Sunday, October 7, 2012

Hegel's Rabble

One of the most interesting talks I attended at the Central State Philosophical Association Conference was entitled "What Is to Be Done about the Rabble?", presented by Joshua Anderson. The paper focused on a piece of Hegel's political philosophy, specifically, his idea that the operation of modern civil society gives rise to a problematic underclass of people whom Hegel dubbed "the rabble" (from what I can tell, not intended to have the derisive sense that "rabble" connotes today). While I don't remember all the details of the talk and the ensuing discussion, I want to share here what I took from the conversation and from my subsequent refresher reading of the relevant passages from Hegel's Philosophy of Right--because I think it has important implications for our contemporary conversations about poverty and welfare.

For Hegel, the beneficiaries of civil society are organized into "Corporations"--by which Hegel means organizations of people who carry out some recognized branch of the work that a civil society needs done (this would include corporations in the modern sense but would also extend to other kinds of social organizations, such as universities, police and fire departments, hospitals, governmental agencies, etc.). Full membership in civil society is conferred when you become a member of a Corporation. When you do, you have a role, a recognized place in society for which you are compensated with the means to meet your needs.

Corporations in this sense are a crucial part of organizing human beings into a civil society. As Hegel puts it, the Corporation operates as "a second family for its members, while civil society can only be an indeterminate sort of family because it comprises everyone and so is farther removed from individuals and their special exigencies." Put another way, the Corporation serves as a kind of mediating social unit, between the family and the society as a whole. You become a citizen of society through corporate membership. As a member of a Corporation you have a specified role to play in an organization that itself has a specified role in society as a whole. You are recognized and remunerated by the Corporation, and the Corporation is in turn recognized by the civil society at large and given the right to exchange the goods or services it provides in exchange for capital.

This arrangement brings several concrete benefits to the Corporation member. First, and most obviously, as a Corporation member you acquire the resources to care for yourself and your dependents. Without this, you are impoverished.

Second, you acquire recognition from your community. You are seen as a contributing member--you have a "recognitive status"--and so enjoy a sense of belonging. Without such a role, you are alienated.

Third, you acquire the opportunity to do meaningful work and so experience yourself as being a contributor to society.  In Hegel's words, "the Corporation member needs no external marks beyond his own membership as evidence of his skill and his regular income and subsistence, i.e., as evidence that he is somebody." As social animals, we "find ourselves" through the impact we have on the social world. Our sense of self, our dignity, is bound up with being able to recognize that impact in our community. Hence, without such a role, we are cast into a position of shame.

Hegel argues that as civil society increases its population and its wealth, there are inherent limits to how many positions relative to the population are available within Corporations. Hegel is a bit unclear about why. He seems to think that Corporations are engines not only of production, but of differential distribution of the benefits of production. Conditions arise "which greatly facilitate the concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands," but the flip side is a growing mass of people who are left out. These persons are not only impoverished, but alienated and defined by shame. From the standpoint of society they are outsiders; from their own standpoint they lack the kind of identity that can confer positive self-worth.

These are "the rabble." They are denied two crucial things: First, they are excluded from the benefits of the social contract. Second, they are deprived of the opportunity to contribute to society in ways that are socially recognized and respected. In more technical lingo, they are denied the opportunity to legitimately "externalize themselves" in their social environment.

This second kind of deprivation should not be underappreciated. One of Hegel's important contributions to social philosophy--picked up on famously by Marx--is the insight that those who work have a unique advantage over those who are idle, even if the idleness is that of wealth and privilege. Those who work make an imprint on the world. That imprint is an assurance of their own significance and identity. It's as if they can see themselves through the effect they have on their environment, and so come to know that they matter. It is for this reason that, on Hegel's view, slaves are better off, at least in one crucial way, than the rabble.

Hegel doesn't see a way to avoid the creation of a "rabble" in a civil society, nor does he see a solution that will do any substantive good. He considers the possibility of the wealthier classes supporting the rabble through a kind of social welfare, which he dismisses on the grounds that receiving subsistence without working for it "would violate the principle of civil society and the feeling of individual independence and self-respect in its individual members." The first part of this dismissal is a familiar refrain today (those who receive benefits without contributing are "freeloaders" or "moochers"). The second part is more interesting: Neither charitable giving nor state-sponsored welfare confer a meaningful place in society, a recognized role and the opportunity to engage in the sort of work that confers a sense of self and dignity.

So what about giving the rabble jobs? Hegel says this won't solve the problem either, because the problem is a function of overproduction relative to "the number of consumers who are themselves also producers." You give more people more jobs, and you overproduce even more. This solution, Hegel claims, only intensifies the fundamental problem that gives rise to the impoverished class. In short, Hegel seems to be a proto-Keynesian convinced that universal employment inevitably guarantees overproduction relative to demand. To achieve a balance between supply and demand requires that a proportion of the populace remain unable to find work.

