Andy Blunden 2004 [draft in progress]

Social Solidarity versus
“Social Capital”

I. Foundations

1. The Subject In Itself

We must begin with the social and historical subject, and how it defines and reproduces its needs.

In the closing paragraph of his Foundations of Social Theory, James Coleman says:

“Rationality consists not in [an economic agent] acting according to his interests, but in constructing the internal constitution so that the actions generated by the internal system of action will bring him maximum viability.

“This model of an internal structure of actors that is consistent with the linear system of action ... does not eliminate purpose, but pushes it back to a deeper level, the construction of an internal constitution. This is the starting point for a theory of the self.” [p. 949]

The individual economic agent — whose action is the starting point of Coleman’s linear action theory — is therefore a more or less successful internalisation of a social subject. Coleman should not be criticised for the infinite regression that this sets up, for it has the virtue of honesty. To deduce the individual from society or to deduce society from the individual — both routes are problematic. History however, solved this problem in its own way. Our method must be a logical reconstruction, but one which lets history do its work. Or, as Evald Ilyenkov put it:

“Science must begin with that with which real history began. Logical development of theoretical definitions must therefore express the concrete historical process of the emergence and development of the object. Logical deduction is nothing but a theoretical expression of the real historical development of the concreteness under study.” [Deduction and the Problem of Historicism, from Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital, Ilyenkov, 1960]

This is the approach pioneered by Hegel.

My unit of analysis will be the subject, by which I mean a self-conscious system of activity. The concept of subject, which I draw from Hegel, encompasses both the autonomous social system, the individual human being and the cultural products and practices by means of which individuals constitute themselves as a community; this is also referred to by Hegel as a self-consciousness. However, also following Hegel, I shall consider the subject in the whole course of its genesis beginning with the subject which is not yet self-conscious — the subject in-itself.

It was Vygotsky who first brought into focus the importance of the choice of a unit of analysis in the study of a complex phenomenon. In his study of linguistics, Vygotsky based himself on “word meaning” as the basic unit of analysis for linguistics.

“Modern linguistics uses the phoneme, the smallest indivisible phonetic unit affecting meaning and thus characteristic of human speech as distinguished from other sounds. Its introduction as the unit of analysis has benefited psychology as well as linguistics.” [Historical meaning of the crisis in Psychology, Vygotsky 1927]

This was Vygotsky’s earlist methodological work. He later made the concept of the unit of analysis for linguistics more precise as “word meaning.” Vygotsky’s co-worker, A N Leontyev, further developed this insight in adopting activity as the unit of analysis for social psychology:

“But what is the actual or real life of people?

“Being, the life of each individual is made up of the sum-total or, to be more exact, a system, a hierarchy of successive activities. It is in activity that the transition or “translation” of the reflected object into the subjective image, into the ideal, takes place; at the same time it is also in activity that the transition is achieved from the ideal into activity’s objective results, its products, into the material. Regarded from this angle, activity is a process of intertraffic between opposite poles, subject and object.

“Activity is a non-additive unit of the corporeal, material life of the material subject. In the narrower sense, i.e., on the psychological plane, it is a unit of life, mediated by mental reflection, by an image, whose real function is to orientate the subject in the objective world.” [Activity and Consciousness, Leontyev 1977]

The focus on activity as the key to understanding human life is consistent with Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.

“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” [Theses on Feuerbach, No. 8, Marx 1845]

Likewise, the idea of a unit of analysis is consistent with Marx’s basing of Capital on analysis of the exchange of commodities, that is to say an embryonic form of economic activity from which the real history of economic life itself unfolded.

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.” [The opening words of Capital, Marx 1867]

As Ilyenkov pointed out, the activity of exchanging commodities is something lost in the dim past and almost never observed in modern society, but it is the real starting point of economic life, despite being in contradiction to the given empirical form of economic activity today. [ibid.]

The subject is neither an individual person, nor a community, but a unity of three things: the individual (for example a person, without which nothing human can happen at all), the universal (culture — language, customs, artefacts, etc., without which no person can be a human being) and particular (communities, organisations, institutions, etc. — the various activities through which individuals engage with and sustain their culture). This is my unit of analysis. It differs from an element such as the “individual,” which is not a self-sufficient whole, but an abstraction, which in principle cannot exist on its own or constitute a independent system of action.

“We tried a new approach to the subject and replaced analysis into elements by analysis into units, each of which retains in simple form all the properties of the whole.” [Chapter 7, Thought and Word, Vygotsky, 1934]

By correctly choosing a unit of analysis in which the properties of the whole are already contained, even if only in embryo, it is possible to approach an understanding of a thing by its own methods and its own forms of movement — immanently — rather than foisting artificial ideological baggage in the form of liberal individualism or communitarianism on to the real development itself.

It was this approach, based on the subject as a self-conscious system of activity, which underlay Hegel’s approach to understanding historical development, and is outlined both in his early System of Ethical Life and the more well-known Phenomenology of Spirit. Marx’s early historical essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte also is marked by Marx’s identification of the subjects in action in revolutionary France: neither “great men” nor “society,” but a cast of historical subjects (“political personages” as he calls them) raising themselves out of the social and economic crises of the day, dressing themselves in the costumes of “historical ghosts.”

Vygotsky died of consumption at the age of 37, relatively isolated and unknown but for a small group of followers, a communist to the end; A N Leontyev remains almost unknown to this day, but died a Communist; Ilyenkov, also a Communist to the end, committed suicide. On the other hand, those inheritors of the Frankfurt School who took the individual as their starting point for an analysis of “communication,” became famous, well-paid and respected liberals. Those social theorists who have taken the community as their element, who want a “moratorium on new rights claims” or a “return to traditional values,” likewise enjoy fame and prestige, be they social democrats or conservatives. But should we conclude from this that those who followed Hegel and Marx in taking as their unit of analysis the subject were therefore mistaken? I don’t think so.

The Subject: Neither Individual nor Community

The starting point for an analysis of social action, insofar as we resort to anthropological metaphors at all, must be the isolated tribe or ancient polis in which the conception of an individual as opposed to the community is absent, the zoon politikon of Aristotle and their tribal forebears.

The starting point for society itself is not individuals who come together to form a society, in the manner presumed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his social contract:

“[The social contract] reduces itself to the following terms:

‘Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.’

“At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body.” [The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1762],

which is nothing but an ahistorical myth, its only counterpart in history being economic transactions enacted between individuals, something capable of setting an average price but absolutely incapable of constituting a universal will.

Nor is society the “war of all against all” presumed by Thomas Hobbes:

“It cannot be deny'd but that the naturall state of men, before they entr'd into Society, was a meer War, and that not simply, but a War of all men, against all men;” [De Cive, Thomas Hobbes 1651].

a condition which makes the very existence of human society, let alone its progress, incomprehensible.

But nor is the starting point of history a “community” in which individuals count for nothing and cannot meet even their basic needs without the aid of others, as in today’s society. The individuals of ancient times were supremely competent masters of their environment who carried within themselves the entirety of a culture which allowed them to sustain themselves even for long periods of time away from others, with senses acutely tuned to their environment, even while unconscious of themselves as something which could be counterposed to the particular community of which they were a part and carrying nothing with them that belongs to the community rather than themself. The conception of “community” on its own offers no scope for comprehending how social progress is achieved, other than by means of entirely abstract analyses which impute subjectivity to non-human system-attributes, metaphysical entities like the Laws of History or “the means of production.”

And nor is society composed of individual “economic agents” sending messages to one another in the manner of Kenneth Arrow’s political economy or communicating with one another according to the “ideal discourse” theory of Jürgen Habermas — for what celestial programmer could program these agents so that they could successfully decode one other’s messages? [quote from Habermas] The empirically given fact that such agents can decode each other’s message does not improve the situation at all, because such theories can not explain this most important empirically-given fact, far less understand systematic failures in that communication. Communication is a developed function of speech, not its primary function; subjects use speech to coordinate their own activity before they utilise it in communicating with other subjects.

Vygotsky describes how a child first uses language:

“We can see how difficult it is for children to separate the name of an object from its attributes, which cling to the name when it is transferred like possessions following their owner.

“The fusion of the two planes of speech, semantic and vocal begins to break down as the child grows older, and the distance between them gradually increases. Each stage in the development of word meanings has its own specific interrelation of the two planes. A child’s ability to communicate through language is directly related to the differentiation of word meanings in his speech and consciousness. ...

“Only when this development is completed does the child become fully able to formulate his own thought and to understand the speech of others. Until then, his usage of words coincides with that of adults in its objective reference but not in its meaning.” [Thought and Word, Vygotsky 1934]

Before words are used to communicate thoughts, a child uses words to coordinate their own activity and formulate thoughts. “Discourse” makes no sense at all except insofar as it is connected to some system of activity involving the communicating subjects.

All these theories of on one hand, the individual, and on the other hand, the community, are abstractions which begin by killing the real subjects of history, putting in their place ideological constructs which embody the social position of the analyst but not the subject itself. A real subject defines itself.

Neither “community” nor “individual” constitute a real starting point for history, but rather the subject-in-itself. The subject still in the process of becoming I take to be an undifferentiated unity of individual, community and social practice — a relatively autonomous and self-sufficient community, employing only a natural division of labour based on age and gender, producing no social surplus for trade or exploitation, governed by no law than their own traditional way of life, all aspects of which are acted out by the individuals spontaneously without constraints of social hierarchy or property.

This is the real starting point of social history. However, I am not qualified and nor is it necessary to describe any actual such historical community; this is the real starting point of social history expressed only in its most general terms; what is necessary is to logically reconstruct from this foundation the conception of a subject which can be used for an analysis of the modern subject, which is so far removed from such a condition.

In James Coleman’s terms, we shall start from the point at which the beginning and end of his Foundations are identified, out of which an understanding of the relation between the individual, particular and universal emerges by way of differentiation of a single conception of the subject.

To abstract the individual from the particular community of which they are a part in analysis, is to do exactly what such an act of abstraction does in reality: to take child from its carers and abandon it on a desert island produces nothing better than a pile of bones, unless by good luck the baby were to be adopted by wolves, in which case one would have an inferior wolf. To abstract, in analysis, the community from the individuals that make it up, does much what Vesuvius did to Pompeii, producing a culture of stone populated by corpses. To abstract a culture from the individual human beings who created and understood it, and/or the social context in which those individuals lived, is the work of museum curators of the old school, but not of social theory.

