Andy Blunden. Hegel Summer School 2004

Solidarity, Recognition, Subjectivity and Mediation

Muhammed has said that recognition is impossible. I agree with Muhammed with this qualification: Without mediation, recognition between two subjects is inconceivable. Let me explain.

The Single Self-consciousness

Modern social theory begins with the individual, individuals who communicate with each other and make social contracts. The usual response to this absurdity is to say “No, no, it’s the community!” followed by the socialisation of individuals into the community. But this is wrong too. We must begin with the smallest part of society in which all the phenomena of society are found, and following Hegel we call this a Subject.

When Hegel talks in The Phenomenology about self-consciousness, what I will call for short a Subject, he is not talking just about mental things; for Hegel a Subject means a whole system of activity which includes artefacts, rituals, social practices and structures as well as ideas, emotions and culture.

We can refer to those aspects of a Subject which take on the status of being things-in-the-world as objectifications — tools and artefacts of all kinds, laws, goods and the property relations relating to them. If I mention property relations in the same breath as the things and goods themselves, in contradistinction to mental phenomena, then that simply emphasises the overall unity of Subjectivity as a process, a process in which there is a constant movement of internalisation and externalisation, of people accommodating themselves to externally-given things and practices, naturalising them, and of people putting their own powers into the world in the form of artefacts and cultural products of all kinds.

Before we can understand the idea of two Subjects coming into contact with one another, we have to come to grips with how a Subject comes into being in the first place. Now it turns out that there can’t be true Subjectivity in the absence of other Subjects, that the relation between two Subjects is part of the life-cycle of Subjectivity, but the fact remains that we have to begin with an undifferentiated Subject which distinguishes itself from Nature or objectivity.

Now a Subject that doesn’t know about any other Subject can hardly qualify as a self-consciousness at all, can it? But let’s see what we could mean by a single Subject. What comes face-to-face in Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic are two subjects, which are described in the preceding section of the Encyclopedia, “Soul,” which Hegel says is the subject matter of anthropology.

Imagine an isolated tribe in some time past long ago. All the people go about their business according to certain traditional patterns of life; there is no individuality, no surplus product to sustain an aristocracy, no trade with neighbouring people, no division of labour — or at least if there is a division of labour, it is seen as “natural,” such as that between men and women, children and adults, and so on, as part of a single cycle of life.

There is no individualism in this society, because everyone sees around them the artefacts and products and the life activity indistinguishable from their own labour, objectifications of an undifferentiated single pattern of life. Now these are human beings, and they make tools and have a spoken language and rituals and make a distinction between human and nature, so if I talk about lack of self-consciousness, then this is relative not absolute. But whether you think that such a state of affairs is a real historical thing or not doesn’t matter. You can take this as a thought experiment, if you like.

Unmediated contact between Subjects

What happens when this Subject comes in contact with another? Neither will recognise the other as human beings, they will see the other in the same category as wild animals, part of Nature, outside society, with a spirit for sure, but the trees and animals have spirit as well; there certainly will be no recognition of property rights. Contact with another people would be like a cyclone. According to Hegel, either one people will devour the other or vice versa, or failing that the two parties will withdraw from each other and continue to live in mutual isolation again. But either way there’s no recognition.

Surplus Labour

The underlying key to the development which can take place from here is surplus. If the people are able to create more than they need for the sustenance of their own lives, then there is an opening for culture, for division of labour, for division between mental and manual labour, ... and conquest.

If people can create things that have no other significance for them other than mental or spiritual needs, if some people can be assigned tasks which are not directly meeting the material needs of the community, but “theoretical” tasks, then we have the possibility for the development of Subjectivity as such. This takes the form of specifically mental or spiritual activity, people whose role and meaning is spiritual and things whose significance is spiritual, not just natural.

This allows the differentiation of a subject into individual, universal and particular to take place, as the culture takes on a life of its own so to speak and at the same time social hierarchies in which different individuals have a particular place within a system of life.

