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Social Philosophy

Habermas on Social Labor and Communicative Action

Marie Fleming
University of Western Ontario

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ABSTRACT: In contemporary philosophy and social theory, Harbermas's theory of communicative action stands indisputably for a modernity enlightened about itself and its potential. Yet, however much he professes his commitment to universalist ideals of inclusiveness and equality, his influential theory is also marked by disquieting statements on matters of gender. I argue that the problem of gender in Habermas's theory can be traced to his attempt to rework the Marxian tradition of historical materialism. I do so by (a) discussing Habermas's proposal for reconstructing this tradition, and (b) examining the system/lifeworld distinction on which the theory of communicative action is based. Regarding (a), I direct attention to his argument that the Marxian concept of social labor cannot account for the specifically human form of reproducing life; a theory of social evolution and historical progress requires equal recognition of socialization processes and the moral-practical insight transmitted through those processes. I show that Habermas attributes a special value to the "female" labor of socialization and that he conceptualizes such labor as outside "social" labor. Regarding (b), I argue that while Habermas's system/lifeworld distinction in the context of historical materialism makes possible a more complex interpretation of Marx and Engels understanding of the basic components of social labor, his theory of communicative action-like his proposal for reconstructing historical materialism-reproduces the Marxian exclusion of "female" labor from social labor.

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In contemporary philosophy and social theory, Jürgen Habermas's theory of communicative action (1) stands indisputably for a modernity enlightened about itself and its potential. Yet, however much Habermas professes his commitment to universalist ideals of inclusiveness and equality, his influential theory is also marked by disquieting statements on matters on gender. Why, for example, does he include feminism in the list of heterogeneous and "particularistic" social movements, environmental groups, anti-nuclear protests, tax revolts, and so on, that have sporadically made themselves felt in Western societies in the latter part of the twentieth century? How can he suggest that feminism belongs to the grand "universalistic" tradition of bourgeois-socialist liberation movements and still maintain that feminism is a "new" social movement reflecting late twentieth-century particularistic aspirations? Why does he continue to develop a moral theory that denies moral status to issues of gender, despite concerns raised by feminist theorists? Why does he view his class-based model of the public sphere of modernity, which he worked out some three decades ago, as basically correct, despite the evidence for the differential basis of women's exclusion from the public sphere? Several feminists working in critical theory have expressed reservations about the applicability of Habermas's theory. Some view his concepts as too abstract and limiting. Others suspect that his theory may be androcentric in its very conception. At the very least, his theory requires substantial changes, if it is to be able to reflect the aims and expectations of contemporary women.

In this paper I argue that the problem of gender in Habermas's theory can be traced to his attempt to rework the Marxian tradition of historical materialism. I will first discuss his 1976 argument for a reinterpretation of the concept of social labor. (2) I will then take up the question of how his understanding of social labor intersects with and helps determine the crucially important system/lifeworld distinction of his 1981 theory of communicative action.

Social Labor

In 1976 Habermas presented a three-part argument on how to reformulate the Marxian concept of social labor. He maintained (1) that we have to specify the internal details, or the structural aspects, of the concept of social labor, in order to bring out what Marx and Engels meant by social labor; (2) that the concept of social labor, even when reconfigured to give expression to Marx's and Engels's meaning, fails to support their claim that socially organized labor allows us to distinguish human and animal life; and (3) that, to understand the human mode of reproducing life, we should supplement the concept of social labor with the familial principle of organization, understood as the institutionalization of the "father role."

Habermas begins his discussion of historical materialism by maintaining that by social labor Marx and Engels mean not only labor processes, but also cooperation between individuals and groups. He explains that the tradition of historical materialism gives insufficient attention to the cooperative elements of labor processes, and he suggests that we correct for this imbalance by understanding social labor in terms of two types of rules, those that apply to instrumental and strategic action and those that apply to communicative action ("Historical Materialism," 131-33). In this way, his analysis of historical materialism, like his Knowledge and Human Interests, (3) attempts to account for the cooperative elements of social labor that Marx and Engels assumed, but did not adequately theorize.

