Hegel Summer School 2003: Hegel & the Clash of Ideals

Towards a Critique of Alliance Politics

Introduction — Alliance Politics

Alliance politics is the flavour of our decade. What I mean is that the predominant terrain on which politics, radical politics at least, is carried out is that of alliances: where various groups of people, each motivated by quite different ideals, join together for a specific project which serves their common ends. What is blindingly obvious about this kind of politics is that all the participants of an alliance do not share the same vision, but only a very limited short-term goal. Consequently, none of them can gain from the exercise, or even a long series of such projects, anything more than a very limited contribution towards their ideal. On the other hand, the forces of conservatism, the mainstream if you like, rests in the firm knowledge that everything in the world is organised more or less satisfactorily around their own ideal, be it power, money, security, status or whatever.


My objective here is to make a small contribution to looking at the problems of alliance politics by bringing forward some ideas drawn from a study of Hegel. I do not pretend that Hegel has the last word on this subject. Far from it. But Hegel is basically all about the life of ideals in modern society, and even though Hegelianism as such is surely an obsolete school of thought, it is hardly possible to say anything of value in this area without drawing upon ideas that have their origin in the work of Hegel.

Human beings organise their lives by means of ideals, ideals such as science, law, value, woman, news, sport, beauty, property, Dao, Bhudda-life, job, whatever — I could list every word in the English language, for words invariably denote ideals.

Whether or not a person knows the name of an ideal, and in fact long before anyone can name it, an ideal begins its life process surreptitiously, implicitly, in the relations between people, as a kind of tendency in the way people collaborate and interact with one another.

e.g. Role Model

So for example, the word “role model” entered the language in 1977. Did exemplary behaviour not exist prior to that date? Well, of course it did, but it was in that year that the interaction between people thinking about education and the relation between teachers and their pupils, and the rise of the modern women’s movement brought the idea of ‘role model’ to light, and people began to consciously and deliberately work with it.

e.g. Sexism

So one of the things which happens when an ideal is named is that people can begin to consciously organise their relationships around it. “Sexism” was coined in 1968, and this made it possible for people to really get to work and change the relations between men and women in a way that was not possible prior to this idea being named and successively concretised.

But I have to be careful not to mislead you when I talk about ideals. By “ideal” I do not mean a subjective image in someone’s head or a word, or rather I do mean these things, but ideals are also practices, institutions, icons and images, material products, machines — all these are stages in the life cycle of ideals.

What Kind of Ideal?

What I have just said is meant just to give you the general idea of “ideals”. What I have described as “ideals” obviously covers a wide range of things. The question really is: what kind of ideals can really change society and what kind of ideals can really transform society?


Modernity is characterised by a continual elaboration of the division of labour. Endlessly, different newly-observed aspects of human activity are not only named, but become the function of a specific profession and eventually a whole industry devoted to just that activity, usually exchanged for other activities as a commodity and made the basis of a profitable business.

We're talking about ideals going from being manifested in subjectivity to becoming objects for us, wether social or material.

“Science”, for example, gains its meaning not so much from those attributes which people might ascribe to scientific work — precision, measurement, documentation, evidence, etc. or whatever — but really to the institutions and objectified knowledge which define what science is and is not, who authenticate what is science, institutions which change of course, as the notion of science is contested and subject to change. This is not to say that the practice of science is identified with science institutions or that the concept or the word “science” is identical with either, but simply that these are all stages in the life of an ideal and as such are inseparable.

Further, ideals are not just posited in specific modes of activity and institutions, but also as material things: value is posited as currency, food is posited in a range of products recognised as food and labelled as such, while others are not, or the remote control for your TV which takes the function of operating it with your fingers and puts this into a specialised machine, and so on. Or this lecture theatre which puts into the form of an arrangement of furniture and so on a certain concept of learning.

People organise their activity by means of these ideals, both those which have their material existence solely in the totality of social relations and those which are posited in perfectly tangible material things, as well as words of the lingua franca. We can’t think or exist as human beings at all other than by operating with these external, socially defined ideals and the mental forms in which they are internalised in our thinking and self-activity.

