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The Human Condition (3): Labour

In the twentieth century, the work of Karl Marx produced sharply divided opinions – in part from a scepticism directed towards the Marxist states, such as the Soviet Union. Hannah Arendt criticises Marx, but does not dismiss his work in its entirety. Although Arendt is vehemently against totalitarianism (and, in fact, produced some of the best studies on the subject), Marx’ work contained thoughts and ideas that remain relevant.

Following Marx in part, Arendt distinguishes between labour and work, the latter (which we will look at next week) being the means in which things with a degree of permanence are created, while the former being primarily concerned with the maintenance of life. In her terminology, labour is concerned with the meeting of needs that occur from necessity. There is thus a cycle associated with labour: necessity creates needs, labour provides what meets these needs, the products of labour are consumed – thus restoring the original necessity. This cycle repeats indefinitely: there is no de facto escape from labour in life.

Labouring, in Arendt’s view, “leaves nothing behind… the result of its effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort spent”. The endless repeating of the labour cycle implies a certain futility, but Arendt stresses that the labouring is still “born of a great urgency and motivated by a more powerful drive than anything else, because life itself depends upon it.” She refers to humanity as a labouring creature as animal laborans, stressing the point that in the context of labour we are an animal like any other, as all animals must labour in order to live. (This term is to be contrasted with humanity as a worker i.e. as the creator of things, which she terms homo faber). 

Marx’s vision, in Arendt’s view, was to recreate ancient Athens, but with machinery replacing slaves. The criticism she raises in this regard is that Marx (like other thinkers in the workers’ movement) presumed that free time would eventually emancipate men from the necessities of labour, thus automatically nourishing “higher” activities. A century after Marx, Arendt observes the fallacy of this assumption: “the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving his appetites.” Instead of being freed from labour and consumption, the process of consumption is instead expanded from necessities and into luxuries.

Arendt thus raises a complaint aimed directly at the consumer society, claiming that – since labour and consumption are part of the same process – the consumer society is synonymous with a society of labourers. She notes: “the emancipation of labour and the concomitant emancipation of the labouring classes from oppression and exploitation certainly meant progress in the direction of non-violence. It is much less certain that is was also progress in the direction of freedom.” 

The transforming point in history in this regard was the industrial revolution, at which point people ceased to be the measure of how labour would be conducted, and rather it was the remorseless machinery of the factory which set the pace. Indeed, Arendt notes that the reduction of working hours in the twentieth century was merely a belated push back towards normality – prior to the industrial revolution, it seems people only worked approximately half of the year!

Arendt’s central criticism in respect to labour is the idea what we live in “a labour society which lacks enough labouring to keep it contented.” She suggest that “the universal demand for happiness and the widespread unhappiness in our society… are but two sides of the same coin.” The central sign that this is the case is the extent to which modern economies have become “a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared.” Thus, she questions the organisation of all modern economic activity, and challenges us to consider our relationship with the related activities of consumption and labour. 

Next week: Work


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I wonder if its so easy to define "labour" and "work". Most definitions, especially by communists / Marxists, have failed to capture the essence of human nature. Humans are inherently unequal. Thats what us "human" I guess... we are more than clones and each has a full blown unique world view. Most theories on human nature, economics and sociology tend to ignore this fact and try to put human beings into classes. But humans simply refuse to be classified. When it comes to labour and work each has his own definitions of whats productive, satisfying and worth pursuing. I know people in the US who are very happy working in normal jobs, 9AM to 5PM and coming home and spending time with their families etc... and others who are upto all kinds of crazy things -risk takers who experiment all the time and slog it out. So who is "labouring" and who is "working" ? I think in this age the lines are blurred.

Incidentally there are many in my country who refuse all offers to be employed gainfully elsewhere but insist that old mills, where they once worked as slaves for decades be reopened so that they can, in their words, get "stable and secure employment for themselves and their children" !!!! Try explaining that !!

But Arendt has an important point: Are humans losing their identity and becoming nothing but consumers, a mere statistic on someone's spreadsheet?

