Hegel has recently emerged out of Marx’s shadow to be appreciated once again as a theorist of inequality and alienation in his own right. Since the publication and translation of his Jena writings and later lectures, scholars have connected the strains of political economy and social analysis that pervade his philosophical system. However, this reconstructive work has repeatedly stumbled against what appears to be a major unsolved problem within Hegel’s social and political philosophy: the problem of modern mass poverty. Although Hegel describes poverty as a problem that necessarily “agitates and torments” modern society, he nowhere indicates a satisfactory method for alleviating the problem.1 This presents a fascinating aporia for his readers, because Hegel’s whole political philosophy is meant to describe the realization of individual freedom within a particular set of social and political institutions. Insofar as these institutions give rise to poverty that they cannot eliminate, they generate a stark limit to the freedom that is their legitimating purpose, apparently undercutting the aim of Hegel’s entire political-philosophical project.
Readers have offered a variety of responses to this aporia, the best of which not only shed light on Hegel’s legacy, but also help us think through issues of inequality and indigence in our own time. This is the aim of Frank Ruda’s Hegel’s Rabble, which argues that Hegel’s treatment of poverty is crucial to understanding his entire political philosophy, as well as that of the young Marx. Through his admirably detailed exegesis, Ruda argues that the unsolved problem of poverty reveals the defectiveness of the ideal of freedom animating all of Hegelian philosophy. This is obviously a major claim, and consequently the book will be of interest to Hegel scholars and students of modern political thought more generally. Even more, Ruda argues that Hegel’s struggle with the problem of poverty points to a post-Hegelian politics of radical equality rather than rational freedom. This argument is clearly in conversation with Marx’s early analyses of Hegel, as well as the work of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière, and Alain Badiou. For this reason, the book will also be of interest to students of contemporary left-Hegelian theory.
Ruda’s book is distinguished by its focus on Hegel’s brief but vivid descriptions of the “rabble” [Pöbel], an impoverished and disorganized mass that survives on the lowest strata of society. Like all poor persons in Hegel’s analysis, members of the rabble lack employment and property, and this prevents them from full participation in the institutions of civil society and the state. The rabble is unique, however, by virtue of its subjective disposition. Hegel describes the rabble as depraved and indignant, lashing out against the entire social order while demanding subsistence and recognition despite its lack of work activity or property. Objectively and subjectively estranged from the relations of interdependence through which others achieve freedom in the state, the rabble’s demands can only appear irrational and impossible in the wider context of Hegel’s system.
Nonetheless, the rabble is not simply an anomaly within Hegel’s theory, because its objective position and subjective disposition are both engendered by the same social relations that, for other members of society, enable individual freedom. For Hegel, modern civil society generates artificial needs that are satisfied, for most individuals, by a system of economic interdependence that culminates in the unity of the state. However, where these needs are experienced most acutely, they generate the rabble, which is excluded from the institutions that translate economic interdependence into free political unity. By clarifying that the rabble originates in the same conditions as individual freedom, Ruda convincingly grounds two claims that are necessary for his overall interpretation, namely that the rabble embodies a decisive limit to the social order described by Hegel and, second, that this limit is necessarily generated by that order itself. According to Ruda, Hegel sets up the overcoming of his own political philosophy by theorizing a mass of internal outsiders that “marks the...