Language is one of the important intermediaries in the processes of internalisation and objectification. Sensori-motor activity is another, like doing scales on the piano or saying grace before eating your dinner.

Not all ideals achieve self-consciousness of course, not all become Universals, but these kinds of distinction I want to leave to the side for the moment, just so we've got the general idea.

So all this I take for granted. This is the basics of what we mean by ideals, and how human life is organised around them. And this is the subject that Hegel is writing about, in the Logic, the Phenomenology, the Philosophy of Right, and all of his books.

The Logic

The Logic is of especial importance to us because in the Logic, Hegel shows us the basic schema of how ideals grow, their whole idealised life-cycle if you like, and he shows us this from the aspect of the basic way people themselves think and act, and act in relation to the given ideal and to each other, and how this develops through a whole process, beginning long before a thing is named, but just exists implicitly, unnoticed in the way people are living, right up to the formation of a social movement or public institution created around the ideal, relevant norms of behaviour, repetitive practice and its eventual penetration into the whole ethos of a society to such an extent that it is taken for granted, until it is thoroughly “naturalised” and “unconscious”.

Alliances and Ideals

Before moving to Hegel, it is worth just noting what is basic about the problem of alliance politics today: all the component parts of the current world-wide “anti-corporate” movement adhere to different ideals, each having their own, intrinsically valuable critique of modern society. The same goes for all the various campaigns which mobilise alliances. There currently does not exist any idea upon which everyone can agree at anything more than the most abstract level.

It is each of the different ideals which actually motivates and mobilises the people that come along and support the protests, and without their respective ideal they would not bother to come. States are made and overthrown, wars won, social systems created and destroyed only by the most powerful ideals, ideals for which people are prepared to suffer and even sacrifice their lives. No state was ever overthrown, no war won, no nation liberated nor any form of oppression eliminated by an abstract consensus of the lowest common denominator.

The ideal which will manage to overthrow corporate capitalism and prove adequate to the task of human emancipation does not yet exist. Or rather it does exist, and it can be found within the broad alliances developing in opposition to the manifold atrocities of modern society, but it is at this moment an invisible, embryonic thing whose whole life cycle still lies ahead of it, before we will know what name it will be called by, far less the kind of institutions that it will create for itself and the ethos by means of which it may be realised.

Hegel and Alliance Politics

So, the point of studying Hegel is to familiarise ourselves with the various life stages, rites of passage and modes of life associated with an ideal.

Rather than discussing these concepts diachronically, as one might discuss the life-cycle of a butterfly, which would open me to the danger of historicism or speculation, of trying to straitjacket the development according to a preconceived plan, I want to illustrate the concepts synchronically. This can be done because alliance politics presents us with ideals at every stage of their development simultaneously, though of course, a logical, and therefore implicitly historical, relation is implicit in Hegel’s ordering of the concepts.

In the Logic, Hegel names some hundreds of distinct stages or moments of the Idea, but they are organised into three principal levels: Being, Essence and Notion.


The very first category of Hegel’s Logic is Being. This is first of all the starting point of an ideal in history and social life, that is to say, it’s self-consciousness, the process of coming-to-know-itself in a certain way, of a thing in-itself, but also the starting point of its presence in subjective consciousness, of awareness.

Hegel begins his exposition of Being as follows:

Being, pure being, without any further determination. In its indeterminate immediacy it is equal only to itself. It is also not unequal relatively to an other; it has no diversity within itself nor any with a reference outwards. It would not be held fast in its purity if it contained any determination or content which could be distinguished in it or by which it could be distinguished from an other. It is pure indeterminateness and emptiness. There is nothing to be intuited in it, if one can speak here of intuiting; or, it is only this pure intuiting itself. Just as little is anything to be thought in it, or it is equally only this empty thinking. Being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing.