 But Hegel is vague about this, and I'm not enough of an economist to say with confidence whether he is right, or how this proto-Keynesian view relates back to his idea that the creation of a rabble is the necessary flip-side of growing concentrations of wealth. My best guess is that the existence of a pool of potential workers that exceeds the available work not only is required for the sake of preventing overproduction and so preserving profit, but is also required in order for employers to be able to keep more for themselves of what the worker's labor is worth. If workers can be easily replaced by dipping into the hungry rabble, who will happily take any employment on any terms for the sake of fending off starvation, then workers are at a bargaining disadvantage. They'll be compelled to sell their labor for less than it is worth, while corporate owners keep the difference and so get rich.

The closest Hegel comes to proposing a solution to the problem of the rabble is to suggest that the rabble serve as a motive for foreign trade and, ultimately, colonial expansion. Through the latter, society "supplies to part of its population a return to life on the family basis in a new land and so also supplies itself with a new demand and field for its industry." In other words, you export your rabble, who ideally return to a simpler agrarian existence of local self-sufficiency ("life on the family basis," as opposed to life in a civil society unified around industrial production). They are gone from your soil but still consume your goods, meaning that consumption of what you produce exceeds your local population. And this makes possible more universal employment while still facilitating the accumulation of wealth among the privileged classes.

A handy solution for Hegel. But the history of colonialization is frought with injustice as soon as you pay attention to the fact that colonial settlers were actually moving into lands already occupied by peoples not participating in the industrial social contract and its mode of social organization. Furthermore, the history of colonialization seems to me to be the history of a globalization of the industrial social model, leading ultimately to a global "rabble": whole nations of destitute and disenfranchised human beings. Eventually you run out of new frontiers, and the problem of the rabble resurfaces on an international scale.

And so we confront the question posed by Joshua Anderson in the title of his conference paper: "What is to be done about the rabble?" Is such an underclass really as inevitable as Hegel thought? Are there any meaningful solutions that address both of the chief problems from which the rabble suffer--namely poverty and lack of recognitive status?

The coversation at the conference was too rich and interesting to adequately summarize. In simplest terms, Anderson's suggestion in his talk was that the rabble themselves, by existing outside the social contract, had a freedom to act that offers hope for the emergence of a solution from within the rabble. His commentator, Roxy Green, noted that the life circumstances of the rabble will likely put limits on their capacity to understand social dynamics enough to use their freedom productively.

These points, taken together, call attention in my mind to something Hegel doesn't dwell on but which is important to consider--namely, the way in which the rabble pose a threat, and the way in which society tends to manage that threat. Insofar as the rabble don't benefit from the social contract, it is fairly clear why they threaten the social order: We can't expect them to follow the rules when they aren't beneficiaries of the system the rules are meant to keep in place. In short, the first kind of deprivation from which the rabble suffer erases a crucial constraint against lashing out destructively.

And the second kind of deprivation can positively motivate violence. As social animals, it is very important to us that we matter in relation to our social environment. If there are no legitimate roles through which we can achieve this, then what happens to us? We either begin to think of ourselves as something less than human, as having a status equivalent to the squirrels that dart across one's path but aren't part of the human community; or we assert our humanity in dangerously anti-social ways. Denied a positive impact on the social environment, some opt for a negative one.

But while the rabble are threatening for these reasons, the threat they pose is mitigated by their lack of power and their limited knowledge. When they do lash out against the civil society in ways that violate the laws, their blows are usually quite limited in their capacity to damage the system or its most affluent beneficiaries; and, generally, they are quickly apprehended and far more likely to be convicted than those who enjoy the benefits of the social order would be. This is a baseline solution that members of civil society in general, regardless of political persuasion, seems to endorse: Count on the police and criminal justice system to take care of the threat posed by the rabble--directly by removing those who break the law from society; indirectly through the deterrent effect of these examples. Given the general powerlessness of the rabble overall, this may go a long way towards solving the threat posed by the disenfranchised underclass--and that may be all the "solution" that many care about.   

But sometimes the threat posed by the rabble--either through sporadic violence or more concerted action (not necessarily violent) to claim some share of what they are denied--faces the prospect of becoming more serious. And so civil society supplements law enforcement with other strategies. The rabble's limited perspective and knowledge means that savvy beneficiaries of the social contract can find strategies to misdirect and mislead them into behaving in ways that serve or at least don't threaten the status quo. Perhaps they are led to turn on one another, to be so hostile or fractured among themselves that there is little risk of organizing effectively. If there's a poor, unskilled working class, it might be possible to pit them against the rabble.

