Political Idealism and Frithjof Bergmann’s “New Work”

I had intended to wait for some upcoming episode more relevant to this topic than Husserl to start ranting on this on the blog, but it's been much on my mind of late.

As you may know from my mentioning it at every possible opportunity on the podcast, probably my favorite undergrad prof. at U. of Michigan was Frithjof Bergmann. He was a student of the major Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann and applied a basically Nietzschean (and Hegelian) analysis of human nature to come up with a new vision for the way we structure our relation to work in our society. I'll let him take a crack at introducing it:

Watch on youtube.

I'll post some more thoughts and details about this in coming days, but let me help Frithjof here to give the introduction, because there are multiple ways into the vision here, and this particular emphasis on technology is only one of them. It's easy to watch this video and get lost in the details of him talking about 3-D printers and things.

The crux of the vision is that right now, we are all expected to get a full time job and pretty much give our lives to it. We are generally expected to at the very least work 40 hours a week at it, which I think for most people is as much as they can possibly stand and still maintain meaningful human relationships (kids, marriage, friends) and take care of practical matters, with some weary time left over for hobbies, or more often than not semi-vegetative TV watching and surfing the net and the like.

At the same time, increasing numbers of people are out of work, not in the least because of increasing technology: labor-saving devices that, eventually, do have to save people some labor. As whole sectors of the economy get continually eaten by technology (farms centralized, factory workers mechanized, service workers replaced by self-serve Internet activities, middle-men cut out by better communications), there's no reason to expect that we can just replace these jobs continually, forever.

So we can just wait for things to get worse and worse, or we can start thinking now about ways to peacefully and sensibly free ourselves from this bind. Bergmann gives some more information on the overall project here. The "political idealism" point here is that we need to be able to recognize problems and envision (a la Plato) what might be a better situation for us given human nature even if we don't have a ready answer for how to achieve this vision. We don't want to be merely flighty and fantastical, but coming up with a vision and determining a strategy to enact that vision are related but not identical tasks.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Geoff says

    Ah, but Mark, you are forgetting: joblessness and poverty is a result of an individual’s moral failings. Nothing wrong with the system, no, no, no… 😉

  2. Ethan Gach says

    Bertrand Russel had a critique I had stumbled upon a while ago in Erich Fromm’s Socialist Humanism:


    The main problem he points out is, every time workers get more productive, half the workforce is cut. If a worker is twice as productive as they were a century ago, why are they still working the same number of hours? He then goes on to praise leisure and bash the protestant work ethic of America.

    And there are many things at work here, like for instance, the fact that we would all demand higher standards of living than our grandparents growing up. At the same time it does help draw our attention to where the hell are we headed rather than leaving “market forces” on auto pilot.

  3. says

    Now you’re talking, Linsenmayer! Revolution!

    I’ve watched neither of the posted items yet but will do so and come back…if your comment and tone is indicative I have to admit to being excited by the upcoming discussion.

  4. says

    This makes me a little queasy. It seems to be trapped in same “idea” we are currently in.

    I don’t know where it is in Marx where he says something to the effect that our advances in technologies might serve to free us up to be artists…(perhaps this is what this man is saying too, but he seems to only be talking about “work”–this could be a translation issue, right? If work is simply conceive of as productive action and we don’t qualify “productive of what”.)

    Coming up with machines and code to “free us” is delusional. Free to be or do what? Free to “re-imagine” “Being”? I think we will only be stuck in the “frame” that technology creates.

    There is a lot to argue about here but I tend to believe that we (collectively? hive-mindedly?) are simply trying to create a new type of being that is “out of nature”–I have way too many obsessive thoughts about this, but this is my thinking on our “drive” to be in space and off the planet.

    Sorry, that wasn’t really about “work” was it? I’m jobless and somewhat adrift emotionally at times due to this fact. But I also yearn for nothing like a “job” as I know them. I think I miss the reality that for me is dirt and grass and shrubs and the smells of summer and spring…I miss my biologic being (as I sit and type on this machine).

  5. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    Ethan, yes, that’s some of the philosophical history behind this. Actually, Douglas, I think there’s even a Thomas Jefferson quote where he says we’re fighting now so that our (his) kids can be merchants so that our grandkids can be artists.

    And yes, Bergmann was taught the Marx-related classes as well as the Hegel and Nietzsche, though by the time I was there, the classes were mostly about New Work, with some support given by reading these sources. Weber’s the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was another: the idea that the current directive for everyone to work 40 hrs. or more per week is historically recent: that in the supposedly much more harsh days of subsistence farming, people didn’t actually work nearly as many hours per day… it was just with the Protestant work ethic that all this energy was unleashed and channeled in that particular direction.

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi Mark,

      Maybe I’m taking your comments the wrong way. But. I think we can infer that the “supposedly much more harsh days of subsistence farming” were _in fact_ much more harsh, given the rush from the countryside to the city that started in 19th century England, and continues today in 21st century China.

  6. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    Yes, sorry, my point was merely the shorter work day, but of course the conditions themselves were pretty harsh.

