Rezensionsessay / Review Essay: What Was and Is Work (for Some People in the Western World)?

: A Philosopher Looks at Work Cambridge 2021 : Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-1-108-93061-1 XV, 178 S. £ 9.99

: Über die Arbeit. Ein Essay. Aus dem Englischen von Martin Bauer. Hamburg 2023 : Hamburger Edition, ISBN 978-3-86854-372-8 198 S. € 15,00

: Der arbeitende Souverän. Eine normative Theorie der Arbeit. Berlin 2023 : Suhrkamp Verlag, ISBN 978-3-518-58797-3 397 S. € 30,00

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Jörg Neuheiser, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh

Today, any reflection on the nature of work, its past, and its future must tackle confusing paradoxes. Emerging from a global pandemic, the world has been grappling with new opportunities created by artificial intelligence that seem to elevate old fears of automation and its dehumanizing consequences to new extremes. Besides lights-out manufacturing, we might soon be dealing with lights-out offices, and computers are threatening to take over even administrative tasks and management. Apps like ChatGPT provide creative texts, images, and at least a semblance of knowledge. Is humanity finally facing a future without employment? Yet many aging Western societies report record lows in unemployment levels, while labor unions are experiencing a surprising renaissance. Large sections of the workforce, and young employees in particular, appear to be serious about finally addressing work–life balance. The “Great Resignation” of recent years was perhaps a predominantly American experience1, but strikes and labor conflicts have been peaking in Europe as well. Out of all places on the planet, China is struggling with serious youth unemployment, while both the United States and the member states of the European Union are increasingly dominated by angry voters who reject open borders, immigration, and the recruiting of cheap migrant labor. Companies in many countries are complaining about a lack of qualified or even unqualified workers to fill open positions. With ubiquitous “Help Wanted” signs still out in the streets, is there anyone left (and willing) to do the work?

It is in this context that two highly respected political and social philosophers offer new book-length reflections on work and its role in modern societies. Both works were mostly written during the pandemic and thus predate the most recent trends. Raymond Geuss’s A Philosopher Looks at Work was originally published in 2021. A German translation – Über die Arbeit – came out last year almost simultaneously with Axel Honneth’s monograph Der arbeitende Souverän, which is based on the Walter Benjamin Lectures Honneth delivered in Berlin during the summer of 2021.2

These books share several interesting features. First, each author has held influential positions on both sides of the Atlantic and is associated with left-wing political theory.3 Axel Honneth, born in Essen and a prominent student of Jürgen Habermas, is closely associated with the Frankfurt School. He was director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research from 2001 till 2018 and currently teaches at Columbia University in New York. Raymond Geuss, a professor emeritus at Cambridge University, grew up near Philadelphia and received his doctorate from Columbia University; he became one of the most influential philosophical critics of modern liberal ideologies.4 Second, both thinkers draw extensively on their respective analyses of historical developments to provide striking critiques of ways in which contemporary Western societies (mis)understand the meaning of work. For instance, Geuss and Honneth both suggest that our common usage of the terms “work” and the more physical “labor” is no longer in tune with an economic environment that has changed substantially since the 1970s. In their perspective, Western societies generally still rely on an idealized understanding of work that grew out of conditions that characterized the post-World War II industrial era (Honneth, p. 208, calls this period Industrialismus, a term coined by Martin Baethge) but were exceptional in the long-term emergence of Western capitalism and atypical of most laboring people’s historical experience of work. Finally, Honneth and Geuss agree that most contemporary philosophers and political intellectuals have long neglected the need for a critical reflection on work, a critique that mirrors similar calls for a new analysis of work and its history in other disciplines, not least from historians and sociologists. Therefore, the two books contribute to a growing body of studies on all aspects of work that itself may be an indicator of fundamental changes in the way human beings produce, consume, and labor.5

What, then, is work? For Geuss, this is not only an analytical question but also a deeply biographical one. He starts his essay with a look back at the lost world of his father, who used to work in a steel mill that essentially defined the community around it during the 1950s and 1960s. He tells the story of how global competition in the mid-1970s – in this case, especially from Venezuela – started a process of deindustrialization that led to the factory’s closure in 1988. More than 13,000 jobs were lost and an entire way of life disappeared.

