What Can Hegel Tell Us About Terror After 9/11?

What Can Hegel Tell Us About Terror After 9/11?

by David MacGregor
King’s University College, University of Western Ontario
Paper delivered March 31, 2007

2007 Ontario Hegel Organization Annual Meeting
“Hegel on Conflict, Terror and War”
March 30-April 1, 2007, York University
Harry Crowe Room, 109 Atkinson

I suggest that Hegel’s political philosophy offers a unique standpoint for an examination of modern terror. His contribution revolves around the notion of a dual state – a growing, democratic social state emerging from the external state that characterizes civil society. In times of national peril the social state may face dissolution. At such periods, powerful interests from within the external state may establish a “state of exception,” an authority capable of dissolving the social state, and imposing its own mode of terror. As Schmitt said, “sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”

1. French Terror and The State of Exception

Hegel’s analysis of terror in the Phenomenology of Spirit may have a singular, though perhaps unnoticed, relevance for the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington. Hegel was looking at the horrific series of arrests and massacres initiated by Robespierre during the French Revolution. In the turmoil of destruction, intermediary bodies, such as the guilds, were abolished. The national emergency posed by the prospect of invading foreign armies, and national uprisings against the Revolution, sparked fear of internal subversion. The original democratic arrangement ensuring liberty with a weak executive power evaporated. “In this crisis, no basis for a real ‘separation of powers’ existed.” (Harris, Hegel’s Ladder, v 2, p. 393). The National Convention, elected by the people, assumed absolute power. The line between individual will and the universal will of the state had disappeared. Absolute Freedom and the Nation became identical, “an undivided substance”. As noted in John Russon’s talk last night, with nothing to connect the extreme of individual will and the will of the Nation, there could be only one result of universal freedom represented by government: death.

The sole work and deed of universal freedom is . . . death, death too which has no inner significance or filling, for what is negated is the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus the coldest and meanest of deaths, with no more significance than cutting off the head of a cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water (Phenomenology, p. 360).

The state of emergency trumped individual rights, “security against arbitrary arrest, and presumption of innocence until found guilty by due process of law.” (Harris, p. 390). Robespierre, as head of the Committee of Public Safety, had abrogated public authority to himself. To borrow from Schmitt, he became sovereign through a state of exception. The sovereign, says Schmitt, is the individual who

Decides in a situation of conflict what constitutes the public interest, or interest of the state, public safety and order . . . The exception, which is not codified in the existing legal order, can at best be characterized as a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state, and the like (Political Theology, 2005, p. 6).

We find a similar statement in the Philosophy of Right (I owe this observation to H.S. Harris and also to Renato Cristi’s excellent, though wrong, Hegel on Freedom and Authority, p. 192).

In a case of exigency, however, whether at home or foreign affairs, the organism of these particular spheres of which these particular spheres are members fuses into the single concept of sovereignty. The sovereign is entrusted with the salvation of the state at the sacrifice of these particular authorities whose powers are valid at other times, and it is then that ideality comes into proper actuality. (para 278, p. 181)

The state was identical with Robespierre’s unrestrained self-will, and as Hegel observes elsewhere a key characteristic of evil is unimpeded self-will. When Sophie Scholl of the White Rose anti-violent movement, and Mildred Harnack of the Red Orchestra resistance, among others, vainly opposed the self-will of Adolf Hitler during the Nazi terror they were condemned in 1943, after trials that made a mockery of justice, to have their heads cut off with the same terrible instrument employed by Robespierre in the Terror (See, for example, Shareen Blair Brysac, Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra , Oxford University Press, 2000).

But what is the relevance of Hegel’s analysis of the Terror to September 11? I am not going to discuss the use by so-called “Islamic militants” of videotaped beheadings as a means to pursue absolute freedom, nor will I discuss mass arrests and “extraordinary rendition” employed by U.S. authorities against suspected terrorists. One commentator has already labeled these U.S. practices, instances of a state of exception (Agamben, State of Exception, 2005)

Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, government is history’s most frequent source of terror (“September 11 as Machiavellian State Terror,” The Hidden History of 9-11, 2001, Research in Political Economy, 2006.) Accordingly, Hegel’s analysis of the Terror is relevant in a way not often considered. Hegel surveyed terror committed by a state perverted into an instrument of evil, of unmitigated self-will.

