Sub-theme 18: Enlightenment, Freedom and Work in the 21st Century

Dirk Lindebaum
Cardiff University Business School, United Kingdom
Lynne Andersson
Fox School of Business, Temple University, USA
Frank den Hond
Hanken School of Economics, Finland

Call for Papers

For Kant, Enlightenment refers to “man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”, immaturity being defined as “the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another” (Kant, 1996, p. 58, italics added for emphasis). The emphasis in the preceding quote serves to problematize what the proposed sub-theme seeks to examine, namely, the relationship between an enlightened existence and freedom in the context of work in the 21st century. In other words, can there be freedom if individuals or groups cannot develop that understanding to ‘see through’ power relations (Connerton, 1976) without the guidance of others? To extend the question further, can there be freedom if others actively inhibit individuals or groups from developing their own understanding, or if individuals or groups are too afraid to develop it, when they ‘fear’ freedom (Fromm, 1941/2011)? An attempt to answer the question imposes the need to engage more closely with what freedom is, who defines it, and what the consequences of this are for those who define it, and for those who have their freedom defined by others.
For the proposed subtheme, we draw on the work of Isaiah Berlin (1969/1999) and his dual concepts of negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom, “the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men” (p. 23), implies the absence of obstacles or constraints, and involves a concern about how individuals suffer through state (or organisational) interference. Thus, it focuses on external factors that affect the autonomy of individuals and groups. Positive freedom, “the freedom which consists in being one's own master” (p. 23), in turn, relates to the possibility of acting; taking control of one’s life and realising one’s goals and purposes. Although Berlin valued negative freedom more than positive freedom, these two concepts are not merely distinct for him; they are antithetical and represent incompatible interpretation of one single political ideal.
The dualism implied in Berlin’s works has several implications for organisational theory and practise. The dualistic assertion that it is either one or the other, while theoretically/ideologically neat, may be practically problematic. The reason for this is rooted in the fact that positive freedom is sometimes needed to challenge and break up immoral social orders that are sustained by self-interests of individual or groups at the expense of universal moral standards that serves the interest of society at large (see, for example, Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men”, Lindebaum & Gabriel, 2016). By contrast, limits to negative freedom are needed to curb excessive individual self-determination, especially in economic terms (Fleming, 2017), that may lead to collapse of the moral fabric of society, and by implication, any conception of the greater good that helps sustain society and organisations. What these observations afford is a push from the ideological and dualistic trenches on the topic of freedom, toward a recognition of the function (Wright, 1973) that each kind of freedom, in best dialect tradition, can exercise to both sustain and challenge organisation.
Berlin’s (1969/1999) work on freedom must be considered in light of an overarching ideological system governing contemporary work and organisation, namely, neoliberal capitalism. At its core, neoliberalism is a way of understanding the world that espouses positive freedom; a freedom, nonetheless, that manifests itself most distinctly in terms of (illusion of) consumption choices and the liberation of money and entrepreneurship from social contexts and obligations (Harvey, 2005). Despite its surface promise of individual freedom, neoliberalism in practice has fundamentally restricted human behavior and emotion and commodified social relations (Lindebaum, 2017). Thus, the free market ideology of neoliberalism does not appear to make workers free, in any sense. Instead, corporations have been described as a ‘private government’, tyrannizing workers into submission, especially those who are lower-skilled and easily replaced (Anderson, 2017). Workers’ employment relationships today are characterized by disempowerment, fear, and insecurity (Fleming, 2017). Even those fortunate enough to possess autonomy instead internalize the language, beliefs and values of employers and elites. That is, they willingly secure the clasp of the ‘invisible handcuffs’ (Perelman, 2011) and sacrifice themselves to the requisite discipline of the market.
It is against this background, and irrespective of theoretical or methodological traditions, that we invite submissions that address a range of indicative but not exhaustive questions:

  • How is freedom defined for and by workers in the 21st century? How have Enlightenment values contributed to contemporary conceptions of worker freedom?

  • How do Berlin’s concepts of positive and negative freedom play out in the contemporary workplace? What are the functions of each of these types of freedom for organisations and workers?

  • What are some of the specific impediments to worker freedom in the 21st century (e.g., electronic surveillance, on-demand scheduling, wage theft, anti-unionization tactics, gig work, employment-at-will, non-compete agreements, etc.), and how does management utilize these tactics to suppress or worker freedom? What are the consequences of these tactics on workers and corporations (e.g., worker health and dignity)?

  • What are some of the newer or more novel ways that employers are restricting employee freedom?

  • How and why do workers internalize neoliberal values that suppress their freedom?

  • Are there varying degrees of employee freedom, from modern slavery (Crane, 2013) to the precarious work arrangements of the ‘precariat class’ (Standing, 2011)?

  • Can workers resist or escape from the neoliberal mindset (Fleming, 2014) and become more “free”?

  • What is the relationship between how freedom is defined, and for what purpose we find ourselves arranged in the pursuit of the goals, common or otherwise (Holt & den Hond, 2013)?



  • Anderson, E. (2017): Private Government How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Princeton , NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Berlin, I. (1969/1999): “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In: N. Warburton (ed.): Philosophy: Basic Readings. London: Routledge, 159–170.
  • Connerton, P. (1976): Critical Sociology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Fleming, P. (2017): “The Human Capital Hoax: Work, Debt and Insecurity in the Era of Uberization.” Organization Studies, 38, 691–709.
  • Fromm, E. (1941/2011): Escape from Freedom. New York: Ishi Press.
  • Harvey, D. (2005): A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Holt, R., & den Hond, F. (2013): “Sapere Aude.” Organization Studies, 34, 1587–1600.
  • Kant, I. (1996): “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” In: J. Schmidt (ed.): What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions. Oakland: University of California Press, 58–64.
  • Lindebaum, D. (2017): Emancipation through Emotion Regulation at Work. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
  • Lindebaum, D., & Gabriel, Y. (2016): “Anger and Organization Studies – From Social Disorder to Moral Order.” Organization Studies, 37, 903–918.
  • Perelman, M. (2011): The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism. How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Wright, L. (1973): “Functions.” Philosophical Review, 82, 139–168.
Dirk Lindebaum is a Professor in Organisation & Management at Cardiff Business School, UK His main preoccupation revolves around the mechanisms and tools that affect how freedom is experienced and exercised amongst individuals within and around organisations. This focus informed recent works on emotional emancipation at work and the performative implications of technology at work, especially in terms of organisational neuroscience. For further information, see
Lynne Andersson is an Associate Professor in Human Resources Management at Fox School of Business, Temple University, USA. Her research focuses on the dark side of business organizations. In particular, she has been examining some social maladies that are arguably associated with late capitalism (e.g., corruption, cynicism, incivility, and detrimental philanthrocapitalism) as well as the role of social activism in countering capitalist barriers to sustainability.
Frank den Hond is the Ehrnrooth Professor in Management and Organization at Hanken School of Economics, Finland, and past Editor-in-Chief of ‘Organization Studies’ (2013–2017). His research interests are at the intersection of business in society, institutional organization theory, and social movement studies, and he recently developed interests in partial organization and business ethics.