In his first chapter, Geuss tries to figure out what the term “work” meant for people like his father. Through a phenomenological analysis of key phrases with which his father described his daily activity in the mill, Geuss identifies six central aspects that characterize a common understanding of work: It is an activity that is (a) strenuous, (b) a necessity of life, (c) related to an external product, (d) contained in space and time with a clearly defined workplace and shift length, (e) serious (i.e., different from periods of fun and pleasure), and (f) monetarized (you get paid for work). Geuss goes on to highlight three elements derived from this list – exertion (Anstrengung), necessity (Notwendigkeit), and objectivity (Objektivität) – in greater detail and develops a more abstract definition of work. While he begins by looking at industrial labor, he widens his analysis to include mental and creative work as well as care activities, and thus deals with the always complicated question of how to discuss money-earning physical and mental employment as well as unpaid, socially necessary labor as part of the same concept – one of the key challenges of any systematic attempt to write the history of work. What stands out for Geuss is that all forms of work are social. Individual work is in some way or other linked to the subsistence of a society rather than an end in itself. Like many other philosophers, Geuss considers “work for the sake of work” – an autotelic definition of labor often seen as a central element of the modern capitalist work ethic – as a perversion of the true values of human life.

These conclusions about the meaning of work at the end of the first chapter allow Geuss to embark on an intellectual and often historical journey during which he analyses very diverse aspects of human work. Chapter 2 covers how work is organized, and Chapter 3 deals with its anthropology and economics. In the concluding (fourth) chapter, “Radical Discontent and the Future of Work,” the author critiques recent developments in the realm of work. It is fascinating to follow Geuss’s way of thinking. He constantly mixes often-surprising observations on contemporary forms of labor and employment with reflections on their genealogy and includes a detailed discussion of philosophical writing on work (his list of inevitable classics includes Adam Smith and John Locke, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, as well as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber; note the lack of any female names!). This allows him to write about a wide range of topics – for instance, the social hierarchy of employment in today’s global economy (jobs, careers/professions, and vocations), the persistence of elements of slavery and forced labor, and the work conducted in historical hunter–gatherer, pastoralist, and agricultural societies.

The central third chapter demonstrates how Geuss develops his arguments. Inferring that the genealogy of modern work led to a highly local form of coercion (i.e., specific local circumstances require almost everyone to do work they would often rather not do), Geuss wonders what factors make humans work and reflects on two fundamentally different ways of posing the question. If we assume that man is inherently lazy, physical force can be used to overcome the natural rejection of strenuous activities, although it is a limited option; appeals to reason alone rarely suffice. Modern capitalist societies rely on complex systems of monetary and moral incentives that interact with elements of solidarity and competition to indirectly motivate workers. However, human beings can also be seen as naturally active, which leads Geuss to reflect on the forms of activity that enhance the natural drive to work. Most workers, he analyzes, appreciate a rhythmical sequence of meaningful action followed by periods of rest; they like routines and incremental processes, whereas monotonous repetition undermines intrinsic motivation. Yet even monotonous workflows and repetitive jobs can be accepted if they are sufficiently well remunerated, temporary, or integrated into larger, less routine projects. This leads him to consider the relationship between the individual and the collective; for instance, he offers a clever, short analysis of how John Locke used the “Appropriative I” (p. 110) to claim the fruits of labor done by his servant as personal achievements and individual property. Quite typically for the whole book, passages such as that on Locke are much more mind-blowing than the author’s conclusions – which, in this chapter, are that work in both its individual (“I work”) and collective (“We work”) form is always integrated into complex social games of power and coercion. Surely, no historian will challenge this philosophical discovery.

If Geuss’s tendency to circle his topic from all sides without developing a clear argument can be irritating throughout the book, it is in the final pages that it seems particularly problematic. His discussion of potential futures of work eventually turns apocalyptic. Reflecting on well-established trends such as the automation of industrial production and the increasing precariousness of traditional forms of employment, Geuss paints a picture of a modern capitalist world in which neoliberal ideology disguises that multinational digital companies maximize profits without paying taxes, while meaningless “Bullshit Jobs” (David Graeber) proliferate in an economy in which unemployment inevitably “will be the permanent state of most people” (p. 164). How much of this dark picture is the pandemic speaking, one wonders? Geuss sees humanity as threatened by an environmental catastrophe and argues that we need to find ways to produce and consume less as well as to be meaningfully active in a world dominated by robots. However, most likely, he feels, it is already too late for mankind’s survival, and only a surprising technological fix might still save us. “Good luck and hope for the best,” Geuss seems to say – from his perspective, the concept of work essentially belongs to the lost industrial world of his father. Faced with the eternal question of what should be done, he shrugs his shoulders and leaves his readers on their own.

The contrast to Axel Honneth’s book could not be more striking. Where Geuss stays at least six feet from every other thinker and is unable to develop any practical political recommendations, the normative theory of work developed in Der arbeitende Souverän most definitely provides answers. Strictly speaking, Honneth’s concern is not work itself but democracy. His central argument is that work is of such essential importance for democratic societies that democracy simply cannot exist if the conditions under which the vast majority of citizens work do not allow them to participate in it. Consequently, his goal is to provide a clear analysis of how work needs to be organized to facilitate and enable democracy, and he develops a relatively detailed program of how working conditions today must change to meet democratic requirements.

Der arbeitende Souverän, perhaps best translated as “The Working Sovereign” (which will be the title of the English version), is divided into three parts connected by two bridging chapters – Honneth calls them excursions – in which the author clarifies his understanding of the terms gesellschaftliche Arbeit (societal work) and gesellschaftliche Arbeitsteilung (societal division of labor). Part 1 of the book engages with modern philosophers who in one way or another discussed the nexus between democracy and work. There is a substantial overlap with the canon of thinkers that Geuss considers, but Honneth’s search for “a lost tradition” (“Eine verschüttete Tradition,” as chapter 2 is titled) of critical philosophical voices that share his concern for democracy-enabling working conditions leads him beyond Hegel and Marx to G.D.H. Cole, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey. Rejecting the ideas that the fundamental problem of work in modern capitalism is alienation or simply the lack of autonomy suffered by workers who do not have full control of their employment, Honneth develops a set of five minimal standards that are necessary for workers to fulfill their roles as citizens and sovereigns: Work must provide (1) economic independence, based on sufficiently high wages and job security, (2) work-free time for democratic engagement, (3) the ability to labor with dignity, (4) the chance to practice democracy even in the workplace, and (5) meaningful activities and non-monotonous conditions that don’t deprive workers of their intellectual and physical abilities to play a social and political role.

Armed with this normative idea about how work should be organized in democratic societies, Honneth devotes the second part of his book to a historical analysis of “the social reality of work” from the late 18th century onwards. To some extent, he provides a rather conventional narrative of how workers in general and the labor movement in particular managed to establish a model of “normal” employment based on the industrial production that dominated Western capitalist societies for a few decades beginning in the mid-20th century and then began to erode in the 1970s. In terms of work and democracy, it is a story with familiar ups and downs. However, Honneth’s version is different in some important respects. He is clearly on top of recent historical and sociological research and methodically develops his history of work from the margins of industrial production. Time and again he tells his readers that factory work was a minority phenomenon for most, if not all, of the last 250 years. Honneth focuses instead on agricultural production, (domestic) services, and other forms of employment beyond the male-dominated world of industrial labor. While he probably goes too far in downplaying the significance of industrial production, this strategy has two major advantages. It allows him to critique an intellectual tradition going back to Locke, Hegel and Marx that sees human work as essentially defined by the creation of a physical product, and it puts the gendered nature of work as well as precarious and unrepresented labor, not least that performed by migrants and women, front and center in his story. Although Honneth stresses repeatedly that he is not a historian, what emerges from the three chapters in this part of the book is the impressive outline of an integrated history of work “from below” that has yet to be written.

However, Honneth wants to do much more than just write about the history of work. He ends his historical analysis with a description of work in contemporary capitalist societies that in many ways resembles Geuss’s critique of neoliberal trends since the 1970s. For Honneth, too, digitalization, globalization and financialization are the key features of a modern capitalism that is no longer dominated by industrial production – the majority of sovereign working citizens face increasing isolation and atomization that make democratic participation more difficult. In this perspective, labor today is less physical than in the past – and perhaps more equal as racial discrimination and gender biases may have declined – but decidedly more precarious. Think of home offices, temporary freelance employment, and the growing number of so-called independent contractors forced to pose as entrepreneurs. Workers, Honneth argues, frequently find themselves deprived of benefits and social security that previous generations took for granted. Unlike Geuss, though, he knows what should be done and tells his readers in part 3 of his book in much detail which political choices will provide hope, and which will not.

Perhaps a bit surprising for a left-wing progressive, a universal basic income is a no-go for Honneth, mostly because he fears it might reduce the need to connect and interact with other sovereign workers. For much the same reason, he believes that temporary national service for all young people might be a good idea. He sees the workplace as a school of democracy and feels that young citizens should be educated by doing social work beyond their comfort zones. Other proposals are closer to what one would expect. Honneth likes cooperatives and employee-owned businesses but would prefer to see more formal co-determination and greater direct employee control of daily work processes. He is clearly thinking of group work experiments and similar social democratic programs for the “humanization of the workplace” that were fashionable in the 1970s.6 Add higher wages, shorter working hours, and a well-oiled social security system, and you have Honneth’s recipe for a “working democracy.” It seems all too easy: good work results in good democracy. In the end, the final 100 pages or so of Honneth’s book, despite their practical suggestions, are as disappointing as Geuss’s helpless despair. Where Geuss sees apocalyptic gloom, Honneth wants to turn back time and calls for a labor movement that reclaims lost achievements (p. 353: Rückeroberung alter Errungenschaften) – after his historical analysis has shown that these achievements never existed in the first place.7

The problem here is not necessarily that Geuss or Honneth is wrong. What makes these two books fascinating but also frustrating reads is that they provide a wealth of highly stimulating observations on work in contemporary Western societies but fail to adequately address the global economic environment in which these societies operate. If globalization is one of the key features of modern capitalism, as both books argue, is it sufficient to discuss work from the viewpoint of a purely Western intellectual tradition? One wonders what non-Western thinkers have to say about work and how their perspectives might shape the attitudes of players in a global economy who have a direct influence on working conditions everywhere. Moreover, if Geuss laments the lost work of his steelmaking father, he mentions but otherwise ignores the fact that the decline of steel production in the American rust belt created jobs in Venezuela and many other places in the global south. How, then, do workers in Guyana City, Venezuela, talk about their labor? What may their Chinese competitors have to say? Physical labor, sweatshops, and manufacturing still define the working conditions of countless people across the globe, and their labor, in turn, has direct implications for people looking for employment in so-called post-industrial societies. Honneth’s solutions for his working sovereigns seem out of step with these global realities. Nor do they even begin to address how demographic change, migration, and ecological challenges might affect working conditions – whether in Western societies or other parts of the world.

For historians reading these books, there are a few important things to consider. First, Geuss and Honneth highlight the need for and the importance of an intellectual engagement with work in its historical and philosophical dimensions. Work and labor are central elements of the human condition, and we cannot write the history of democracy, citizenship, and equality without including them.8 Second, despite the “global turn” in the humanities and social sciences, it still seems to be difficult to fundamentally globalize our perspectives on social developments and engage in studies that reflect the intersected realities of people in different parts of the world. Honneth and Geuss often talk about how “we” work or think about work, but that undefined “we” is still exclusively Western. Historians might rightly point out that something like a “national” conceptual history (Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte) exists, or that the evolution of German co-determination and the British miners’ strike merit specific studies based on local archives. Ultimately, however, our vision must be broader. We have learned how global networks were essential for almost every aspect of modern economic developments in the West9, but we still need to figure out how to analyze the meaning and history of work in its full global complexity.10

Much work remains to be done. It will require more interdisciplinary and, dare I say it, more intergenerational dialogue between historians, philosophers, social scientists, and anybody else willing to engage in the intellectual labor of coming to terms with the meaning of work. Despite all criticism, historians have much to learn from these books, which call for us to define our concepts from a philosophical-historical perspective and reflect on the political implications of the very language we use. We cannot even begin to answer the question of what work is without considering its past, present, and potential future. In this sense, the writing of history is philosophy, and the philosopher is a poor scholar without the historian next door.

1 The term is associated with psychologist and management scholar Anthony Klotz. See Juliana Kaplan, The psychologist who coined the phrase ‘Great Resignation’ reveals how he saw it coming and where he sees it going. ‘Who we are as an employee and as a worker is very central to who we are’, in: Business Insider, 02.10.2021, (21.05.2024).
2 For videos of the lectures and additional materials, see (21.05.2024). Polity Books will publish an English translation of the book later this year: Axel Honneth, The Working Sovereign. Labour and Democratic Citizenship, translated by Daniel Steuer (Cambridge, forthcoming 2024).
3 Honneth’s review of Geussʼs book reveals his respect for his colleague: Axel Honneth, Arbeit unter genealogischer Perspektive. Literaturessay zu „Über die Arbeit“ von Raymond Geuss, in: Soziopolis, 22.05.2023, (21.05.2024).
4 See Raymond Guess, Not Thinking Like a Liberal, Cambridge 2022, translated into German by Karin Wördemann. Nicht wie ein Liberaler denken, Berlin 2023.
5 This shift towards a new history of work was first noted about ten years ago. See, for example, Jörg Neuheiser, Arbeit zwischen Entgrenzung und Konsum. Die Geschichte der Arbeit im 20. Jahrhundert als Gegenstand aktueller zeithistorischer und sozialwissenschaftlicher Studien, in: Neue Politische Literatur 58 (2013), pp. 421–448; Kim Christian Priemel, Heaps of work: The ways of labour history, in: H-Soz-Kult, 23.01.2014, (21.05.2024). Important publications of the last decade include Andrea Komlosy, Arbeit. Eine globalhistorische Perspektive, 13.–21. Jahrhundert, Vienna 2014, 5th corrected ed. 2019; Jörn Leonhard / Willibald Steinmetz (eds.), Semantiken von Arbeit. Diachrone und vergleichende Perspektiven, Cologne 2016; Ursula Huws, Labour in Contemporary Capitalism. What Next?, London 2019; Lutz Raphael, Jenseits von Kohle und Stahl. Eine Gesellschaftsgeschichte Westeuropas nach dem Boom, Berlin 2019, translated into English by Kate Tranter: Beyond Coal and Steel. A Social History of Western Europe after the Boom, Cambridge 2023; Robert Skidelsky / Nan Craig (eds.), Work in the Future. The Automation Revolution, Cham 2020; Sophie Bernard, Le Nouvel Esprit du Salariat. Rémunérations, Autonomie, Inégalités, Paris 2020; Jan Lucassen, The Story of the Work. A New History of Humankind, New Haven 2021.
6 See Nina Kleinöder / Stefan Müller / Karsten Uhl (eds.), „Humanisierung der Arbeit“. Aufbrüche und Konflikte in der rationalisierten Arbeitswelt des 20. Jahrhunderts, Bielefeld 2019.
7 For a similar critique, see Berthold Vogel, Im Maschinenraum sozialer Normen, Rezension zu „Der arbeitende Souverän. Eine normative Theorie der Arbeit“ von Axel Honneth, in: Soziopolis, 29.03.2023, (21.05.2024).
8 With a focus on Germany, the recent Historikertag in Leipzig featured a panel that addressed the lack of consideration of work in recent studies of democracy. See the conference report by Irmela Diedrichs, HT 2023: Demokratie macht Arbeit – macht Arbeit Demokratie, in: H-Soz-Kult, 07.10.2023, (21.05.2024).
9 With regard to the importance of global networks for the development of work in the West, three publications stand out: Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World. Essays toward a Global Labor History, Leiden 2008; chapter 13 („Arbeit“) of Jürgen Osterhammelʼs Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts, Munich 2009, 6th ed. 2020, translated into English by Patrick Camiller: The Transformation of the World. A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, Princeton 2014; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton. A Global History, New York 2014, translated into German by Annabel Zettel / Martin Richter: King Cotton. Eine Globalgeschichte des Kapitalismus, Munich 2014.
10 For quite successful attempts, however, see the volumes (currently 21) in the series Work in Global and Historical Perspective, edited by Andreas Eckert, Sidney Chalhoub, Mahua Sarkar, Dmitri van den Bersselaar, and Christian G. De Vito, Berlin 2016–2024, (21.05.2024).

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