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European Journal of Social Theory

Work and the Precarisation of Existence

Jean-Philippe Deranty
European Journal of Social Theory 2008 11: 443
DOI: 10.1177/1368431008097011

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European Journal of Social Theory 11(4): 443463
Copyright 2008 Sage Publications: Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore

Work and the Precarisation of Existence

Jean-Philippe Deranty

This article aims to present a new perspective on contemporary debates about
the transformations of work and employment, and their impacts on indi-
viduals and communities, by focusing on the writings of Christophe Dejours.
Basically, the article attempts to show that Dejours writings make a signifi-
cant contribution to contemporary social theory. This might seem like an
odd claim to make, since Dejours main training was in psychoanalysis and
his main activity is the clinical, psychiatric study of pathologies linked to
work. However, in the course of his career, Dejours has greatly extended this
initial clinical interest, and by integrating insights from philosophy and other
social sciences, has developed a highly sophisticated and consistent theoreti-
cal model of work. Starting from a narrow psychopathological focus, Dejours
has gradually developed a full-blown theoretical defence of the centrality of
work. The article outlines the main features of Dejours metapsychological
model, and the structuring role played by work in his theory of subjective
identity. This allows us to outline the originality of his approach by compari-
son with some of the most significant current accounts of the impact of
transformations of work and employment conditions upon individuals and
societies, notably Honneth, Castel and Sennett.

Key words
Castel critical theory Dejours Honneth psychoanalysis recognition

Sennett suffering work

As Axel Honneth has argued convincingly, a substantial strand in social theory,

from its inception until today, revolves around a methodological circle between
critical intentions and theoretical presuppositions (Honneth, 1996). Theoretical
presuppositions provide a conceptual grammar and normative framework without
which any description of the reality that the social scientist intends to critically
study would not be possible. But the sense that social life is truncated or patho-
logical often provides the initial impetus at the heart of the theoretical enterprise,
and thus determines the choice and the shape of the core concepts. Using the
term in a broad sense, we might refer to this tradition, which spans from Hegel
and Marx right through to Sennett and Honneth, as critical social theory. Clearly,
to the extent that they themselves combined theory and critique, the great DOI: 10.1177/1368431008097011

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444 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)

founders of sociology, Weber, Durkheim and Simmel, also belong to that tradition
of social thinking.
The aim of this article is to locate the work of Christophe Dejours within this
tradition, and to argue that it makes a decisive contribution to it. At first, this
aim might seem ill-formed, since Dejours work is not in social theory. He is a
French psychoanalyst specializing in pathologies related to work. In this capacity
he has been commissioned to conduct numerous studies in workplaces where
serious cases of individual or collective dysfunction had taken place. However,
in the course of his career, he has greatly extended his initial clinical horizon
and propounded much broader sociological diagnoses on contemporary French
society, as well as highly provocative theses about the nature of work, its struc-
turing role for individual psyche, and as a result, its decisive impact on social
relations, in short theses of a social-theoretical nature. Indeed much of the inno-
vativeness and fruitfulness of Dejours work relies precisely, I will argue, on the
above-mentioned dialectic of diagnosis and theory.
To present Dejours work as an intervention in critical social theory implies
most simply that he offers an original critical diagnosis of contemporary society.
As we shall see, this is mostly a diagnosis of the pathologies of contemporary
work. We look at this diagnosis in the third part of the article. The title of the
article, Work and the Precarisation of Existence intends to capture Dejours main
view of contemporary society: he argues that the transformations in workplaces
and the changed nature of work processes have caused many individuals to suffer
from a sense of increased existential precariousness, which manifests itself in new,
sometimes dramatic, individual and collective pathologies. This phenomenon of
an increased sense of precariousness, leading to high levels of anxiety, with its
attendant individual and social impacts, is well studied by contemporary sociol-
ogy, notably by Richard Sennett (1998, 2006) and Robert Castel (2003). Like
Dejours, the two great sociologists have linked the subjective phenomena of drift
and disaffiliation to structural transformations in the nature of the working
activity and the institutions of work. The first justification for the ugly neolo-
gism of precarisation is precisely that this French term is today increasingly used
in English-speaking forums to denote this feature of contemporary society.
Although Dejours diagnosis overlaps in many ways with the sociologists, it
is also markedly original. This is first because his is radically pessimistic. Accord-
ing to Dejours, the gravity of contemporary abnormalities of work (to use a
Durkheimian terminology) is extreme. Contemporary mode of working, he
contends, destroy individuals lives, social bonds and communities. Rarely since
the pessimistic diagnoses of the late Adorno had a social-theoretical account of
modern society been so pessimistic. The other unique aspect of Dejours diag-
nosis relates to the source of these individual and social pathologies: for him, the
destruction of psyches and of the social bonds that used to help individuals
sustain the contingencies of social life is due mainly to the nature and the organiz-
ation of work in the post-Fordist model of economic production. The picture
that Dejours draws of contemporary workplaces is one where lying is instituted,
reality denied, where suffering, as a result, cannot be said. Consequently, broader

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Deranty Work and the Precarisation of Existence 445

