Following up on the last episode this week we look at ‘the Hegelian dialectic’. What is the difference between Hegelian and Marxist dialectics? Does either explain the driving force behind history? Do conspiracy theorists say Hegelian when they really mean Marxist? And does the conspiratorial version of history lead to a culture of apathy and cynicism? This quick episode takes a potshot at all of these questions before offering a healthier and more mature way of looking at the ideological, dialectical, historical process and what we can do about it.
Aside from the concepts we discussed last time, the other concept which is almost ubiquitous in the truth movement but which is Marxist through and through, is the Hegelian dialectic. You hear everyone talking about this, left wingers, right wingers, gritty politically-minded types, airy fairy spiritualist types, Alex Jones, David Icke, old people, young people, it doesn’t seem to make much difference.
Everything from Donald Trump through to the rise, existence and fall of the Soviet Union is reduced to this, the Hegelian dialectic. But I’m willing to bet my left testicle that 99% of the commentators and their fans who use this term have never read Hegel. I bet they could not explain the term, outside of its misappropriation by conspiracy theorists under slogans like ‘problem, reaction, solution’. And I have to say, whenever I’ve picked a fight with someone using these phrases, it has taken very little time and effort to back them into a corner and make them run out of excuses.
The confusion around this concept is quite a glory to behold, because most of them aren’t talking about a Hegelian dialectic, they are talking about a Marxist dialectic. The distinction is dead simple, but then we’re dealing with simple people so you might lose them if you try to explain this. But here goes. Hegel was in the proud tradition of German idealism, his dialectic, thesis, antithesis, synthesis explains how ideas form into opposing pairs and then find some way of marrying, merging, coming together to form a new idea. In turn this new idea forms oppositions with other ideas, and eventually they marry and have little baby ideas and the process continues. This is, of course, an alchemical view of the relationship between ideas. It’s also something that the poststructuralist philosophers, reworked as the notion of historical periods where structure and opposition come to the fore and periods where the oppositions break down.
Marx, on the other hand, was responding to Hegel and arguing that no, this process of idealist dialectics was not the driving force of history, even in its physically manifested form (if you think about how an idea penetrates into a new geographical area over time and both the idea and the area are changed by doing so). Marx, or rather his bourgeois capitalist benefactor Engels who actually conceived this philosophy, argued for dialectical materialism, that history is the history of class struggle. The working class and the bourgeois class are pitched into a struggle by industrial capitalism and the triumph of the proletariat, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the workers, is the inevitable result of this struggle.
Now, when truthers talk about dialectics they are often talking about this, the struggle between different peoples, different classes of society and so on. Not the process by which ideas form into oppositions and then the oppositions dissolve and a synthesis arrives, only to then form new oppositions with other ideas. So they definitively are not talking about a Hegelian dialectic they are talking about a Marxist one, most of the time. And of course, they are using it in the sense that the elite, the illuminati or the Jews, sorry, I mean the international bankers, whoever, have weaponised this process. So they claim that both Communism and Capitalism were created by this elite, whoever they are, and that the conflict was essentially fake and the aim was to bring about a new world order. Which is why we should be capitalists, or anarcho-capitalists, or something. Yeah, they haven’t thought this through.
Most Truthers? They just heard David Icke say some shit about a dialectic and waking people up and just repeated it. And then heard Alex Jones say the same thing and repeated it. And then heard – whoever else that’s trying to be popular and profit from groupthink – say the same thing. This is one of those completely unexamined but often-repeated phrases, Hegelian dialectic, hegelian dialectic.
Examining it a bit further, it is quite often used to mean several quite different things. Some claim that this process, whether Hegelian or Marxist, idealist or materialist, has been turned into a weapon by the elite to help them create their new world order. This being where the phrase ‘new world order’ refers to a future societal state of affairs, rather than a philosophy or an agenda or any of the other things that phrase is used to mean.