In other papers, I have suggested, following Machiavelli (one of Hegel’s favourite philosophers), that the state frequently conceals its own malevolent role in acts of terror (e.g. The Deep Politics of September 11: Political Economy of Concrete Evil, in Confronting 9-11, Ideologies of Race, and Eminent Economists, Research in Political Economy, Vol 20, 2002.) Hegel himself was personally familiar with state terror, or what I would like to call, Machiavellian State Terror. His close friends, the poet Holderlin and political writer Isaak von Sinclair, were framed in a supposed attempt to assassinate the rector of Wurttemberg. To escape a trumped-up trial for treason and certain death, some say Holderlin feigned madness, spending the remainder of his life in a wooden tower (See my discussion in Hegel and Marx After the Fall of Communism, University of Wales Press, 1998, pp. 95-98 and passim)

Holderlin’s experience with government informers that led to his arrest may lie behind Hegel’s sardonic remarks (in the 1818/19 Heidelburg lectures on Natural Right and Political Science) about the practice of using underworld spies to pursue state objectives. “These people, or police spies, hunt around, without being officials, or out of subjective interest, and they seek themselves to make criminals or to impute crimes falsely.” Hegel describes a case where innocent Irishmen were deceived into a phony counterfeiting operation in London by government spies, and then arrested as counterfeiters—one of the most serious crimes of the period. Such operations, where underworld figures or police spies covertly carry out the business of the state, can lead, says Hegel, “to the abyss of depravity.” Lectures on Natural Right and Political Science: The First Philosophy of Spirit, p. 212 quoted in Hegel & Marx After the Fall of Communism, p. 194).

Examples of Hegel’s “abyss of depravity” are not hard to find in our own period. Thus, European commentators on peace and security have recently pointed to activities of state agents in fomenting terror disguised as actions by extreme left or right groups. In the early 1990s, Italian investigators uncovered a network of “Stay Behinds,”called Operation Gladio—secret intelligence operatives linked with NATO who bombed railway stations—killing hundreds of Italian civilians—and assassinated high-level politicians while posing as rightwing or leftwing extremists. The terrorist attacks under the rubric of “a strategy of tension” deliberately created—through largely US direction—a “state of exception” in Italy. Accordingly, Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped (and later murdered) March 16, 1978, on the very day that he was to announce a “historic compromise” with the Italian Communist Party. (See, e.g. Daniel Genser, Nato’s Secret Armies, 2006).

In the next section I connect the “state of exception” to Hegel’s notion of the dual state—the state external and the social state.

2. Terror and the Dual State: A Wrong Turn on Civil Society

The dual concept of the state in Hegel may be the most seriously neglected aspect of his political philosophy. On one side is the universal state, public authority connected by complex arrangements of representation to the will of a diversity of individuals in civil society, and devoted to concrete actualization of individual freedom. This state, though still only nascent, already exists, and is embodied in the growing democratic arrangements of modern government.

But there is a more sinister aspect to the state in Hegel, one underwritten by what Hegel called, the Understanding consciousness: the notion that the state is merely an instrument of civil society. From the Understanding’s perspective, the state may be either a tool of dominant groups (Marxist and elite theory) or a democratic reflection of organic diversity in civil society (pluralist and liberal theory). From a Hegelian point of view, it is both. Thus, Hegel’s article on the English Reform Bill reflected on the unrepresentative character of the British state, which for the most part blatantly served the interests of a corrupt aristocracy (see Chapter 2 Hegel Marx and the English State; the article on which this chapter is based is anthologized in David Lamb, Hegel, volume 1). This surely was, to quote Hegel, “the state external, the state based on need, the state as the Understanding perceives it.” Yet Hegel also saw glimmerings of rationality in the debate on the Reform Bill, elements that could strengthen a democratic community.

