Work and Economy in Social Life Today

By Arnd Hollweg


Berlin, Germany


Illusory discussions relating to our theme

The theme sounds quite harmless. It contains but few words. But how are they connected? Many people today are racking their brains about this question. Some have no work but are looking for it. Others do not know what to do because of too much work and want to be rid of it. Some are suffering from an economy in which they cannot earn enough to live without social security.  Others are swimming in so much money that they could just ladle it in.  But what is money, after all?  It is a precious metal. One cannot eat it but one can buy things with it.  But money can also be printed on simple paper, and buys the same things.

The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk thinks that a rich person is also an efficient one because he knows “how to make money”. Remuneration is not identical with achievement. 20% of the citizens are top earners and account for far more than 80% of the country’s net income.  According to Sloterdijk one should appreciate them since the poor live by them. But 30.000 of the poor all over the world are dying from starvation every day.  Sloterdijk overlooks this in his criticism of the dialectical materialism of the philosopher Karl Marx who, on the basis of human labour, demanded equality in the distribution of funds. He was concerned with the question of justice.  Such equality however also means constraint.  It requires a totalitarian state. People are not all equal, nor can they be made to be so. Sloterdijk maintains that even paying taxes to the state is an unjustified constraint.  Thus he does not plead for a lowering of taxes, as does the present government, but suggests that, in order to support the general welfare and the free market economy, every citizen should pay as much as he thinks right.  Since June 2009 experts have been engaged in serious and sometimes passionate discussion of  these anthropological, sociological and economic fictions, at times resorting even to lethal arguments. Such is the dilemma for scientific analysis itself today when it separates social contexts from reality.

This shows that even modern sciences are not able to find criteria and norms for forms of co-existence in society which would do justice to all people. Such illusory thinking tends to forget that philosophical metaphysics and mathematical physics both derive from abstractions of the empirical, socio-historic reality of experience in which we live as real people and not only as abstractions of ourselves. The questions of the social relations of human life cannot be derived from philosophy and science if they are not already thinking from within these relations.  In terms of anthropology this raises the question of social ethics in socio-economic scientific theories.  Our ideas of work, economy, social justice and human life differ widely in different places and cannot simply be unified.  In real life they remain contradictory in themselves even if, in our minds, we manage to construct an integrated thought -system above them. We therefore have to make a distinction between the mental world and the world in which we live.

The split between thinking and the actual anthropological world in which we live.

This split cannot simply be understood as a concept of the mind, as was the case during the last century. One of the schools of thought that dealt critically with the concept of the world in which we live and still has a strong influence on our thinking today is the so-called Marburg Circle which started with the philosopher Edmund Husserl.  For him the problem was that Kant, in his transcendental philosophy, had placed the world of objects at the centre of his thinking.  Although Hegel had tried, in his dialectic thinking, to include history and nature into his considerations he had only managed to do so by assigning the absolute place to the human spirit and identifying it with matter.  Among other things this led to the form of thinking in dialectic materialism which Sloterdijk castigated as “welfare state thinking”.  To Kant’s concrete perception of a world of objects Husserl opposed the human “world of life” and interpreted the “objects” as “phenomena” in it, which he understood as “appearances of existence” of human life.  Ultimately his relation with Kant’s philosophy simply amounted to change of conceptual vocabulary in which mental thinking became perception of phenomena.

Husserl’s pupil Martin Heidegger, in his book “Being and Time” tried to resolve the problem of metaphysical thinking in philosophy and observing  perception in science by bringing them together in a new understanding of the world in which we live.  “Time” is a symbiotic concept. On the one hand it is seen in the context  of numbers as used in mathematical physics, on the other hand in the context of history in an empirical anthropology. Despite using the same language they express different realities.  Heidegger however means neither the one nor the other. In a timeless metaphysical world of thought he is reflecting on the temporary nature of human existence and its ontological structures. These have nothing to do with the time between birth and death in the reality of human life and experience. The theologian Bultman, a New Testament scholar who tried to understand the reality of human life in relation to  God, was concerned with the question of a theological historicism, trying to establish how the “then” of the history of Jesus can be brought together with the reality of human life today. Another product of the Marburg school of thought was the ethics professor Hans Jonas who, concerning the question of good and evil in the world of human life developed the “responsibility principle”, and the political scientist Hannah Arendt who opposed her teacher Heidegger’s idea of “existence for death” by her theory of “existence by birth”.