Now we can understand this as talking about the prehistory, so to speak, of any movement. So for example, if we were talking about a social class, Being is the actual daily mundane, practical activity which precedes any class-consciousness, solidarity or political representation or program or anything. And we can also understand this as talking about the awareness which is the beginning of any thinking about something. If we are talking about alliance politics then we are advised to rid ourselves of all preconceptions and we are also led to understand alliance politics in terms of Being, that is to say as a thing-in-itself, and not to mistake it for something else, not to mistake it for its reflection.

Being not to be confused with reflection

What do I mean by mistaking it for its reflection? Many students of the current worldwide alliances, the “movements of movements”, try to define what notion all these movements share in common. Democracy it has been suggested. But on closer examination the hoped-for shared notion of democracy turns out to be so utterly abstract that it is null. The difficulty alliances have in implementing any form of democracy in their own affairs, despite the fact that everyone is in favour of democracy, is illustrative of what is meant by abstract agreement.


People look for a common ideal, a kind of distilled abstract essence underlying all the various critiques. But this does not exist. It is nothing. And Hegel advises us that the moment of Becoming is that very realisation. That the first step is taken just when we realise that the activity of alliance is based precisely not on what everyone believes, on the very absence of a shared ideal and the recognition given to that difference. That the foundation of the new movement is to be found in the thing itself, in the very practice of making alliances.

“Now starting from this, determination of pure knowledge, all that is needed to ensure that the beginning remains immanent in its scientific development is to consider, or rather, ridding oneself of all other reflections and opinions whatever, simply to take up, what is there before us.

And this despite the fact an alliance, as I will show, is by its very nature not a universal ideal shared or otherwise and is inherently incapable of constituting an ideal capable of transforming society. Or to put it differently, if it did it would cease to be what it is.

If we accept that in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the completion of the demobilisation brought about by identity politics, the current political terrain constitutes a new beginning, a ground zero, so to speak, then it is my contention that the future is not given to us in any combination, any compromise or average or lowest common denominator among the various contending ideals which are actually motivating people at the moment, but in the very activity of collaborating itself, in the interfacing between the various ideals, the practice of alliance politics itself.

Alliance contrasted with Social Movement

Great social movements of the past had a concept of the kind of world, the kind of government they wanted, or the way in which government and rights and law had to be changed, and they could name themselves. The current alliances cannot give themselves a name. And that’s absolutely fine. I particularly remember one of the speakers at the N11 Conference held after the Melbourne S11 events, he was a Christian, who made the point that the movement did not have a name and that we should not be in a rush to give it a name, and I think that was very profound. The very thing that must not be done with this process is to simply give it a name and a continuing existence, i.e., a formal organisation.

I might say that the way Husserl and after Husserl Heidegger developed the use of the term “Being” as a mode of subjective consciousness has been very unhelpful in terms of people ever since picking up what Hegel meant by Being. The phenomenologists and existentialists are in fact talking about a completely different thing.

Essential and Inessential

What is at issue here is the difference between a social phenomenon and its consciousness of itself, between a thing and its various reflections in the opinions of those taking part.

“When this movement is pictured as the path of knowing, then this beginning with being, and the development that sublates it, reaching essence [which means reflection] as a mediated result, appears to be an activity of knowing external to being, and irrelevant to being’s own nature.

“But this path is the movement of being itself. It was seen that being inwardises itself through its own nature, and through this movement into itself becomes essence.”

Hegel is here contrasting Being with Essence, which is Reflection. Of course reflection and Being co-exist with one another, because it is the activity of people with ideas about what they are doing. But this is not the Essence but the Inessential. Hegel advises us to look at the activity of Being itself and not the banners it carries Being sublates itself sublated, through a movement “into itself”.

The Form of Movement characteristic of Being

Hegel devotes a great deal of attention to Being, which occupies about one half of the Science of Logic, but in a short presentation like this I don’t want to pursue this any further other than to talk about the modes of change which Hegel associates with Being, as opposed to Essence and the Notion.

