Wealth in Hegel’s Phenomenology

In our present culture this paradox is made even more complex, by the fact that the dominant ideology commands us to define ourselves by choosing our own lifestyle, by carving out an existence that is highly individual and unique. But how can we achieve that? Relying again on consumer goods, that by their nature are universal, we are supposed to have our own ring tones, personalized mobile phones, interior designs, clothes etc. Individuality seems to reside in the pattern of our consumption. Our unique “lifestyles” must be seen to be the product of highly individual choices. The imperative to be an individual in such a way cannot mask the fact that the nature of this injunction itself is the power of the universal. If all are “individuals” then in a sense nobody is.

This consumerist individuality that I can attain by sustaining a specific lifestyle, seems to correspond with what Hegel called the element of wealth. In my properties, in my wealth I experience myself in a positive way, not just through the differences with others, but I can truly enjoy what I have – implying therefore that at this level I enjoy what I am through what I own. But in this positive self-enjoyment – different from my merely abstract individuality as a citizen – I also experience a negation of my universal being as a citizen. In the measure that I can express myself through my wealth, I am (quasi-)independent of the State, I am
”myself” in distinction to all others and am different from the being that State imposes upon me. This individual self-expression through wealth, makes it possible for me, to accept – or remain passive at least towards – the negative limitations that the power of the State and society in general impose upon me.

Wealth however, in Hegel’s view, in order to do this, cannot only be an individual’s self-expression as such. Though property can be considered as “a” predicate, what I own qualifies me as an owner, wealth is definitely not a predicate of my separate existence. Being wealthy is not something that pertains to me as a singular entity, because it implies the ability to act upon others and presupposes a system of connected “wealths”. Through my wealth I am a part of a system of riches, a “commonwealth”, a chain of social capitals (plural required here) that exist to some degree independently from the State. Wealth, in sum, is itself also of a general nature, it is an universal in itself. Precisely for that reason it appears to be the goodfor all, since its generosity reaches everyone, whereas the limiting state power appears to us as the evil. The distinction between the Good-Wealth and the Evil-State of course, rests solely on the criterion of my interest in individual self-expression.

What then is the relationship between the power of the State and the power of Wealth? The question needs to be asked because the perspective of self-expression is not sufficient. Any individual will experience the State as a restraining evil and wealth as a positive self-enjoyment. Yet on reflection, the State is a condition of my individual survival as well as the possibility of wealth itself. The system by which I can amass money that I do not need for survival, using it for other ends, is made possible by the State – i.e. through the political organization of a society. Without the State, no wealth can sustain itself nor be produced. The State after all makes the economy possible. Free production and the market are not naturally given. Without a system of exchanges, without the regulations that institute a market, no modern economy can exist. That is why the idea that the market should be left on its own without State interference is paradoxical. The market does not exist and surely not as “free” market without government supervision and guarantees. Its freedom therefore has always been relative to government policies.

Yet, wealth by its very nature exists within the State as independentfrom it. It may not be independent as such, but it appears – and not as an illusion but as its mode of being – as independent. It is not the state that produces wealth, it is the state that makes the production of wealth possible. Wealth is not owned by governments, but made possible by its policies. In other words: the State is the necessary, but not the sufficient condition of wealth. Precisely because of this relative independence wealth is deemed to be the Good since it provides opportunity for individual self-enjoyment and self-improvement and thereby enables an individuality not limited and defined by the State – or so it seems at any rate which semblance is enough.

Nevertheless, the independence of wealth with regard to the State is not just an illusion. The State in its effective reality (Wirklichkeit) is itself only possible on the basis of wealth that she requires for her own means of existence. By taxation the State withdraws from the acquired wealth – the surplus of production and labour – what she needs to survive. Partially for her own institutions, by setting people free from the ordinary requirements of labour to constitute a separate class of government employees, “civil servants.” Partially by a process of redistribution of wealth to guarantee social order, and partially for public works like the police, courts and the public space. It is the State that provides and maintains the infrastructure that makes economic life possible. It seems therefore, that the power of the State as limiting is at the same time prviding the basis for wealth; and wealth, though independent from the State is making the State possible. In the individual’s consciousness however there is the moral opposition between the evil limitation and the beneficent wealth. How does this opposition express itself? And what inner weaknesses of state and wealth – though in reality each makes the other possible – gives rise to this dichotomy within consciousness?


[1]http://express-press-release.net/36/Consumer%20Borrowing%20in%20Europe%20-%20Market%20Assessment.php

[2]http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,143037,00.html

[3]ibidem

[4]http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/11/18/eveningnews/main4615313.shtml

[5]Real wages: net income minus the average cost of living.

Robbert Veen

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