A Hegelian Logic Underlying Contemporary Conservative Populisms?

by | 3 Jan 2019


As Jair Bolsonaro takes office in Brazil, he seems to have become the latest in a worldwide trend of the last few years, of populist (at least would-be) strongmen who premise their right to ignore or violate longstanding norms of civility upon their representation of the will of the People. Such claims are now an emerging norm. Donald Trump has portrayed himself as the voice of a “silent majority” and a defender of American sovereignty against a hostile world. Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Erdogan, Duterte, Orbán, and more such figures worldwide all position themselves as having an inherent capacity to unite the essence of the polity in their own person. “I have a natural bond with the common people,” said Xi Jinping to a group of Costa Rican farmers while on a 2013 state visit, in remarks later included in an official state media documentary. Liberal values and once seemingly unassailable international norms have come under assault from these avatars of modern conservative populism. Their many points of similarity can be traced back to various shared influences, but it is perhaps in Hegelian thought that certain universal, if subtle, characteristics are most clearly manifested. These have to do particularly with the curiously ineffectual nature of supposedly transformative autocratic leaders. They may violate norms, and thus cause outrage, but they seldom erect lasting new norms in their place.

Why do leaders coming into office on waves of popular disaffection and desire for disruption nonetheless tend to make only marginal and tentative changes to the fundamental policies of the states they purport to radically transform? Why do they so often seem to preserve, rather than genuinely overthrow, the existing orders to which they seemed a radical challenge?

In Hegel’s additions (as recorded by pupil Eduard Gans) to §320 of his Philosophy of Right1Georg W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, (Cambridge University Press, 1991) (Allen W. Wood, ed., H. B. Nisbet, trans.). we read that the principle of subjectivity manifests in political life both as the “arbitrary appearance [of] public opinion” in society and in “the monarch as the apex of the state.” In both cases, there is no inherent rational content to these subjective reflections of a polity. That is: the monarch, or in non-monarchical republics whatever individual—President, General Secretary, Chairman, etc.—represents the Executive taken as a totality, does not do so “for a reason.” Kings, Queens, Generalissimos, and all the rest may be influential, but, for Hegel, there is no rational principle that dictates why any given one should happen to exist and be empowered rather than another—they are mere contingent accidents of history.

Provocatively, Hegel says just the same about public opinion on issues of state. He equates “the People,” which is at the core of any theory of democratic government, with the same arbitrary and contingent power and personality as the monarch. Both are contingent, both are fickle. Frederick the Great might turn into an enlightened reformer because he “tires of ruling over slaves.” Or Wilhelm II might decide to launch a profoundly self-destructive war. The concept of the monarch always contains both possibilities, and thus contains neither—only bare irrational luck decides the case.

What might it mean for “the People” to be viewed in the same way? Hegel argues that, on the one hand, public opinion is always a mixture of both truths and falsehoods (§318), generally containing no more than half-understood prejudices that only happen to coincide with reason on various occasions. The contributions of the social estates (Stände) of professionals working in science, art, or law, for example, can indeed serve to improve the rational content of public opinion but, as in the case of the persecuted-then-sentimentalized Galileo, only by adding new pieces of “common sense,” into the set of general prejudices, rather than by causing the public itself to become inherently rational. As an entity, the People are necessary. In any republic that thinks of itself as constituted along Rousseauian lines, the public must will the state to exist. But this act of willing is itself shaped by a background ethical totality of social and cultural institutions without which the People, per se, have no rational content. Public opinion can be dead wrong as easily as it can be right, and it is contingent and accidental whether it will play a beneficial role in the life of the state unless it is properly directed by a well-developed Ständeordnung (Order of Estates).

Again, the analysis applicable to “the People” is with only slight modifications applied to the Executive figure as well. Hegel makes clear both that it is best for a specific individual to represent the sovereign totality, (ideally in the form of a constitutional monarchy), and also that the actual selection of such an individual is a matter of the utmost indifference. (§286). Some Sovereign must exist, no individual has any inherent right to be that Sovereign. In the actual business of ruling, even in a constitutional monarchy, the monarch “often has nothing more to do than to sign his name. But this name is important.” (§279, Addition).

The reason for this importance of the monarchical “name” is that it provides an “organic articulation” of the particular unity of the state (id.). The People are the actual existence of the state, of course—no People, no state, literally. One does not need to be a Foucauldian to recognize that all politics is biopolitics to the extent that it is the regulation of a collective of human beings that, in purely physical terms, is a mass of biological matter. Yet the monarch is also a form of the state’s “organic” existence—not as physical biomass, but rather as an organic symbolic unity (id.). A political unit can only be considered a genuine collective existence if it is possible to imagine, and represent, that existence as a single being (magni homines).2Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, 143 (Telos Press, 2006) (“A decisive step toward this great, new institution called ‘state’ and the new interstate international law was taken in that these new, contiguous, and contained power complexes were represented as persons … as magni homines. In human fantasy, they actually were sovereign persons, because they were the representative sovereigns of human persons.”).

That symbolic being, for Hegel, must be a complete entity with its own personality and subjective will. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that “[t]he subjectivity of the monarch is in itself abstract.” (§320, Addition). As throughout Hegel’s philosophy of development, the abstract can only be real if made concrete. The abstract monarchical figure, in turn, can only become “concrete in character as the ideality which pervades the whole.” (§320, Addition). In elevating a contingent and not necessarily physically or intellectually superior individual into this position of the collective representative, the function served is not to provide the state with an all-knowing leader figure but rather to position subjectivity as such in a necessary relationship with the state as a whole. (§279).

