Immigrants, Hegel, and the question of civil space

In political philosophy, we discuss the concepts of freedom and power in society as they relate to the individual and his/her capacity for self-determination (in some philosophers’ work this is called subjectivity), as well as the justification for the creation of a body politic. While not directly related to my studies in Urban Education, the readings we’ve done of Hobbes, Locke, and now Hegel find great applicability in my thinking about citizenship and the role of the state – and the philosopher – in defining our relationship to our rights and responsibilities as human beings and the forms that political society takes as a result.

The assumption that freedom is the right of every citizen of a country is a universal value transformed over time and shaped by the subsequent iterations of statehood around the world; that is to say, such a profound sociopolitical dictate has not always existed in its current form. John Locke, for example, argued that one logically sacrifices one’s freedom – which we are given as a birthright, at least in terms of its potentiality – in order to be politically free, because such freedom can only be achieved within the context of social society in which we are governed by shared laws. Hegel, interestingly, focused on the historical development of what he termed “concrete freedom,” which refers to the societal requirement that institutions exist which “make freedom actual by providing conditions via which human beings can conceive of themselves as free” with the highest goal of expressing this freedom. (Quote by Dr. Uday Mehta during class lecture of “Modern Political Thought,” Wednesday, November 5, 2014.)

Dr. Mehta also spoke about the challenge that Hegel made to the positive example he saw in ancient Greece; while the Greeks certainly gave a modern of political society with many qualities to learn from, their version lacked a fundamental element which denied its citizens the opportunity for truly experienced the possibility of self-actualization as free individuals: that of civil society. Civil society, Dr. Mehta told us, refers to a space in which citizens have a self-concept that exists outside of either the family or in direct relationship to the state. Without this possibility for reflection, for one’s capacity for subjectivity to become fully developed, one can live ethically, but unreflectively and unaware – in short, one lives without true freedom.

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Pretty heavy stuff. I am still struggling with Hegel (as many people have told me is normal), but I do have an interesting take-away which I hope to turn into my final paper for my “Modern Political Theory” class. As I hope to conduct research on the educational experience of adult learners, most specifically immigrants, in the non-profit world, it struck me that some of what Hegel strove to do in his philosophy is relevant to my inchoate work. I see adult learners, those whom I taught and others, in the non-profit world as hopeful and grateful for what they accomplish through the support given them. However, while the education of youth is (assumed to be) focused on the development of future citizens as well as people with academic experience and the capacity for curiosity and reflection, I think the education of adults, at least in service organizations, does not share that aim.

Workforce development is a big catchphrase nowadays and it seems everyone is talking about ways of connecting the needs of the poor with the needs of the market; if we can train people who need to earn a little more with the skills to occupy jobs that need filling, that makes everyone happy…right?

I don’t think so. It is not that simple. I think part of the problem is rooted in the very issue I mentioned above in discussing Hegel’s critique of ancient Greece; in such a political system, the Greek people were meant to accept and live the life that was patterned out for them, leaving any reflection, so to speak, to the philosophers and the lawmakers (and evidently Hegel would argue, in fact, that even these people did not maintain a truly ethical posture, or at least a reflective ethical one – consider that Socrates’ challenging of certain social assumptions got him killed as a heretic). I think we similar assumptions about the political subjectivity of immigrants and low-status individuals in our society as well, or at least we educate them in such a way that removes this possibility if they are above a certain age.

It might seem dramatic, but I like where Hegel was going with this and will try to apply such a perspective to my work. I think we have returned to the limitations of ancient Greece in terms of the way we see immigrants, poor people, people of color, people who do not speak Standard American English, and other marginalized groups. We expect these low-status people – Paulo Freire would add that the word “oppressed” should be used here – not to participate in civil society and rather bind themselves to the state as unreflective extensions of the body politic. And Freire would further add that such a view helps perpetuate a system that serves the few and bleeds dry the labor, voice, and dignity of the rest, especially those who are most dehumanized by such a system, and least able to fight against it. I argue that immigrants are among the groups struggling most under the yoke of such a fate today.

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