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doi: 10.1111/1467-8675.

12141

Historical Objections to the Centrality of Work


Jean-Philippe Deranty

The thesis of the centrality of work holds that the activity the social sciences, Dejours has developed a particularly
of work, that is, the activity dedicated to the production rich theoretical model of work.3 This model ties together
of goods and services for the satisfaction of socially the pragmatic and the social dimensions of work and
defined needs, is central for individuals in three related convincingly argues for its impact on subjective and so-
senses. First, in a psychological sense, the thesis holds cial life. Drawing on a rich strand of French ergonomics
that work constitutes an indispensable factor in the con- and the anthropology of techniques, Dejours model
stitution of individual identity and in the development highlights structural features of the working activity
of an individuals capacities.1 Work, the thesis argues, from an ergonomic perspective, which then account for
is central for the cognitive learning, the emotional mat- the fact that, like no other activity, work makes the sub-
uration and the moral development of the individual. ject face pragmatic challenges that have to be overcome
When the experience of work is conducive, it is in fact and that mobilize subjective capacities. These subjective
an indispensable factor of development, that is, one that pragmatic challenges, in turn, take place in a number of
cannot be replaced by other kinds of activity to guide and collectives, from the working group to the work place,
foster individual development. Conversely, when work the profession and the society at large. All these collec-
does not provide these potentialities for development tives in which the work activity is embedded determine
and identity formation, it becomes a major factor of its sociocultural as well as its subjective meanings. On
disruption because of its psychological significance. It such a broad and detailed theoretical basis, the psycho-
leads to the formation of pathological complexes, in the dynamics of work focuses on the psychological mech-
cognitive, emotional and moral life of the subject. This anisms and the subjective consequences involved.
first aspect can be named the pragmatic dimension of As noted above, the idea that work is a central
the centrality of work, inasmuch as the pragmatic chal- experience, in one or several of the three senses
lenges entailed in the work activity are decisive positive delineated above, was an important motif in many
or negative factors in individual development. theoretical models, in ancient political philosophy,4 and
This thesis also entails two interrelated social dimen- more explicitly and famously in the authors who first
sions. First, it implies that mens general domination of attempted to account theoretically for the rise of modern
women, which traverses human history,2 is centrally industrial society (Adam Smith, Hegel and Marx). Up
structured around the organization of work. Work is until a few decades ago, it was an assumption that was
both a central stake in, and a major vehicle for, the male still widely accepted, explicitly or not, from within the
domination of females. And secondly, work also plays Marxist camp as well as outside it. Today, this remains
a central a substantive and irreducible role in the a founding premise in many empirical social scientific
structure and quality of social relations and political life. inquiries as a fact about our societies. It is also a
The individual experiences and forms of interpersonal widely shared premise in public debate and policy
relations shaped by the organization of work have a discussions. Yet, even though work is taken as a central
deep impact on social relations outside the work sphere; subjective and social experience on the empirical side
they influence the modes of civility and establish social of the social sciences as well as in public debate, in the
bonds likely to lead to cooperation or, on the contrary, theoretical parts of the contemporary humanities and
to distrust and exclusionary affects. This, in turn, is re- social sciences, by contrast, the opposite theoretical
flected in the ways in which the collective organizes consensus exists. There, the centrality of work is
itself in politics. The view according to which the di- denounced as an obsolete theoretical premise and an
vision of labor is the root of social and political life is ideological construct. This theoretical consensus is so
a classical one, advocated in particularly sophisticated strong today that it unites approaches that are otherwise
terms by Hegel, Durkheim and Dewey. at odds in most other respects.
In recent times, Christophe Dejours has thoroughly Objections to the centrality of work can be raised
adumbrated and explored the thesis of the central- against each of the three senses in which work can
ity of work. On the basis of his clinical practice in be said to be central. However, underneath each of
psychopathologies of work at the intersection of psy- these objections lies a massive assumption, shared by
chology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis, and basing his a vast number of social and political theorists as a ba-
theories on a vast body of literature in ergonomics and sic premise; namely, that work has become a central

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106 Constellations Volume 22, Number 1, 2015

category only in modern Western society. This assump- seem to be the most important and influential sources
tion does not necessarily specifically endorse all the pre- in this respect. In order to fully identify and contest the
cise claims advocated by the psychodynamic approach, historical background against which objections to the
but it does hold generally that work in modernity has centrality of work are raised, it is necessary to disentan-
become a central element in the formation of individ- gle these different threads. However, the historical basis
ual identity and the development of the self, as well of the objections to the centrality of work also ties in
as for collective life and in collective decision-making. with dimensions that are not just empirical, but also nor-
Mostly, this assumption about the centrality of work in mative and methodological ones. Historical evidence is
modern society is viewed as a negative phenomenon mostly used to contrast the set of values, norms and prin-
for modern selves and social bonds. This assumption ciples that define the industrialist order by contrast with
needs to be studied carefully not only because it is a other orders, whether the latter stem from the past or
key plank underlying each of the three series of objec- are anticipated in emerging social structures. Inasmuch
tions just mentioned, but also because it brings its own as these normative contrasts are made in direct refer-
specific rejoinders, which complement the thesis of the ence to, indeed as arising directly from, the historical
centrality of work with new elements. comparison, they come into the ambit of this study. The
The historical assumption at the basis of the consen- same point is valid in relation to methodological issues.
sus against the centrality of work can be summarized in The first part summarizes the main references. My
the following way: work as a central factor for individ- aim in this first part is to survey a theoretical field and to
uals, in the formation of their identity and capacities, identify the main threads in it. This work is important,
and work as central factor in the organization of social because the sheer mass of possible references creates a
and political life, is only a modern category, a modern massive theoretical background, which is as huge as it
invention, whose genealogy can be precisely retraced. is unquestioned. Some sort of intellectual unconscious
Past Western society and non-Western societies were acts in the background to prop up debates on specific
structured around different core values and norms, the issues of work. It is this intellectual background I want
ontological carving up of the natural and social worlds, to unpick here. In the second part, I indicate the contours
the underlying order that was implied in them, to speak of a rejoinder, at the empirical, the normative and the
like the early Foucault, were entirely different from the methodological levels.
modern one. Work became a central category only with
the rise of Western capitalism, and indeed was estab-
lished as social fact only with the rise of industrial soci- 1. Historical Objections
ety, that is, not before the beginning or the middle of the Two authors play particularly significant roles in the the-
nineteenth century. Furthermore, post-industrial, post- oretical rejection of the centrality of work: Karl Marx
modern society is pointing towards other constitutive and Michel Foucault. The suspicion of work that is de-
norms and principles, and is structured according to a rived from these two major sources relies primarily on
different ontology, a different order of knowledge and a what is taken to be a significant factual moment: al-
different nexus of knowledge/power. The notion of the legedly establishing as a historical fact that work is a
centrality of work is thus doubly obsolete at a factual central category only for modern capitalist society. And
level, downstream and upstream, as it were. this historical fact, combined as it is with their respec-
At a normative level, the emphasis on work is deeply tive, sophisticated theoretical apparatuses, also entails
fraught inasmuch as it has been used to justify indus- normative denunciations of work and methodological
trialist and productivist values which have proven to be prohibitions regarding general claims about work and
deleterious, both in the present of the societies in which its import for human subjects.
they ruled, and in terms of their legacy: deleterious for
the well-being of individuals, physically and emotion- 1.1. Marx
ally; for the different structures of domination that were At least on some readings of Marxs work, a key aspect
implied in the industrialist mind set, most notably to- of his method was the analysis of the specificity of his-
wards women; and, of course, for their terrible legacy torical social formations.5 Famously, Marx engaged in
in relation to the environment. this type of analysis mainly with the critical analysis of
This article focuses specifically on the historical modern society in mind. Nevertheless, his teleological
premise underpinning the objections to the centrality of mode of historical analysis did not prevent him from
work. It is essential to review the factual claims made by and in fact required engaging in substantive historical
key theorists who sought to establish, at the level of em- research into past societies, or from devising substan-
pirical facts, that work became central only in bourgeois tive methodological principles to account for the rela-
capitalist society. These claims can be made on the ba- tionship between historical scholarship and the analysis
sis of various methodologies, and I seek to review what of the present.


