Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

Work and Social Justice

2009 (31) Issue 1
Guest-Editor: Carsten Köllmann


The labour market is among the most contested fields of political argument and conflict in our time. Public criticism of increasing wage inequalities and especially of excessive management pay is, notwithstanding its popularity, only a symptom of more fundamental changes going on in the labour market and in society at large. The conditions and the very meaning of work rank high on the agenda of Western societies. Persistent mass unemployment, coupled with an increasing number of working poor, contributes to the general perception that grave social injustices prevail and require public intervention. This gives rise to pressing questions: Will full employment ever be achieved again? If so, will this be done at the cost of justice, confirming the popular belief in an inevitable conflict between justice and efficiency? Or can these values be reconciled? Will the ’knowledge society’ do the trick, or will strict measures against the unemployed be necessary to revive the allegedly eroding work ethic? Is the rise of ’atypical work’ a natural feature of functioning labour markets, and is the principle of free contract thus the only ethical demand we should reasonably make? What about a right to (meaningful) work? Or should we just fall back on the idea of a basic income and definitively abandon the traditional ideal of full employment?

In this issue, we offer a selection of articles by philosophers, economists and social scientists addressing these questions from different perspectives. Despite all disagreements, they seem to share the belief that work is at the centre of human life and society, if not as gainful employment then as meaningful activity in the sense of self-realization and contribution to the common good. Its conditions must therefore be assessed by reference to principles of justice.

Peter Koller reviews the rise and decline of ’typical work’ in advanced societies, i.e. long-term employment with decent working conditions. After outlining a conception of social justice and a just working system therein, he assesses three suggestions of how to remedy the situation: the ’market-liberal’, the ’market-alternative’, and the ’market-regulative’ conception. He votes for the third, and for considerable reforms, including a basic income, but acknowledges that this may only be possible on the level of international cooperation. Gebhard Kirchgässner criticizes what he calls ’well-intended proposals’ such as the institution of a right to work, the redistribution of working time and a basic income. In his view, they lack an economically sound basis and cannot be realized without impairing other basic human rights. He agrees that a remedy is called for, but denies the feasibility of the above proposals. This negative outcome is attenuated by some positive suggestions. He closes by urging philosophers to face economic reality when making ethically motivated proposals. Claus Offe explicates the meanings of ’full employment’ and criticizes the ’productivist’ goal of maximal employment as unrealistic and not necessarily welfare-enhancing. He advocates a basic income as a remedy for three negative contingencies associated with capitalist labour contracts: involuntary unemployment, poverty, and denial of autonomy. After discussing arguments for and against a basic income, he closes with a functionalist reflection on its virtues for gradually overcoming the structural problems of capitalist societies. Starting with Nozick’s ideal of a minimal state, Richard Sturn takes issue with a normative principle that seems to be widely accepted in debates on the labour market: the principle of ’free contract’. At first glance, this principle appears to be compelling as a normative foundation for the labour market, but Sturn concludes that it only applies under extremely unrealistic assumptions. Thus, he rejects Nozick’s ideal of a night-watchman state as a baseline for an ethical assessment of labour-market relationships. Ulrich Steinvorth wants to replace the demand for a right to work with a right to develop one’s capabilities. A right to work usually means a right to employment in the labour market, i.e. to labour. But most of us want to avoid labour. In his view, the rational core of the demand for a right to work lies in the idea of adapting nature to human capabilities: the ’Promethean venture’, which is, with a ’liberal proviso’, the normative basis for a right to participate in a society’s interaction with its environment. This, however, could be done outside the labour market if there is a decent dole, hence a call for basic income. Stephan Schlothfeldt, however, challenges Steinvorth’s basic premise that labour is a burden people prefer to avoid. In his view, philosophers tend to neglect labour’s function as a source of social recognition. This does not rule out a basic income, but it should be seen only as a second best. Ulrich Steinvorth, in his reply, defends his premise that a life of self-chosen activity is preferable to labour. He agrees that recognition is central but claims that the importance of labour is only a feature of the kind of societies we currently live in. Russell Keat examines an influential paper by Richard J. Arneson in which socialists were urged to confine themselves to distributional justice and to leave the provision of meaningful work to the market in order to preserve neutrality. Keat denies that the state could be neutral in this respect. By drawing on the ’varieties of capitalism’ literature, according to which there are at least two kinds of capitalist organization, the ’liberal’ and the ’coordinated’, Keat claims that meaningful work will be prevalent in the latter. Thus, there can be no neutrality, only different biases of the ways to organize the market. In response, Richard J. Arneson diagnoses a non-sequitur in his former argument, jumping from the premise that the state should not privilege some preference as intrinsically more worthy to the conclusion that it should not enhance worse-off people’s well-being by increasing their opportunity to perform meaningful work. He rejects Keat’s claim that ’varieties of capitalism’ exclude the possibility of neutrality towards alternative conceptions of the good, even if neutrality of outcome might be impossible. In his reply, however, Keat tries to defend parts of Arneson’s earlier position against the Arneson of today. Christoph Henning thinks that the dominant justification of workfare is perfectionist, but that perfectionism need not be paternalistic. While the purpose of welfare was to take care of the vulnerable, workfare aims at bringing recipients back into the labour market. To Henning, a liberal perfectionism seems recommendable, but not its paternalist version due to its violation of individual autonomy. He considers possible explanations for why liberal philosophers may have accepted the idea of workfare but discards them as unconvincing. Peter Streckeisen challenges the ’conventional wisdom’ that we are living in a knowledge society with more democratic kinds of work organization; worker alienation, class struggle and environmental destruction, may still persist. He diagnoses political strategies as resulting in blaming the unemployed for not investing enough in their human capital. After a brief case study done at Novartis he closes by speculating about why the picture of the ’brave new world of human resources management’ might have gained such widespread acceptance.

