What is actually so new about the new work?

May 26, 2017
What is actually so new about the new work?

"Opposite to this man who cannot work are two men who apparently have nothing to do, these are the headworkers who, although they appear idle, work and which are the reason for well-being and the happiness of others." There is a beautiful description of Ford Madox Brown about his thoughts on this picture, which he has designated with the concise title "work". And a more general description on the English Wikipedia. It is well suited to show how the idea of work in society, now seen as gainful employment, has changed. At this time, from a rural "idyll" to an urban economy in London (Hampstead). It is also an indication that the New Work debate often argues without these historical references, which are important. "The fences around the pit separate the reality of productive labor from leisure, inertia, and unproductive labor." Picture (=contribution): Ford Madox Brown – Work (Google Art Project). Use as a public domain file.

Translation of the Original Article by Siegfried Lautenbacher and Alexander Klier


If Winfried Felser calls to a blog parade, then we follow naturally, if also with time delay. With all the more verve, we are entering into the discussion here:

  • on the one hand, because Alexander Klier has critically discussed Markus Väth’s book in his private blog (here)
  • on the other hand, because we just cannot stand hearing about it anymore and therefore write ourselves.

"For New Work beyond the initial myths, and despite all legitimate criticism, the time seems to have come to a broad practical relevance," Winfried Felser writes as part of his opening blog. In doing so, he presupposes something, which in our opinion is still not entirely clear. He turns a term (New Work, yes literally "New Work"), into a concept that could be used in practice.

We would like to look at it again more closely and first remain - as good tradition at Beas - with the term. Therefore, we ask ourselves the question first, what exactly is actually supposed to be "New Work" and more specifically, what could be the novelty of the New in it. At least in the philosophical tradition, a discussion goes back more than 2000 years on the topic of work and its design, as well as its importance. In order to give an answer to this question, we have no choice but to deal with the namesake of the movement or of the concept, namely Frithjof Bergmann, and his initial pulses having a historically much more recent period as a basis.

He sees the new in this future-working world in that that it consists in a mixture of one third each

  1. an abridged work as a financial base,
  2. an equal amount of work, people "really, really" want and
  3. a last time percentage as high technology of self-sufficiency.

In the first three parts of the blog, our blog contribution senses the concept and deals with what it originally had conceptually introduced into the world. In the last part, we propose a different utopia. Because - and here we join the very fruitful remarks of Cemo - the New-Work debate "urgently needs concrete utopian demands".


1 v. 3 – Abridged Work

"Labor is the source of all wealth, says the economist, in addition to nature, which furnishes the material which transforms it into wealth. But it is still infinite more than this, which is the first basic condition of all human Life, and to such an extent that we must say in a certain sense: It has created man himself "(Friedrich Engels).

Employment is historically seen the kind of work activities, which is inseparably linked with the emergence of large industrial enterprises and scientific management à la Frederic Taylor. Also historically speaking, work, understood as the performance of a work for pay, is only a very short form of organizing cooperation at the social and organizational level. Nevertheless, it has been able to establish a series of problematic conceptual separations. Leisure, for example, is the opposite of paid employment, from the point of origin. In the context of the debate on work-life balance, leisure was often equated with the life of the concept, as if one did not live in work - and did not work in life. Employment additionally means alienated work (depending on the author) or alienated time when it emphasizes the coercive nature of working in the factory. Once again, the term leisure time benefits here by emphasizing the free use of time, at least as far as possible. However, it is actually quite rarely free time in the literal sense, since it includes many private and social demands, commitments or needs. We will come back to this in the second and third part.

With the development of the term "New Work" - in terms of paid work - Frithjof Bergmann now assumes that the workforce would run out of work. First of all, a not too new thesis. To split the remaining work "justly", people should pursue only one third of this kind of activity in the new era. And there is our question again. What exactly is really new besides another division of a potentially scarce good? In our view, this fixation on paid labor results in a commitment to a definition of "random" cultural patterns and notions of how work is to be organized. The discussion about the possibilities of digital platforms as part of the collaborative cooperation shows that other forms of organizing employment are a real possibility. If these are not capable of "canceling" the compulsory character, for example, at the very least they are capable of clearly mitigating it, and, in principle, returning to forms of cooperation, which were the historical precursors of the factory work. This can be shown particularly well in the development of working hours.