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Historical Objections to the Centrality of Work: Jean-Philippe Deranty 107

The problem of work is a key issue in this articula- it was the inevitable outcome of the historical rise of
tion of historical knowledge and the critical theory of modern capitalism, it is not a necessary component
modernity, both from a conceptual and factual perspec- of all human societies. It was not so in the past and
tive. This is because the specificity of each historical will not be so in the future, emancipated society.
formation is predicated on a categorical continuity that On this reading, the anthropological premise of the
is undeniable, especially if work features as a central importance of work for human individuals and societies
category in the implicit anthropological foundation un- is downplayed, as containing only basic and trivial
derlying the economic and historical analyses, as it does assumptions that are insufficient to rescue the centrality
in Marx and Engels work. Even if historical formations of work from its historical situatedness.
structure the relations between labor and the property It is worth revisiting briefly the most famous
of the means of production and products of labor, each passage of the Grundrisse because of its seminal role
time in a different guise, most of the core analytical in these discussions. In it, Marx articulates two key
concepts remain the same; indeed, the most fundamen- distinctions: between abstract concepts and their real-
tal categories remain in every case the categories of ization in actual social formations; and between simple
labor and the values it creates. In Capital, the multiple categories (for instance money, or possession, or indeed
features that make up the specificity of capitalistic work labor as abstract labor) and broader, richer concepts
are constantly presented in contrast with earlier periods. (such as population or state). A simple category like
Whether it is the forms of cooperation, the division of that of labor can be found retrospectively in all social
labor, the modes of professional organization (the caste formations preceding the capitalist one, it is indeed a
or the guild, for example), the relationship of workers basic anthropological or socio-ontological component.
to their tools and machines, or the scales of productive But the economists abstract notion of labor labor
units, the structural analysis of the capitalistic mode defined only as creation of exchange value independent
of production is complemented by, and in many cases of concrete instantiations and of the kinds of relations in
arises from, a genetic account seeking to date and which it is performed in fact arose only with modern
analyze the factors behind the birth of capital itself,6 society. And so, even though it might have existed at
consistently comparing capitalistic work to earlier forms a purely logical level in previous forms of society
of work. Depending on ones interpretation, Capital can inasmuch as it was logically included in more concrete
therefore be claimed as a key source highlighting the forms of labor and thus in principle could be identified
historical specificity of capitalistic work, and the first there through mental exercise in fact, because it
great argument against the optical illusion consisting in became real, was realized practically, only in modern
projecting back into past society the realities and cate- society, it is only in that society that the simple, abstract
gories applying only to the modern one. But the strong category appears as a concrete one. In modern society,
historical continuity arising from the genetic accounts abstract labor is not a mere logical component of a more
can easily be mentioned to undermine the reference complex conceptual nexus, but one that, as it were,
to Capital. stands on its own feet and can be used for the concrete
It is therefore a different text that is usually cited analysis of a concrete social formation. In other words,
to justify the use of Marx as one of the great sources the fact that an abstract notion becomes real in its very
grounding a historical objection to the centrality of abstraction at a particular time transforms the epistemo-
work. The most famous passage in which the problem logical status of that category, from one that had only
of the articulation between the genetic and the structural a logical value, to one that has truly heuristic value:
is addressed most substantially is the Introduction
to the Grundrisse, in particular the pages entitled [T]his abstraction of labour as such is not merely the
The Method of Political Economy. This passage mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indif-
played a decisive influence in the thought of Althusser, ference towards specific labours corresponds to a form
whose writings shaped the field of post-war theoretical of society in which individuals can with ease transfer
social sciences.7 These pages are often interpreted as from one labour to another, and where the specific kind
providing a decisive demonstration of the historical is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference.
specificity of modern labor, and its central organizing Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has
here become the means of creating wealth in general,
function for society and individuals. As a result, they
and has ceased to be organically linked with particular
are taken to strike down any claim that would seek to
individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs
make work central in a similar way for other periods is at its most developed in the most modern form of
and other places in human history as methodologically existence of bourgeois society in the United States.
misguided and historically false.8 On this very common Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure
reading, by making the centrality of labor historically of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the
situated, Marx also makes it contingent: even though category labour, labour as such, labour pure and


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simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstrac- the social formation that will emerge after the demise
tion, then, which modern economics places at the head of the capitalistic one, and the overcoming of the
of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasur- necessity of work and the ideological apparatus that
ably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, never- comes with it will be a good thing.11 On those readings,
theless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as
a future without alienation and reification means a
a category of the most modern society [. . .] the example
of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract
society beyond work.
categories, despite their validity precisely because
of their abstractness for all epochs, are nevertheless, 1.2. Foucault
in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves Beyond Marx, Foucaults archeological reconstructions
likewise a product of historic relations, and possess of the modern episteme form the prime theoretical
their full validity only for and within these relations.9 source in the historicist background against the cen-
This extract tends to be quoted whenever the historical trality of work. The key methodological point inferred
specificity of abstract labor is emphasized. On the basis from them is comparable to the one Marx established
of this passage, it is then argued that to analyze former to the extent that it warns us against the temptation
societies through the category of abstract labor is an to project categories that are valid for one period into
undue projection of the present into the old. In previous another. It shows that every general order of knowl-
times, labor did not actually appear as abstract labor; edge secretes its own objects of inquiry and methods
it appeared in only specific forms or was embedded in of explanation. Conversely therefore, the paradigmatic
other forms of social relations. Even though the Grun- objects and explanatory methods of a given episteme
drisse passage does not speak of labor in terms of its are incommensurable with those of another episteme.
centrality, the key methodological point it makes can Apparent continuities and forms of progress are only
then be applied to the thesis of the centrality of work: superficial phenomena hiding what are seismic shifts in
all that is required is to add the point that in the texts fol- epistemic structures.12
lowing this methodological introduction, Marx demon- In The Order of Things Foucault applied this gen-
strates the centrality of abstract labor for the critique of eral principle directly to the case of work. As he ar-
bourgeois political economy. And so, if abstract labor gues, the physiocrats and the mercantilists developed
is really a valid category only in the historical society an economic theory adapted to the epistemic scheme
in which it becomes a social reality, then that is all the of the classical age. There is only a superficial conti-
more true for the notion that labor is central to individu- nuity between them and Smiths, and most especially
als and to society. Only capitalistic society has divested Ricardos, invention of modern political economy.13
the subject to such an extent so as to make the wage Value as a general equivalent is replaced by work as the
relation the center of an individuals existence. In previ- core operative concept: with Ricardo value ceases to be
ous times, individuals would define themselves through a sign and becomes a product.14 With this emphasis on
concrete social relations. These might have been more production, that is, on the processes behind the creation
oppressive than the wage relation, but in any case they of commodities rather than the relations of equivalence
would have involved forms of domination in which the amongst commensurable entities, Ricardo announces
element of labor would not have been the central one. the era when work functions as the central anthropo-
Indeed, the objection continues, for Marx himself logical and sociological concept. In this new episteme,
the modern centrality of work is deeply pernicious, pre- economic activity is envisaged from the point of view of
cisely because labor becomes central only in the form a creatures desperate attempt to maintain its life in con-
of abstract labor. Labor, as it emerges as the central cat- ditions of increasing scarcity and hardship.15 But then,
egory of modernity, is pernicious in and of itself. This is if work takes on such a central anthropological and so-
confirmed in passages like these, which directly prepare ciological place as one of the key markers of the modern
Webers seminal analysis of the work ethic: episteme, then equally this centrality is only a local one,
destined to disappear when the modern episteme is re-
Capitals historic destiny is fulfilled as soon as, on one placed by a new one. This, famously, is what Foucault
side, there has been such a development of needs that argues at the end of the book, in the Nietzschean, vatic
surplus labour above and beyond necessity has itself tone of the French philosophy of that time. To continue
become a general need arising out of individual needs to hold onto the category of centrality of work in its
themselves and on the other side, when the severe sociological and anthropological senses, at a time when
discipline of capital, acting on succeeding generations,
it is in the process of being superseded, together with
has developed general industriousness as the general
property of new species.10
the entire edifice of which it is a part, is typical of the
mistake of the historicist and psychologizing inquiries,
As a result of this, the objection concludes, Marx does of the anthropological prejudice bequeathed to us by a
not envisage labor to continue mattering centrally in period that is now virtually defunct. New categories are


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Historical Objections to the Centrality of Work: Jean-Philippe Deranty 109