Habermas's aim, in reconfiguring the concept of social labor as a nexus of rules of instrumental/strategic and communicative action, is to bring out what Marx and Engels meant by social labor, but the point of this exercise, in 1976, is to provide a framework for testing their claim that social labor distinguishes human and animal life. Referring to recent anthropological work on primates and hominids, he states that if social labor (understood as socially organized instrumental action) indicates the specifically human reproduction of life, we should not be able to find within hominization any evidence of the rules of instrumental and strategic action, nor of the rules of communicative action. But, once we examine hominization, he maintains, we find that those rules apply to both hominid and human life. He argues that the cooperative hunt introduced by the hominids was driven by instrumental action and sustained by social interaction, that hominid society fulfilled the conditions for an economic reproduction of life, and that their cooperative hunt was the first mode of production. He concludes that the concept of social labor, even when reformulated to represent Marx's and Engel's meaning, cannot help us understand the difference between human and animal life. How, then, he asks, are we to understand that difference? Habermas provides a clue as to how he will answer that question in his discussion of hominid society. His argument that the hominids fulfilled the conditions for an economic reproduction of life refers to the economic activities of the adult male hominids and is based on a prior exclusion, from the concept of social labor, of the economic activities of adult females (and children). According to Habermas, the "division of labor in the hominid groups presumably led to a development of two subsystems." The "adult males [came] together in egalitarian hunting bands and occupied, on the whole, a dominant position," whereas the "females...gathered fruit and lived together with their young, for whom they cared" (133-35).

The idea of a sexual division of labor not only persists in Habermas's analysis of "human" society, but functions as an integral part of his attempt to rethink historical materialism. Having argued that the Marxian concept of social labor applies to both hominid and human society because each has an economic form of reproducing life, he now maintains that the human reproduction of life has to be distinguished from the hominid one by the institutionalization of the "father role" in a family system. "We can speak of the reproduction of human life, with homo sapiens, only when the economy of the hunt is supplemented by a familial [male-headed] social structure." He speculates that some time following the differentiation of male and female subsystems under hominization, hominid society must have evolved to the point where it experienced a "new need for integration, namely, the need for a controlled exchange between the two subsystems." In Habermas's view, the gradually developing egalitarianism within the cooperative hunt became incompatible with the one-dimensional rank order of the primates, and in response to system difficulties in the hunting band, and in a process lasting millions of years, the animal status system was supposedly replaced by a system of social roles that was more suited to the emerging egalitarian relations within the cooperative hunt (135-37).

The social role system that eventually comes to integrate social labor in a human society is linguistically and culturally organized, requires highly competent individuals, and is crucially dependent on the transmission of competences from one generation to the next. From an evolutionary point of view, the males in the hunting band, on the threshold of becoming "human," needed controlled access to the female and child system to ensure not simply biological reproduction, but, more significantly, the symbolic reproduction associated with the linguistic and cultural bases of the social role system needed for the integration of the social labor in the (male) hunting band. This symbolic reproduction is the basis of the moral-practical insight that, according to Habermas, is just as important for social evolution and historical progress as the technical knowledge needed for production. He maintains that the specifically human mode of reproducing life cannot be adequately described without recognizing the familial principle of organization, alongside the system of social labor. He concludes that, production and socialization are "equally" important for a human species that reproduces itself through social labor and that depends for its social integration on the interactive competences of a social role system (136-38).

In Habermas's proposal for reconstructing historical materialism, the "female" work of socialization is given a special value. He does not (and cannot) include "female" labor in the concept of social labor because he formulates that concept in such a way that it explicitly excludes the type of labor involved in socialization. What we need to know is whether, and if so, how, this pattern is scripted into his theory of communicative action.

