Andy Blunden. June 2007

The Abstract General and Social Solidarity

The decline and collapse of social solidarity in the major capitalist countries in recent decades has its roots in the two great pillars of liberalism: universal adult suffrage in geographical electorates and the world market.

Both these institutions objectify a characteristic relationship between the individual and the universal and a conception of what counts as true and right in late capitalist society. I call this relation the ‘abstract general’ relation, and contrast it with the ‘concrete universal’ relation, and it is this relation which, as it permeates all aspects of our life, destroys social solidarity and threatens the fundamental viability of the modern world.

Let us clarify what is meant by the abstract general relation or concept.

Hegel vs. Rousseau on the State

It was the abstract general relation which Hegel had in mind when he criticised Rousseau in the section of the Shorter Logic on the Subjective Notion:

“The notion is generally associated in our minds with abstract generality, and on that account it is often described as a general conception. We speak, accordingly, of the notions of colour, plant, animal, etc. They are supposed to be arrived at by neglecting the particular features which distinguish the different colours, plants, and animals from each other, and by retaining those common to them all. This is the aspect of the notion which is familiar to understanding; and feeling is in the right when it stigmatises such hollow and empty notions as mere phantoms and shadows. But the universal of the notion is not a mere sum of features common to several things, confronted by a particular which enjoys an existence of its own. It is, on the contrary, self-particularising or self-specifying, and with undimmed clearness finds itself at home in its antithesis. For the sake both of cognition and of our practical conduct, it is of the utmost importance that the real universal should not be confused with what is merely held in common. ...

“The distinction referred to above between what is merely in common, and what is truly universal, is strikingly expressed by Rousseau in his famous social contract, when he says that the laws of a state must spring from the universal will, but need not on that account be the will of all. Rousseau would have made a sounder contribution towards a theory of the state, if he had always kept this distinction in sight. The general will is the notion of the will: and the laws are the special clauses of this will and based upon the notion of it.” [Shorter Logic, §163n]

In the History of Philosophy of Right, he says of Rousseau’s Social Contract:

“Man is free, this is certainly the substantial nature of man; and not only is this liberty not relinquished in the state, but it is actually in the state that it is first realised. The freedom of nature, the gift of freedom, is not anything real; for the state is the first realisation of freedom.

“The misunderstanding as to the universal will proceeds from this, that the Notion of freedom must not be taken in the sense of the arbitrary caprice of an individual, but in the sense of the rational will, of the will in and for itself. The universal will is not to be looked on as compounded of definitively individual wills, so that these remain absolute; otherwise the saying would be correct: ‘Where the minority must obey the majority, there is no freedom.’ The universal will must really be the rational will, even if we are not conscious of the fact; the state is therefore not an association which is decreed by the arbitrary will of individuals.” [Philosophy of Right]

And Hegel drew the conclusion that universal suffrage was a fraud, and in sketching his own idea of a society organised along the lines of collegiate self-government, he commented:

“The circles of association in civil society are already communities. To picture these communities as once more breaking up into a mere conglomeration of individuals as soon as they enter the field of politics, i.e. the field of the highest concrete universality, is eo ipso to hold civil and political life apart from one another and as it were to hang the latter in the air, because its basis could then only be the abstract individuality of caprice and opinion, and hence it would be grounded on chance and not on what is absolutely stable and justified. ...

“As for popular suffrage, it may be further remarked that especially in large states it leads inevitably to electoral indifference, since the casting of a single vote is of no significance where there is a multitude of electors. Even if a voting qualification is highly valued and esteemed by those who are entitled to it, they still do not enter the polling booth. Thus the result of an institution of this kind is more likely to be the opposite of what was intended; election actually falls into the power of a few, of a caucus, and so of the particular and contingent interest which is precisely what was to have been neutralised.”

