I had always accepted the conventional view that Marx transformed Hegel’s abstract philosophical conception of human progress into a radical instrument of social critique. Marx famously took dialectical idealism and shaped it into dialectical materialism. Yet recently I came across Shlomo Avineri’s Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (1972) which examines key writings of Hegel, System der Sittlichkeit and the Realphilosophie, that were unknown to Marx and only published (in their entirety) in the early 20th century. Avineri argues that in these works Hegel anticipates much of Marx’s critique of capitalist forms of production, except that Hegel draws a fundamentally different conclusion. Rather than imagining that productive relations can be reconstructed to fulfill real human needs, Hegel views inequitable social relations as inextricably linked to the productive forms characteristic of industrial modernity. My aim here is to briefly summarise Avineri’s account of Hegel’s argument. My specific interest is in Hegel’s conception of labour and its problematic doubling in mechanical labour.
Throughout his philosophy, from his analysis of the most metaphysical concepts (being, nothing, becoming) to his analysis of the most practical features of ordinary social existence (property, labour, money), Hegel adopts a consistent abstract dialectical schema: something discovers its other and, not content with this separation, finds means of subsuming the other within itself, only then to discover a further dimension of otherness and a consequent need for yet another motion of mediation and subsumption (aufhebung). This schema informs not only dialectical metaphysics, in which undifferentiated chaos leads through many generations of mediation to the nuanced differentiation of Absolute Mind, but also a dynamic, dialectical conception of human historical-anthropological development, in which human history begins with the struggle with nature and gradually becomes increasingly distant from nature as more complex social forms emerge.
So from Hegel’s standpoint human labour emerges logically from something more basic. A paradigmatic form of pre-human dialectical interaction is animal hunger. The (carnivorous) animal discovers its other (prey), devouring it in order to take the other into itself and make itself stronger. Avineri describes how Hegel begins with this appetitive impulse. Humans, as animals, directly consume natural things, overcoming an aspect of separation, but at the same time destroying the object that gives them satisfaction. For this reason this process ends up not being entirely satisfying. As Avineri puts it: “[It] is purely sensuous and negative. It is limited by a particular object and cannot be generalised. The consciousness of separation remains after each individual act of subsumption.” The next dialectical step then is to respond more positively to nature – to make something, to fashion, for instance, hand made goods of various kinds. This provides the basis for property.
It is with advent of property, Hegel argues, that social relations come into play. Property is only property when another person and other people recognise that the thing produced is owned by someone. Avineri writes, “property pertains to the person as recognised by others, it can never be an intrinsic quality of the individual prior to its recognition by others.” In this respect, Avineri recognises a clear distinction between Hegel’s concept of property and the view proposed within classical political economy. While the later suggests that property has its basis in individual possession (brute power), Hegel regards it as “premised on social consensus”.
It as at this point – in the manifestation and social evaluation of property – that labour comes into play. According to Hegel, labour provides the rational and ethical basis for property. It is the socially legible process through which property is produced. As instrumentally geared action, it represents a sublimation of immediate satisfaction towards a more general good – the construction of a useful or beautiful thing. Labour represents the mechanism and material form of rational endeavour. This not only shapes a domain of reconciliation between subject and object; it also establishes “the univeral link among men.” Labour constitutes a field of mutual, socially geared recognition. However, alongside the postive potential for constructive realisation and social interaction, Avineri stresses that Hegel also perceives a downside; labour, particularly in modern industrial society, is a vehicle for alienation. The positive and the negative implications of labour are in fact inextricably linked. In becoming social (and economic), in shifting from the production of individual property towards the production of general commodities, labour grows increasingly distant from any space of immediate concrete realisation or exchange. Endlessly abstracted and endlessly deferring immediate gratification, concrete labour becomes increasingly decoupled from human scales of meaningful action. The rise of industrial manufacturing processes – of machine labour and of human labour rendered machinic – only exacerbates this sense of alienation.
The labour of the machine is positioned then as emblematic of the modern alienation of labour: “[the worker] becomes through the work of the machine more and more machine-like, dull, spiritless. The spiritual element, the self-conscious plenitude of life, becomes as empty activity.” The key features that Hegel associates with machine labour are fragmentation, abstraction and inanimate action (Hegel speaks of a “life of death moving within itself”). The latter, despite its plainly human, rational origin, comes to be likened to the spiritually void mechanisms of nature:
because labour is wholly quantitative, without variety…something completely external…It only depends upon it to find an equally dead principle of movement for it, a self-differentiating power of nature, like the movement of water, of the wind, of steam, etc., and the instrument turns into a machine.
Hegel’s critique retains its relevance and force. If I wish to suggest other ways of thinking of machine labour, it is not in order to deny the real social implications of industrialisation, and of industrial manufacturing methods particularly. But the labour that concerns me appears differently. My relation to the machine dimension of labour is privileged. My view is abstract, but not altogether fragmented. I deliberately write the entire graphics engine from scratch (here obviously subscribing to Hegel’s preference for holistic labour). The doubling of manual labour in machinic drawing processes does not, however, for me produce a sense of uncanny disturbance. The motion of code bears an intimate relation to my programming activity – to my algorithms. The space of machine labour, however difficult to perceive, feels like a motion of exchange and proximity.