The turn to “civil society” as a benevolent counter to the state that has entranced so many commentators (and lives on in the misplaced notion of “non-governmental organizations”) was a dreadful mistake. Indeed, I was surprised by the new version of “civil society” that was partly inspired by the exciting events in Poland during the 1980s. My own analysis of Hegel’s concept of civil society in The Communist Ideal in Hegel and Marx , University of Toronto Press, 1984) made me much less optimistic about the fate of civil society. Civil society, as Hegel said, is a jungle, attuned to the most voracious and powerful actors. Certainly, there are progressive social forces that must be fostered, but these are always and everywhere linked to government, or direct their legitimate appeals to the state. Indeed, effectiveness of non-governmental organizations concerns precisely their impact on the state system, their ability to make a difference outside the predatory realm of civil society.

Ruling powers within the external state can at times totally overcome those of a fledgling universal or social state. Returning to Hegel’s analysis of the sovereign, and viewing it from the point of view of the negative, a state of exigency could exterminate the social state, replacing it with a security apparatus representing the interests of the powerful. Accordingly, Hegel warned against a “strong state”—one that relies on security operations, shutdown of constitutional rights, etc., to safeguard so-called national interests.

To take the merely negative as a starting point and to exalt to the first place the volition of evil and the mistrust of this volition, and then on the basis of this presupposition, slyly to construct dikes whose efficiency simply necessitates corresponding dikes over against them, is characteristic of the negative Understanding and in sentiment of the outlook of the rabble.

Ola Tunander, Senior Research Fellow at the International Peace Research Centre in Oslo, has opened up a new dialogue on the nature of the dual state (see for example. “Geopolitical Traditions: Swedish Geopolitics: From Rudolf Kjellen to a Swedish Dual State,” Geopolitics, 10: 546-566, 2005.) He notes how political theorist Carl Schmitt in face of growing democratic forces in the Weimar Republic considered ways in which this development might affect the sovereignty of government. Schmitt urged the existence of two forms of the state, a public state and—as we have seen— a “state of exception.”

US political scientist Hans Morgenthau, who was influenced by Carl Schmitt, studied the American political administration and proposed in the late 1950s the existence of a dual state, a regular state hierarchy that acts according to the rule of law, and a more or less hidden security hierarchy that not only acts in parallel to the former but also monitors and exerts control over it. The Nazis employed a dual state but this doubleness was overt: an autocratic emergency state operated above and outside the German legal system. Similarly, Chile under Pinochet made little effort to conceal the existence of a dual state. Says Tulander, “Morgenthau draws a parallel between Nazi Germany and the U.S. Dual State. Indeed, in his view, the autocratic ‘security state’ may be less visible and less arbitrary in democratic societies such as the USA, but it is no less important.”

It is interesting that in Professor Adelman’s paper (coming up next!) he speaks of the terror of the Algerian insurgency. He reveals that the terror of the Algerian liberation, where bombs were planted among innocent civilians, was difficult for him to forgive. But it is known that the Secret French Army (OAS) opposing the Algerian liberation forces frequently bombed French citizens in order to lay blame on the Arab insurgency. Of course, the OAS also attempted to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle

Tunander has studied how the U.S. government disguised its submarines as Russian nuclear subs, sending them to the coast of Sweden in order to panic the neutral Swedes into support for America’s belligerent nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union in the 1980s (The Secret War Against Sweden: US and British Submarine Deception in the 1980s, London: Frank Cass, 2005). Swedish popular support for anti-nuclear politics fell steeply amidst worries about aggression from the USSR. The assassination of Olaf Palme, Tunander suggests, likely resulted from the Swedish leader’s opposition to U.S. military installations in Sweden. Tunander suggests there are two Swedish governments, the public democratic state (the “political Sweden”), and a secret, deep state (the “military Sweden”) reflecting the union between the military and the rich.

Liberal theory, notes Tunander, denies the existence of a dual state. Law defines the democratic polity, and applies to all within it. But this is an illusion. In western democracies there is a covert security state parallel to the democratic state. To use Hegel’s language, the rational state glimmers behind the external state of civil society, but it is always in danger of being manipulated or dissolved.

Copyright David MacGregor, 2007

(contact MacGregor for re-publishing permission)