Hegel saw that imagining that concepts are formed by grouping together things according to some attribute held in common, was the same manner of thinking that proposed that matters of state ought to be decided by the majority vote of everyone. Her further says:

“This atomistic and abstract point of view vanishes at the stage of the family, as well as that of civil society where the individual is in evidence only as a member of a general group. The state, however, is essentially an organisation each of whose members is in itself a group of this kind, and hence no one of its moments should appear as an unorganised aggregate.” [Hegel, Philosophy of Right, The State]

Vygotsky on Pseudoconcepts

Lev Vygotsky also saw the importance of the difference between the abstract general (or pseudo-) concept and the concrete universal (or genuine) concept. Vygotsky traced 10 different stages in the development of conceptual thinking (complexes) in childhood. It is only in adolescence that the child gets beyond abstract general categories.

“If we proceed to analyse with care this last stage in the development of thinking in complexes, we will see that what we have is a complex generalization of a number of real themes which, from the phenotypical point of view, i.e. in their external appearance and the totality of their external features, conform to concepts completely, but which, by no means, can be considered to be concepts because of their genetic nature, the conditions in which they come into being and the development and causal dynamic associations which underlie them. When we observe them from the outside, what we see is a concept, but from the inside they are complexes. It is for this reason that we have given them the name of pseudoconcepts.

“Under experimental conditions, a child creates a pseudoconcept every time he picks up a number of objects which could be selected and combined with one another on the basis of some abstract ideas, and matches them up with the given pattern. Consequently, such a generalization could just as easily be a result of a concept, but in reality, in children, it appears as a result of thinking in complexes.

“It is only in the final analysis that the complex generalization can be seen to coincide with a generalization based on a concept. For example, a child matches all the triangles available in the experimental material to the given pattern, i.e. the yellow triangle. This group could have been put together as a result of abstract thinking. But, in actual fact, as our investigations have shown and experimental analysis has confirmed, the child has combined the objects because of their concrete, factual, visual connections, on the basis of simple association. He has only managed to build a limited associative complex; he has arrived at the same point, but all the time he has travelled along a different road.” [Adolescent Pedagogy, Lev Vygotsky 1931, “The development of thinking and concept formation in adolescence” §XIV]

Many a modern analytical philosopher or logician will insist, hand on their heart, that a concept is exactly what Vygotsky called a pseudoconcept and associated with childhood.

Rational institutions, such as the political constitution, the law, as well as the corporations, universities, the communications media, and so on, are objectifications of what a society takes to be rational way of thinking and process of weighing evidence and making decisions; living in these institutions in turn constitutes our ‘second nature’ through which people learn what it is to be rational. Once we have gone beyond the stage of believing naively that truth is given immediately in sense perception, and we realise that our own view of things is how things are seen from a certain social position, then the question of truth reduces itself to the question of the rational relation of the individual to the universal, that is to the nation or people however defined, as a whole.

So, let us first look closely at what the ‘abstract general’ means in terms of concepts and logic, and then look at the main institutions in which it is objectified.

Sets, Subjects and Attributes

The abstract general concept is essentially what is known in mathematics as a set. A set, S, is the set of all elements, e, which carry the attribute, a. An abstract general concept C is the abstraction of the attribute a from the elements e. The concrete universal concept, on the other hand, is concerned with what binds the elements together and create some kind of collectivity. The attributes are qualities which are contingent to the elements and a collectivity based on an attribute is external to the process of the elements themselves, missing what is essential to them. This distinction goes back to the ancient distinction between the subject, or substance, which persists through all change as attributes (or ‘accidents’) are changed.

In Descartes’ hands, the meaning of the word ‘subject’ underwent a change in that it became specifically associated with in consciousness of an individual person. The ‘subject’ then was this core of the personality which persisted throughout a person’s life (and afterwards) through the different experiences, thoughts and activities that an individual person passes through. The ‘subject’ is what persisted through change, to which attributes adhered, in consciousness and the human personality. Critical analysis of this idea led Kant to the conclusion that this subject, the ‘abstract general’ personality. was a ‘nothing’:

‘By this “I,” or “He,” or “It,” who or which thinks, nothing more is represented than a transcendental subject of thought = x, which is cognized only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates.’ [Critique of Pure Reason, p. 142]

Against Kant’s concept of the subject, which resembles a kind of wire coat hanger upon which a variety of attributes can be hung, was countered by Hegel who saw the subject in terms of the individual, the particular and the universal. This conception of the subject, or concept, is what is called the concrete universal. And it is the conception of the subject which is fostered by modern conditions.

