Honneth’s Resolution: Philosophical Grounding for the Emancipation of Labour

Photograph Source: May4th – CC BY 2.0

Alex Honneth’s essay, “Labor and interaction: a redefinition,” in his book, The I in We: Studies in the Theory of Recognition (2012), revisits an earlier attempt to find moral norms immanent in the capitalist mode of production. His first one failed; his second carries promise to provide the moral grounding that could animate labour and social movements as well as precipitating dialogue in various public spheres. By the twenty-first century, Honneth (2012) proclaims, “Never in the last two hundred years have there been so few efforts to defend an emancipatory and humane notion of labor as today” (p. 56). A great, black blanket seems to have fallen over the domain of work for those of critical sensibility as well as public policy-makers.

Honneth captures the essence of the matter. “Developments in the organization of labor in industry and the service sector appear to have pulled the rug out from under any attempts to improve the quality of labor. A growing portion of the population is struggling just to gain access to job opportunities that can secure a livelihood; others work under radically deregulated conditions that hardly enjoy any legal protection anymore; still others are forced to watch their previously secure careers become de-professionalized and outsourced” (ibid.).

We are now live in the age of precarious labour. Indeed, Habermas (“A reply to my critics. In J. Thompson and D. Held (Eds.) Habermas: Critical Debates [1992]), Robert Castel (From Manual Workers to Wage Labourers: Transformation of the Social Question [2003]), and Deranty (“Work and the precarisation of existence. European Journal of Social Theory, 11 (4), 2008) speak of the exhaustion of the welfare state utopia (wherein wage-labour provided secure livelihoods and a place in the society). Honneth says that we have returned to “unprotected temporary, part-time and home work.” This development is “strangely mirrored in a shift that has occurred in the intellectual focus and interests of social science” (ibid.).

Intellectuals who had once placed their “hopes in the humanization or emancipation of labor have turned their backs on the world of work to focus on other topics far from the realm of production” (ibid.). Honneth thinks that the critical theory of society now occupies itself “with issues of political integration and citizens’ rights, without dwelling even for a moment on the threats to past achievements in the sphere of production. Even sociologists, the scientific stepchild of capitalist industrialization, have largely abandoned its erstwhile bailiwick and is focusing increasingly on processes of cultural transformation” (ibid.). These are provocative words indeed!

Social science and critical theory may have lost interest in the world of work, but “labor has not lost its relevance in the social lifeworld. The majority of the population continue to attach their own social identity primarily to their role in the organized labour process…” (p. 57). People still long for decent, good work (and, yes, jobs), Honneth observes, and still find satisfaction in various forms of work effort: “it is just that this longing no longer dictates public discourse in the arena of political debate” (ibid.). In this sense, work as capacity-unfolding is still central to human beings.

Habermas’ classic text, Knowledge and Human Interests (1971) indelibly affirmed this truth. Honneth (2012) argues that critical social theory turned away from the domain of labour because it was “wishful thinking” to imagine any kind of “thoroughgoing improvement of the organization of labor” (p. 57). Indeed, dashed utopian expectations flowed from the deep rift between desired expectations and the “real conditions of labor” (ibid.). Now that it was seemingly unimaginable that labour could be freed from “heteronomy and alienation”, the “organization of labour” was “now left to the globalizing forces of the capitalist labour market” (p. 58).

Honneth thinks that Habermas’ argument in the Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987) that the economic system was self-regulated and norm-free prepared the “way for the sobering situation with which we are now confronted: the hardships of all those who not only fear losing their jobs, but also are also concerned about the quality of their jobs, no longer resonate in the vocabulary of a critical theory of society” (ibid.). Still, Habermas developed the conceptual vocabulary to enable us to understand how the system realm of de-regulated and brutal forms of work filtrated into the lifeworlds of men and women causing multiple pathologies which damage individuals and reverberate deleteriously through society. Indeed, studies by psychologists indicate disturbing levels of anxiety and stress experienced by workers today. But the notion of norm-free, self-regulation of the economic system left us, Honneth supposes, without the moral grounding to make a case for the emancipation of social labour from inside the labour process itself.

Honneth uses the distinction between external and immanent standpoints to make his case for a “structural linkage between labor and recognition with reference to the organization of the modern world of work” (ibid.). Like Habermas, Honneth reminds us that during the Industrial Revolution “capitalistically exploited labor…exerted such a formative power—one which permeated all spheres of life—that the normative expectations of the time were initially and primarily attached to the sphere of production” (p. 59). The ideal of the craftsman was still visible, and served as a model to critique the capitalist form of gainful employment. Unlike the craftsman who controls his own labor, designs the entire work process and sees his knowledge and skill embodied in his products, workers in modern factories had their “activity…determined by others, fragmented and divorced from their own initiative” (p. 59).