But how is that process meant to work? Because presumably, for the elite to have weaponised this historical process described by Hegel, this had to have taken place after Hegel wrote about it, no? So that would make it quite recent, in historical terms, sometime in the 200 years. But at the same time we’re told this is what the elite have always done. So they didn’t weaponised the hegelian dialectic, it’s just how a ruling class behaves. But of course that doesn’t fulfil the scapegoating, bitter, resentful nature of the conspiracy worldview, it has to be that there is a plan, has been a plan for a long time, and these bastards know what they are doing.
Indeed, it is this aspect of planning and intent that intellectually lazy conspiracy theorists attach to almost everything have attached to the hegelian dialectic. Hegel was simply identifying how he thought history worked, why it unfolds in the way that it does, what the driving force behind the historical process really is. Conspiracy theorists take this and turn it into an intentional process being perpetrated by an elite. They just attach nefarious intent to the idea.
And what are we supposed to make of this in the here and now? Typically, the answer is that there’s no difference between left and right, that they are just two things created by the elite to create a dialectic that they control. And this is extended outwards, into media – that there’s no difference between the mainstream and the alternative. And in some ways that is true, but not because of a plan by the ruling class, more because no matter what your content, it’s easiest to gain and maintain an audience through fear, anger, superficiality, flashy bullshit and otherwise playing on people’s base instincts and insecurities.
Ultimately, if you follow this logic through then everything that is part of a historical dialectic, an element in the historical process, is assumed by a lot of conspiracy theorists to be secretly controlled by the same elite. So there aren’t any political candidates worth voting for. Apart from certain exceptions, certain designated right wingers like Ron Paul or Donald Trump who supposedly aren’t part of the left-right dialectic.
And herein lies the important thing for me – that most people who say there’s no difference between left and right, no difference between communism and capitalism, are right wing capitalists. Whether they are anarcho-capitalists or minarchists or just Republican voting conspiracy theorists, almost all of them decry the dialectical process, decry ideology, only to then usually quite brazenly advocate for specific right wing ideologies, policies and candidates.
Now, I’m sure plenty of you will disagree about this next bit but I’m going to say it anyway – I think this is largely a psychological problem, not really a political one. Much as I dislike reducing politics to mass psychology, this is an instance where I think the logic holds up. Let me explain. If you believe that everything is part of a historical dialectic being secretly controlled by the elite, then there are no options. There is nothing you can do to escape the rigged ideological process, so you might as well just be a cynical self-serving money grabber, i.e. a right wing capitalist. If you truly believe that any attempt to subvert the ideological process is futile, then looking after yourself and not giving a shit about where society is headed is a logical conclusion.
In which case ‘there’s no difference between left and right’ isn’t a rationale, a reason, it’s an excuse, it’s giving yourself psychological permission to be apathetic and cynical. And obviously I’m not saying that the conclusion to all of this is to vote Democrat, in the US you have a pretty rigid two party system that’s getting you nowhere, so I do get where this frustration comes from. But taking the much broader view, taking the last few hundred years of history, taking all the Left wing stuff and all the Right wing stuff, to say there’s no difference and that they were all just part of some overriding elite agenda, I feel that is not only untrue, it psychologically damaging, it fosters a culture of apathy and cynicism. And that concerns me far more than who you vote for or whether you vote. Vote or don’t vote as you like. I’m really not that bothered.
So what’s the upshot of all this, I hear you ask? To me the upshot is that those who attempt to escape the dialectical, ideological process by declaring that it’s all the same almost always fall back into that process, and do so in a way that isn’t remotely threatening to the establishment. I think this notion that the elite have weaponised the Hegelian dialectic is untrue, though I do accept that ruling classes subvert, or try to subvert, the historical process. But that’s not something to be afraid of, the idea that humans can subvert the dialectic. If anything, it’s empowering. After all, the ruling classes are just people, so if they can do it then we can do it. We might not be able to escape ideology, escape the dialectical process but we can subvert it, or at least try to. I think that’s a much healthier approach than cynically waving your hand and saying it’s all the same because it’s all the elite. And while I imagine lots of you will disagree with lots of what I’ve said today, I hope that most of you agree with this conclusion.