For most of civilization physical labor, that labor which creates a tangible object, has been seen as an unfortunate task done merely for the sake of acquiring the necessaries of life. The Greeks and Romans in large part relegated this sort of work to slaves. The Middle Ages tell stories of kings, philosophers, theologians, and priests, but not of workers. And the capitalist era, from early mercantilism to modern imperialism, thrives insofar as it has labor to exploit, labor it can reduce to a commodity, labor whose activity and product can be stripped from the laborer. Today most people’s relation to their work is dull at best, a source of life drainage at worst. As a reaction, even many ‘left-wing’ theoretical spaces continue in the tradition of viewing work as an unfortunate necessity – one whose conditions might be improvable, but which is itself not fruitful. It only exists because people need the products it can create.
Although painted with a broad stroke, the history of the greatest minds in Europe has been one which sniffs at the activities for which their abstract mind games depended on. However, can labor be thought of as something done for purposes not limited to those of consumption? Can labor be fruitful and meaningful in itself? In Georg Hegel, for the first time in a prominent western theorist, the response is YES! In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Right one can see what I have elsewhere called a “world-historic shift” in how labor is conceived: from labor as an unfortunate necessity, towards labor as a valuable expression of creative activity which constitutes a moment of liberation.[i]
In the famed lord and bondsman section of his 1907 Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel describes the encounter of two self-consciousness with each other, an event plagued with a mutual desire for recognition. After a series of ambiguous supersessions between the two consciousness, this encounter leads to a life and death struggle, for “only through staking one’s life is freedom won.”[ii] Realizing that “death is the natural negation of consciousness,”[iii] for he who is dead cannot think and he who requires recognition for self-consciousness that is in and for itself cannot get it from a dead man, this infantile skirmish ends with one submitting to the other. This submission gives rise to the lord and bondsman, the former who posits himself as “pure self-conscious” and the latter as “merely immediate consciousness, or consciousness in the form of thinghood.”[iv]
Although the lord is described as the “pure, essential action in this relation”, because what the “lord does to the other he also does to himself,” the recognition he receives from the bondsman is “one-sided and unequal,” i.e., in the relationship’s reduction of the bondsman to thinghood, his status as independent consciousness is negated and thus unable to afford the recognition necessary for the lord to be certain of his being for-self.[v] Simply put, in sex that you pay for you cannot affirm yourself as a good lover. Hegel concludes that “just as lordship showed that its essential nature is the reverse of what it wants to be, so too servitude in its consummation will really turn into the opposite of what it immediately is… it will withdraw into itself and be transformed into a truly independent consciousness.”[vi]
How can Hegel affirm the slave as the one with the potential for ‘truly independent consciousness’? Hegel states that “through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is.”[vii] He continues,
Work forms and shapes the thing. The negative relation to the object becomes its form and something permanent, because it is precisely for the worker that the object has independence. This negative middle term or the formative activity is at the same time the individuality or pure being-for-self of consciousness which now, in the work outside of it, acquires an element of permanence. It is in this way, therefore, that consciousness, qua worker, comes to see in the independent being [of the object] its own independence.
Hence, although his immediate condition is as a slave, his externalization (or objectification for us Marxists), although at first appearing as an alien force independent of the bondsman, eventually shows itself as his creation. Through observing the independence of his self-otherization into the object he can, to play with the language of the Science of Logic, absolutely recoil back into himself and reinstate his initial condition but in a higher form – as true self-consciousness.
Approximately thirteen years after the publication of the Phenomenology, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right reintroduces the liberatory role of labor, albeit without the imaginative and captivating language used in the lord and bondsman moment of spirit’s unfolding. When addressing certain philosophers’ romanticized theories of a ‘state of nature’ where man’s needs were such that the “accidents of nature directly assured to him” enough to subsist, Hegel condemns this view’s inability to see that there is a “moment of liberation intrinsic to work.”[viii] For Hegel, this utopianism fails to see that work is meaningful in itself. Yes, its object satisfies needs, cravings, etc., but this satisfactory power of the object is what the French call jouissance, a sort of surplus enjoyment. The objects of labor are valuable[ix]; they can fill empty stomachs, warm bodies, provide aesthetic enjoyment, and so on, but the laboring activity which the object presupposes can be valuable as well.
Unlike the traditional views of labor before him, for Hegel the first moment of value in labor is not the object, but the work itself. Work itself is meaningful and valuable because it consists of a dedication of “my time…, my being, my universal activity and actuality, [and] my personality,”[x] into creating, with the “raw materials directly supplied by nature,”[xi] that upon which the human community sustains itself. For Hegel, the object labor creates is not simply an independent alien entity, instead, Hegel sees that the object “derives its destiny and soul from [the worker’s] will,”[xii] the worker ensouls his object.
Hence, for Hegel the result of labor is 1) the liberating sense of growth, meaning, and flourishing it can provide the laborer and 2) the consumptive growth it brings the consumer (who could, naturally, be the same person). Although this historical-shift is praiseworthy, there are, of course, certain contradictions which ensue from Hegel’s attempt to both: 1) sustain a critique of chattel slavery grounded in his view of labor’s totalizing inalienability, while also sustaining 2) a defense for wage-slavery, grounded in his acceptance of labor’s alienation “for a specific period.”[xiii]
In my essay, “A World-Historic Shift: Hegel, Marx, and Labour”[xiv] I further explore how these contradictions arise and how Marx and Engels, by immanently taking Hegel to his logical and practical conclusions, sublate the contradictions Hegel encounters. For now, I simply urge the reader to recognize that this anarchistic disdain of work is not a part of our tradition. Starting from Hegel, but better formulated in Marx and Engels, labor is humanity’s unique life-activity – it allows one to transform nature consciously and collaboratively in accordance with human needs and aesthetic sensibilities. We must not universalize and fixate the wretchedness of alienated work under capitalism with work in general; for work, when done in a non-exploitative setting, can be the most fruitful and meaningful thing a human can do. In fact, I would argue the few but meaningful moments we do encounter under capitalism are those in which labor takes place in a setting which overflows (albeit never fully) the exploitative logic of capital – e.g., home craft projects, sports, revolutionary militancy, parenting, etc.
[ii] Hegel, Georg. Phenomenology of Spirit. (Oxford, 1997), p. 114.
[iv] Ibid., 115.
[vi] Ibid., 117.
[vii] Ibid., 118.
[viii] Hegel, Georg. Philosophy of Right. (Oxford, 1978), p. 128.
[ix] To be clear, I am referring to Value as Use-Value here.
[x] Ibid., 54.
[xi] Ibid., 129.
[xii] Ibid., 41.
[xiii] Ibid., 54.
[xiv] See note [i]