Andy’s response to Neli’s talk

1. Neli has excellently presented Hegel’s concept of property and how, for Hegel, property forms the foundation for the formation of personality, culture and history, so the criticisms I am going to make are directed against Hegel.

2. Hegel says (in Neli’s words paraphrasing the famous preface to the Philosophy of Right) “the philosopher’s task is not to provide some justification for property but rather to understand it and comprehend it as a phase in the development of the human mind”. We cannot escape the fact though, that the philosophy of private property is an important prop for the institutions of private property. But more important is the insight critique of philosophy can give us to the real content of property.

3. So when Hegel says, in Neli’s words, that “it follows that the central characteristic of property is that it is private”, we have to look at this.

“Private labour”

4. So Hegel builds a whole theory of personality, culture and history on the basis of private property. But this notion of property corresponds to a world in which private labour predominates.

Still, Hegel knows exactly where this leads:


When the standard of living of a large mass of people falls below a certain subsistence level - a level regulated automatically as the one necessary for a member of the society - and when there is a consequent loss of the sense of right and wrong, of honesty and the self-respect which makes a man insist on maintaining himself by his own work and effort, the result is the creation of a rabble of paupers. At the same time this brings with it, at the other end of the social scale, conditions which greatly facilitate the concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands.

Addition: The lowest subsistence level, that of a rabble of paupers, is fixed automatically, but the minimum varies considerably in different countries. .... Poverty in itself does not make men into a rabble; a rabble is created only when there is joined to poverty a disposition of mind, an inner indignation against the rich, against society, against the government, &c. A further consequence of this attitude is that through their dependence on chance men become frivolous and idle, ... Against nature man can claim no right, but once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another. The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modern society.


When the masses begin to decline into poverty, (a) the burden of maintaining them at their ordinary standard of living might be directly laid on the wealthier classes, or they might receive the means of livelihood directly from other public sources of wealth (e.g. from the endowments of rich hospitals, monasteries, and other foundations). In either case, however, the needy would receive subsistence directly, not by means of their work, and this would violate the principle of civil society and the feeling of individual independence and self-respect in its individual members. (b) As an alternative, they might be given subsistence indirectly through being given work, i.e. the opportunity to work. In this event the volume of production would be increased, but the evil consists precisely in an excess of production and in the lack of a proportionate number of consumers who are themselves also producers, and thus it is simply intensified by both of the methods (a) and (b) by which it is sought to alleviate it. It hence becomes apparent that despite an excess of wealth civil society is not rich enough, i.e. its own resources are insufficient to check excessive poverty and the creation of a penurious rabble.


This inner dialectic of civil society thus drives it - or at any rate drives a specific civil society - to push beyond its own limits and seek markets, and so its necessary means of subsistence, in other lands which are either deficient in the goods it has over-produced, or else generally backward in industry, &c.

5. So I think it is fair to say that Hegel knows he has a problem here, with the action of private property. To his credit, Hegel does not see the resolution of this impasse in the sphere of property, ie., common property, or equalisation of property or anything else but actually in the state:


The state is the actuality of concrete freedom. But concrete freedom consists in this, that personal individuality and its particular interests not only achieve their complete development and gain explicit recognition for their right (as they do in the sphere of the family and civil society) but, for one thing, they also pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal, and, for another thing, they know and will the universal; they even recognise it as their own substantive mind; they take it as their end and aim and are active in its pursuit. The result is that the universal does not prevail or achieve completion except along with particular interests and through the co-operation of particular knowing and willing; and individuals likewise do not live as private persons for their own ends alone, but in the very act of willing these they will the universal in the light of the universal, and their activity is consciously aimed at none but the universal end. The principle of modern states has prodigious strength and depth because it allows the principle of subjectivity to progress to its culmination in the extreme of self-subsistent personal particularity, and yet at the same time brings it back to the substantive unity and so maintains this unity in the principle of subjectivity itself.

What Hegel is referring to here is the intricate system of participatory democracy for property-owners that he proposed in the Philosophy of Right.

6. So I think it is reasonable to say, even from Hegel’s point of view that it is not so much the crude attempt to resolve the problem of modernity by means of public property that has failed but rather that they did not “know and will the universal; ... recognise it as their own substantive mind; ... take it as their end and aim.”

I want to move to this question of alienation:

7. Following Hegel Neli says: “the alienation of the thing reproduces man as free agent because he comes to the awareness of his capability as a creative being”. This is OK for the small business person, or professional but for the person who is selling not the product of their labour but their capacity to labour which is used by the employer, what he or she sees is not their own personality objectified but is actually confronted by their product as a hostile and alien force.

8. So this is the situation with a society of wage-labour whose legal structure is built on private labour.


... The amassing of wealth is intensified by generalising (a) the linkage of men by their needs, and (b) the methods of preparing and distributing the means to satisfy these needs, .... That is one side of the picture. The other side is the subdivision and restriction of particular jobs. This results in the dependence and distress of the class tied to work of that sort, and these again entail inability to feel and enjoy the broader freedoms and especially the intellectual benefits of civil society.

9. As Neli said: “The economic relations arise as a result of the division of labour and the development of the production relations in society” .

Is there a basis for beginning the analysis of society with the property relation. As Neli said: “The subjective character of human needs could be examined through the character of the activity by which one satisfies these needs with reference to the way the subject is determined”.

10. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Hegel knew he had a problem here, and I think the source of this problem is in the myth of private labour which he has picked up uncritically from the English political economists.

11. The only way we can understand the property relation is together with the relations defined in the division of labour (or cooperation) and the forces of production which I will call collaboration or collaborative labour activity. And to do this I think Hegel provides us with the key.

Individual, Universal and Particular

12. Following Hegel we should examine the relation between the Individual, the Universal and the Particular, the basic figures of human conception.

An individual becomes a particular when they have a job, because in a job they enter into the Universal as an Individual. Let’s look at how the property relations, the division of labour and collaboration mediate between individual, universal and particular.

In the property relation, the Universal mediates between the Particular and the Individual in that the right of an individual to participate in social activity and acquire a share of the social product is determined by their property (including their own bodily and mental powers). Here the property relation plays the role of the particular: each is a property owner.

In the division of labour, the Particular mediates between the Individual and the Universal inasmuch as individuals gain the opportunity to enter into the Universal activity by means of which the Community reproduces itself by being a Particular person, and this process can be conceived of irrespective of any property relation.

In collaboration (the forces of production), the Individual mediates between the Particular and the Universal, inasmuch as it is the labour activity itself which realises the Universal through the Particular jobs and social positions in society.

For the working class it makes a lot more sense to base society and personality on the division of labour, and to recognise that a person has a right to use their own labour activity. Division of labour should mediate property not the other way around.

Ultimately, I think the primary relation is not property but collaboration, — the living forces of production themselves, and even the division of labour falls into second place.