Work Ethic/Slave Morality


‘Jim, quick question, in what way did you mean the following: “why do we seek out the deferral of desire that work requires, regardless of how collective and cooperative, or how lonely and artful, it must be? Why are we bound to this slave morality?” On its face it reads like you are saying that any deferral of desire for the sake of realizing some long-term purpose is a sign that we are latter-day Protestants (or slaves, I was a little confused on that point too). If you really mean that, I don’t get the argument. Should I just spend my days quarreling on FB rather than disciplining myself and trying to get my book written? Oh the loathing that would follow.’


That’s Alex Gourevitch’s comment on my blog/FB post regarding his friendly exchange with Peter Frase and Seth Ackerman on the question of work.  I meant my own remarks as an interruption rather, or less, than an “intervention.”  For now I’m just trying to slow us all down, wherever we are on the road to a decision about the meaning and significance of work.

In the book I’m writing, I enlist Hegel as well as Marx to get at what Freud called the “compulsion to work.”  In doing so, I assume that Nicolai Hartmann and Alexandre Kojeve were right to think of The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) as a “philosophy of work”—not an idealist retort to Kant, but a radically materialist alternative to The Critique of Pure Reason (1787).  But I also assume that Hegel treated work exactly as he treated private property, as a first approximation of self-consciousness and/or freedom, not the last word—as a stage in the development of consciousness that would, of course, be superseded by another (cf. par. 44 in The Philosophy of Right [1821]).  Not obliterated, mind you, but instead sublated, that is, both incorporated and transformed by the remembrance and the mourning of its demise.

I’ll sample both The Phenomenology and The Philosophy of Right to make the materialist point.  Herbert Marcuse notwithstanding, the logical, narrative, and normative structures of The Phenomenology still flourish in the later work.  For example, in the subsection on “Civil Society” (par. 182-256) in the Philosophy of Right, Hegel examines “The System of Needs.”  Here Rousseau is the object of serious ridicule:

“The idea has been advanced that in respect of his needs man lived in freedom in the so-called ‘state of nature’ when his needs were supposed to be confined to what are known as simple necessities of nature . . . This view takes no account of the moment of liberation intrinsic to work.” (par. 194)

Soon after Hegel sounds like Emerson in praising the “Doctrine of the Farm”—where manual labor is an education—or Gramsci in describing but also defending the effects of the assembly line (“Fordism”):

“Practical education, acquired through working, consists first in the automatically recurring need for something to do and the habit of simply being busy [sound familiar?]; next, in the strict adaptation of one’s activity according not only to the nature of the material worked on, but also, and especially, to the pleasure of other workers; and finally, in a habit, produced by this discipline, of objective activity and universally recognized aptitudes.  The universal and objective element in work, on the other hand, lies in the abstracting process, which effects the subdivision of needs and means thereby eo ipso subdivides production and brings about the division of labour.  By this division, the work of the individual becomes less complex, and consequently his skill at his section of the job increases, like his output.  At the same time, this abstraction of one man’s skill and means of production from another’s completes and makes necessary everywhere the dependence of men on one another and their reciprocal relation in the satisfaction of their other needs.  Further, the abstraction of one man’s production from another’s makes work more and more mechanical, until finally man is able to step aside and install machines in his place.”  (par. 197-98; cf. Marx’s Grundrisse, Penguin ed., pp. 83-111, 703-04)

In the earlier Phenomenology, Hegel’s language was more “intimate,” by which I mean his phrases had a closer proximity to the primal, and, yes, Protestant meanings of work: you can almost feel the fear, the trembling, and the sweat of the slave’s brow.  This is from the Lordship and Bondage section of Chapter 4:

“For this consciousness [of the slave] was not in peril and fear for this element or that, nor for this or that moment in time, it was afraid for its entire being; it felt the fear of death, the sovereign master.  It has been in that experience melted to its inmost soul, has trembled throughout its every fibre, and all that was fixed and steadfast has quaked within it.  This complete perturbation of of its entire substance, this absolute dissolution of all its stability into fluent continuity, is however, the simple, ultimate nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity

“. . . Further, this bondsman’s consciousness is not only this total dissolution in a general way; in serving and toiling the bondsman actually carries this out.  By serving he cancels in every particular aspect his dependence on and attachment to natural existence, and by his work he removes this existence away.  . . . Through work and labour, however, this consciousness of the bondsman comes to itself.  In the moment which corresponds to desire in the case of the master’s consciousness, the aspect of the non-essential relation to the thing seemed to fall to the lot of the servant, since the thing there retained its independence.  Desire [of the master] has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object and thereby [an] unalloyed feeling of self.  This satisfaction, however, just for that reason is itself only a state of evanescence, for it lacks objectivity or subsistence.  Labour, on the other hand, is desire restrained and checked, evanescence delayed and postponed; in other words, labour shapes and fashions the thing.” (pp. 237-38, Baillie trans.)

Like the Stoic, the blueprint for the unhappy consciousness, the slave experiences his freedom as work, as the renunciation of the desires that create, or constitute, his self-consciousness (“self-consciousness is the state of Desire in general” [p.220]).  Like Augustine, he’s already divided up in time.


Still, Hegel’s break from the received tradition in political philosophy is clean.  It can be gauged from three different angles.  Manfred Riedel claims, rightly I think, that Hegel overturns classical practical philosophy: “On the classical model of poiesis [as in poetry or composition] there is no reflexive connection between the work and the worker, and certainly not the coupling and oscillating movement between worker and work, between subject and object, expressed by Hegel’s concept of development.  The reason for this lies in the hierarchy of activity itself, which identifies [political] action as superior to labour.”  According to Riedel, the “doubly negative movement” of work—the “self-objectification of consciousness’ as Hegel put it in the Jena lectures—“eliminates not only the simple dichotomy of form and matter, but also the priority of utility, a concept that plays a central role in the structure of the classical theory.  Briefly summarized, Hegel does not interpret the process of labour in terms of its outcome, as does Aristotle and the pre-industrial tradition of poietetics (artisanship or technology) which follows him; instead [Hegel] interprets it in terms of its origin.”  (Between Tradition and Revolution [1984], pp. 20-21)

Rebecca Comay says pretty much the same thing, but more poignantly: “The broken subject [the slave, the Stoic, the unhappy consciousness, the worker] can no longer position itself as the creative origin of either itself or [the] world.  Spirit thus suspends the labor that had defined human history as the artisanal history of production and self-reproduction.  The world ceases to present a mirror in which I can recognize the objectified imprint of my own activity.  In breaking with this imaginary scenario, I submit to a ‘complete externalization’ without return.”  (Mourning Sickness [2011], p. 146)

Finally, Hegel himself explained that his redefinition of work permitted a recalculation of the scope of political freedom.  In paragraphs 67 and 80 of the PR, we can read another kind of retort to Kant, who, in The Metaphysical Elements of Right (1797), had distinguished between “the active and the passive citizen” by claiming that civil personality was an attribute of property holders only—not proletarians and other dependents: “Apprentices to merchants or tradesmen, servants who are not employed by the state, minors (naturaliter vel civiliter), women in general, and all those who are obliged to depend for their living (i.e. for food and protection) on the offices of others (excluding the state)—all of these people have no civil personality, and their existence is, so to speak, purely inherent.”

Hegel begged to differ.  Here is how he announced his break from the classical tradition that Kant affirmed—the tradition, not incidentally, that Hannah Arendt revived with The Human Condition (1958)—in the Philosophy of Right: “Single products of my particular physical and mental skill and of my power to act I can alienate to someone else and I can give him the use of my abilities for a restricted period because, on the strength of this restriction, my abilities acquire an external relation to the totality and universality of my being.  By alienating the whole of my time, as crystallized 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, par. 67; cf. par. 80)

By this specification, proletarians were neither slaves nor masters.  They were “moments” or members of civil society.  Not even the muted, mechanized violence of alienated labor in the mines and the factories—what the younger Hegel had called “the moving life of the dead”—disqualified them from participation, including citizenship, in the modern-industrial world.  Indeed the alienation of labor, the externalization or objectification or reification of self-consciousness was both the price and the promise of that new world.

