The forgotten role of labour?

The forgotten role of labour?

The information age is upon us and has brought with it the concept of ‘digital nomadism’ and the 21st Century Career. We have more flexibility in the work-force than ever before, yet the current highly ranked corporate employers are losing 1/4 of their workforce every year. What is really interesting is that this paradox of labour and productivity was foretold nearly 200 years ago by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher.


Hegel provides an argument that humans are social, political and cultural beings motivated (unknowingly or not) to participate in society on three levels – familiar, civic/market and state/government. This is counter to the view of John Stuart Mills and Adam Smith that we are first and foremost Homoeconomicus – selfish, perfectly rational individuals motivated to provide labour in return for a salary bound by a contract. Regardless of our motivations, the main way most of us participate in civil society is still through our provision of labour to produce services and products deemed useful by the market. This is equally as true now as it was in the 19th century when Hegel was prolific.


Hegel used the story of the Lord and the Labourer to demonstrates how participation in the labour market impacts upon our ability as individuals to become fully human and fully aware – able to recognise ourselves as individuals and simultaneously as an integral part of society. He also uses the story to warn us of the dangers of the abstraction of labour, particularly through the use of ‘tools’ (think computers).

In the story, the Labourer is able to quantify and realise his contribution to society by transforming natural resources (including time) into produce (commodities and services) that are sold on the market. The labourer achieves awareness of his own boundless capability for creativity and productivity, even if he does not own the produce created or if it was done to satisfy individual needs (to generate income). In contrast, the Lord is lacking self-actualisation because he has not contributed a part of himself to the development of the produce that society values, and yet he has generated an income (profit) from it. Freelancers and self-employed folk not being very common in the 19th century, the work of almost all labourers was performed for the Lord, who sold it and kept the profit.

As a result of the labourers’ efforts, the commodities that he produces and then sells become the method by which he is recognised by others. This simultaneously alienates the individuals’ identity from his true-self, whilst granting him an identity amongst society. He becomes a member of a community, known for produce of a certain type and perhaps of a certain quality. Furthermore, the labourer recognises the illusion of self-sustenance and understands his mutual dependence upon the produce of the community, thereby confirming the social motivations to cooperate with the community.

Labour then is not an instinct, but a social construct where the individual acquires skills necessary for work only by learning universal laws of work, a kind of practical education which instils in people the spirit of cooperation. Therefore the ability to contribute, to provide labour, to produce, and to see what we produce sold on the market is integral to the integration of our identities into the identity of the community/society and vice versa.

shovel to dig on the farm
shovel to dig on the farm

Now add to this that Hegel identified that the particularization of labour and separation of it from nature through the use of tools decreases the value of labour by the same proportion as it increases productivity. His intention was to show that the industrial revolution and the factories it created would lead to increasing levels of worker dissatisfaction, disillusionment and disconnection from society.

Without a connection between nature, our work and our community, we are bereft of any understanding of our place in society, our contribution to the greater good and as a result, we are likely to be fairly unhappy in our work. The resurgence in the production of boutique, tailor-made, and bespoke artefacts or the sacrifice of job security for impact, autonomy and passion in the workplace can then be seen as an effort to connect again with nature and our communities respectively, rather than the restless, impatient, irrational decision of an ADD driven millennial.

This post relied heavily on Paul Ashton’s ‘Legacy of Hegal’ Seminar at the University of Melbourne for the interpretation of Hegal, analysis and application to job satisfaction is purely the authors.

Goethe’s phenomenology

I’m living in Munich, Germany these days and I have been learning a lot, or maybe it just seems that way when the inaccuracies of our stereotypes are revealed to us. I thought something I picked up recently about Goethe (I didn’t know he was a philosopher/scientist) might be of interest to you, it is about the recent resurgence of Goethe’s scientific theory of phenomenology.

It seems Goethe’s theory has never been widely popular but it may now be emerging as an element of counter-culture against the cold, rational process of ‘modern’ science. Reading about how Goethe advocated for an immersive, experiential method of learning struck me as being aligned with a recent MOOC I participated in from MIT on Theory U and its application to creating societal change, as well as the Agile Manifesto and Quest Augmented Strategy.

Goethe’s phenomenology is being put forward as a scientific means of ‘fostering openness toward the living presence of the natural world..and it’s sensual presence as expressed, for example, through light, darkness and colour’. As far as I can tell this openness is expected to come from Goethe’s phenomenological scientific method more so than our modern, cold, laboratory based method of examining phenomena because Goethe’s advocates for an immersive, experiential examination in the natural environment of the phenomena rather than within the vacuum of a laboratory.

Theory U, the Agile Manifesto and Quest Augmented Strategy all seem to have the same thing in common – they advocate at some level for an emphasis and prioritisation of experiential learning over theoretical learning. Granted, in most cases they argue for this because of the increasing rapidity with which the world is changing and the increasing redundancy of the past, but they still trumpet the benefits of immersive, experiential learning over and above theoretical knowledge. Also, it is worth noting that is only one element of the above concepts, they are all worth exploring further.

Based on the recent success of these three concepts, is there then hope that a move towards experiential learning  in general will teach us better how to be open to different cultures and be more adaptive to technology and changing climates? Rudolph Steiner, the creator of the Waldorf/Steiner School certainly seems to think so, but that is not new. These schools have been in operation since the early 20th century. The movement of people, the diversification of the workforce and our ideas and the openness of our leaders and society to these changes seems more and more critical and required as changes occur more rapidly. Despite what some might think, the election of BREXIT and Trump as USA president are unlikely to slow the pace of change. Regression is change also, and if the global financial crisis showed us anything, it was that our economic and social systems are already vastly interconnected. Decisions or actions in one place will create a ripple effect around the world that can compound rapidly to create severe and unexpected implications, and change, where it originated.

The paradigms of thought on the Refugee Crisis

The paradigms of thought on the Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis remains unresolved and the political divide that has emerged is driving a wedge into the cracks in the fragile processes that have been painstakingly stitched together in the past 20 years of humanitarian development. Progress wasn’t always perfect, in fact it was fraught with compromise, a key component of wide stakeholder consultation, but it was striving to improve through a process of iteration. I have little doubt that the agencies involved were doing their professional best to provide the services and meet the needs of refugee’s as best as possible in an equitable manner as possible with the resources they had.

Enter political grand-standing and policy at a national level and those efforts have been severely hampered. Yet, it does provide an opportunity to review the situation, to take a look at where we stand in the paradigms of thought on this issue, and when we do, we can see an opportunity emerge to move beyond addressing symptoms of the crisis with the provision of professional services to understanding the problem is not just them, it is also us.

This great 4 minute video from the Presensing Institute U Lab edx intro course summarises the different paradigms of thought on the refugee crisis very, very well.

The take-away: The refugee crisis will not be resolved without considering the interconnectedness of the systems at play, or the openness of our society and ourselves. Shallow responses will not solve the problem, they will only post-pone it.

All images and video are courtesy of the Presensing Institute U.Lab EDX course.