Work can be a source of identity and meaning, empowering people to be self-confident citizens, willing to stand up for themselves and others – but only if it is not subjected to the logic of capitalism, but to that of democracy. To counter the pressures of competitiveness and profitability that harm our relation to work, infusing it with precarity and inequality, we need solid social protections, a job guarantee, and workplace democracy.
What gives a human life security? What makes a person feel safe? Those are deep psychological questions, with philosophical, maybe even spiritual, dimensions. But there are also more mundane sides to them: the material, economic ones, and the sociological ones of the structures in which people live their daily lives and forge social bonds. What makes a person certain that they will be able to fulfill their needs, and those of their loved ones, now and in the future? How can they know that not only their bare necessities that will be covered, but also their immaterial needs: for autonomy, for respectability, and for tasks that are meaningful and in line with their values? And how do these questions hang together with the question of how work is organized?
Capitalism thrives on uncertainty. What may feel like certainty for one group, e.g. a permanent, meaningful job in a stable industry, is an unused opportunity to introduce change for someone else, e.g. by inserting a disruptive technology in this market. The ability to react to new information and to make use of good occasions whenever they emerge is seen as one of its most valuable features by its defenders: the constant dynamism, the “creative destruction” that fuels constant innovation. One need not deny that this can be an advantage – but it comes at a cost. Whose livelihoods are being destroyed in the “creative destruction”? Whose way of generating an income – which is often also a way of life – is no longer seen as “competitive”? If capitalism goes unchecked and is not accompanied by other institutions, it produces precarity. As Albena Azmanova writes in her post, precarity is “a condition of politically generated economic insecurity and social vulnerability that harms not only people’s material and psychological welfare, but also society’s capacity to cope with adversity and to govern itself.”
Whose livelihoods are being destroyed in the “creative destruction”? Whose way of generating an income – which is often also a way of life – is no longer seen as “competitive”? If capitalism goes unchecked and is not accompanied by other institutions, it produces precarity.
In this essay, I explore the ways in which this tendency of capitalism plays out in the field of work: its relation to uncertainty, its meaning in people’s lives, and its relation to democracy. Work, I will argue, can be a source of identity and meaning and thereby contribute to giving people security and make them self-confident citizens, willing to stand up for themselves and others – but only if it is not subjected to the logic of capitalism, but to that of democracy.
The race to beat uncertainty
The answer to how to give more certainty to one’s life that capitalism suggests is individualistic: you need to have money! Money buys the goods and services one needs to fulfill one’s basic needs, hence the psychological relief that comes from having some savings, both for unforeseen emergencies and for one’s retirement – but low wages have made this a privilege for the few. Money also buys services such as lawyers or advisors, not to speak of therapists or coaches that can help one “cope” in today’s complex labor markets. These services can be expensive, and one never knows when one will need them, and at what price – so again, one better set aside some more money. If money ever buys certainty, it can do so only if you have a lot of it!
In the hunt for ever more money, the logic of work changes. It becomes a mere instrument for earning money, not necessarily out of greed, but out of the desperate wish to achieve some psychological security. Most people would readily acknowledge that work can also be an opportunity for self-expression, sociability, and making a meaningful contribution. But the more uncertainty people experience, the more difficult it becomes to see work in these ways, and to choose forms of work in which goods other than money, and the opportunity to contribute to society, are central.
The problem, however, is that money, as a purely quantitative currency, has no natural end to it. There is no natural stopping point, and there is always someone else who has more of it whom one might want to emulate. This leads to what the 19th century philosopher GWF Hegel has called a “negative infinity”: an endless striving, without any qualitative distinctions. The same logic of “bad infinity” can also apply to other “currencies”, for example, in the world of social media, numbers of likes and followers. And it is not only external pressures that lead individuals into this striving – it often becomes an internalized disposition that comes to dominate their whole life. Work, as the central way of earning money, becomes hollowed out of its qualitative dimensions, and is turned into nothing but an endless rat race.
The problem, however, is that money, as a purely quantitative currency, has no natural end to it. There is no natural stopping point, and there is always someone else who has more of it whom one might want to emulate.
The second answer that capitalism gives to the need for certainty, which may seem somewhat more collective, is the principle of insurance. Insurances pool risks and pay out money to those hit by a misfortunate, for example an accident. This practice precedes capitalism; it has existed for centuries on an informal basis, for example in burial associations or guilds. Under capitalism, however, it is driven not by solidarity but by the profit motive, with insurance companies trying hard to sort individuals into different risk categories and charging the highest possible price. In this sense, despite being collective, insurance remains a private solution – and given the prices of many policies, in practice it is a solution only for the financially privileged. So, the individualistic logic returns through the back door: you better work harder to earn those extra dollars to pay for decent insurance!