to be mobilized to describe and, as the case may be, 1.3 Post-Weberian Post-industrialism
to oppose, the new nexus of knowledge and power that For many authors working in the social sciences, the
emerges from problems of economic activity. arguments against the centrality of work are further
In this context, Discipline and Punish can be read strengthened by Max Webers famous thesis about the
as providing further historical detail about the way rise of the spirit of capitalism through the emergence of
in which power is exerted onto the body and soul a work ethic, as an ethos characteristic of modernity.
of the worker, and how the factory becomes one of Weber stressed most particularly the work of internal
the symptomatic spaces of the modern world. The disciplining, supported by heavy institutional machiner-
panopticon passage has become a paradigmatic tool in ies and powerful ideological work, all required to cre-
critical human resources management theory.16 This is ate, justify and reproduce a new model of homo faber
noted simply to confirm the fact that the middle period as counterpart to homo oeconomicus.20
in Foucaults work is taken by many as providing Following from this, a powerful assumption in the
particularly powerful critical tools for addressing contemporary social sciences denounces the modern
modern capitalistic work. ideology of work-based society, or the ideology of
Two years after Discipline and Punish, twelve years work, an image of society in which the following
after the publication of Les Mots et les Choses, in norms apply: that everyone should work, should be
the lectures on the Birth of the Biopolitics, Foucault made available to work, should derive their social
found in emerging neoliberal economic theory the means of subsistence from work; that life is intimately
formulation of this new way of thinking of the economy tied to working life, almost synonymous as a whole to
the new understanding of work which articulated ones career and vocation; that personal development
the conceptual grammar of the new episteme. As he depends mostly on the activity of work and inclusion
showed in his previous work, the centrality of equiv- in institutions and social spheres of work; and, at
alent values was replaced by productive work in the the general social level, that progress is tied to
modern setup. Now, the key notion is that of the rational growth in production and consumption, to industrial
allocation of scarce resources to competing ends. It is growth as end in itself; that rationality is ultimately
fairly clear from these lectures that Foucault sees in the instrumental, economic rationality. For much social
Chicago Schools analysis a most telling clue about the scientific research today, this was the prevalent model
emerging episteme, one in which productive work and that had to be used to analyze a now outdated model
the anthropological-sociological core image attached to of society.21
it have disappeared as the operating categories. In their Changes in modes of production, new technologies,
stead enters a formal rationality, a society of networks new forms of social relations, new modes of organizing
linking discrete singularities, an inherently unstable the welfare state, new occupational and organizational
social reality that is intrinsically inimical to the machi- structures, all converge to deny the centrality of
nations of state power.17 In short, from an archeological industrial labor. To begin with, many sociologists assert
perspective, that is, from the point of view of historical that work can no longer be central simply because there
fact, work as productive activity is a core concept only will soon emerge a scarcity of employment there
for the modern period; it was not one before and it is su- will not be enough work for everyone.22 Automation, as
perseded in the new epistemic context. A new episteme the direct, planned consequence of industrial and tech-
brings about new epistemic objects and understands nological development, undermines its very ethical and
relations between individuals and between individuals ideological underpinning the need to work by tak-
and institutions in new ways. This leads to a new form ing away opportunities to work. The new state of affairs
of perception and a new mode of analysis for economic is thus post-industrial. Post-industrialism is a descrip-
and political relations, and the interactions between the tive term that designates the new structure of capitalist
two orders. Normatively, considered as a category of an society, but that also points more generally to new
episteme now virtually defunct, the invention of work is forms of social integration and individual development,
highly pernicious because it plays a key role in the de- and changes what is understood by work (even inducing
velopment and entrenchment of the disciplines.18 And an expansion of what counts as relevant productive
methodologically, the archeological project demon- activity, integrating care and informal activities into the
strates the naivety of anthropological prejudice, by orbit of work). From the perspective of this descriptive
showing how an uncritical reference to transhistorical scenario, the thesis of the centrality of work features
and trans-social features of human nature, which ignore as the central hurdle to be overcome for a factual
situated contexts of emergence, always risks projecting understanding of the present, but also for an under-
into the past and the future the values, norms and standing of its progressive potentials and pathological
beliefs that apply only to a specific time.19 malformations.


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Once again, the descriptive leads directly into the from nature and social control for the purpose of ever-
normative. Here, it is especially the writings of Andre increasing productivity, mean that the passage to moder-
Gorz that function as a prime reference. They articulate a nity equates with the crossing of a qualitative threshold,
sophisticated socialist, post-industrialist economic and when barbarism shines radiant. In this famous diag-
political agenda beyond the ideology of work and the nosis, whose significance as a seminal reference stems
centralizing reference to the working class. If the work from its uncompromising radicalism, the compulsion
ideology is defunct, the new progressive agenda should to work has fully realized itself in modern society, and
focus on opening up new spheres of social and subjec- its operations can be witnessed in all the psychological,
tive life beyond the work sphere defined traditionally as social, cultural and political catastrophic regressions of
productive, wage labor, mostly accomplished by men. the twentieth century. The same narrative of an intensi-
Beyond old work, now seen as an individually alienat- fication of social control and inner repression resulting
ing and socially excluding form of activity, a new con- from the full implementation of the values and norms
cept of activity has to be developed in which activities attached to the world of work (instrumentalism, reifica-
have their ends immanent in themselves, and that estab- tion of nature and others, self-alienation, and so on) can
lish genuine social relations beyond the utilitarian rela- be found in Marcuses writings.27 Broadly speaking, it is
tions performed on the capitalistic market; activities that a mode of argumentation that continues to inspire many
allow for genuine self-development.23 current radical critiques of the destructive logic of capi-
Beyond the diagnosis of historical obsolescence, the talism. In all these accounts, the industrialist narrowing
post-industrialist approach thus also includes a norma- of human action to productive labor stands as the core
tive rejection of industrial society, denouncing the im- problem.
poverishment of individual experience as well as the
specific forms of social domination and exclusion it 1.4 Anthropology and Ethnology
entails. At that descriptive level, the post-industrialist Finally, for Foucault,28 Marx and large amounts of
agenda echoes earlier trends in post-Marxist literature, Marxist research, and for Adorno and Horkheimer,
notably the writings of first critical theory generation, ethnological evidence provides a crucial backdrop
which emphasized the alienation, reification, and the against which the deleterious logic of capitalistic de-
specific forms of domination attached to a social struc- velopment, and in particular of abstract labor, can be
ture centered on work as its key institution. The same seen. The anthropological and ethnological disciplines
ambiguity noted earlier in relation to Marx prevails here represent significant reference points in the overall
as well. The first critical theorists base their critique of consensus against the centrality of work.
modern labor on an explicit philosophical anthropol- Historically and still today, a significant part of an-
ogy in which work features as a central component. thropological research has been conducted not just on
The utterly pessimistic narrative of human evolution the basis of scientific interest, but also following a nor-
expounded in Dialectic of Enlightenment, as a journey mative purpose; namely, to gather and conserve the
in regressive anthropogenesis,24 sees the compulsion knowledge of social and cultural orders as they are
to work as the central mechanism through which inter- threatened by the dominant one, or have been destroyed
nal and external nature is repressed and dominated. As by it, and for a number of its most influential researchers
one famous passage puts it: The way of civilization to document the ways in which other social and cul-
has been that of obedience and work, over which ful- tural orders provide valid alternatives to the destruc-
fillment shines everlastingly as mere illusion, as beauty tive Western model. This combination of theoretical
deprived of power.25 Coinciding with the repression of and normative interest was, for instance, at the heart
internal nature and the exploitation of external nature, of Levi-Strausss work. It is articulated most explicitly
a whole system of social domination is put into place. in an interview in which the great anthropologist con-
Work is the catalyst of this entire catastrophic social and trasts cold and hot societies.29 This famous opposition
psychological setup: is structured around two opposed visions of work. The
homeostasis that cold societies seek to maintain, that is,
Humanity, whose skills and knowledge become differ- the maintenance of the existing balance in societys in-
entiated with the division of labor, is thereby forced
ternal and external interactions, leads to an organization
back to more primitive anthropological stages, since,
with the technical facilitation of existence, the contin-
of material reproduction that sets strict limits to indi-
uance of domination demands the fixation of instincts vidual work and the exploitation of the environment.
by greater repression.26 Hot societies, by contrast, require a large amount of
labor power expenditure and the intensive exploitation
And yet, beyond the deep anthropological and transhis- of the environment because they maintain their integra-
torical dimensions of the thesis, the sheer intensification tion only under the condition of constant change and
and systematization of inner repression, alienation accumulation. At the heart, therefore, of a civilizational


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Historical Objections to the Centrality of Work: Jean-Philippe Deranty 111

project that has destroyed so many other cultures, and we should distinguish between the raw necessity to
today seems to encounter its own inherent limits, stands produce and the socio-historical forms that it takes.
once again the logic of productive work.30 This highlights a fundamental confusion between
But the contribution of anthropology is not just neg- two different arguments: the historical fact that work
ative. Other societies prove that human social life and appears as a separate category only later (in the sixteenth
individual human development can flourish without be- century, for a historian like Fossier)34 should not be
ing centrally organized around the institutions and expe- confused with the problem of the centrality of work
riences of work. Marshall Sahlins famous portrayal of for individuals, genders, and society. If labor pure and
Paleolithic society as a society of abundance, in which simple35 appears only with capitalism, this does not
socially defined needs could be fulfilled for all, is also mean that in previous times people did not work; only
the portrayal of a society where work is limited and not that those individuals did not consider work as a separate
specialized. Time thus liberated outside work is used for category in their representations of their own social life
non-utilitarian, collective, and individual activities.31 and of themselves.
Furthermore, the famous passage in Capital in which
Marx opposes the realm of freedom and the realm of
2. Outline of a Rejoinder necessity and in which he argues that the realm of free-
In this second part of the article, I begin by outlining dom begins only where labour which is determined
some core points to challenge the assumption that there by necessity and mundane considerations ceases, this
is an indisputable historical context in which to anchor passage can also be read differently from pointing to a
the rejection of the centrality of work. A full rejoinder society beyond work.36 In that same passage, Marx
would have to begin by contesting the use of Marx to makes it clear that the realm of necessity remains a
this end. While this is not the place here to do so at necessary basis, and a basis where freedom and con-
length, I indicate some key points that have important ditions most favorable to human nature remain key
implications for the discussion engaged in this article. conditions. In making these points, Marx anticipates
Marx identifies the methodological mistake that consists one of the key aspects of the centrality of work thesis,
in projecting a category that attains its full development namely the formative impact of work activities and work
only with capitalism into older social formations. This experiences on the life outside of work. The centrality
does not stop him, however, from employing a basic work is presumed to have does not mean that work is or
concept of work, as the necessary expenditure of labor should be the whole sphere of human existence but that
power for the purpose of the material reproduction of human existence develops from it as one of its cores.
society,32 that is true of all societies and thus functions The metaphor can be understood in an organic sense: if
as a kind of basic anthropological invariant. the core metabolism in an organism malfunctions, the
In the Grundrisse, Marx in fact gives a characteriza- whole being is affected; if it is healthy, the rest of that
tion of just such a basic concept of work that anticipates being can grow, even though the health of the core is
the one used in the psychodynamics of work, since obviously only a necessary, not a sufficient condition
it defines work from the subjects perspective, as the for the health of the whole individual.
emotional, psychological relation of the subject to More generally, a rejoinder to a historical rejection
her task and to others, but also as the overcoming of of the centrality of work can be developed on two sep-
obstacles, and, from that perspective, as liberating arate axes, at the empirical and the conceptual level.
activity or creative activity, leading to real freedom, Empirically, it can be shown that work was important in
whose action is, precisely, labour.33 There is no reason pre-capitalist societies, as a medium for individual cog-
to deny the relevance of this concept of work for all sorts nitive, moral, and emotional development, as a vehicle
of society. Some famous Marx passages are sometimes of socialization, as a determining factor in social and po-
used to make the point that it is trivial to mention the litical life, and, more particularly, as a key vector for the
fact that societies have to reproduce themselves mate- male domination of women. Since the centrality of work
rially and thus that individuals have to work, whatever thesis entails these substantive and specific claims, it is
the historical form of society. But these passages can be far from trivial to argue that the centrality of work can
read as making the opposite point. This is particularly be validated across societies and across historical time.
the case in relation to the famous letter to Kugelman of Such an argument involves a lot more than just saying
July 11, 1868, whose beginning is often cited to brush that all societies have to work one way or another. The
aside the fact of material reproduction as trivial: Every many theorists who reject the centrality of work on the
child knows that any nation that stopped working, not basis of its historical situatedness are happy to coun-
for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would tenance this latter point if it is kept at this very high
perish. In this passage, Marx does not ridicule the level of generality. It does not stop them from maintain-
fact that every society has to work, but simply that ing that work becomes central only in modern society,


