Bernard E. Harcourt | On Axel Honneth and the Democratization of Work

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In his writings on the democratization of labor, Axel Honneth takes a realist and pragmatist approach, advocating both for alternative democratic changes to the organization of labor and reforms to capitalist labor structures. In this work, Honneth traces the history of the conceptualization of labor since the birth of theories of the value of labor in modern political theory, noting that the concept of labor was not valued prior to the advent of modern political theory. Honneth shows how the concept of labor, as valuable, was first limited to the idea of an individual laboring on an object, which effectively marginalized agricultural labor and service work. He traces the history from Locke through Hegel and Marx, showing how the definition of labor crystallized around the model of industrial production and put aside other forms of care services and domestic labor. Honneth then shows how the concept evolved and enlarged, somewhat reluctantly, to include not only domestic labor of third parties in the home, such as housekeeping or health care assistance, but to include as well the work of homemakers, especially women in the unpaid economy of the family.

Honneth’s history of the concept of labor as a valuable performance is remarkable. It demonstrates well the different contours of the valued object: labor.

The Value of Labor

One first question I have is whether Honneth’s account adequately takes into account that the valuing of labor was itself a motivated project. In other words, labor became an object of value—whether in the work of Locke, or the early Protestant work ethic, or Hegel—driven or inspired by a deliberate (though perhaps not fully articulated or conscious) effort to make work appear valuable to laborers. I might use the term “underhanded” here in order not to trigger all the associations that go with the term “ideological,” but I think you understand what I am pointing to: namely, to the instrumental dimension of the discourse over labor.

Labor was transformed or shaped into a valuable performance in these philosophical interventions—and in an interesting, though perhaps puzzling way, Marx continued this instrumentalization of labor.

I would like to focus on this instrumental dimension. I have a sense that Honneth’s historical analysis of labor in modern political theory takes at face value the ways in which labor was valued and perceived as a way to achieve autonomy, or self-determination, through the process of objectification that Hegel describes so well—the idea that the work product is an externalization and realization of one’s being, and thus produces a consciousness of self.

But these philosophical constructions may be illusions, fabricated ways of trying to convince workers of the importance of their work as a way to reproduce more workers.

As Honneth’s analysis demonstrates, in fact, the history is even more damning, especially when one looks at the way in which industrial labor was valued but more feminine work (like care and home services) remained ignored, marginalized, and undervalued. There are not only troubling class dimensions, but gender and race dimensions to the way in which labor was being conceptualized and turned into valuable performances.

If we focus on that aspect, the instrumental aspect, then the question that would arise is: What work are those philosophical discourses doing?

Why might it be important to look at the work that they were doing?

First, because it raises a fundamental question about the value of labor: Could it be that labor is not in fact that which gives us our sense of self, of self-consciousness, of identity, of well-being? Could it all have been a myth, or an illusion, or an attempt to convince us of this? Could it be that labor is not, in fact, the essence of man and that it doesn’t contribute importantly to our self-realization?

Here, I would draw on Foucault’s critique in his lectures on The Punitive Society, where he argued that there is no reason to believe that labor is the essence of man. In his lecture of March 28, 1973, Foucault criticizes a certain reading of Marx, according to which labor is of the essence of mankind. Foucault does not specifically refer to a text, but I think we could imagine that he was pointing to the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in which Marx defines the specificity of man (by contrast to other animals) by his ability to supply freely granted and productive labor. (It is there that Marx writes that animals function instead primarily by “eating, drinking, and procreating.” The alienation of labor, as a mere means of survival, reduces man to the animal state: “What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.”[1])

Foucault suggests that this may be an illusion—or more accurately, a construction of knowledge-power. It may well not be the case that labor is man’s essence or so valuable, as it is made out to be. To be sure, we are made to believe that; but there is little evidence to support it. So Foucault says in those lectures on The Punitive Society:

It is false to say, with certain famous post-Hegelians, that labor is man’s concrete existence. The time and life of man are not labor by nature; they are pleasure, discontinuity, festivity (fête), rest, need, moments, chance, violence, and so on. Now, it is all this explosive energy that needs to be transformed into a continuous labor-power continually offered on the market. Life must be synthesized into labor-power, the clever ploy [he had written “stroke of genius”] of industrial society was to take up the old technique of the confinement of the poor, which, in the classical age, was a way of fixing and, at the same time, suppressing those who through idleness, vagabondage, or revolt had escaped all the geographical fixations in which the exercise of sovereignty was carried out.[2]

We might ask, with Foucault, how much regulation of vagabondage, of loitering, of enclosure and the Black Acts in England, and other restraints on movement and work were necessary to create value in labor?