Thus our starting point is a system of activity in which individuals do not yet make a distinction between the objectification of their activity and the subjective or mental forms through which they apprehend that activity. Without a developed division of labour, the individual persons making up such a community carry the whole of their culture within their own activity, which can be sustained in relative independence of the community for long periods of time; consequently, such an “individual” can hardly be aware of the contrast between themselves as an individual and the wider community since their material dependence on the community lacks any material form, and can only begin to come into consciousness with the development of herds, crops, buildings and so forth, material objectifications of communal labour and culture.

But even before we can contemplate such an embryonic subject, the subject must distinguish itself from objectivity — from Nature. By definition, this cannot be a conscious act, but is constituted in the unselfconscious system of activity itself, by means of which the subject sustains itself and practically distinguishes itself from objectivity (Nature).

A subject is not constituted by “having something in common” — more likely in fact by having something not in common. The scientific or academic “observer,” with his or her questionnaires, opinion polls and check-boxes, the sets and categories of social science, constructed not by the subject but out of the “observer’s” mind, creates not a subject, but an object, an objectification of their own activity.

The subject distinguishes itself from objectivity by its own activity, its own being, which initially does not know itself as a category at all, but rather only in a series or chain of associations. This is the pre-history of the subject, which I will return to only later when we can approach the topic in a more concrete context, in terms of the emergence of subjects in conditions of modernity. Our subject begins when the subject has distinguished itself from objectivity, and constitutes what we can call a “subject in-itself,” and it is this elemental subject which first concerns us. The structure of this subject in-itself I will come to shortly.

The subject distinguishes itself from Objectivity

The relation between the individual and the community in which their needs are met is analogous in some ways to the relation between a young baby and its ‘mother.’ It is widely accepted that the new-born child cannot distinguish between its own body and objects and people in their visual field:

“the external world does not seem formed by permanent objects, that neither space nor time is yet organised in groups and objective series, and that causality is not spatialised or located in things. In other words, at first the universe consists in mobile and plastic perceptual images centred about personal activity. But it is self-evident that to the extent that this activity is undifferentiated from the things it constantly assimilates to itself it remains unaware of its own subjectivity; the external world therefore begins by being confused with the sensations of a self unaware of itself, before the two factors become detached from one another and are organised correlatively.” [The Construction of Reality in the Child, Piaget 1955]

Likewise, long, long ago the human species grew out of a social animal which, like the rest of Nature, also lacked self-consciousness. “Drawing a line” here, between the capacity to develop self-consciousness and the lack of such an ability is notoriously difficult, and it is of no interest at all to us whether it is possible to draw such a line between human beings and animals. However, observations such as those made by Köhler a century ago that chimpanzees can solve complex problems only when all the elements of the solution lie within its visual field at the same time point to the fact that self-consciousness is not well developed among the primates. The tendency of animals to repeat habitual patterns of behaviour even in the face of obvious physical barriers, much like someone who walks to work by the same route everyday, without even remembering the trip later, or the inability of many animals to recognise their own image in a mirror — all these point to the fact that self-consciousness is something which a subject acquires only at a certain stage in its development, including in the evolution of species.

Thus, whether approached ontogenetically (the development of the human individual in modern society) or phylogenetically, self-consciousness emerges out of a system of un-differentiated activity [source: Vygotsky]. Phylogenetically, if we look at the development of the human species, the consciousness of the contrast between human and Nature is unquestionably a conquest of evolution like conceptual thinking itself. If we look at the cultural development of human society over the past few thousand years, then we see that “individual” and “humanity” are relatively recent innovations in how societies have understood themselves (“Individual” was coined by Bacon in 1605 and “humanity”, in the sense of “humankind,” originated in 1645, though it was used 200 years earlier as in contrast to deity and by Shakespeare in contrast to animality]. Even today, “humanity” is a concept still only in the process of becoming a reality, under considerable pressure in Guantánamo Bay and in refugee camps around the world; and “individual” far more of an ideological construct than a reality in all but biology.

What we know of the earliest forms of society, before they were drawn into commerce with the outside world, would lead us to believe that for the vast multiplicity of cultures, each with their distinctive languages and modes of living, the word “human being” was synonymous with their own people [source], with other peoples belonging to the category of non-persons, along with the flora and fauna and the rest of Nature. On the other hand, animism reflects a still-incomplete distinction between human beings and non-human Nature [source]. Likewise, a child develops the capacity to distinguish between objective and subjective before they develop a “theory of mind” and learn to deal with the objective world as populated with other self-conscious people like themselves [source: Luria?].

In terms of social subjects, women existed for countless centuries before the women’s movement emerged, and people deprived of any means of production sold their labour-power for wages for at least a century before a self-conscious workers’ movement stepped onto the historical scene. During the interval between the beginnings of the life-activity which would later become the vehicle for subjectivity and the actual emergence of that subjectivity, one has two elements (individual and particular), but, lacking the third (universal), the given activity cannot constitute a form of subjectivity, other than in the deprecated, alienated form given by objectivity (woman as Other of man, worker as pauper).

In choosing to set out from the subject as my unit of analysis, I choose not to begin with a dichotomy between individual and community, since history and developmental psychology provides us with evidence that the starting point is one in which in an individual self-consciousness, insofar as it could be said to exist at all, does not differentiate itself in this way from the culture of which it is a part.

On the other hand, following Hegel, I will conceive as “subject,” both individual human beings who act according to their own will with whatever degree of independence from the community of which they are a part, particular systems of activity, organisations or social formations of any kind which manifest the attributes of subjectivity: that is to say, express a will, take actions, have a voice and relate to others like themselves, and whole (universal) cultures, with their language, customs, division of labour, artefacts, land, property relations and so on. However, the separation of individual, particular and universal in the way we moderns are able to imagine, is something which is an historical accomplishment; the identity or separation of individual, universal and particular is always only relative, never absolute. Initially, however, they do not distinguish themselves from each other at all.

Thus at this starting point of our analysis we have before us individual human subjects and particular, collective subjects, but under conditions where the individuals making up a given collective do not distinguish themselves from the social subject of which they are a part, and conversely, the social subjects do not look upon their individual citizens as individuals, as such, but rather integral component parts of the whole community.

Such a community, and such a personality, is both the beginning and the end of social theory, if we are to accept James Coleman’s observations cited above.

As I said above, I conceive of the subject as a system of activity. For an outsider, it is possible to abstract from any field of vision a “system of activity.” What distinguishes a subject from any other “system of activity” is that the subject is a system of activity that defines itself. The role of a system of activity which defines itself in social theory is crucial: these are the social agents, the actors on the stage of history, even if at the beginning they do not know themselves to be such.

Internalisation and Externalisation

Our starting point is the sole subject. As we shall see, the development and differentiation of self-consciousness is inextricably linked to its coming-into-relation with other self-consciousnesses. Thus the starting point is the subject acting in Nature — a non-human world which appears to the subject as “outside” and “natural” — and the subject’s first act is to distinguish itself from Nature or objectivity in general. I say “objectivity in general,” because that which lies outside the subject may include homo sapiens, but to begin with, the subject knows only the distinction between itself and Other; differentiation of objectivity between inorganic Nature and other subjects like itself can come only later, in the process of development of self-consciousness.

What I ultimately have in mind is any social subject, but let us imagine this subject as an isolated system of activity (isolated from others like themselves, not isolated from Nature and the material systems from which they sustain themselves, of course); in effect, subjectivity always begins in isolation, within the confines of a single system of activity because, lacking self-consciousness, it lacks consciousness of the other. Adult human beings in modernity so multiply define themselves that we must confine our imagination for the moment to a community living according to its own ways in isolation from others like themselves, or the earliest weeks of the life of a child.

What is the relation between subject and object and the relation of individual to particular (or collective) in such a system of activity?

Piaget conceives of the earliest development of “sensori-motor” intelligence as a process of assimilation and accommodation. According to Piaget, the only equipment the small baby has are reflexes to suck, grab, recoil from pain, etc., common to any organism. Accommodation is the process of the organism following the objective world in its actions, subordinating itself to it; assimilation is the organism using the acquired properties of the objective world to extend it in the organism’s own actions, i.e. to impose itself on to the world, but in accordance with the object’s own nature.

“In it’s beginnings, assimilation is essentially the utilisation of the external environment by the subject to nourish its hereditary or acquired schemata ... the necessities of this accommodation constantly thwart the assimilatory effort. But this accommodation remains so undifferentiated from the assimilatory processes that it does not give rise to any special active behaviour pattern but merely consists in an adjustment of the pattern to the details of the things assimilated. ...

“... in proportion as the schemata are multiplied and differentiated by their reciprocal assimilations as well as their progressive accommodation to the diversities of reality, the accommodation is dissociated from assimilation little by little and at the same time ensures a gradual delimitation of the external environment and of the subject.” [source? Construction of Reality in the Child]

Initially accommodation and assimilation are “undifferentiated,” so the earliest emergence of self-consciousness is the differentiation of self and other as forms of activity.

This is how Piaget described the development of a system of activity in the child-subject in its earliest pre-intelligent, pre-linguistic phase of development; the subject acquires the capacity to act in external Nature by its own means and in doing so gains an awareness of the distinction between its own powers and an external, objective material environment. There is still a long, long way from the child orienting towards a part of that environment as a person like themself.

In his early System of Ethical Life Hegel also describes the development of a “natural ethical life” in which human subjects distinguished themselves from Nature. He begins from a non-subject which has not distinguished itself from Nature:

“Need here is an absolute singleness, a feeling restricting itself to the subject and belonging entirely to nature. This is not the place for comprehending the manifold and systematic character of this feeling of need. Eating and drinking are the paradigms.” [System, 1.A]

According to Hegel, working with plants and animals as they exist in Nature obliges people to accommodate themselves to Nature, but the systematic use of plants, their cultivation, the domestication of animals corresponds to the formation of a “humanised nature” in contradistinction to Nature as such. The raising of children obliges people to universalise their knowledge of their way of life so as to inculcate their children in it. “In the tool the subjectivity of labour is raised to something universal. Anyone can make a similar tool and work with it. To this extent the tool is the persistent norm of labour.” This construction of the ideal reaches its maturity in speech — “the tool of reason.”


Hegel described the child, the tool and the word as forms and levels of “mediation” in the historical development of the human subject. That is, the subject becomes aware of itself in contradistinction to Nature through specific forms of activity in each of which a mediating element plays the pivotal role.

