Hegel: The Uninvited Guest at the Conservative Party
Conservatism has gone from a rigid waltz between libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign policy hawks to a limb-flailing rave. Writers are reaching towards the bookshelf for thinkers that will refine and define first principles during this time of flux. While it’s all been great fun, an esteemed but concerning guest has now entered the party. Increasingly, the right is dancing with G.W. Hegel.
David Brooks’ recent column is a clear example of a Hegel flirtation. In it, Brooks defines conservatism as an internal critique of the Enlightenment. Explaining opposition to the idea that individuals randomly choose to start society, he writes: “There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Individual freedom is an artifact of that order.”
Family and community are the basic building blocks of society and social contract theory has plenty of flaws. Yet note how Brooks lists the nation state as prior to individual freedom. It’s dropped so casually that its radicalism is almost obscured. What type of freedom is dependent on the nation state? Hegelian.
Hegel argued that freedom was the origin of self-consciousness, and defined his work as tracing “the stages in the evolution of the idea of the will free in and for itself.” In Philosophy of Right, he critiqued how Enlightenment liberals see freedom, arguing that liberal freedom could be divided into three stages.
First comes freedom defined negatively: “Nothing can determine where I’ll eat dinner!” In the second stage of freedom, we want to choose specific states of mind or to concern ourselves with a particular. “I’m going to eat at Waffle House.” But if we choose to eat at Waffle House, we’ve restricted that first stage of freedom. We can no longer say “nothing can determine where I’ll eat dinner” because we’ve selected a particular place to eat. So the third stage of freedom is the ability to change one’s mind, to keep options open, regardless of prior commitments. “I will eat at Waffle House, unless I decide to just drink mini-wines in the Applebee’s parking lot.” This reveals how our conception of freedom is dependent upon the options available to us.
Liberal freedom is thus our capacity to enter and exit choices, which are determined by factors other than ourselves. I did not choose for Waffle House to exist. I did not choose to get hungry at dinner time. We do not choose what we choose between. Therefore, the order of society creates freedom.
So Brooks is clearly doing the robot with Hegel. But so what? Maybe Hegel’s ideas are both conservative and correct. Maybe conservatives ought to embrace Hegel openly. There have always been right-wing Hegelians. These are defensible positions. Yet we should remember that conservative bouncers have restricted Hegel from their canon before and for good reason.
Hegel has always been associated with state worship, and Marxism largely sprang from his thought. In History of the Idea of Progress, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote that, while many try to disguise Hegel as some sort of liberal, “There is simply no way of separating him from ideas and expressions which were in themselves acts of obeisance to the national state and which on the ineffacable record, led others to ever-higher levels of intensity in the glorification of the state.”
Some may disagree with Nisbet’s reading. Some may say that Marxists misread Hegel. Yet the link to state worship and Marxism must be contended with, and anyone who slips in Hegel without acknowledging it—like Brooks—is masking the potentially radical nature of his statement.
Strip the Brooks column of the usual sentimental odes to “beautiful communities” and his strange statement stands bare and a little menacing. There is a world of difference between saying that freedom is dependent upon the family and saying that it’s dependent on the nation state. Brooks sounds an awful lot like former President Barack Obama: “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.”
Yet apparently, as Brooks tells us, big government is no longer a threat to the “sacred space.” Community focused conservatives often use Nisbet’s Quest for Community to criticize hyper-individualism, yet they should also remember Nisbet’s criticism of Hegelian freedom: “Hegel clothes the absolute state, just as Rousseau had, in the garments of freedom; but there cannot be the slightest doubt of Hegel’s dedicated belief in the absolutism, the sanctity, even the divinity of the national state’s power.”
Perhaps I’m reading too much into a throwaway line. After all, Aristotle offered ideas similar to those of Hegel and Brooks without the taint of state worship—maybe that’s where Brooks is drawing his inspiration from. Yet the connection between Brooks and Hegel is still inescapable because the former is basing his definition of conservatism from British philosopher Roger Scruton.
Scruton is one of two modern philosophers currently disseminating Hegelian ideas into mainstream punditry. He reads Hegel in a positive light, and in his book The Soul of the World, he writes: “Freedom is fully realized only in the world of persons, bound together by rights and duties that are mutually recognized.” Yet Scruton does not say “in the world of nations,” and elsewhere warns that Hegel is like a “beautiful oasis around a treacherous pool of nonsense.” Brooks doesn’t offer any such qualifications.
Alasdair MacIntyre is the other philosopher who has helped popularize Hegel in conservative circles, and in fact Brooks referenced him just a few days ago. Conservatives who discuss “liquid modernity” as read through MacIntyre describe something almost identical to Hegel’s Absolute Negativity. And McIntyre’s idea of waiting for Benedict is similar to waiting for the Absolute Spirit, which is similar to waiting for the revolution.
What would a more Hegelian conservatism look like? It’s hard to tell. Perhaps we’d see books declaring an end to one form of consciousness. Perhaps Hegel’s ideas on corporations would be directly referenced by those concerned with working-class alienation. Or perhaps we would see more fishy ideas about the nation state being a prerequisite for individual freedom.
This isn’t about pointing at Brooks and pulling an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” or just beating up on him for the sake of it. He’s merely the most obvious example of a conservative who’s done a waltz with the German philosopher. And even then it’s always difficult to tell. Hegel wrote on such a wide range of topics in such confusing prose, that, like a crazed ex, we might mistakenly spot him everywhere.
Hegel’s work is important, and both Scruton and MacIntyre are geniuses. Yet we should always remember Russell Kirk’s warnings that “Marx could draw upon Hegel’s magazine; he could find nothing to suit him in Burke” and that Hegel was “a conservative only from chance and expediency.” Hegel is already at the party; whether we want him to stay is another question entirely.
James McElroy is a New York City-based novelist and essayist, who also works in finance.