The State and Civil Society

Hegel’s theory of the state, as was said above, depended upon the peculiar nature of the relationship existing, as he supposed, between the state and civil society. The relation is at once one of contrast and mutual dependence. The state as Hegel conceived it is no utilitarian institution, engaged in the commonplace business of providing public services, administering the law, performing police duties, and adjusting industrial and economic interests.

All these functions belong to civil society. The state may indeed direct and regulate them as need arises, but it does not itself perform them. Civil society depends upon the state for intelligent supervision and moral significance. Considered by itself society would be governed only by the mechanical laws resulting from the interaction of the acquisitive and self-centered motives of many individuals.

The state, however, depends upon civil society for the means of accomplishing the moral purposes which it embodies. But though mutually dependent, the two stand on distinct dialectical levels. The state is not means but end. It represents the rational ideal in development and the truly spiritual element in civilization, and as such it uses, or perhaps in a metaphysical sense creates, civil society for the achievement of its own ends.

The state is the divine will, in the sense that it is mind present on earth, unfolding itself to be the actual shape and organization of a world.

Whereas civil society is a realm of blind inclination and causal necessity, the state acts in obedience to conscious ends, known principles and laws, which are not merely implied but expressly before its consciousness. Quotations of this sort might be multiplied indefinitely the state is the absolutely rational, the divinity which knows and wills itself, the eternal and necessary being of spirit, the march of God in the world.

It is important to observe, however, that the moral superiority thus attributed to the state implied no contempt for civil society or its institutions but in a sense the very opposite. Hegel, in his personal character and also in his political thought, was before everything else a good bourgeois, with rather more than the usual bourgeois respect for stability and security.

The relationship between the state and civil society, as he understood it, was mutual, even though it was also a relationship of superiority and inferiority and even though the authority of the state was absolute. The economic life of society gained moral significance-in a sense it was glorified-by the fact that the state and its cultural mission depend upon it.

But though the regulative power of the state is absolute, this does not extend to abolishing the institutions or the rights upon which the performance of economic functions depends. Property, according to Hegel’s theory, is not created by the state or even by society but is an indispensable condition of human personality, much as it had been for Locke.

Hegel’s account of civil society was in fact a careful, even an elaborate, analysis of the guilds and corporations, the estates and classes, the associations and local communities that made up the structure of the German society with which he was familiar. These or some equivalent he regarded as humanly indispensable. Without them the people would be merely formless mass and the individual would be merely a kind of human tom, since it is the context of economic and institutional ties that gives substance to his personality.

From Hegel’s point of view, there ore, the state is not composed primarily of individual citizens. The individual must be mediated through a long series of corporations ind associations before he arrives at the final dignity of citizenship in the state.

Jacobinism, which makes government depend upon the will of the people expressed through the suffrage, means in practice government by a rabble. The people, meaning merely a section of citizens, is just that which does not know what it wills.

This view of civil society, it should be noted, had several aspects. On the one hand it might be regarded as reactionary. Undoubtedly it reflected the point of view of a society that was still securely stratified, that retained an unquestioning respect for rank and station, and that had never felt the levelling effects of industrialization.

It attached little or no value to equal citizenship which, in the light of French and English politics, appeared to be a condition of free government. Hegel’s view of civil society, however, was not merely reactionary. It did not share the illusion of the utilitarian economists that part of the unchangeable order of nature but suggested rather Marx’s treatment of it as a special phase of social development.

Hegel’s point of view, moreover, was well adapted to a form of nationalism in which the state was assumed to have the function of fostering trade and industry as part of its general mission of extending national power It must be admitted also that many of Hegel’s criticisms of French Jacobinism were well taken.

In the name of liberty it often destroyed quite recklessly forms of social organization that served a useful purpose and that in one form or another had to be reinstated in the interest of liberalism itself. In general Hegel’s view of civil society embodied a sound principle that when the individual is regarded merely as a citizen, the state tends to absorb all forms of human association.

And in effect this is not liberty but despotism, as all forms of political totalitarianism prove. The arguments of the political Pluralists at the end of the nineteenth century could very largely have been constructed out of Hegel’s theory of civil society. The importance that Marx attached to economic forces in politics quite definitely hag its roots here, even though Marx doomed Hegel’s state to extinction,

The theory of civil society and its relation to the state largely determined the meaning that Hegel attached to constitutional government. The state’s power as he conceived it is absolute but it is not arbitrary. Its absolutism reflected its superior moral position and the fact that Hegel permitted the state to monopolize the ethical aspects of society.

The state, however, must always exercise its regulative powers under the forms of law. It is an embodiment of reason and law is rational.This meant for Hegel that the acts of a public authority must be predictable because they proceed from known rules, that the rules limit the discretionary powers of officials, and that official action expresses the authority of the office and not the private will or judgment of the office-holder.