    However, you’ve prompted me to do some quick web research to see whether I’m just talking bullshit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_time

    According to the “hunter-gatherer” section (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_time#Hunter-gatherer), the work day was historically less than 5 hrs./day. There’s not much evidence here for my claim about farming in particular, so I’m happy to retract that pending more information. The point is merely that it’s not a natural law that we work a certain amount. We are not cursed by God a la Adam’s banishment from the garden of eden to have a life of toil. It should be a national goal to improve our quality of life not just in terms of raising the GNP but in recognizing full-time, lifetime-filling, soul-crushing work as an eliminable evil.

    In my (of course limited) experience, even people who love their jobs (like professors) maybe don’t like doing them so much (teaching one class is exhilarating, teaching 4 classes sucks). The medical profession: who doesn’t want to help people, and hence to be really good at what they do? …But that doesn’t translate into appreciating the terrible hours that many doctors have to put in. How many professional graphic designers enjoy working at the pace that you’d have to work to fill 40 hours plus a week doing that? And the kind of shit that professional musicians have to go through? If even these dream jobs are typically ill structured, then good luck enjoying a regular office job or retail or factory worker or even factory manager. If the situation is even 1/10th as bad as I’m making it out to be here, then it’s worth focusing on as a social/political problem.

    • Daniel Horne says

      Sure! Although just getting to a 40-hour work week (as opposed to a 60- or 80-hour work week) was itself a hard-won cultural battle. You’re right that it’s not “natural” to have a 40-hour work week. Without a long history of labor struggle now codified into federal law, the “natural” state of affairs would be much worse!

      The point being that I don’t see a path to an _even shorter_ work week without government intervention. And that’s not an obviously good thing. Or, in any event, consider the consequences of forcing a shorter work week; there are winners and losers. But that kind of labor economics debate goes on endlessly in other fora, producing no obvious answer.

      • says

        Ah, the cycles of our prisons…we grow big brains due to our discovery of the manipulation of seeds in soil and harnessing other much stronger animals to do our bidding (Jared Diamond’s hypothesis)…immediately we are “toilers” on the earth and as we settle we live longer and make more babies and this necessitates more food and more toil.

        Now we are trying mightily to be unoccupied to “free ourselves” but to do what? Play more games on a screen? I think we (the mass of Western humanity) can conceive of nothing else for their idleness.

        The 80 hour week is chattel labor. So is the 40 hour week–we just like to call it “humane”. Why try to have a philosophical conversation with your Master?

        A change really does require a kind of reversion to another mode of being. I don’t need this computer, this tv, this ipod, this car, this road…etc. What we want is engagement and significance and yet we move further from it via our distancing tech.

        We want clean water and to know how to provide for ourselves and our children. We want peace. What do we have at present? What will work for us? More of the same but done faster and in a way that 98% of us don’t understand?

      • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

        I know I already used the model of the Internet as suggestive of a mostly-non-governmental way to achieve something substantial in the course of elaborating my EconTalk post, but I’m going to purposefully punt on this discussion of means right now until I make time to post a fuller picture of Bergmann’s goals.

        Though the discussion of political and social measures available to reach a goal may lead to reevaluation of the goal itself, I think that the whole advantage of philosophy as a discipline over, say, economics is our patience in trying to work out the vision before dousing it with practical concerns, though of course those need to come into it eventually. In other words, I’m saying that Plato’s and Marx’s analyses of what would constitute Utopia were mostly bullshit not because achieving them is practically unworkable but because they had bogus conceptions of human nature to start with (per our Freud episode).

        • says

          I don’t think of Marx as a Utopian–and I can’t imagine he did–but something more like a diagnostician of a system (which is likely his most honest gift to us). And I think he actually fulfills your criterion as one who was very patient with his work. Think if today you couldn’t simply buy a book off Amazon, read parts of it, put it down and pick it up later or forget it altogether–but rather, like Marx, had to go to the library, request the book, sit for hour upon hour and copy by hand the entire work into your own notebook annotating as you went in a kind of dialogue with the work…This is how he “read” Wealth of Nations.

          He deserves more attention for the fullness of his thinking. As does Smith. He was no economist. He was philosopher. Economics is a mugs game played by the power-hungry and the “futurologists” of the world.

  7. Ethan Gach says

    Especially given the continuous atomization/mechanization/digitization of work.

    If I want to work less, it seems like the easiest way to do that would be to get an in demand job (data analysis, programing, IT, nursing) and then work either part time or do consulting.

    But people not in demanded jobs, without the ability to improve the quality/sophistication of their labor by much, don’t seem to have a way out, especially as the demand for labor goes down (if indeed it does continue to do that).

    I myself graduated college last spring and have been working full time at a bookstore while I look for more substantial positions. I make minimum wage. It’s not much but it’s enough to keep up payments, etc.

    Now if I could make twice as much working the same time (40 hours), I would prefer to work only 20 hours a week (and thus have more time for my own projects/pursuits) then to just make twice as much, which in the scheme of things, still wouldn’t be a whole lot.

  8. says

    The future of [fill in the blank]–whatever you can think of as a “need” in your consumerist vision.

    We can all print golden tickets now, grandpa joe!


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