Communicative Action

Habermas's work on historical materialism leads him to the view, fundamental for his theory of communicative action, that socio-cultural evolution and historical progress are directly dependent on two types of learning processes, one type involving the technically useful knowledge needed for production, as Marx and Engels maintained, but also another type involving the moral-practical insight needed for social integration. In his theory of communicative action, technically useful knowledge is linked to system processes and moral-practical insight to lifeworld ones. Habermas's system/lifeworld distinction thus has to be viewed as making possible a more complex interpretation of what Marx and Engels supposedly understood as the basic components of social labor. As Habermas remarks, system and lifeworld appear in Marx as "realm of necessity" and "realm of freedom"(Theory of Communicative Action 2:340).

Habermas's aim in further dividing system and lifeworld, the one into economy and state administration and the other into private and public spheres, is to provide for an understanding of advanced capitalism that takes into account the increasing complexities of welfare state democracies. Specifically, he wants to allow for examination of the crucial interchange between lifeworld (public and private) and system (economy and state administration). According to Habermas, the system/lifeworld interchange takes place in the media of money and power and is institutionalized in the social roles of employee, consumer, client of state bureaucracies, and citizen of the state. In reference to the consumer role, he describes private households as having been "converted over" to mass consumption, "redefined" as system environments, and made subject to the economic and administrative imperatives of the "monetary-bureaucratic complex." The consumer role bears further examination, but the initial question is what to make of the absence of the nurturer role from the configuration of the four social roles (employee, consumer, client, citizen) (351, 393-95).

The problem is not that Habermas puts little value on "women's work." As discussed above, in his reconstruction of historical materialism he argues that, compared with the production and social labor of men, the activities of nurturing and socialization performed by women are "equally important" for the reproduction of the human species. In fact, he considers the nurturer/socialization role so important for a theory of socio-cultural evolution and historical progress that his reconstruction of historical materialism requires the supplementation of the Marxian concept of social labor by the familial principle of organization. While Habermas is less explicit in his theory of communication action about the gendered identities and obligations attached to socialization processes, he continues to understand social evolution in terms of learning processes connected to interactive competences and moral-practical insight, and he still holds that socialization processes are centered in family institutions. In some respects, he views the nurturer/socialization role as even more important for modernity than it was for the earliest "human" societies. For example, he argues that in "premodern" lifeworlds, where there are underdeveloped personality systems, socialization is relatively unimportant. By contrast, in modern lifeworlds, strong personality systems are the key to the successful reproduction of the lifeworld, and the dominant reproduction process is socialization (140-41). Because Habermas understands socialization processes as crucial for sustaining and renewing the individual competences associated with strong personality systems, the "female" work of socialization not only does not lose its importance in modernity, but comes to dominate the overall process of reproducing the lifeworld.

The importance Habermas gives to socialization processes for reproducing the modern type of lifeworld makes all the more conspicuous the absence of the nurturer role from the social roles institutionalized in the system/lifeworld interchange. However, there is a pattern here. Just as the familial principle of organization had to added on to the concept of social labor, to understand the "human" mode of reproducing life, so the nurturer role has to be added on to the system/lifeworld distinction, to understand the reproduction process of modern lifeworlds. That is to say, the nurturer role, despite its importance for the reproduction of the modern lifeworld, is not viewed by Habermas as a "social" role, and it is for that reason that it gets omitted from the list of social roles (employee, consumer, client, citizen) institutionalized in the system/lifeworld interchange. From the point of view of the aspirations for gender equality expressed by women and men in the late twentieth century, Habermas's understanding of the nurturer role amounts to a basic conceptual inadequacy. His lifeworld/system distinction, like his reinterpretation of the concept of social labor to which it is related, is insufficiently critical of its Marxian sources, so that it, too, reproduces the Marxian exclusion of "female" work from social labor.