In those days many other philosophers, theologians and scientists participated in these discussions of the world of human existence whilst, under the domination of National Socialism and its ideological thought-world the world in which humans live was destroyed through total war and an industrial form of genocide of the Jewish people. For Hitler, the world of human existence meant the domination of the world by the German nation.  This spelt the end of the identification of the world of human ideas with the empirical world of human life. Since that time the question of the relation between philosophical, theological and scientific thinking and the reality of experience in which we live as human beings has become unavoidable.  Mutual identification of the two concepts does not lead anywhere but is only misleading. The history of thought in philosophy, theology and science is not identical with human history although it happens within it. Therefore the concept of the “world of human life” cannot refer to a mental world of thought as an object of the human mind but only to the empirical and anthropological reality of life.

Here I can only briefly explain what I mean. I am concerned with the mental access to the socio-historic reality in which our life unfolds, but not with individual” “experiences” as for instance Kant and Dewey in their different ways, when they deal with experiences in their scientific understanding.  I start with the observation that, as people in the world, we only experience reality at the place where we live. In our life it is communicated to us through experiences that are empirically and independently connected with each other; we have to become conscious of these connections. This requires us, in our scientific understanding, always to refer back to the experiences of our everyday life.  Our understanding is not only rational but also empirical and anthropological.  For instance, in a conversation with a fellow human being, I do not have to doubt that it is I who is talking, or that he really exists. If I ignore the evidence of the reality of experience I dissociate myself from it in my scientific understanding. My empirical “I” becomes a mental and imagined self. I produce a split between subject and object. Our life in history however happens in empirical and not in mental contexts. As human beings we think in our head but this means also in our  life, in which we are included in our thinking and our mind. It is the other way round as in the philosophy of Descartes.

The mental world is a world thought up by humans, a construction of their thinking.  Therefore we have to translate the scientific and philosophical concept of “world of human life” into the socio-historic reality of experience in which human beings live together with their fellow humans on earth. Our life and thinking will remain empty if we do not raise the question of the relation between scientific understanding and philosophical and theological thinking. If we identify our life with thought and keep it in our memory we efface ourselves from our life in the world. We cannot think our life because, in its mental and bodily processes, our thinking pre-supposes life.


The social practice of human life in industrial society.

What has all this to do with our theme? Our work does not happen in separation from us as human beings but in our life. It serves our bodily and mental needs from which it cannot be separated. Rather work in relation to the needs of our life is part of a meaningful human life. It therefore is not a question of the financial reward for our achievements. We cannot reduce the social question to this point. It does not only arise in science and academic learning, economy and society. Its empirical context is anthropology which deals with the humanity of human beings. For the Christian, work is part of his relation with God. It is worthless without God’s blessing because the ability to work is given to us by God.  It is both a gift and a task.

God gives us in our lives the strength and the opportunities to do certain things, and it is a challenge to act accordingly. Our work does not only pre-suppose life as God’s irreplaceable gift but also God’s acts in his creation; we live and work in its living context as his creatures.  We therefore must not, as is so frequently the case today, confuse work with the technological and operational processes of modern industrial society.  As human beings we are not functions of this industrial society as if technology and industry could exist without human beings.  On the contrary, they are products of human theoretical thinking and its application in the technological and operational processes in a society of human beings.  We cannot turn ourselves into a function of our own construction in order to function in it.  This is mental fiction and destroys our humanity and its inter-personal relations in their socio-historic context.  Industrial society with all its technological and technical equipment still remains a society of people even if they are no longer always fully aware of their own humanity in it.

