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On Social Labor in Honneth and Marx

The historical basis upon which supposes that there is a connection between social emancipation and social labor has changed so much since the nineteenth century that practically none of the critical social theories of this century continues to place any confidence in the liberating, consciousness building potential of the social labor process. The social change in concrete forms of work has had a similarly destructive effect upon the concept of work. In his concept of work, Marx retained a categorical tension between alienated and unalienated work activity — between integrated organic craft work and atomized, mechanical fragments of activity — while not possessing the conceptual means to describe the mediating process of reflection itself. This tension has gradually been resolved in favor of a one-sided concept which merely reflects the actual relations of social labor. In the course of this complex theoretical development, the concept of work has lost the critical of its meaning, its significance for the potential transcendence of established forms of work in society.  The categories of ‘alienated’ or ‘abstract’ work, with which Marx criticizes the capitalist organization of work activity, have practically disappeared from the theoretical language of Marxist-oriented social philosophy because there seems to be no criterion of appropriately human, that is, unalienated work which is independent of the norms of a particular culture. In the same way, the actual claims and ideas about work held by the subjects who are engaged in social production according to the rules set by a factory leadership trained in scientific management have lost all significance for modern theories of society. They have handed over to the empirical methods of industrial research under the rubric of ‘occupational aspirations’ and no longer play a decisive role in the critical diagnosis of the major conflicts in the contemporary social system. (39-40)

So Honneth writes in his essay “Work and Instrumental Action: On the Normative Basis of Critical Theory.” I think there’s something quite askew in Honneth’s appraisal of “work,” which might be a result of the thinkers he is responding to; at any rate, I want to trace out some of what I think it is.

In order to maintain that Marx’s understanding of work is not applicable to work today — that the “historical basis upon which supposes that there is a connection between social emancipation and social labor has changed so much since the nineteenth century” — Honneth must present Marx as believing the following about work:

the concept of work should not only designate the dimension of social practice within which the human world is constructed out of its natural setting and socially reproduced, but should also determine the level of action at which knowledge which can transform domination may potentially be released and thus also make possible the evolutionary expansion of social freedom. (16)

This is an exceptionally ugly sentence; what is at stake in the two clauses is the idea that in Marx “work” is held to have (at least) two facets. First, work is understood to be productive of “the human world,” which we might explain as meaning that people, through their actions, create the norms and mores that are always on the periphery of their actions. Institutions are the product of individual activity, in other words. Second, the direction of this activity is not predetermined: not only is the human world made by human activity, but that world can be understood and reshaped according to the deliberate shifting of activity according to knowledge. Again, “work.”

All that is fine and dandy. Honneth continues:

Marx wishes to use the term “social labor” to designate the form of reproduction characteristic of human existence — the cooperative appropriation of external nature… Marx depicts social labour as the practical context within which the human species gains cognitive access to reality… (16)

Again, this seems positively peachy. But something is rotten in the critical reception of this notion — the notion that the activity of human subjects, activity that is inflected through the social context in which they find themselves and which reproduces that context, and that this activity might be consciously redirected in order to fashion contexts that are less repressive and more emancipatory — because “work” is seen as lacking. Hence, “the field of social theory” has added “the category of communicative action” to that of work (16). What’s wrong with this addition? It assumes that within Marx’s formulation, even the rendition of it here, that there was no understanding of intersubjective relations; but that is patently not the case. Even for the notion that work or labor is what reproduces society to make any sense, it must be the case that it has some role in reproducing the social relations undergirding a given society, which must contain regulative patterns governing the relation between subjects.

But Honneth continues all the same to argue that Marx’s conception of work needs a third aspect, derived from Feuerbach:

It was precisely [the anthropologically understood life-process of the human-species] which is fraudulently appropriated from the working subject in capitalist society. Feuerbach’s anthropological species concept, which was meant to expose the attributes of Hegel’s concept of mind as previously misunderstood natural characteristics of man, is thus the third intellectual component of Marx’s concept of work. Only at this point is the conceptual complexity achieved which enables the corporeal activity of working on nature to be understood economically, as a factor of production, and morally, as a process of self-development. (18-9)

So there are three components to Marx’s concept of labor: he sees it not only the determinants of potential action, which, when performed, reproduces its determinants, but argues that  it lays out future paths of development. More, this is seen to be “moral” because these capacities are falsely identified with things outside human action, i.e. the products of labor are seen to dictate the course of labor. Hence,  Marx

interprets the historical epoch of capitalist as a socio-economic formation which makes it difficult or impossible for the working subject to identify himself in his own products. Nowhere in his writings, however, does Marx explicitly describe the categorical limits which differentiate this model of social labor from other types of activity. Nor does he discuss the limits which his conception of work can or should applied to the explanation of individual or collective behavior. (19)

This is a dubious claim; I’ll comment on it later. Honneth finds this putative lack of discussion problematic because Marx nowhere lays out what it is to be revolutionary. Since the later Marx, according to Honneth, does not take up this problem (he is “focussed on systematic crises precipitated by the growth in productive forces typical of capitalism” [20]), Honneth turns to the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts and related early writings. I find this change in emphasis to be problematic  because it seems to preclude recourse to a developed theory of exploitation, which relies on demonstrable and verifiable claims about payment and wages. Instead, all that is possible is conceptual speculation about the putative alienating nature of the externalization of one’s will. Moreover, Honneth maintains that this speculation is not enough to provide a “key to the empirical analysis of capitalist social relations” (21).