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112 Constellations Volume 22, Number 1, 2015

precisely because the specific features associated with the overwhelming majority. This justification was
the notion of centrality, they argue, are typically mod- based on an ontology of inequality and metaphysically
ern ones. Their argument entails that other societies did anchored hierarchy, a vision of humanity as divided
not socialize their participants through work, nor were between different natures. Labor at this stage was
working activities the main ones for individual develop- equated with dolor (suffering) and sudor the sweat
ment. The domination of women and political life were of Adam and Eve, toiling after their eviction from the
not organized exclusively around work. These are all Garden of Eden.37 In its first appearance, however, the
points that will be taken up in section 3, which surveys scheme ultimately rested on the thought of reciprocal
the relevant historical literature to point to the fact that, dependence, reciprocity and complementarity between
under different guises, the activity of producing goods the orders: on the function of each the work of the
and services for the needs of others has been a key factor others rests, each in turn assisting all.38
in individual learning and socializing processes across By the end of the eleventh century, though, the
time and in many societies. This production of goods ontological order shifted to a functional division: the
and services has impacted on the nature of the social tripartite scheme no longer distinguished ontological
bond and the institutions of collective life. ranks, but economic and social functions. Among these,
This then leads to a conceptual point. Social and the initially servile nature of the worker function has
cultural anthropology allows us to postulate a notion of been replaced by a new figure, the laboratores who, in
societal reproduction as a core concept. In societal Dubys interpretation, took on a modern outlook, as the
reproduction however, or in social work as Durkheim paradigm professions to which the category now refers
said (le travail social), work as individual activity is are men of money, craftsmen and rich peasants. The
a core notion. The universality of work as individual laboratores now appeared in full social visibility as im-
activity, which promotes pragmatic conditions of devel- portant actors on whom the monarch relied to support
opment and conditions for inclusion in society, meets the kingdom.39
with philosophical anthropology, which underlines pre- If we look at detailed accounts of this world of work
cisely those two key features as essential features of as it emerged from the early Middle Ages, we realize
human development. that its values structured large parts of social, cultural
and political life in a way that was clearly acknowl-
edged by the actors of the time. They articulated these
values explicitly, placing them within the Christian nar-
3. Empirical Rejoinder: the Centrality rative that provided the background framework for all
of Work in European History individual and societal meanings at the time. Far from
Medieval historical scholarship is particularly signif- operating only implicitly, requiring a different, anachro-
icant for the discussion about the centrality of work nistic vocabulary to be uncovered, the place of work in
because it provides knowledge about the place and individual and social life was clearly recognized. This
meaning of work in the period directly preceding the appears most clearly through the work of Jacques Le
time when, according to the historical objection, work Goff. Le Goff has shown how from the twelfth century
became truly central with the rise of modern capitalism. onwards, a true theology of work developed in Western
This scholarship shows that the experiences of work Europe, in which the values connected to the world of
and the establishment of work institutions structured work and the professions gradually infiltrated the reli-
individual and social development well before what is gious imaginary underpinning of society. Le Goff shows
usually acknowledged. Georges Duby, for instance, in in particular that this early emergence of the world of
his seminal study of the rise of the three orders of soci- work became so prominent that the world was sub-
ety, shows that this ideological scheme, which portrays sequently conceived as a vast workplace on the anal-
society as a complementary organization in which some ogy of the urban workplace in which various trades
pray, others fight, and still others work, emerges as early collaborated.40 In this view of society, each profession
as the beginning of the eleventh century. Duby docu- had its material role to play, and its own spiritual value
ments the way in which the function of those who work based on this role. No trade was an obstacle to salvation;
changed in the ideological schemes that succeeded each each had its Christian vocation, and all belonged to the
other between the early eleventh and the later twelfth familia Christi, which bound all good workers together.
century, and how this shift expresses the growing Indeed, as Le Goff notes, contrary to widespread beliefs
importance of the world of work in the medieval world. about the hierarchy of vita activa and vita contempla-
At first, those who work were equated with servus and tiva, the previously scorned mechanical arts were ad-
agricolae: they were enslaved labor, toiling to support mitted quite early on in the representations of valuable
the two higher orders. The three-order scheme served activities. Already then, the concrete, pragmatic aspects
as an ideological justification for the exploitation of of work linked to cultures of trades and corporations,


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Historical Objections to the Centrality of Work: Jean-Philippe Deranty 113

and not just the economic function of professions, be- be accepted that it was the product of some collective
came positively acknowledged as elements that had to aberration. If they have been necessary from the origins
be included to make sense of the social organization. Le of Rome until the acme of empire, from the dawn of
Goff makes the point that this was largely the outcome Christian times until modern times, it is because they
fulfill durable and deep needs.42
of the political pressure exerted by the trades onto the
elites. In other words, the social importance taken on by For large periods of time the intermediate group in
work also manifested itself politically. which moral life can develop, that is, the social space
The flattening of the social structure coinciding with in which the individual can both develop internally and
the rise in importance of a vision of society as a divi- integrate general normative rules that make social life
sion of labor led to a substantial overhaul in ideological possible, is neither the family nor the state. Instead,
religious representations. This was particularly evident the intermediate group was constituted around a shared
in the sermons ad status, which were directed at the occupation.
lay constituency through its organization in professional
bodies. The corpus of the world then was no longer com-
posed of orders defined ontologically, but of estates, 4. Empirical Rejoinder: Work in
defined professionally, and not simply economically. Non-western Societies
Amongst Le Goffs many articles dedicated to the If we now focus on scholarship dedicated to non-
growing importance of the world of work in the Middle Western societies, we discover that, defined from the
Ages, Trades and Professions as Represented in subjects perspective as the overcoming of obstacles,
Confessors Manuals41 is particularly significant, and thus as a factor of development and identity forma-
because it demonstrates the emergence of subjective tion, and equally as medium of social inclusion and a
identity on the basis of the belonging to a specific work determining factor in collective life, work again reaches
culture: well beyond the boundaries of modern capitalist society.
The common objection to ethnological data, an ob-
each mans new consciousness of himself came to him
only through the estate to which he belonged, the pro- jection we have already mentioned in relation to theo-
fessional group of which he was a part, or the trade in rists using anthropological arguments, is that it is merely
which he engaged. The process of personalization took trivial to mention the fact that societies have to repro-
place within a larger process of socialization. Since this duce themselves materially and that individuals there-
consciousness could only be religious, it offered itself fore have to work. The term trivial recurs frequently
in the form of a vocation. in arguments dismissing the centrality of work, despite
the evidence from ethnological research. It seems to
Counterbalancing the hugely influential Weberian
mean something like tautological, and therefore irrel-
thesis on the late emergence of the work ethic, an alter-
evant. But if it is trivial to say that all societies have
native vision of the centrality of work for individuals
to work, then one might well argue that it makes it a
in their social inclusion thus comes to the fore: one
basic fact about social life, and thus all the more neces-
that stresses its relative transhistorical validity beyond
sary to be kept in view. All societies have to reproduce
ideological and cultural variations. Such a transhis-
themselves materially, which means all societies need
torical emphasis on the constitutive role of work is
to work: to organize tasks and thus cooperation, and
well supported in fact by another classical sociological
to provide ways for individuals to learn the required
reference; namely, Durkheims reminder in the preface
manual, intellectual, social, and emotional skills. From
to the second edition of The Division of Social Labour
this basic socio-ontological point of view, work is not
of the age-old presence of corporations throughout
an invention of modernity. Only work that has become
history and their central socializing function:
a mode of individual experience and social action that
The question is not whether the medieval institution can be isolated from other sociocultural and political
can still be adequate to our contemporary societies, but symbolic realities is specifically modern. This histori-
whether the needs which it had to fulfill are not needs cal specificity, however, does not necessarily have to be
for all times, even though, to satisfy them, it has to adapt interpreted as showing that work is central only in mod-
depending on context. What enables us to see in the cor- ern society. If only modern societies have uncoupled the
porations something more than just a temporary organi-
sphere of work from broader cultural, especially reli-
zation, good only for a specific epoch and civilization,
gious, values, this means that in other societies this irre-
is both the fact that they date from a very long time
and the way in which they have developed throughout ducible fact is categorized in strong symbolic terms and
history. [. . .] They appeared as soon as trades appeared, takes its place within the overall ideological system.43
that is, as soon as industry is no longer just agricultural. That, in turn, means that there is every chance that in
[. . .] Such a persisting institution cannot depend just on many societies, rather than being less, it will be even
a contingent and accidental specificity; even less can it more important, simply because the activity of work


