As is well known, Hegel advocated constitutional monarchy as the only appropriate form of political order that fits modern society. His numerous critics see this weird advocacy either as a clear sign of Hegel’s immanent philosophical limitation or as a sign of his political conformism, with some more benevolently disposed critics interpreting it as a cunning trick to delude state censorship. The first among the sarcastic critics of Hegel’s notion of monarch is none other than Marx. Klaus Vieweg’s critique of Hegel’s deduction of monarchy is, however, by far the most thoughtful in these series: what he tries to prove is that Hegel’s deduction is wrong in Hegel’s own terms.

Hegel justifies the necessary role of the monarch with reference to the syllogism, to the syllogistic structure of state power, but Vieweg claims that the very form of syllogism to which he refers (disjunctive syllogism) would impose a democratic solution with people as the ultimate source of legitimate power.[1] Can Hegel be fully defended today? Let’s begin with a simple and clear description of Hegel’s point:

“Hegel is not a democrat. He is a monarchist. But he wants monarchy because he does not want strong government. He wants to deemphasize power. He develops an idealist conception of sovereignty that allows for a monarch less powerful than a president,” that is to say, less powerful than a democratically elected president. Here is Mark Tunick’s example of how this works:

“Hegel supposes that the monarch’s counsel, whose members are chosen by objective criteria, can resolve an issue at least to the point where only an arbitrary will can choose among the options. The counsel rules out all the bad alternatives (which democracy doesn’t do), until the remaining options are equally meritorious. Even if the monarch decided every political issue, the issues he’d be deciding would be different than the issues as they first appear, and which a democratic vote would have resolved. The monarch makes a ‘groundless’ decision that still has grounds. Consider a concrete example: Suppose prisons are so overcrowded that there is absolutely no room for newly convicted criminals, and we need to decide what to do with them. One alternative is to kill them all. Another is to build a new prison (which is expensive). Another is to reduce the sentences of some already in prison to make room for the new. Another is to let the new criminals go free. Another is to think up some new punishment. Some of these alternatives won’t be acceptable, and the counsel will eliminate them. The remaining alternatives are grounded (i.e. in the principle that we must not kill, or that we must punish wrongdoers), but suppose it’s arbitrary which of them we choose. The monarch decides this.”

It should be clear from this example what Hegel fears, as well as why his fear is even more actual today: the direct rule of experts who justify their decisions with (pseudo-scientific) reasons incomprehensible to the majority of ordinary citizens. Just recall how today economic decisions are legitimized by economic experts as simple neutral scientific insight, and how in this way the political bias of these decisions disappears from view, is dismissed as “ideological”… Hegel is aware that a Master who is elevated above the system of knowledge (in Lacanian terms, of the “discourse of university”) is needed, so he wants to keep the power that decides outside expert knowledge. However, he is at the same time aware that a return to the premodern master who reigns directly is unacceptable in modern times; his solution is, therefore, a monarch whose function is ultimately just to dot the i’s, to sign his name on decisions prepared and proposed by qualified experts.

Vieweg is right in claiming that the key to the proper understanding of Hegel’s notion of monarch is provided by his notion of disjunctive syllogism (as a further development of the syllogism of necessity); but he accuses Hegel on misreading the political implications of this syllogism. Its structure is that of PUI: the universal dimension (people represented in legislative assembly) mediates between the particular dimension (executive power) and the individual (monarch as the decision-maker). In short, in contrast to premodern monarchy where the king directly rules over its subjects, in a modern state the people in their universal dimension regulate and control both extremes of executive and deciding power:

“The application of the disjunctive syllogism to the structure of the state’s internal constitution leads to a most surprising result in contrast to what the Outlines (of the Philosophy of Right) claims: it effects the theoretical legitimization of a republican, democratic constitution and reveals the fundamental importance of the legislative assembly as an expression of a representative-democratic structure.”[2]

But does Hegel really violate the logic of disjunctive syllogism? It is Vieweg himself who ignores what its name indicates: the dimension of disjunction is located by Hegel in the mediating universality itself. Here is a passage from Hegel’s small logic (Encyclopaedia, par 191) which already points towards the role of the monarch:

“the mediating Universal is explicitly put as a totality of its particular members, and as a single particular, or exclusive individuality — which happens in the Disjunctive syllogism. It is one and the same universal which is in these terms of the Disjunctive syllogism; they are only different forms for expressing it.”

Disjunction thus divides universality itself into the totality of its particular members and the exclusive individuality which directly gives body to the universality. As we say in everyday jargon, the monarch does not represent the people; the monarch IS the people. Only through the monarch is the universality of the people actualized.

In his precise essay “The Jurisdiction of the Hegelian Monarch,” Jean-Luc Nancy emphasizes this performative dimension of the monarch (to use today’s parlance) which comes close to what Lacan called the pure signifier (the Master-Signifier, a signifier which falls into the signified and is as such a signifier without signified). And this is how one should read the tautology “Socialism is socialism.” Recall the old Polish anti-Communist joke: “Socialism is the synthesis of the highest achievements of all previous historical epochs: from tribal society, it took barbarism, from antiquity, it took slavery, from feudalism, it took relations of domination, from capitalism, it took exploitation, and from socialism, it took the name.” Does the same not hold for the anti-Semitic image of the Jew? From the rich bankers, it took financial speculation, from capitalists, it took exploitation, from lawyers, it took legal trickery, from corrupt journalists, it took media manipulation, from the poor, it took indifference towards washing one’s body, from sexual libertines it took promiscuity, and from the Jews it took the name… And this is also why a king is a king: he just adds his/her name. But, again, why is a monarch needed? Why can representative democracy (or, even better, some form of direct self-organization of the people) not do the job?