It is this notion of mediation which is crucial to Hegel’s approach to subjectivity. In Piaget’s conception of very early childhood, the mediating element is the child’s body and sensori-motor system, and he is surely right in this. However, Piaget does not make this explicit, it is taken for granted; Hegel however makes quite explicit the place of mediation in the self-definition of subjectivity.

In accommodating itself to each and every aspect of Nature, assimilating the powers of Nature to itself, and objectifying its own powers in material artefacts and in future generations of themselves, human beings go through a process much like that described by Piaget in relation to a very young child. In passing on the capacity to work with Nature in a specific way, and in particular in passing it down the generations, the raising of children is a specific form of activity in which a human capacity is taken out of its immediate, unconscious context and made the subject and focus of activity in itself. In order to pass a skill on to children, one must apprehend it and be able to reproduce it outside of the immediate stimuli with which it is normally associated — “extend” it. Likewise, the making of a tool presupposes that the activity for which the tool is to be used must be reproduced outside of the context in which it is used and objectified into some material object. The tool-making activity is therefore a system of activity in which the use of the tool is given material representation — human powers are invested in a material object. The production of language takes this process of idealisation of forms of activity as forms of mediation to its completion. Particular activities are transformed into universal ideal forms, themselves material things existing in the world.

Culture — the raising of children, the domestication of plants and animals and the production of tools and language — is thus in its entirety the mediating element in the relation of a social subject to its environment. Culture also mediates between a community or particular social practice and the individuals who carry it out, while these social practices are the mediating elements between an individual and their culture.

I make this point because I believe that the most important error that is made in the conception of subjectivity and intersubjectivity is to ignore or marginalise mediation, while culture is subsumed within the individual or the social subject itself. Thus communication and failures of communication are conceived as intersubjective or cross-cultural phenomena, the mediating element for which is either absent or brought in from outside the concept of the relation itself, complicating rather than facilitating understanding. Problems arising in interaction can only be resolved on the basis of clarifying what it is that people are trying to do together.

Nature is not a subject; the subject here distinguishes itself from Nature as part of Nature; the subject does so by making the specific forms of activity, by means of which it sustains itself, into systems of activity which become reified and abstracted into cultural elements which mediate between the subject itself and its object, Nature. In this scenario, “Nature” — the object, the world beyond — does not contain any other subjects. Thus what we have discussed here is the dynamic of subjectivity in itself, independently of any relation to any other subject. This is called subjectivity in itself because a subject which does not know of any other subject like itself cannot be self-conscious, simply because if no other exists for it, then it exists for no other (like itself) and, as we shall see, if the subject has no relation to another such as itself, it cannot know itself, it cannot in a sense, step outside and look at itself objectively, it has no second or third person perspective on itself. It cannot be said therefore to know itself at all. In the beginning therefore, consciousness is unconscious, or at least, unself-conscious. It should be noted here that we are beginning from a “pre-subject,” and trying to understand subjectivity as something which creates itself, rather than as something which is simply given or a product of contemplation or analysis.

In his 1998 Struggle for Recognition, Axel Honneth appropriates the work of the child (ex-)psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott thus:

“it is a misleading abstraction on the part of psychoanalytic research to study the infant in isolation from all significant others, as an independent object of inquiry. The care with which the ‘mother’ keeps the newborn baby alive is not added to the child’s behaviour as something secondary but is rather merged with the child in such a way that one can plausibly assume that every human life begins with a phase of undifferentiated intersubjectivity, that is, of symbiosis. ... the ‘mother’ also comes to perceive all of her child’s reactions to be part and parcel of one single cycle of action: [p. 98]

“The progress that the child’s development must make if it is to lead to a psychologically healthy personality is read off changes in the structure of a system of interactions and not off transformations in the organisation of individual drive potential. To designate the first phase — that is, the relationship of symbiotic togetherness that begins immediately after birth — Winnicott generally introduces the category of ‘absolute dependency.’ Here both partners to interaction are entirely dependent on each other for the satisfaction of their needs and are incapable of individually demarcating themselves for each other. ... the ‘mother’ experiences the infant’s helpless neediness as a lack of her own sensitivity. ... her emotional attention is so completely devoted to the child that she learns to adapt her care and concern, as if out of an inner urge, to the infant’s changing (and yet as it were empathetically experienced) requirements. ... During the first months of life, the child is incapable of differentiating between self and environment, ... It is only in the protective space of ‘being held’ that infants can learn to coordinate their sensory and motor experiences around a single centre and thereby develop a body scheme.” [p. 99]

I take issue with Honneth’s use of the term and concept of “intersubjectivity” here for it is obvious that at this stage, the mother does not exist for the child as a subject, but rather only as part of its own sensory field. Thus Honneth is linguistically doing just what he warns others not to do. Nevertheless, it is clear from the way Honneth describes Winnicott’s analysis, that the child-subject is “one single cycle of action,” a “system of interactions” with the ‘mother, in which the subject capable of differentiating between itself and its environment only slowly emerges by learning to coordinate its specific sensory and motor functions, and it is the baby’s physical organism which functions as the mediating element, the first outcome being a ‘body scheme.’ Only subsequently can this single system of action differentiate itself sufficiently for an elementary relation of intersubjectivity to develop, in terms of a primary relationship founded on the single system of bodily interaction from which mother and child differentiate themselves. [Consult Elkonin, Piaget, Luria for confirmation]

In conditions of modernity, people define themselves in a multiplicity of ways, so it is not possible to illustrate in such purity the processes of emergent subjectivity in respect to nascent social subjects on the modern political arena. Nevertheless, all the features mentioned by Hegel in respect to the emergence of a social subject in the dawn of history are appropriate today.

For example, refugees fleeing war-ravaged ex-colonies to detention centres in industrialised capitalist countries is a new phenomenon; only after this human tide had reached significant proportions did refugee advocacy and refugee activism appear on the scene, along with new nuances for the word “refugee,” deprecatory words such as “economic migrant,” “border protection,” “queue jumper” and a range of new legal and moral claims. It could hardly be otherwise. This migratory activity is the mediating element between the individuals engaged in activism and advocacy and the repressive response to refugees. It has generated new technologies, new professions, new moral principles and new words.

In turn, the various cultural products generated along the way played the role of mediating elements in the generation of new systems of activity and new social subjects. Words cannot enter the language until there are both an activity to name and people engaged in the relevant activity. ["A word is a microcosm of human consciousness” — Thought and Word, Vygotsky 1934]

Thus the mediating elements which are the substance of the process by which subjectivity emerges in the first place are the already-existing medium in which the confrontation of a subject with an Other will take place, and from which new forms of mediation may emerge. To conceive of a subject independently of the activities and objects which mediate the subject’s relation to its environment, block the path to conceptualising the mediating elements involved in intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity would thus be rendered incomprehensible. It is far more likely that a programmer invented the word “interfacing” as part of the activity of interfacing, and possibly to cooperate with other programmers in interfacing, rather than that the word was invented to tell someone else, not involved in interfacing, about it. Jargon becomes generally known only when it ventures outside the activity context within which it was born, but its meaning and real usefulness is in the context where it is not jargon, but normal speech. [Vygotsky on egocentric speech and its primacy against communicative speech]

Actions create ideal objects — tools, words, icons, etc. A person may critically interact with these ideal objects, endeavour to perfect them, concerned with how they function to sustain a form of life, more or less in accord with the creator’s expectations, or in mobilising energies around a specific activity and coordinating specific forms of activity. For example, changes wrought in naturally existing plants to better meet the material needs of a people, become a crop, and this crop which is simultaneously both a part of Nature and an artefact, becomes a token of the fact that a community has distinguished itself from Nature. The same comments apply to the manufacture of stone implements in which a person’s powers are given an external form which can be the focus of both usage and improvement, while representing in a material form, human powers which have been abstracted from their immediate context. Likewise, the coining of the word “sexism” performed magical effects in crystallising the modern women’s movement around criticising certain male practices.

The Individual, Universal and Particular

The first act of a subject is to distinguish itself from objectivity. The form of development which a subject then undergoes, still in-itself, in supposed isolation from any other subject like itself, is the differentiation of individual, particular and universal, the relation of each to each and the mediation of each in the relation of the others.

This is a uniquely Hegelian concept. Although present in his early works and in the Phenomenology, it was only fully developed the Science of Logic (1811-12) In Hegel’s hands it was given a brilliant but extremely obscure exposition. Nevertheless, the concept of a subject as something real and alive is incomprehensible without this structure, so I should explain. I should mention that I have dealt with this subject also in “Getting to Know Hegel,” (2000).

Hegel uses these logical terms because the concept of “subject” is itself a logical figure, capable of being used to conceptualise a range of different relationships. The terms may even change places in usage relevant to one and the same process. In order to make the idea clearer, I will illustrate it in relation to the emergent social subject we have been considering by means of an anthropological metaphor.

If a ‘community’ has distinguished itself from Nature, then it will have created crops, domesticated animals, fashioned buildings of some sort, tools, weapons, language, symbols, practices for the raising of children, etc., etc. All these elements of their culture I will call the Universal. These continue to exist through successive generations of individuals, modified by each in turn, and may be shared, in a more or less modified form by different communities which are part of the same culture. These are the ideal elements of the subject. Of course, if they are not given material form, that is to say, they are not fully differentiated from the individual “carriers” of the culture themselves, the culture exists, but it is not actual. The existence of crops, for example, marks a certain stage in the differentiation of a culture as something distinct from Nature. But this “Universal” remains “ideal” even when it is given material form in its own right.

The Individuals — Henry, Josephine, Mary, Arnold, ... are just as ordinary language indicates. I make no special distinction at this level between mind and matter, but take individuals as they are, as thinking, feeling, wilful, needy, active, material beings. The question is: how is it that these individuals are in some way subsumed into the Universal, how they can know it and act as its carriers and not only carriers but creators?

By Particular I mean the activities and active groupings of various kinds whereby the Individuals engage with the Universal. So for example, when a group of people collaborate to harvest the crop and sort the seeds for milling and sowing, this harvesting is a Particular. By participating in the harvest, a youngster, for example, gets to know about the crop and how to deal with it, and participates in changing the seed-stock which will make next year’s crop. Each village, with its system of relationships in which every individual has a particular place, constitutes the Particular by means of which an Individual is sustained while getting to know their culture, is assigned property rights and responsibilities, learns the language and customs, etc., and generates and modifies the Universal.