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114 Constellations Volume 22, Number 1, 2015

will benefit, as it were, from the symbolic premium of matters directly for the social status of the individual
being included in an overall theological or cosmologi- within the group.48
cal symbolic system.44 If work becomes only a disen- On the basis of his study of the close link between
chanted category with modernity, then that means that material reproduction, which involves technical knowl-
in other societies, it is an enchanted one. edge, and cultural reproduction, Descola then can make
In some cases, the symbolic value attached to work the fundamental following remark, which directly chal-
is a negative one. The necessity for society to reproduce lenges the assumption that only in modern, capitalist
itself and for individuals to work is pictured as fate, bad society is it meaningful to use the category of work
necessity, punishment, proof of humanitys sinfulness, to analyze the forms of individual experience and the
imperfection, and so on. This is clearly the case in early structures of social life:
medieval society, or in Athenian or Roman society, al-
though in the latter case, this negative stamp on work did [I]s there not in every society a part of the system of
not in fact include all forms of work: the management representations which defines more or less explicitly
the differentiated allocation of labour power, and the
of large agricultural estates, for instance, was perfectly
intensity and the frequency of the expenditure of en-
consonant with the status of a free citizen,45 and, indeed,
ergy, depending upon the tasks or the hierarchical value
was assumed to found it.46 granted to them? For instance, there is no doubt that the
However, in many non-Western societies, and, as Achuar have precise ideas about the quantity of effort
we just saw, in Middle to late Middle Ages in Western that needs to be put into the productive techniques they
Europe, the imaginary and symbolic constructs of work practice. This expense of energy of course is not con-
were largely positive. In them, the basic functional ceptualised in the form of a quantifiable allocation of
necessities, that societies have to reproduce themselves work integrating the composition of the factors of pro-
materially and individuals therefore have to work, duction. But this does not mean either that the very con-
represent a core pillar of the overall symbolic system. crete physical effort through which the Achuar socialise
certain portions of nature is represented by them as a
The world of work structures the social imaginary, just
kind of play, or in terms of some vague communication
as do other key factors like gender relations, relations
with the universe. I think therefore that is inaccurate
between the generations, or the attitude to death. to say that work becomes an objective reality only in
As Philippe Descolas impressive work in contem- societies where it is perceived as a specific category of
porary ethnology demonstrates, the correct approach praxis. Achuar work is not alienated, because its end
to studying the symbolic structure of a society is to and its means are controlled by those who accomplish
avoid the one-sided positions of culturalism and tech- it. But this does mean that it is not work.49
nological or material determinism, and instead to focus
on the bidirectional inter-dependence linking the two Descolas masterful exposition shows that it is possible
dimensions, that is, focus on the way in which mate- that, as a matter of fact, work appears in an abstract
rial conditions determine certain techniques to be used sense, as a general category separate from its concrete
to appropriate and socialize nature; and how these instantiations only in modern society. It is also possible
techniques are operative only because they partake in that the modern work ethic makes us work more than
cultural representations and are nourished by symbolic ever, although the ethnological data shows that, if on av-
value.47 The key point for us is that the technical di- erage traditional societies tended to work less than us,
mension is not just a product of cultural construction; in some of them some groups of people, in particular
rather, the symbolic order is also to some extent under women and slaves, worked very hard.50 It is possible
the influence of the technical. In particular, the represen- that, as anthropologists have argued, scarcity appears
tation of the environment, which forms a core element fairly late in the history of humanity (although well be-
of the overall symbolic system, is directly influenced fore modernity), and with it the compulsion to amass
by the technical ways in which humans interact with it. and constantly increase production. And yet none of
From the perspective of the individual, this means that this speaks against the fact that for many pre-modern
in many non-Western societies, becoming a full mem- societies, work constitutes a central pillar of the sym-
ber of the group implies becoming initiated in cultural bolic construct and a key medium of cognitive and social
knowledge, which has two intimately related facets: a learning.
cultural and symbolic facet, but also a directly tech-
nical, we might say, pragmatic facet, based on that
societys definition of what it means to be working 5. Conceptual Rejoinder
well, that is, being efficient in the technical realization Even if it is true that work bears quasi-universal sig-
of an instrumental task. Many traditional societies nificance for individual development and the concrete
know full well the difference between a good and a bad organization of society, it remains highly ambiguous
worker, and in many traditional societies, that difference at a normative level. Contemporary anthropology, for


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Historical Objections to the Centrality of Work: Jean-Philippe Deranty 115

instance, shows the extent to which work played a cen- given historical period a particular institution seems
tral role in the very early establishment of male domina- to be the dominant one, for instance, the political
tion over women. The very first division of labor to ap- relation in classical Athens, does not mean that its
pear in human history, anthropology has shown, was the function is limited to its institutional reality. In fact,
sexual division of labor, as women were relegated to the the opposite is the case: with its primary institutional
less noble, technically poorer tasks. This lower position reality, that central form of social relation also fulfills
in the economic order was translated and entrenched in the role of determining the structure of productive
social structures and symbolic discourse right from the relations, providing institutional, notably legal, but also
start.51 Work then has been central in the history of hu- symbolic and moral justification for the ways in which
manity, in a very specific sense at the very least, namely the economy is organized. It determines and justifies
as the medium and the key stake in the male domination the ways in which the labor process is organized (who
of women. In countless societies, the marriage structure does what for whom); how the organization of labor
is designed to secure not just the reproductive, but also is legally framed (who is allowed to do what); and
the productive capacities of women, in favor of men. also how the organization of labor is culturally and
Anthropological research has also unveiled over- morally determined (who ought to do what and who
whelming evidence to show that the emergence of dis- is not allowed to do what; which activities are noble
parity in wealth and power, and the gradual emergence and which ignoble); and how the products of labor
of stratified social structures, has meant that groups of are distributed. But then if the religious and political
people rose above the rest of society and controlled the functions that ensure the unity of society apply most
labor of the majority for their own benefit. Well before specifically to the relations of production, and owe their
the three orders appeared in medieval Europe, countless power and authority to the fact that they also function
societies around the world were organized on the ba- as relations of production, then it is also possible to
sis of minority groups fulfilling political and religious reverse the perspective and argue conversely that these
functions, who would rely on the labor of the rest of the relations of production are central on a functional level.
community which they controlled and from which they If we bracket for a moment the question of domi-
benefited.52 nation, and if we generalize Godeliers key distinction,
At a descriptive level, work has thus been the core we are led to a specific concept of social ontology that
organizing element in the structuration of social life encapsulates the specific social logic at play in the re-
overall, and more specifically, in the relations between lationship that unites members of society inasmuch as
genders. What I would like to show now is that the each and everyone contributes, across and beyond the
apparent normative ambiguity of work; the fact that it relations of domination and exploitation, as an overall
has always been the object of control and appropriation effect of general cooperation, to the overall reproduc-
by groups in power, can paradoxically lead to a socio- tion of society. This concept encapsulates the logic of
ontological concept of work in which the possibility of social reproduction as the overall end result of the ac-
emancipation can be shown to be inscribed. tions of all the social agents inasmuch as they relate to
What anthropological and historical accounts each other. In the same way that Raymond Firth speaks
demonstrate quite powerfully is the central place of the work of the gods, this is the work performed by
that the organization of production plays in social all the different classes to ensure that society as a whole
integration, underneath more visible social, cultural, is reproduced.
and religious institutions. The rise of different orders A good illustration of this concept of overall social
with differentiated functions, and with this, the rise reproduction as end product of the activities of each and
of social domination, has, as one of its main stakes, everyone is to be found in the three order scheme already
control over the economic organization: that is, control mentioned. Amongst the three orders, only one order
over access to resources and control over the conditions is dedicated to the activities classified as sudor-dolor-
of production; control even over the organization of the labor. But the two other orders are engaged in the same
labor process, or, at least, the distribution of individuals function of reproduction of society: the state of the res
in the labor process; and, most clearly, control over the fidei is simple, the house of God is one, but in keeping up
distribution of the products of labor. In The Ideal and with the dictates of order, it is triple.53 Trifunctionality
the Material Godelier shows how a dominant form of is premised on the one overarching function of social
social relation (based on kinship, religion, or the politi- maintenance. And the two orders are engaged in their
cal bond, as in classical Athens) becomes the dominant own type of work, which is not labor (defined as sudor-
one in a given society precisely when it supports and dolor, as toiling), but is nevertheless a part in the general
organizes the social relations of production. A crucial work of social reproduction. If these orders were not
distinction to be made, he argues, is between a social doing their own work they would have no justification
institution and a social function. The fact that in a for benefiting from the toil of the laboring masses:54


