The topic of this paper is the importance of the role of labour and the labourer in Hegel's philosophy. I shall look at labour and the labourer in two instances in Hegel's system, firstly in the phenomenology and secondly and perhaps more praxically in the Ethical Life, or more specifically in his controversial Civil Society.
Hopefully the result of this analysis will be to either reinforce one's belief in the sophistication and depth of Hegel's use of labour, or, alternatively for those unfamiliar with this aspect of his philosophy, provide an introduction to an area of political philosophy which deserves further inquiry.Before going any further it is necessary to make that now all to familiar Hegelian proviso that one should not consider aspects of Hegel's system in isolation from that system. To do this however, is a massive task far beyond the goal here of coming to an understanding of Hegel's concept labour. Nonetheless analysis of this kind still has merit.
In contemporary (Australian) capitalist society it is Hobbes that has been most dominant, or at least most accurate in describing society and social relations. Broadly speaking Hobbes saw society as a necessary, albeit unwanted, relationship or general 'contract' arrangement between competing self-interested autonomous individuals; this led to the familiar philosophies of utilitarianism, social contract theories of rights, Social Darwinism and bourgeois political and economic theories in general. It was in reaction to Hobbesian philosophy that Hegel produced an historicist reformulation of Platonic political theory (with some Aristotelian elements). Through his metaphysical and historical inquires, Hegel analysed all past forms of political thought and synthesised them into an all encompassing general theory, where these past forms of thought are never totally discarded, rather they are sublated [] into a higher unity.[]
It is this sublation of ideas through an historical analysis that allowed Hegel his greatest achievement in regard to work and society, which was to understand the importance of the competitive market and civil society, whilst realising its short comings. This achievement has only become fully apparent, in my opinion after the failure of communism and the rise of globalism.
The dialectic of Lordship and Bondage, which is better known as that of master and slave, is a crucial element of the process toward self-conscious freedom which begins with Hegel's rejection of 'Kant's notion of the preformed ego, the "I" represented as a pure unity relating to itself.'[] For Hegel the ego is the result of development, 'from immediate sensitivity to self-awareness, then to self-consciousness gained through a reciprocity of perspectives in interpersonal relationships, and finally to universality through participation in ethical and cultural life.'[] The dialectic of Lordship and Bondage describes the narrative of the self-consciousness gained through interpersonal relationships.
The dialectic of lordship and bondage is premised on the fact that 'Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it also exists for another; that is it exists only in being acknowledged.' (PS §178) The 'Self-consciousness lives outside of itself in another self-consciousness, in which it at once loses and also finds itself.' (PS §179A) Before the meeting or recognition of the other, each self-consciousness only has knowledge of its own being 'and so has no true certainty of itself, since the being of the self is essentially a socially acknowledged being.' (PS §186A)
Therefore, the '[s]elf-consciousness, which is desire, can reach its truth only by finding another living self-consciousness.'[] These two self-consciousness appear to each other as pure externality, which gives rise to a battle for recognition. The self-consciousness firstly sets itself to the task of eliminating the other self-consciousness which stands over against itself. The self-consciousnesses must-in this battle to the death which ensues between the two competing consciousnesses-be willing to 'sacrifice everything concrete for his own infinite self-respect and the similar respect of all others.' (PS §187A) However, in the task of gaining recognition by eliminating its other, the self-consciousness must acknowledge that if it does eliminate its other it therefore eliminates itself. As the actual death of either participant means that neither can be recognized by the other it is a pointless outcome and therefore what must pursue is the enslavement, the reduction to a 'thing-like' status of the other self-consciousness.
The battle between these two individuals produces both the lord and his bondsman, the latter works to satisfy the needs and wants of the lord. The bondsman gains his personality through the lord, he becomes a mere object for the satisfaction of the lord's needs and wants. Hence, the bondsman is a labourer, 'his labor is his being,'[] he is not merely a human who happens to labour for the sake of his lord. His purpose is that of another; the objects that he works on and creates are not his own but that of his lord and they constitute 'the chain from which he cannot get away' (PS). [] As the objects of his labour are his entire being he is at the mercy of the owner of these objects which he labours on, his being then becomes 'being-for-another.' Furthermore, because it is the object of labour that mediates the relationship between bondsman and lord, the bondsman's consciousness exists only 'in the form and shape of thinghood.' (PS) [] 'He becomes a thing whose very existence consists in its being used.' []
However, this reduction of the self-consciousness of the bondsman to mere instrument means that the lord can no longer obtain reciprocal recognition that his own self-consciousness demands as the bondsman gains his personality through the lord. 'What the lord sees in the bondsman, or what the bondsman sees in the lord, is not what either sees in himself.' (PS §191A) Because the lord relies on the bondsman's labour for his livelihood, he depends on the bondsman's self-consciousness, and he fails to realize his own independent status as a self-consciousness. Furthermore, because the bondsman has unshakable respect for his lord, he sheds 'his narrow self-identifications and self-interest' (PS §193A) and raises to the level of true self-consciousness. 'He becomes the ideal which he contemplates in his lord.' (PS §194A). On top of this, as the bondsman works for the lord he gains further insights into his self-consciousness. In work, where he must shape and manipulate things, the bondsman becomes aware of his own boundless creativity.