But let us look at how this development opens the possibility of a relation to an other Subject. I will take this under two aspects: enslavement and trade.

Enslavement (or colonisation)

A mode of production which creates a surplus opens the possibility that instead of devouring the strangers, you can enslave them, and it is this scenario which corresponds to the most direct reading of the master-slave dialectic. But it is important to recognise that what happens here is the destruction of the Other Subject. True, their body is preserved, but their whole culture, language, property, family, and everything is taken away; the colonised person is subsumed into the triumphant Subject.

Now this differs from the practice of marrying foreigners into the tribe, only because it creates a division between Subjects as dependent and independent, but it is still part of a single Subject. The enslaved or colonised people are made part of the dominant culture; they are given the shit jobs and they have no control over the surplus they create, but that is a place within a single Subject.

Differentiation of a Subject

But what takes place then within this single Subject, by a process of differentiation, is where recognition comes about. The direct contact between two self-consciousnesses failed; there was no recognition of the conquered by the conqueror.

But within the relationships of a single Subject, a single culture, the slave reproduces the culture and material forms of the dominant Subject by their own activity; their consciousness is therefore a dominated self-consciousness; they see themselves in a product which is the idea of the master; their material objectification is the ideal objectification of the master. On the other hand, the master relates to their own objectification not immediately, as an undifferentiated objectification of their own life activity, but mediated through the activity of another, the slave, as the activity of the slave.

Thus, the distinction which has arisen here is a mediated one. Insofar as the consciousness of the colonised and the coloniser have distinguished themselves from one another, it is mediated by the labour process of the colonised in the service of the culture of the coloniser. Recognition, not symmetrical recognition, but recognition nonetheless, comes about because the coloniser and the colonised are each respectively the theoretical and practical aspects of one and the same system of activity. This is what’s called a “thick ethos.”

Thus the relation between the two self-consciousnesses is possible only because it is a mediated consciousness, and the labour of the colonised person, under the rule of the coloniser, reproducing the colonial culture, is the mediating element. Without this mediation, the slave can never master the culture of the colonialist. But we can still see that the consciousness of the colonised is a kind of false consciousness, because it is the coloniser’s consciousness. Conversely, so long as the coloniser sees only the reproduction of their own Subjectivity in the activity of the slave, they remain “ego-centric,” and fail to recognise the slave as an Other at all. More and more the activity of the coloniser becomes simply that of the slave-driver or overseer; the culture of the coloniser is that of the overseer — also a kind of false consciousness.

What we have here is what Hegel called the “Unhappy Consciousness,” because although the master culture has won recognition from the colonised subject, it has not won recognition from an equal, from a subject like itself but only that of a dominated subject. Consequently, this relation is not basis for self-respect or self-esteem, which can only be gained from seeing the respect and esteem in which one is held in the eyes of an equal.

Now I'm talking about Subjectivity in terms of a culture or people because I think it’s easier to visualise Subjectivity as a whole system of thinking and activity in this way. But you need all the time to know that I'm talking just as much about gender-relations, or race relations, or the development of a child into an adult culture or simply the relationship between any two adult human beings.


Now let’s return to the scenario of peace. Let’s suppose that a people has produced a surplus, and out there in the forest, there are other are other peoples producing a surplus. Let’s suppose that these people have been living in mutual indifference to one another, treating each other as foreigners not worthy of relating to as other human beings ... but these others produce a surplus, they have a culture, and they have something to bargain with. Clearly, another option presents itself, that of trade. You have the option of trading your social surplus for exotic goods.

External Relations

What unfolds here is a quite different relationship. It is essentially the relation of a Subject to another Subject. After any number of attempts at robbery and deception, if these don’t prove fruitful, sooner or later, one enters into a certain kind of relationship with that other. One must both respect the other as a human being like oneself who you cannot rob, and so be prepared to trade with them honestly, and one must value and esteem them as producers of an exotic product which you want to incorporate into your own culture and way of life, something that they produce which you need; and conversely.