And yet by the same specification, the proletarian must live by the slave’s morality, always converting the frustration or deferral of desire into the sovereignty of self-reliance—always internalizing the prohibited aggression (the realization of desire), so that longing for death and desire as such eventually become indistinguishable.  Nietzsche’s nihilism and Freud’s reconfiguration of the relation between ego and id after 1915 were both results of this Hegelian insight.

The proletarian does what he has to, he turns the other cheek, and in doing so he makes failure a virtue.  He chooses life—for the time being he stays in his calling and bears the scourge of the Devil, waiting for redemption, as Luther advised.

But what if the deferral of desire is no longer the condition of life because the socially necessary labor of the proletarian has receded?  What if the realization of desire (yes, the consumption rather than the production of values) has become the condition of life as such—of human development, as Hegel would say?  Then the morality of the slave, the Stoic, the worker—the repression of desire—becomes a constraint on human development, a fetter on the growth of the forces of production.  It becomes an end in itself, and thus a political dead end.

The young Marx spoke eloquently about how the working class, the universal class, would abolish itself in achieving its goal of liberation from alienated labor.  My aim is to abolish the intellectual and psychological predicates that make work, as both Hegel and Marx understood it, the indispensable characteristic of human nature—and then see what happens.




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2 responses to “Work Ethic/Slave Morality

  1. William Neil


    I hope you appreciate how sensitive if not dangerous a topic you are working on, which I tried to hint at with my comment on your previous posting about work, chafing at Douthat’s handling of the issue. I say this especially thinking of where the two parties are, where the New Deal (and Henry Wallace dropped a few hints at how close we are to abundance: and you can appreciate why…agriculture even in the 1930’s could produce more than the public could buy and the small farmer was getting nothing for the fruits of his labor…not even electricity…and the Right jumped to the attack when Wallace had the surplus pigs slaughtered….) stands in both parties…if you can’t deal fairly with the New Deal, the two parties certainly can’t deal with the deep transformations in capitalism and the implications for what you write about and I share the frustrations – which you should not ingnore – of the tens of millions desperate for work of any kind – and more hours in the retail sector for those who are working but still can’t pay the bills…this I think inclines the whole discussion backwards in time,which is not where you want to take this…

    So let me toss this out and see what you think: it’s a passage from one of the late Michael Harrington’s books, and his take on Marx’s seminal work:

    “Western man has by now become so accustomed to the qualitative change in the conditons of life that capitalism thus brought about that he has quite forgotten that only a few centuries ago it was not thought ‘natural’ to spend most of one’s waking hours at work. In 1530, Christopher Hill has pointed out, a man could earn his yearly bread in fourteen or fifteen weeks of labor – and two and half centuries later he had to toil fifty-two weeks a year.”

    Two and half centuries would bring us out to 1780 and the “springtime” of industrialization… I might argue that the public consciousness of what you are writing about – and I strongly urge you to continue – hasn’t advanced one iota since the New Deal…has fallen behind what Marx and Keynes saw; the enormous increases in capitalism’s productive power and its weaving more and more of the world into its giant web of connectivity…the socialization of production and esp. science…is still seen and talked about in terms of private and privatization…individuals and patent rights…and ample rewards to those who claim they did it all by themselves…the languishing of the miniumum wage and the iron clamp thrown down about discussions of linking its rise to the missing productivity gains is surely the proof of this…(and also the Right’s resonspe to President Obama’s clumsy phrasing to businessmen that “you didn’t build this…” (all by yourself….that’s the nerve, isn’t it…)

    You are on to something solid and important…and you’re going to have to find ways to build some intellectual bridges to public policy…and you know how hard that is with this material if we can’t even have a proper discussions of the minimum wage.

  2. Pingback: Putting in work | The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity:

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