Work – From a Materialistic to a Humanistic Account of Human Labor

Num°01 WORK

Crises are chances for change. The recent economic crisis makes no exception. Followed by a host of immediate practical changes in the regulatory framework of the global economy, especially within the financial sector, its lasting influence may, however, rather lie elsewhere: in triggering theoretical reflections on how we do business and why we work. The long prevalent paradigm of neoclassical economics, often conjoined in unholy matrimony with neoliberal concepts of politics, is currently being questioned from a myriad of critical voices, inside and outside of academic departments. Notwithstanding their diverse tonalities and intonations, all these voices come together in one powerful accord, i.e. that the malfunctioning of our economic system is endemic, to wit, a practical consequence of a theoretical misconception of what economics is, or ought to be.

The strikingly consonant criticisms demand nothing short of a paradigm change in economics, away from a materialistic and towards a humanistic conception of human labor. While the still prevalent neoclassical account of human work is physicalistic and describes economic activity through metaphors of mechanic work, what we need, instead, is a humanistic account of the purposes and forms of human labor. In what follows, I will establish this thesis by 1) a deconstruction of the mechanistic paradigm of economics, and 2) by sketching the advantages of a humanistic approach to economic activity.

1. The Mechanistic Paradigm of Conventional Economics. For centuries, from Plato to Smith, economic thinking was deeply embedded within moral philosophy, receiving from it the necessary promptings for prescribing to human beings the relevant purposes for economic activity. Answers to the question “Why do we work?” were qualitative and teleological in nature. Economic philosophy informed us first about the natural needs and the moral goals of human life; only then and thereafter the requisite economic conditions to satisfy said needs and to reach said goals were laid out, and problems of a quantitative nature were pondered (Bonar 1893).

From this human-oriented approach to economics, which in its anthropology and in its sociology availed itself of the rich methods of the liberal arts, economic thinking departed in the early 19th century. In an effort to become just as “scientific” as their colleagues in the natural sciences, economists began to sever their discipline from its moral and socio-political moorings and attached themselves ever more to the methodological apparatus of physics and mathematics (Wieser 1884). In an attempt to analyze economic problems “purely,” i.e., without resorting to extrinsic values or doctrines, economists looked increasingly to the mathematical models of physics in search of a new paradigm (Walras 1909). The enormous success that the discipline of mechanics had celebrated in the late 18th century inspired John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Auguste Comte (1798-1857), and numerous others to describe economic structures as quasi-mechanical laws that were to be translated into the language of mathematics, thus affording economics a hitherto unavailable degree of precision and rigor…

Claus Dierksmeier

Work – From a Materialistic to a Humanistic Account of Human Labor

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