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Published on May 28th, 2010 | by Jonathan Gifford


Carly Fiorina’s favourite business author was apparently Hegel. So—mysticism, historical determinism and the rise of the state?


There are definitely a few porky-pies in Carly Fiorina’s book, Tough Choices. Fiorina was, of course, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard who led the arguably pointless merger with Compaq and was later fired by her board of directors. As the chosen title for her self-serving book shows, Fiorina feels that she faced a lot of ‘tough choices’.

Have you ever wondered why so many leaders are keen to make a big fuss about the ‘tough choices’ that they face?  Poor babies.

In this context, I especially like the conversation that Greg Dyke reports between John Birt, Dyke’s predecessor as Director-General of the BBC, and Birt’s own mum. Birt’s book is called ‘The Harder Path’ – because, of course, that’s the kind of guy Birt is, always choosing the tougher option. But, as Birt’s mum so wisely said, ‘Why would anyone take the harder path, dear, if there was an easier one available?’[1] Which is a very good question.

Carly Fiorina: ‘Hegel is my favourite business author.’

Anyway, Carly, while writing about her oh-so-tough choices – a high proportion of which she called the wrong way – definitely tells a few porky-pies (British cockney rhyming slang for untruths.) Maybe we should call some of them ‘enhancements’ instead. But this one is definitely a porky-pie.

At Stanford University, Fiorina studied philosophy and medieval history. In later life, a reporter apparently asked her who her favourite business author was, to which Carly replied, “Hegel. You know: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. At Lucent we were trying to turn a one-hundred-year-old company into a start-up. At HP, we were trying to both celebrate our history and create the future.”[2]

So far, so deep.

But I can assure you that this ‘Hegel is my favourite business author’ stuff is complete nonsense. Nobody enjoys Hegel (and certainly not as a business author.) One of the many reasons why I can say this with authority is that, in reality, almost nobody actually reads Hegel. Hegel is unreadable.

There are a few poor souls whose life options have become so restricted that the only way in which they can earn a crust of bread, and so keep body and soul together, is by actually reading Hegel and thereby becoming professional Hegelians. If you absolutely have to know something about Hegel, you read the almost intelligible meanderings of these poor Hegelians. But you do not read Hegel himself. Trust me on this.

The notion of the Idea – a notion whose object is the Idea as such.’

 Let me give you an example of Hegel’s deathless prose.

The Absolute Idea: The idea, as unity of the Subjective and Objective Idea, is the notion of the Idea – a notion whose object is the Idea as such, and for which the objective is Idea – an Object which embraces all characteristics in its unity.’

The English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, actually manages to explain what on earth Hegel thought he was up to with this gobbledy-gook. What Hegel meant to say was apparently something like: ‘The Absolute Idea is thought thinking about itself.’ (Since, obviously, the Absolute can’t think about anything else, because there isn’t anything else.)[3] So there you have it.

Things got a bit less straightforward in Hegel with the whole ‘Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis’ thing that Fiorina (and Karl Marx) liked so much. Here we go.

Only the Absolute is really true—because the Absolute is ‘Everything’, and any fragment of Everything can only be a part of the truth.

Which sounds quite sensible, if you say it quickly enough.

So for every statement (Thesis) that is made, there is some apparently inconsistent statement that can also be said of the same thing (Antithesis). And we are driven on to a new understanding that resolves the apparent contradiction (Synthesis) as we struggle towards an improved understanding of Everything. And, as we progress through this ‘dialectic’ (thesis, antithesis and all that nonsense) so every previous part of the dialectic must be absorbed as we ‘progress’ towards an understanding of the Whole.

I know, I know.

Hegel apparently really did believe that we could come to a full understanding of ‘Everything’ by a process of pure logical thought, based only on the golden rule that everything must not be self-contradictory.

Confusing the real and the rational: it’s easily done

Well, good luck with that, mate. Come back down from the mountain when you have the answer. At least you won’t be needing any scientific equipment up there.

(Which reminds me of a very good joke: the mathematics department of a university is very cheap to fund; all that the mathematicians need is paper, a pencil and a wastepaper basket. But the philosophy department is even cheaper; they don’t need the wastepaper basket.)

Hegel’s worst problem, in a philosophical sense, was that he managed to get himself confused about the Real and the Rational (which is a bit of an occupational hazard for philosophers).

We can understand the world through the use of reason. So far, so sane. But Hegel concludes that the world – and  history, for example – must therefore themselves be rational.

If the real is rational, thought Hegel, then the Rational is real. ‘Reason is the sovereign of the world; the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process.’

Um, no, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, that really doesn’t work.

An idea that led to great human suffering

You will notice (I hope) that I am being very flippant about all of this Hegelian nonsense but, in fact, the notion that there was some inescapable ‘logic’ to the progress of human history led directly to a great deal of human suffering.

In the historical development of the human Spirit, says Hegel, there have been three key developments: the Orientals, who knew that only One is free, the Greeks and Romans, who knew that some are free, and the Germans, who understood that everyone was free.[4]

German society, you will not be surprised to learn, had finally arrived. It was the purpose of history.