Hence, the role of labour takes on a paradox for Hegel, as it both enslaves and emancipates the bondsman. The objects of the bondsman's labour fill the social world of man and preserve the labourer's action in them. The labourer can see that without his labour the world will cease to function, he sees that his labour is crucial in creating and fostering the world. The labourer learns to recognize himself in these objects and things that make the world. 'His consciousness in now "externalized" in his work and has "passed into the condition of permanence". The man who "toils and serves" thus comes to view the independent being as himself.' [] The objects of his labour that are owned by another are no longer 'dead things that shackle him to other men,' [] they become objects that define him. For Hegel the objectification of something-in this case the product of his labour-is not something negative, rather the objectification of consciousness in the product of labour is 'his pure self-existence' which, becomes 'truly realized' in the externalized object. [] The bondsman through this process of labour and the objectification of its products creates a self-conscious existence.
The lord, on the other hand, does not work for the objects of his desire, and therefore finds himself in the position of lacking the self-consciousness which is gained through work. The objects the lord receives are not 'dead objects', rather they 'bear the hallmark of the subject who worked on them.' [] In this sense when the lord uses or enjoys the objects which are his property, he is using the self-consciousness of another-the labourer. The lord becomes dependant on the bondsman as he attains his satisfaction through him and is therefore not an independent 'being-for-himself'. The only way the lord has to realize his own self-consciousness is to shed his lordship over his bondsman, and to work and contribute to the building of his own world, and mutually recognize the labours of others as they recognize him.
This parable plays itself out even further in the next pillar of my discussion, that of the Ethical Life or more specifically Civil Society. Hegel's development of Ethical Life comes as a rejection of the 'atomic individualism of social contract theorists and utilitarians, Hegel argued that humans are essentially socio-politico-cultural beings, that societies embody a rationality and that individuals only become fully human, only become rational, free individuals and recognize themselves as such, through participating in the ethical life of society.' [] This freedom is achieved through the three stages of the Ethical Life; firstly in the family, then in civil society and finally in the state, it is however the later two that are of significance here.
Hegel caused a Copernican Revolution in political philosophy with his conception of civil society as it separated the concepts of 'political' and 'civil' for the first time. It saw 'the rise of a depoliticized society through the centralization of politics in the princely or revolutionary state, and [the shift of the] point of gravity to the economy, a change which found [its] expression in [the] "political" or "a national economy".' [] Hegel realized that the sphere of nonpolitical existence was that of the majority who 'earn their living through labour, production and exchange, and therefore belonged, for much of their lives, to a sort of national "domestic society" or state-wide "household".' []Civil society in its essence is the sphere where individuals leave the particularity and security of their families and engage in the 'strategic pursuit of "selfish" interests,' [] where 'each member is his own end, everything else is nothing to him.' [] The medium through which man satisfies these 'selfish' ends is labour, which in turn has several connotations for civil society and humanity. Through labour man develops philosophically and therefore personally as he 'overcomes the estrangement between the objective world and the subjective world; he transforms nature into an appropriate medium for his self-development.' [] In the shaping of natural objects by his labour man makes them part of his own subjectivity as he is able to recognize his needs and desires in them.