The difference can be illustrated in terms of logic.


Abstract general reasoning is made up of syllogisms in which the above relation between a set and the attributes which constitute it is axiomatic. So we have pearls of wisdom like: “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.”

Concrete universal reasoning bases itself on the understanding that the Universal, the Particular and the Individual each have their own basis in reality and never completely coincide, and reasoning involved development of the concept itself, rather than simply the grouping of elements under concepts. By Universal, is meant a species or some culturally-defined symbol, law or concept; by Individual, is meant a concrete thing or person which is an instance of the universal; by Particular, is meant the quality or relation of the individual by virtue of which it is subsumed under the Universal. “All C have the attribute a, e is a C, therefore e has the attribute a.”

Concrete universal logic arises when we move away from formal trivia of this kind. Real people, real categories and real particulars are always moving, problematic, complex, contradictory, and all of the various syllogisms we can make are subject to doubt and criticism. Hegel understood by subject a unity of individual, particular and universal whose process of development is a continual re-positing of each of individual, particular and universal, and the continual unfolding of the contradictions between them, leading to a more adequate and concrete relation between the individual, particular and universal. That is to say, reasoning with concepts means their continuous concretisation, with different individuals being subsumed under them as different particular attributes become significant.

According to abstract general logic, the universal has nothing that is not already contained in the elements and has no existence other than its elements, and à la Kant, the elements have nothing other than the sum of all their attributes. Attributes are those qualities which are not tied up with the essence of who the subject is, because, in abstract general logic, there is no essence, the subject is nothing other than their race, gender, nationality, property, etc., etc. In concrete universal thought, who the person is, is “the truth of being and essence” (to quote Hegel), their idea of themselves which encompasses both their immediate being and the stories through which that being is interpreted.

As an abstract general self-consciousness, a subject would see themselves (and others) in terms of the attributes they bear, black/white, male/female, etc.. On the other hand, with a concrete universal self-consciousness, people have a conception of themselves (and others) which is primarily tied up with the “meaning” of their life, the story in which they play some part and their relation to other subjects. So we have two different ways of reasoning about yourself and others, two different ways of conceiving of yourself in relation to the whole community.

These different conceptions of truth and self-consciousness are objectified in different social institutions, which as our ‘second nature’ through which we think this way or that.

Universal Suffrage

Universal suffrage is the most important political institution of modern times. Universal suffrage has come to mean not just that every adult has a vote, but quite specifically that every adult has a vote in a large geographical electorate for posts up to the national government and no further. People do not vote on decisions by institutions such as the firms in which they work, and they do not vote in the elections of other countries or for transnational institutions. By and large, people vote for representatives, but plebiscites are the most essential and characteristic form of universal suffrage. The plebiscite was introduced as an instrument for social control in the referendum which confirmed Napoleon Bonaparte as dictator of France in February 1800, and is advocated to this day by reactionary groups such as the CEC (Citizens Electoral Council). Voting for representatives from meaningless geographical electorates is a compromise which maintains the illusion of popular sovereignty, whilst keeping the process firmly under the control of whoever has the power in civil society generally.

It is crucial to this kind of voting is that eligibility to vote has great symbolic significance, being tied up with the concept of citizenship and popular sovereignty, and there is no suggestion that the voter needs to be qualified to have an opinion, to be informed in some way or to have a specific interest in the matter being decided. The essence of universal suffrage is that the vote of the person who has weighed the matter deeply all her life, counts just the same as the vote of the person who has no idea at all of what the vote is about. It is a strikingly symbolic objectification of the notion of equality.

