Labour is a central notion in the works of Smith and Ricardo, and it is an elaboration of the concept of labour which enables Hegel to say something about human development and human autonomy which goes beyond what is to be found in conventional political economy. The main lines of his account have already been intimated in the discussion of Althusser; it merely remains to make the points more systematically. It is in labour that man is distinguished from the animal. The animal has needs and gratifies them by the mere consumption of objects. On the other hand, man who also has an instinctual, biological life transcends this level of relationship to natural objects. Through labour, he transforms natural objects to his own projects and intentions. At the same time, in transforming objects man comes to know more about their character and the laws governing their being. He then makes use of this knowledge, incorporating it into labour processes. This again develops the range of transformations he is able to effect on external reality, and also involves an increase in his theoretical knowledge of the world within which he lives: ‘Desire has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object and thereby unalloyed feeling of self. This satisfaction, however, just for that reason is itself only a state of evanescence, for it lacks objectivity and subsistence. Labour, on the other hand, is desire restrained and checked, evanescence delayed, in other words labour shapes and fashions the thing . . . the consciousness that toils and serves accordingly attains by this means the direct apprehension of that independent being as itself . . . By the fact that the form is objectified, it does not become something other than the consciousness moulding the thing through labour; for just that form is his pure self-existence which therein becomes truly realized.’footnote1

Labour is a central category of the system of needs, but it is far more than that for Hegel. It is central for self-consciousness and for knowledge of objects in the natural world, yet at the same time these transcending features of labour have consequences within the system of needs. Needs become multiplied beyond bare necessity, because of the development of both self-consciousness and manipulative skill vis-`-vis the natural world, and this multiplication of needs is the vehicle for economic development. Hegel also used labour to help solve the deep philosophical problem which preoccupied him and which he had inherited from Kant, Fichte and Schelling, namely the relationship between subject and object.footnote2 It was labour, with its twin dimensions of developing the subject’s consciousness and manipulating external objects, that helped to solve this problem for Hegel. It was in labour that the reconciliation between subject and object was overcome for him.

All of these features of labour, both within political economy and beyond, stress the extent to which labour is a personally liberating facet of human activity, but is also much more than this. The development of self-consciousness through the labour of others helps man to satisfy his own needs. Within the subjective process of labour there is generated a complex system of mutual dependence: ‘When men are thus dependent on one another and reciprocally related to one another in their work and the satisfaction of their needs, subjective self-seeking turns into a contribution to the satisfaction of the needs of everyone else. That is to say, by a dialectical advance, subjective self-seeking turns into the mediation of the particular through the universal, with the result that each man in earning, producing and enjoying on his own account is eo ipso producing and earning for the enjoyment of everyone else.’footnote3 This is just the kind of dialectical reversal which was mentioned earlier as being characteristic of Hegel’s account of the social world. Labour, the crucial concept of classical political economy which had yielded a vision of society which was radically individualistic, was used by Hegel not just as a category within political economy, but in a framework of explanation of broader generality. It was shown to yield a vision of society which does full justice to the claims of human autonomy, but at the same time within the very same account tries to show that complex forms of mutual interdependence are achieved. This organicism may not be the sinnliche Harmonie of the Greek polis; but there are patterns of mutual interdependence in modern society, although they are of a more abstract form and much more difficult to tease out. However, classical political economy has itself provided the basis for this account, even though writers in that tradition did not give sufficient weight to this aspect of their work. The political economist, in Hegel’s view, is trying to find ‘reconciliation here, to discover in the sphere of needs this show of rationality lying in the thing and effective there’.footnote4

The tool is clearly a central part of the transformative and therefore consciousness-developing aspect of labour. As Hegel said in The Science of Logic: ‘In his tools, man possesses power over external nature.’footnote5 However, there are aspects of tools which go beyond the role which they play in personal self-development, and these were equally stressed by Hegel. A tool is a public instrument which is in principle available to all, and thus allows the mastery over nature secured specifically by it to be repeated at least in principle, by anyone: ‘In the tool, the subjectivity of labour has been elevated to something universal; everyone can initiate it in precisely the same way, thus it is the constant rule of labour.’footnote6 Tools help the routinization of the mastery of nature and make both its transformation and the self-development which goes along with it available to all men. Again, there is the same dialectic at work: that which develops individual self-consciousness has a universal element simultaneously present within it. At the same time the tool links generations, in the sense that a new generation inherits from the old certain techniques of production involving tools. This is another important social dimension of the use of tools; a tool ‘is inherited in the traditions while that which desires and that which is desired only subsist as individuals and individuals pass away’.footnote7

Hegel did not see the system of needs as necessarily generating a radically individualist vision of society; rather, the activities characteristic of the economic sphere both in production and exchange presuppose very intricate patterns of mutual interdependence. These forms of interdependence are not predicated upon peripheral features of human life. On the contrary, labour and the use of tools are central ways in which human beings come to self-consciousness; as such, the forms of mutuality to be found within them are of very great importance. Similar features are characteristic also of the division of labour within the system of needs. As needs develop, so productive processes have to meet them. This requires an increasing division of labour: ‘the subdivision of needs and means thereby eo ipso subdivides production and brings about the division of labour’.footnote8 Again, this is in a sense a gain in self-consciousness, in that an individual’s specific skills increase; at the same time, this complex division of the productive process leads once again to extremely intricate forms of mutual dependence and ‘reciprocal relation in the satisfaction of their other needs’.