forms of social injustice are for him directly rooted in the pathologies of the
workplace. In other words, his diagnosis is grounded in a highly original vision
of the centrality of work, both for individuals and for society. This is an unusual
thesis to defend today, given the large consensus in contemporary sociology and
political philosophy regarding the end of the centrality of work (Wilson, 2004).
With this, we have shifted to the second, theoretical, pole of the dialectic.
Dejours argument in favour of the centrality of work is not just a diagnostic one.
It is in fact founded on a sophisticated argument about what work is, and how
it brings together subject, society and materiality in highly specific ways. Here,
Dejours intervention is no longer that of a medical practitioner making forays
into social commentary, but of a social theorist and philosopher. It is easy to
understand how this came about: his interest in psychopathologies of work forced
him to develop a theoretical understanding of the activity that causes them. This
conceptual study of work complemented his meta-psychological approach to
subjectivity, that is, his theoretical account of the formation and structure of the
individual psyche. Beyond the critical picture of contemporary society, this article
aims to highlight this more social-theoretical aspect of Dejours work, notably
the way in which the critical vision is underpinned by a highly original and in
my mind fruitful theoretical perspective on the nature and significance of social
bonds. Dejours startling claim is that bonds created through work and via the
inscription in the division of labour remain constitutive moments for subjectivity,
at a quasi-anthropological level. In this, he can be said to pursue a line in social
theory that runs from Hegel (1991) to Honneth (2007b), via Durkheim (1984),
for whom the main medium of social integration is cooperation through the
division of labour. Indeed, as we shall see, an important element in Dejours
theory of work in fact amounts to a theory of recognition. However, we will also
see that it is precisely in that account of recognition through work that Dejours
differs most strikingly from Honneth and earlier, sociological accounts of the
integrative power of the division of labour.
The neologism precarisation of existence therefore finds here a second justifi-
cation. I use the term having in mind Marcuses vision of a non-alienating ration-
ality, and thus, of non-alienated forms of subjectivity and society, which he
summarized in the notion of the pacification of existence (Marcuse, 1969). This
is to suggest that Dejours extension of his clinical observations into a fully-
fledged theory of subjectivity, work, and the centrality of work for subjects and
societies, can be pitched with some justification at the same general theoretical
level and somewhere near the tradition that Marcuse represents. In particular, this
is to suggest a proximity to the fundamental methodological assumptions and
references (Hegel, Marx, Freud, and so on) that the name of Marcuse conjures up.
As we shall see, Dejours theoretical grounding of his clinical and critical
insights overlaps to a great extent with another philosophical tradition, namely
phenomenology, in particular the strand of phenomenology that insisted on the
embodied, fleshy nature of intentionality (Michel Henry and Merleau-Ponty).
This of course does not contradict the reference to Marcuse. The connections lie
precisely around the attention to the embodied nature of socialized subjects, and

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446 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)

the methodological linking of social-theoretical with deep-psychological argu-

ments. In the end, this is in fact where I see Dejours intervention to be most
important and refreshing: as he approaches social-theoretical questions from a
metapsychological perspective, one directly influenced by Freuds theory of the
drive, he can help to correct the tendency of contemporary social theory, and
indeed contemporary philosophy, to use disincarnated, overly rationalistic models
of the subject.
The article progresses in constructive fashion. In the first part, I draw out the
features of his metapsychology that are most relevant for his theory of work and
the division of labour. In the second part, I apply those elements to his substan-
tive definition of work. The third part shows how this theory of work and its
importance for subjectivity underpins a pessimistic vision of contemporary society.

Subjectivity and Suffering

The tradition of critical social theory has regularly understood the dialectic of theory
and critique as the articulation between sociological and psychological arguments.
The most illustrious example is Adorno, who, despite his highly negative view of
the inter-connections between the psychological and sociological sciences of his
time, himself repeatedly grounded his analyses of contemporary society in the core
affects of the modern individual. Fear, in particular, had a central place in his diag-
noses, as the affect arising when vulnerable subjects are overwhelmed by challenges
questioning the very basis of their socially constructed identity (Adorno, 1967).
To cite a more contemporary reference, Robert Castels great historical recon-
struction of the transformations that led to the wage society also illustrate the
bodily rootedness of social experience and the deep subjective impact of social
change. In particular, his genealogical analyses demonstrate with the wealth of
historical detail the crucial importance of a simple aspect of human life in society:
namely, that a massive experience of human beings over historical time, has been
the fear of tomorrow, the most basic uncertainty, felt in ones bones and making
ones existence miserable, over ones own physical well-being and survival.
Indeed, another conclusion deriving from Castels analyses was that wage society,
as a historical construct, had its own specific, quasi-anthropological impact, by
creating subjective expectations of security of existence and social protection,
expectations which neoliberal society massively disappoints and challenges.
Those two basic affects of the social life of individuals, the fear of a threaten-
ing future overwhelming ones powers, and the hope to be able to cope with its
uncertainty, as well as the fact that these affects are deep, that is, relate to the
very root of subjective identity, and are therefore indissolubly psychic and bodily,
all of this is at the heart of Dejours metapsychological model of subjectivity. We
need to reconstruct in schematic terms the main elements of that model in order
to fully grasp the originality of his intervention in social theory. His most decisive
arguments in relation to the nature of work and his critique of contemporary
society depend on it.

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Deranty Work and the Precarisation of Existence 447

The central notion in Dejours (2003a) metapsychology is suffering: for him,

it is the most fundamental structure of identity. Suffering is characteristic of the
human subject in two separate, yet intimately related senses. The first sense of
suffering is the literal one of affectivity, the capacity of the human being, as
embodied, to be affected by the world. The philosophical premise underlying
such a vision of subjectivity is phenomenological. Dejours explicit reference here
is Michel Henry (1975). The first meaning of subjectivity is the self-presence,
well before any conscious representation, of life to itself in the form of the flesh.
Accordingly, the subject knows herself first of all in the feeling of herself as a
living being, more precisely, as Henry puts it, through the self-affection of life in
and through her, via her body. But the converse dimension of this self-affection
immediately arises: the subject can be present to itself through its affectivity only
because it immediately and consistently encounters the limits of its power of
action. These are the limits of its body, internal limits as it were, as well as limits
imposed by the opposing external world. This capacity to be affected, which is
realized in the encounter with the resistance of the world, is for Dejours the
primitive ground of practical identity. Already this gives us a clue as to why
Dejours puts so much emphasis on the experience of work: if one argues that
subjectivity is at bottom an affective sense of self, which is revealed to itself
through the encounters with the world, then it seems only logical to promote
work as a central experience, since work is precisely the most typical experience
of coming up against ones own limits and of running up against the world.
This essential, fundamental pathos of human subjectivity forms the ground
for a second type of suffering, this time in the more restricted sense of pain. The
link between suffering as passion or pathos, and suffering as pain, however, is
not as straightforward as one might expect. It occurs via an intersubjectivistic
reinterpretation of Freuds theory of the drive. Instead of abandoning that theory,
as a contemporary critical theorist like Honneth does today (2007a), Dejours
relocates it within an intersubjectivistic perspective, by adopting Laplanches
seduction theory (Laplanche, 19802007). This is a powerful theoretical posi-
tion that allows him to maintain the reference to the irreducible biological reality
of human embodiment, while avoiding reductionist, causalist constructions, in
particular, by acknowledging the equally structuring power of primary attach-
ments. The end result is a theory of the subject as being made up of two bodies,
a biological and an erotic body:
thanks to the construction of psychical sexuality and of the erotic body, the subject
manages to free himself partially from the bodys physiological functions, its instincts,
its automatic and reflex patterns of behaviour, even its biological rhythms. (Dejours,
2003a: 16)

This subversion of the biological body is economically essential for the subject,
as it channels the overpowering instinctual, organic life of the body into a
construct that tames and shapes it. In the end, it represents the process of subjec-
tivation itself, that is the basis of individual identity, since the history of the erotic
subversion as well as the biologically given body are each radically unique.