A subject is not an indifferent addition of Universal, Particular and Individual. As is well-known, an individual who is by some unlucky circumstance plucked from their normal social environment into an alien culture, cannot sustain themself other than by integrating themself into their new social context. On the other hand, a culture which is known to individuals, but does not animate their collective activity is a dying culture, not a Universal.

The Universal, Particular and Individual differentiate from each other in the course of the Subject distinguishing itself from objectivity. For example, individual women experience the oppression of patriarchal practices before there is a subjectivity called “the women’s movement.” But this experience can only take an individual, “unhappy” form, a suffering; feminist subjectivity itself only arose when the ideas, words, culture of feminism took on a material form, was objectified in books, speeches, organisations, ideas, etc.. Only then, when individual women could see, so to speak, the Universal as something distinguished from themselves as individuals, could a woman become an individual part of the women’s movement, not necessarily formally, but nevertheless animated by what has been called “folk feminism,” forms of ideology appropriated by women, animating their activity on a daily basis. On the other hand, early feminist writing did not constitute a feminist movement until conditions made it possible for individual women to engage with and give active form to those ideas. And finally, without the opportunity to engage in some particular practice — even just reading a book written by someone else! — there is no way that an individual woman can be a feminist. Thus all three aspects of subjectivity are needed; they must be in relation to one another and they are required to mediate one another — otherwise subjectivity cannot exist.

Further, as a subject develops, not only do individual, universal and particular differentiate from one another, for example in material forms, but each becomes itself the focus for specific activities and in turn the Particular and Universal become themselves Individuals; that is, there is a kind of division of labour between Individual, Universal and Particular.

It is important to distinguish these relationships from relations of domination, which we will come to presently. If a Subject is to maintain its culture, then that task requires special attributes and becomes a task in itself alongside the Universal life in which the culture is substantiated. So in the example above of bringing in the harvest, it may become the special function of a priest to say when it is time to bring in the harvest, and the special function of some particular group to actually bring it in. Thus the “natural division of labour” is enhanced with a division of labour oriented to the ideal tasks of a subject. This differentiation which takes place within a subject is not a form of domination, even if it has the potential to be transformed into a form of domination. [The casting of relations internal to a subjectivity, relations of delegation, representation, authority, etc., as relations of domination is a view widely shared by “social capital” theorists such as Putnam and Fukuyama. We will return to this later.]

Similarly, a small child which is endowed by Nature with bodily organs needed to breath, ingest and digest food, and so on, will turn particular parts of their body towards ideal functions, especially the speech organs, hands, sense organs and brain, which are not necessary for the basic life functions of the body. A social movement must also undergo a kind of differentiation which should not be conflated with hierarchical domination, in order to sustain its ideal in the activity of living people: a branch structure, national committees, delegates, treasurers and so forth. The idea of a social movement in which there are no eminent speakers, recruiters, performers, propagandists, and so forth, is conceivable only in the imagination.

Thus far I have outlined to processes of differentiation of a subject — the subject’s differentiation of itself from objectivity and its internal differentiation between individual, universal and particular, and two forms of mediation corresponding to these two forms of differentiation — the objectification of subjectivity and subjugation of objectivity (accommodation and assimilation in Piaget’s terms, the making of tools, artefacts, symbols, etc.) and the mediation of the relation between universal, individual and particular by the third term.

This is the genesis and life process of a subject expressed in the most general terms possible. Such a subject is however not yet fully self-conscious because it has not yet (in our exposition of its genesis) come into any kind of relation with another subject — conscious perhaps, but not yet self-conscious.

It is not intended at this point that any substantial content has been introduced into the concept of subject. My intention is just that this concept is a logical figure which can form a starting point as an alternative to that of “individual.” So now we must turn to the problem of the relation between subjects.

2. Unmediated Contact between Subjects

To emphasise the point that unmediated interaction between two independent subjects is impossible and inconceivable, we must turn to see how history solved this problem. The scenario is two or more mutually independent cultures living according to their own way of life, unself-consciously in what Hegel called “natural ethical life.” Nothing about the nature of their way of life concerns us here, other than that the social subjects concerned are either unaware of the existence of other peoples like themselves living elsewhere in the world, or if, as is more likely, they are aware of other cultures, they do not regard or treat these others as human beings like themselves, but rather as part of the natural world outside the boundaries of the own culture. The Museum here in Melbourne, until only a few years ago [find date], displayed evidence that we Australians regarded the first peoples of this continent in exactly this way, showing cameo displays of aboriginal people alongside displays of native flora and fauna.

Now if the mid-20th century settler community in Australia failed to recognise the indigenous people of Australia as human beings even after living with them for 200 years, it might seem that perhaps this is a privilege only of a dominant culture. While this doubtless explains the persistence of this failure of recognition throughout the period of colonisation, I do not think that the relation is inherently a one-sided one. When the British settlers first arrived in Sydney Cove, the local Aborigines, it is reported [Robert Hughes source], paid little attention to the arrival of the fleet of large vessels and their threatening occupants. For a long time it seemed that the settlers had nothing of interest or use to the Aborigines and vice versa and contact between the two communities only developed (disastrously) over time as the settlers destroyed the Aborigines’ use of the land. [more from Robert Hughes and/or Henry Reynolds]

Very early on in antiquity there were laws and customs in place according certain rights to foreigners and prescribing appropriate norms of conduct in relation to strangers. [MacIntyre] However, I think it would not be drawing too long a bow to suggest that in the earliest times during which human cultures grew up, the situation was as I suggested above, that such cultures did not recognise other such cultures as human beings, but rather as part of the natural world. I am obviously not talking here about neighbouring communities which had intercourse with one another and so on, and nor am I talking about communities which traded. “Nature” essentially means “outside my culture.” [I use the word “culture” here loosely as an “outer boundary”; I mean “subject,” and neither “community” nor “culture” covers this meaning.]

The aim is to reconstruct the possibility and preconditions for contact between any two subjects which are independent of each other and mutually self-sufficient in order to elucidate the nature of a subject and their interactions from a beginning in which nothing is presupposed. While it should be clear that it is methodologically impermissible to pre-suppose isolated individual subjects as the presupposition for society, it is by no means impermissible to presuppose the existence of mutually indifferent social subjects. In fact, the positing of isolated communities is also untenable, since people move from place to place, but when they do so, they leave and enter different systems of activity. In that sense, the use of the word “isolated” goes too far here; “independent” or “self-sufficient” would perhaps be more to the point. When I talk about mutually independent subjects I do not refer either to the physical individuals or the aggregation of such bodies in ‘communities,’ but exclusively to the respective systems of activity. There is nothing abstract about such a conception; the activity I refer to is material activity and it is a self-contained whole, reproducing itself in Nature, from which it has abstracted itself. Any other such conception must be an abstraction. Doubtless such subjects came about through intermarriage, the interchange of travellers, migration, the collapse of empires and all sorts of material intercourse between communities, but I believe that the essence of the situation is still historically appropriate to be represented as essentially independent subjects.

A Subject without a social surplus

I want to add another constraint to the situation of the independent subjects that we need to consider, viz., that the subject produces no social surplus.

I mentioned above that culture was “the raising of children, the domestication of plants and animals and the production of tools and language.” Obviously from the very earliest times, arts and crafts and all kinds of spiritual activity extended culture beyond the culture immediately associated with sustaining the community. To be able to engage in such activity, people must have some time and energy “left over” from the struggle for existence (“individual surplus”). This kind of spiritual activity will in turn generate its own needs and its own artefacts and also a division of time between addressing material and spiritual needs, and ultimately some kind of division of labour over and above the ‘natural’ division of labour based on age and sex connected with the reproduction of material life. Since such spiritual activity is so central to interaction and social consciousness in general, it is necessary to look back so to speak to a hypothetical time at which no such social surplus was available over and above material life, or at least ‘abstract’ from such spiritual activity. Since arts and crafts, literature, musical performance and such like are generally unknown in the animal kingdom, let alone wage-labour, it seems reasonable to ask the reader to imagine an isolated subject which produces no social surplus, and consequently has no division of labour over and above the age, gender and kinship based division of labour of natural ethical life.

Having set up the experimental conditions for our thought experiment, the question we have now to ask ourselves is: what happens when two such subjects come in contact with each other?

History provide ample response to this question: war is what happens. The appearance of another human society in one’s territory is probably worse news that the arrival of a horde of locusts, for the intruders are no more going to recognise your land or your domestic animals and your rights in these, than would a horde of locusts. This is the circumstance which Hegel had in mind with the famous “life and death confrontation” which initiates the “master-slave dialectic” in the section of The Phenomenology on Consciousness.

Two such subjects, each living according to their own way of life from the fruits of a domesticated natural environment, simply cannot share those environs; that they should is simply to violate the premises of our thought experiment. Either one will devour the other or vice versa. And neither will have any compunction about it either, as the alternative to being killer is to be prey. Or failing the ability of one or the other to triumph, the two sides will retreat to a safe distance back into their own territory, and post look-outs. Devouring the enemy may not mean killing them; a stranger may be taken prisoner and married into the kinship system of the community, learn the language and customs of the hosts and take their place in the community. But from the point of view of interaction between subjects, the result is absolutely the same, for it is not the body of social organism with which we are concerned here, but its activity. The prisoner or traveller who is peacefully adopted into the tribe is not recognised as such, as having a different culture, but sheds his or her former identity and adopts that of their host, even if she or he modifies it in so doing.

So under the circumstances we have presupposed here, no recognition of one subject by the other is possible.

Failure of Recognition

I should mention here that no comfort can be taken from this thought experiment by postmodern advocates of theories of the “master signifier” and so on, who theorise failure of recognition and communication within conditions of modernity, by abstracting from the ubiquitous mediation between subjects, including the sharing of the Earth, let alone the world market, language, etc., characteristic of modernity. The failure of recognition contemplated here is absolutely presaged upon the hypothesised lack of mediation between the subjects prior to their confrontation.

I have mentioned the word “recognition” several times above, and introduced it here without definition. Later we will have to explore this concept further and go so far as to determine different degrees and kinds of recognition, but the total failure of recognition which we have considered here is not difficult to determine. If I use you as a door-mat, as an object to be used and disposed of, if I kill you or lock you up like a circus animal, then I do not recognise you. If I confront you in battle, then I recognise you as my deadly foe, but only in the same way as I do a lion or poisonous spider, and as soon as I get the chance I will make a trophy of your head. I recognise you in just the same way as I recognise the forces of Nature such as a dangerous animal — but the mediating element is a warrior rather than a hunter.