Sanjit: It's very easy to define "labour" and "work" - one just creates a definition. :) That doesn't mean that it's the only definition, of course, but in this book Arendt is developing a particular set of definitions in order to explore various issues. Therefore, how she chooses to define these terms is less important than what she does once they are thus defined.

In Arendt's terms, if you are making something that lasts, you are working. If you are making something that is consumed, you are labouring. Although these terms don't match up to how these terms are usually used, I find it an interesting perspective all the same.

What I find particularly interesting are the borderline cases: is making a film (or a game) "work" or "labour" in Arendt's terms? It comes down to how the film or game is used, perhaps. Something which is 'merely' entertainment (Hollywood blockbusters, sitcoms, Halo et al) would be labour - the end product is consumed and ultimately forgotten. But something with lasting artistic value (Casablanca or Seven Samurai etc.) would be the product of work. Of course, the odd thing here is that Casablanca was made as entertainment, and only became art after the fact. Perhaps the distinction is only available to future generations in hindsight. :)

As you say, this issue about people being reduced to mere consumers is at the heart of what is being explored in this book. It will come into even greater focus when we get to the last of her definitions, that of action, in two weeks time.

Thanks for the comment!

I sympathize with the difficulty of accepting Arendt's definitions. As a mother twice over, it is almost impossible to consider the word "labour" to mean a process whereby only consumables are created. I suppose if you want to consider the whole Elton-Johnian "Circle of Life" thing, you could consider a human being to be a consumable, but it can also bring up all kinds of uncomfortable images of Anthony Hopkins discussing the best side dishes to go with liver.

One also wonders the extent to which Arendt's cultural language issues are at work (no pun intended). In her native German, the word "werk" is entirely to do with factory work, while "arbeit" is used as the general term for both labour and work in the way that those words would generally be used by English language speakers. There are, of course, several dozens of words in German for everything from industry to job to trade to profession, all of which undoubtedly have shades of meaning. Regardless of the way in which she frames her philosophy, it is difficult to accept that Arendt is simply pulling definitions out of thin air without being affected by her concept of language. I am equally convinced that the German notion of "work" and its associations with produced goods is at work here (Okay, I meant to do it that time.).

At any rate, more to the point of the larger discussion, after last week's posts on happiness, I went back and reread Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" and am looking forward to hearing what Arendt has to say regarding the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of labour and work.

Fascinating separation of those two terms. I do think she's reaching for something important. For example, I find I often struggle to linguistically distinguish work-for-survival (what she calls "labor") from creating-things-I-like (making music, or a table in my woodshop, or writing a blog post). I think that distinction is sort of what she's getting at, partly because personal works that make you feel good were usually permanent and not "consumed" back when she was writing.

What an enjoyable language game! :) Very interesting--busy day at work (ironically) but I'm glad I took time out now to read this. I know I've posted this sort of rumination on your blog before Chris, but I've often found difficulty with constructing identity mostly within this paradigm of the producer/consumer. For a while, self-identifying on the side of being an artist, which is to say a producer rather than just as a consumer, I was happy... but then while traveling, I re-evaluated my sense of worth if removed from artistic/intellectual "output"--could I be happy, even if I didn't draw or paint or write anything worthwhile? While my Catholic faith does go far in helping create a perspective on the world that is largely free of the related paradigmatic issues in many respects, it's difficult in such a secularized mainstream society... since as we all know, we perceive and define ourselves in relation with other people.
Anyhow, she's right in that much of society seems to operate on either side of this coin, and we glamorize and idolize the people that have been able to crawl over to the side of the coin that we think best, when maybe we should be thinking about whether this coin is really all there is to things after all :) I've come to an understanding of value and worth, both personally and in evaluations of others, that need not depend so much on such production or consumption.

Now, if only my friends and I had anything else to do with our time other than consume alcohol, food, entertainment programming and gaming! :)

Interesting comments... I personally don't find Arendt's definitions to be difficult to accept; the overloading of terms such as 'labour' and 'work' with other meanings is part and parcel of how English functions - we manage to handle such distinctions in words with multiple meanings on a daily basis - consider the numerous meanings of 'left' and 'right', not all of which are clearly distingushed by context.

It is quite likely, as TT suggests, that Arendt's native German is a factor here - translucy might be able to shed some light on this...

