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
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