“In the sphere of Essence one category does not pass into another, but refers to another merely. In Being, the form of reference is purely due to our reflection on what takes place: but it is the special and proper characteristic of Essence. In the sphere of Being, when somewhat becomes another, the somewhat has vanished.” [The Shorter Logic, §111n]

That is in Being we have what Jean-Paul Sartre called seriality, one thing after another, events that happen, and then other events that happen. The accuracy with which this characterisation describes the anti-WTO events that we know as S11, A15, O3 and so on is remarkable.

The Form of Movement characteristic of Essence

Hegel continues:

“Not so in Essence: here there is no real other, but only diversity, reference of the one to its other. The transition of Essence is therefore at the same time no transition: for in the passage of different into different, the different does not vanish: the different terms remain in their relation.

“When we speak of Being and Nought, Being is independent, so is Nought. The case is otherwise with the Positive and the Negative [or Peace and War]. No doubt these possess the characteristic of Being and Nought. But the Positive by itself has no sense; it is wholly in reference to the negative. And it is the same with the negative.

“In the sphere of Being the reference of one term to another is only implicit; in Essence on the contrary it is explicit. And this in general is the distinction between the forms of Being and Essence: in Being everything is immediate, in Essence everything is relative.” [The Shorter Logic, §111n]

So this brings us to Essence, or reflection, which includes the dialectic of discussion and the struggle of tendencies. The pre-given diversity that currently exists is of course the only form in which reflection is currently possible, but it is not in my opinion part of the essence of what is new and life-changing in the current juncture. But before looking more closely at Essence, I want to complete the description Hegel gives us if the different modes of development.

The Form of Movement characteristic of The Notion

Hegel contrasts the mode of transition in Essence with that of the Notion as follows:

“The onward movement of the notion is no longer either a transition into, or a reflection on something else, but Development. For in the notion, the elements distinguished are without more ado at the same time declared to be identical with one another and with the whole, and the specific character of each is a free being of the whole notion.” [The Shorter Logic, §161]

So what Hegel means by Essence is the process of genesis leading up to the formation of the new movement in its own right, albeit as an abstract idea, and what takes place from then on is the concretisation and maturing if you like of the movement..


So let’s look at Essence

Every movement comes about through the struggle of tendencies: in the early communist movement it was Anarchism, doctrinaire or Utopian socialism and Marxism; with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement it was the pacifistic NACC, the nationalist Nation of Islam and the intercommunalist Black Panthers; in the Women’s Movement it was Liberal, Radical and socialist feminism, and so on.

Now as I said above, the points of view from which we can reflect on the movement as it is now, are not the same as the points of view which arise out of and express the movement itself. But this is where we have to start. The tendencies which constitute the initial struggle for recognition constitute what Hegel calls the stage of Reflection; as we will see, these are necessarily transformed into a completely different range of tendencies by the interpenetration of Being and Reflection in the stage of Appearance, which we will come to presently. The movement outward once the new movement appears, Hegel calls Actuality, that is, when the new movement actualises itself. Reflection, Appearance, Actuality, these are the moments of Essence.

Now I just want to outline the concepts of Hegel’s stage of Reflection, which manifest themselves already in the various conferences and organising meetings where the existing tendencies discuss what is to be done, strategies and so forth in the common project in hand. This is sometimes known as the dialectic of discussion and it is remarkable that Hegel invented, in abstract form, what we now call “consensus decision making” 150 years before the Peace Movement discovered it in the 1950s. It goes like this:


“The maxim of Identity, reads: Everything is identical with itself, A = A: and negatively, A cannot at the same time be A and Not-A.” [Shorter Logic, § 115]

This observation simply expresses the thought that the dialectic of discussion must begin from what is agreed, from collaboration. The maxim of Identity is “We're all fighting for the same thing”. A dialectic of which does not begin from there is stunted and abstract. Alliance politics of course provides the wonderful opportunity for people with very different ideals to enter into common projects, that’s exactly what it is in fact.


