No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)


Kühl, S. (2017), Arbeit – marxistische und systemtheoretische Zugänge, Wiesbaden: Springer.

By understanding how organizations shape and influence the behavior of its members, and how individuals can resist or comply with these expectations, health and safety managers can better support the well-being of the employees and create an environment that promotes safety and well-being for all. Two major theories exist to help gain this understanding: the Marxist view, and the theory of functional differentiation. This book by Stefan Kühl describes both theories, that both provide a framework for understanding the dynamics of power and control within organizations. Organizational members are impacted by the economic pressures within an organization, and this may influence their behavior and attitudes towards safety and well-being. The expectations placed on individuals within an organization may impact both their sense of self and their ability to prioritize their own well-being.

In the first chapter, Stefan Kühl poses the question: “What is work?”. Does it only include paid work, or also domestic work, educational work, etc.? And how do you manage to make it clear to yourself and others that we are working and not just having fun? In the transitional period from feudal to capitalist society, people who had no land or who could not rent an allotment had to rely on board and lodging with a more wealthy person. When labor performance became quantifiable in local currency, like products and capital, it became tradable in markets. The battle for recognition of volunteering, citizenship and self-employment through tax incentives or access to apprenticeships or state services means that more and more activities are subject to commodification; they are valued in money and can therefore be traded on markets. Kühl asks what effect this process has on society?

Because the rise of sociology coincided with the rise of capitalism and industrialization, the importance of the economy to society was taken as the starting point. For example, Marx used the concept of classes to understand general social relations, tensions within companies, and the behavior of individuals. Marxist theory and also Luhmann's systems theory are two examples of comprehensive theories of the social. Marxism (the class contradictions of which are reflected in the theories of Tönnies and Bourdieu) considers the above-below distinction created by the conditions of production as the primary criterion of modern societies. Luhmann's systems theory (which is built on foundations of Durkheim and Weber) explains society through the tense interaction of social subsystems such as economics, politics, science and religion; organizations and people as systems are studied from their own logic. Systems theory understands organizations as social systems that differ from the (economic, legal, political and mass media) environment through membership rules, their own goal formulations and demarcated hierarchies. The individual is seen as a role bearer, who can be not only a class-conscious proletarian, but much more/differently. Kühl indicates with compassion that nowadays a lot of empirical research is being carried out that no longer leads to the formulation or adjustment of a theory. At most, theories are cited that explain only one aspect of the social.

In Chapter 2, Kühl explains how Marxism and systems theory view society. Whereas nowadays decisions in society are often presented as economic, rational and benefit-oriented, in which the invisible hand of the market must be given free rein, Marx and later Polanyi, for example, drew attention to the dark side of the market. Marx indicated that capitalism is no longer about exchanging goods through money, but about maximizing money: “capitalism is characterized by the restless movement of winning”. Marx sees labor power as a perfectly normal commodity with use value and exchange value. The value of a commodity is determined by the average labor time required to produce it. To produce labor time one must first produce workers (birth, education) and keep them alive (clothing, food, housing). What a worker adds in value to the materials he works in a day's work is worth more than what it costs to produce or maintain his labour-power for a day. The capitalist pockets the surplus value. The only way for the capitalist to make more money out of money is to organize work so that he can use the labor power of his workers to create more value than he spends on their wages. The capitalist acquires the labor capacity of a worker for a certain period of time. How much surplus-value the capitalist derives from this labour-power depends on his ability. The worker is no longer the slave of an aristocrat, estate or guild, but becomes his own entrepreneur who offers his labor on a free market. Marx saw law and politics on the one hand as representatives of the power relations between capital and labor (rule of law), but on the other hand also as a cross-class regulator of the class struggle (class state). Kühl points out that an important part of the social sciences was formed by the social-theoretical project of Marxism: to determine the relationship of capitalist economics to politics and civil law in order to prevent politics and law from expanding in a reductionist way. capitalist conditions would be inferred and in order not to develop the political and legal sphere so loosely linked to economic conditions that the primacy of the economy is lost sight of. In his later writings, Marx considered it possible to improve the situation of the working masses through organized action and thus to adapt capitalism. For example, Karl Polanyi drew attention to monitoring the opposing tendencies between market regulation and market freedom. As mass production became the central strategy of capital, scientific management and the process of rationalization gradually emerged. At the same time, rising wage levels displaced the family economy, the small self-employed and networks of small service companies. Frederick Taylor saw the separation of planning and control as a basic requirement for efficient production. Not the workers, but the management had the knowledge about the best way to carry out an activity. It was only when the capitalists, as a result of struggles with the working class, were forced to pay the workers higher wages that markets emerged, which made possible a new, stable phase of capitalism. The state took accompanying measures to safeguard these growth dynamics with the goal of ensuring full employment through Keynesian demand policies. Through social security, the state protected workers against excessive loss of income in old age, in case of illness or unemployment. The state also resolved the class conflict when it transferred responsibility for economic growth to both labor market parties, trade unions and employers. The “Fordist era” came to an end when financial markets globalized in which, in booming financial markets, capital owners soon sold their acquired company shares for a maximum exit profit, and production was increasingly outsourced abroad. The national state concentrates on creating favorable operating conditions in competition with other states.