The application of our theoretical intelligence in technological and operational processes is not identical with our practice of life as human beings. This only exists in a social life into which we are included by our birth and only leave again at our death.  Relations with mother, father, siblings, neighbours and people in society and in the Christian congregation in everyday life with its manifold social networks are all part of it. In it we live neither as isolated individuals nor as a collective that can be shaped by human power but in a community of people in mutual responsibility.  The child requires the care of adults and the dying person the support of his fellow human beings.  The woman needs the man and, inversely, the man the woman in order to be blessed with children.  Pupils need teachers, the sick need doctors, and the healthy meaningful work in their occupations which should serve the general good and not simply be functions of the technological and industrial structures.  Social justice cannot simply be constructed by a social system.  It is not a product of our theoretical ideas of society, economy, finance, industry and work but unfolds in the way we behave and act in human relations. We have to try and do justice to each other in these relations, and ask what we owe each other.

Working and managing against the background of Christian faith.

Christians are concerned with their relation to God in Christ who, through His spirit, is working in us and in our social relations. “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there among them” says Jesus (Matth.18:20). Through his spirit he shares our life just as we share in his life when we open ourselves to him in faith and do the things for which he gives us the strength, authority and grace that we need.  We can never know, think or do everything we would want to or could imagine but only those things for which God gives us the possibility and opportunity. We believe neither in theological ideas nor in the doctrinal concepts by which we define them but in the living God in His presence in us and among us human beings.  Our faith is not a sum of ideas which we try to put into practice, nor is it a whole whose parts we can dispose of.  It occurs in the personal sharing with each other in which God gives us humans, in our temporal life, a share of His eternal life.  In Christ God shatters the power of death and sin in us and draws us into the dominion of His kingdom in our life in the world.

Thus the technological and operational processes in our life in modern society lose their inherent laws. We are liberated from having to submit to them.  In His pneumatic word in Christ, God addresses us as a responsibly thinking, knowing and acting “I”.  Even if we become a nothing in our theoretical and technological abstractions we are not nothing. In our life the eternal God Himself is present through Christ.  Therefore it is not empty, it is not simply at our own or other people’s disposal but belongs to Him to whom we owe it, as it is with all its weakness and strength. From metaphysical-doctrinal and theoretical-physical thinking there is no access to our human reality of experience on earth and its inter-personal relations in which humans work and manage.  They cannot be reduced to being a function of mental, material or functional processes but are part of the empirical world of human life.  Thought systems are not identical with social systems and cannot easily be transferred to human life in social structures.

We therefore also have to make a distinction between economic thought systems and empirical market economies. The global intermeshing of these different structures cannot even be made transparent by scientists, managers or bankers, particularly in the global changes in the economy today. It remains “impenetrable” even when we try to order it by projections of logical systems, which only obscure the contexts in which we live.  But they remain effective in anthropological empirical knowledge. In anthropological-empirical language the world “social” means the behaviour of people in their mutual relations, which affects all parts of their lives, including their use of technological-operational and economic processes in  industrial society.  Where inter-personal trust is lacking there can be no fair exchange of material goods.

Free market economy and the capitalist system

Adam Smith (1723-1790), the founder of liberal market economy, pointed out this link. He understood riches and welfare to be the products of human labour, whose driving force was “human sympathy”. Thus he saw the free competition in the world of work and economy to lie in personal relations.  He was professor of moral philosophy and, concerning the market economy, he raised the ethical question in the anthropological context of life and not in scientific abstraction.  As a companion of David Hume, the sceptical empiricist, he mistrusted the state’s ability to guarantee freedom and justice in the world by its laws.  In contrast to Hobbes he trusted human beings to be able  to set their own limits. He held that the continual improvement of general welfare, including material wellbeing, served to improve the lives of every person and was therefore in their self-interest.