“To ask ‘How Identity comes to Difference’ assumes that Identity as mere abstract Identity is something of itself, and Difference also something else equally independent ... Diversity has, like Identity, been transformed into a maxim: ‘Everything is various or different': or ‘There are no two things completely like each other.” [Shorter Logic, § 116n]

Difference may be called essential identity and it represents the celebrated diversity of alliance politics, of all different sorts of people and points of view collaborating in the common endeavour, a diversity manifested in a diversity of approaches to every given problem. The maxim of Difference is “Everyone’s different”. It is essential identity because diversity can only manifest itself where there is something in common. People having no point of collaboration cannot be aware of their difference, they are “ships in different oceans” as we say:

“Likeness is an identity only of those things which are not the same, not identical with each other: and Unlikeness is a relation of things alike. The two therefore do not fall on different aspects or points of view in the thing, without any mutual affinity, but one throws light into the other. Variety thus comes to be reflexive difference or difference (distinction) implicit and essential, determinate or specific difference.” [Shorter Logic, § 118]

You see how Hegel adds a nice nuance to this tracking of the stages and transitions of consensus decision-making, where there is a change of logic taking place, which he sums up in the series of “maxims” reflective of each stage. This is very important, and goes right through the Logic. You will hear people utter these maxims in the course of struggles and debates and the Logic helps you pick up these signals.


This leads us to Opposition.

Essential difference is ... Opposition; according to which the different is not confronted by any other but by its other. That is, either of these two (Positive and Negative) is stamped with a characteristic of its own only in its relation to the other: the one is only reflected into itself as it is reflected into the other. And so with the other. Either in this way is the other’s own other. [Shorter Logic, § 119]

It’s all very well to have different approaches to a question, but before long you have to decide: do we keep up the blockade all night or send people home while the going’s good? Do we really try to blockade the entrance, or do we passively resist while being removed? And so on. And for that matter, do we move to a vote on this and make a decision by majority? or do we keep discussing until we reach a consensus? or should we agree that everyone will do what they think best? The maxim of Opposition is “There are two sides to every story”.


As everyone knows, this is the point where things start to get sticky, as we approach the moment of contradiction, i.e., of essential opposition. We know that we cannot get anywhere unless and until we find our way through here, but at the same time, this is the time at which everything can fall apart.

There is just one thing which I think can be the advice of Hegel here: moments can be stretched out or telescoped, but they cannot be skipped over. In a rich and mature social movement which genuinely changes people’s lives, all the hundreds of relations and processes which Hegel lists in his Logic will be found. One of the points of studying Hegel is to learn to recognise all these relations and processes, and to give them their due opportunity to develop. I am sure that the young activists know better than me how to deal with conflicts and find consensus, but as Hegel says:

“the value of logic is only apprehended when it is preceded by experience of the sciences; it then displays itself to mind as the universal truth, not as a particular knowledge alongside other matters and realities, but as the essential being of all these latter.”

Hegel has famously praised and defended the rightful place of Contradiction in Logic. “Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity”. He offers no formula for the resolution of contradiction, other than to offer examples without number in the pages of the Logic. In the explication of contradiction itself for example, he says that he has just shown that contradiction is both opposition and identity, two determinations that are supposed to be mutually exclusive.


It is precisely by the bringing together of these two opposite determinations, identity and opposition, that contradiction may find its Ground. The movement of contradiction is not the triumph of one pole of the opposition of the other nor the seeming discovery of the essential identity, but rather the discovery of the ground or basis for both identity and opposition.

“The maxim of Ground runs thus: Everything has its Sufficient Ground: that is, the true essentiality of any thing is not the predication of it as identical with itself, or as different (various), or merely positive, or merely negative, but as having its Being in an other, which, being the self-same, is its essence.” [Shorter Logic § 121]

So this is the well-known process whereby determined pursuit of consensus decision-making, by the uncovering of the ground underlying the differing opinions deepens and advances an idea, broadens the scope of activity and creates the basis for the emergence of the new. Fundamentally Ground means the understanding of the basis for both sides in the contradiction: “There is a time for Everything” as the song goes.

But remember what Hegel said about Essence: the opposing points of view do not disappear in the process of resolution of a contradiction in its ground, but continue to exist as valid points of view, alongside their ground.