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448 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)

Such a theory of subject formation provides a useful heuristic model to

maintain the inseparable unity of the somatic and the psychological and under-
stand the structuring place of suffering. Both dimensions are inextricably inter-
woven as a result of the erotic subversion of the biologically given. Even though
psychic development, the construction of the personality structure is inter-
subjectively mediated, it is also primordialy founded on the radical origin of the
subject: the factual, biological body and its experience of limits. That body,
however, having been eroticised, that is to say, having become the body of that
particular subject, having been in a sense transformed from the inside by the
introjection of a symbolic history (the fate of individual drives over the course
of sexualization), is now much more than just an piece of organic matter. It has
been shaped by the subjective, symbolic life it now hosts.
Dejours does not argue for a directly causal relationship between the mental
and the organic, he does not propound a naive form of psychosomaticism. The
process of eroticization of the factual body, however, does impact on the latter.
First, structures of behaviour give the body a non-biological rhythm, a gait, or
comportment. We are clearly at the intersection where phenomenology meets
with psychoanalysis. On the phenomenological side, Dejours Laplanchian re-
construction of Freud intersects in major ways with recently published material
by Merleau-Ponty (2001, 2003), which highlights the extent to which his late
philosophy of expression was influenced by his readings of the psychoanalysts.
More specifically, however, the erotic functions created by the historical develop-
ment of the subjective psyche, attach themselves to specific organs that are pre-
disposed, through their biological functions, to be subverted for an erotic usage.
It is neither purely contingent, nor strictly biological, that the mouth becomes
an erotic zone. In brief, once achieved, the erotic construction makes the body
express the basic personality structure.
Such a view of the subject as a fragile symbolic (erotic) subversion of a
biologically given body has tremendous implication for social theory. In particu-
lar, it implies that moral and symbolic representations, discourses, events affect-
ing the subject qua spiritual being (to speak like Hegel) are not just addressed
to the subjects intentional life. Given the indissoluble unity of body and ego
subjectivity, the moral and social lives of the subject are directly connected with
his or her bodily life: moments of moral distress cannot leave the body indiffer-
ent, social failure or success will be expressed in bodily ups and downs. Conversely,
attacks on the body, whether at the level of its erotic construction, or more basi-
cally in its basic physiological constitution cannot leave the psyche unaffected.
Identity is vulnerable from both ends, so to speak. It relies on a biological ground
it has subverted but that can reclaim its autonomy at any moment, especially
when the external world attacks it and wrests it from the control of the subject.
The erotic construct is only a derivation, a channelling of biological forces. That
construct itself can be attacked, either directly, when the external social world is
directly antagonistic, or when the blind spots in the subjective identity are
wilfully or unwittingly targeted by an event, especially by other subjects. We can
see already that this insistence on the psychosomatic unity of the subject will be

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Deranty Work and the Precarisation of Existence 449

crucial for the analysis of work pathologies since it provides a powerful analyti-
cal tool to relate the two areas of subjective experience.
On that model, the anticipation of suffering as a result of ones being in the
world is constitutive of subjectivity. Subjectivity is structured as the expectation
or anticipation that one will be able to cope with the affections involved in the
situation present and to come. This anticipation can become a representation
and be formulated in the form of conscious hopes and expectations, but it is also
and primarily felt pre-consciously. Subjectivity, the unity of personal identity,
requires this sense, sensing in ones bones so to speak, that I will be able to deal
with a structural vulnerability that limits me at the same time as it defines me.
When subjective identity is sufficiently strong and allows for autonomous action,
the self can trust its mental and physical capacities, or more accurately, it can
trust its own self as a unity of souled body and embodied psyche, that it will
maintain its own integrity in a future and under the challenge of objects that will
necessarily affect it.
Suffering in the sense of pain arises when the defence mechanisms are over-
whelmed by the situation. The conclusion Dejours draws from the observations
of psychopathologies at work is valid more broadly for all subjective suffering:
It is not so much the extent of mental or psychic constraints in work which lets suffering
appear (even though, obviously, it is an important factor), but rather the impossibility
of any evolution towards its lessening. The certainty that the level of dissatisfaction can
no longer diminish marks the entrance in suffering. (Dejours, 2000: 79)

On this model, anticipation is therefore a structure of subjectivity because fear

itself is a core affect inherent in it. That fear is not simply the fear of suffering,
but rather the fear of not coping with suffering. It is the fear that the subjective
resources will not be enough. And hope is the obverse affect. Indeed it is the
affect that structures normal subjective life: namely, that one will have sufficient
subjective (that is physical, affective and intellectual) resources to deal with the
challenges and opportunities presented by experience. Experience is suffering and
subjectivity is the achievement of dealing with suffering, but suffering is always
present. The whole personality structure, the self in its very roots is hope, and that
means, directed towards, intending, the future in fearful anticipation. Once again,
this ties in directly with phenomenology, notably with the image of the subject
developed by Merleau-Ponty (1965) after his reading of the philosopher of
biology Kurt Goldstein (2000). Rather than Heideggers, it is their interpretations
of angst as the source of subjectivity, in terms of a radical uncertainty about the
capacities for action, that seems appropriate here. Accordingly, angst should be
seen no longer as the possibility of a radical impossibility, but as the possibility
that there might be an impossibility of coping, an impossibility of doing anything
with ones finite array of skills, strengths and capacities because they will have
been too massively undermined or overwhelmed by physical or psychical attacks.
The best phenomenological term to capture this is the notion of ambiguity.
There is, as Merleau-Ponty had well identified, a fundamental ambiguity in
human agency: it is an agency that is always in fearful anticipation of its own

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450 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)

paralysis, an agency premised upon and always counteracting the possibility of

its own radical passivity. And it should be clear that when we are talking about
the self here, we mean the whole self, identity itself, not just a particular feature
of it. In other words, subjective identity for human subjects is structurally under
the threat, and the sense of the threat, of its own decomposition. At the same
time, however, it is equally important to recall that it is also because of the
encounters with the world that there can be a knowledge of the world at all,
indeed, that there can be any real thought. Suffering is therefore simultaneously
the possibility of a destructuration of the self, but also the condition of reason.