Or perhaps the underclass is fed the promise of some otherworldly solution to their plight, the message that their state in this life is irrelevant and they should live wholly for the life to come.

Or perhaps they hunker down in hopelessness and self-blame--beating themselves up, literally or metaphorically, because they have come to accept a narrative according to which they are responsible for their own alienated state and would be just fine if only they had the will to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Perhaps they are fed stories of rags-to-riches archetypes who embody the notion that anyone can succeed in civil society, even if they start out among the rabble. Such stories imply that there are no rabble in the true sense, since anyone in this state could escape it if only they applied themselves.

Another way to manage the rabble is to follow Hegel's first suggestion: provide them with a subsistence living through handouts--perhaps as an official social policy. Do this, and they now become beneficiaries of the social contract, even though they remain alienated and denied a meaning-bestowing role. As beneficiaries of the system, they are brought within the scope of its laws. They owe their obedience. Furthermore, fear of losing what little they have can keep them from lashing out. The problem, of course, is that now they are deprived of dignity. And general allegiance to the principle of civil society--that each member gains his or her share of social goods by contributing proportionately--may combine with the very rags-to-riches stories mentioned above to produce outraged resistance from the poorest of those who do contribute, since their share of social goods may be little more than what the rabble a receiving without working for it.

What these solutions have in common is that they all operate within the framework of the system that creates the rabble in the first place. The most famous Hegel-influenced philosopher on socio-political matters, Marx, can be seen as looking for a solution by adopting an alternative system brought about by a revolution of, not the rabble, but the proletariat (the exploited workers who benefit minimally from the industrial social contract).

But is the creation of a rabble really as inevitable as Hegel thinks, given the roughly capitalist social contract that Hegel envisions? Can a free market industrial society exist without giving rise to a disenfranchised underclass, either at home or abroad? If it is not inevitable, who benefits from the patterns that give rise to this underclass, and what sort of resistance will efforts to change things generate among those beneficiaries?

My own intuition is that the creation of a rabble is not inevitable, even in a free market system, so long as that system is regulated and supplemented in the right ways--such as, for example, with minimum wage laws that undercut the incentive to play the working poor against the rabble for the sake of exploiting labor, and tax policies that erase the advantages of concentrating wealth through exploitation of the vulnerable. If the incentive to hire in the private sector is limited by worries of overproduction relative to demand, the government can step in as an entity not beholden to such profit concerns and hire the unemployed to do tasks that serve the public good: investments in infrastructure, etc.

But I'm not economist, so my grasp of these issue is limited. What do others think?


  1. Hi Eric

    I think the idea that unemployment does its damage on a number of levels, including this notion of exclusion, is very important. A great mistake we certainly made in my country was to expect people to be much more resilient than they actually are in the face of upheaval. Many economists were surprised to find that when the economy did pick up again after a long period of brutal adjustment, the excess workforce wasn't ready to retrain and jump back in. In fact the psychological damage, much of it intergenerational, represented a massive disinvestment in human capital, which is all too often left out of the initial calculations.

    The idea that Hegel's rabble is in some sense inevitable is, I think, demonstrably wrong. There have been sustained periods of effectively full employment in various pockets of the globe, so his mechanism of overproduction is, I suspect, oversimplified.

    That said, there are many now who argue that our current mechanisms for generating employment are too resource hungry to be sustainable, so whether resource limits will put a ceiling on participation in the paid workforce is perhaps an open question.

    One trap that seems very common is to use the hope that full employment will exist again one day as an excuse not to address the human cost of the current failure. Proposed solutions are often dismissed as 'not solving the real problem of generating new jobs' but given how very bad many western societies have been at doing that in recent years, perhaps the better path is to both strive for employment growth and seek ways, in the meantime, of addressing the costs Hegel identifies.


  2. Bernard,

    Your point about the psychological damage to persons cast into the "rabble" underclass is well-taken. I suspect that this damage can be intensified by the unwise and untimely promulgation of narratives whose message is that everyone can succeed in society if only they apply themselves, and those who don't have only themselves to blame. If this message is pushed at a time when there simply aren't enough jobs to go around, the message will clash against reality in destructive ways.

    First, there are those who will believe the message, act on it, and become disillusioned. When economic conditions improve and real opportunity is restored, they may suffer from a kind of "boy who cried wolf" syndrome and not believe the message anymore, even now that it is finally true.

    More significantly, they may continue to believe the message but regard their failure as a testament to their own inadequacy as human beings (this is especially likely if the conditions of underemployment persist for a long period). The shame of extended social exclusion, of needing to beg for scraps, becomes magnified by the belief that they are capable of nothing better, that they really are somehow less than fully human.