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116 Constellations Volume 22, Number 1, 2015

On the function of each the work of the others rests, social work, was a highly public and contested issue.56
each in turn assisting all. Every order is defined by The representation of each and everyones part in the
its specific officium and ministerium (the origin of the overall work of social work mobilizes the whole array
professions metier). As Duby writes; each order has of symbolic resources in the lifeworld. Most impor-
its particular joys and sorrows, its peculiar difficulties tantly, the narrative that ensues is normative, and in
to overcome, and its own rewards to win. Each has its many societies (for instance Western medieval society),
own morality.55 Those joys and sorrows relate to the it can be contested and corrected. The stakes are high
particular work performed by each order in the general for individuals and classes to get their contribution fully
work reproducing society as a whole and over time. recognized, and, if they benefit from their position in
And so, even if the two higher orders collude or the productive order, to justify their advantage.57
struggle among themselves to exploit the third estate, A strong objection is that this picture of social life
they also have their own work cut out, so to speak. It might be true of pre-modern society but not of mod-
is actually a lot of work to become a priest, an official, ern society, since in the latter individuals have detached
or a warrior. These statuses define the person not just themselves from social substance: the individual con-
because of their social meaning, but also because they science or self-interest has detached individuals from
involve the learning of specific skills, which, in turn, society. Thus, it could appear that societal work, the
and more profoundly, demand specific modes of being. work to reproduce society, has given way to a more
Social positioning shapes the person and determines mundane concept of work work to sustain oneself,
her cognitive, moral, and social capabilities, not just work as negative utility, which is avoided if it can be.
because human beings are intrinsically social animals Work becomes a bane for those who cannot escape it,
whose identity is formed in the interactions with others, but those who can have no reason to engage in it. They
but also, and more precisely, because these interactions, seem to be fully entitled to enjoy their rent or their in-
as they pertain to ones place within the general division herited wealth without having to perform any work for
of labor, imply specific tasks and the acquisition of the others. The concept of social work seems to lose its
specific skills. relevance as society can no longer be represented as a
And so, despite the multiplicity of social institutions collective essence. And yet, the figures of the rentier,
and of social functions that are involved in the subsis- the heritier, or the contemporary shareholder should not
tence of society, one key meta-function is simply that of be used as paradigms. With Durkheim, it is easy to argue
societal reproduction, le travail social, social labor, or that the shift from mechanistic societies, in which the
social work, as Durkheim called it. By participating in individual has not yet emerged as independent entity, to
the functions and institutions that enable this reproduc- organic forms of solidarity, has made the functional di-
tion of society individuals participate in societal work, vision of labor the institution and mediation that makes
or the work of social reproduction, because, whatever society possible.58 If anything, on that model, work is
the society, the reproduction of social life requires the even more centrally at the heart of social reproduction
combination of individual efforts, a combination of psy- as a whole. Against the background of the historical and
chological, cognitive and physical effort on the part of anthropological material referenced so far, this would
each individual, framed by a specific cultural frame- signal the shift from societies that are united cultur-
work. We might say that everybody works to make ally by powerful symbolic representations (religious and
society work, but that only some labor. The work of mythological), which frame in turn a specific organiza-
some is to labor and the work of others is to organize tion and domination of labor. In these societies labor
this labor, first in a concrete, organizational sense, but does not necessarily appear as such, but its functions
also by justifying and entrenching the specific modes are encompassed in the religious and mythological sys-
of work organization and labor process through cultural tem. These societies can be contrasted with societies in
and political action. which this symbolic underpinning gradually disappears,
The sources revived by Duby show in particularly and the unity of society is increasingly endorsed by the
striking fashion, that the trifunctionality articulated by division of labor as such. Of course, labor continues
the early medieval scholars was not a deep structure to be dominated, but this domination is no longer jus-
hidden from the participants view but, on the contrary, tified in metaphysical terms. Quite evidently, though,
had been articulated in an explicit, public, debatable, and the justification continues to operate through cultural
debated manner, as a normative grammar that served to mechanisms.
make sense of and justify the structuring of social life. Returning to the ontological level at which we have
From this example, a general socio-ontological point been arguing here, the notion of social work as work of
can be extracted: well before the rise of the work ethic, each for the reproduction of oneself and of society as a
the contribution of each individual and class to the re- whole leads to the key connected idea that work is dou-
production of society as a whole, their part in the work of bly addressed: the work of the individual is addressed to


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Historical Objections to the Centrality of Work: Jean-Philippe Deranty 117

the immediate beneficiaries of the individuals efforts: the final account. But if social work, as defined above,
those to whom the effort is directly and explicitly ad- is an irreducible aspect of human existence, then it
dressed, the customers in the modern service relation remains true that subjective identities will have to be
but also the laity of the medieval bishop or the village formed, and social inclusion achieved, in and through
community for the knight; the peers in the work collec- work. As I will argue in the last section, the normative
tive or the profession; and those to whom the rewards ambiguity of work also means that, as the central factor
attached to working are going, the self and the family of domination, work can also become the central factor
But the activity of work is also addressed to the other of emancipation.
members of society, as it participates in the reproduction
of that society as a whole. We might say that individual
work is addressed horizontally and vertically to others. 6. Methodological Rejoinder
This double structure of work can be well illustrated Before we consider the decisive issue of domination,
in primitive societies. In the act of producing the mate- we need to briefly consider methodological issues since
rial resources sustaining society individuals might think the discussion of social work and the double address
they are engaged in a dialogue with nature, with spir- of work leads directly to them. As we saw in the first
its, and so on. They see themselves as doing what is part, one key plank of the historicist suspicion of the
right, what society expects of them, they act under the centrality of work is of a methodological kind: the con-
judging and expectant gazes of their husband or wife, clusion is drawn from the factual point about the speci-
children, and elders, under the prescriptions of the no- ficity of modern society and its work-centeredness that
bles and the priests. But whatever the specific ontology it is methodologically misguided to rely on arguments
of the relational scheme by which goods and services of an anthropological or socio-ontological kind which
are produced,59 these goods and services take place in deny this historical specificity. Basically, historicism
the overall work of social reproduction. From this point and constructivism are very much taken to be the undis-
of view, they are represented within the overall social puted methodological baseline.
imaginary, as one element of it. However, as we have seen in relation to Marx and
The production of yams in the gardens of Achuar some of his twentieth century successors, it is possible
women locates them within the social field, and pro- to reconcile an approach founded in key anthropological
vides an anchor point for how they take place within premises, with an analysis of modern labor that under-
the overall ontology and theology of their society. The scores its specificity. Indeed, Marxs own critique of the
spirits of the garden with whom they have to commu- modern political economy explicitly relies on implicit
nicate are themselves in relation to the whole pantheon anthropological criteria, notably in the phenomenolog-
of Achuar spirits. In this way, even if Achuar women ical passages in Capital which presuppose a normative
do not think of their toil as work and do not have a vision of the anthropos, in its constitution and the use
special name to describe this activity, they still engage of its capacities. Generalizing from this seminal exam-
in a working activity and contribute to the reproduction ple, we refer to the early work of Axel Honneth, who
of society at large. They have a vertical relationship to showed that the rejection of anthropological arguments
their social world as a whole; they understand this ver- in philosophy and social theory usually hides an unac-
tical relation through the grammar afforded by the sym- knowledged recourse to this very kind of argument.60 In
bolic resources of their society; and they also engage particular, whenever critics of work classically contrast
directly with the other gardening women, in relations work with free types of human activity, it is difficult to
of competition, emulation, and cooperation, and they see how the concept of free activity would not point to
contribute to the reproduction of their family. In other some conception of human capacities and how they are
words, even though in many societies the categories of realized in forms of action.
work and production might be minor, or perhaps even, In a more positive mode, I propose to bite the bul-
non-existent categories, work, as an activity performed let and fully acknowledge the recourse to arguments of
by an individual to produce goods or services directed philosophical anthropology (in the German sense of the
at other members of the society, nevertheless produces term), and to take as a model the way in which theo-
sociality in two ways: by inscribing individuals sym- rists working on the paradigm of the gift generalize the
bolically in society, and by placing them in a specific importance of gift logic as foundation of all social life
relation to their social peers. Through this process of so- across human history.61 The key reference point in this
cial inclusion, the individual develops as an individual, paradigm is Mauss famous claim that the gift is the
cognitively, socially, and emotionally, and develops an rock on which the social bond is founded. Behind this
identity thus premised upon specific capacities. claim is the attempt to shed light and describe the puzzle
The normative ambiguity of work; the fact that work of the social bond: the fact that human beings, beyond
is the key vector of domination, needs to be included in their capacity to engage in instrumental, self-interested


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118 Constellations Volume 22, Number 1, 2015

behavior, which denies the possibility of community, clinical, and critical inquiries into the pathologies pro-
also rely upon others for their existence, thus becoming duced by specific work environments and later, specific
individuals only through processes of socialization and forms of management. The normatively positive model
by living within a community. The gift, as the exchange of work propounded by the psychodynamics of work
and counter-exchange of symbols, is supposed to pro- simply makes explicit the normative model that implic-
vide the key to this essential feature of the human being: itly underpins the critique of work as source of mental
the gift and the obligations it creates of receiving and and physical pathologies. This very simple point an-
giving back creates the circulation of symbolic mean- swers by itself many of the rejections of the category
ing that binds human beings together and prevents the of work, especially all those rejections that proceed by
possibility of the war of each against each. contrasting alienating work from truly free and creative
Underneath this paradigm stands an implicit view activity. In many cases the rejection is based on the
of the anthropos as a being essentially dependent upon failure to distinguish between the conceptual and the
its con-generous beings, and as a symbolic being. The empirical, or to acknowledge the implicit model of ac-
notion of societal work, the anthropological perspective tivity used to criticize work.
on the division of labor that has been advocated here, A different and thornier issue, however, lies with the
leads to the germane yet slightly alternative idea that problem of domination. If the psychodynamics of work
the human bond and the possibility of symbolism also is accused of extracting its normative model of work
involve work, defined simply as the doing or the making from existing forms of work that are intrinsically dom-
of something addressed to another. The social bond re- inated, notably because they are forms of wage labor;
lies not just upon the exchange of something meaningful or if the philosophical-anthropological model proposed
that creates an obligation but also on the exchange of above is criticized for making light of the historical
the doing something meaningful for the other, the ex- structures of domination that it has itself acknowledged
penditure of ones labor power, or more generally ones partake in work in history; in both these cases, a simple
capacity for creative and productive action for the sake reference to the empirical versus conceptual or norma-
of another. What matters then is not the just giving and tive distinction is insufficient. If work has always been
counter-giving of things, but also the giving and counter- the vector of domination, and is so most especially under
giving of ones very own actions for the other, in the ser- the conditions of the modern wage relation, how could it
vice of the other, and thus a gift of ones own time and be uncritically elevated in a normative way to the status
effort, of ones body and energy, of ones mental powers. of being the core experience of subject formation and
A slightly different view of the anthropos lies under- the structuring institution of social life?
neath this correction. The anthropos as symbolic animal To answer this challenge, it is necessary to make
is not just a being with the capacity for symbolic ex- explicit the essential normative ambiguity of work. The
change who can understand and respond to meaningful historical material shows that, from very early on, as
gestures. To this must be added that the anthropos is also early as the twelfth century and the rise of the communes
an animal who can make meaningful gestures, whose organized around corporations, work has not only been
actions are addressed, and who expects counter-actions the object and vector of domination, but also the locus
that are addressed back; gestures whose meanings con- of struggles for emancipation. The elites key interest is
sist just as equally in the fact that they are addressed in controlling the process and the products of work; but
and are useful, and fulfill socially defined needs. On those who are engaged directly in this process thereby
this altered conception, the anthropos is a symbolic be- also possess a powerful leverage to resist domination. In
ing whose symbolic potential lies in its body, as an other words, the very fact that work is the core object of
organism that is not just expressive and geared to com- social domination makes it intrinsically ambiguous in
munication in general, but also made to act and produce terms of emancipation, since the very interest of those
and communicate with other fellow beings through the who attempt to dominate it also provides those who are
exchange of poietic actions.62 subject to that domination with a powerful tool of resis-
tance. Countless historical examples, from the slaves
revolts in the Roman Empire to the commune move-
7. Normative Rejoinder ment, to the Luddites and all the revolts of the nine-
Many of the criticisms of the category of work fail to teenth century, bear witness to the strong link between
maintain a clear view of the key distinction between the the struggle against domination and the experiences and
empirical and the conceptual. Whenever a given organi- institutions of work.
zation of work is criticized for being detrimental to the Beyond the socio-ontological argument about the in-
mental and physical health of the workers, a conception trinsic ambiguity of work in relation to domination and
of health has to operate in the background. The thesis emancipation, a second argument can be made, one that
of the centrality of work was developed out of concrete, is particularly well highlighted in the psychodynamic


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Historical Objections to the Centrality of Work: Jean-Philippe Deranty 119

approach to work, and connects well with Durkheims 4. To cite only one illustrious example, in Platos Re-
vision of the role of work in modern society. This is public the definition of justice is sought through a thought
experiment revolving around the division of labor as the core
the fact that the work collective provides a particularly of the well-ordered society.
strong form of social bond; one that in many cases with- 5. Ellen Wood, Historical Materialism in Forms that
stands the pressures and attacks involved in serious so- precede Capitalist Production. In Marcello Musto ed. Karl
cial movements. It is often the case that political issues Marxs Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Politi-
that are not strictly work-related, notably struggles for cal Economy 150 Years Later (New York: Routledge, 2008),
7992.
equality or liberty, have been waged most efficiently 6. Karl Marx, Capital I, trans. B. Fowkes (London:
by well-constituted work collectives, trade unions or Penguin, 1976), 453.
organized metiers. Even though work so far has histor- 7. See, in particular, Louis Althussers contribution to
ically always been organized under general conditions Reading Capital: The third chapter of the 1857 Introduction
can rightly be regarded as the Discourse on Method of the new
of domination, underneath the general structure of dom- philosophy founded by Marx. In fact, it is the only systematic
ination, so to speak, work has also provided focal points text by Marx which contains, in the form of an analysis of the
for the organization of movements against domination. categories and method of political economy, the means with
This points to a different way in which work is norma- which to establish a theory of scientific practice, i.e., a theory of
tively ambiguous: at a given point in time, it can be at the conditions of the process of knowledge, which is the object
of Marxist philosophy, Reading Capital, trans. B. Brewster
the same time both suffering from domination and still (London: NLB, 1970), 86.
representing the focal institutional point for the struggle 8. See Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (New
against domination. York: Telos Press, 1975), whose radical critique of modern
Finally, if the conception of the human subject under- labor encompasses Marx, and provides a key reference for
feminist critiques of the male-centered, productivist paradigm.
pinning the psychodynamic thesis about the centrality See, for example, Mitu Hirschman, Women and Development.
of work is accepted in its basic premises, that is, on A Critique., In Marianne Marchand and Jane Parpart eds.
the basis of an image of the anthropos as a being that Feminism/Post-Modernism/Development (London: Routledge,
is both pragmatically and socially dependent, then the 1995), 4255.
counterfactual image of the full liberation of humankind 9. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. M. Nicolaus (London:
Penguin, 1973), 105.
necessary entails a conception of the place of work in 10. Ibid., 325.
the emancipated society. Work in this case functions as 11. A seminal study in French is Jean-Marie Vincent,
a powerful counterfactual ideal of emancipation. As op- Critique du Travail. Le Faire et Lagir (Paris: PUF, 1987).
posed to the domination that is structural in the wage Moishe Postones classic forms a core reference for the his-
torical and political critique of labour, Time, Labour and So-
society, the emancipated society will have to include cial Domination. A Reinterpretation of Marx Critical Theory
a conception of what liberated work would look like, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). See also a
how it would be organized, and so on all the way to how particularly useful synthesis in Emmanuel Renault, Comment
work processes would have to be established. But this, in Marx se refere-t-il au Travail et a la Domination? Actuel Marx
turn, is only to be achieved if the possibility that work 49 (2011): 1631.
12. Even though we might have the impression that
is compatible with full human emancipation is main- there is an uninterrupted movement of European ratio from
tained. If one agrees that work is central to individual the Renaissance until today [. . .] All this quasi-continuity at
experience and social life, and yet that it remains in- the level of ideas and themes is only a surface effect: at the
trinsically ambiguous normatively, then this makes the archeological level, the system of positivities has changed in
radical fashion at the turn of the 17th and 19th centuries.
problem of the organization of work one of the impor- Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London: Routledge,
tant problems of emancipatory politics, if not the most 1970), xxiv.
important problem. 13. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, 276.
14. Ibid., 266.
15. Ibid., 27783.
NOTES 16. See a clear summary and exhaustive review in
Gibson Burrell, Foucauldian and Postmodern Thought and
1. Christophe Dejours and Jean-Philippe Deranty, The the Analysis of Work. In Marek Korczynski, Randy Hodson,
Centrality of Work. Critical Horizons 11 (2010): 16780. and Paul K. Edwards eds. Social Theory at Work (Oxford:
2. For a vindication of the universal, transhistorical Oxford University Press, 2006), 15580.
aspect of this domination, see the thorough review of the 17. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, (London:
anthropological literature in Christophe Darmangeat, Le Picador, 2010), lecture of March 21,1979, 265.
Communisme primitif nest plus ce quil etait (Toulouse: 18. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (London:
Smolny, 2012). Allen Lane, 1977), 220.
3. See a summation of his model in Christophe 19. In the famous words of the Preface to Descipline and
Dejours, Le Travail vivant, 2 vols (Paris: Payot, 2009). Punish: Strangely enough, man the study of whom is sup-
For a presentation of his recent writings, see Jean-Philippe posed by the naive to be the oldest investigation since Socrates
Deranty, Work as Transcendental Experience: Implications is probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things,
of Dejours Psycho-dynamics for Contemporary Social The- or, in any case, a configuration whose outlines are determined
ory and Philosophy. Critical Horizons 11 (2010): 181220. by the new position he has so recently taken up in the field of


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120 Constellations Volume 22, Number 1, 2015

knowledge. Whence all the chimeras of the new humanisms, all 34. Robert Fossier, Le Travail au Moyen-Age (Paris:
the facile solutions of an anthropology understood as a uni- Pluriel, 2007).
versal reflection on man, half-empirical, half-philosophical. It 35. Marx, Grundrisse, 297.
is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think 36. Marx, Capital III, trans. D. Fernbach (London:
that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two cen- Penguin, 1971), 959.
turies old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will 37. In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou labour! was
disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a Jehovahs curse on Adam. See Grundrisse, 611.
new form. xxiii. 38. Georges Duby, The Three Orders. Feudal Society
20. See a particularly illustrative study by Sharon Beder, Imagined, trans. A. Goldhammer (Chicago: University of
Selling the Work Ethic. From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR Chicago Press, 1982), 50.
(Melbourne: Scribe Australia, 2000). See also John White, 39. The Three Orders, 27280. See in particular John of
Education and the End of Work (London: Continuum, 1998). Salisbury, Polycraticus 6, chap. 20 (1159). Then and then only
21. See a summary of this view in Catherine Casey, will the health of the commonwealth be sound and flourishing
Work, Self and Society: After Industrialism (London: when the higher members shield the lower, and the lower re-
Routledge, 1995), 7: The industrial legacy of the centrality spond faithfully and fully in like measure to the just demands
of production and work in social and self formation hovers of their superiors, so that each and all are as it were members
precipitously with the post-industrial condition in which work one of another by a sort of reciprocity, and each regards his
is declining in social primacy. Social meanings and solidarity own interest as best served by that which he knows to be most
must, eventually, be found elsewhere. advantageous for the others.
22. Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work: The Decline of the 40. Gerhoh of Reichersberg in the Liber de Aedificio Dei
Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era speaks of the great factory of the universe. A sort of universal
(Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1996). workshop.
23. See for instance this passage: to exist politically, 41. In Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages
an ecological left has an urgent need of mediations between (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 10721.
the existing industrial system, its wage-workers and its jobs, on 42. Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society,
the one hand, and, on the other, post-industrial forms of society trans. L. Coser (London: Free Press, 1997), xxxviiixxxix.
which comply both with ecological demands and with indus- 43. See Bronisaw Malinowskis account of the Tro-
trials aspirations to liberate themselves from work as it exists briand islanders economics: the religious ceremonies are to
and find in work as great a potential for self-determination as a substantial degree related to the technique of growing yams:
possible. We have to start out from what work is and what it re- every aspect of the planting, harvesting, distributing of the
ally means today in order to transform it, reduce it, and expand yam, has a magical corollary, The Primitive Economics of the
the scope for autonomous activities, production for ones own Trobriand Islanders, Economic Journal 31, 1921, 116.
use and self-realisation for everyone, Andre Gorz, Capitalism, 44. See a striking illustration in Raymond Firth, The
Socialism, Ecology (London: Verso, 1994). Work of the Gods in Tikopia (London: Berg, 1967).
24. See Axel Honneth, Critique of Power. Reflec- 45. See the classical reference in Ciceros analysis of
tive Stages in a Critical Social Theory, trans. K. Baynes the professions suitable to the free man in De Officiis, 1.150
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), chapter 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
25. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, The Di- 46. See Maurice Godelier, The Political as Relation of
alectic of Enlightenment, trans. E. Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford Production, in his The Mental and the Material (London:
University Press, 2002), 2627. Verso, 1988). Godelier makes the point that citizenship in
26. Ibid. Athens depends upon ownership and cultivation of land. The
27. See Emmanuel Renault, Psychanalyse et Con- activity of skhole is predicated upon the capacity to engage in
ception critique du Travail: trois Approches francfortoises specific kinds of economic activities.
(Marcuse, Habermas et Honneth), Travailler 20 (2008): 47. Philippe Descola, La Nature domestique. Symbol-
6175. isme et praxis dans lecologie des Achuar (Paris: Editions de
28. See the last chapter of Foucault, The Order of Things. la Maison des Sciences de lHomme, 2004).
29. Marcel Henaff, Claude Levi-Strauss and the Mak- 48. See, for example, the way in which in Achuar com-
ing of Structural Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of munities in Amazonia, women are the ones who look after
Minnesota Press, 199), 8, 3435. See also G. Charbonnier, gardens: it is shameful for a woman to let weeds proliferate
Conversations with Claude Levi-Strauss (London: Cape in her garden, and, except in cases of force majeure, she will
Editions, 1969). do her utmost to look after it as best as she can. This is why
30. See a typical recent indictment in Michel-Rolph the initial discussion between the family head (who will clear
Trouillot, Global Transformations (London: Palgrave the garden) and his wives (each looks after her own garden)
Macmillan, 2003), 139: We owe it to ourselves and to our is so important. The discredit of a garden that would be partly
interlocutors to say loudly that we have seen alternative visions untended would fall partly on the shoulders of the head of
of humankind indeed more than any academic discipline family. La Nature domestique, 188.
and that we know that this one [. . .] that constructs economic 49. Philippe Descola, La Nature domestique, 3501.
growth as the ultimate human value [. . .] may not be the most 50. As Godelier shows in The Making of Great Men,
respectful of the planet we share, nor indeed the most accurate one of the virtues of women is that they work hard. See also
nor the most practical. We also owe it to ourselves to say that Raymond Firth, The Work of Gods in Tikopia (London: Percy,
it is not the most beautiful nor the most optimistic. Lund and Co, 1940), 28: The Ariki Kafika said to me (the ritual
31. See a particularly clear summary in Alain Caille, six weeks of the Work of the Gods): It is truly work, friend.
Critique de la Raison Utilitaire (Paris: La Decouverte, 2003), 51. See Christophe Darmangeat, Le Communisme prim-
6568. itif nest plus ce quil etait.
32. Marx, Capital I, chapter 7, section 1. 52. See Maurice Godelier, Au Fondement des societes
33. Marx, Grundrisse Notebook VI, Work as Sacri- humaines. Ce que nous apprend lanthropologie (Paris: Albin
fice, 611. Michel, 2007), 240241.


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Historical Objections to the Centrality of Work: Jean-Philippe Deranty 121

53. Georges Duby, The Three Orders, 50. 60. See Honneth, The Critique of Power (Cambridge,
54. See Godelier, The Mental and the Material (London: Ma: MIT Press, 1991).
Verso, 2012). 61. See Alain Caille, Anthropologie du Don. Le Tiers
55. Georges Duby, The Three Orders, 273. paradigme (Paris: La Decouverte, 2007).
56. The medieval scholarship thus gives paradoxical 62. A key philosophical reference for this is provided
support to the social theory underpinning Axel Honneths the- by Merleau-Pontys model of human actions and perceptions
ory of recognition, by but questioning the sharp distinction as responding to appeals stemming from constituted fields of
between traditional and post-traditional societies. meaning, among which the field of human meanings is pri-
57. This idea was well captured in Thorstein Veblens mordial. Strikingly, in his first book, Merleau-Ponty argues
concept of an instinct of workmanship, which combines the that the primary significance of the human field is constituted
individual aspect of a taste for effective work on account of by the social as product of the work of others. See The Struc-
being agent, and a social aspect whereby individual contri- ture of Behaviour, trans. A. Fisher (London: Methuen, 1965),
bution is the prime condition of invidious comparison. See 1623.
the Introduction to The Theory of the Leisure Class (London:
MacMillan, 1915) and The Instinct of Workmanship and the
state of the Industrial Arts (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1992).
58. See the famous passage in Emil Durkheims The Jean-Philippe Deranty is Associate Professor of
Division of Labour in Society: the most remarkable effect of Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. He has
the division of labour is not that it augments the productivity of
divided functions, but that it creates solidarity between them. published extensively in German philosophy and con-
Its role is not to embellish or improve existing societies, but to temporary critical theory, notably Beyond Communica-
make possible these societies which would not exist without tion. A Critical Study of Axel Honneths Social Philos-
it [. . .] the division of labour has the function of integrating ophy (Brill, 2009). Recent publications also include a
the social body, to ensure its unity. The big political societies
number of edited collections, such as: Jacques Ranciere
can only maintain themselves but through the specialisation of
tasks: the division of labour is the source, if not the only one at and the Contemporary Scene (with Alison Ross, Con-
least the main one, of social solidarity. (London: Free Press, tinuum, 2012), New Philosophies of Labour: Work and
1997), 21. the Social Bond (with Nicholas Smith, Brill, 2012) and
59. See Philippe Descolas structural analysis of the dif- Jacques Ranciere. Key Concepts (Acumen, 2010). His
ferent ontologies of production in his master work Par dela
Nature et Culture (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), chapter 13, in par- current research focuses on the significance of work in
ticular 43545. contemporary social and political philosophy.


C 2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.