However, to put this into an intersubjective context man must abstract these shaped objects, he must make them commodities. The product of his labour becomes a universal one through its exchange on the market. The commodities that the labourer produces and then sells become the method by which he is recognized by others, but this process of producing an object which objectifies the labourers subjectivity and then abstracting what is effectively his own subjectivity-the object which is now a commodity-means that the labourer is alienating his own particular subjectivity from himself. This process has both positive and negative consequences. Positively this personal commodity abstraction, performed by all workers means that the individuals can be recognized by other individuals. One is recognized in that he recognizes the other, as subjects objectified in their products of their labour. There is also an element of people being recognized for their social contributions. Labour, in this light, gains universality for the labourer as he 'is forced to set aside his particular faculties and desires,' [] in favour of the universal. Labour's value resides in the fact that it is a 'universal activity', in that its value is determined by 'what labor is for all, and not what it is for the individual.' (JR I M, p.238) This is clearly explained by Hegel in the Phenomenology:
The labour of the individual for his own needs is just as much a satisfaction of the needs of others as of his own, and the satisfaction of his own needs he only obtains through the labour of others. As the individual in his individual work already unconsciously performs a universal work, so again he also performs the universal work as his conscious object; the whole becomes, as a whole, his own work, for which he sacrifices himself and precisely in so doing receives back from it his own self. (PS §351)
As the concrete particular individual is connected to this 'universal activity' through the exchange process of the market, hence Hegel sees this process as 'the return to concreteness' (JR II M, p.215), because it is through the process of exchange that 'the concrete needs of men in society are fulfilled.' [] Furthermore, '[t]hrough labor, man loses that atomic existence wherein he is, as an individual, opposed to all other individuals [and] he becomes a member of a community' [] as 'individual labor undertaken to satisfy individual needs takes on an intrinsically social and universal dimension in commercial society'. []
Furthermore, the satisfaction of individual needs and wants above subsistence level require the universal labour of a community. 'Need and labour are thus elevated into universality and this creates in a great nation an immense system of communality and mutual dependence.' (JR I P, p239-40) This sociality of labour is echoed further in Hegel's words; 'Labour is not an instinct, but a function of reason which develops into a universal in the people; and as such it is contrary to the particularity of the individual, which must be overcome' (JR I C, 236). Work then becomes a socially constructed and an hereditary activity where '[t]he individual acquires the skill necessary for work only by learning universal laws of work,' [] which can only be fully grasped and understood in a social-historical context. Work becomes a kind of 'practical education' that instills in people the spirit of cooperation. [] Hence, '[m]odern commercial society, beneath the surface play of alienation and diremption, does yield institutions, practices, principles, and values that generate forms of social solidarity.' []
This analysis of labour explains why Hegel believed that the political philosophy of the time was incorrect in its perception that the practices and institutions of civil society would work to 'increase individuality,' expand 'the differentiation of one man from another,' and undermine 'the intimate bonds of communal life.' Hegel through his 'dialectical reversal' attempted to show that despite their individualistic nature these elements of civil society 'nonetheless fall within the public domain and are characterized by that integration, which in fact they secure within that domain.' [] Hegel's concept of civil society, premised on the elevation of man from his particularity to that of the universal, was in fact a socialistic one.
The Philosophy of Right in this vein has received criticism from numerous commentators, most notably Marx. I shall not dwell on these criticisms, except to say that civil society did present a paradox for Hegel. On the one hand Hegel wishes to preserve civil society as he sees that it as the beneficial role it plays in elevating individuals from their particularity to the universal, but on the other he preempted his critics in recognizing that it also leads to great inequality and poverty.
Civil society has several sever inherent problems, these shall be discussed only to the extent that they interface with Hegel's theory of labour and the labourer. Therefore, I shall only briefly look at two of the problems of civil society which broadly encompass all of its negative aspects-alienation and poverty.
Put simply, for Hegel 'all human history is a process whereby ideas objectify themselves in material reality.' [] e.g. the idea of shelter is objectified into houses and the idea of a general interest of society is objectified into the institutions of the state. However, this objectification of ideas becomes a source of alienation because the mind fails to grasp the fact that these objectified things are indeed its own products, they are simply the embodiment of its own ideas. Alienation occurs when it treats these objects as alien to itself, as objects-in-themselves.
For Hegel, this alienation first occurs through the labour process when man begins to uses tools in his construction of his world. With the use of tools mans interaction with his natural world becomes mediated. The tool is an inert 'thing' 'with which I act formally, making myself a "thing",' [] however, nature is only fully mediated through the machine which is a 'self-sufficient' tool. Through the machine nature is deceived by man and made to work for him, preempting Engels, Hegel realized that the more man subjugated nature the 'lower he himself sinks' as the deception seeks revenge.