This is pre-eminently the relation between two mutually free and equal Subjects, who both accept each other as free human beings, able to accept or refuse a given trade, and as equals, people whose labour is as useful as one’s own. This commodity relation is the elemental relation of bourgeois society, that between legally free and equal human beings, but human beings that are external to one another, foreigners who one can make use of but one cannot enslave.

This relation is mediated by the market. It is the basis for mutual respect and esteem but it is a not-fully human relation. It is the basis for rights, but is an external relation, in which the objectification of one Subject becomes the mirror in which another Subject measures the value of their own objectification. If they produce nothing of use to me they do not exist in my eyes; conversely, if I produce nothing of use to them, then I do not exist for them, I am not esteemed, I am not worthy of esteem. If I can rob them or enslave them, I offer them no respect. Conversely, if I produce something of use to them, but they only want to rob me of it, then they offer me no respect; unless I can force them to deal with me honestly and pay for it, than I am not worthy of respect. Self-respect and self-esteem thus arise through a specific kind of mediation with another Subject — trade. This is what’s called a “thin ethos.”

Mediating subjects

Thus in these two instances of the development of Subjectivity — enslavement and trade — we see how failure of recognition, manifested by war and peace, can be overcome by two different forms of appropriation of the objectification of the other. In one case, an independent producer demanding respect and esteem emerges out of a single way of life in the person of producers without rights in a culture of overseers; in other case, independent producers earn respect and esteem from one another and establish a single system of activity through exchange in the culture of the merchant.

In each case, there is no direct contact between self-consciousness; there is mediation. Without mediation, there is no recognition, just war and peace. The development of Subjectivity which takes place through this mediation involves the differentiation between subject and object in self-consciousness. The master-subject relates to its object via the objective activity of the slave and to its own subjectivity via the activity of the overseer; conversely, the slave-subject relates to its object via the subjectivity of the master in the forms of the activity of the slave driver.

So we have three processes by which a subject may differentiate itself: the division between a subject and its objectivity mediated by the life activity of the subject, the differentiation of universal, particular and individual mediating each other, and the two processes of mediation between subjects, supervision and trade.


But modern society is characterised not only by the merging of these two processes of mediation, but by third process which I call solidarity.

Respect and esteem are the aspects of relationships in which subjects relate to each other externally. Self-respect and self-esteem grow from the weak bonds operative in the world market. They are compatible with an atomised society which lacks any social solidarity.

Solidarity, which entered the language in 1848, 17 years after Hegel’s death, is a relation characteristic in its proper sense only of modernity, in which a person is willing to take a risk to help a complete stranger. This relation is in contrast to the competition between workers, which is the natural condition of exchange of labour.

The importance of solidarity is that it forms the basis for trust. The relation between individuals who must participate in a single system of activity, who are part of a single subject is both cognitive and emotive, the rational expectation of the cooperation of others, which we call trust. So in order to create the basis for the strengthening of a new radical subjectivity, we have to achieve trust. Trust in business is based on honesty; trust in struggle is based on solidarity. So the fundamental relation which underpins the relation between radical subjects, which is the basis for the formation of new social ties, is solidarity.

Trust and solidarity are relationships which are underpinned by certain virtues. Just like children are encouraged to keep pets or to go on adventures in the mountains or play team sports, this is basic stuff; to acquire certain virtues, one must go through the relevant life-experiences. Solidarity is the relation which was necessary for the survival of the working class. It is the relation which is being eradicated by the conditions of modernity. It is the basic pre-condition not only for social progress, but for any kind of viable urban life today, outside of a fortified village. Nothing could better serve the interests of social progress today than to figure out how to reverse the decline in solidarity.