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Table of Contents

Title: Work and Social Justice
Author: Peter Koller
Page: 5-24

Abstract: In advanced societies, the sphere of work is subject to far-reaching changes which erode the system of gainful employment achieved in the second half of the last century, called ’typical work’, i.e. full-time employment for an indefinite period with collectively negotiated wages and working conditions. This development has lead to a proliferation of various kinds of ’atypical work’, most of which amount to poorly rewarded and insecure jobs with bad labour standards, and it has also weakened the traditional systems of social security. As a result, most advanced societies have experienced a significant increase in social inequality and poverty in recent decades, even though their overall social wealth has constantly grown, a state of affairs which may be deemed to be not merely undesirable, but also unjust. This judgment, however, presupposes a particular conception of social justice that submits the economic order and the working world to certain normative demands. The paper aims to illuminate these demands by proceeding in three steps. First of all, it starts with recapitulating the conditions of the rise of typical work and the features of its decay. Secondly, it seeks to sketch a conception of social justice and its requirements on the working world, on the basis of which the present situation may be considered as unjust. Finally, it will deal with the question of how to reform the present working world in a way that, as far as possible, meets the requirements of justice.

Title: Critical Analysis of Some Well-Intended Proposals to Fight Unemployment
Author: Gebhard Kirchgässner
Page: 25-48

Abstract: In this paper it is asked whether it is meaningful to state a ’right to work’ as a basic human right to be written down in the constitution, for example, whether working time should generally be reduced, and whether those who do not have (or find) a job should get a guaranteed minimal income. All three demands have to be rejected, at least in the radical form in which they are often stated. They cannot be realised at all or at least not without impairing other basic human rights. Finally, it is asked what can be retained from these (usually well-intended) demands.

Title: Basic Income and the Labor Contract
Author: Claus Offe
Page: 49-79

To Jürgen Habermas, June 18, 2009

Abstract: The paper starts by exploring the negative contingencies that are associated with the core institution of capitalist societies, the labour contract: unemployment, poverty, and denial of autonomy. It argues that these are the three conditions that basic income schemes can help prevent. Next, the three major normative arguments are discussed that are raised by opponents of basic income proposals: the idle should not be rewarded, the prosperous don’t need it, and there are so many things waiting to be done in the world. After demonstrating that proponents of basic income stand in no way empty-handed when facing these objections, a third part considers basic income in functional terms: would its introduction help to resolve problems of social and economic order that are unlikely to be resolved in more conventional ways?

Title: Volenti Non Fit Iniuria? Contract Freedom and Labor Market Institutions
Author: Richard Sturn
Page: 81-99

Abstract: Various writers point out that accepting the terms of a contract does not imply consent to the background conditions of this contract. This is an important critical insight allowing for a critical perspective on the principle of free contract, according to which the state should not interfere with what adult agents contractually agree upon. In this paper I argue that the practical relevance of this critical insight depends on the availability of answers to three questions: (1) Which are the core features of baseline background conditions supporting a well-ordered labor market enhancing economic welfare? (2) In which cases and for which reasons are non-market institutions needed in order to support these features? (3) Under which conditions and at which levels can collective mechanisms be expected to support adequate non-market institutions ’curing market failure’? Some of the core properties of labor markets and labor contracts are discussed which need to be taken into account in attempts to answer these questions, most notably problems of contract enforcement, market failure and collective action.

Title: The Right to Work and the Right to Develop One's Capabilities
Author: Ulrich Steinvorth
Page: 101-113

Abstract: I understand the claim that there is a right to work as the claim that involuntary unemployment is an injustice that requires of justice enforcement institutions to stop it. I argue that in present conditions of high productivity it is more consistent with the liberal tradition to proclaim a right to develop one’s capabilities than a right to work. The steps of my argument are: (1) An important though not the only reason for considering unemployment unjust has been what I call the Promethean idea of society. (2) The Promethean idea is implied by the liberal idea of rights. (3) There are two conceptions of the Promethean idea, the centralist and the autonomous one. (4) Only the latter is acceptable. (5) Involuntary unemployment is unjust even if the dole is decently high. (6) The injustice of unemployment can be stopped only by institutions that enable everyone to use their capabilities in realizing the Promethean idea. (7) One such institution is basic income. (8) As employment is not necessary for survival, we should replace the right to work with a right to develop one’s capabilities.

