The Political and Public Dimension of Work: Towards the Democratisation of Work

By Lopes, Helena | Journal of Australian Political Economy, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The Political and Public Dimension of Work: Towards the Democratisation of Work


Lopes, Helena, Journal of Australian Political Economy


Work is being devalorised today as never before, and the quality of working life is deteriorating almost everywhere. Despite this, work issues are addressed by a decreasing number of economists, even heterodox economists. Normative claims about how work should be organised are increasingly handed over to managerial sciences, a process that contributes to legitimatising the long-standing liberal contention that work governance is an exclusively private matter. It is as if economists had renounced the study of the world of work and the furthering of changes that would bring about desirable social and economic outcomes.

This state of affairs is explained not only by historical and ideological factors but also by the way in which work is conceptualised by most economists and social philosophers. For mainstream economists, work is an instrumental activity in which socially dis-embedded individuals engage for the sole reason of having access to consumption. Leading philosophers, like Hannah Arendt and Jurgen Habermas, also view work as an instrumental activity in which workers relate with nature and enter into strategic relations with each other. Since the public sphere is defined by non-strategic interaction among equal individuals, work is relegated to the private, non-political domain. In our view, this instrumental, depoliticised, conception of work and its consequent exclusion from the public sphere has contributed to underrating work and is progressively removing it from 'elevated' academic matters.

The aim of the present article is to argue that workplaces are political (in the Arendtian sense) arenas and that work has an irreducible political and public dimension. Although this approach runs against the dominant contention, we are not alone in our endeavour. Authors such as Pateman (1970), Honneth (1982) and Ferreras (2007) have also been advocating the recognition of the public character of work. We develop our argument in three steps that go from an analytical to a normative stance.

Firstly, we point out that the instrumental conception regards work as a relationship between workers and nature, not a relationship with each other. In economics, the instrumental conception of work had been forged by the marginalists, the very economists that removed the relations between people from the domain of economic analysis. Yet work activities are almost always undertaken within a network of social interactions, many of which, pace Habermas, are not of a strategic nature. Institutional economics and sociological approaches have long assumed that work is a collective, cooperative venture enduringly permeated by normative concerns and aspirations for justice--the concerns and aspirations considered constitutive of the public and political sphere. It is the recognition of the cooperative character of work that allows its public dimension to be unveiled.

The second part of the article examines the extent to which the conditions for a public sphere, as conceived by Habermas and Arendt, are met in private business workplaces, and whether these conditions are effectively required for an arena to be considered public. Our conception of work leads us to question the private/public distinction in contemporary societies and discuss equality as a criterion for a public sphere.

The third part argues that the 'publicness' of work is not solely a theoretical matter but also a political issue. Some of the normative counterparts of the recognition of the public character of work are explored. Firstly, if an issue is public it must be accessible to debate and public scrutiny. We point out that the opposite is currently observed: the demands of competitiveness are used to render the changes undertaken in the world of work almost invisible and, most importantly, unquestioned. For instance, there is almost no censure of the current intensification of work (Green, 2006). Secondly, if work is recognised as having a public dimension, policies aimed at promoting the democratisation of work become necessary and legitimate. …

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