I would now like to comment on the connection Habermas makes between the social role of consumer and the private household. In the tradition of the Frankfurt school Habermas links the private household to the consumer role, but he rejects Horkheimer's view that the decline of paternal authority in the bourgeois family should be seen in the context of the spread of monopoly capitalism in which the family's psychic structures are harnessed for system needs. Instead of a Freudian theory of instincts employed by Horkheimer, Habermas advocates a theory of socialization that can connect Freud with Mead, put more weight on structures of intersubjectivity, and replace "hypotheses about instinctual vicissitudes with assumptions about identity formation." He argues that the transformation of the bourgeois family should not be understood simply in functionalist terms, that is, as serving the interests of capital; it can also be understood in structural terms, that is, as providing for the development of egalitarian relations within the family, individuation in discursive practices, and liberalized childrearing (386 ff.). These developments do not, however, translate into questions of gender equality, as one might have thought. Rather the point of Habermas's discussion is to determine what the transformation of the bourgeois family means for understanding the new conditions of socialization.

Habermas argues that there is a "growing autonomy" of the nuclear family because it is now cut off from the figure of the father that once represented societal repression and so brought system imperatives into the family context. He also regards the structural changes in the bourgeois family as representing the "inherent rationalization of the lifeworld" because, in the transformation from a family unit based on paternal authority to one providing for egalitarian relations, "some of the potential for rationality ingrained in communicative action is also released." It is apparently because the communicative infrastructure of familial lifeworlds gains a new independence that familial lifeworlds are able to understand economic and administrative imperatives as "coming at them from outside." In Habermas's view, this development means that socialization processes now take place in a "largely deinstitutionalized communicative action," that is, in communication structures "that have freed themselves from latent entanglements in systemic dependencies." He suggests that the increasing polarization between a communicatively structured lifeworld and the formally organized contexts of the system brings with it a "different type of danger" for socialization because, while the Oedipal problematic is no longer so significant, the adolescent's adjustment to adult social roles now becomes more complex and risky. The reason for this, he explains, is that the competences, motives and attitudes learned in the socialization processes of the familial lifeworld, that is, in a relatively independent communication infrastructure, are to some extent incompatible with the functional requirements of adult social roles (located in the system/lifeworld interchange). As a result, adolescent crises grow in significance (387-88).

Habermas's discussion of family life is focused on understanding the new conditions for socialization provided by the structural transformation of the bourgeois family. He understands those conditions not simply in terms of historical events, but as the product of an unfolding of an inner logic inherent in the family's internal structures of communication. The family is presented as self-contained, having its own integrity, growing in autonomy, predisposed to seeing itself as separate from the basically alien economic and administrative imperatives that come at it from the "outside." This aestheticization of the family's internal relations also makes it immune to criticism and indicates that, despite his reinterpretation of the Frankfurt School's understanding of the family, and notwithstanding the considerably reduced importance he gives to a Freudian instinct theory, he continues, like Horkheimer and Adorno, and like Marx before them, to naturalize family relations. But Habermas places a more explicit weight on the family as a site of freedom. Socialization processes are tied up with claims not only about the family's internal structures of communication, but also what those structures represent in and of themselves.

In his discussion of the rationalization of the familial lifeworld, Habermas uses identical terms to those he uses in his more general characterization of the rationalization of the lifeworld. In each case, there is "growing autonomy" from the processes of material reproduction and a release of the "potential for communicative rationality ingrained in communicative action." The rationalization of the lifeworld would appear to involve not just one process, but rather two parallel processes, the one in the familial lifeworld sphere and the other in the lifeworld's public sphere. He remarks, for example, that "the inner logic of communicative action 'becomes practically true' in the deinstitutionalized forms of intercourse of the familial private sphere as well as in a public sphere stamped by the mass media" (403). There seems to be no retreat from the immediacy he assigns to family relations. Thus, even though he aims at a theory based on equality, and even though he admits that power and money still pervade the relations of the private household, his theory does not, and apparently cannot, provide for criticism of the power and economic relations of a gender-structured lifeworld.

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(1) Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols., trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984 and 1987) (German edition, 1981).

(2) Jürgen Habermas, "Toward a Reconstruction of Historical Materialism," in his Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), pp.130-77. (The essay was published in German in 1976.)

(3) Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (London: Heinemann, 1972) (German edition, 1968).

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