Suffering, Subjectivity and Work

Before we can approach Dejours diagnosis of the way in which recent changes
in economic, political and social-cultural orders have affected individuals, we
need to see the structural links he establishes between subjectivity, work and
suffering. For him, the pathologies of modern society are rooted in the new
organisations of work. However, these organizations could not have such an
impact if subjectivities did not continue to be centrally structured by the experi-
ence of work. Here, Dejours argues in direct contradiction to all the contempor-
ary sociologists and social-theorists, for example, to cite authors in the same
intellectual tradition, to thinkers like Habermas and Offe, who assume that the
society emerging from the demise of the welfare state is characterised by the end
of work as a central experience and a central institution.
In his approach to work, Dejours borrows a general insight from the contem-
porary anthropology of techniques, notably the French tradition inspired by
Mauss (1979), which confirms at the general social level the insight that arose
from the theory of the subject: namely that social relations, like subjective
identity, are always co-constituted by their mediations with the objective dimen-
sion. Intersubjective interactions do not function in isolation from reference to
objective worlds. This general insight applies most especially in the case of work.
Work is par excellence an activity involving in equal measure the pole of the
social and the pole of objectivity.
As a consequence, work is not well defined in pure instrumental terms, as
articulation of means and ends, or in pure intersubjective terms, as employment
or work relations. Instead, these different dimensions need to be integrated. The
result is a triangular definition of work as subjective activity under the constraints
of cultural expectations and social demands, but confronted with the resistance
and non-complying demands of the real. More precisely, it is defined as the
activity that is demanded of subjects so they can bridge the gap between the
prescriptive aspects of the task and the reality of its realization. The prescriptive
originates in the external demands from the client and the hierarchy (and indeed
the shareholders), but also from the specific social context constituted by the
working peers who impose specific constraints on the activity. The real, on the
other hand, is whatever opposes the direct application of the prescriptions:

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Deranty Work and the Precarisation of Existence 451

whatever, in the world, lets itself be known through its resistance to technical mastery
and scientific knowledge. In other words, the real is that element that makes technique
fail when all the resources of technique have been correctly used. The real . . . is that
which exists in the world and escapes us and becomes in its turn an enigma to be deci-
phered (Dejours, 1995: 401)

We find again here the moment of objectivity mentioned in the first section, that
dimension of objectivity that limits the subjects action in the world, and bends
the flesh back onto itself. The real is not necessarily the material in the sense,
say, of Sartres in-itself . It is whatever exerts resistance to the accomplishment
of the task. Very often, the real is in fact of social nature. Dejours, for example,
highlights the fact that work organisations are often counter-productive, that the
prescriptions, rules and regulations, the technical procedures governing work
processes often contain contradictory or counter-productive elements that make
the activity of workers more rather than less difficult. In such cases, the real is
of direct social origin. In all cases, however, there is always an element in work
that resists the efforts of subjects who attempt to apply the rules that have been
defined to achieve productive ends.
This emphasis on the gap between the prescriptive and the effective leads to
the emphasis on the efforts and subjective investment demanded of subjects at
work in order for the prescribed task to be accomplished according to the
prescribed rules and for the prescribed ends. In such a definition of work, the
risk of failure, the resistance to subjective efforts is an irreducible element. From
a perspective focusing on what work means for subjective life, work designates
what the subject has to do in order to deal with the possibility of failure inherent
in the application of rules that are mostly defined and imposed externally.
For the clinician, work is not above all the wage relation or employment but working,
which is to say, the way the personality is involved in confronting a task that is subject
to constraints (material and social). What emerges as the main feature of working is
that, even when the work is well conceived, even when the organization of work is
rigorous, even when the instructions and procedures are clear, it is impossible to
achieve quality if the orders are scrupulously respected. Indeed, ordinary work situ-
ations are rife with unexpected events, breakdowns, incidents, operational anomalies,
organizational inconsistency and things that are simply impossible to predict, arising
from the materials, tools, and machines as well as from other workers, colleagues, bosses,
subordinates, the team, the chain of authority, the clients, and so on. In short, there
is no such thing as purely mechanical work. (Dejours, 2007a: 72)

The relation with the general model of the subject is clear. Work is the paradig-
matic case of an experience where the human subject makes the experience of
her own finitude, of the resistance of the world (natural, material, social, tech-
nical, and so on) to her intentions and her individual, bodily, affective and intel-
lectual capacities. If we accept that human subjectivity is characterized in general
by ambiguity, an undecided balance between activity and passivity, creativity and
contingent facticity, work typically brings that ambiguity to a head. Because it
always tests the subjects capacities, it touches precisely the essential vulnerability

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452 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)

of the human agent that is at the heart of its subjective identity. When the gap
has been bridged, when the working activity has been successful, the individual
subjective construct has made its proof; it comes out strengthened and reaffirmed.
When, on the contrary, the resistance of the real has been too great, the working
experience directly threatens and can even destroy the fragile construct of subjec-
tive identity.
Working cannot be reduced to the pathic experience of the world. Insofar as it marks
an interruption of action, the affective suffering of the encounter with the real (an
absolutely passive form of suffering) is not only the result or end point of the process
linking subjectivity to work. Suffering is also a point of departure, for the concentra-
tion of subjectivity that it entails prefigures a subsequent period of expansion, redeploy-
ment, and re-expansion. Suffering is not simply a final consequence of the relationship
to reality but at the same time a protention of subjectivity towards the world; it is a
search for the means of acting on the world in order to get beyond itself by surmount-
ing the resistance of reality. Thus, suffering is at once a subjective impression of the
world and the source of the attempt to conquer that world. To the extent that it is
absolute affectivity, suffering lies at the origin of the intelligence that sets out in search
of the world in order to challenge, transform, and increase itself. And thus, in this
movement that starts out from the reality of the world as resistance to will or desire
and culminates in intelligence and the power to transform the world, subjectivity itself
is transformed, increased, and revealed to itself. (Dejours, 2007a: 73)

