The wealthy, Walmart, and Hegel’s conception of will

An article came out today in Truthout, an online news source that is decidedly liberal-to-progressive and asks tough questions that more mainstream-left media sources like NPR and PBS don’t dig into as deeply, called “You Just Got “Richsplained.” A funny title and a decent takedown of an article described as “A millionaire’s attempt to explain why he’s better than you, [which] falls flat.”

The writer took the assumptions made in the Business Insider article – namely, that the wealthy are comfortable being “uncomfortable” (i.e., they are risk takers), dream about the future, are more confident, believe money is about freedom, and carefully monitor their associations, all in contrast to middle-class (and, presumably, the working poor and very poor) – and juxtaposed them against the story of a Walmart worker who was fired for voicing her displeasure about scheduling and low wages, which caused her to have to quit college. This person, the Truthout article reasoned, certainly lived a life with some of those same trappings listed above, yet for the wage-poor, this list argues, for example, that there is no choice to be “uncertain” (and if you think about it, the wealthy’s claiming comfort in uncertainty doesn’t really make much sense – how many of them truly live from hand to mouth or risk their very survival on anything?), and that the formula “money = freedom” encapsulates their modern-day slavery to the meager wages they work for.

This made me think of Hegel, whose text “Philosophy of Right” I’m reading now for my Modern Political Theory class at CUNY. I’ve been struggling quite a bit with his ideas – discussions of the will and freedom and right are carefully laid but with a great deal of complication and overlaying of seemingly contradictory points – but I did gather an important idea today: that of the objective will vs. the subjective will. (Note: This use of “objective” and “subjective” should be distinguished from their more commonplace conception as “unbiased” and “personal/biased,” respectively.) According to Hegel, objective will, exemplified as the will that belongs to children, to slaves, to the superstitious, is one whose freedom is constrained by the limitations on a person’s external reality and is ultimately answerable to an “alien authority”; in contrast, the latter contains a form of intelligent thought, self-conscious and answerable to none, rational and unfettered. Hegel argues that it is through the latter that true freedom is achieved. (I continue to struggle with such distinctions and ask questions such as, ‘Aren’t we all slaves to an extent as long as we exist in society? That is, is it ever possible to achieve a truly subjective will which is answerable to/mediated by no external determinant at all?’)

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An example from real life that makes sense would be the difference between having to stand, laden with bags, on a herky-jerky subway train versus being able to sit down. When standing, swaying, and occupied with maintaining balance and social grace, one doesn’t have the ability to think freely about the rest of life (which means that one’s will is focused strictly on the environment which delimits one’s existence); once this position of being an object of external circumstances is altered by the availability of a seat, one is freed to think about other things, becoming a subject in one’s thinking once again. (Perhaps I’m off-base here but the metaphor makes some sense to me.)

Taken allegorically, I wonder whether we couldn’t find a seed of modern-day Hegelianism in the prejudice expressed in Business Insider. Do we see the freedom of thought as a condition of one’s social class? Virginia Woolf would likely have thought so; her cleverly written and, frankly, very upsetting text, “A Room of One’s Own” states plainly that true intellectual freedom, especially for a woman of her time, was only afforded through wealth. If one is not subject to external authority – which takes the form of the need to earn a living in the case mentioned in Truthout – one’s mental, creative, and personal capacities are subject only to themselves. If, in contrast, one’s existence is limited by the need to survive and is characterized – objectified – by subordination to social forces beyond one’s control (stress, racism, unsafe living conditions, uncertain employment, etc.), true freedom remains as distant as a vacation in the sun. Such objectification by one’s circumstances, in which one’s will is subverted to the needs of survival, changes one’s subjective position (in 20th-century terms, one’s agency) and distinguishes those whose wills are constrained by “alien authority” and those whose wills are free(er).

By such an argument (which if I’m right in making this connection makes some sense to me), making the distinction between the haves and have-nots really doesn’t come down to personality traits in the end, regardless of how reassuring and conscience-cleansing this presumption might be to the rich.

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