Isn’t it clear that the confrontation between two such subjects sharing nothing but their sudden presence on the same turf, presents to each a mortal danger and each responds accordingly? No innate urge to domination such as proposed by Francis Fukuyama is required to comprehend this perfectly rational reaction to a situation of mortal danger. If there are no rules, then gloves are off.

All that is necessary to make sense of recognition in the only sense possible — battle to the death — is to contrast it with the recognition that an individual person gives to another member of the same community. Let us look at this first, elementary form of recognition that the individual components of our emergent social subject grant to each other.

3. The Individual and Social Subject

Our elementary social subject, producing no social surplus, with no functional or hierarchical division of labour or trading relations with others, is composed of individual human beings, reproducing their lives in a natural division of labour based on gender, age and kinship, raising their children, tending domestic animals and crops and using tools and language. But the social subject exists only in and through its individual subjects; there is no “central processing unit,” so the ethos of this community is carried forward only by means of and within the activity of each and every individual.

However, it is inconceivable that this “natural ethical life” is possible without mediation between the individual and the universal; people are not programmable automatons — their cooperative labour is conscious and intelligent. Though under our assumptions lacking in spiritual activity as such, the various systems of activity around each individual are coordinated by language and custom, tools, land and herds. The way I propose to approach the coordination of the various individual subjects into the system of activity of the community is by means of the concepts of individual, universal and particular as elaborated by Hegel.

Individuals in this elementary social subject clearly recognise each other in the sense that they participate in the same system of activity with their “cousins” and their pattern of life presupposes that they have distinguished themselves from Nature in the manner discussed above. But this is not to say that they have a concept of the Individual in any sense remotely like that known to modernity.

My point is that all the Individual social subjects here identify themselves with the Universal social subject, but this is not a flat identity, as if they were incapable of distinguishing between a single individual human organism and the language, foundation myths, land, artefacts, and so on through which they exist as a people. Such a notion is an absurdity, in fact it is not a notion at all.

The relation is rather like that kind of distinction we make we say “That is a cow,” while obviously knowing the difference between Daisy and the species “cow.” However, the anthropological and archaeological evidence is that early human beings were uninclined to make use of generalised concepts such as “cow;” their knowledge was very concrete, tending towards knowing each tree as an individual rather than having knowledge of trees as a genre in contrast to “shrub” or “flower.” There is evidence [source: Vygotsky] that very concrete and effective knowledge of the objects in their environment was compatible with quite unclear distinction between the individual and universal. It is reasonable to suppose that this situation is also typical of the way they conceived of each other.

In the discussion above about how a subject distinguishes itself from Nature, I pointed to the production of artefacts of various kinds which both objectified human powers and provided a focus around which systems of activity meeting people’s needs could be organised. Following the terminology of Evald Ilyenkov, such artefacts, though material objects, can be called ideals; their function in a whole culture is the same as spoken words — the stabilisation of a certain system of activity, the production of artefacts reflecting its requirements and the invention of words used for gaining the assistance of others and coordinating one’s own activity in the system of activity are all part of a single process of the production of culture.

We can designate the culture of a people and its ethos as “Universal,” being the sum of all its ideal elements. ["Culture,” and thus “the Universal,” is wider than “community” and subjectivity is not co-extensive with “culture;” “subject” is an intersection of the universal with “particular”. A culture which is wider than a community simply points to the fact that subjectivity has already developed beyond the bounds of the “isolated subject."] The particular performances of systems of activity by means of which the people reproduce their life — farming, cooking, hunting, storytelling, etc., — we can call the “Particular.”

These three aspects of the Subject — the Individual, University and Particular — all mediate each other in the sustenance of the life of a people and its culture down the ages. This triangular relationship, which Hegel calls a Syllogism, is the proper relationship only by means of which we can conceive of the relation between individuals and their community. Without the concept of mediation, thinking of people simply as a collection of elements belonging to a set, there is no possibility of conceiving of this relationship other than by rendering the subject like parts of a simple piece of machinery, as some kind of robot. An individual human being cannot directly access the ideals of their culture; phonemes and implements have no meaning until they are utilised in cooperative activity.

To exemplify what I mean by each of these three aspects of the Subject mediating the others, it goes like this:

When a particular group of individuals bring in the harvest they collect the seeds for next year’s crop, continuing the process of selection and maintaining the breed of grain; when a group of people cooperate in the building of a house they further concretise the meaning of the words they use in coordinating their activity and reproduce in yet a new particularity the pattern of house-building they learnt from their parents: the universal (culture, artefacts) mediates between the individuals and the particular activity at hand, functioning to coordinate it and guide in the necessary direction; the particular practical activities or labour processes mediate between the individuals and the culture, helping them learn and acquire the culture and further develop both the culture itself and themselves as individual participants in the culture; the individuals which come together also mediate between the particular labour process at hand and the cultural products which are necessary for its performance, bringing their knowledge and energies to the task and activating it. One could go on indefinitely. There is always three sides to the relationship; each side mediates the relationship of the other two.

However, it is fair to say that none of the participants have an education in Hegelian philosophy and all this takes place without the slightest consciousness of a distinction between individual, universal and particular. If one were to ask one of the harvesters “How to you bring in the harvest?” then he or she would most likely answer with words and gestures to the effect of “Like this.” If asked “Who brings in the harvest?” then they would doubtless answer with the names of those engaged in the task.

Thus when we say that the individual subjects here do not distinguish themselves from the social subject (i.e., their community), then we mean that the form taken by such a distinction is simply that between individual, universal and particular, and that in the earliest stages of development even these are not clearly distinguished. The richness of the vocabulary of early cultures in concrete designations is evidence of this type of consciousness. It is necessary only to read Shakespeare to see the traces of this vocabulary, so rich by comparison with our own. The richness of vocabulary represents traces of this kind of subjectivity because things and activities tend to be known by “their own name,” rather than being referred to in a mediated way by generic universal categories and names.

I make no claim to originality in what I have said so far. All this was worked out by Hegel about 200 years ago. Although I intend to go beyond Hegel later on, I believe Hegel gives us what is necessary to establish the nature of subjectivity; all that is required is to rescue Hegel’s original idea from 200 years of interpretation and his own metaphysical mode of thinking.

The individual subjects “recognise” each other, but not in the sense in which such recognition is possible in modernity. They “recognise” each other only insofar as they are each participants in the same, single system of activity, but one in which there has been a degree of differentiation between universal, individual and particular. The form of recognition which sustains modernity is one in which a subject recognises another subject, an independent Other like itself, possibly even a stranger. This we have found is impossible for the “abstract” subject which constitutes the beginning of our analysis.

In modernity, the social subjects whose systems of interaction we must deal with, are not of course anything like the individual or social subjects we have imagined above. It is not our aim to try to reconstruct modernity as an aggregation of such simple, undifferentiated, mutually independent subjects, but rather to concretise our conception of the subject by following the way in which the subject differentiates and concretises itself in the historical process. The outcome is a worldwide concatenation and interpenetration of systems of activity which are not separable from one another but nor do they form a single whole. We have constructed what we have described as both the starting point and endpoint of social theory — the subject in itself; what now remains is to trace how such a subject can differentiate and unfold itself to something resembling modern conditions.

4. The Two possible Modes of Recognition of the Other

In order for two simple, “isolated” subjects to be able to interact with one another, and for a simple social subject to be able to differentiate itself, there is a pre-condition. That is that they must be able to produce a social surplus, over and above what is essential for the reproduction of their material life on a day-to-day basis.

If their way of life allows for (a) a part of the product to be expropriated from the producer by someone who is thereby relieved of productive work and can concentrate on “theoretical” work — doing philosophy or overseeing the work of others, or (b) a surplus product over and above what is required for immediate consumption which can be exchanged for goods produced by other subjects.

(Parenthetically, I should note that at this point I have made a minor departure from Hegel’s exposition, inasmuch as Hegel places (a) as a primary point for the emergence of self-consciousness and (b) is introduced only later. I see no reason for this separation. In System of Ethical Life he posits three categories of surplus product, individual, particular and universal, corresponding to the manner in which such surplus is appropriated; in this sense, (a) and (b) above correspond to particular and universal appropriation.)

Thus we have two independent paths to the recognition of another subject and to the differentiation of a single subject: enslavement (or colonisation), and trade (or exchange, commodification or “neocolonialism”). I will look at each in turn.

a. Enslavement and Colonisation

Let us return to the prospect of two social subjects confronting one another in just the dire circumstances considered above, but with the difference that one party at least has sufficiently developed its mode of living that a division of labour is feasible.

Thus instead of physically destroying the Other, perhaps robbing them of their land, domestic animals, goods and so forth, they can enslave them. By “enslave” I do not mean that the people concerned are turned into commodities or even necessarily that they are put to work under the cat-'n'-nine-tails in the manner popularised in movies. How the enslavement (colonisation, subjugation) is implemented is of no concern for an analysis of modernity; what is of interest is the way in which the concept of the Subject develops itself.

This scenario is the one sketched by Hegel in the “Master-Slave” dialectic made famous in his own way by Alexander Kojève and is well known as an effective means of conceptualising not just long-forgotten episodes of antiquity, but the process of colonisation inflicted upon the continents of Africa, Latin America and Asia by the European powers. However, many interpretations of this dialectic fail to capture what for Hegel was essential, viz., the manner of mediation involved in the subjugation of the Other. In my opinion this failure derives in some measure from a failure to begin from an adequate concept of the Subject itself, a failure which can flow from undue concentration on the single passage of the Phenomenology. For these reasons, I will ask the reader to suffer a short recapitulation of the Hegelian concept of enslavement (or colonisation).

In order to grasp what takes place with the process of colonisation it is important to conceive of the Subject in its two aspects: the objectification of the Subject in its culture: language, customs, arable land, domesticated animals, tools, machinery, literature, etc., etc., on one hand, and on the other, the subjective form of this culture in the individual human beings who act out the culture and internalise its meaning in their persons. This is what Hegel calls the “duplication” of self-consciousness. This duplication does not coincide with the mental-material contrast, but reflects the differentiation of a subject from objectivity, manifested in internalisation and objectification (or externalisation), the contrast between natural human beings and domesticated Nature, between accommodation and assimilation, to use Piaget’s terms, equally meaningful in relation to a social subject as for an individual actor.