A passage like this one clearly indicates what perspective leads Dejours to the
unfashionable claim that work continues to be the central experience for modern
subjects and the central institution in society. Work, approached this time from
a normative, not a clinical perspective, is central, in the strongest possible sense
of the metaphor, in the sense notably that there can only be one centre, simply
because no other type of experience can provide the subject with the same oppor-
tunity to develop his/her capacities, skills and abilities, his ability to think, in
the widest sense of the term, in a sense notably that also takes into account the
embodied form of intelligence. Work takes the subject out of itself, where it is
always on the brink of alienation in the old medical sense of the term, that is,
on the brink of being severed from others, the world and itself. Through work,
the subject is put in the most direct and genuine relation with the world, and is
related to others at the same time as he/she is related to the world. All of this
does indeed smack of the now unfashionable tradition, originating in the Marx
of the 1844 manuscripts, which made work the central institution of society, the
central subjective experience and the medium of social interaction. The main
difference, however, is that this vision of work as central to the human subject
and human society is no longer rooted in a metaphysics of human nature and
human history, but rather in a metapsychological model nourished by both
theoretical and clinical insights. This is also a point where we can emphasize the
double philosophical reference alluded to in the introduction: Merleau-Ponty
(1965: 176) in his first book also characterized the fundamental unity of repre-
sentative consciousness, action and life, which defines human existence, as work,
not in a metaphysical, but in a naturalistic sense.

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Deranty Work and the Precarisation of Existence 453

In answering the question of what transforms work from an experience of

suffering, which it always necessarily is, to an experience of pleasure in which the
subjects identity is reconfirmed and strengthened, Dejours is led to propound
his own theory of recognition. This aspect will be crucial in the last, sociological
moment of the article.1
In contrast with Honneths theory of recognition, which focuses almost exclus-
ively on intersubjective interactions, Dejours (2000: 2207) scheme of recog-
nition is triangular: what the subject wants to see recognized is his or her active
engagement in an activity that has been defined by the resistance to the perform-
ing of the task. The creativity, practical intelligence that are necessary for the
performing of the task demand to be acknowledged; recognition is of ones doing
rather than ones being. Recognition in this model combines two of the import-
ant possible meanings of the term: the agents active contribution must be epis-
temically acknowledged, that is, identified, judged according to instrumental
criteria; and a moral acknowledgement must be granted for the agents contri-
bution. According to Dejours, work becomes a meaningful experience that no
longer threatens, but strengthens practical identity, when the subjects active
contribution, the engagement of her practical intelligence, has been recognized
in the two senses of the term: made visible and positively acknowledged.
the sense of suffering depends on recognition. When the quality of my work is recog-
nised, all my efforts, angst, doubts, disappointments, discouragements become full of
meaning. All that suffering had not been in vain; not only has it contributed to the
division of labour, but it has made me, in return, a different subject from the one I
was before recognition. The recognition of work, or indeed of the product of work,
can be repatriated by the subject in the construction of his or her identity . . . Without
the benefice of recognition of his or her work, and failing the power to thereby access
the meaning of his or her lived relation to work, the subject faces his or her own
suffering, and it alone. (Dejours, 1998: 37)
This specific dimension of recognition is the most crucial element of Dejours
theory of work with regards to its subsequent sociological and social-theoretical
implications because this is the precise moment where the subjective, the material
and the social are interlaced
As a result, however, since the judgement on the agents practical contribution
to the production process becomes central, the social component of the norma-
tive aspect of work is not limited to the general question of the social status of
a profession. Two more specific social relations become essential.
First the relation internal to the production process, between the agent and the
hierarchy receives its distinct normative weight. It is no longer simply reducible
to the general social recognition, nor to a simple instrumental relation in terms of
the defining and applying means for productive ends. The lack of recognition
of the workers skills and contribution, inasmuch as they are practically and actively
engaged, becomes a major source of suffering. This is a denial of recognition not
of the status, but of the practical contribution to the production process.
Second, the work collective acquires a central importance, one that is not
sufficiently acknowledged in other models of work. The work collective is first

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454 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)

of all an irreducible element in the work process at a simple descriptive level

because most work is collective, the result of the coordination of actions and thus
of cooperation. Coordination designates the technical bringing together of indi-
vidual actions towards instrumental production; cooperation is the ethical element
that is required for coordination to be possible. Without trust, for example, no
coordination is possible (Dejours, 1995).
Given the normative importance of work for subjectivity, however, the fact
that individual activity is irreducibly caught in a collective in turn means that the
latter has an essential normative dimension for the subject. As can be seen this is
very different from the general social experience outside the workplace and also
from the intersubjective relations of power and authority among work colleagues
and with the hierarchy. In other words, the pathology of work collectives is not
limited to issues of harassment, bullying and violence. There is a specific poten-
tial pathogenic element to work collectives that has to do with the interconnec-
tion between the social and the instrumental. This is because a dysfunctional work
collective simply represents a major obstacle to the realization of the task: if,
however, we follow Dejours in his emphasis on the importance for the subject
of her or his personal investment in the realization of the task, a dysfunction in
production has direct, and potentially major, subjective implications.
Additionally, the work collective is essential because it is the only place in
which an accurate judgement on the quality of the individual contribution can
be reached. Only the peers, not even management, can fully appreciate the inven-
tiveness and creativity deployed by the worker in her confrontation with the
obstructing reality. This intersects with an insight that the great sociologist of
work Everett Hughes had established long ago: the worlds of particular professions
are secret, hermetic lifeworlds, largely inaccessible and incomprehensible to the
outside worlds, however close and interested these might be (Hughes, 1994).
To sum up, the judgement of the peers therefore becomes an essential norma-
tive dimension for subjective health itself. The power of that highly specific,
strictly professional recognition cannot be underestimated. For example, the
consciousness of a job well done, the craftsman moment as Sennett would say,
is powerful enough in some cases to offset negative judgements on the status
attached to a specific job within the broader social context. And a high social
status can become meaningless if professional standards are overly compromised.
In contrast with Sennett, however, Dejours emphasizes much more strongly the
precise moment of horizontal professional recognition, as being decisive in
making the craftman moment possible. Put negatively, the lack of peer approval
or even the lack of self-approval in light of professional standards can have a
major pathological impact on subjective life. Many individuals suffer greatly if
they are forced to work badly.
It is worth stressing again the originality of Dejours theses about work: against
much of contemporary sociology, he argues that work continues to be a central
experience in the life of contemporary subjects. At the most fundamental level,
before clinical or sociological observations, this is in fact a quasi-anthropological
claim: love, in which primary attachments are constituted, and work, in which