    And, as you note, this kind of internalized message can be inherited. If one's parents have no sense of their own dignity as human beings, where is one to learn it? This question may not be wholly rhetorical, since one can imagine societies that take the problem seriously enough to commit themselves to solutions--perhaps in public schools. But even if a society develops mechanisms for restoring a sense of dignity to those with a family legacy of marginalization, these mechanisms will be working against contrary forces and will certainly be less than perfectly successful.

  3. Eric-

    What a great topic. I would comment on how narratives have real effects on our economic lives. The prosperity gospel convinces people to part with their all-too-scarce cash. And the "ownership society" mantra combines with fraudulent lenders to create a real-estate bubble laden with suckers more eager to live the dream than their resources allow.

    The cultural narrative (i.e., the "Joneses", the American dream) is an important mechanism by which expectations are raised and then, in the recent phase, met by credit instead of income. This credit/debt becomes a toxic load, immiserating the poor further, as the elite make its consequences more severe (eliminating many bankruptcy protections, like keeping student loans out of bankruptcy altogether). The traditional term is debt peonage.

    So I agree that the rabble is not entirely inevitable.. it is an organized consequence of great concentrations of wealth. This played out even more dramatically in ancient Rome, where the patricians stole most of the public and small-holder land of Italy, then employed slaves to farm it. They relied on the narratives of elite (Republican) virtue, and the all-around Imperial greatness of Rome. Likewise with Nafta, where the US destroyed the small corn farming sector of the Mexican economy (via efficiencies and subsidies to US producers), leading its workers to migrate to the US, etc..

    One of the greatest narratives is that money is virtue and just desert. Nothing succeeds like success, as Reagan used to say. We have a strong instinct to look up to those who are successful / rich as the rightful leaders of the social system. This is almost the entirety of Romney's campaign, indeed. That plays a large role in keeping such systems stable- a form of Stockholm syndrome.

  4. The following research article came up on reddit today: A study in adaptability: Why do we change our beliefs? (

    In short, the researchers not only proved that changes in belief comes in three stages (belief, uncertainty, new belief), but also that the part of the brain that does the changing is the medial prefrontal cortex.

    When the rats seemed certain which handle they should pull, activity in the medial prefrontal cortex was relatively stable. But during the crucial moment of the onset of uncertainty, when the rat reverted to pulling both handles, 'the activity abruptly and markedly changed and then remained more variable for the duration of the period when the animal sampled both options,' Karpova says. 'It's as if those neurons were the ones searching for the animal's new model.'"

    (The actual function of the medial prefrontal cortex is still in dispute, but it seems to be strongly associated with predicting whether an action will be associated with a good or bad outcome.)

    How all that applies to the rabble is this: even if you engender certain beliefs in them, if the actual outcomes demonstrate those beliefs to be inoptimal in terms of reward, then they should be expected to enter a stage of uncertainty. And we should expect that in this stage they will be open to new beliefs.

    A belief that I believe is shared pretty much in common on this blog is that humans hate uncertainty. Why wouldn't we? Uncertainty is the feeling that we aren't on the optimal reward track. I expect the rabble jumps right back into the beliefs engendered by Corporations just as soon as they are given enough evidence of their truth. But if that evidence is just random or carefully timed error, and the beliefs are still lies, they will become uncertain again over time.

  5. Burk

    I've finally got a website up and running, and have recently added a post on quantitative easing that might interest you. It's at

    Eric, I hope one day to write a series titled 'An agnostic talks to his children about God', just as soon as I work out what I want to say to them. Whatever it is, I know conversations on this site will have contributed immensely. Thank you.


    1. Please let me know when you do write that series. I'd be very interested in reading it, as I've always appreciated your thoughtful and challenging perspective.

      I look forward to checking into your website.

  6. One thing about Hegel's worldview as contingently true but not necessarily so: the idea that Corporations exist as intermediaries between individuals and society. But societies could (and have in the past) be structured such that Corporations are intermediaries between families and society or such that families are intermediaries between individuals and society.

    Any given family can support within it a mixture of prominent citizens and "rabble," provided the rabble are given roles within the family to make up for their lack of role within broader society. In fact, by supporting the family's citizens, they are be given a secondary role in society, and so are not truly be rabble anymore. They can be given even greater dignity if their role in the family is given precedence within the family to balance the citizen's role being given precedence within society.

    1. This is a good point. What Hegel seems to think about this is that the societal structure with the family mediating between society and individual is an earlier stage in the evolution of society, more suited to an agrarian economy with a high degree of self-sufficiency among family units. The rise of the Corporate structure is related, for him, to the rise in industrial production and (more significantly, I think) to specialization of labor and the greater interdependence that comes with it.