What might this mean? Briefly, I would like to suggest that Hegel’s presentation of the unifying sovereign in the quite arbitrary form of the usually male constitutional monarch may actually be related to his development of other forms of “subjectivity” elsewhere in the text. The figure of the sovereign as an individual is as mentioned meaningless, just an accident of nature—and like all other products of mere nature does not have any “ideal unity” whatsoever (§275). However, in a carefully chosen phrase, Hegel notes that “the power of the sovereign itself contains the three moments of the totality3These three moments are “universality of the constitution and laws, consultation as the reference of the particular to the universal, and the moment of ultimate decision as the self-determination to which everything else reverts and from which its actuality originates.” within itself.” (Id. [emphasis added]). In an essentially passive way, the individual sovereign simply reveals the unity of the state—which actually originates in the ethical life of the organic whole.

Similarly, Hegel elsewhere presents “woman” as revealing to the man “a peaceful intuition of [ ] unity, and an emotive and subjective ethical life,” (§166). Whether intended or accidental, there thus seems to be a direct connection between the roles of “woman” and “the [individual] sovereign” as concepts in the text. Both serve as politically neutralized vessels for the discovery of meaning by engaged (male) citizens, who find in these idealized figures “intuitions of unity” which then require the positive, active participatory practice of true ethical life to fully realize. In both cases, the “ethical disposition” of the woman or of the monarch consists of a kind of “piety” (§166), or self-negating service to the idea of a substantial unity. Just as the universalizing impulse of individual morality must come between personal right and communal ethics, so does the self-abnegating figure of the woman (at home) or monarch (in public) represent for the average member of the public a kind of ideal of subjective unity that could only ever be actualized through common ethical life in an organically unified sphere of active political enfranchisement. The People, a biomass, do not appear as such unless given symbolic form by domestic natality or public Law.

The monarch, the People, and the woman are all presented in Hegel’s text as essentially objects of contemplation, interpretation, and engagement for the politically engaged individual subject, who is by presumption male and the member of one or another Estate. Each of these objectified, ideal beings serves to represent a concept of universalizing/moral subjectivity that is meant to surpass the individualist conception of the self as a rights-bearing monad, and reveal to the individual (still in the process of Bildung) his or her relationship to the unity of the state. The monarch, the People, and the woman are the limiting concepts (Grenzbegriffe) for the consistent and continent self-consciousness of the bourgeois gentilhomme. One can hardly imagine being a King, or a mere body-in-the-mob demotés with no title or profession, or, above all, a woman. In the original Hegelian perspective (sans its many interesting later permutations / improvements),4Hegel’s thought has of course been immensely influential in most if not all subsequent political thought on both left and right. The variations of Hegelian ideas that are deployed in the works of Charles Taylor, Axel Honneth, Jürgen Habermas, Carl Schmitt, and various others often do not obviously engage with the issue of the special categories of abstract subjectivity monarch-People-woman that Hegel refers to in The Philosophy of Right. Whether they nonetheless contain some subterranean conceptual elements dependent upon or determined by these segregated subjectivities is a question that may merit further consideration. they do not go beyond being mirrors, or Muses, showing the “rational subject” of history its hidden aspect as part of an affectively-bound-together national totality.

It is worth asking whether the same inner logic and pattern of representations is at work in modern populisms as well. Do today’s would-be autocrats only appeal to their constituents as “feminized” apparitions of symbolic unity, denied genuine participation in the lived reality of rational political life? Can the apparently paradoxical charismatic enthusiasm that these figures often generate among middle class, well-situated bourgeois populations5Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class,” The Washington Post, June 5, 2017. who are not marginalized “outsiders” to their polities be explained in part by this function as object, totem, or fetish? And does this perhaps suggest that even obvious failure to accomplish policy goals—or perhaps ever to articulate them in a clear manner—will not necessarily have any detrimental effect upon the representative value that such figures are felt by their supporters to possess?

The truly radical transformation, of course, would be for a wave of internationally-oriented governments around the world to cooperate on new projects and institutions capable of accomplishing goals, such as unified responses to climate change, refugee issues, tax evasion, inter-ethnic conflict or inequalities of economic distribution, that no one state can adequately handle on its own. The seeming radicalism of autocratic leaders often consists simply in violating norms of etiquette in order to distract from an inability to change fundamental realities capable of being affected only by solidarity among the popular masses across borders. The strongmen reside in the layer of symbolism, rather than of concrete effectuality. Hegel, despite (or because) of the outmoded aspects of his Hohenzollern worldview, may be a guide to the inner logic of this current global moment of halfhearted autocratic revanchism and fearful resistance to true change.

Ryan Mitchell is Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Chinese University of Hong Kong. J.D. 2012, Harvard Law School. Ph.D. 2017, Yale University.


  1. What is an autocrat???
    Never seen before such an inept reading of Hegel

    • It would be more constructive if you could tell us why you think this reading of Hegel is inept.

      • The author doesn’t read the third part of Philosophy of Right. What he says about the monarch is totally incorrect. There’s a huge volume of bibliography about that.


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