Freedom and the Workplace

Convenors: James Hickson (University of York); Mirjam Müller (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin)


Freedom is one of the foundational concepts of political thought. However, while freedom has, largely, been embraced in the political sphere, our working lives are often characterized by unfreedom, inequality, and subservience. So far, the 21st Century has seen huge changes in how our working lives are structured.

In advanced capitalist societies, work is increasingly invading the private sphere as technology allows work to become more flexible and dislocated, and hard won labour securities are being eroded at ever­faster pace. This is expressed for instance by insecure contracts, insufficient income, and the lack of voice for workers in many industries. In contemporary society, this dissonance between our lives as citizens and workers seems increasingly troubling and untenable. At the same time, with increasing globalisation, our connection to morally troubling work practices in the global south, for example sweatshop labour, through our consumption of goods raises questions of complicity and responsibility that require political answers.

Coupled with the retrenchment of social democracy across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, the need for a rejuvenated progressive critique of contemporary work as well as an emancipatory vision for the future is clear. It is therefore crucial that we get a better understanding of the normative questions raised by the nature of modern work. For example, how as political theorists and philosophers can we think critically of unfreedom in a changing work environment? How should we conceive of complicity with work practices where the ideal of freedom is clearly violated? How should work be structured with regard to the ideal of freedom? And how can we respond normatively in a way that will be impactful for wider society?

This workshop aims to facilitate dialogue between political theorists working on this broad topic, and explore the different issues that have been identified as well as the various approaches we can take. It will therefore complement recent work within contemporary political philosophy that seeks to provide a critical account of modern working conditions, as well as build on relevant work within the history of political thought. Discussants will investigate how we can best conceptualise freedom with regards to the multiple, complex relationships that make up our working lives. There will also be a focus on how conceptions of freedom underpin the reasoning for practical policies that can positively impact the sphere of work.

Possible topics could include, but not be limited to:

  • Exploitation, oppression, and domination at work
  • Social and economic inequalities and work
  • Workplace democracy
  • The future of work
  • Gender and work
  • Race and work
  • Public ownership
  • Basic income
  • Welfare states
  • Trade unions

To participate in this workshop, please submit an abstract of no more than 500 words prepared for blind-review by Sunday 15th May 2016 to Notifications of acceptance will be sent out on 1 June 2016 and we will expect accepted papers to be received by Monday 29th August 2016 for pre-circulation amongst the workshop participants.