History of Solidarity

August Blanqui described the attitudes of the young communist students and workers who put up the barricades in revolutionary Paris in the 1830s thus:

“Nothing is known of what is happening elsewhere and they do not trouble themselves further. ... They listen peaceably to the cannons and the gunfire, while drinking at the wine bar. As for sending relief to the positions under attack, there is not even the thought of it. ‘If each one defends his post, and all will be well,’ say the strongest. ... with such a system, defeat is certain.”

The word solidarité was invented in this time to indicate the quality which was needed, the virtue which working class people had to acquire to survive in the modern world which was emerging. The International Workingmen’s Association was created as a “mutual aid society” with the sole aim of fostering solidarity. The International sent money, printed leaflets, conducted agitation, banned imports, etc., in support of workers engaged in fights in countries all over Europe. Its essence was help coming out of the blue from people you'd never heard of. The International could never form itself into a party or develop a program, it was just an amorphous, ever-changing loose association of workers extending solidarity to one another.

Jane Jacobs from her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, described the necessary conditions for the development of urban life:

“In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn — if they learn at all — the first fundamental of successful city life: people must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other. This is a lesson nobody learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility to you take a modicum of public responsibility for you. ... This is instruction in city living that people hired to look after children cannot teach, because the essence of this responsibility is that you do it without being hired.” [p. 93-4]

This emphasises that solidarity is an attitude one extends to complete strangers, people with whom you have no material relations, neither relations of trade or employment nor relations of blood or friendship. The virtue which is fostered by the relation of solidarity and upon which solidarity relies, I call humanity, and humanity is acquired on the basis of formative experiences, as a child, growing up in urban neighbourhoods, where strangers look out for you; as an adult, by finding yourself the recipient of solidarity action from strangers.

In the nineteenth century it was possible to organise around an ideal; the formative process of the working class was in fact the substantiation of an ideal; call it the ideal of socialism or the ideal of solidarity or whatever, but the process of formation of the working class as a subject, as an organised entity capable of expressing its own views, of acting as a player on the stage of history.


The fundamental reason for the crisis of solidarity we experience today is the process of commodification which has penetrated into every aspect of our lives, which has brought many more people a measure of self-respect and self-esteem, but by shattering the person-to-person relationship into commerce or contractual relationship of external exchange between strangers, has atomised us. The world of our ideals is as fragmented and atomised as our world of work. Assembling people behind great ideals is no longer able to engender solidarity because the ideals themselves are atomised; we end up trading ideals in a political market.

We need to get closer to the roots of solidarity to work out how to build the kind of solidarity which is possible and necessary in the modern world. A new subjectivity emerges out of a single system of activity.

But at the beginning of the 21st century we cannot look to a single Subject to build the necessary social bonds. The atomisation which has affected the world of ideals is not just a “bad thing.” It corresponds to world in which individuality has developed to an enormous degree. Humanity requires an ethos, a deeply-held shared conviction about the right way to behave towards people coming from somewhere else, an ethic of solidarity.


Such an ethic, the ethic of solidarity, has to be built out of many, many different “single systems of activity” struggles in fact, as part of a declared political orientation, and actively promoted in public life. The single system of activity which constitutes the new emergent subjectivity is of course the worldwide division of labour, globalised humanity.

Solidarity means this: you are engaged in a struggle; I place myself alongside you. I ask nothing in return and my support is unconditional. What can I do to help you? The project we are then engaged in together constitutes the single system of activity in which a subjectivity develops.

Solidarity is not charity. If I'm downtrodden and I'm not fighting back, then I've lost my subjectivity. If you step in to rescue me then you subsume me under your subjectivity, I become dependent on you. But if I'm struggling then that fight is an objective expression of my subjectivity, and when you express solidarity you strengthen my subjectivity while enlarging your own.

In this context, the solidarity cannot be accompanied by recruitment forms; the purpose of solidarity is to strengthen the subject which is struggling, not to subsume them into another subject.

