Andy Blunden January 2000

The Abstractions We Build for Ourselves

In Getting to Know Hegel, I have outlined an approach to productively understanding Hegel, where we can access our familiarity with forms of social relation to connect with Hegelís observations about these relations, observations made as if these relations were manifestations of a pre-existing extra-human law called The Idea. This is a worthwhile exercise because it is only by abstracting from the infinitely rich texture of the real relationships that we can gain insight into them, and Hegel dealt with these abstractions with a depth and scope that is unparalleled. Further, Hegel makes quite explicit how this process of abstraction has penetrated into our innermost thoughts and appear to us with the force of Logic.

In The Historical Fate of Hegelís Doctrine, I have examined the critique of Hegelís philosophy that was made from various sides mostly between 1841 and 1844, taking us up to the very beginning of Karl Marxís work with the Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. I drawing out the essential elements of these critiques, crucial weaknesses in Hegelís line of approach have been brought to light which make it comprehensible why this great thinker's legacy was so comprehensively abandoned by the mainstream of European thought, but also how Karl Marx was able through his critique to open up a way forward, exposing the roots of the inhumanity which was enveloping the modern world and beginning a practical struggle in favour of a genuinely human way of living which could supplant the degradation of bourgeois society.

More than 150 years have passed since that time. The unification of the world within a single network of productive relations and the fragmentation of the world and everyone in it into uncountable, dysfunctional, abstract pieces has proceeded to a degree hitherto unimaginable. This means that what was only embryonic in the 1840s is now much more fully developed and the truth of bourgeois society is visible for us to see; but on the other hand, the complexity and division of labour is so extensive that it is actually impossible for any individual to put it all back together again, even in theory! In particular, while Marx saw during his lifetime the working class develop from a condition of utter backwardness and atomisation, to the building of a powerful and politically developed world-wide organised movement, we have seen over the past decades the ever-increasing fragmentation of the organised working class and socialist movement, belying the underlying unification of the world's population into a single system of production.

Accordingly, while there is much to do in terms of practical-political organisation and concrete investigation of social and political activity, I am going to confine myself in this exercise to the clarification of basic concepts.

My basic premise is that over the past couple of centuries, production relations have become more and more developed, simultaneously making people more and more powerless as their product, capital, becomes more and more powerful, and also, that the capacity for voluntary self-organisation has also become more and more developed, but is dreadfully stunted, suppressed and even co-opted by capital. The world we live in is characterised by the successive marginalisation of all social relations other than those which most effectively express the essence of bourgeois society, capital accumulation. Nevertheless, there is one contradiction which stubbornly refuses to be reconciled to capital and which constitutes the essential relation of a genuinely human way of living and which is capable of throwing off the slavery of capital, and that is voluntary association.

Because voluntary association cannot be reduced to an aspect of capital or wage-labour, because by its very nature it is labour which refuses to be commodified, the relation between genuinely human voluntary association and the rule of capital is an Ďuntidyí, mixture or external relation between opposites, "Pole and non-Pole" to use Marxís expression from his Critique of Hegelís Philosophy of Right. Accordingly, I want to develop my theme first in two parts, and then subsequently put the two parts together:

  1. The development of the productive relations of capital. Here I want to work through the various relationships under which production is carried out from the simplest relations up to the sophisticated forms of exploitation making their appearance today. I shall investigate how the actual relation between people necessarily gives rise to an illusory relation in which abstractions intervene and appear to dominate the lives of the producers from above.
  2. The development of voluntary association through its various its successive levels of sophistication, and here I will rely on the concepts developed in Getting to Know Hegel, and how voluntary relations between people can become fixated at one or another stage of development or how a voluntary relation between people can take on the form of an oppressive relationship.
  3. The external, hostile relationship between voluntary association and the corrupting and dominating impact of capital, and the forms under which it may be possible to further develop open, voluntary association as a means of living humanly and do away with capital - for I firmly believe that it is Utopian to entertain the belief that a genuinely human way of living can co-exist with bourgeois society.


Andy Blunden
27th January 2000