Now I want to move very briefly through the remaining to divisions of Essence. In the resolution of contradiction, in so far as it is successful and rather than the movement falling apart, splitting, new grounds are uncovered, things have to change; the old form is inadequate. The process which rests upon this process of reflection Hegel calls Appearance. Appearance is the dialectic of Form and Content.

The dialectic of form and content, the “struggle” of form and content, the transformation of content into form and form in to content, you will all be familiar with: quantitative changes build up until qualitative changes begin to show themselves, new problems replace the old ones, the form remains just the same but a new content has entered the activity of a movement a word takes on new meaning, the standing of a principle is undermined, and so on. Organisations are forced to change their form, theories have to be revised. Every time the form is changed in order to address the new content, the dialectic of discussion takes up again on a new basis; new forms engender new lines of dispute and take on new content. This is the dialectic of Form and Content, containing as we can see all the moments which have gone before. The maxim is thus: “The form must be adequate to the content or aim and the Content must be adequate to the Form”.

Thus we find within alliance politics all the different forms of subjectivity which resistance has taken over the past century: trade unions, political parties, fronts, social movements and individuals.

Appearance is also the dialectic of Whole and Part, whose maxim is that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.


The next and final stage of the doctrine of Essence is Actuality, the dialectic of Cause and Effect. This is the unity of Being and Appearance and is active to the extent that a principle or social movement begins to find resonance in the world around it, to win support, that is to the extent that people have the opportunity to reflect on the effect of their activity and the world around them in turn becomes a cause of itself, that a movement becomes a Effect as well as an Cause, a cause of itself. The interchange between cause and effect is the process of concretisation of an idea up to the point of reciprocity. Reciprocity is what could be described as the cause-effect chain bending back upon itself and closing the circle; where Spartans are both the cause and effect of the Spartan constitution. The maxim of actuality is that “All that is rational is real and all that is real is rational”.

The Site of a new Notion

In the tensions between movements, where people fight against the iniquities of global capitalism, respecting ideals which they do not share because they are the ideals of others, I believe this is the site where a life-world capable of binding all the different life-styles to which different people aspire, can be formed, but only at the expense of claims any of those ideals may have to the Absolute.

The Notion

Alliance politics arises in the condition of post-modernity, when almost every individual person participating in an alliance adds a new and unique idea, perhaps I could even omit the word “almost”. And this, the condition of post-modernity, is the underlying ground of alliance politics. It is really inconceivable that a new social movement could emerge here of anything like the kind of social movements which have formed our times.

What Hegel means by The Notion we could call a “life-world”, the whole edifice of ideal relations and objects which constitutes the human-side of the world we live in.

I use the term “social movement” in the broadest sense, for people who organise themselves around a Notion, that is, an ideal which constitutes, however abstract and subjective, an alternative life-world.

If we're talking about changing that life-world, then we need to think about what Hegel tells us about the Development of the Notion, mentioned earlier, about the forms of the subjective notion which Hegel calls the Individual, the Universal and the Particular, and about this process of objectification whereby ideals get incorporated into and change our life-world.

We also have to think about the state of our life-world as it is at the moment, and what kind of Universals it supports.

What I am working towards is the thesis that the struggle taking place in the interstices between ideals, the negotiation which gives recognition to the Other without aiming to modify or absorb it, which constitutes the ground for the emergence of a new kind of struggle, a new kind of principle.

Individual — Universal — Particular

The subjective Notion is the dialectic of Individual, Particular and Universal. An abstract Universal notion means a new principle which may form the basis for resolution of the abominations and social contradictions of our times. It includes the Particular organisations, social movements, communities, parties and so on which adhere to and express this Universal principle and the millions of unique Individual people who subscribe to and live by this new principle and become active through the various Particular social formations connected with it. That is, the subjective Notion is something that people belong to and participate in.

There are two questions here: How can we get to any kind of movement, even at the level of the great social movements of the past, from where we are now? and What kind objectification is possible which would really meet the aspirations of people today?