Institutional answers to uncertainty
To deal with the uncertainties of life, and to reduce the precarity that financialized capitalism has created, not individualistic, but institutional answers are crucial. One very straightforward way in which this needs to happen is to prevent capitalist employers and other decision-makers from pushing avoidable physical or psychological risk onto individuals: through health and safety regulation, but also through regulations of work time and other stress-inducing workplace practices. This is no rocket science – it is, indeed, often a matter of enforcing rules that exist, but only on paper, as workplaces have become “fissured” and supervisory authorities have been defunded. Unions can sometimes play a role as ersatz-enforcers on the local level, but they have been weakened as well. Having nobody to turn to who could help you to claim your rights at the workplace is another source of deep uncertainty.
A second institutional answer is to shift general life risks back to society, reversing the “great risk shift” to individuals that took place in the past four neoliberal decades. The term “social insurance” exists for a reason: the same logic of pooling risks can also be used as an instrument of public solidarity, to support those who are hit by misfortune. The post-WWII welfare states installed such systems for many risks of life, at least for its core constituencies: pension systems for old age, health care systems for illnesses and accidents, or unemployment support for those who lost their jobs and needed a temporary income and retraining. But these systems have been weakened, or outrightly hollowed out, in the last decades – they urgently need to be restored. And yet, they have not insured the loss of work, and so the fear of unemployment remains a source of troubling uncertainty for many people.
A second institutional answer is to shift general life risks back to society, reversing the “great risk shift” to individuals that took place in the past four neoliberal decades.
This is where a job guarantee comes in: it provides insurance not only against the loss of income, but also against the loss of meaningful activity that can give individuals a standing in society (at least as long as public jobs are not stigmatized). Moreover, it protects the potentially positive psychological effects of work. People can keep up routines and skills, or even acquire new skills. They are embedded in social networks, meeting not only new colleagues but also the clients who benefit from their work. Many of the goods of work can thus be ensured. Some critics say that a job guarantee keeps the focus on full-time, paid work, which might not be viable in a future in which much more work gets done by robots and algorithms. But the jobs in a public job guarantee program need not be full time, and can be combined with more free time for civic activities or private needs, in families or groups of friends. As Pavlina Tcherneva has argued, the Job Guarantee is also an institutional vehicle that can help redefine the meaning of work.
The importance of social relations
All these measures are important to reduce uncertainty at the workplace and beyond. And yet, I think that the critique of capitalism for its anxiety-inducement needs to go further. My subsequent reflections are based on the premise that genuine psychological safety has to do not only with formal institutions, but also, crucially, with the social relations individuals develop between each other. These cannot be directly regulated by state policy. But what can be done is to remove obstacles, and instead create spaces, for individuals to develop positive social ties and build trust among each other inside and outside of the workplace. It is a matter of allowing individuals to care for each other, in the widest sense of the word, not only in their closest family circles – among those who are like them – but also in other social circles, with others who are different along various lines. The French sociologist Emil Durkheim called this “organic solidarity”: solidarity not out of homogeneity and all the pressures that come with it, but solidarity across differences.
Workplaces remain one of the key sites for individuals to encounter others who are different from them along lines of gender, ethnic background, or religious and ideological views – more so than many other social spaces. To be sure, they could be more diverse than they currently are, and steps should be taken to work towards this. But whether or not this diversity can lead to ties of solidarity depends crucially on how work is organized. If individuals are bossed around all day and efficiency imperatives do not even allow them to have a break together, then one cannot expect much social integration to happen at the workplace (although it is fascinating to observe how many pockets of solidarity arise even under the direst of circumstances).
Capitalist thinking often emphasizes the importance of competition – even in contexts such as workplaces, in which complementarity and collaboration are much more important. This pits people against each other: they often experience constellations in which only one of them can win. While sometimes such situations are unavoidable (and tragic), often, they have been intentionally created, with the idea that this would motivate people to work harder. Work then becomes even more an endless, competitive rat race.
But work could also follow a different logic, without necessarily sacrificing efficiency. A metaphor that could replace that of a rat race is that of an orchestra (or rock band, or whatever musical genre one prefers): the members’ contributions are very different, and yet they all are needed, and they form into something that is bigger than the contribution of each single individual.1 Members are motivated by the wish to support their colleagues and to achieve their shared aim. While such harmony may be rarely fully achievable in practice, and while counterpower and resistance are all too often needed, work should not be organized such as to systematically undermine the possibility of such solidaristic team experiences.