Title: Why Labor is Important A Commentary on Steinvorth
Author: Stephan Schlothfeldt
Page: 115-118

Abstract: Steinvorth has changed his view from arguing for a right to work to arguing for a basic income. This change of mind is consistent with his idea of the ’Promethean venture’. It is, however, only convincing if one accepts his premise that labor is in general a burden. In this commentary, it is shown that this premise should be rejected. Since labor is an important source of recognition and therefore a prerequisite of a decent life, a basic income should be regarded as being only a second best solution as compared to a right to employment.

Title: Reply to Schlothfeldt
Author: Ulrich Steinvorth
Page: 119-120

Abstract: Recognition is an important function of labour, as Schlothfeld claims, but only under given capitalist conditions. It is the very point of the introduction of basic income, if embedded in a suitable education system, that it would allow people to receive recognition from all kinds of activities they regard as meaningful rather than from stultifying wage labour.

Title: Anti-Perfectionism, Market Economies and the Right to Meaningful Work
Author: Russell Keat
Page: 121-138

Abstract: Should perfectionist ideals of meaningful work play a significant part in the design of economic systems? In an influential article (Meaningful Work and Market Socialism), Richard Arneson rejected this traditional socialist view. Instead, he maintained, it should be left to the market, as a system that is consistent with the principle of neutrality, to determine the extent to which such work is available, and socialists should restrict their normative concerns primarily to issues of distributive justice. Against this it is argued here that market economies appear to be neutral only if understood in neo-classical, rather than institutionalist terms. From the latter perspective, market economies can be shown to take a number of institutionally distinct forms, which differ significantly in how far they favour the satisfaction of preferences for meaningful work. Collective choices between these alternative systems should take account of these differences, and the adoption of market economies does not avoid the need for perfectionist judgments in politics.

Title: Meaningful Work and Market Socialism Revisited
Author: Richard J. Arneson
Page: 139-151

Abstract: If the economy consisted of labor-managed firms, so the workplace is democratic, and in addition the benefits and burdens of economic cooperation were shared equitably and the economy operated efficiently, might there still be a morally compelling case for further intervention into economic arrangements so as to increase the degree to which people gain meaningful or satisfying work? ’No!’, answers a 1987 essay by the author. This comment argues against that judgment, on the ground that morally required perfectionism or paternalism or simple fairness to the worse off might demand such intervention. It is plausible to hold the good life includes meaningful work, and that what we fundamentally owe one another is a fair distribution of good quality of life. However, this comment also takes issue with Russell Keats’s argument against Arneson in his essay in this issue of this journal.

Title: Reply to Arneson
Author: Russell Keat
Page: 153-157

Abstract: Arneson says that he disagrees both with the main claims of Arneson (1987) and with my criticisms of these in Keat (2009). What is arguably the most important of the former disagreements is left until the final paragraphs, where he declares that he (now) rejects the principle of state neutrality and that we are comrades in believing that good perfectionist arguments for the promotion of meaningful work can be constructed (and may legitimately provide a basis for state action). I am more than happy to be counted a comrade in this respect. But otherwise I disagree with much of what he says in his response: I not only continue to support the criticisms I made in Keat (2009), but also disagree with another of Arneson’s main criticisms of Arneson (1987). So I shall both defend myself from his objections, and defend Arneson from his own.

Title: Liberalism, Perfectionism and Workfare
Author: Christoph Henning
Page: 159-180

Abstract: Recent welfare reform has resulted in new work requirements for welfare recipients. These measures need to be justified, as they impair recipients’ freedom. This paper first repudiates economic justifications for these developments and argues that the dominant justification is perfectionist. But unlike workfare, perfectionism is not necessarily paternalistic. The second part of the paper outlines a liberal perfectionism which allows only for autonomy-enhancing politics. Though even such autonomy-enhancing politics cannot be made obligatory. The last section concludes that workfare’s paternalism cannot be attributed to perfectionist justifications, but rather stems from the narrow philosophy of work that is applied. The idea that enforced wage labour is a reliable tool for inducing autonomy is refuted. In the end, workfare needs to be rejected, as it is based on assumptions that are mistaken both normatively and empirically.

Title: Knowledge Society or Contemporary Capitalism's Fanciest Dress
Author: Peter Streckeisen
Page: 181-197

Abstract: Scholars of social science have increasingly been describing advanced capitalist societies as knowledge societies, based on a series of key assumptions about ’post-industrialism’. My contribution challenges this new ’conventional wisdom’ (John K. Galbraith) on several points. I first argue that it veils the ’dark sides’ of capitalism, i.e. worker alienation, class relationships and class struggle. I then show how knowledge society experts all too often contribute to the individualization of social problems. Further on, I challenge the assumption according to which contemporary human resources management creates a new kind of work relationship based on mutual respect, objectivity and justice. Finally, I try to understand the very success of the new ’conventional wisdom’. The relative autonomy of science and education might be the most important reason why so many social science scholars as well as ordinary people today believe they are living in a knowledge society.