Economically speaking Smith was of the opinion that, in human society, free competition would automatically create the best possible balance between work and earnings, prices and gains. “But his remuneration must be at least sufficient for him to exist on it”[1] Machines were already in use in the world of labour. Smith showed what advantages in competition would arise from their use, for instance in the production of pins. But in Smith’s time there was as yet no industrial society, no study of economics as we know it today.

For Smith a deliberate and fair exchange of goods was part of man’s nature, used to satisfy his vital needs. He was not simply a function of a stock exchange process that determines the chances for distribution in society by mathematical number-shifting. Nor was competition a selection process similar to what was happening in nature.  In the animal world there is no exchange of goods. Dogs do not share their bones (cf. op.cit. Chapter 2).  The exchange of goods is based on the fact that the human being has property and can distinguish between what belongs to him and what belongs to his fellow humans. Today we have to understand Smith’s economic thinking and its empirical references mainly in terms of his philosophical and moral questions that have no room in modern capitalism. He was severely critical of the slave trade, of social injustice towards the British colonies, of the imports of gold and silver, of the poverty of simple workers and of the lust for social domination. His doctrine of liberal economics, which he developed in an anthropological and empirical framework of culture and religion, has nothing to do with excessive capitalism.

When he talks of the “invisible hand” that guides human beings to further the common good in his own interests instead of acting egotistically only for himself, such behaviour transcends human rationality (cf.op,cit. Book 4, Ch. 2). In terms of social anthropology he also called it the “first mystery”.  The meaning of these terms is still highly controversial among economists and social scientists.  As a deistic man of the enlightenment, critical of all dogma, he suggests in his book on “Pragmatism” that, instead of using words like “God” or “matter” one should speak of the unrecognisable energy, or the one and only power. It is unmistakable that he is trying to solve the contradictions in human nature in the framework of a religious, idealistic naturalism.  He was concerned with the Anglo-Saxon empiricism’s question of the relation between human nature and society, and with the theological question of God and the world as His creation.  The economic system as a “system of natural freedom” was brought forth by the God-given human nature by itself. Against this background he postulated the idea of reason led by experience, and this influenced his moral judgments based on natural morality.

Whatever the  reasons for having recourse to Smith today as the founder of economic liberalism, the historic and social situations then and now are completely different and cannot be compared, related or derived from each other. Smith did not develop an academically systematic economic theory but taught an experience-saturated doctrine of an economy in its empirical setting. Work and economy today are disconnected from each other through the technological and operational processes. Meanwhile the socialist and capitalist thought systems have totally taken over with their claim of being able to explain the whole of human reality with their theories and concepts. But they are unfit to solve the social conflicts in our world today. This is even too much for a welfare state or a socialist society, especially because of the growing porosity of national frontiers in today’s global development.

A century after Smith the philosopher, social reformer and epistemologist John Dewey (1859-1952) further developed naturalistic thinking and turned it into an evolutionary epistemology linked with an instrumental pragmatism. For him, truth happens when it proves itself in activity and in it remains open to the human future. If however the human practice of life is pre-programmed by the technological and functional structures of the media and industrial society the inner impetus of social life tends to get lost. We increasingly become prisoners of our technological and digital thinking in its practical applications.  This raises the question, anew and under conditions different from the past, of the relation between freedom and social cohesiveness.  In the present financial and economic crisis this is not a question of liability and risk in economics, or human greed and its limitation by national legislation but primarily of the socio-ethical challenge of personal responsibility in the reality of inter-personal relations.


Responsibility in long-term global developments

In this area the danger of a collapse is already threatening today. We usually notice too late where we were wrong. For that reason the decisions about investments in industrial production or in shares are so difficult. We cannot look into the future.  Thus economic and industrial management is increasingly a game of chance. Bankers, managers and boards, however, do not have liability for any wrong decisions or risk their own property as security. They pocket their bonuses as long as all is well and change jobs when their business goes bankrupt.