By using machines to manipulate nature, he does not escape the necessity for work, but only defers it, removes it further from nature, [he] no longer confronts nature as one living being confronting another. Instead, this negative vitality vanishes; the work that he is left with becomes itself more mechanical. He succeeds in reducing his work for the whole, but not for the individual. Rather he increases it, for the more mechanical work becomes, the less value it has, and the more he must work in this fashion. (JR I L, 237)
For '[t]he more man frees himself from the concretion of nature, the more he controls nature, the more he also becomes dependant upon nature; for the more an individual's knowledge becomes restricted to the production of one abstract article, the less capable he must be of satisfying all of his other needs.' [] This caused Hegel to see that the modern construction of the labour process 'lead to the enervation of the personality,' this is shown in his comments on Adam Smith's example of the pin factory:The particularisation of labour multiplies the mass of production But the value of labour decreases in the same proportion as productivity increases. Work becomes thus absolutely more and more dead, it becomes machine labour, the individual's own skill becomes unjustly limited and the consciousness of the factory worker is degraded to the utmost level of dullness. The connection between the particular sort of labour and the infinite mass of needs becomes wholly imperceptible, turns into blind dependence The spiritual element, the self conscious plenitude of life becomes an empty activity. The power of the self resides in rich comprehension; this is being lost. (JR II P, p232.)
This loss of the comprehension of the self-alienation in its purest form-comes from when workers alienate too much of themselves to others:
Single products of my particular physical and mental skill and of my power to act I can alienate to someone else [but] by alienating the whole of my time is crystallised in my work and everything I produced, I would be making into another's property the substance of my being, my universal activity and actuality, my personality (PR §§66 & 67)
As the individual abstracts his labour, he not only gains a sense of mutual recognition and the benefits of goods and services generated by another mans work, but he also negatively, looses control of his own destiny. The individual loses his self-sufficiency: 'There disappears for everyone all sense of security and certainty [as] individual labour is no longer immediately adequate to his needs.' (JR I C, 238). 'Not only is he self-sufficient, but he is totally at the mercy of a system of exchange over which he has absolutely no control.' []
The stupefying and dehumanizing effects of labour outline were only perpetuated by the capitalist system that typifies the unconstrained market. It is, however, the spectre of Poverty that provides the greatest threat to the working classes and the second category of problems that arise out of civil society that shall be addressed. Hegel's analysis of Poverty is one of the more profound elements of his political philosophy, yet it also shows the on going contradiction of civil society. This is because he recognizes that when '[c]ivil society is in a state of unimpeded activity,' (PhR §243) not in a state of chaos or some unusual situation that poverty arises. The labourer is likely to be thrown into a state of poverty of both mind and body when all is well in civil society. The problem for Hegel is obviously that he has envisaged a necessary stage of self-conscious development that has a natural disposition towards poverty, and 'that the modern state cannot within itself provide the answer to one of its own self-generated problems.' []
Hegel basically understands the rise of poverty within the discourse of economics and specifically as a result of overproduction due to the use of machine labour and competition, particularly from abroad.
For Hegel this poverty manifested itself in two forms, firstly in physical poverty which he understood as a relative condition to that particular society and secondly and more importantly poverty of the spirit. Poverty of the spirit is about the way you are conceived in your community and occurs when an individuals need to identify with both their own central life-activity, work, and with the broader society of which they are members goes unfulfilled. Hegel saw the spiraling effect of poverty, in that when individuals fall into poverty they then become cut off from other areas of society such as 'the acquisition of skill, education, access to justice and even organised religion', which can be seen as the institutions that link the individual with their community. [] This cycle of poverty only leads to further alienation which manifests itself in bitterness and hostility towards society in general. (PhR § 245)
However, Hegel saw this alienation and poverty as a structural phenomenon within the 'irrational' and 'wild' civil society, therefore he logically saw that dealing with it as the problem and the responsibility of the state. Hence, as a function of the development of individuals, the community and the ethical idea, civil society driven by the modern economy can only be seen as acceptable or comprehensible 'in so far as it is subjected to rational control.' [] Furthermore, because the economic realm of interaction is where the individual gets his recognition and sense of self-worth, any government intervention in this sphere must be compatible with the subjective freedom that the individual works towards. This creates a problem for Hegel as '[n]onintervention in the system of needs would be disastrous, because all that would exist would be blind and irrational forms of mutual interdependence; on the other hand, too much control by remote government might secure equilibrium but at the cost of producing further estrangement between the citizen and the political order.' Hegel overcomes this bind by trying to steer a middle path between the two extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and totalitarianism. The outcome he arrives at is one of 'minimal' representative government control were the state, that must represent the will of the people, intervenes in a now familiar Keynesian fashion.