I characterise as abstract general, popular suffrage of this kind, where great decisions are made by the casting of millions of votes, each to be counted equal as the opinions of one voter. The process by which the voters is arrived at their opinion is by no means abstract, but the reasoning process for combining the votes, which pretends to determine from the consciousness of each, what is general in the consciousness of all, is abstract and general. It simply says that in answer to the question, x number say Yes and y number say No. As shown by Condorcet over 300 years ago, nothing more than this can be concluded by counting votes. The concrete question of how voters arrived at the vote of Yes or No, is not taken into consideration, and nor is the question of what proposition should be put to the voters taken as relevant to the outcome.

That every adult can participate in this process is in itself a social binding fact, but the use of abstract general relationships is fraudulent and its ramifications are destructive of social solidarity.

We have to be absolutely clear that an individual’s vote has absolutely no impact on the result at all. To claim that an individual has, for example, 1/100,000th of the power over the result in an electorate in which there are 100,000 voters is nonsense. Elections in any one electorate are virtually never decided by one vote, so that 1/100,000th of power is never exercised; and even in the rare case of a near tie, only one member of parliament is affected and that has never had any impact on the formation of a government at least in the history of Australia. So we have here an almighty fraud. The outcome of the election is decided in the process of determining how the majority of voters will vote, and that happens in the newspapers, TV stations, public relations offices, occasionally in party headquarters, and to a certain small extent on the streets, but never in the polling booth. The players are a relatively small number of wealthy capitalists, professional numbers people and publicity experts, and social movements of various kinds who participate in forming and shifting public opinion. Universal suffrage is simply the process of realising the winner of a battle which has already been fought before people enter the polling booth. The opinion-makers, not the voters are the actors in the electoral drama – to think otherwise is to be deluded. – and these opinion-makers do not operate by casting votes. That the government will be chosen on the basis of the momentary opinions of the entire adult population is however a fact of extraordinary ramification. But it has nothing to do with ‘popular sovereignty’ or anything of the kind.

Although universal suffrage does not give power to individuals, it does give proportional weight to any opinion or relevant interest which is common to a number of individuals. It was the fact that the common interests of the majority of poor labouring people in England came together with bourgeois ideological commitments to political equality and individualism that gave strength to the Chartists’ demand for universal suffrage and their attacks on property limitations on the suffrage. Likewise, the Suffragettes. There was and continues to be solid reasons for ordinary people to demand that the major political questions be settled by universal suffrage, but in its abstract general form, universal suffrage only realises the balance of power in civil society as a whole.

It takes politics out of the political arena as such.

The market

The market in itself cannot be described as an abstract general relation. Each act of exchange is an act of abstraction, and the market is always nowadays the purchase and sale of a commodity for a certain quantity of money, which certainly effects an abstraction in relation to the concrete commodity. But this in itself does not constitute an abstract general relation. The market is an institution in itself, but it produces nothing, and cannot be understood outside of the system of needs and labour within which it exists. The problem arises when the seller creates the need in order to sell to it, and the actual production process is marginalised by the marketing process. At the same time, when actual trade in goods becomes marginal in relation to financial trading of various kinds, the market has gone beyond serving a system of needs and transforms key branches of industry, giving to them an abstract general structure.

The most characteristic form is where both production and consumption are carried out by a myriad of mutually isolated, powerless atoms, while the profits are reaped by large capitalist enterprises. The only thing these enterprises actually produce is the fictitious need for their product. Production is stereotypically carried out in sweatshops in enterprise zones in faraway countries where cheap labour is available under the whip of repressive regimes. Consumption is stereotypically the role of the masses in the wealthy capitalist countries, people who respond to the saturation marketing by buying cheap goods for which they have no real need. Niche marketing informed by scientific market research ensures that even the more discerning consumers get what they want and the necessary elements of distinction are supported by careful marketing.