This is a variation on the maxim which I have promoted in For Ethical Politics: “what we do shall be decided by you and me.” You're involved in a struggle; I come along and say “How can I help?” At first you may be grateful for the offer of assistance, a donation to the collection, firewood for the brazier or a delivery sent back to its destination; but you may be reluctant to accept me on the picket line; you don’t fully trust me. It’s your picket line. If you say “no violence”, then I don’t even have the right to discuss that policy with you. Solidarity means, if you are struggling, I participate in your struggle on your conditions.

But what transpires from this relationship? Once I've spent a night or two with you on the picket line, maybe copped a bit of abuse and shared the disappointments that come along, it begins to become my project as well, and you say, “Well, what do you think we should do next?” “What we do shall be decided by you and me.” To take the step to collaboration, trust is needed. New trust between strangers comes out of participating together in a common project. So the qualification is that before I can expect that we will decide together what we do, first off, “you decide what I can do to help you.”

I think the quality that is recognised in solidarity and the virtue which is built in offering solidarity is humanity. Self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem are all very well, but without common humanity it amounts to naught. I think that close attention to these systems of mediation which develop trust and solidarity is necessary to develop the quality of humanity.

On the other hand, I think it is important to distinguish calls for more “community” from what I am proposing as solidarity. Community is a form of conformism, and one which rests on ties of particularism, on a “thick ethos,” which can stifle the development of the individual subject; solidarity on the other hand, reaches across social distance, and promotes the growth of subjectivity.

Why am I Saying all this?

What the speakers at this seminar are trying to figure out is an ethical foundation for the Left, for progressive social struggle. Everyone has their own critique of modern society; the problem is how to relate to those who have a different critique, how can we progress together, despite having such radically different demands?

We could ask “How should we evaluate the claims of another subject?” But putting a value on another’s claim is an external relation; it is the basis for “trading ideas,” but it is not a relation of solidarity and not a relation which can be the basis for trust and the strengthening of subjectivity. This is our task: the inclusion of ourselves with the other in a single system of activity, a new radical subject, but a radical subject in which the critique of all the individual subjects within it are strengthened, not subsumed or stifled by conformity.

So the question we have to ask ourselves in relation to another subject is this: Is there a basis for offering solidarity? If there is: How can I help you? That’s being human. Later comes trust and collaboration.

Finally, I just want to clarify some of the key concepts in today’s seminar: Recognition, Mediation and Subjectivity.


Recognition is a word which is used frequently in Hegel’s earliest work, the System of Ethical Life, and in his mature works appears only in the section of the Phenomenology on the emergence of self-consciousness. Recognition is part of the process of emergence of self-consciousness indicating a relation to an other like oneself, and the relation to oneself as another. Hegel discusses recognition in the master-slave dialectic in terms of the differentiation of a single self-consciousness, and in terms of having rights. This was how Hegel saw the process of building modern nations.

Hegel sees love in terms of the Family, and Rights arise only in relationships which go beyond the family. So far as rights go, Hegel is almost exclusively concerned with property rights: to be a person is to be a property-owner, property of course in the most general sense. Inside the family, recognition means “being a member;” outside the family, recognition means “having rights,” especially property rights, of having your subjectivity recognised in an object which exists for others. That is, for Hegel the concept of recognition always pre-supposes a kind of mediation.

While Recognition has this rather ephemeral role in Hegel’s work, mediation is the soul and substance of his system, its Spirit.


Mediation means bridging, it means a third thing which constitutes the connection between two other things. For example, two people cannot speak to each other until they find some common language; try as they might there will never be a unqualified meeting of two minds. The best you can do is immerse yourselves in a single system of activity.

We live in a world where everything is so mediated that there is a crying out for immediacy. Most people can’t even produce the simplest of their own needs; every aspect of our personality is mediated by the labour of others. But every attempt to bring people closer together, only has the effect of pushing people further apart. Automobiles lead to suburbs, telephones and computers lead to people not knowing their neighbours, television leads to people entertaining themselves at home.