There are many independent arguments for democratizing work, but here is one that connects to the theme of this essay: only if individuals experience their workplaces as social spaces in which they can be themselves, speak their mind, and build trustful relationships with others, they can develop the kinds of social ties that support them in their self-understanding and personal development, reducing anxiety and creating a positive social identity. Workplace democracy makes it more likely that this can happen. Through representative mechanisms, it shifts the power more towards workers, protecting them better against abuse and rights violations. Through participatory mechanisms, it allows workers to govern their work together, defining the tasks and roles and setting the rules of how they work and related to each other.
Democratizing work is one element in the toolbox of policy strategies that can move our current economic systems towards a “post-neoliberal” era. True, some democratic workplaces, e.g. the famous Mondragon cooperative, survive even under the harsh conditions of global capitalist competition. But to introduce worker representation in companies on a larger scale would require policy measures that make it mandatory, or at least provide strong incentives for companies to move in this direction, e.g. through tax incentives.2 At the same time, democratic companies can decide to orient their work towards a broader set of values than the profit motive – and they can do so more credibly than traditional corporations who, with all their talk of “purpose”, are not willing to share power with their workers. Empirical research on co-determined firms in Europe – a very imperfect form of workplace democracy, and yet different from the Anglo-Saxon type of the corporation – shows that they achieve better ecological and social outcomes. As such, democratic workplaces can pave the way towards broader reforms in which the economic system is redirected towards societal goals.
Democratizing work is one element in the toolbox of policy strategies that can move our current economic systems towards a “post-neoliberal” era.
Democratic practices, especially participatory ones, are sometimes criticized for being slow – democracy might be “an endless meeting”, as a provocative book title goes. To be sure, democratically run organizations need to find ways of balancing their actual tasks and the task of self-rule. But what one should not underestimate is something else that can happen during these – hopefully not endless – meetings: people come to understand each other’s perspective, and can develop trust and solidarity. And trust and solidarity are an important basis for developing new ideas and trying out new things: the basic ingredients for innovation and change for the better, driven not by a desire for higher profits, but for serving one’s clients better or doing a better job.
And yet, this can only become a reality if the differentials of power and status, and the differentials of income and wealth on which these are often based, do not become too large. Here, I disagree with Ian Shapiro and Albena Azmanova – not because one should opt for complete equality, but because there are systemic effects of inequality that distort the possibility of fighting against precarity and creating structures in which individuals can gain stability at the workplace and beyond. The fights against precarity and against inequality need to go hand in hand.
One argument here is a simple consideration of power: in a highly unequal society, privileged groups are all too likely to block precisely those policies that would provide more security for ordinary families.3 If money rules in politics, the government is no longer seen as “ours” by the majority of the population, but is perceived as a matter of elites, which in turn creates a breeding ground for populism. Even middle-class voters, who feel powerless at work and fear for their standard of living and the future of their children, feel alienated from politicians who talk to corporate leaders and rich donors but seem to have forgotten what life is like for normal people.
A second argument concerns the kind of work that is available in society, and the forces that shape it. Is it work for the needs of others, or is it work for the profits of those who are already rich? Can all members of society see each other as contributing, each in their own way, to the production of social value? Can bus drivers, teachers, judges, managers, and cleaners all see each other as playing an important role for society? Or is the more apt metaphor that of a feudal ruling class and their peons and servants? This is also a problem for workplace democracy: can one expect people whose wages differ by a factor of several hundred to speak to each other at eye level? Even if democratic institutions were installed in workplaces, it is unlikely that a democratic culture could develop in the face of such differences.
An unbridled capitalist logic undermines all the positive contributions that work can make to people’s lives and to their sense of security. Under it, work becomes a physical and psychological risk factor, and induces endless anxiety and stress about the money that needs to be earned. But it is also possible to envision work differently: as something that citizens do for each other, forging bonds of solidarity among colleagues and co-workers, and as a source of social identity. Such work is better able to shape individuals into the kinds of citizens that democracies need: sure of themselves, solidaristic with others, and willing to speak truth to power.
1. The orchestra metaphor is also used by John Rawls (A Theory of Justice, p. 524).
2. Such tax incentives would reflect the positive externalities that democratic companies have on workers and society, in this sense there is even a purely economic justification for providing them.
3. Of course, other elements of the legal framework, e.g. campaign finance rules, also matter for this, and reform is needed in these areas as well. But the higher socio-economic inequality, the more difficult it becomes to defend such institutional barriers, and the more likely it is that financial power can be translated into other forms of power, including political power.
Lisa Herzog works at the intersection of political philosophy and economic thought. She has been held her position at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Groningen since 2019; since 2021 she is the Directer of the Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and since January 2023, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy. Herzog has published on the philosophical dimensions of markets, liberalism and social justice, ethics in organizations, and political epistemology. She is a co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal Review of Social Economy. Her latest monograph is Citizen Knowledge. Markets, Experts, and the Infrastructure of Democracy . The current focuses of her work are economic democracy and the philosophy of work.