In our competitive society today it is not only the relation of people with their work that is important but the relation between people and equipment. The businessman who has to make money may find that he has to invest more money in machines than in people who, in the production of goods and commodities, cannot work with the same speed and do not function in the way technological installations require. But if, in our life and work, we let ourselves be controlled by a world of machines we sacrifice ourselves to it in our humanity and destroy our social life. If we project the technological structures of our thinking onto our lives we identify ourselves with the objects we produce. Therefore we are barely able any longer to distinguish between technological and operational processes and social life in the institutions of our society. Any kind of social responsibility for the relations between people and nations becomes impossible.

We have to understand that the organisation of work and economic processes in the Western world cannot simply be transferred to peoples in different cultural spheres. They cannot repeat overnight a history that took millennia to develop in the Western world.  In our quest for short-term success we must not forget the long-term historic developments if we do not want to act irrationally and irresponsibly. The other peoples of the world have no choice but to adapt to the new global challenges of the world-wide situation with the help of their own social dynamism.  Tribal and clan thinking and ethnic structures in common life have not simply disappeared from our world today. During the last century, even a mega-country like China was ruled by only five clans and their members.  In Africa and Latin America blind industrialisation is increasingly destroying social ties. All over the world the destruction of inner structures breeds enmities which can lead to violence and even genocide.


Social justice as a challenge to the whole of society

Changes in social life must come from within because they are always linked to a change of consciousness and perception.  In the Christian life,  social innovations stem from the acting of God’s Spirit in Christ who connects us with all the people in the world and challenges us to break through the family and clan structures, in love of our neighbour, and open ourselves to His love for all his creatures on earth. If we do this, technological work structures cannot become the structures of our life. But they present us with new challenges for the practice of our life, for the way we live our life and for the shaping of our social life.  The challenges in people’s social life are anthropological and empirical.  They cannot be derived from mental systems of philosophical thinking and scientific perception without our mentally by-passing the reality of experience in which we live today, as people in the everyday world of global psycho-social networking and responsibility. This requires that we take note of the otherness of the social and cultural structures within it.

Democratising these structures must not mean that we try to transfer the whole Western model of democracy with its religious, cultural and scientific-technological roots simply into life on the global level which, with its inter-dependence, is dynamically developing into new dimensions today. Liberation cannot be forced. People and nations cannot be made equal. The market economy cannot be social, only the people within it. A social state cannot be just, only the people who set it up. An appeal for social justice can only be a call to all of us not to live our human existence without relating to our fellow human beings. This is worked out in the reality of experience of our everyday life in which mental structures will also have to be subject to human criticism.

If the question of social justice is rooted in human relations it cannot only be a matter of financing the public areas of life. It is a matter for the whole of society which cannot be delegated to individuals or institutions within society.  All institutions of education, training and further education must be concerned with it. Leaders and teachers must recognise their social responsibility in inter-personal relations, and its dynamics in society. This is not possible without being open to the socio-historic reality of experience in which human beings live and need guidance. It is not a question of mental constructs, semantic conceptuality, thought systems or other abstractions but a question of perception, of understanding, of evidence and social behaviour as people experience it in the everyday life into which they have been born.


Conclusion: Consequences for political action in the present economic crisis:

1.      I think that in the present crisis the problems of work and of the people’s needs that work fulfils cannot be ignored. Since Ben Bernanke, the former and the present head of the Federal Reserve has been acting up to now completely under the control of Wall Street without any reference to  responsibility for social processes I  consider his re-election to be problematic.

2.      The interaction between work and the fulfilment of human needs also raises questions of empirical social anthropology, for instance the question of the mutual responsibility of people living together under different living conditions. This means that, today, we are not only concerned with a global social perspective in the context of human history but also with the personal situations of people in their social relations and different situations.

