For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

A Wide Concept of Economy: Economy as a Social Prac tice and the Critique of Capitalism

by Jaeggi, Rahel (2017)

Key Passage

Another social practice crucial for fulfi lling the economic needs of society is labor or work. Labor is not simply a preinterpretively given, “raw” activity but rather is a practice that exists within a social and normative structure of recognition. It is not the activity, as such, that constitutes “work” but the social recognition of the activity as work and the role that the respective activity has in the social process of cooperation. Cooking or playing piano can be seen as work, or not, depending on whether it is practiced by the chef or the homemaker, by the pianist or the layperson. Work confronts us not only as an “eternal natural necessity,” as Karl Marx has it, in service of the human “metabolism with nature,” 18 but always and already as a socially and culturally determined factor in the context of social cooperation and the division of labor. In this sense, work is guided by norms and interpretations and is formed within specific social institutions. First, work activities assume defi nite sociocultural forms insofar as they are made possible by and shaped from the available skills, techniques, and resources of a given society in a specifi c historical time. Andthe other way around: those skills are brought into being by techniques and tools that have been historically achieved. (Producing a clay brick by hand requires and makes possible abilities and modes of behavior diff erent from those necessary for electronically supervising a manufacturing plant; communication via the Internet requires and creates diff erent abilities and behaviors than direct interaction.) It is not just the individualactivities and modes of behavior that change here but a whole context of practice in which something means something, where standard procedures and habits take shape, right down to their sedimentation in thephysical abilities and sensory skills of the workers or their relation to time. Work is, secondly, a social activity that gains a determinate form through the modes of cooperation in which it is brought about—from thesimplest division of labor to the more complex social and internal division of labor in modern societies. Th ird, there are legal sets of norms that constitute labor relations by means of the relevant institutions (such asthe modern civil employment contract or, alternatively, the system of feudal rights for protection and obedience), which provide, for example, the legal framework for free or, alternatively, dependent labor. While these sets of norms constitute labor in a specifi cally legal and institutional way, there also are less comprehensive and rigid customary social norms that must be understood as central to giving labor its structure. Labor thus can be brought about only if certain social preconditions are given, and can be identifi ed as such only in the framework of a particular interpretation and in its connection with other practices and interpretations. As a result, if it would be a reductive take on the economic institution of the market to understand market activities as merely “maximizing preferences” of purely rational agents, it also would be a mistake to reduce labor to “instrumental action.” Labor is a far richer activity, composed of a variety of attitudes and symbolic and communicative skills, and marked by habits, customs, and embodiments, and is to be understood only within a broader social context. (p.170)


No Keywords


Jaeggi Citations, Concepts of Work



How to contribute.