Foucault will build on this argument a few months later, suggesting that the theory itself—namely, that labor is the concrete essence of man—is the product of practices intimately connected to capitalist relations of production.[3] On May 1973, in “La vérité et les formes juridiques,” his lectures in Rio, Foucault explains: “What I would like to show is that, in point of fact, labor is absolutely not man’s concrete essence or man’s existence in its concrete form … It needs the operation or synthesis carried out by a political power for man’s essence to appear as being labor.”[4]

That operation or synthesis works by means of the practices that render the workers’ bodies docile. Foucault will refer to these as an “infra-power,” “a set of political techniques, techniques of power … by which people’s bodies and their time become labor time and labor-power, and may be effectively used so as to be transformed into hyper-profit,” as a “web of microscopic, capillary political power,”[5]—as opposed to “a state apparatus” or a “class in power.”[6] The term “infra-power” was evidently intended to index the term infrastructure in Marx’s writings.

On Foucault’s reading, the Marxist theory of the accumulation of capital depends on the accumulation of men and thus on the disciplinary techniques that fashion “productive bodies.”[7] Foucault explains this in his lectures, Psychiatric Power, on 28 November 1973:

My impression is that the question behind this general deployment of disciplinary apparatuses involved what could be called the accumulation of men. That is to say, alongside, and what’s more, necessary for the accumulation of capital, there was an accumulation of men, or if you like, a distribution of the labor force with all its somatic singularities. In what do the accumulation of men and the rational distribution of somatic singularities with the forces they carry consist?

First, they consist in bringing about the maximum possible use of individuals. They make all of them usable, not so that they can all be used in fact, but, precisely, so that they do not all have to be used; extending the labor market to the maximum in order to make certain of an unemployed reserve enabling wages to be lowered. As a result, making everyone usable.

Second, making individuals usable in their very multiplicity; ensuring that the force produced by the multiplicity of these individual forces of labor is at least equal to and, as far as possible, greater than the addition of these individual forces. How to distribute individuals so that as a group they are more than the pure and simple addition of these individuals set alongside each other?

Finally, to make possible the accumulation not only of these forces, but equally of time: the time of work, of apprenticeship, of improvement, of the acquisition of knowledge and aptitudes. This is the third aspect of the problem posed by the accumulation of men.

This triple function, this triple aspect of the techniques of the accumulation of men and of the forces of work, is, I think, the reason why the different disciplinary apparatuses were deployed, tried out, developed and refined. The extension, movement, and migration of the disciplines from their lateral function to the central and general function they exercise from the eighteenth century are linked to this accumulation of men and to the role of the accumulation of men in capitalist society.[8]

What Foucault was trying to show here is that it took an enormous amount of discursive work to convince people of the productive idea that labor is valuable and that, therefore, one must weave all that discursive work in relation to Marx’s analysis. The basic idea is that “Capitalism, in fact, does not simply encounter labor-power, just like that.”[9] Nor does it just encounter the fact that labor has value to man.

Moralizing Labor

A second and related point has to do with the way in which the valuing of labor was an effort to moralize, criminalize, and discipline the popular class. Here again, I would draw on Foucault’s work from the same period, in The Punitive Societyin 1973, where he was attempting to show the way in which time itself—the time of the workers and of the working class—was turned into commodities in a deliberate effort to “moralize” the popular class: How the workers were turned into immoral actors because they were not working enough and therefore stealing the “property” (their labor) of their employers.

Along these lines, the moralization of the laboring class—accusing them of being immoral, lazy, criminals—served the merchant class by allowing them ultimately to criminalize the workers and thereby control them and produce more docile workers. This is the line of argument that ultimately leads to Discipline and Punish and the creation of a disciplinary society.

In The Punitive Society, Foucault excavates the moralizing discourse that served to transform worker’s labor into the valuable property of the managerial class. This was central to Foucault’s project: to show how the privileged classes of the early nineteenth century in France and England—Colquhoun in London, for instance—would use moral notions of fault, guilt, and penance to facilitate the construction of a capitalist system. Foucault unearths these brutal passages, written by early nineteenth century reformers, about the moral inadequacies and failings of the working class—here, for instance, he minutely dissects this text by a jurist and reformer from the Napoleonic era regarding revisions to the penal code, a brutal text referring to the popular classes as that “bastardized race”:

There, hard souls, dry, fierce, devoid of moral ideas, will only obey their gross sensations; laziness, immorality, greed, envy will prove the irreconcilable enemies of wisdom and labor, of the economy and of property. There will thrive misdemeanors and crimes of all kinds, less in the masses of the nation than in the dregs of the foreign tribe in general, which is formed next to the real people by the force of circumstances and habits accumulated for centuries. Almost always, for such a nation, the punishments must be measured against the nature of this bastardized race, which is the source of crimes, and the regeneration of which can barely be glimpsed, after many years of the wisest government.

Foucault would unearth and dissect this other, equally violent passage from the rural context:

The peasant is an evil, cunning, ferocious beast, half-civilized; he has neither heart nor integrity, nor honor; he lets himself be led to ferocity, were it not that the other two states crushed him mercilessly and reduced him to not being able to commit the crime he would want to commit.

And in a fictitious dialogue between the popular class and the privileged, Foucault asks on behalf of the workers: “What has changed? Didn’t we together violate the law, and circumvent the rules?” To which the privileged respond, “under the ancien régime, we were all together fighting power, unjustifiable abuses of the monarchy, we were taking on sovereign power. But now, you are just attacking private property. Formerly, we fought together against abuse of power. Now, you are violating the law. And it manifests a complete lack of morals.” And in his manuscript, Foucault ends this dialogue with a marvelous exclamation: “Allez et faites pénitence.”