To see this, one should take note of the gap that separates two syllogistic triads: that of the entire society (individual family life, market and production in civil society, state) and that of the state as an institution (legislative power, executive power, decider-monarch: UPI). When Vieweg elevates into the central mediating role the political form of universality (“legislative assembly as an expression of a representative-democratic structure”), he ignores another disjunction: however formed (even in the most open democratic elections with the universal right to vote), legislative power is always by definition at a gap from “actual people.”

In the last decades, a whole series of events made this gap palpable. Remember the protests of yellow vests (gilets jaunes) in France that went on for over twenty weekends from late 2018 to early 2019. They began as a grassroots movement that grew out of widespread discontent with a new eco-tax on petrol and diesel, seen as hitting those living and working outside metropolitan areas where there is no public transport. The movement has grown to include a panoply of demands, including frexit (the exit of France from EU), lower taxes, higher pensions, and an improvement in ordinary French people’s spending power. They offer an exemplary case of Leftist populism, of the explosion of people’s wrath in all its inconsistency: lower taxes and more money for education and health care, cheaper petrol and ecological struggle… Although the new petrol tax was obviously an excuse or, rather, the pretext, and not what the protests are “really about,” it is significant that what triggered the protests was a measure intended to act against global warming. No wonder Trump enthusiastically supported yellow vests (even hallucinating shouts of some of the protesters “We want Trump!”), noting that one among the demands was for France to step out of the Paris agreement. The thing to note here is that when representative of yellow vests met with government representatives, the talks were a total failure – they simply didn’t speak the same language.

Or recall the UK elections of 2005: in spite of the growing unpopularity of Tony Blair (he was regularly voted the most unpopular person in the UK), he won the general elections. There was no way for this discontent with Blair to find a politically effective expression. Something is obviously very wrong here – it is not that people “do not know what they want,” but, rather, that cynical resignation prevents them from acting upon it, so that the result is the weird gap between what people think and how they act (vote). Such a frustration can foment dangerous extra-parliamentary explosions, especially in the form of rage in today’s populism.

Podemos undoubtedly stands for the populist protests against the state mechanisms at its best: against the arrogant Politically Correct intellectual elites which despise the “narrowness” of the ordinary people who are considered “stupid” for “voting against their interests,” its organizing principle is to listen to and organize those “from below” against those “from above,” beyond all traditional Left and Right models. The idea is that the starting point of emancipatory politics should be the concrete experience of the suffering and injustices of ordinary people in their local life-world (home, workplace, etc.), not abstract visions of a future Communist or whatever other society. (Although the new digital media seem to open up the space for new communities, the difference between these new communities and the old life-world communities is crucial: these old communities are not chosen, I am born into them, they form the very space of my socialization, while the new (digital) communities include me in a specific domain defined by my interests and thus depending on my choice.)

Far from making the old “spontaneous” communities deficient, the fact that they do not rely on my free choice makes them superior with regard to the new digital communities since they compel me to find my way into a pre-existing not-chosen life-world in which I encounter (and have to learn to deal with) real differences, while the new digital communities depending on my choice sustain the ideological myth of the individual who somehow pre-exists a communal life and is free to choose it. While this approach undoubtedly contains a (very big) grain of truth, its problem is that, to put it bluntly, not only, as Laclau liked to emphasize, society doesn’t exist, but “people” also doesn’t exist… However, problems arose when Podemos decided to change into a political party and entered a government: its politics there were indistinguishable from a moderate social-democratic party.

Can this gap be filled by deliberative democracy, reliant on popular assemblies composed of civil experts and individuals chosen by lot to debate a certain topic? Deliberative democracy can help, but it must be sustained by a clear structure of decision – the key point is that the deliberative assemblies don’t decide. This is why, today even, something like monarchy is needed. As the top-decider, the monarch is not qualified by any characteristics; he stands for the people as such, in its universality, which are excluded not only from state institutions but also encompass all inner divisions and factional struggles. This disjunctive unity is best rendered by the fact that the media report on the personal habits and preferences of the monarch and the monarchic family (music, books, gardening, sports…), a thing that is totally uninteresting in an ordinary person. (Who cares what food my neighbor likes?) The king is a common man elevated into the top-decider; more radically, we can even say that he is a member of the rabble, of those with no determinate place in social hierarchy. But one thing is sure: the way to reinvent something-like-a-king today should definitely include a moment of lottery, it should be left to chance.

That’s why Hegel fanatically opposes all reasoning about the justification of a king’s authority: this authority is not a topic of debate, it is unconditional and, as such, empty. The best argument against the monarch’s actual power is the tautology: “The king is a king.”


[1] For a very balanced critique of Vieweg, see Sebastian Stein, “Hegel’s Monarch, the Concept and the Limits of Syllogistic Reasoning” (hegels-monarch-the-concept-and-the-limits-of-syllogistic-reasoning.pdf).

[2] Klaus Vieweg, Das Denken der Freiheit, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2012, p. 429.