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Deranty Work and the Precarisation of Existence 455

the mature personality structure can be tested, challenged, and in the best cases
strengthened and developed, are the two central experiences for the modern
subject. As noted, a whole tradition of social theory and philosophy, from Hegel
to Durkheim and Honneth, would agree with this on the basis of a certain
interpretation of the nature of societal differentiation, interpreting the division of
labour in normative terms. The phenomenological, deep-psychological approach,
however, uncovers new normative aspects to work, beyond the social status of
professions and the type of social interactions made possible through work.
Precisely, it leads to a quasi-anthropological vision of the structuring aspect of
work. The thesis of the centrality of work acquires a whole new, much more
radical, dimension.
However, Dejours can also back up his claim about the continuing centrality
of work from a more empirical, sociological perspective, ex negativo, so to speak,
by diagnosing the emergence of new pathologies in the recent, post-Fordist
organization of work, and in the social arrangements that come with it. At this
level, his pessimistic diagnoses of neoliberal work are confirmed by a great wealth
of established sociology.

Work and Suffering: Critique of post-Fordist Society

Dejours social-critical interventions are nourished by the reports he receives

from the field from other mdecins du travail , as well as the direct observation
he makes through his own practice as a consultant. Informed by these reports
and his observations, he has formed a most pessimistic vision of current trans-
formations of work processes and work relations.
This vision contradicts optimistic views of work changes, as allowing for
increased amounts of responsibility, autonomy and creativity for the workers, as
well as the more ambivalent judgements that highlight the greater concern with
workers health but insist on the increase in individual autonomy (Askenazy,
2004; Durand, 2004 for the contemporary French sociology of work).
It is this pessimistic vision of contemporary work practices that inspires
Dejours interventions in the public debate in France. In them, he has repeatedly
attempted to lift the veil on what he sees as the unacknowledged, yet worrying
extent of suffering that is generated at work, and how this spills over into society,
producing broader social pathologies. Such has been the impact of Dejours
(1998) essay Souffrance en France: La Banalisation de lInjustice Sociale, that the
problem and the term of suffering, pointing to a socially induced pathology,
one in particular that is linked substantially to working conditions, has become
one of the important critical innovations in the French public debate.2
The impact of the fragmentation of work collectives and of the flexibilization
of work practices on subjectivities and on social bonds more generally has been
well described in contemporary sociological literature. A shared diagnosis has
emerged, one that is most eloquently captured in the writings of Richard Sennett
and Robert Castel. Sennett in particular has documented the insoluble conflict

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456 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)

between the fragmented and flexibilised temporality of current work practices

and the demand for longer timeframes in subjects ethical lives. Castel describes
the impact of the destructuration of the old institutions of labour on contem-
porary individuals and communities. The sense of identity becomes problematic
when the social protections that were required to ward off the threat of the un-
certain future have been dismantled. Fully individualized security is a chimera and
everyone senses it. Critical social theorists like Honneth rely heavily on sociologi-
cal descriptions of this type (Hartmann and Honneth, 2006; Honneth, 2004).
Dejours brings highly original insights to this consensus, as a result of his
psychological perspective and his focus on work.
First of all, his originality lies in what he sees to be the gravity and the extent
of the problem. None of the sociologists and social theorists who share a dis-
enchanted view of the recent transformations in work match the radicality of
Dejours diagnosis. He insists like no other on the presence, indeed, in many
areas, on the increase, in the suffering induced by transformations in work.
Second, the sense of an increase in precariousness and existential uncertainty
that Dejours also makes the central affect of neoliberal society is quite different
from the precarisation discussed by sociologists, for example in the wake of
Castels research, because his is grounded in his model of the subject at work.
For Dejours the phenomenon of precarisation is not initially of a broad societal
scope, it does not refer first and foremost to the destruction of social protections
and protective networks (Castel), even though he fully agrees that this phenom-
enon occurs. Rather precarisation for him affects at first much more specifically
the situation and the experience of the subject at work. It is a precarisation of
work itself, as a subjective experience: that is, an increased sense of precarious-
ness in ones employment, but also the deterioration of working conditions and
indeed of the work process itself, as an activity. For Dejours the broader, social
aspect of precarisation studied by the sociologists is an effect, undeniable but
only secondary, of the more primitive one, relating to the subjective experience
of work.
The crux of Dejours diagnosis is that the new organisation of work and the
new techniques of management weaken, and in many cases render impossible,
the possibility of individual hope in the sense defined previously, as hope to be
able to deal with the suffering incurred at and through work. Neoliberal society
is for him intrinsically pathogenic because the organization of work it is based
on is itself a direct challenge to psychic economies. For many workers, it becomes
highly problematic to see how they will be able to deal with the challenges of the
new work arrangements through their subjective capacities and this overflows
into social life more generally. The affect that arises at work and from work, to
subsequently vitiate all social bonds, is fear: the fear of losing ones job; the fear
arising from systematically organized competition with other workers both inside
and outside the work place; the fear of not being able to achieve ever increasing
productivity targets; the fear of not coping when the productivity targets and the
work organization are in contradiction; the fear of being caught at fault by the
surveillance of management (when using shortcuts is the only way to achieve