The news media is a case in point. The mass of the population is served up a soup of witch hunts and feel-good stories which serve to reinforce their prejudices and keep them in a condition optimally receptive to the attached advertising content. But a spectrum of vehicles from internet news groups to quality broadsheets ensures that the more discerning consumers, the marketing professionals for example, receive what they need, and the spectrum of editorial policies provide for a range of political prejudices in the market so that everyone hears what they thought they already knew. At the end point, the commercial TV news will resemble Funniest Home Videos, the current affairs program is actually an advertisement and Judge Judy passes for a documentary, while the cognoscenti will be networked into quality wire services.

In clothing and nick-nacks, cheap rubbish is imported by the container load from China, and pushed to the masses, whilst more intensive labour is devoted to upmarket consumer goods for a small minority who can afford it.

The archetypical enterprise is the franchise where the manager is formally an independent proprietor who has sunk his or her own capital into the business, but in reality he is a humble and powerless employee with the lousiest employment contract imaginable. The suppliers are also ‘independent’ producers supplying a near-monopsony (buyer’s monopoly) with prices that put the family on the dole between harvests. In the large retail chains which have not yet got to the point of operating as franchise houses, the ‘master-servant’ relation is nonetheless long forgotten: in-line budgets and secret individual employment ‘contracts’ for casual staff who have several ‘jobs’ and rely on how many hours they get rather than their puny wage, the market thoroughly penetrates in the internal relations of the firm. And so far as the products are concerned, at one end, a thousand-and-one varieties of packaging for the same rubbish, and all very cheap, sweet and fattening, but from there up, unlimited choice.

Why should these relations be described as ‘abstract general’?

The entire process of creating needs in the minds of ‘consumers’ is organised by professionals working for large capitalist enterprises; employees are kept at the level of wage workers, but lack the solidarity and self-consciousness of proletarians; people can’t wait to get home, having no real commitment to their work, and their identity is constructed under the direction of the marketing industry by adding attributes purchased from the market and hung on to a non-identity. Even ownership of the businesses is marketised with all the significant players in the economy public companies owned by millions of shareholders, including funds of various kinds which are themselves anonymous.

There is consequently no conception, no project, no purpose in the production and marketing of any commodity, other than expansion of capital. Laws are necessary to prevent food producers supplying and marketing goods which provide no nutrition and harm the health of those of eat them, but supplying the material is justified on the basis that this is what people want. And indeed people do want fattening, nutrition-free fast food. The marketing of the same rubbish on the basis of how stylish it is to eat a certain brand of hamburger, and so on, is an iterative process of skimming off the most superficial, momentary desire and then reinforcing it and making into a heartfelt need, and then supplying it in bulk at low prices.

Why sell fast food if it is bad for people’s health? Because it’s what people want. Why do people want it? Not because it contributes to their real and essential needs or their aims in life, because on the whole they have no such aims, but as a result of being the targets of marketing campaigns. The conception of the person as nothing more than a consumer on one side, or the source of an already-specified service on the other, has grown to a point where it excludes any real conception of humanity.

This is how capitalism works, but what is new, which reduces society as a whole to abstract general relations, is that the productivity of labour and the international division of labour, is such that the producing for and marketing to manufactured needs is the dominant activity in the major capitalist countries.

Forms of consciousness

While working as ciphers in large capitalist enterprises (whether as ‘contractors’ or as ‘team members’), and voting in meaningless elections, people participate in a range of social movements and voluntary associations which are crucial forms of social consciousness. These formations – trade unions, churches, pressure groups, political parties, sports clubs, ethnic associations, and so on – have undergone a transformation in response to the same forces which have shaped the economy and the political process.