Working hours during the pre- and early industrial phase, for example, were not absolutely predetermined or based on abstract time units’ sizes. Rather, they were task-related and integrated into social or event-oriented situations. Time was used to structure the work, but it was not a value-building factor. In crafts and the early industrial proletariat, there was therefore an orientation towards the work to be accomplished and the corresponding rhythm. Above all, there was no strict separation between the various spheres of activity and life. Social activities, speeches, celebrations and eating were quite naturally integrated into the work process, that is, Life-world aspects were also carried out during working hours (also see Deutschmann 1990, Maurer 1992, Thompson 1967). Really new in terms of innovative "New Work" as a movement would be for us if it represented, emphasized and demanded these new freedoms during the employment, which would be the real possibility of the digital revolution for us. So, not to only see the fact that one would have to necessarily spend one third of work with paid labor without being able to change it. A transformation of the employment in this sense would be also make the second third of the new work by Frithjof Bergmann look significantly different.

2 v. 3 – Work that one "really, really wants"

It's been a bad gross misunderstanding to assume that people, even with the sometimes very strong coercive nature of gainful employment (depending on the type of activity), go to work just to earn money. So to speak, in life afterwards "they are really quite different," but "rarely have time for it”. There are many psychological and sociological studies on how influential the work (positive and negative) is actually to develop one’s own ideas and wishes. And not just because you spend an average of about a third of your life with it. The key development is that work also means developing competences, appreciating values, or getting recognition for achievements - especially from the collegial circle. Feedbacks such as recognition and appreciation during work are even elementary to carry out work motivated. This comes into play at the latest when these conditions are missing. With all the consequences described under the term "inner resignation". It seems to us that Frithjof Bergmann has continued also here with the separation of work and leisure, possibly even against his intention. In principle, a pure expanse of leisure as the time in which one can pursue his hobbies and self-determined about the accomplishment of the resulting commitments. Not really new, right?

What more could work, which one really "really, really wants" mean? Why do you want it “really, really”? Why at all "really, really" and not just really, as in effectively? If, in the context of the digital transformation, employment of the labor market, as described above, is enriched by the degrees of freedom that are the prerequisite for digital collaboration in social collaboration and which are accepted by those concerned, it becomes clear that it is not about the exact content, but about the form such cooperation is organized and the collaboration can be done. “Really” understood to be effective or causing something to happen. "Really" understood in the sense of contributing something or to co-operate with others and receiving confirmation, so to get feedback, for example, that one can do something particularly good. It is only then that we are able to develop our own identity and to know what we really want. This how we would bring "our" Hegel, and the mutual recognition as a prerequisite for the formation of a self-consciousness, into the game. For us, a new vision would only be really new, where new work would be understood as an opportunity for communing to meet social challenges among free and equal people (principle of equal footing) and be realized accordingly. The films in the series Eye-level or Equal footing show very vividly in our eyes, how fulfilling it can be. In any case, it would be so appealing that one could "really, really want" (or at least be able to) this work - also organized as employment -, because one can really contribute something in and for the organization. Here at last paid employment and self-determined work to come back together for a social life design.


3 v. 3 – "High-Tech-Self-Providing" and "smart consumption"

Let’s approach the last third of the New Work concept, in which Frithjof Bergmann sees that people are able to live the first two thirds, as described above, by means of high-tech self-sufficiency. With this, he associates the idea that peoples’ consumption will reduce, because it now happens clever and well thought through, or smart. It honors him that he looks back on his time in the framework of development cooperation, in the development of this idea. But here we also notice: the thought is not really new. Most of all – if you consequently think it through – it does not lead towards a new form of Work and coexistence. This time, in fact, contrary to his intention, the whole approach in our eyes assumes a fundamentally false (and indeed neoliberal) premise when he mentions the modern Robinson Crusoe. Back to Bergmann: In the future, "technical all-rounders" will be able to produce the necessary essential goods for the basic supply, much like the replicators at Star Trek. A number of reasons could certainly be cited against such a desirable utopia idea. Let us once again limit ourselves to the argumentation of labor as a constitutive and essential nature of human beings.