You may agree with me that that sounds more than a little flip and extremely questionable.

And why the Germans? Um – because Hegel was German and they were all jolly clever. Much cleverer than those nasty French who were currently overrunning Europe under the leadership of one N. Bonaparte.

But, Germany having reached the heady heights of rationality, embodied by Prussian state (Hegel, as you may have guessed, was a Prussian national) here comes another dodgy bit of Hegelian logic.

There can be no freedom without law (savages submit unwillingly to the law, but come to realise that the law is essential to personal freedoms with society). Therefore, wherever there is law, there is freedom – at which point Hegel has gone off on one of his logical fallacies again: freedom requires laws; therefore laws create freedom! In fact, the more laws the better!

So-called ‘freedom of speech’, for example, is a crude and superficial motion, says Hegel. No member of the state has the right to criticise the government or the police. This is why Hegel concluded that the ‘most free’ society should be not a democracy, but a monarchy.

I see . . .

Hegel’s jaw-dropping conclusion is this: ‘The universal is to be found in the state, in its laws, its universal and rational arrangements. The State is the Divine idea as it exists on earth.’

The State as embodiment of the Absolute.  Gosh!

Hegel, to summarise rather boldly, was a mystic and a nutcase, who believed that the purpose of History had been to create the nineteenth-century Prussian state and that the State was a kind of embodiment of the Absolute.

All of which would be moderately harmless early-nineteenth century nonsense if it hadn’t been picked up by another apparently harmless, middle-class intellectual called Karl Marx, who turned all of that ‘dialectic’ nonsense into a struggle between the social classes, as he analysed history in terms of the development of ‘productive forces’ – the way in which mankind earns its daily bread.

At least Marx’s analysis of history is relatively sane: each generation inherits and develops certain means of production and exchange. That’s true. Human beings progress, where possible; we learn from experience.

Marx further thought that the ‘superstructure’ of society – it’s intellectual and social activities (the law, politics, intellectual activity) – are dictated by the current mode of production.

It is not obvious why or even if this is true. The ancient world actually did rather well in cultural and intellectual terms, on the basis of pretty primitive modes of production, but presumably Marx would argue that there was something especially wonderful about primitive (‘non-capitalist’) means of production that led to great cultural and intellectual achievements.

But anyway, all of that dreadful Hegelian nonsense had infected his thinking: despite his acknowledgement of Hegel’s wrong-headed mysticism, Marx took on Hegel’s nonsensical belief in the ‘progress’ of history. For Marx, this was represented by a constant struggle between the social classes, as society moved from a kind of primitive communism, through feudal serfdom and on to capitalism.

Until the means of production were taken out of the hands of private individuals, mankind could not ‘develop’ any further; its cultural development would forever be stunted by the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism.

Lesser minds than Marx took up this notion of the ‘inevitable’ progress of history towards a social revolution that would give to the state the ownership of the means of production – ridding the world of the class struggles that had defined its intellectual development; removing the fundamental contradiction that bedevilled capitalism and created inequality in the world.

An ‘inevitable historical progression’ leading to great human misery

The state ownership of the means of production is an interesting idea – hundreds of millions of people have bought into it – but it is just an idea. It is an alternative system to the various degrees of free-market capitalism, and it really, really doesn’t work.

There is nothing ‘inevitable’ here; no ‘progression’; no onward march of history.

The millions of people who embraced the form of communism that emerged from Hegel’s and Marx’s philosophising, believing that they were taking part in an inescapable and essential historical progression towards a better world, were cruelly cheated. Millions died as a result of the appalling inefficiencies and disastrous centralised decision-making that that resulted from giving the State control of . . . everything.

There is a good, and apparently true, story of a visiting Russian apparatchik who asked who was in control of the supply of bread to New York City. There was always bread available, therefore somebody must be in charge. The idea that the market could be left to its own devices in order to achieve this miraculous result was, for them, literally unthinkable.

In fact, the system of centralised state control, in Soviet Russia as in Maoist China, led to mass famines and shortages; to poverty and empty shop shelves and stunted lives.

The apparently haphazard (but marvellously efficient) processes of the free market had been wilfully destroyed. And for the core philosophical basis of the violent revolutions that brought this about, you have to blame Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin and the rest of them. Men so wrapped up in their genuinely impressive intellects that they failed to imagine the likely consequences of their daring philosophical stances.

So be careful who you praise in order to sound more intellectual than you are, Ms Fiorina. If you choose Hegel as your favourite business author, then you must consider his actual political legacy.

[1] Greg Dyke, Inside Story, HarperCollinsPublishers, London , 2004, p 143 [2] Carly Fiorina, Tough Choices, Nicholas Brealy, London, 2006, p 11 [3] Bertrand Russel, A History of Western Philosophy, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1961, p 705 [4] Op cit., p 707

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I write and blog about the human aspects of business and leadership, with an interest in the lessons that we can learn from history, including recent history. Please do leave a comment if anything occurs. You can sign up for my occasional newsletter, highlighting some recent blogs. I live in Oxfordshire, England.

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