On the whole, participation has been replaced by subscription (Robert Putnam has drawn attention to this trend in his work on ‘social capital’). Instead of self-organised clubs and associations, we have people subscribing to organisations or events which are run by a small group of professionals with large resources at their disposal, often supported by ‘sponsors’ – capitalist enterprises which have secured such a large proportion of the social surplus that even the simplest voluntary activity is impossible without their support. ‘Subscription’ may entail sending off a cheque once a month or turning up at a glitzy event once a year. These kind of organisations – pop concerts, automobile associations, environmental protection organisations, or whatever – are modelled along much the same lines as modern capitalist enterprise, who drum up subscriptions and provide pleasing feedback to the subscribers, donors, members or whatever they are called. ‘Branch meetings’ are replaced by mail-outs; even annual general meetings, if they take place at all, are poorly attended. Trade unions which abandon the ‘organising model’ and adopt the ‘service model’ and operate like a kind of insurance firm, and have fallen victim to the same process. The power of the organisation depends by and large on how many members it has and the cost of the subscription; the income this hires resources and gets proportionate results. Participation in such organisations produces a certain kind of consciousness – an abstract general consciousness, the consciousness of abstract general people, who are accustomed to reasoning according to the logic of abstract general relations, and who see themselves in abstract general terms.

Self-perception is expressed and defined in accordance with purchase of useless consumer goods and by ‘subscribing’ to a cause, rather than committing to it. For example, if you ‘value’ the environment to the extent of 1%, then you can subscribe to Greenpeace to the extent of 1% of your disposable income; on the other hand, you might value social justice and Médicin Sans Frontières may get 2% of your disposable income. With the media carrying content in proportions determined by a combination of advertising budgets and audience research, the world presents itself according to abstract general principles.

Because people do not participate, the human relationships involved are utterly abstract. The subscriber watches the person acting out their commitment – the political lobbyist, the charity worker, the political campaigner, the sports star or celebrity – but only as a media image. But for the actor, the subscriber is nothing but a number if anything at all. There is no relationship between the subscriber and other subscribers. The amateurism of local branch meetings, with their various half-cocked plans, one-sided perceptions and bees-in-bonnets are no longer something the executives have to worry about. The opportunity to acquire practical intelligence in working, in however small a way, in furthering the relevant cause, has disappeared. People understand the world mainly through a served-up panorama of media snapshots, rather than through practical experience. Social movements once existed on the basis of the informed commitment acquired through the practical participation of their members and supporters. But the fact is that professional publicists and lobbyists with large resources, are far more effective in achieving a social or political goal, than a bunch of amateurs handing out roneoed flyers or signing petitions outside the shopping mall on Saturdays. That’s the nature of the modern labour process. Capitalism is very good at communications. The side-effect is that in place of a social movement, one has just so many frightened, home-bound atoms looking on at a well-resourced celebrity advocates acting out a social and political drama, in between advertisements and reality TV shows. The mass of the population can register to evict Jason from Big Brother, or whatever by mobile phone (at 55c a call). That’s called “viewer participation.” Such is the nature of the trade that the quantity and quality of the argument depends on the money backing it; ultimately truth is determined by numbers. Meanwhile numbers follow money and money chases numbers.

The individual and the universal

This kind of existence engenders a certain conception of the relation between the individual and the universal.

In the political system, no-one is denied the vote, and everyone is offered the information on which to decide their vote. In the economy, anyone can set up a business, banks will loan money to anyone and there is free trade. In the communications system, talk-back radio, public broadcasts, Big Brother and Idol and so on, make it seem that we can all have our say and take part in the national conversation. So, we have a manufactured appearance that modern society is like mega-version of the ancient Greek polis.

But this is an illusion. The more the system of universal suffrage has been developed, the less say people have in their own lives and that of the country. The more the communications systems have developed, the less people communicate with each other. This crying contradiction is papered over in various ways. On the one hand, the idea that every voter exercises a small proportion of the total power in an election, and various correlates of this idea. The government is elected by 10 million voters, so every voter has one ten-millionth of control over the government. On the other hand, the doctrine of individual autonomy, the idea that every person can pick their own identity off a very long menu of options, choose their own multiple-degree university education, decide when to have children and whether to look after them, negotiate their own employment contract and make a life of their own choosing. Gone are the days when little girls played with dolls and little boys with cars; now we play Sims and inhabit Second Life.

The abstract general conception of the relation between the individual and the universal is very simple. The universal is nothing other than the sum of the individuals, and the individual is nothing other than sum of the various attributes it carries, as reflected by the various universals under which it is subsumed. What is missing is the particular. But the particular is how the individual gets to know the universal, and how the universal realises itself through individuals. What is missing is any real connection between the individual and the univeraal/

The myth of abstract generality is that the individual directly participates in the universal, without any mediation, and that the individual is exhausted by its various attributes. But this cannot be believed.