I find the large majority of the assertions about what labor is and is not in Marx above to be problematic. Consider the following passage of Capital:

The worker is the owner of his labour-power until his has finished bargaining for its sale with the capitalist, and he can sell no more than what he has — i.e. his individual, isolated labour-power. This relation between capitali and labour is in no way altered by the fact that the capitalist, instead of buying the labour-power of one man, buys that of 100, and enters into separate contracts with 100 unconnected men instead of with one. He can set the 100 men to work, without letting them co-operate. He pays them the value of 100 independent labour-powers, but he does not pay for the combined labour-power of the 100. Being independent of each other, the workers are isolated. They enter into relations with the capitalist, but not with each other. Their co-operation only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to themselves. On entering the labour process they are incorporated into capital. As co-operators, as members of a working organism, they merely form a particular mode of existence of capital. Hence the productive power developed by the worker socially is the productive power of capital. The socially productive power of labour develops as a free gift to capital whenever the workers are placed under certain conditions, and it is capital which places them under these conditions. Because this power costs capital nothing, whil on the other hand it is not developed by the worker until his labour itself belongs to capital, it appears as a power which capital possesses by its nature — a productive power inherent in capital. (451)

Here it is perfectly clear what is at stake in the “social labor” that is created as a result of capitalist social relations; also clear is why it is that the products of individual laborers appear as alien objects to them — because, quite frankly, they have no socially recognized right to them. All of these relations are sustained by “work”: perhaps not in the direct actions that constitute directing a power loom or in tapping on the keys of a computer to work in the service industries, but within the peripheral net of rules that is indeniably contained within the conditions of labor that contains those acts.

Anyhow, it is late. I’ll touch more on this tomorrow. And discuss Habermas and his communicative action.

Categories: Notes.

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16 Responses

  1. Interesting stuff and great post.

    a socio-economic formation which makes it difficult or impossible for the working subject to identify himself in his own products”

    I really dislike the resort to early Marx to make recognition/self-recognition one of the main problems. I often don’t recognize/experience my autonomic nervous system as myself - mostly just when I’m frightened or ill - and that’s fine by me. Likewise I don’t see why I need to recognize my product per se.

    You sum up my feeling on this well here: that stuff “seems to preclude recourse to a developed theory of exploitation, which relies on demonstrable and verifiable claims about payment and wages.” Well put.

    On this: “the products of individual laborers appear as alien objects to them — because, quite frankly, they have no socially recognized right to them.”

    I’m not sure. I don’t know how to square this w/ your earlier comment that I quoted, about exploitation. It seems to me that there’s no a priori reason why at least some version of recognition, of not seeing products as the result of alien objects, is compatible with exploitation. Thinking of it now, I wonder if this is part of some ideologies of craft and of professionalism. “You made this happen! You did, all of you! Go team!” is a fine sentiment for bosses to offer, and I’d bet they can live with “we made this happen! we the employees, collectively!” too, as long as it’s not tied to a major demand. Know what I mean?

    take care,

  2. Oops. This — “no a priori reason why [stuff] is compatible with exploitation” ought to have said “incompatible” rather than “compatible.” Sorry.

  3. Hey Nate, thanks for the feedback. Re: your second point, I think you are correct. Let me clarify what I mean by “no socially recognized right to them”: I mean that the reason that producers should have a gripe with capitalism is that the surplus-value of their product does not accrue to them. They have no “right” to that, in the legal, moral, or economic sense. To say, as I did above, that they have no right to their product is a bit sloppy.

    It’s the form of dolling out resources that I think theories of exploitation miss. Habermas is really irritating in this way, because he seems to think that there is no “communicative action” implicit in labor. Insofar as relative rights to product are distributed via employment contracts (which are intersubjective communication objects par excellence), there is in work communicative reason. And, insofar as we wan’t a real democratic future and not one doled out according to the whims of specialists and bureaucrats, decisions about both the quality, content, and quantity of labor should be made by people who are going to have to do it.

    That this sort of “lifeworld” deliberation would generate its own “system” seems clear to me. (Sorry to rant against Habermas, but I just read a lot of him. Maybe I’ll throw up the presentation I had to do.)

  4. hey JCD,

    I’ve only got like a passing familiarity w/ Habermas and that’s ages ago so some of that is hard for me to follow. (I’d be into reading that presentation.)

    Re: communicative action and labor - is the claim that there’s no CA in labor as such, or in labor under capitalism? And no disrespect intended, but, I have a really hard time following everything after the sentence that starts “It’s the form of dolling out…” and have a hard time seeing the connection between that sentence and what follows it. I expect that this is because I don’t know the figures you’re discussing. If you don’t mind, could you unpack that stuff? It’s interesting and I want to understand it.