When a Subject colonises an Other this is what takes place: the objectification of the other is destroyed, the language may be outlawed, cultural artefacts either physically destroyed or removed from their context by the termination of the customs and practices of the colonised people, plants and animals are either destroyed as useless to the coloniser or taken possession of by them; the objectification is detached from the subjectivity and subordinated to the colonising subjectivity. The subjective aspect of the Other however is subsumed within the activity of the coloniser, but in a subordinated, dominated position, effectively destroyed, acting out the culture of the master, put to work on its land, utilising the methods dictated by the master, speaking (at least for all serious purposes) the language of the master and obeying its laws. With the expropriation of the objectification of their subjectivity, their self-consciousness, i.e., their own differentiation of themselves from Nature as human beings, is destroyed; at the same time, they remain conscious human beings; as productive workers, they distinguish themselves from Nature through their labour, but not as before, as themselves, now in the manner of the master-culture. Thus, now subsumed within the system of activity governed by the master, the system of activity which meets the needs and desires of the master, and coordinated according to its consciousness, its theory of the world, the colonised people is now able to identify themselves as human beings only by means of the culture of the coloniser.

However, what has taken place is a rupture between the subjective aspect of the system of activity in which they produce themselves, and the objective activity itself; the practice is the activity of the slave, the theory is that of the master. Thus in the now-differentiated subject, there has been a separation between theory and practice, and one in which theory governs practice. Once a self-governing and self-sufficient, independent Subject in which theory and practice were not differentiated, by contrast, the “slave” is now a dominated being, used in the same way as domestic animals as means for the “master” to achieve their ends. In this sense the master does not recognise the slave as a human being, as an “end”, as a subject like themselves. Rather, the master-culture subsumes the activity of the colonised subject into its own culture, expropriating its surplus, and then successively transforming its activity in line with its own schemas. However, the slave recognises the master since the master is the end, the purpose of their activity, the true subject of their activity.

Let us look at the mirror image of this situation from the position of the “master” in the system of activity which results from the act of colonisation. Whereas formerly, the “master” was a subject in which theory and practice were, as described above, indissolubly connected in day-to-day life, the activity of the master class is now a “theoretical” one; he oversees the work of his slaves; whether it is by means of architectural drawings or the cat-'o'-nine-tails makes little difference. How are the subjective and objective aspects of the subject now related to one another? The coloniser has enhanced the objectification of their activity by the act of colonisation, and by putting the colonies to work, they find their culture objectified in the activity of the colonised. Instead of doing practical work themselves, they now produce much more by means of theoretical work, but what they take to be the objectification of their own subjectivity is objectively the activity of the slave. For the master-culture (i.e., for this subject), the activity of the slave is no more the creation of the slave than milk is the creation of the cow or potatoes the creation of the earth. The activity of the slave is their own activity, albeit theoretical activity. In this sense, the master fails to recognise the slave as a human being, as a subject like themselves. He is as dependent on the slave just as he is on Mother Nature, but this is not his subjectivity, for he has mastered the slave just as he has mastered Nature. The master’s attitude to the slave is the same as his attitude to Nature. Thus Hadrian’s Wall is deemed to have been built by Hadrian, though it is hardly likely that Hadrian lifted a single stone.

Let us look at the form of mediation which is inherent in this process of separation of theory and practice.

Whereas in the case of the simple, undifferentiated subject, the individual sees their own powers and knowledge in the artefacts of the culture and participates in the regeneration of that culture as an expression of their own subjectivity, so that the relation of individual, universal and particular is barely differentiated, in the case of the class society now constituted by the differentiation of the subject the situation is quite different.

The producer sees in the objectification of their activity the culture of the oppressor, the culture of the oppressor class with its overseers and its theories and desires intervenes between their own consciousness and the practice they are engaged in, as if they did not have a mind of their own. While dying of starvation they produce and export tons of rubber to Europe. Their life activity is absorbed in this culture, and except insofar as they retain a memory of their former days, before colonisation, or have contact with other subjects, both of which are excluded in this thought experiment, their consciousness can only be that of the culture of which they are a part, albeit a denigrated and lowly part.

On the other hand, the great cathedrals which exalt the religious sensitivities of the ruling class are built by labourers who can’t read Latin. The activity of the workers intervenes between the ideas and intentions of the ruling class and the product in which these intentions and desires are given objective form. The material of the master culture is the objective activity of the slave.

The subject-object relation of the slave is mediated by the subjectivity of the master; the subject-object relation of the master is mediated by the (unrecognised) objectivity of the slave. A relation of dependency is established: robbed of their own culture, the slave is made dependent on the master, ideally dependent, dependent in law, so to speak.

Unable to reproduce their own wishes by “their own” activity, the master is dependent on the slave, but this is only an implicit or potential dependency, an material, “unrecognised dependency,” for the master dominates the slave in the same way as it dominates the material objects of the rest of its culture. Dependency is therefore implicitly independence, and independence implicitly dependence.

Recognition here becomes a concept with real content. The slave recognises the master; she recognises the master insofar as she obeys the master’s laws, acts according to the property rights and customs dictated by the master-culture. The master however does not recognise the slave; she regards the slave as only a means to an end, a door-mat to be walked over, she does not listen to the slave’s opinions nor care for her desires, except in the way a bee-keeper cares for the pollen supply of her bees in order that the bee may produce honey.

This is a single subject; it is one culture, but it has differentiated itself. On one side the master enjoys the respect of the slave but does not reciprocate it since the slave is not worthy of respect, and consequently the respect received from the slave provides comfort and security but is no basis for self-respect.

On the other side, although, as a good worker, the slave satisfies the desires of the master, her product is not an expression of her own subjectivity but that of the master. The possibility of the slave to know herself to be worthy of esteem and esteem herself, is therefore blocked. Lacking respect from the dominant culture she also lacks self-respect. The master the other hand regards the product of the worker as the product of her own subjectivity — any defects are ascribed to the nature of the slave of course.

Thus this internal relation of the now differentiated subject is asymmetrical. The individual subject who grew up in the self-contained world of the simple, undifferentiated, isolated social subject enjoyed confidence that their activity would meet their own desires. The virtue most characteristic of this condition is that of self-confidence. Self-confidence is shattered by contact with a foreign subject until recognition of the subject’s culture is gained from the Other.

On the other hand, insofar as the “defeated” culture survives — in the outback and the interstices of the dominant culture, perhaps in the privacy of the colonised homes — then here the relation between the two subjects is just as before: non-recognition. Thus so long as such a situation remains, there must be a kind of dual-personality in the colonised person, who knows of his or her former culture by means of marginalised, rural or domestic vestiges of it, while in public life and production it is the dominant master-culture which absorbs her. [source: Wretched of the Earth]

In the subject divided within itself between the theoretical attitude and the practical attitude, we have respect and esteem on one side, but not on the other. Recognition is given only to the one, dominant subjectivity whose culture is objectified in the activity of the subject, and denied the Other. As Hegel points out however, receiving respect and esteem from someone who is no better in your eyes than a domestic animal is no basis for the development of self-respect and self-esteem. Both aspects of the subject are dissatisfied with the development.

I should mention here that in his early System of Ethical Life Hegel offers an alternative scenario by which the master-slave dialectic may arise, and that is the growth on inequality of wealth within a society. [quote from System] This has the effect of denying culture to one part of the subject, while giving excessive power to the other; the poor person is thereby forced to offer themselves in the service of the wealthy individual and the same dialectic is set in motion, this time not through contact between formerly isolated subjects, but through the differentiation of a single subject, due to inequality of wealth. Clearly the production of a social surplus remains a precondition for this differentiation and the implications are the same. Hegel makes clear his view that this is a very unhealthy development and puts the responsibility for ameliorating the situation on the shoulders of the rich person, not on the state nor on the self-emancipation of the worker.

Now it is evident enough that this subject which is differentiated within itself is fraught with contradiction — the colonised subject reproduces the culture of the coloniser in their own life activity and consequently master that culture, while the colonising subject, though master, is objectively dependent on the colonised — but it is not relevant to our task at the moment to follow the possible course of such contradictions. One possible outcome, of course, is that the “slave” gains recognition as an independent producer and sells their labour or product to the master as owner of the objectification of the culture, its means of production.

I should mention in parentheses that in his Subjective Logic, Hegel posits the union of Theory and Practice, i.e., the supersession of the contradiction described above, as Reason, which for Hegel, is synonymous with the modern state. That is, Hegel posits modernity as the overcoming of the domination of the “slave” by the “master,” made possible by the fact that working with the objectification of the dominant culture allows the worker to master that culture, and put forward the claim to Rights. The dialectic leading up to this turn-around is called the “Unhappy Consciousness” in which Hegel sketches the stages of development of consciousness the “slave” goes through to overcome its “slave mentality.” The modern nation is, for Hegel, one in which the traditional relations, division of labour, law, religion, etc., of kinship-based ancient society has been overcome; there is a separation of state and church, between ethnicity and citizenship, etc. It is in this context that Hegel posits the second mode of contact between subjects, to which I now turn, at a higher level than the Master-Slave confrontation.

b. Trade and Exchange (commodification)

Let us return again to the scenario of the subject which produces a social surplus over and above their own needs, and comes into contact with another subject, another culture, but in this instance we suppose that neither one nor the other subject is able to subjugate the other and all attempts at taking possession of what is claimed by the other are repelled.

If the first subject produces nothing of use to the Other, even if they can win the respect of the Other by repelling attempts to rob them, they will never enjoy the esteem of the Other. In this scenario, the two subjects will continue their independent ways of life in mutual indifference.

If the first subject produces a surplus of something which meets the needs and desires of the Other and repels their attempts to rob them of it, then so long as the relation is reciprocated, the option of trade opens up; each can satisfy their needs by exchanging surplus products for the valued goods of the Other.

The relation which then develops between two previously mutually independent and indifferent subjects is a symmetrical one in which each respects the other (because they are forced to bargain with them) and esteems the other (because the other’s labour produces a product which they value and which cannot be produced within their own culture, something distinctive or exotic). Each subject enjoys the respect and esteem of an Other, equally respected and esteemed in their own eyes. Thus each subject enjoys the capacity for self-respect and self-esteem, since they see respect and esteem reflected in the behaviour of the Other towards them.

More than this, since a subject’s needs and the means of their satisfaction are reflected in the system of activity by which the Other is constituted, we have in fact a single system of activity, a new, single subject; a more concrete subject inasmuch as each part is now able to enjoy what cannot be produced by their own labour, and they develop new needs reflecting the culture of the other. But it is also two separate subjects; each looks upon the other externally, as just means to the satisfaction of their own ends with whom they are unfortunately forced to negotiate, but in no way does each necessarily respect the customs, laws and way of life of the other, nor work together with them in any particular productive activity. Each is a means to the ends of the other. Although they speak the language of commodities, there is no requirement for any other common language. They become mutually dependent, but only externally, still morally independent. They value the product of the other, but only the surplus product, not the life activity of the other as such. They remain foreigners to one another.

Doubtless this entering into relation with the other transforms both parties to the relation; the labour which was formerly useless and surplus to their own needs now becomes useful as the basis for obtaining exotic goods from the Other. There is an inherent tendency therefore towards the merging of subjectivity, towards a single system of activity, but it is not a single subject. Even to this day, the world division of labour, which in a strong sense constitutes a single global system of activity, remains in an equally strong sense, exchange of commodities between subjects who are foreigners to one another.

This relation, the relation of exchange of commodities, commodification of labour, is thus a powerful process for the formation and differentiation of subjectivity, generating mutual esteem on the basis of mutual respect, but it does so only while retaining the differentiation between mutually alien subjects.

In fact, by means of the process of separating production and consumption, its impact within a formerly undifferentiated subject is to fragment the subject into mutually alienated (foreign) subjects, each of which uses the other as a means to their own end, swindling them if possible.


According to Hegel, there are two modes of recognition: being a member of the one and the same subject, and having Rights. Having rights is the characteristic condition under which citizens of modernity relate to one another.

However, the methodological move of introducing the concept of subject, and of describing the logically possible relations which are compatible with such a concept of the subject, is no substitute for a concrete investigation of history and the actual course of events by which modernity emerged. Nor is it a substitute for an empirical study of social psychology, which could disclose how it is that individuals can acquire the capacity and inclination to act in accordance with a system of rights. All I have done here is to introduce a methodological tool. The relation of exchange of commodities could be described as “paradigmatic,” to use Thomas Kuhn’s useful concept, but I am not making an historical materialist claim that a relation arising in the labour process must therefore find its way into aspects of the “superstructure.” I am not making this claim. My purpose here is simply to clarify the methodological foundations I intend to use in a critique of “social capital” theory. The task certainly calls for a sound methodological foundation, but I am not claiming anything with respect to a theory of history or a theory of social psychology.

Both the relations between subjects which I have outlined: (a) enslavement (domination, colonisation, subsumption) and (b) trade (commodification, exchange), have acted over the centuries to construct modern subjectivity, trade by means of colonisation, colonisation by means of trade, and so on. However, the trend of modernity seems to have been towards the predominance of the commodity relation, and we will have more to way on this relation later on.

I should mention at this stage that I do not regard this approach to the relationship between subjects as “economistic.” At a stage of development of a subject and its relation to others where there is no scope for a relationship which goes beyond “eating and drinking”, the relation is clearly describable as “economic.” However, the elementary relations-to-others which we have introduced are simultaneously both recognition relations and economic relations.

Further, I have introduced the relation of exchange of commodities and the commodification of relations internal to a subject only after dealing with recognition in the form of membership of a single system of activity in the form of the mediation of individual, universal and particular, and the relation of “colonisation,” and I intend to move onto the relation of “solidarity.” In this context I am very far from any kind of “reductionism.” The fact remains, however, that this relation, the relation of commodification, is the one which is currently growing.

c. The Mediating Subject

Whenever two subjects enter into relation with one another, a specific mediating activity is necessary for the interaction:

Thus both the differentiation of the subject and the coming-into-relation of subjects, always generates a new subject specifically associated with the mediating activity: the military, a bureaucracy and a merchant class. Every process of coming-into-relation with another subject, involves both the internal differentiation of the subject and the creation of a new subject constituted by the specific self-contained system of activity mediating the relation. Each relation of subjectivity, which is a relation internal to a subject, is therefore also a subject in itself, complete with artefacts, specialist language and, of course, individual practitioners.

The concept of mediation is thus important not just for understanding how subjects interact with one another, but also how new subjectivity emerges in the interaction between strangers. Mediation is always a process, an activity, but to begin with it is not of course a self-conscious system of activity. But whenever subjects get involved together in a system of activity, even total strangers, then you have an emergent new subjectivity.

Mediation then means looking at interaction not as communication but rather as a form of subjectivity in itself, in which what is normally taken as “information” or “symbolic exchange” and so on, is the ideal aspect of the specific form of activity constituting the mediation.

5. The Relationships of Modernity

In summary, the process of construction of modernity is one of successive differentiation of subjects, in the process of simultaneously bringing into relation with one another mutually independent subjects. I have defined a subject as a self-conscious system of activity; over time, the isolated simple self-consciousnesses (subjects) which we can imagine to have been the setting-off point of history, are reconstituted, merging the still extant subjectivity originating in ancient times in different parts of the world, with new subjects based, among other things, on the functional division of labour, capital accumulation and class consciousness. These latter concepts go far beyond what I can deal with here, and I intend to deal with such concepts through a reading of the literature on “social capital.”

The point has been to derive the concept of the subject and the basic relationships by means of which subjects interact with one another and change, as an alternative to the conception exemplified by James Coleman and any number of others from Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau up to John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, of entering an infinite loop which begins with Robinson Crusoe and ends, at best, by denouncing Robinson Crusoe as a myth.

This approach is also to be contrasted with the method of taking the community as the starting point, since the concept of “community” marginalises the activity of the individual as the material creator and carrier of the culture. The most consistent form of communitarianism is monotheistic religion, since any conception of the community as agent has to invest subjectivity into the community by some means — either God, collective consciousness or muddle and confusion. Papism or monarchism are capable of giving individual, subjective form to the Universal, but hardly in a convincing way. Vulgar materialist theories which endow Nature or “Laws of History” with responsibility for determining historical progress carry the risk of blessing the subjectivity of those privileged with knowledge of the laws of Nature and history. Concepts like “society” and “community” can only be covers for the subjectivity of the ruling elite who speak on behalf of the community.

The obvious fact that nothing like the isolated undifferentiated subject described above is visible in modernity is neither here nor there. Nor is an independent economic agent maximising their utility. The point at issue is the basic unit of analysis by means of which the activity and relations of modernity can be approached in theory. The subject is a far more adequate and appropriate unit of analysis for understanding the complex relations and interconnected systems of interaction of modernity than either the “individual” or “community.” Concepts like “self-interest” and “control over events” are abstractions that are divorced from reality because they do not correspond to the real processes of development of human beings. They are abstractions well-adapted to computer modelling and mathematics but not to human life. Also, though human societies and individuals bear little resemblance to the elementary social subjects we began with, the subjects of modern life — including companies, individuals, families, associations, social movements and so on — are generally speaking amenable to understanding as subjects.

On the other side, for those who may be familiar with the Hegelian tradition, my recapitulation of the Hegelian description of the emergence of self-consciousness may appear unremarkable, and I make no claim beyond to have faithfully presented the rational core of Hegel’s thoughts on this subject. However, recent presentations of this process, by for example Francis Fukuyama and Axel Honneth, writers with considerable standing, fail to identify the place of mediation in Hegel’s concept and continue the conception of the Master-Slave dialectic as an unmediated confrontation between two independent self-consciousnesses. But it is the third element which constitutes the development of culture; both sides of the confrontation in the Master-Slave metaphor are mortal human beings, but the culture mediating their conflict is eternal. To omit the moment of mediation is to transform the Master-Slave dialectic into a foundation myth on a par with Adam’s being cast out of the Garden of Eden, of only symbolic significance. But it is much more than that! After writing the Phenomenology, Hegel wrote up his theory of the subject in Book II of the Science of Logic. By casting his theory as logic, he insulated himself against the dangers of anthropologising his concept and of making it dependent on fallible, contemporary science. The concept of Subject is basically a logical device, one which is more adequate and appropriate to the understanding of social phenomena, and not an anthropological or social-psychological metaphor or foundation myth.

Nothing I have said should leave any room for poststructuralist relativism of the type which denies the possibility of communication between subjects on the basis that different cultures employ incompatible closed systems of concepts (with their own “master signifier”). [source: Laclau and Moufe etc] Subjects are self-conscious systems of activity, and the only subjects which would totally fail to recognise or comprehend one another are those considered at the beginning of this analysis, living in self-enclosed isolation in the forest. The first material interchange between subjects constitutes mediation and puts an end to the failure of recognition. Ever since, all subjects, at whatever stage of formation, participate in shared systems of activity with other subjects. The idea of subjects whose interaction is not mediated is necessary only in order to demonstrate the precise significance of mediation, but nowhere on the globe today does there exist a subject whose interaction with other subjects is not mediated. If people exchange products or work together, then there is some degree of understanding between them. Only a postmodern philosopher could think otherwise.

The first system of relations between people that we have described is that between members of the same self-conscious system of activity, for example between close members of a family or collaborators in a common life-project or institution. This relation is reflected in all manifestations of spontaneous collaboration, even between modern individuated citizens with a life outside the given system of activity. We have theorised these relations under the concepts of Individual-Particular-Universal. Commodification is making inroads into this relationship, but it is still ubiquitous, being located within the “thick ethos” of close communities and institutions of the functional division of labour.

The second type of self-conscious systems of activity (subjectivity) we have described are those associated with direction: a division of labour between theory and practice within a single system of activity, between the direction of labour and the execution of labour. This is a relation fraught with contradictions centred around the fact that the subjectivity of the class which reproduces the subject is denied in favour of the class which directs production. This relation is also ubiquitous but in decline in conditions of modernity.

The third system of activity (subjectivity, relation) we described is that of exchange of commodities: a symmetrical division of labour between customer and service provider, which we showed to be an external relation in which two subjects each deny the humanity of the other in the very act of offering it respect and esteem, simultaneously drawing subjects into a single system of activity while mutually isolating them from one another, as merely means to one another’s ends.


It is my contention that around the 1830s a new kind of relation began to manifest itself in Europe, solidarity. I will leave to the concluding part of this essay a full justification for the concept of solidarity and its historical origins, but I want to just briefly outline the relation of solidarity in the same terms as I have described the subject as a self-conscious system of activity.

By way of contrast, I will first introduce the notion of welfare (or charity).

I see a person in distress, someone perhaps who has lost all subjectivity, having no means of livelihood, or at risk of destruction by a hostile subject; moved by compassion perhaps, I step in and rescue them. In doing so I subsume them into my own subjectivity, my own system of activity; it is an asymmetrical relationship of dependence. Perhaps having been restored to some level of functionality, the rescued party will break herself free and re-establish her own subjectivity, but as a relationship, welfare is one in which the welfare-provider subsumes the recipient of welfare into their own subjectivity. It is not uncommon in fact for welfare recipients to adopt the religious practices of the charity which helped them or for them to go on to become welfare providers themselves. But as a relationship, welfare is a system of activity, a subject, which undermines and negates the subjectivity of the recipient. Like any system of activity, welfare generates its own subjectivity and a whole industry can grow up around the activity of welfare provision. This relation therefore comes under the heading of “colonisation” — “benign colonisation” perhaps.

State intervention of this kind need not be conceived under the concept of charity however; it may be Rights (as in free public health and education in many countries), community obligation (as in Veterans and “senior citizens”), mediated individual accomplishment (as in “self-funded retiree”). There is currently a powerful tendency towards stigmatisation of social groups by means of “welfare;” communal responsibilities are exercised in a way that gives institutional forms to the ethos of a community, and this offers only certain modes of assistance, not limited to the stigmatising mode of “welfare.” [Nancy Fraser]

By contrast to the relation of welfare, what I mean by solidarity is this: you are struggling, for whatever reason, perhaps I think “There but for the grace of God go I,” I come to you, a stranger to me, and say “What can I do to help?” I voluntarily subordinate myself to your subjectivity; the relation of solidarity puts you, the recipient of solidarity, in charge; as giver of solidarity, I demand no say in what I can do for you, but by submitting myself to your subjectivity, by lending a hand as they say, I strengthen your subjectivity. Solidarity is, in my opinion, the single most important relationship in respect to the crisis of modernity, which I describe as a decline in social solidarity.

The word solidarity entered the English language in 1848, and German (solidarität) at the same time from the French solidarité. The word originated in the street battles in revolutionary Paris as revolutions swept across Europe bringing down the old order, coming out of the environment which had given us the word communism in the 1830s, and “solidarity” entered the lexicon of the trade unions and other emergent working class organisations across Europe almost instantly. In other words, solidarity is a mode of action, the propensity for which is a virtue, which emerged along with the modern proletariat and is the characteristic virtue which is the essential condition for survival of the proletariat, and like any other activity it constitutes the formation of a subject.

According to Hegel, the corresponding virtue of the bourgeoisie is honesty; honesty is the virtue which is essential for the conduct of business; without honesty in business there is no trust, without trust that the other will honour their own word, there can be no contract or on-going commercial relationship or credit, no recognition. An entity which keeps its word is a subject capable of doing business.

Hegel ascribes the virtue of trust (vertrauen) to the agricultural class; working on the land, with plants and animals, the peasant must trust mother Earth to give them the fruits of their labour. No-one expects the peasant to be honest however. Nor does any employer expect their employees to be honest; all work practices will be presaged on the assumption in fact that the worker will be dishonest. But solidarity is a virtue without which the working class cannot survive.

Trust on the other hand is the mode of activity which can grow only on the basis of participation in a single system of activity, over a period of time. Honesty engenders trust, in business, but trust here is a highly conditional one for the two subjects engaged in business, i.e., exchange of services, remain external and foreign to one another. For the working class, when one subject lends herself to the subjectivity of the other, participates in the other’s struggle as a “helper”, then trust develops around that single system of activity and this is the process of formation of class consciousness. Over time, the relation changes and transforms from solidarity to one of collaboration, in which each has an equal say on what should be done. This is because by means of trust based on solidarity a new subjectivity emerges out of the activity of the subject who was struggling in the first place. Since the subject who offered solidarity was a stranger to the subject who accepted solidarity, the activity of solidarity creates a new social bond.

Why is it that solidarity is such an issue for the proletariat? I can quote the words of Eichhoff, a contemporary historian of the First International:

“In so far as it is possible to divine the secret thoughts of the founders of the International, their main, we might almost say their only, object was in the first instance to bring about an understanding between the workers of all lands. This understanding was to prevent the competition which had long existed between the workers of various countries. Hence forward, through the power of combination (or to use the jargon of the International, through solidarity) all the ‘workers’ would be able to impose their laws upon the employers who were not in a combine or were not solidarised” [Histoire de l'Internationale, Gamier, Paris, 1872. emphasis in original]

The fact that their labour has been transformed into commodities, placing them in competition with one another, means that without solidarity their standard of living and ability to control the conditions of their own labour will necessarily decline to the lowest level at which it is possible to survive and simply stay alive. The relation of competition between workers militates against mutual aid; as sellers of the same commodity to the same buyers, their similarity is no basis for their constitution as a subject; when at work, they are subsumed under the subjectivity of their employer, at home they are fragmented as individual consumers, on the labour market they are in competition with one another. Solidarity therefore is the only mode of activity which constitutes class consciousness. Without it, workers may either subordinate themselves to the subjectivity of their employer to be used and disposed of as the employer sees fit, or be destroyed. Class consciousness, i.e., social class constituted as a subject, cannot arise on the basis of “having something in common,” such as being sellers of wage-labour, a commonality which in itself is counterproductive for constitution as a subject. As a self-conscious self-contained system of activity, class consciousness can only come about through subjective participation in a common system of objective activity, and it is solidarity which constitutes this subjectivity. Solidarity is in its essence not the subordination of individual subjects to a collective subject, but rather the subordination of the collective (provider of solidarity) to the individual subject, insofar as the subjectivity of the individual subject furthers the universal aim of the class.

Because of the growing commodification of all aspects of life in modernity, this question of solidarity extends far beyond the ranks of organised labour where people still remember the old slogans and sing “Solidarity Forever!” down at the Working Man’s Club on a Friday night. It affects everyone.

Unlike love and friendship, solidarity is a relationship one extends to complete strangers. Solidarity is the stuff of safe neighbourhoods and the only alternative to descent into the maelstrom of walled villages and police powers. Solidarity differs from the social conformism which is characteristic of the self-contained subject such as the rural village or bureaucratic state. The conformist social subject acts to subordinate the individual to the universal; solidarity on the other hand acts to reinforce and support the individual subject which is struggling, and constructs a culture based on struggle. Thus solidarity is a social bond of the opposite kind from “communitarianism,” which is in irreversible, and not unwelcome, decline in modernity.

A final word on friendship. I regard friendship as a bond which has been formed in any shared system of activity, but which extends beyond the context of the shared activity. One has to find things to do with friends. Friendship is therefore an important social bond, but depends for its existence on the possibility of participation in share systems of activity. Thus I distinguish between love and friendship, because I believe that love is a social bond formed, like friendship in a system of activity, and which like friendship survives withdrawal of the individuals from the particular system of activity, but the distinction is this: love is based on a close physical system of interaction, such as child-rearing, sex, or life-and-death struggle, and survives the separation of individuals from this closeness, but because of the emotional impact of love, one does not have to find things to do with a loved one and its survives time and social distance. Both love and friendship have therefore a capacity to support social cohesion, but both are limited to significant extent in their “radius of operation.”


Hegel talked of virtue as being the propensity for engaging in certain modes of activity with others, and of the necessity of appropriate modes of life activity for providing the life experience out of which corresponding virtues can be developed. [quote from System of Ethical Life] Thus, he talks of the working with crops and domestic animals as providing the basis for developing the virtue of being trusting and of engaging in business as the basis for developing the virtue of honesty and of warfare as the necessary life experience for developing altruism. Whatever we make of Hegel’s ides on this score, I use the word humanity as the virtue which grows from the experience of giving and receiving solidarity. It is self-evident that a world filled with people who enjoy self-respect and self-esteem as a result of the experience of enjoying the respect and esteem of others, remains for all that a fragmented world of mutually alien subjects, lacking in social solidarity, lacking in humanity.

If we follow Axel Honneth’s pragmatist social psychology, and locate the development of the aforesaid self-relations in the experience of perceiving the respect and esteem of respected and esteemed others, then what happens when we get to solidarity. Lending solidarity takes a subject out of themself; they get to see themselves not from standpoint of the other, but in the standpoint of the other. Thus solidarity does not build self-respect and self-esteem, but allows a subject to become other-related, to develop humanity.

Before moving to develop this conception by means of a critique review of a number of writers on “social capital,” I want to mount a final defence of the decision to adopt the subject as the methodological foundation.

Defence of the Methodology

In choosing to adopt the methodology of the subject as a “unit of analysis” for social theory, I stand in the fine tradition of Hegel, Marx, Vygotsky and Ilyenkov, all of whom used this approach very fruitfully. On the other hand, by adopting this methodology I risk losing the means of engaging with all those currents of thinking that begin from the individual — liberalism, sociology and critical theory, for example, not to mention those who approach social problems from a religious point of view or remain enclosed within the universe of “text.” That’s life.

It could be said that in order to critique modernity I ought to utilise the concepts of modernity. In the sense that antiquated or alien values and concepts cannot provide insight into an issue, this makes some sense. So for example, elaborating a “theory of socialism” as an analysis of capitalism, would be an entirely fruitless exercise. One most certainly must address oneself to the modes of activity, ideology and concepts of the subject itself if one wants to criticise it. But this does not mean that one should uncritically accept the subject’s own concept of itself as one’s own.

In order to make a critique of liberal individualism ought I to adopt individualism as the foundation of my own methodology? Surely such an exercise could serve a purpose only as a reductio ad absurdum, but nothing else. Nothing in the fine tradition of Hegel, Marx, Vygotsky and Ilyenkov suggests that a critic should adopt the ideological position of the subject they are critiquing, even though they most certainly should have a methodology which is able to “represent” the actual life activity of the subject itself. One of the functions of criticism is to disclose the real foundation of a way of thinking. The methodology of beginning from the simplest entity which manifests all the properties of the system of interest has the best chance of doing that.

Most particularly, I believe that the standpoint of the subject offers a way out of the hopeless dichotomy of “liberalism vs. communitarianism,” if only by beginning from a third point which includes both the standpoint of the individual and the standpoint of the community.

If only by going to a deeper level, the concept of subject also offer some prospect of transcending the analytical dichotomy between the politics of redistribution vs. the politics of recognition. This remains to be seen, but the point is that when we start from the subject and its possible modes of activity and relation-to-other, we have no need to build in a motivational structure, social psychology or theory of history to justify behaviour to be imputed to the subject. The concept of recognition has already posited itself in the very same relation in which economic relations were first posited in my presentation of the notion of Subject above.