In section 245 of the Philosophy of Right he develops several methods for controlling the ill effects of civil society. The first solution that Hegel raises is what we now refer to as the Welfare State. Hegel believed that it was the states responsibility to provided, by 'charity' from the state, the money for this welfare support, which would initially come from the wealthier classes in the form of taxation. In conjunction to this Hegel believed that in relation to stopping inequality 'Government has the foremost task of acting against this inequality and the general destruction consequent upon it. This can be done directly through making it difficult to achieve high profits.' [] However, this problem in Hegel's eyes was a Band-aid solution as 'the needy would receive subsistence directly, not by means of their work, and this would violate the principle of civil society and the feeling of individual independence and self-respect in its individual members.' (PhR § 245) To fully achieve self-consciousness, to get the most out of civil society, the individual must work so as to gain the respect of his fellow citizens, and also play his part in their own recognition. It is for this reason that Hegel decided that the other solution for solving the problems of civil society and especially that of raising people out of poverty was government sponsored work (PhR § 245). As the initial problem in Hegel's eyes was overproduction he also saw this a limited solution as it inevitably increased the amount of consumer goods that were already over supplied. This is of course only if the government partakes in work programs that produced consumer goods. The solution to this, although not addressed by Hegel, is to have people work in non-commodity producing sectors of government like public works.
However, perhaps of a more interesting nature is some of the more integrated methods of market control that Hegel saw as necessary. These are; 'the fixing of prices for the basic necessities of life, the arbitration of disputes between producers and consumers of commodities, the dissemination of information relating to terms of trade, and the general economic situation within which industry operates.' [] There are also internal methods of control via the groups to which individuals belong, such as the Korporations (for our purposes trade unions). [] The Korporation is an important process as it ensures the elevation of man from his 'natural' particularity to the 'rational' universality of humanity, as it removes the individual 'from [mere] personal opinion and contingency', saves them 'from endangering either the individual workman or others, [ensures that they are] recognized, guaranteed, and at the same time elevated to conscious effort for a common end.' (PhR §254) Hence, the dichotomy between individual needs and the universal right is overcome as the 'particular welfare is present as a right and is actualized.' (PhR §255) [] For example trade unions help bring the universal and the particular together in that they give particular individuals a class or group consciousness. Workers, through unions, learn to see themselves as part of or in terms of the collective ideal. [] However, the Korporations were themselves stuck in the realm of need and the communities that they create are only partial. In these communities individuals still have 'no sense of personal identification with an overall normative order,' [] this 'dimension to life is provided by the state proper and the general cultural life of the community, its art religion and philosophy.' []
One could continue on sighting Hegel's examples from his vast critique of civil society and the methods the state must use to control it. However, enough detail has been shown to see the important role that labour plays in both the personal and social development of man, which can be seen as a single movement. In the implicit critique of the Liberal conception of work-as purely an economic activity-we can see that Hegel does not see work as of little importance, as something we must do to survive, rather it becomes the most important activity in the development of self-conscious freedom.
There is a problem created for Hegel's political philosophy because as we now know civil society which is a logical necessity needs a solid and forthright state to control its tendency toward alienation and poverty. This creates what Habermas called a crisis of legitimation. Hegel and Habermas rightly see that the dysfunctional aspects of the market need state intervention to correct them, however the extent of this state intervention needs to be far more pervasive than allowed by liberal capitalist societies. [] Especially considering that the modern Liberal state's 'defining goal is understood negatively as the instrumental-managerial attempt to prevent social disintegration' [] and as a tool for 'securing the general conditions of production.' [] Further still, as Rousseau first pointed out, there is another paradox when it comes to the state, this paradox occurs because 'political freedom requires a life lived partly in common through the vehicle of the state but any state strong enough to achieve public goals (for the sake of freedom) also risks the authoritarian or technocratic abuse of political power'. []
However, on issues of the modern state, its legitimacy and the contradictions and crises of market societies 'Hegel is seen as offering an alternative to mainstream liberalism and to orthodox [M]arxism.' [] The contemporary relevance of Hegel can be seen in that he 'challenges the individualist and ahistorical presuppositions of the modern liberal tradition [and] he confronts [M]arxism with a type of social realism that avoids reducing the normative dimension of collective life to a positivist science of society.' [] Hegel's understanding and critique of labour and interaction provides us with a realistic vision for the future, as it incorporates a critique of the now clearly disastrous Classical Liberalism whilst retaining a place for the market. When Hegel referred to the 'end of history' he was referring to the fact that there is a limited number of political paradigms possible for humanity. It appears now, after the collapse of communism, and the totally unrealistic nature of the proposed small anarchistic communities, that Hegel's prediction that the political paradigm that he proposed is logically the last paradigm has some validity. The only question that now remains is whether the powerful proponents of Liberalism will release their grip long enough for the state [] to regain its rightful position as guardian of its constituency.
5th February 1999
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