But Honneth observes astutely that: “The modes of activity they [in the 19th century] honored and elevated to paradigmatic models were too extravagant, so to speak, to serve as a model for organizing all the activities required for the reproduction of society” (ibid.). And the phrase “reproduction of society” powerfully reveals the narrowness of the labour-based social order that basically defined waged-work as normative. It failed to recognize the axial importance of household forms of caring work, without which the entire social order world would collapse (Hart, “Motherwork: a radical proposal to rethink work and education.” In M. Welton (Ed.) In Defense of the Lifeworld: Critical Perspectives on Adult Learning [1995]).

Our imagining of the “good society” (and history’s progress toward a more just, caring world) has been derailed by Neo-liberal greed and self-centred abandonment of most of the world’s men and women who reproduce life by caring for children, educating them and finding ways of offering beautifully crafted goods, services and gifts to their communities and larger world.

Honneth retrieves the idea of “good work” from the 19th century worker utopias. But he readily acknowledges that those struggling for improved working conditions in our own time are “forced to appeal to norms that greatly differ from the utopian conception of holistic activity” (ibid.). We only “cross the threshold to an immanent critique of the existing organization of societal labor if we draw upon moral norms that already constitute rational claims within the social exchange of services” (p. 60). This is a delicate, even sophisticated, argument form.

He had cast aside the earlier argument that one could use “craftsman-like” moments in worker resistance as universal standard for judging all forms of work in capitalist society. Basically, Honneth states, “Workers merely react with as much initiative as possible to the personal or anonymous demands of the employer or customer. In other words, it is a fallacy to claim that all socially necessary activities are mutually constituted along the lines of an organic and holistic form of labor such as craftsmanship” (p. 62). Honneth reaches a dead-end. How can he find his way to another path?

Honneth thinks that if we shift our focus from the structure of labor to the “norms organizing it, we will be faced with a different issue” (ibid.). He catches a hopeful glimpse in Theory of Communicative Action where Habermas speaks of “’norms’ that should pervade the organization of societal labour, while otherwise only speaking of a ‘norm-free system’ from the economic sphere” (ibid.). This enlightening glimpse encourages Honneth to do his own excavatory work to uncover immanent (or implicit) norms that may underlie the capitalist organization of labor. He needs to “find a standard that constitutes a justified, rational claim within the criticized relations themselves” (p. 63).

That is, “demonstrable universalization is required to make them into justified standards of immanent criticism” (ibid.). The forms of work in our neo-liberal, globalized economy are far too multiple and diverse for some form of single standard to be imposed on them. Thus, Honneth’s search will fall short if he restricts his analysis to the “functionalist perspective of economic efficiency” (ibid.).

These latter phrases gesture to Habermas’ system domain of the economy and polity. Honneth suggests that: “If, by contrast, we view the capitalist labor market as also having the function of social integration, then the picture changes completely” (ibid.). He says that if we shift our gaze, we are then “faced with a series of moral norms that underlie the modern world of work…” (ibid.). Interestingly, in his re-conceptualization of historical materialism as a social evolutionary learning theory, Habermas (1979) leaves ample room for consideration of how the society’s dominant “principle of organization” can need transformation because of the damaged lives and unmet needs of its citizenry.

For some reason, Honneth does not draw out this possible reading of Habermas’ reconstructed historical materialist framework. Be that as it may, the nature of Honneth’s argument is synchronous with, or in the spirit of, Habermas’ critical theory. Habermas is very aware of the way the fraying of social solidarity can precipitate a legitimation crisis and damage individual lives.

Honneth turns to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (published in 1820) to uncover the “elements of a new form of social integration in the structure of the capitalist economy developing before his eyes” (p. 63. Now, Honneth claims that Hegel realized that if ethics was located outside the market-mediated economic system, then this system remained “without the necessary moral legitimacy” (ibid.). Hegel argued that the “entire system of the market-mediated exchange of labour, the purpose of which is to satisfy needs, could only find approval if it fulfilled certain normative conditions” (p. 64).

The first normative condition required that workers transform “’subjective selfishness’ into a willingness to work for ‘the satisfaction of the needs of everyone else’” (ibid.). This meant, in Hegel’s language of the early 19th century, that every male worker had to be “willing to abandon his personal affinity for idleness and contribute to the common good with his own labour” (ibid.).

The second normative function “consists in the fact that it creates a system of mutual dependence that secures the economic subsistence of all its members. As we might say today, the expectation that each person must work is linked to the condition each receive a living wage” (ibid.). Drawing upon his reflections on the primacy of social recognition in human affairs, Honneth observes that “in the system of market-mediated exchange, subjects mutually recognize each other as private autonomous beings who act for each other and thereby sustain their livelihood through the contribution their labour makes to society” (ibid.).

This affirmation is the necessary philosophical grounding for the emancipation of labour.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.