The development of the subjective Notion means the fullest development of the Universal, the Particular and the Individual; the fullest development of the expression of each in the other, and the strongest mediation of each pair by the third. At the moment we have none of this — no unifying principle, no people that adhere to such a common principle and no continuing organisations expressing and furthering such a principle. Can alliance politics constitute a Universal Notion? Is such a thing possible when there is no shared belief? no shared icon or constitution?

Social Movements and Notions

Is it necessary to prove that the so-called “anti-corporate “ or “anti-globalisation” or “democracy” or “anti-capitalist” movement — that is to say, the recent series of actions against symbols of corporate capitalism — does not constitute a movement, at all?

“The Notion is the truth of Essence and Being” says Hegel. Which means that the dialectic of discussion, the struggle of Form and Content, of Whole and Part and of Cause and Effect, reaches an outcome, and people change their way of living and acting having this Notion in mind and find that it is true and adequate to their way of life. “It is the Notion alone which, in the act of supposing itself, makes its presupposition”. The Notion is a self-sustaining idea. The Notion is the principle of Freedom: “It means a liberation, which is not the flight of abstraction, but consists in that which is actual having itself not as something else, but as its own being and creation.” Self-emancipation.

The socialist movement, the national liberation movements, the great bourgeois revolutions of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, all these movement were constituted by ideals which were also universal regulative ideals representing a whole life-world, a whole, free notion. Where they were successfully objectified, it meant the overthrow of the state and the restructuring of the entire life-world in the nation in question.

The great social movements of the post-war period: the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement above all, were organised around clear visions of a different world, but their objectification could only take the form of a modification of our life-world which leaves the central principle intact. Can I repeat Hegel description of the development of the notion:

“The onward movement of the notion is no longer either a transition into, or a reflection on something else, but Development. For in the notion, the elements distinguished are without more ado at the same time declared to be identical with one another and with the whole, and the specific character of each is a free being of the whole notion.” [The Shorter Logic, §161]

So for example, the invention of the internet is an objectification of the human capacity for communication which has certainly transformed our world, but it cannot be said to have overthrown it. Every new notion to some extent transforms our life-world as it is absorbed into it.

Constitutive and Regulative Ideals

I would contend that the ideal which transforms our life-world or Notion and our Being is seen at the level of Ethical Life, and that in two kinds of ways: constitutive ideals and regulative ideals.

By constitutive ideals I mean those ideals that constitute us as a collective, as a “we”. All the great social movements of the past 50 years have very clearly modified the notion of “we” and either extended the aspect of universality, constituted a new particularity or enhanced the consciousness of individuality.

By regulative ideals I mean those pictures of how we could live which instruct us about how we should live, such as the notions of anarchism and socialism developed in the 19th century.

One of the achievements of the past century is the intolerance for universals which exclude some people. However, far from eliminating suffering this achievement has tended to transform all our local or national problems into world-wide problems.

What Kind of Notion?

The question for us is this: what kind of Notion could issue from the terrain of alliance politics, a terrain which whose peculiar character is the independent existence of a multitude of distinct and different, even opposed and contradictory notions or ideals? Well, I think the answer is in the question. I think that the Notion towards which decent people are striving at the moment is to do with how human beings should deal with each other under the presupposition that each person hold dear to themselves different values (regulative ideas), organises their life according to different theories (constitutive ideas), but since we have to work together, collaborate to the extent that our lives intersect and we have common objectives, to the extent that we are doing things together, we have to define together what that common objective is and the specific role that each of us, not just our own selves, must play in order to work towards the common objective, while still respecting and recognising the others’ difference.

Ethics and Norms of Collaboration

I would define this as an ethical ideal, which begins in the negotiation of common norms or protocols of actions, maxims of action, and ultimately can be generalised through the abstraction of shared values, from which shared rules and norms of action can be deduced.

Such a notion still eludes us. While the various anti-corporate events are pretty much triumphs of organisation in so far as people get to the same spot at the same time, it usually proves near to impossible to agree upon any change in the action or any concretisation of plans, in the heat of the moment so to speak. So long as the objective is a shared one, it is possible to collaborate, even if all the collaborators hold different theories and values beyond that. But it is a challenge, and one that is still under development.

