The Enlightenment was a movement to displace the dogged adherence to established opinions and customs, and to enlighten a population the system had kept in the dark. Voltaire (1694-1778) relied upon his books to spread the light (knowledge) across Europe. Georg Hegel (1770-1831) insists that progress in history be measured by the spread of light. Only the spread of light (freedom) gives meaning and significance to the historical process. There can be no progress, according to Hegel, without struggle. History’s final goal is the complete saturation of the world with light, with the development of freedom and the consciousness of freedom.
The struggle that Hegel envisioned is the great tension between ‘is’ and ‘ought,’ between the way things are and the way they ought to be. The world of fact was chaotic and evil – an affront to man’s senses of order and good. The necessary ingredient for Hegel’s philosophy was freedom of action, not just freedom of thought. For Hegel, the idealist, there is a spirit or creative energy involved in the struggle. The spirit can understand freedom and work to realize it.
The spirit is always active in search of some aim, in realizing potential. Hegel’s philosophy of history is that of a dialectical progression. This begins with an existing thesis, with contradictions inherent to its structure. These contradictions create the thesis of a direct opposite, or antithesis, bringing about a period of conflict between the two. The synthesis that emerges from this struggle then discovers its own internal contradiction and starts the process anew. It is considered a progressive process because each new thesis represents an advance over the previous thesis, continually until an end point is reached.1
With the 1989 break up of the Soviet Union it appeared that the liberal free market system had triumphed over the communist system as envisioned by the former Soviet Union. Francis Fukuyama discussed this in an essay he wrote in the same year, titled, The End of History.2 He proposes that human history be viewed in terms of the battle of ideologies which have reached an end, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and with no alternative challengers at hand. Soviet socialism was not superior to the West in any respect but was a monumental failure. In addition, the free market system has been established in China while Marxist-Leninism no longer serves as its ideological underpinning.
In his 1989 essay Fukuyama described America as a ‘classless society’ even though there remained a mix of rich and poor people, and the economic gap between them was growing. Fukuyama maintained, “The root causes of economic inequality did not have to do with the underlying legal and social structure of our society, which remains fundamentally egalitarian and moderately redistributionist [and] black poverty in the United States is not the inherent product of liberalism [or laissez-faure economics], but rather the legacy of slavery and racism…”2 However, the era of accelerated deregulation and individuals moving money around the world with the click of a button had just commenced when Fukuyama recorded these observations.
Three years after the economic debacle of 2008 the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests began – connected by the anger of the common person against the banks for manipulating the system and tanking the economy. OWS challenges the excesses of the corporations in general, and in particular, a government controlled by corporate money and the growing income gap between the very wealthy and the rest in society. OWS warn the middle class that they have been taken advantage of by a financial system that favors the rich – identifing extreme inequality as the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy.
The results of five decades of regressive taxation and deregulation is a weakened economy that no longer reliably and consistently transmits productivity gains to workers. This era of trickle down economics has been associated with growing income disparity and a shrinking middle class. The consequences of the economic decisions driving globalization have been the loss of social mobility and the disappearance of Fukuyama’s classless society as income inequality increases with the lower paying service jobs and many of the tech jobs that don’t offer long term certainties or opportunities. However, as Fukuyama predicted, nationalism and ethnic tensions have become a significant source of strife around the world.
Without the active opposition of an antithesis working through the dialectic, Hegel asserts, existence is simply an empty task. During so-called periods of harmony, times when the antithesis is missing, what is left is habit – the average citizen is disengaged from the state. Under globalization countries compete for the world’s investment capital, which removes traditional government accountability – affecting the ability of elected leaders in democratic countries to make decisions in the interests of the workers. This creates a lack of ability of those affected by decisions to protect their legitimate rights and interests. Hegel claims, there can be no progress in history without struggle of the elements or ideas. In comparing the past four decades to the last four decades of the 19th century (the era of the robber barons) – history is standing still – amongst a climate of economic uncertainty in which the rich are getting richer while the economic gap between the rich and the poor is growing.
Hegel believed in a freedom of action that included struggle through rational deliberation – when we cease to strive to realize a potential then we live by habit, by rote. The light of progress spreads and can be generated by individuals who have the freedom and opportunities to grow and reach their full potential Hegel affirmed. Today’s dialectic would be the tension between the present minimal government and regulation and a system that decreases the economic gap and creates more choices and opportunities for individuals to reach their full potential.
The half-century following the Persian Wars Athens grew as a maritime power and prospered with a free society. Hegel notes, as the trade and wealth of its empire increased, power fell into the hands of the few. Those in power ruled in their own interest, without regards for public welfare. Out of this disharmony of interests and common disregard of the public good had come the collapse of the polis. Similarly, the West enjoyed a period of economic equality from the end of the Second World War to 1970 when the rate of economic gains was equivalent between the wealthy and workers. Subsequently, sixty years of tax cuts for the rich have been linked to income inequality, a shrinking middle class and the loss of freedom to make choices they desire (social mobility). If history’s final goal is the actualization of freedom in the modern state – then the end of history is a journey, not a destination.
1An Outline of European Intellectual History: Locke to Hegel, Harold J. Foster, Ed, Forum House. 1969. p. 151-167.
2Fukuyama, Francis “The End of History?” The National Interest, Summer 1989.