In addition to the independent economic process, the systems-theoretical approach to functional differentiation also describes politics (being elected or having no influence), law (legal or illegitimate), science (publish or perish), education (learning), and even love (romance) proceeding according to their own logic and rules. This differentiation of all social sub-areas provides certainty of expectations. The principle behind it is repeatedly reproduced and confirmed in everyday communication. Religion no longer demanded monetary investment for soul salvation. And politics relied on voters instead of the influence of large landowners. Luhmann's theory of differentiation has nothing to do with the "tendentiously harmonious conception of society" behind Durkheim's organic-solidarist approach and Parsons' structural-functionalist approach, but assumes an under-integration of modern societies. The individual subsystems are seen as legitimately indifferent to each other. The subsystem with the highest probability of failure dominates and the functional differentiation creates later problems, such as risks from nuclear energy, ecological disasters and the exclusion of large parts of humanity from the basic basis of life, which in turn cannot be easily solved by further functional differentiation. Luhmann saw terms such as exploitation and oppression as mythologies used only out of habit. Instead of the above/below scheme, he looks at the problem of modern society in terms of the inside/outside scheme. A disadvantaged person does not necessarily belong to the “proletariat”, but is excluded. Where one can still leave church, culture and sport unscathed, the risk of chains of exclusion is particularly great when one slips out of the functional systems of economics, law, politics, health or education.

In Chapter 3, Kühl describes how organizations are viewed through the Marxist lens of profit maximization or through the systems theory lens of intrinsic logic. Marx saw the creation of the normal working day as the product of a long, more or less hidden civil war between the capitalist class and the working class. The normal working day created equal conditions for the purchase of labour-power for all capitalists. Workers can no longer sell themselves and their sex into death and slavery through a voluntary contract with capital. Also, workers can no longer compete with each other as sellers of labor power. Capital then focuses on increasing the value an employee produces during non-extended working hours. The emerging machine system meant that no longer only the technically skilled worker could handle the machine, but also the unskilled (women and children) could be used. The worker became an accessory to the machine, of which only the simplest, monotonous easiest to learn hand movement is needed.

In Chapter 4, Kühl describes how workers are viewed through the Marxist lens of class consciousness or through the systems theory lens of role. Richard Sennett put forth the concept of the "flexible person", which relates to the changing economy and its impact on individuals. Institutions that are constantly breaking down or restructuring. How can people maintain loyalties and commitments to them? Sennett conducted a study in the 1970s on the American working class, and meets one of his interviewees 25 years later. The interviewee has moved on from his parents' stable but low-paying jobs to become a successful businessman, but also lives with a constant fear of losing his security and drifting. This is the embodiment of the flexible person in contrast to his parents, who represented the era of Fordism with its routine-based, bureaucratic jobs that provided a sense of security and community. This change in society and the shift away from routine-based jobs is a trend that has been observed by social scientists particularly in industrialized countries.