On the separation of labour/consumption versus labour/giving birth, I am reminded of my old boss, Angela Sutherland, and her hatred of the word 'theatre' after having kids. :) (In the UK, 'theatre' being where operations and births take place).

Darius' split between work-for-survival and creating-things-I-like strikes me as very much the distinction Arendt is getting at. We will probably have a clearer position on this after we look at Work next week, of course.

Jack: what you allude to here regarding your identity as a Catholic interests me, as the secularisation of the West makes it difficult to apply this identity in everyday life. I worry, to some extent, at the billions of "invisible Christians", who willingly conceal their religious identity because the rise of the secular society makes it practically an impoliteness to discuss such matters openly (yet, oddly, seems to invite the blanket criticisms against religion from the "New Atheists" which are not secular, per se, but rather "anti-sacred").

Such people still hold onto their Christian identity, I'm pleased to say, they just don't want to come forward with it because to do so feels almost necessarily like being associated with religious extremism - the public face of religion thanks to the media's lens effect. As ever, moderates are the invisible majority.

But this, alas, is rather tangential to the question of labour. :)

I would dare to suggest, however, that while regular participation in Church services is a form of labour (nothing remains after the consumption but the memory of the experience), the *community* that results from this participation is a form of the product of work, in that it has some degree of permanence. This is a massive stretch from Arendt's meaning, however. :)

Have you read Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age"? I have it on the back end of my reading list, and knowing you had read his "Ethics of Authenticity", I wondered if you might be ahead of me? ;)

Best wishes!

"I worry, to some extent, at the billions of "invisible Christians", who willingly conceal their religious identity"

Billions? Seems excessive! You're not that much of a persecuted tribe, Chris :D

As to the post, I'm not sure if Arendt's definitions are valid, or at least are on the way out. Let me explain: in two types of culture (with which I am familiar), all things in life are considered of one purpose. The first type is the ancient model of the freeholding, where all in life connects and moves towards an end - that being hand over to the next generation. Nothing is just 'work' or just 'labour' because to create distinctions for why the task is done must miss some of the why.
Admittedly not many people live like this anymore, but it bears on the second culture type.

The second culture type is a rather newer one, maybe only one generation old. Here I'm talking about myself and my peers, and its not universal either - but it will be. I can't speak to older generations but I can't see the same patterns there.
There is no idea of labour value in my generation - the working of the great machine has become transparent, and as it goes nowhere it has no motivating quality. Capital exists to consume itself, and the only thing of value is information. So the only marker of value is the nature of the self. Thus effort is expended to serve the self - life style is all. This includes the marketing term 'lifestyle', with aesthetically attractive kettles etc. But it goes all the way to the value of the person as well. Education is paramount - unfortunately it is based on antiquated models, but that can't be helped for now. Essentially, a sort of self-realisation has come about - traditional modes of effort are in-valuable. It affects different people different ways, some are struck by 'life-apathy', some become hyperactive in the search for meaning. But we all face the singular meaning of all effort. Work or play, labour or art is all valuable only as expressions of identity. We are no longer freeholding, we are self-holding.

If you can see the comparison with the freeholding culture, my post is successful!
If not, well I've run out of time :(

The random letters in the bot-checker when I posted just there spelled "truzdf"...tru zduf...tru stuf...
True Stuff

Immodestly serendipitous :D

Chris--good comments. I've not read Taylor's "A Secular Age," but I'd certainly be up for it. He's a clear and concise writer... here comes a trip over to

zenBen: I did of course mean *millions*. There are 2.1 billion Christians, so "billions" would certainly be overstating! :) As for it being my tribe, I wish to reiterate the point that I have five religions. Christianity may have been my sole childhood religion, but it is only a part of my religious identity now. As indicated by the half a dozen readers (probably Christian) who I have lost this month, I'm in a very different belief space to most Christians these days...

Now, onto your actual substance. :)

"There is no idea of labour value in my generation"

Neither was there in the population at large during or after Marx's time, but it was still there. Make no mistake: whatever "your generation" (whomever that might be!) think, employers still very much have an idea of labour value. The vast majority of jobs are still based around labour (physical or mental) and I don't see this changing any time soon.

