti-Semitism and his inability to think pure repetition: when he gives way to his displeasure with the Jews who stubbornly stick to their identity, instead of “moving forward” and, like other nations, allowing their identity to be sublated /aufgehoben/ in historical progress, is his displeasure not caused by the perception that Jews remain caught in the repetition of the same?

11. I rely here on Frank Ruda’s Hegel’s Rabble. An Investigation into Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, New York: Continuum 2011.

12. I owe this formulation to Mladen Dolar.

13. Jacques Lacan, “Le troisieme,” Lettres d’Ecole freudienne de Paris, No 16 (1975), p. 187.

14. Quoted from Hegel, op.cit.

15. Ruda, op.cit., p. 132.

16. Op.cit., ibid.

17. Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness. Hegel and the French Revolution, Stanford: Stanford University Press 2011, p. 141. Numbers in brackets refer to the pages of this book.

18. Georg W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, p. 26–27.

19. See Elisabeth Lloyd, The Case of the Female Orgasm, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2006.

20. Hegel died a year after the French revolution of 1830.

21. Quoted from Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, New York: HarperCollins 2001, 95.
Slavoj Žižek, "King, Rabble, Sex, and War in Hegel"

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