    W/r/t this: “relative rights to product are distributed via employment contracts”, I can’t tell if I misunderstand or if I disagree. I thought up till now we’d been discussing the right of workers to the products they produced. I don’t think that employment contracts give much of a right to workers to the products of their own labor, and as I read Marx that’s Marx’s take too. So that makes me think that you don’t mean “relative rights [of producers] to product [created by those producers] are distributed via employment contracts”. Again, maybe I’m just missing something.


  5. Hey Nate, I’ll try to flesh this out a little bit. About Habermas’ take on labor: he’s following in the footsteps of Adorno and Horkheimer in that he seems to think that labor, at least under capitalism but it seems to me necessarily, is based on a sort of instrumental reasoning, and, as such, is not guided by any communicative action, or the mutual effort of subjects to reach common understanding through the rational assessment of the semantic content of speech-acts. This account is developed a bit more, and then Habermas comes up with the notion of a “lifeworld,” which is the sphere wherein people navigate social norms through communicating with each other, that he opposes to the “systems” of the state and the market. The latter systems are said to be guided by a logic that is non-communicative; you could see this conception as roughly analogous to the notion of reification in Marx. These spheres “uncouple” from what is supposed to be the direct interaction of the lifeworld and then reflect back onto it, causing what Habermas calls “pathologies” in the lifeworld itself.

    OK. So, according to Habermas, the market, and all of its trappings like the form of labor contracts and the determinations of the shape that labor will take, becomes dictated by its systems-logic (an aside: he also was writing most of this stuff when it seemed, to him anyway, that Keynesianism would prevent economic crises from returning. That ought be taken into account in evaluating this, I suppose). As such, what labor means is never “communicative,” or the result of action to reach a mutual understanding. It can only be conceived of instrumentally.

    Now, my critique of this is not to argue that there is no systems-logic to the market, or that the market does not come back and re-form the practices that make up the “lifeworld,” but is to argue that separating the spheres into “lifeworld” and “system” is problematic. There is an indirect but rich “communicative” process to the system of labor that underwrites the capitalist economy, in that it does imply an implicit process of intersubjective “understanding” about the relative rights of subjects. I think the remuneration of waged-labor could be seen as the archetypal example of this:

    1. In order for capitalism to function, people have to be compelled to work, but they cannot be “directly” coerced.

    2. Facing destitution, they can enter the labor-market and attempt to sell their labor-power, but the prices they receive will be bound to capitalists’ ability to profit.

    3. What’s at stake in this agreement is a relation between subjects, not the instrumentalization of labor proper. The capitalist wants to earn money, of course, and is intent on driving up productivity and instrumentalizing labor; however, the entire system is allowed to function because of the exploitation of labor and the expropriation of surplus-value.

    4. The expropriation of surplus-value relies on all manner of economic and legal institutions. But these institutions are not merely instrumental; they are the result of tactical action within the intersubjective sphere by capitalists and the goons and by workers and their representatives. As such, it is impossible to comprehend why labor takes the shape it does under capitalism without reference to the process of working out what is “normal,” “standard,” or “valid” in the societal practice of labor.

    5. So, while it may appear that all that is at stake in a given person’s work is pulling a lever at an autoloom or tapping on computer keys in a call-center, neither of which is intersubjective per se, those activities are shot through with, as it were, the logic of class struggle.

    What happens when theorists write off the sphere of labor by saying that it is merely instrumental and not communicative is that they efface the antagonism (or the process of “communication”) that underlies the putatively logical and “systemic” shape it has. So, employment contracts, which are putatively determined by the rational conditions of the market economy, and which allocate to the workers their given wage, are really “communicative,” the reaching of an understanding between two subjects about what is acceptable or legitimate in a given society; as they give to the employer the employees product and to the employee his wage, as they determine the rationalized form of labor, the contracts are as well saturated with intersubjective efforts to establish what goes in society—even if these efforts are below the surface. And by writing off the antagonism and “communication” that underwrites labor, you seem to be missing the chance to understand how to refashion the norms of society within the minutiae that determine the systems-logic of the market.

    Or, to put it another way, it is crippling for a tactical understanding of work.

  6. Not “you,” you, but, you know, the general you.

  7. I cannot tell you how much I object to Honneth’s readings of Marx above: and throuhgout his work, but moreover in the horrendous misappropriations of all the other writers he looks at. I am writing a paper on him, and it is a crippling process having to correct his utterly reductive and hermeneutically difficient analyses. He draws on the Western tradition insofar as it seems retrospectively to push forward elements of his theory, and his mode of critique is to imagine in all of these philosophers the same purposive, rational, logical ego which more or less severely fall pray to wild hallucilations like ‘metaphysics’, ‘idealism’ or ‘speculation’ (insight? intuition?), otherwise they are ‘logical’ (his hallucination). I see his work and the tendencies within it as a real sickness.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. flex belt ab toner

    On Social Labor in Honneth and Marx - Fragments, or: