A chancellor and a philosopher debate labor

Abstract: Debate between Olaf Scholz, German Chancellor, and Axel Honneth, philosopher author of ‘Le Souverain au travail’, on the problem of the recognition of work in contemporary society. The interest of the debate is that it is the archetype of dodging the fundamentals of the problem. Social ontology is not even mentioned. Surprisingly, the philosopher appears even more mired in demagoguery. I quickly allude to the real crux of the matter, the individual/collective relationship, at the end of the discussion.

Debates between politicians and philosophers are often fascinating. We expect to see the end of the language of wood, the favorite tool of politicians in front of crowds, considered too stupid to hear sincerity. Here the audience is educated: it is the readers of Philosophie Magazine, who would resent being the target of demagogic arguments. The line of this magazine being clearly Marxist, as we have seen with regard to pensions in France, it is not expected to defend capital. Unsurprisingly, the debate on work proposed by a German journalist pits a socialist chancellor against a post-Marxist philosopher. Let’s see if this contemporary pragmatic left manages to avoid the unspoken.

The discussion being fascinating and emblematic of the genre, I reproduce it in full, inserting my comments.

Olaf Scholz-Axel Honneth: A chancellor and philosopher at work, August 16, 2023

Svenja Flaßpöhler (the journalist): Mr Scholz, the SPD, of which you are a member, has long since severed ties with its Marxist roots. Today, the voters are abandoning you, and the AfD [Alternative for Germany, a far-right German political party] is on par with your party. Was it a mistake?

Olaf Scholz: I do not share your analysis. I will answer biographically first. I have been a member of the SPD since 1975 and will therefore celebrate, in two years, the fiftieth anniversary of my membership in the party. During all these years, my theme has always been work. That’s why I became a labor lawyer. I represented works councils as well as workers who had been made redundant or whose positions were to be eliminated. This is why I really enjoyed reading your book, Mr. Honneth [Der Arbeitende Souverän “The Sovereign at work”, which appeared this year in Germany]. I too am deeply aware of the fact that the people who work, for example at Ford in Cologne, are the sovereign in a democracy. But let’s come to your question. First of all, the Bad Godesberg program [adopted in 1959 by the SPD, it recognizes the importance of the market economy and denounces communism] was not an abandonment of the labor movement.

Journalist: It was all the same a farewell to Marxism…

O. S.: The real decision of Godesberg’s program was the evolution towards a popular party. The SPD is the inventor of the mass party in Germany: it then opened up to other groups that were committed to democracy, solidarity and justice, without necessarily coming from the traditional working class milieu.

Axel Honneth: To quickly respond to your initial biographical remark: I joined the SPD before you. But I also left the party much faster. I can understand the abandonment of certain foundations of Marxism. This was no doubt necessary, insofar as Marxist theory was a product of industrialism. The labor movement, influenced by Marxism, staked everything on the revolutionary force of the industrial proletariat. In the 1950s, the work landscape began to change dramatically. We were witnessing the transition from industrial work to the service society. In this context, continuing to refer only to the industrial proletariat would certainly have been a mistake.

Journalist: But?

A. H.: The question is rather whether, in the transition from a workers’ party to a popular party, work has not been set aside too much. The transition to the people’s party would have been more successful if the SPD had continued to claim that it was a party of work —more precisely, of work in its new forms, which are numerous— and if the party had said: we represent the interests and the concerns of all who do hard and demanding work; we ensure that within this society, work is fair and well organized in all the spaces in which it takes place, from the woman to the home —and increasingly today, we hope, from the man to the home— to Amazon workers, to hospital caregivers. The coronavirus crisis has brought to light, for a moment, a lack of recognition, security and financial remuneration; but these issues were quickly forgotten.

Comment: This introduction is admirably intelligent and sincere. Notice that all good communicators do this. They begin with a hard-hitting honesty, putting the audience in a favorable mood. “This guy speaks true!” This makes it easier to pass snakes and hide his nonsense later. But for the moment the problem is perfectly posed: A labor policy concerned with the working classes must adapt to the evolution of the labor market, without losing sight of its initial objective: to improve solidarity between social classes.

O.S.: I agree. To express this essential concern, I use the term respect. But we also need to show respect in other ways. The formula “ascent through training” [training initiative launched in 2008] is of course an important objective, but, as a social norm, this horizon has led to not valuing certain professions sufficiently. The work of a lawyer, a university professor, a journalist or a philosopher is no more valuable than that of the people who work in the slaughterhouse, who maintain our parks, who build our houses… It is also at this level that we lost sight of respect. This is why I want to say very clearly that it is fundamental to have respect for any work.

A. H.: At first glance, I am not sure of the real scope of the difference between respect and recognition. It is probably minimal. However, I think that as long as we stick to “respect”, we are only half-truth. Respect requires the creation of conditions that allow those who must be respected to consider this respect as deserved. We need to ask ourselves what more needs to be done for respect to actually become respect or recognition. In my view, this implies that we concretely reorganize the activity of those who deserve esteem and respect, so that these people stop seeing their work as a hollow and purely symbolic gesture. True recognition, sincere respect, would involve creating material conditions that would justify expressions of esteem.

Journalist: Yet you write that material conditions alone are not enough…

A.H.: Of course. This requires questioning the division of labor itself. The fact that professional activities are divided in a certain way is not an expression of technological necessities or functional constraints. Very often, the professions that exist today were born as a result of political and economic conflicts. Whether, for example, nursing staff should be able to exercise more skills in the course of their work than is currently permitted under professional regulations is an important question. All simple professions are relatively artificial structures, created in particular to respond to a politico-economic calculation whose objective is to reduce the requirements in terms of qualifications, in order to be able to reduce labor costs. In the longer term, we must ask ourselves whether these professions should not be redefined. With a bit of social imagination, we could imagine what is perfectly compatible with social democracy – how to organize the chain of division of labor so that some do not perform excessively repetitive, arduous and exhausting work, while others Others receive a considerable income for relatively little work. This is a more radical horizon than what we have discussed so far. We cannot be satisfied with what exists: the nurse does this, the doctor does that. The division of labor can be completely redesigned; nothing prevents the recomposition of activities. In fact, many professions have been recomposing for a long time. From now on, the rail controller contributes to the delivery of meals.

Journalist: And is that progress?

A.H.: No, of course not. This is a considerable additional charge. I just want to say that it is in principle possible to restructure trades. Social democracy could make this one of its main projects and start thinking about new forms of work, more intellectually satisfying, less repetitive, less monotonous.

O.S.: I agree. Nevertheless, a question came to me while reading you: does one have to lead a particular type of life to have a say in the matter? We must avoid a pitfall: that of not trusting those who do not currently exercise an intellectually satisfying activity in order to take an active part in democracy. In your book, you yourself distance yourself from the Marxist ideal of non-alienated labor and, on the contrary, highlight the importance of the formation of political will.

A. H.: I would be really upset if my book gave even the slightest impression of saying that those who do not find sufficiently well-organized working conditions cannot participate in democracy.

Journalist: However, you write explicitly that the cleaner should work in a more intellectually demanding way in order to develop political will…

A. H.: I say that repetitive work has certain consequences. It doesn’t make you stupid. The people who perform it are certainly not stupid, quite the contrary: they have much more know-how, expertise and intelligence than is often assumed in high circles. But repetitive work turns out to be a danger when it becomes second nature to the person. She will then find it difficult to develop sufficient initiative and self-confidence to express her opinion publicly. I am thinking here of the feeling of shame felt by those who perform tasks that others look down on. How can we change this? By valuing work more. But what’s the best way to do it? By making work more complex, enriching it with new tasks and making it more demanding overall. No one likes to do repetitive work. We suffer from it, we feel underemployed and exposed to the ridicule of others. We should strive to make every effort to transform repetitive work as much as possible to make it more interesting.

O. S.: In principle, I think this normative effort is fair.

Comment: After the promising start, the debaters quickly turned to the language of wood. Big surprise though! The politician uses it first but soon finds himself overtaken in measure by the philosopher. Let’s see this:

Scholz discusses the “respect” due to the worker, whether worker or doctor. This term, like that of “dignity”, is vague enough to conceal a whole universe of unsaid things about the principle of equality and its discordance with reality: citizens are unequal in everything, the ideal of equality disappears behind the practical management of inequalities. The term “recognition” is already much more explicit, whatever Honneth says, and leads to the correct vocabulary: “recognition of individuality”. Try replacing ‘respect’ with ‘recognition of individuality’ in your word processor in the preceding paragraphs and things become clearer.

But the language of wood has not disappeared for all that. In seeking to unify recognition, Scholz and Honneth carefully avoid the subject of the hierarchy of professions and responsibilities, as if society could be “flattened” by the wave of a magic wand. The hierarchy of tasks here seems to be treated as an archaic heritage devoid of any intrinsic interest. Yet it is the heart of the functioning of the world of work.

Scholz is the first to tangle his pencils by erasing the hierarchy behind respect: “The work of a university professor is no more valuable than a job in the slaughterhouse”. Why, then, does one pay much more than the other and give much more social power?

But it’s Honneth, the philosopher, who really gets his feet wet. He thinks that the less educated should make an effort of intellectualization to get out of a dull and repetitive profession, but refuses to recognize this because it would be to see the lower value of the professions in question. Honneth says, “Repetitive work doesn’t make you stupid.” But it certainly blocks the development of intelligence. Double talk. “The people who do it are certainly not stupid, quite the contrary: they have much more know-how, expertise and intelligence than is often assumed in high places. Honneth seeks to escape from the mousetrap by assimilating all forms of intelligence to the general. But society places very different values on logical, emotional, or manual intelligence. Again the essential is avoided.

Journalist: How do you understand the current phenomena of “great resignation” and “silent resignation”?

A. H.: I don’t think these people don’t want to work. I think they have difficulty finding jobs in which they could really identify. And this is partly due to the deplorable conditions in these sectors. In my childhood and adolescence, teaching was a highly respected profession. We have to see how this profession is now paid, the amount of work that teachers have to do in very complicated classes with major cultural heterogeneity. They must make a considerable effort to integrate, while often being confronted with the right of opposition from parents. In the evening, they return home completely overwhelmed psychologically and without any social esteem on the part of society. Who wants to become a teacher under these conditions? The labor market has developed in such a way that professions that could be fulfilling are in fact organized in such a way that they no longer attract anyone.

O. S.: The way of looking at work has undergone significant changes in the history of ideas. According to Luther, work was a fulfillment of Christian moral duty. It is relatively new in the history of mankind that life is no longer completely dominated by work, that many people are still in training until the age of 27 and can enjoy twenty or thirty years of a life without work after retiring, thanks to social benefits. The reduction of working time is also a relatively new reality; it leaves room for other interests. But this does not mean that work would have become completely insignificant for our identities. It also doesn’t mean that we would be out of work. With regard, for example, to the question of teachers, we have to admit this fact: in certain Länder, 10 to 15% of pupils in the final year would have to choose the profession of teacher so that we can quickly replace teachers who leave retired. Even if these professions are very well paid here compared to the United States or France, we must make efforts in this area. All of us, and in particular the Länder, who are responsible for education policies.

Comment: Honneth, decidedly very disappointing, takes himself on the wrong foot. He regrets the degradation of the work of the teacher, an intellectual profession if there is one, when it results precisely from the leveling of the hierarchy of which he makes himself the herald. Respect seems like power subject to communicating vessels: when it is increased in the lower social strata it dries up terribly in the upper ones. There is obviously something in human psychology that our learned philosopher has not understood. Or who is unmentionable…

Scholz is more pragmatic. He thinks that the revaluation of the teaching profession passes not by a populist equalization of the salary but by its increase. Nevertheless for what reason would respect return? Wouldn’t the jealousy of others be exacerbated? Our debaters bury themselves in a dualistic universe where pay and respect are as disconnected as body and mind, and no one knows how to connect them.

Journalist: Can the development of artificial intelligence also help solve the problem of labor shortage in certain sectors?

A. H.: We will certainly be able to simplify a lot of things in the production sector thanks to artificial intelligence and robotization. We will also be able to increasingly automate some of the most tedious aspects of work that still exist today. But, in my opinion, we will not be able to replace human work in the fields of care and education, because these require interaction with the person, physical presence and the capacity for empathy. In fact, the need for labor in the care and education sectors will increase. We live in an aging society. Let us also think about what we will have to do in the future in schools if we want to integrate all the refugees we hope to be able to welcome. Even with the best intentions in the world, I can’t imagine putting a robot in front of the students. I cannot imagine that education works without interaction with the person of the teacher. The emotions – including resistance to the teacher – that a student needs throughout his or her school career cannot be aroused by a robot.

O. S.: If we had taken seriously all the books written since the 19th century that announced that we were going to lack work, we would all have been unemployed at least fifty times, and definitely! It was otherwise, and that is why there is reason to be confident today. Our main effort is to ensure that everyone can keep pace with change and that no one is left behind when job demands change. Companies must make a choice when they need new skills from their employees: lay them off and hire new ones, or consider reskilling those they already employ to train them in the new activities needed.

Comment: Demagogic end of debate on the AI revolution. The reference to books written since the 19th century is stupid. No philosopher or economist has been able to anticipate the upheavals linked to the arrival of an intelligence that will inevitably surpass the human. Only science fiction writers have tried it, and not all of their stories are so summarily positivist.

In the end, this debate on work, after a good presentation of the problem, is far too conventional and superficial to present the slightest interest. The crux of the matter is not even mentioned. It is the relationship between the individual and the collective. The individual is quoted abundantly, through the ‘respect’ due to him. But nowhere is there any mention of the collective interest. Only represented by Scholz and completely overlooked by Honneth, how then does he really exist? Obligatorily by the effort that each of us devotes to it. The work is not directed entirely towards its own interest. A part goes to the collective interest. This fact is drastically erased from the discussion, especially when Honneth responds to the ‘Great Resignation’ question: “I don’t think people don’t want to work.” We are surprised to find this populist reply in his mouth rather than that of Scholz. Admittedly, people retain a desire to work… but mainly for themselves, and secondarily for their loved ones. The indifference to the collective is growing.

He who withdraws into an autonomous property in the countryside, cultivating and tinkering for himself, acts as if the services from which he benefits, invisible because they have always been there, are part of an unalterable spatio-temporal framework, without having to worry about it. Is this “independent” really so, or does he mostly have much tighter blinkers than the most rookie of politicians?

The problem of work is therefore above all a change of perspective between individual and collective interest, in each citizen. The first is in constant progression. There is a binding part in any profession, whether it is manual or highly intellectualized work. All professions involve repetitive and unrewarding tasks. It is the awareness of their importance as cogs in the collective, and not as individual valorization, that makes it possible to support them.

There are certainly rebalancings to be made between individuals, but these rebalancings must not be made to the detriment of the collective, which is currently showing signs of inversion and disintegration —rise of populism, withdrawal into the social clan.

Nor is recognition of the importance of any profession meant to erase meritocracy, which devotes effort to improving one’s intelligence in all areas. No one is stupid, but everyone can get smarter…

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