TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Escape by Approximation: The Contemporary Relevance of Marcuse's Conceptualization of Labor

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Frederick H. Pitts looks at Herbert Marcuse’s “On the Philosophical Foundation of the Concept of Labor in Economics” from Telos 16 (Summer 1973).

In his 1933 essay “On the Philosophical Foundation of the Concept of Labor in Economics,” Marcuse’s thesis is that the conception of labor as economic activity gives a one-sided picture of human praxis. According to Marcuse, such a conceptualization overlooks the way in which labor is an eternal condition of human existence geared toward self-creation and becoming. Marcuse’s elucidation of these issues invites contention. As Douglas Kellner asserts in his introduction to the essay, the two principal problems with Marcuse’s position pertain to the way in which labor is, on the one hand, presented as an entirely trans- or a-historical phenomenon, capable only of being “liberated” rather than offering the possibility of being “liberated from,” and, on the other, associated with an absolutized self through the process of labor-as-becoming, holding subjectivity to be forged consciously rather than foisted upon oneself from outside (Kellner, 3–6). To these I would add a related third, which is that an economic perspective such as that challenged by Marcuse is necessary to rectify the first and second stumbling blocks. In spite of this, as we shall see, Marcuse’s theorization of the philosophical and economic conceptualization of labor might provide useful insights for a rethink of productive activity in the context of contemporary capitalism.

Marcuse begins by contending that economics has, on the one hand, reduced labor merely to economic activity geared toward the meeting of material needs, and, on the other, differentiated it with so many demarcations as to remove the possibility of appreciating it in the round. Ultimately, Marcuse suggests, this leads to a lack of any “general” concept of labor (9).

In order to illustrate what such a “general” conception of labor might consist of, Marcuse is moved to consider labor in comparison to its “other,” play, employing observations about “primitive” society in order to illustrate his thesis. Marcuse differentiates the role of labor in early society, and particularly the specific time dimensions that it inhabited, from the situation inherited today. In primitive societies, the relationship to labor as human praxis does not exist in the same way, with primitive peoples lacking the conception of time necessary to conceive of a future in which to situate the goals and aspirations that direct the labor of becoming (28). This lack of task-oriented time mean that in play, the characteristics of the interaction between the human and its object differ radically; the object presents no “task” and no necessity, and the human exists already “beyond” and “free” of the object. It is in this sense that play and labor stand in reverse relation in early society, with work outweighed by the predominance of dance, art and other social activities (28).

Marcuse suggests that because of labor’s definition in contradistinction to forms of “non-activity” and “play,” economic theory has felt no need to include within its domain a “general” definition of labor in and of itself, on its own terms as opposed to those forged in comparison with the non-labor of leisure and idle distraction (12). For Hegel, labor is not an “activity” at all, but an event that spans man’s being itself, with no determination stemming from the objects, intentions or outcomes that it enters into interactions with, but related rather to the “human existence” itself. By this rationale, labor is “the specific praxis of human existence in the world” (13). Marcuse labels labor a “task” posed of the human in-itself toward its constitution as the human for-itself (13–14).

Such a conception might bear some contemporary relevance. Marcuse goes on to write that

the economic concept of labor has decisively influenced the conception of the essence of labor in general—including labor outside the economic sphere. It has forced reflection on the essence and meaning of labor as such in a definite direction—hence labor in the primary, authentic sense is held to be economic activity, while the activity of, for example, politicians, artists, researchers, and priests is characterized as labor only in a derivative and somewhat uncertain sense, and is generally put forth as fundamentally opposed to economic activity. This narrowing of the concept of labor has, however, gone further, even within economic theory itself. For the concept of labor is here increasingly limited to supervised, unfree activity (whose conceptual model is the labor of the wage earner)—even where the concept of labor in economics should be defined in the context of the basic concepts of that science. (9–10).