3.      In the theological understanding of the Christian faith this is a matter of the connection between God’s relation with humans, and the relation of humans with their fellow human beings. The personal character of this relation derives from the fact that, in concrete encounters we find that other people in all their difference are still, like us, made in the image of God. This implies the question of the identity and integrity of human beings in their responsibility to God and in their social interaction with fellow human beings living in different conditions. This question requires further analysis by social sciences.

4.      The problem of how to overcome the financial crisis is not only a global issue to be resolved between industrialised countries, but also an issue for all the peoples and cultures on earth today. The question of social justice allows of no split between individual and collective understanding. It was necessary for President Obama to use radical emergency measures, in his world-wide political responsibility to check the unlimited flow of money.   But he cannot stop the dynamic at work within the financial crisis simply by introducing controls. The greed for money is not only a problem for psychology which cannot clarify the dynamic at work in the human psyche in its relations with the conditions of life.  There are categorical differences between the greed for food during a famine and greed for money. It is not clear whether the latter is a moral problem within a profession or the effect of social processes on it.  The total lack of consciousness in which today’s bankers seem to act, seemingly oblivious to the catastrophe which they are causing, should also be subjected to a self-critical scientific analysis as a problem of empirical anthropology.

5.      A breaking-up of the financial world overlooks the fact that its unity is a construction of scientific economic theory. It is a closed mental system without relation to any other mental systems used in modern society. When thinking within it, humans can find no connection with any real social responsibility in their lives. The banking system as such has nothing to do with general welfare. Investments necessary for the industrialisation of society can no longer be separated from the banks’ everyday customers’ services, as was the case during the financial crisis of the 1930ies.  Society has changed profoundly since that period. The increasingly materialistic and mechanical academic thinking in interaction with social events in society has produced a system which is a contradiction in itself, only interested in the increase of capital and no longer linked with human need.

6.      Forbidding hedge funds, private equity funds and individual dealings in high-risk securities, or limiting the banks’ share of a customer’s capital to no more than 10% cannot be of much help unless we also deal critically with the dynamics inherent in our society which run contrary to the processes of fusion and centralisation.  It is very difficult to limit these dynamics. It would require a thorough change of thinking in which human beings would become more aware of their personal relations and links with other people. I therefore think it essential that a manager must be personally liable for the consequences of his or her financial or economic activities.  At present the science of economics is not engaging with this issue, which shows that there is a lack of international exchange even in theoretical economic discussions. Some time ago, the German economist Werner Eucken proved convincingly that a free market cannot exist in the long run without the principle of personal liability.

7.      In my view the social message in President Obama’s policies is convincing and forward-looking, even if at present many people disagree with it. It is necessary to fight against the growing alienation in our society. The present crisis hardly leaves him any alternatives for action. To bring his initiatives to a successful conclusion, however, he needs wide support in society. It is still completely open whether, and in what way, the dynamics inherent in the technological and operational processes of today’s industrialised and media society can be limited. It is certain that machines will not be able to replace human thinking and responsible action. Personal liability has the advantage that, right from the start, people will feel responsible for their dealings in stock exchanges. It reminds them that the market economy is an exchange of services which also challenges the manager in his professional activities.  It also promotes the powers of social cohesion which have suffered in the technological and operational processes. It makes us conscious of the effects of modern digitalisation. The information on the internet is inanimate and cannot provide humans with guidelines for the world they live in, which also includes everything that happens on stock exchanges.  The relation between globalisation, digitalisation and economics still needs to be investigated; its effects both locally and in the financial crisis are incalculable.

8.      The question of social responsibility also raises the question of ethics in scientific understanding. This does not only mean the democratic mechanisms of preserving human freedom but more specifically the questions of personal ethical behaviour in human social relations. A scientist remains human and must not lose himself in his academic pursuits. Scientific research therefore must not become an end in itself. Universities, educational establishments and other institutions today have a responsibility for social learning within scientific understanding and its practice.


[1] A. Smith,: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776, book 1, chapter 8

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