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Deranty Work and the Precarisation of Existence 457

targets); the fear of not being able to adapt in the face of the systematic compul-
sion to introduce rapid and constant changes, and so on. For Dejours, given the
constitutive importance of work for subjective identity, those different types of
fear all ask of the subjects the same, terrible question: will you be able to cope,
and for how long? In brief, contemporary society, articulated around a flexibi-
lized, fluidified, individualized organization of work, produce massive amounts
of anxiety (see also Sennett, 2006: 534).
It is worthwhile briefly reviewing the different factors involved in Dejours
thesis of a precarisation of work as they all add to the originality of his position.
At the simplest level, work, he claims, remains a direct challenge to body and
mind. The Taylorian model has not disappeared, often it has just been adapted
to fit more flexible models of management. In any case, the great majority of
work is now much more intense. This is largely confirmed by research from other
disciplinary angles, notably by sociological (Beaud and Pialoux, 2004) and socio-
metric inquiries (Burchell, 2007).
What is forgotten, he adds, is that much work today remains dangerous,
sometimes potentially deadly. Many workers in the developing countries obvi-
ously, but also in developed nations, operate in environments that still repre-
sent direct threats or actual attacks on their health (International Labour Office
[ILO], 2003). This constitutes a different type of exertion for working subjects.
The psychological perspective is again irreplaceable to fully measure the suffer-
ing that is incurred in such situations. The relevant psychological processes here
are the defence mechanisms individuals are forced to develop in order to be able
to continue to function in hostile environments. Such defence mechanisms can
be highly detrimental in the long run, notably because they can make subjects
blind and mute to their own suffering, not to mention the suffering of others.
In particular, one of the most striking results of Dejours research has been to
identify and analyse precisely the logic of collective defence mechanisms, notably
in industrial work, and the virile moral developed by such professions in response
to the specific stress they work under (Dejours, 2000).
Another factor contributing to the precarisation of work results from the direct
contradiction one can observe between the demands for increased productivity
and the pressure put on quality: that is, the quality of finished products and
services, but also the quality of production processes, as well as of work environ-
ments. As can be seen, this ties in directly with the issues of safety and security
at work. Dejours argues that despite the widely received idea that quality has
dramatically increased in new modes of production, and despite the central place
of the total quality motto in it, the quality of work in fact often decrease, some-
times dramatically, in all the areas mentioned. In particular, specific examples
drawn from his work as a clinician have alerted him to the fact that in many
dangerous workplaces, like nuclear or chemical plants, the pressure on productiv-
ity often implies the jeopardizing of long established safety procedures (Dejours,
2003b: 40).
This is without a doubt one of the most controversial aspects of Dejours diag-
nosis. In arguing that the quality of work environments is decreasing, he has to

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458 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)

face contradictory findings from empirical research (see, for example, the latest
data from the European Working Conditions Observatory, 2005), although an
important recent report from the International Labour Office revealed some
alarming figures, and confirmed Dejours point about the invisibility of the
problem (ILO, 2003).
On the question of quality, however, in arguing that the quality of products,
of production processes and safety mechanisms is in many cases decreasing, he
is very much on his own.
Dejours (1998) has developed an argument to justify his claim that quality
and safety, despite being heralded as certain acquisitions of new production and
management techniques, are in actual fact two victims of the new world of work.
He borrows from Habermas the notion of systematically distorted communication
to analyse the steps through which lying is gradually instituted in contemporary
workplaces (Dejours, 1998: 7189). Underpinning this is the idea, already articu-
lated by Everett Hughes, that real work (like a great part of subjective life), remains
to a large extent invisible. Contemporary organizations, under the pressure to
present the most attractive face to shareholders and potential investors, reinforce
this tendency by omitting all the failures in production processes, silencing
dissent, effacing the traces of mishaps, and more generally, by describing produc-
tion on the basis of the expected results, rather than on the basis of the activi-
ties from which they arise. Ultimately, Dejours argues:
obstacles to the revelation of the truth (about the reality of work) have always been
present in the organisation of work, but the manipulation of threat to silence contra-
dictory opinions and confer to the official description of work a real power over the
minds of all is incomparably more extended than twenty years ago. (Dejours, 1998:75)

Such pervasive instituted lie about the reality of contemporary work dramati-
cally compounds the continued stressful aspect of contemporary work. If, as the
psychodynamic perspective tells us, it is true that subjects invest massively in
their work, and that their working and the product of their working are crucial
for their sense of identity, then forcing people to work badly can be extremely
detrimental to them. This would be true just simply because individuals have a
strong psychological need to be able to identify with their work, and cannot do
so when professional standards are compromised. But this would be even truer,
if on the one hand individuals were forced to work badly, and in increasingly
intense ways, while on the other this reality was covered up in corporate and more
general social representations. The decisive role played by the recognition of the
subjects investment in the task for the fate of the suffering it provokes provides
the theoretical basis for this claim.
For Dejours, the massive invisibilisation of suffering, in particular of the
physical and mental suffering sustained through intensification, and of the suffer-
ing incurred through the contradiction between the reality and the representation
of work, is the root of contemporary social suffering, well beyond workplaces.
The structural impossibility for suffering occurring in contemporary workplaces
to express itself reverberates throughout society.

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Deranty Work and the Precarisation of Existence 459

A crucial aggravating factor is the demise of work collectives. Of course, we

find here once more an essential tenet in comparable sociological accounts. It is
for example an important argument in Castels description of neoliberal soceity.
The welfare state compromise that was organized around large collectives in
discussion over the organization of the social compromise, by anchoring the indi-
vidual in strong supportive networks not only ensured that all (employed) indi-
viduals would find an institutional defence of their economic and social interests,
but also provided a social and cultural frame for their existence. This was in a
sense the historical realization of the Hegelian corporation as the place ensuring
the well-being of the individual, and, on the basis of this basic social insurance,
his or her ethical life (Hegel, 1991: 272). These supporting networks have come
under sustained attack in the neoliberal model. The individual now faces her
future on her own. The weakening and demise of social collectives organized at
the time of the wage society, which were structurally linked to the work status,
coincides intimately with the demise of utopian collectivist representations.
Dejours adds to this broad historical reconstruction an insight that arises with
the specific demand for recognition that is attached to the experience of work.
In this case, the work collective matters not just because it provides a special form
of sociality, but much more specifically because it is the only group that can
provide true, professional recognition of the work. In the post-Fordist workplace,
this type of recognition is no longer ensured; indeed the conditions for true
recognition have been systematically eroded as being counter-productive. The
collectives have disappeared with the shift to project-based production. The peers
are now individuals in competition. Individual rating of performance is radically
different in terms of its subjective effects from the actual recognition through the
collective of peers (Dejours, 2003b). The demise of intersubjective recognition
means an increased difficulty for individuals to transform the burden of work
into a sublimating experience. Only a few privileged workers who can still organize
their own time and define their own tasks can continue to thrive, and indeed even
for them flexibilization has its cost. For the others, work remains a toil, as it always
was, but the conditions that allowed for it to be sublimated and transformed have
been taken away.
The demise of professional collectives is replicated at the general social, cultural
and political levels, outside the workplace. All the social and political forces that
could make public the suffering in the work place have been put on the defen-
sive with the hegemony of economistic representations of work and society. This
amounts to a general social denial of the reality and extent of suffering caused
by work. This social denial creeps into individual consciousness and becomes a
structuring factor in individual subjective life itself. In other words, suffering
becomes simultaneously invisible at all levels: in general social discourse, in the
discourse produced by organizations, down to the very intimacy of the suffering
subject. As a result the experience of suffering becomes unsayable, and for the
subject a forbidden thought. In countries with high unemployment (Dejours,
1998), those who continue to have a job are not allowed to complain about their
work, which impacts directly on their ability to represent their own suffering to

