Deqah Hussein-Wetzel | Axel Honneth and the Democratization of the Workplace

By Deqah Hussein-Wetzel


When reading Axel Honneth’s March 2024 Mexico City lecture, Democratic Citizenship: A political-philosophical account, I immediately began to think of the linkage between coöperism and democratic citizenship and, separately, coöperism and fair labor conditions. It wasn’t, however, until page nine, that Honneth began a line of thought regarding democratic cooperation. In leadup to this, Honneth suggested that there are “five facets” that must be met in order for democratic participation to be possible within the workplace; “economic, temporal, psychological, social and intellectual, in that order.”[1] These five facets were not just used to explain what is needed to be an “effective democratic participant” or a good “democratic citizen,” but prompted heuristic questions to better understand what preconditions must be met to systematically engender democratic citizenship.

In an effort to explicate these points further, I will begin by reflecting on Honneth’s mention of Hegel and other contemporary theorists who, like early philosophers, have long overlooked the linkage between fair labor and its democratization within institutional structures. By drawing from Adam Smith’s Philosophy of the Right chapter in his book, Wealth of Nations, Honneth offers historical reflective accounts of how labor conditions have been philosophized and further connects them to Hegel’s notion that “functional democracy and fair working conditions stand in a necessary and complementary relationship.”[2] In order to ensure this functional democracy, however, there is an inherent need to make the workplace a safe environment for the collective psyche. In other words, if people are to participate in “collective political decision making”, then certain conditions must be met to encourage feelings of self-confidence and prevent feelings of shame and fear.

From Democratization to Cooperation

Because early and contemporary literature focused their analysis on fair labor conditions without seriously considering how democratic rights plays into the shared ethos, Honneth instead shifts the conversation towards notions of equality, or what John Rawls’ refers to as “fair value” in the labor market. Here, he pokes at the idea of a “minimum wage”, but is specifically pushing back on the normative principles of equality and empowerment that Rawls and Habermas share to assert his [Honneth’s] larger claim that contemporary discourse should not ignore the power that labor conditions have on the democratic decision-making process.[3]  This is where Honneth starts to weave in the “five facets,” which he believes are necessary “if subjects are to engage freely in practices of public decision-making, as the idea of democratic sovereignty demands.”[4] Needless to say, I found Honneth’s breakdown quite helpful in thinking more critically about how cooperation operates within labor spheres.

At the core of his lecture, Honneth puts a lot of stock on the idea that positive working conditions are an integral part of the cooperative model, and thus focuses much of the lecture conveying why and how the workplace should empower workers. For the purposes of this blog post, I would like to narrow the breadth of Honneth’s lecture to focus on where coöperism fits into his labor democratization framework. Because coöperism is a theory that emphasizes worker ownership through a democratized system, workers must have a say in decision-making processes if they are to exercise their political and civic rights collectively. Similarly, Honneth’s regard for economic independence speaks to the cooperistic practice of distribution (or redistribution) of economic gain that must be shared democratically. To Honneth’s point, sharing profits among all members of a cooperative is an example of democratic participation. Within frameworks where members of a labor cooperative directly support the economic conditions of the whole, members of these groups therefore function as democratic citizens.

Honneth identifies having sufficient free time as another condition necessary for democracy, namely because overworked citizens cannot meaningfully participate in participatory decision-making. Similar to labor unions, cooperatives also address this by advocating for fair work hours, adequate sick leave benefits, and sufficient vacation time. While I agree with Honneth’s argument that working hours must be limited if workers are “to have time both for leisure and to involve themselves in the political sphere,” I question…what would entice workplaces to accommodate such benefits for laborers? How could these theories of leisure and happiness be used to improve capitalist labor systems? Can shorter workdays, higher wages, and other shared methods of labor improvement actually begin to change attitudes in the workplace? And, if so, how can this inspire democratic cooperation?

In many ways, I can link the questions above to another precondition that Honneth explores—that social recognition and self-respect are essential for individuals to value and engage in democratic processes. Again, I wonder…what it would take for any given workplace to help balance an employee’s mental load by creating pathways for self-actualization? I do realize that what Honneth is suggesting goes a step further than simply stating agency, intentionality, and purpose as necessary components of democratic cooperation. He recognizes that these forms of cooperation need to be “developed at the workplace.”[5] I connect this to the larger belief in cooperation as a form of collective action that would not be possible without democratic decision-making.


Even though I do not have all–or maybe any of the answers—I hope to ask Honneth some of the questions I posed above in our upcoming 13/13 lecture. Axel Honneth’s Mexico City lecture provides a compelling philosophical foundation for rethinking the relationship between labor and democracy. His philosophical exploration of labor and democratic citizenship provides a valuable framework for considering how cooperatives can enhance democratic life. By ensuring economic independence, engaging workers intellectually and psychologically, recognizing their social contributions, allowing time for civic participation, and practicing democracy within the workplace, cooperatives embody and advance the ideals that Honneth lauds. Thus, coöperism not only aligns with but actively supports the philosophical vision of a society where the conditions of labor are conducive to active democratic participation.

By integrating the principles of coöperism, this blog post points to how cooperative structures can significantly advance the realization of democratic citizenship as envisioned by Honneth. Such cooperative models not only respond to the normative challenges posed by modern labor conditions, they also offer a practical framework for fostering democratic virtues among workers. By placing value on the workers and their environments, a worker-centric approach contributes to increased overall health and promote democratic citizenship in the workplace.

I hope that in his 13/13 lecture, Honneth can respond to my inquiry on contemporary thought around democratizing the workplace. I want to see him further explore the relationship between labor and democratic citizenship and push back against the historical philosophical perspectives on labor (as derived from thinkers like Karl Marx). Here, I am specifically concerned with how contemporary thinkers can find ways to help workers actually achieve economic independence and receive intellectual and psychological support within the workplace. Having read both Honneth’s Mexico City lecture and the transcribed excerpt in the Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, I can see how coöperism aligns with and actively supports the philosophical vision of a society where the conditions of labor are conducive to democratic participation, but I am left unsure what this can look like beyond theory. In what reality can Honneth’s philosophical ideas exist? Can democratic participation indeed lend itself to improved forms of cooperation, and if so, how exactly can these preconditions be met within capitalistic labor markets? Although I recognize that I may have to pose these questions to the Honneth myself, I think he would be remiss to not touch upon democratic citizenship in praxis in his lecture.


Honneth, Axel. Lecture on ‘Democratic Citizenship: A political-philosophical’. ” Mexico City, Mexico, March 11, 2024.

Honneth, Axel. Excerpt from Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, Vol. 97, 2, 2022: 149 – 167


[1] Axel Honneth, Democratic Citizenship: A political-philosophical account [lecture]. Mexico City, Mexico, March 11, 2024, 8.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 6.

[4] Ibid, 8.

[5] Ibid, 10.