Karl Marx's concept of class, specifically how he defines it based on production relationships and focuses on a two-class society. While the concept of class had been used as a categorization scheme before Marx, his unique contribution was the combination of two characteristics of classes:

  1. For Marx, class membership is derived from production relationships; the only relevant question is whether a person owns means of production and can make others work for them, or if they do not own means of production and must sell their labor;
  2. For Marx, society has only two classes; the class distinctions are between capitalists and workers. Other criteria, such as family background, gender, ethnicity, hair color or bank account, may be correlated with class but do not determine it, in Marx's perception.

Two concepts of class do not easily combine:

- "class in itself" understands class as an analytical unit and is only visible to political activists or researchers with a deep understanding of the social structure.

- "class for itself" is the idea that those in similar class positions would recognize and want to change their situation.

The difference between these two concepts, "objective class position" and "subjective processing", can generate a significant research program, according to Geiger. They question how to explain why, in developed industrial countries, workers do not have a clear political consciousness, despite the objective class position. The idea of class consciousness - the awareness of one's class position - is an essential component of the Marxian theory. This consciousness does not always develop however, even if the objective class position exists.

Since World War II, sociologists have been questioning whether the class formation processes that Marx proposed were still relevant. Kuhl presents this debate:

New forms of stratification have emerged in society that are more important than the unifying force of production relationships. The structure of modern industrial society is increasingly described as an onion-shape with a small upper class, a large middle class, and a small group of socially marginalized individuals. This onion-shape structure led to a decrease in the class consciousness, as people's mindset and interests became more shaped by their consumption possibilities and standard of living rather than by their production relations. The class concept is increasingly being reduced to one of many categories of social structure analysis and replaced by other schemes.

According to sociologist Serge Mallet, a new working class emerges due to the changing nature of production which requires technical intelligence and the control of complex systems. This new class is characterized by a high level of education and a strong sense of professional and political self-awareness. Their desire for greater control over production processes clashes with the capitalist management's claims to power.

Sociologists Horst Kern and Michael Schumann have argued that most workers lack a class understanding based on Marx and that increased automation leads to differentiation among the working class with some doing highly skilled work and others doing more menial tasks. They write that the conditions of work have a greater impact on the workers' consciousness and class identity than their relationship to the means of production.

Sociologist Erik Olin Wright asserts that while ownership of the means of production is still the main class difference, the class position of both capitalists and wage earners needs to be further differentiated.

Pierre Bourdieu uses the concept of three types of capital (economic, social and cultural) to show how societal status is passed down through generations based on factors such as education and profession. Seen in this way, class formation is no longer based primarily on the inheritance of economic capital, such as factories or machinery, but rather on the ability to access and use cultural capital, such as knowledge and cultural experiences.

Other sociologists, such as Tomas Leithäuser and Günter G. Voß, argue that the influence of capitalism on daily life is becoming more pervasive, affecting not only work but also leisure, family and social relationships. They suggest that this blurring of the lines between work and leisure can lead to a more efficient and rationalized approach to daily life, but also to a loss of separation between work and leisure.

Kühl concludes that the traditional understanding of class and social status is no longer applicable in modern society due to the increasing prevalence of organizations. These organizations remove the ability for members to rely on their societal position in order to advance within the organization. This can lead to a confusion of ranks and status within society, as individuals may hold high positions within an organization despite not having traditional markers of status such as nobility or academic pedigree. As individuals often move between different organizations, the concept of a clear social hierarchy becomes increasingly blurred.

Chapter 4 concludes with a section about the theory of functional differentiation, which argues that individuals can establish themselves as individuals or personalities only when the difference between their role and their person is clear. It is important to understand how organizations shape and influence the behavior of its members, and how individuals can resist or comply with these expectations. In modern society, many roles can be chosen voluntarily, which allows for greater expression of personal identity and self-representation. Individuals can engage in different roles with varying levels of commitment and intensity.

Finally, in chapter 5, Kühl argues for a renaissance of grand theories. The bibliography shows how much has been written about the theme of labour. Kühl has processed this in a thorough manner into a synthesis, in which he – as a “Luhmannianer” – argues, as far as I am concerned, a successful argument that systems theory helps to make an integral analysis in which one culprit is not identified in advance, but in which all those involved find “irritating information ” about themselves, which they can reflect on.

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