People want to deny mediation. People want to talk about intersubjectivity as if direct person-to-person contact were really possible. The best thing, the only thing really, that we can do to make contact with other people is to do things together. That thing we do together is a third subject and needs to be understood as such. People almost never exchange products (barter); exchange is always mediated by the activity of merchants (money). More and more people don’t talk to each other, conversation is mediated by telecom workers. Attempts to deny the essential role of mediating subjects will more likely reduce mediation to trading ideas, or on the other hand, to take-over and domination.

Mediation generally means some system of activity which will become itself a subject. So for example, when people started trading with one another, the activity of trading led to the growth of a class of merchants. Enslaving people led to a class of overseers. There is a whole movement here: every human function gets objectified, first in the specific forms of activity corresponding to that human function, then in the form of artefacts, tools and so on, and then dealing with the relevant artefacts and social activities, people occupying a niche in the functional division of labour, and generally to one degree or another introducing words into the language, laws and rights, political demands etc., etc., and organisations representing the specific interests of that industry or class.

So mediation is intimately connected with subjectivity and with the growth in the division of labour; the development of mediation is the development of human culture and communication. Any approach to thinking about intersubjectivity which is not centred on mediation must miss the point. Mediation is the well-spring of subjectivity. In solidarity it is the struggle of the recipient of solidarity which is the mediating activity, not the offering of solidarity.

Subjectivity and Agency

A subject differs from a thing because it exists not just in someone else’s eyes but in its own; a subject is not only desired, produced, perceived, and so on, but desires, produces and perceives. A subject is a system of activity which has reached a certain level of development in the relation between individual, universal and particular. Even if every wage-worker knows themself to be a member of the working class, that does not make the working class a subject; the working class has to be able to speak and think as such, as a class, a subject. The working class is a subject, an agent of history, an independent player, on the stage of history, but it is not the subject of history.

We are asked the question: “Who is going to make history?”, “Who is the subject of history?” The problem is that the way the world has developed, the idea of a singular subject — like a world party — taking control and running history, has become increasingly untenable and down-right unattractive. Never mind the working class — any subject becoming the single historical agent, looks both unattractive and untenable.

What we have is a multiplicity of subjects, all making history as best they can. What existed at the material, individual level, is now reproduced at the ideal, political and cultural level, multiculturalism, modernity. But insofar as we have a subject for history, a single system of activity determining the course of events, then that entity is capital. Capital is personified in companies (plural). So abandonment of the struggle to build a subject of history worthy of making history means abandoning the making of history to Bill Gates and his like. But these guys are not the subject of history either. They are subjects, but they are splashing around in the surf like anyone else; they've just got bigger paddles. History doesn’t have a subject. And we actually like the idea that there are many different views of the world, many different dramas being played out on overlapping stages.

Humanity is not reproduced by a single corporation, but nor is it reproduced by 6 billion independent producers. The labour process is mediated by a myriad of relationships of, on the one hand, direction — where a capitalist overseer directs the labour process, and on the other hand, exchange, of course, under conditions of massive inequality.

Solidarity, trust and collaboration do offer a practical way forward for people under these conditions. The only way forward in fact. And what lies at the end of the road is not a world government, so to speak, but a kind of broad church united by basic ethical principles of solidarity, trust and collaboration. Humanity would therefore be its own subject to the extent that we can transcend the relations of exchange of value, and abolish capital.

The expansion of rights, giving access to the political process to more and more people, at the same time further isolates people. Solidarity is not a relationship of rights. It brings people together. It does not presuppose collectivism or sacrifice of individuality; solidarity actually supports individuality. Without struggle of course, there can be no solidarity, so there has to be a struggle. Just as the rule of capital bases itself on the ethos of equal exchange, socialism bases itself on the ethos of solidarity. It will be solidarity which binds the working class together, not agreement on theory.