Hegel's Analysis of Colonialism and Its Roots in Scottish Political Economy

By Paquette, Gabriel | CLIO, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Hegel's Analysis of Colonialism and Its Roots in Scottish Political Economy


Paquette, Gabriel, CLIO


G. W. F. Hegel's account of colonies in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821) as a solution to the mass poverty generated in civil society has attracted the attention of contemporary commentators. In general, they convincingly demonstrate that Hegel's endorsement of colonialism undermines the self-sufficiency of civil society and illustrates his callousness toward non-European peoples. These interpretations of Hegel's advocacy of colonialism should be supplemented by an analysis which emphasizes his historical context, integrates his treatment of this theme into his other writings, and confronts the intellectual milieu out of which his ideas emerged. Moreover, Hegel's treatment of colonialism in the joint context of political economy and social disintegration reveals its intellectual origins. He partially inherited the ambivalence and inconsistency of his account from Sir James Steuart (1713-80) and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), who grappled with three issues which pertain to Hegel's exposition: the repercussions of extraterritorial expansion for a commercial society and the social bonds unifying its citizens; the appropriate form of public intervention in a market economy when it deviates from the ideal of free competition and produces poverty; and the social implications of population increase when it outstrips economic growth. This essay contends that Hegel's colonization scheme addresses the immediate material needs of the impoverished and also integrates them, perhaps circuitously, into the web of reciprocal relationships in civil society.

Hegel envisages ethical life raised upon the edifice of modern commercial society. He also seeks to contain the destructive effects of unrestrained economic individualism and to "incline its members towards participation in the communal structures of life," (1) such as the corporation, that inculcate social values, accord recognition, and mediate the individual's relations with the state. Like the civic humanist ideal, Hegel's system is "a fragile accomplishment that is prone to corruption and collapse because of the individualism, indifference and neglect of its citizens." (2) Colonies are designed by Hegel to instill a public-spirited disposition in the poor who are alienated, "objectively cut off from participation" in civil society. Although poverty is a structural feature of civil society, it is not ineliminable. (3) Colonization represents a viable political solution within Hegel's framework, and an economic one as well: Hegel proposes to provide land, or private property, which allows the individual to master external reality and makes him aware of his capacities and impulses. This, in turn, provides membership in an estate, restores the "ethical objectivity" (4) suspended during prolonged periods of unemployment, and sanctions membership in the intermediary institutions of civil society. In this manner, it integrates the individual into "a system of all-around interdependence" from which they were previously alienated. It also helps individuals to obtain the material subsistence that accords with the requirement that individuals meet their own needs as a result of autonomous effort and work. Simultaneously, however, colonies ease the macroeconomic crisis of civil society.

The argument will be presented in four sections. After summarizing the existing scholarly criticism, Hegel's argument for colonies in Philosophy of Right is recapitulated. I emphasize both the context of poverty and the subterranean tensions in the text, underscoring the centrality of political economy. The second part of the essay examines Hegel's reception and incorporation of political economy in its various intellectual contexts and then confronts Hegel's other writings on colonialism that enrich the appreciation of themes to which Hegel only alludes in Philosophy of Right. This interpretation is reinforced by examining two additional historical contexts. The tensions and inconsistencies of Hegel's account are attributable to the unresolved nature of the debate in Scottish political economy, particularly the thought of Ferguson and Steuart, whose possible influence is discussed in the fourth and final section of the essay.

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