"So the only marker of value is the nature of the self. Thus effort is expended to serve the self - life style is all."

Okay, here we are in Charles Taylors "Ethics of Authenticity" territory again. :) I recognise what is being referred to here, but it doesn't (I contend) escape Arendt's paradigm.

"This includes the marketing term 'lifestyle', with aesthetically attractive kettles etc."

Indeed, here is the consumer society element again. Just a few generations back, a kettle could be expected to last for life, or indeed beyond. But now, a kettle is a consumable - the lifestyle-compatible kettle that matches your decor is highly symbolic of this. The kettle is a consumable, it is a product of labour (in Arendt's terms), although it may also be the product of work (more on this next week).

How many kettles have you owned or lived with in your life? How many more will you encounter as you move from house to house, consuming more and more products to maintain your lifestyle? (By 'you' in this case I mean 'one', of course - I don't believe you have an especial appetite for kettles!)

"Work or play, labour or art is all valuable only as expressions of identity. We are no longer freeholding, we are self-holding."

How is the cashier, the shelf stacker, the burger flipper, the street cleaner, the telesales operator or the factory line worker enjoying the expression of their identity? Your vision is lovely, but it seems to me the fantasy of the over-educated - the minority with the capacity to choose their destiny to some, perhaps illusory, extent. To the majority, no such choice is available. To the majority, they are paid money for their time spent in labour.

And even with the educated minority, it is not enough. Witness the situation in Italy where so many people are University-educated that there are not enough jobs for doctors and so forth - so you have people trained for some "big ticket" profession only to end up selling their labour power to make ends meet because there are dozens of qualified people competing for the same job position.

Your comparison between freeholding and self-holding intrigues me, but it also suggests a selfishness that perhaps is inherent in this idea. If the freeholders worked the fields (laboured) and made the world they lived in (worked) in order to pass the baton to the next generation, then what does it say of the modern world that we consider only ourselves in the formation of our identities?

Thought provoking comment - many thanks! I apologise for springboarding into tangentia from it, but I'm guessing you're used to it. :)

I contend that what I refer to is a continuing trend, demarked by the leading edge of the educated and the choice-rich, to be sure, but always spreading.
Labour as the value metric of jobs grows less and less - even shelf-stackers are more valued for their personalities than anything else, since computerised stock-control systems remove any responsibility or need for applied thought in their jobs. It is the spread of the service society, production and consumption as self-perpetuating whole. Of course there are still 1st and 2nd order production jobs left, but they're disappearing everywhere we look.
The reason for that is technological advance - now if there's one thing that we can rely on, its the acceleration of technology. Why believe the rate of change, will change?

Chris, when I first read the table of contents of the English edition (which was published before the German one, right?) I was indeed surprised: the German terms are "Arbeit", "Herstellen", "Handeln" - the translation "Labour = Arbeit" works fine for me, "Act = Handeln" as well, yet "Herstellen" in the context Arendt is referring to is much closer to either "Produce" (if you follow orders while producing) or even to "Create" (if you are the originator of the design and the work process). But the state of "being the originator" is not so easy to distinguish from "being the speaker/actor"... ;)

I think one way to look at Arendt's categories is to consider them "poles of attraction" in a continuum rather than distinct or even mutually exclusive states of being.

zenBen: I admire your optimism here, and it will certainly be interesting to see how current trends resolve. While I value the new focus on identity in Western societies, I struggle with claims such as "even shelf-stackers are more valued for their personalities than anything else"... I just don't see this, personally. Anyone else read this far in the comments and care to share their point-of-view? :)

translucy: thanks for the perspective here. I suspect one of the reason 'work' was chosen over alternative terms in English was to preserve (or utilise) idiomatic phrases such as "the work of our hands".

Like you, I don't think we should see Arendt's terminology as defining boxes, per se, so much as expressing related and overlapping concepts. Actually, I think this is a valid claim for language in general.

The value of a terminological system such as the one in "The Human Condition" is that by laying down a particular map, one can examine the territory from a given perspective which is often quite disimilar to how one would usually examine a situation.

Best wishes!

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