Ethical Maxims

Just like the maxims we looked at above which showed how logic develops in the course of dialogue, ethical maxims develop through people working together as well.

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule originates with the Bible, Luke 6:31: “Do unto others as you would them do unto you”. This sounds like a fine principle, doesn’t it? Leaving aside the scope of the universal implicit in “others” (i.e., whether it includes women or heathens and so on), I would contend that this golden rule actually functions as the ethical foundation of capitalism.

Commodity Exchange

It underpins the concepts of equality before the law and exchange of products at their value. “A Fair Day’s Pay for a fair day’s work” as they say. The internal logic of this maxim, as it has worked itself out over a long period of time, has led not to equality and reciprocity in human relations, but inequality and exploitation.

The Categorical Imperative

One of Hegel’s predecessors, Immanuel Kant was not satisfied with accepting the principles of ethics on the basis of Faith and set out to re-establish them on the basis of Reason. Kant began from the Principle of Universalisability: “Act according to a maxim which can be adopted at the same time as a universal law” and from here he deduced the Categorical Imperative: “Always treat another person as an end and never as mere means”.

Now, a couple of problems arise with this.

Habermas and Agnes Heller

Jürgen Habermas criticised the categorical imperative by saying that no-one has the right to unilaterally decide what is expected from another person. In the spirit of modernity, Agnes Heller revised the golden rule as: “I do unto you what I expect you to do unto me. What I do unto you and what you do unto me should be decided by you and me.”

Maxim of Cooperation

But all these formulations of the Christian aphorism contain an internal contradiction. Marx pointed this out in his 1843 Comment on James Mill. In the dominant relation of exchange of commodities, inclusive of wage-labour, each uses the other as a means, even though the relation is mutual. I call this the maxim o cooperation: “I am a means to your end and you are a means to my end.”

What is posed in the current conjuncture is the positing of a genuine ethical mode of collaboration, of working together.

What We do is decided by you and me.

Let us suppose that we have an abstract Notion: collaborate while respecting the different norms and values of the others; arrive at joint decisions through consensus decision-making and keep our promises. I sum up this relation with the maxim: “What we do is decided by you and me.”

What do we do about the fact that millions of people do not share the common objective and some people, the most powerful, actively oppose the shared objective? The millions of people who are not political radicals, not professional agitators with strange pre-occupations remote from everyday life?

The point is, that this problem of the ethic of collaboration, which arises in concrete form in alliance politics, is universalisable to society at large.

A world of Autonomous Communities Collaborating with One Another?

Alliance politics today consists of a whole diversity of social movements and political parties. One can theoretically argue in each case that the specific ideal in question is capable of re-organising the world according to its own regulative ideal. It is a fact that the millions of individuals participate in the world market and organise their lives through a multiplicity of such ideals. And there is nothing wrong with this, provided only that people do not impose their ideal upon others who do not share it, or use their ideal in order to oppress or dominate others.


The movement can only grow and can only transform the world if it works in accordance with its own Notion. This means that people have to take what they learn engaging in alliance politics into everyday life; they have to challenge people in their everyday interactions with the same standards of mutual respect and collaboration that they expect from others engaged in political action. At the same time, those shared values which may begin to emerge from the activity of alliance politics have to become the focus of activity to the extent that people are able to actualise them in their own activity.

Democracy and Ethical Politics.

Just a final word on democracy.

There is no good in demanding democracy, if in the movement itself, there is no consensus about what democracy means.

Democracy is a regulative ideal, but it’s a very fuzzy one; it tends to mean something different for everyone. It is also a constitutive ideal, indicating all those who are recognised as part of a collective subjectivity, sharing a common ideal. Not everyone wants to be part of someone else’s democracy. I am not at all convinced that democracy is an ideal capable of spanning the diversities of alliance politics, let alone the diversity of the world community.

It has to be deeper than that. That’s why I think the politics of the future must be ethical politics.

Andy Blunden
18th February 2003