The law must bear equally on all the persons to whom it applies because, being general, it cannot consider individual peculiarities. The essence of despotism is lawlessness, and the essence of a free and constitutional government is that it excludes lawlessness and produces security.

Despotism means any state of affairs where law has disappeared and where the particular will as such, whether of a monarch or a mob, counts as law or rather takes the place of law.

It is precisely the fact that everything in the state is fixed and secure which is the bulwark against caprice and dogmatic opinion

Hegel’s state, therefore, was what later German jurisprudence came to call a Rechtsstaat. It had to achieve a high order of internal administrative efficiency and its judicial system in particular had to give security to rights of property and of the person, which Hegel regarded as indispensable to the economic functions of civil society. His theory of constitutional government was therefore in accord with that of liberalism in distinguishing between legal authority and personal power, but it acknowledged no relationship between the rule of law and democratic political processes.

The key to this phase of Hegel’s constitutionalism was the high importance that he attached to an official governing class, the universal class as he called it, which by birth and training is fitted to rule and which embodies a long tradition of hierarchical authority and orderly procedure.

Such a class he regarded as detached from and impartial toward the private and social interests which it regulates. In a special sense, therefore, it represents the general will and the reason of society, in contrast with acquisitive self-interest or special and partial interests, and is the guardian of the whole public interest.

The bureaucratic organization of civil society is its apex, the point at which it makes contact, so to speak, with the still higher institutions of the state. The essential property of the whole system is that it is rooted in immemorial custom, in long accepted grades of rank and authority, and yet that these grades are functions in the total life of the nation.

This conception of constitutional government was contrasted in Hegel’s mind with French experiments in the making of paper constitutions and also with English parliamentary government. For the former he had an historian’s deep-seated contempt. To ask who makes a constitution, he said, is nonsense, for constitutions are not made.

A constitution is not just something manufactured it is the work of centuries. It must be treated as something simply existent in and by itself, as divine therefore, and constant. Bills of rights, the separation of powers, checks and balances, therefore, are mere apparatus. Constitutionalism depends on a tradition of self-government, and in Hegel’s opinion this tradition is inseparable from differences of social rank, an acceptable balance between a governing class and the lower orders of society, and an aristocracy characterized by its loyalty to the crown.

The principal function of the monarchy is to maintain this balance. But the balance depends not on a separation of powers but on a distinction of functions, and the purpose of the distinction is not to weaken but to strengthen the state.

The English parliamentary system, on the other hand, appeared to Hegel to be a degenerate remnant of feudalism. In it political power had remained the private perquisite of an aristocratic oligarchy which had no national function. Hence England had never achieved the dignity of a state.

Perhaps in the year of Hegel’s death this was a not unrealistic, if somewhat shortsighted, estimate of English government. Hegel’s earliest political conviction was a thoroughgoing dislike of government by a vested aristocratic interest as he saw it exhibited in the city of Bern.

His maturest judgment, set down almost at the time of his death, was that English government belonged to that type. It lacked, he said, der grosse Sinn von Fursten, and he predicted that the Reform Bill would merely add the fallacies of Jacobinism to those of feudalism. According to Hegel’s reading of constitutional history the significant step was the rise of national authority under the monarchy, not the control of the executive by the legislature.

In comparison with the part assigned to officialdom, both representative institutions and the monarchy played a minor role in Hegel’s theory of constitutionalism, in spite of the mystical reverence that he gave to the monarchy.  For reasons already made clear Hegel regarded representation on the basis merely of territory and population as meaningless, since the individual in his relation to the state figures as a member of one or more of the many associations supported by civil society.

The legislature is the point at which these associations meet the state. What needs to be represented, on the side of civil society, are the significant spheres (Kreise) or interests or functional units. The difficulties that this idea of functional representation have encountered in the lust quarter century make clear the reason why Hegel never arrived at any practicable plan of representative government on that principle.

On the other hand he considered it essential that the official class, which must regulate civil society, should be represented in the legislature by the ministers. But the latter are in no sense responsible to the legislature. On the contrary the legislature, as Hegel conceived it, stands in substantially an advisory or consultative relation to the ministry, which is responsible to the crown.

The monarch, however, according to Hegel, has no considerable power and such power as he has ought, in a well regulated monarchy, to flow from his legal position as head of the state.

In a well-organized monarchy, the objective aspect belongs to law alone; the monarch’s part is merely to set to the law the subjective, I will.

The monarch is in fact a kind of visible symbol for abstractions like national spirit, national law, and national state which Hegel conceived to be the real forces in the background of politics and history.

More Read from Hegel: Dialectic and Nationalism:-

  1. The Historical Method of Dialectic & Nationalism
  2. Dialectic and Historical Necessity
  3. Individualism and the Theory of the State
  4. Hegel Freedom and Authority
  5. The Later Significance of Hegelianism

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