Whilst it may be misjudged to assume that a multi-purpose, non-economic, everlasting concept of labor is even possible, Marcuse does make the more useful assertion that the reduction of labor to mere economic activity has produced a mental divide between “economic praxis” and the type of work that takes place under the auspices of such realms as politics, art, research and priesthood, which, lacking an immediately, transparently “economic” application, is “characterized as labor only in a derivative and somewhat uncertain sense” (9–10). At its conclusion, this tendency has limited the notion of labor-as-economic-activity to only those forms of work that are “supervised, unfree” and subject to the formal wage relation (10). Such an opening up of the application of the concept “labor” to fields of performance outside the initial confines of the paid workforce or the walls of the workplace is more pressing a need than ever in contemporary circumstances.

Although, for instance, the labor of the mother or the housewife has typically conformed to a model of value-creating reproductive labor unrecognized by the mantle of “work” and unrewarded by the attendant financial recompense, such productive activity has proliferated in post-Fordist, globalized capitalist economies with flexible labor markets. The reluctance to identify, for instance, the self-use of supermarket checkouts, revenue-generating “clicks” on Google advertisements or the booking of flights using automated telephone menus as “labor” obscures the productive effort engaged in under the guise of consumption and robs those employed in such labors of the wage they may be entitled to (the movement for a Guaranteed Minimum Income can be seen in the context of this argument, recognizing the productive role that even, for example, the unemployed assume in contemporary capitalist society).

The tendencies that seem to avail Marcuse’s theorization of some utility in understanding contemporary labor, however, also possess the associated effect of calling into questioning the very differentiation between play and labor upon which that theorization is established. In post-industrial economies, the upsurge in work tasks devoted to communication, creation, emotion and the forming of relationships in the service and cultural sectors, and the valorization of everyday leisure activities such as surfing the web (through pay-per-click), watching television (through the market in viewing figures, for instance) and the very workmanlike way that video game users go about completing the tasks so demanded, have blurred the lines between where labor ends and leisure begins. Horkheimer and Adorno foresaw as much in their Dialectic of Enlightenment: “What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 137). In the spare time of the worker, the escape from the logic of the production process is only one of approximation. In contemporary capitalism, play may well be as labor, and labor as play, immediately productive of value. Such an economic conception of labor is at odds with Marcuse’s, but throws light upon the ramifications of his thesis in light of present-day conditions of human activity.

The trends outlined above, of both the enveloping of all life with production and the growing proximity of work to play, indicates that a reconceptualization of labor is a necessary exercise, toward which Marcuse’s insights might be valuable contribution. However, Marcuse’s solution for the problem of how labor can be redefined to broaden the cache of activity for which it has analytical purchase misses the mark somewhat; a philosophical recalibration ontologizes (“labor is an ontological concept of human existence as such” [11]) and naturalizes forms of activity specific to the capitalist mode of production. Furthermore, a more flexible and fluid philosophical conception of labor that provides a more amenable basis for application to different and diverse forms of praxis is not needed to achieved such an end. The recognition as “labor” of activities that lack correspondence to the traditional characteristics of “supervised, unfree” work is not something that requires philosophical bending of the definitional rules, but can be seen rather as an established state of affairs ascertainable from the most cursory of economic enquiries. Thus, the pitfall of the economic definition of labor that Marcuse usefully draws attention to can be rectified not by a retreat from the economic, but by its improvement and extension to yet more realms of human praxis.

Statements of the enveloping of all of life with labor rather than a narrow preoccupation with labor concretely understood hints toward the conceptualization of abstract labor found in some of the literature on Marx’s theory of value, and highlights the way in which, somewhere in Marcuse’s transhistorical, humanistic conception of labor as human becoming, may lay the kernel of something good and useful. The idea of labor as a mode of human existence, an “event” in the Hegelian sense that spans man’s entire being, may have some utility in describing the previously noted proliferation of work into every corner of life, in which the logic of the labor process has seeped out of the factory walls to infiltrate and infest every thread of the social fabric, rendering even the most everyday exchange immediately productive of value. Yet the true utility of Marcuse’s philosophical concept consists precisely in the fact that it throws poetic and polemical light upon processes that are explained using the principally economic framework he sets out to challenge.


Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso, 1997.

Kellner, Douglas, “Introduction to ‘On the Philosophical Foundation of the Concept of Labor.'” Telos 16 (Summer 1973): 2–8.

Read the full version of Herbert Marcuse’s “On the Philosophical Foundation of the Concept of Labor in Economics” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

Comments are closed.