Our main objection is initially based the concept of goods. Goods is the plural of Good and from a historical point of view, it comes from "being good" (or "doing good") for people. To be a "good" for people is not to be restricted to objects and their possessions, there are also intangible goods or legal goods. Being able to work is such a good and accordingly there is good (and bad) work. From the empirical investigations (on the example of the hunger) of the Indian economist Amartya Sen, three further things can be derived:

  1. The way how one gets to a good (food), whether it is acquired (earned), for example, or simply allocated by the state or by Replicators, in its own activity plays an elementary role for the self-esteem and the dignity of people.
  2. Considering the problem of hunger, the solution to the problem does not depend on technology at all. The problem is the access of people to food and the task of guaranteeing a free access, thus a participation in the social wealth.
  3. Strictly speaking, it does not depend on the good (in itself), but on what human beings can do with it. What kind of life can they lead with the relevant goods? “being good for the people“ can only be attributed to these goods, once the good life comes into focus Whether this happens with Top technology, low-budget technology or with purely social technologies is not at all decisive at all for this.

Let’s relate this back to work: As mentioned above, the antonym of employment - leisure or free time – is not really free time. Quite the opposite: homework, upbringing and care are often hard physical work, even when it is done in the spare time. This also applies to the "care" of social contacts - and, of course, to the safeguarding of the care, for example of the family (not only by myself), with basic goods. Although these activities have characteristics that are also inherent in the work (necessity, commitments, respect for others), it is work that is quite critical how they are carried out. Moreover, they are activities that represent necessary and good work for identity formation for the people, because they bring forth goods. In other words: Precisely because individual commitments or constraints result from this, the common conditionality of each individuality manifests itself in nursing and nurturing activities. Care is not restricted to purely physical need, but is an essential part of human communication and interaction.

Against this background, the question arises again: What is the new thing about New Work? In our view, a new work will only emerge when the social dimensions of care, recognition and care, as well as its commitment, become part of the daily work and cooperation. In this context, we are not only concerned with a stronger recognition of social professions or personal services. It is about a completely new understanding, which principles (productive) work has and how the basis for it is created to be available as good. At least one can say that the whole discussion about gender-based distribution of work, which is particularly well shown in the field of welfare, is not an issue for the New Work movement. In our eyes not surprising, because it was not an issue already during the "foundation" and reduction of the supply of consumer goods.


The good life or: Time for a dialectic transformation

"The work is initially a [...] process in which man mediates, regulates and controls his metabolism with nature through his own deed [...].The natural forces, arms and legs, head and hand, which are part of his corporeality, are set in motion in order to adapt the natural substance to a form suitable for his own life. By acting through this movement on nature outside of him and changing it, he also changes his own nature“ (Karl Marx, The capital I, pg. 192).

Since Karl Marx - and here he follows Hegel's motif of the dialectics of domination and slavery - understood "human work as a dialectical ontological principle of human existence and mankind" (Cemo), the above quotation contains a comprehensive concept of work. We would like to suggest at the end that the term New Work is possibly just a bad choice, because it considers it as paid employment from the outset – or possibly has to start there. Holding on to Bergmann’s original ideas by the New Work Movement delivers a disservice to the utopian character within some of the considerations and demands. In order to function as a convincing utopia, the New Work Movement must emancipate itself emphatically from its founding father. Also, the term of Work needs to be transformed, further substantiated and finally sharpened. The emphasis should be on the actual new and the new possibilities, for example a social collaboration. It would already help to break the permanent and immediate reduction of work to (the concept and content of) employment and to see work as that which Friedrich Engels writes about in his essay on the Incarnation of the Apes (see entry quotation) and Karl Marx For the political economy.

Work, with all its proportions, is the condition for people to be able to lead a life at all, which they must simultaneously shape with this work. Human capacity for work is actually even the central asset that can be used (and used up) in different ways. This applies both individually, as well as to society and, of course, its overall organizational implementation.

In any case, the actual type of organization of cooperation has repercussions on people. New Work does not abolish capitalism and will not manage to give capitalism a human face (Markus Väth), because different categories are compared in such a comparison. But a concrete, genuine, new work can be a utopically impulsive contribution to the radical all-embracing "emancipation of the individual, with the abolition of all inhuman conditions", because now it is possible to see how it could work. In such a broad understanding, the concrete content of activities is no longer decisive, but the way in which work is organized socially and collectively. In other words:

The utopia of New Work is for us to enable man in a manner, which is appropriate and acceptable to him, which was always important to the ancient philosopher: to create the prerequisites for people not only to live biologically, but to live together in the sense of a good life, because they shape nature (and technology) and develop themselves and society. While performing the specific activities they learn from each other and confirm each other in order to develop in this "mirror" self-awareness. Within the framework of this co-operation they can meet with mutual responsibility as substantial individuals, as equals who know the necessity of embedding in society and networking with peers for the active realization of their own existence.


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