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460 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)

themselves. In countries with low unemployment, where employment has been

bought at the cost of major flexibilization of the labour market, the fear of losing
ones job remains just as real (Uchitelle, 2007). We can note in passing that the
fear of unemployment, or more simply the fear of losing ones job, two types of
fear that are well documented beyond the psychodynamics of work, are strong
evidence of the structuring significance of work for personal identity. But the
point here is more specific: the fear attached to the insecurities surrounding ones
job are according to Dejours a powerful factor in the denial of suffering caused
by work in others and in oneself. In countries with high unemployment, the real
tragedy is supposed to be unemployment, which has led to a gradual disinterest
on the part of trade unions, political parties and the general public in issues relating
to working conditions. In countries with flexibilized labour markets, suffering is
just as unsayable since one supposedly always has the possibility of changing
jobs. In both cases, the attitude of management, of the general public, but also
of individuals themselves in relation to their own anxiety is that one should put
up and get on with it
What is crucial here, from Dejours psychological perspective, is not so much
the harm done to a normative principle, as the impact of that injustice on the
psychic economy: the inability to say the suffering, even to oneself, contributes
directly to the emergence and increase in pathologies.
This is the point where the psychological and the sociological reinforce each
other directly. From a metapsychological perspective, the precarisation of exist-
ence, the sense of increased existential insecurity and fear, can be dealt with by
subjects only if they develop defence strategies, in particular if they close them-
selves off from their own and the others suffering. For Dejours (1998), suffer-
ing becomes invisible, not just because it has become invisible in the general
public discourse, because it disappears from collective vocabularies and represen-
tations, but also, more simply and more tragically, because it is banalised. In
other words, suffering becomes an acceptable reality of present society, or even
a reality for which some good justification can be found. Basically, the conditions
of the contemporary economic world require that everyone be ready to accept
to suffer through their work, to witness the suffering of others, and as the case
may be, to make others suffer.
Such a banalisation of suffering creates the conditions for the emergence of
a perverse circle. The acceptance of fear as a necessary affect of the new social
conditions, needs to be compensated for by subjects in order to allow them to
continue to function. This occurs through the silencing of moral sense. The pre-
carisation of identity at the most intimate level (mainly through the new experi-
ence of work) makes individuals incapable of feeling compassion for the others
suffering. Accordingly, the waning of social outcry and political mobilization to
denounce and attempt to address the consequences of the new social-economic
model constitutes both a cause and an effect of the individual precarisation of
existence. The weakness of counter-discourses challenging the economistic mantra,
the weakening of the social and political forces concretely helping individuals
and maintaining an effective solidarity at work and around the question of work,
are direct contributing factors in the increased sense of precariousness, and the

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Deranty Work and the Precarisation of Existence 461

suffering it represents. At the same time, however, the psychological effect of this
precarisation encourages subjects to individualize and insulate their own experi-
ence, and thus to close themselves off from narratives and practices of solidarity
and contestation.
At the broad social-cultural level, economic rationalism, with its blunt accep-
tance of suffering and sacrifice for a great part of the population, replaces
discourses of solidarity and individual defences. It becomes naive in this context
not to accept the suffering of others, indeed ones own suffering. Fear becomes
an irreducible element that is explicitly formulated as such, and is fully accepted,
is factored in in the new social contract. This is the fear of the individual towards
everyone else since they all are now competitors engaged in the same state of
nature. This is also the fear of maintaining ones position, ones status, etc. Fear,
instilling fear, making individuals fearful of their future, is a fundamental element
of the neoliberal discourse, and an important tool for modern, post-Fordist
management (Dejours, 2000: 13855). It represents not just an instrument used
in work places to increase productivity by leveraging individual performance and
destroying work collectives. More deeply, the strategic use of fear produces a
counter-narrative that reinforces the circle of the destruction of hope, that is, the
vicious circle whereby social and individual hope feed off each others destructions.
Neoliberal discourse is thus caught in a contradiction of its own making
between its utopian vision of the fully autonomous, self-realized individual and
the reality of its politics of fear (Browne, 2006). The way out for it lies in concepts
like that of the aspirational classes, or in arguments such as: the political battle
ground is in the middle classes. One accepted sociological premise in these repre-
sentations is that some will have to be sacrificed, that a whole class of individuals
must be abandoned to their own fate, for the economic order (identified with
society) to maintain itself. The premise becomes acceptable for the majority if to
the necessity that some be sacrificed is added the other premise: but it wont be
you . . . unless you dont adapt. This makes fear acceptable: you only have to fear
if you resist, if you dont adapt. The new social hope is therefore the hope of
not being one of the sacrificed. The new social hope is for strictly individual
salvation. This explains the sociological fact that could appear puzzling, that
people are fully aware that society has become more unfair, but do not object to
it. It is simply that they believe it is not unfair to them, or that if they admit to
it, they will already have given signs that they have not adapted, that they are
part of the sacrificed.


1 See the special issue on recognition in the journal published in Dejours institute: La
Reconnaissance, Travailler 18(2), 2007, in particular the article by Renault (2007),
which highlights the main points of overlap and dissension between Dejours and
Honneths theories of recognition.
2 See also the latest report he has convened, on the contemporary work experiences in
France for the Violence, Health, Work Commission (Dejours, 2007b).

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462 European Journal of Social Theory 11(4)


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Jean-Philippe Deranty is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie Univer-

sity (Sydney). He has published a number of articles and edited collections in French
and German philosophy, particularly in critical theory. His latest publications include
Recognition, Work, Politics: New Directions in French Critical Theory (Brill, 2007).
He is currently finishing a manuscript on Axel Honneths theory of recognition.
Address: Philosophy, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Australia. [email: jderanty@]

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