“Go and do your penance.”

What is important to understand here, then, is the way in which the valuation of labor was itself caught within power struggles and relations of power. It allowed for a form of moralization that fed into the criminalization and disciplinary forms that produced more docile workers. In other words, the valuing of labor helped create and reproduce laborers.

This ties into the famous passage in Discipline and Punish about the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital. There, citing Marx’s Capital in particular (vol. I, ch. XIII), Foucault maintains that the industrial revolution, which made possible the accumulation of capital in the nineteenth century, is inseparable from the production of docile bodies—what he designates as “the methods for managing the accumulation of men.”[10] These methods are precisely the disciplinary techniques at the heart of Discipline and Punish: “time-tables, collective training, exercises, total and detailed surveillance”[11]; techniques that have replaced the more traditional and ritual methods of violence and force. For Foucault, these techniques are just as important for capitalist production and the exploitation of surplus value as the relations of production themselves:

[T]he two processes—the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital—cannot be separated … [T]he technological mutations of the apparatus of production, the division of labor and the elaboration of disciplinary processes sustained a set of very close relations.[12]

When we highlight the work that the concept of labor does, we ask a different set of questions about the concept of labor: not so much to trace its history from Locke to Hegel, Marx, and Durkheim, but rather to trace its genealogy in an effort to identify and understand in the present the work that labor does—namely, to create better and more docile workers.

Labor and Democratic Theory

Third, if all of this is true or partly so, then it leads me to wonder whether labor should have a privileged place in relation to democratic theory. In other words, is the goal of democratizing labor—which I share—something that should be thought of as unique and privileged, or as just one forum among others regarding the need to democratize our lives.

This question should not undermine the importance of Honneth’s argument, but it reframes it.

It does not lessen the practical imperative that is at the heart of Honneth’s work to democratize labor. But it reframes it: it means that the democratization of the workplace is one among other dimensions of the need to democratize every aspect of our lives, from family life, to residential life (where and how we inhabit), to consumption (food cooperatives) and insurance, banking, etc.

This means that we come to the problem from another angle or perspective: not from the angle of labor only or primarily, but from the angle of an equal and cooperative democracy. The need to democratize labor runs parallel to the need to democratize family life, and living arrangements and housing, and consumption and food, and finance, etc. This does not derive from the history of the concept of labor. It comes from somewhere else: the political theory of cooperation, say.

Cooperation Democracy

We need to come to the issue based on the values of democratic self-determination, on equal terms, and sustainability in every aspect of our lives—from our workplace to our residences, to consumption to banking to insurance.

These are the same values that Honneth shares and develops in his book.

My amendment, then, is that these values need to guide every aspect of our lives and thereby constitute a regime or network of cooperation.

Rather than the “Working Sovereign” or ‘Working Democracy,” I would argue for the “Cooperative Sovereign” or perhaps “Cooperation Democracy” in order to:

  1. Infuse democratic self-governance in every aspect of our lives. Not just politics. But our work environment, our social relations, housing, consumption, production, finance, etc.
  2. To give everyone an equal voice and an equal share in the resources produced and our social arrangements.
  3. To provide, through equal participation, for the welfare of all the stakeholders, not just shareholders.
  4. And, because these cooperative initiatives are so local, to promote care of the environment, sustainability, and the living space.

What this suggests is that that the practical emphasis should be on worker cooperatives as the most fully functional form of democratic labor with self-determination, equal voice, and sustainability. This would not undermine the efforts to unionize in the capitalist or cooperative working environment. It does not oppose engaging in reform of capitalist work modes. But it does in some way privilege or highlight the importance of cooperatives, whether worker coops, housing cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, etc.

The argument really comes out of the cooperative tradition and the cooperative tradition. And as such, it highlights and privileges cooperative solutions rather than reforms of capitalist modes of labor.

So, as you can hear, I privilege the more concrete utopian over the more realistic solutions in Axel Honneth’s masterful new book.

To watch the seminar with Axel Honneth and read his work, please join us at


[1] See Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans., Martin Milligan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959); R. L. Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx.

[2] Lecture of 28 March 1973, p. 232.

[3] See M. Foucault, “La vérité et les formes juridiques,” p. 622/p. 1490; “Truth and Juridical

Forms,” p. 86.

[4] “La vérité et les formes juridiques,” pp. 621-622/pp. 1489-1490; “Truth and Juridical Forms,” p.86 (translation slightly amended by Graham Burchell).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lecture of 21 March 1973, p. 206.

[8] See Foucault, Le Pouvoir psychiatrique, lecture of 28 November 1973, p. 73; Psychiatric Power, pp. 71-72.

[9] Foucault, The Punitive Society, p. 232.

[10] Surveiller et Punir, p. 222; Discipline and Punish, p. 220.

[11] Ibid., p. 221; p. 220.

[12] Ibid., p. 222; p. 221 (translation slightly modified by Graham Burchell).