Social Solidarity

Abstract general consciousness and organisation draws its strength from the nature of the modern labour process, and it triumphs only because it is more powerful and effective than concrete thinking, but it generates ‘side-effects’ are ultimately disastrous.

In the postmodern world, concrete thinking and the type of association upon which it is based invariably fail to attain the universal, and are instead left wallowing in particularism. For concrete thinking, the universal is attained only along the hard road of step-by-step mediation. The nature of contemporary media of communications and representation make it very difficult to compete with massively resourced professional operations. If the union leaderships wants to talk to the members, it is better to place an advertisement in the Herald-Sun than send out a flyer in the post. Electronic media such as email certainly make it easier to compete, but the result is more like the sound of barracking at a football match than oratory.

The destruction of mediation between the individual and the universal causes the loss of social solidarity, because it via the mediation of the universal that individuals who are not already friends, family or fellows can collaborate with one another. The particular mediate between the individual and the universal, but the universal mediates between the individual and the particular.

This works like the paradox of the commons: each individual project works best if it adopts the abstract general logic which has a negative impact on social solidarity, but the loss of social solidarity accentuates the advantage of abstract general forms of association. The result is the destruction of the social commons.

Abstract general relations do provide powerful means of symbolic identification. Advocates of ‘social capital’ argue that the main culprits in the destruction of social solidarity may be persuaded to repair the damage they do by understanding that ‘social capital’, like ‘natural capital’ and ‘human capital’, is an essential precondition for making profit. This is all very well, but I would be concerned that this problem cannot be solved while pretending that there is not a sharp social and political contradiction at work; solutions which are ‘good for business’ are not going necessarily good for the rest of the world.

The most common response to the collapse of social solidarity is to simply emphasise the need for community. But ‘community’ is the concrete particular, and the universal, i.e., the whole culture, cannot be appropriated by an individual without mediation. The logic of late capitalism is running heavily against community; the particular is being buried by individualism on one hand and big capital and the world market on the other. The abstract general is doing its work, and ‘community groups’ are almost bound to be either crushed or co-opted by capital.

Hegel’s conception of subjectivity offers a framework for approaching the problem, but it cannot be resolved until an opportunity opens up through which large numbers of people can be made to clearly see and understand the need to rebuild the social commons. Iconic representatives of this understanding are needed. Much as we may revile celebrity culture and personality politics, there is no chance of overcoming the destructive effects of abstract general consciousness without an equally charismatic, professional and well-resourced centre. It is stating the obvious that an iconic leading cadre is in itself no solution, but it remains the case as it always has been, that such a leadership is required. And not just in a transitory role either. Mediating forms of participatory democratic involvement are also required, and that remains some kind of party or social movement structure with branches or some kind of mediating structure. The trend in electoral politics towards focussing on the personality of the leader at the expense of policy is actually quite rational, much as it is decried, for an ordinary personal who cannot be qualified in the science of global warming, global security or international economics and finance, can judge a person, or at least they can reasonably be expected to be able to judge the worth of a person. There is no better way of concretely representing an idea than through personality. But individual leaders have to be the vehicle for reconstructing real participation. The success of the environmental movement has, in my opinion, not been in the bold activities of Greenpeace sailors, guerrilla greenies, but in the techniques which have pushed responsibility back on to ordinary householders to recycle rubbish, save water, install insulation, and so on. Not because these moves have a significant impact on the environment, because largely they don’t, but because it allows for the development of practical intelligence about the issue, which will ultimately lead to more a critical view of corporate vandalism and government doubletalk and inaction.


Hegel’s conception of subjectivity, which has only been touched upon here, provides a very developed approach to a range of social and political problems confronting us in late modernity. It provides both depth and breadth to a study of our times, and has been too long neglected or misunderstood.