Hannah Arendt, Labour, and the Maintenance of the Self

Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition is a fecund text. What it lacks in internal consistency and clarity of citation it makes up for by providing an easily problematised taxonomy of human activity and the realms in which it takes place. It’s impossible to read it without thinking; even the things it ‘gets wrong’ provides the critical reader with something to productively bounce off. Arendt’s categories are hazy and mobile, but that mobility is what makes them such a useful vocabulary for talking about work.

I want in this post to consider the shift to a consumer society in the middle Twentieth Century. Arendt argues that it accompanied or produced  a constitutive change in the distinction between ‘Labour’ and ‘Work’. In short, Arendt argued that the goals of Work were replaced by the goals of Labour. I want to step through the idea that by the early Twenty-first Century, Arendt’s “Labourers’ Society” had continued to swell, colonising her third sphere of activity, Action, as well.

A lot of that won’t make sense yet. So before I continue, I had better explain my reading of Arendt’s categorisation. Bear in mind that I’ve read about a third of The Human Condition, which means I’ve read the whole chapter on the Public and the Private, and the whole chapter on Labour – but there’s  a lot more to go.

Earth vs. Nature, Work vs. Labour

Alongside the division of Work and Labour Arendt makes a critical distinction between ‘Earth’ or ‘nature’ (how she refers to it shifts, but she prefers ‘nature’), and ‘the World’. Nature is the ground of the ‘Life Process’ – it is the sphere where humans are at their most animalistic, and, importantly, their most communal. The World is the realm of human creations, which helps to define humans as individuals (with beginnings and ends, or births and deaths), apart from their role in the reproduction of the species (which moves in cycles).

Arendt’s idea is that Labour operates entirely in Nature, while Work is activity that produces the World. Labour is the effort that humans go to to ensure the Life Process, to stave off the effects of growth and decay, or undo the incursions of Nature into the World. Action is all the intersubjective activity that takes place between people: speech and politics. Labour can be thought of as maintenance, Work as fabrication, and Action as interpretation. To reinforce the dichotomy of Nature and World, Arendt uses the terms animal laborens and homo faber to demarcate those who Labour and those who Work.

Metabolism is one of the metaphors Arendt uses to capture Labour’s quality as a task that is essential, neverending, and futile. Labour is always related to growth and decay. It is characterised by necessity and cannot be left unattended. It includes making food and cleaning up waste, but it also involves keeping Nature itself from impinging on the World. Labour’s products are consumed at the same time, or shortly after, they are produced. They do not last in the world. By contrast, the products of Work do last, and they are used in preference to being consumed.

Having founded this typology, Arendt then argues that by the middle of the 20th century – her own time – things had become unmoored. The private sphere of necessity and consumption expanded, metastasised, filling the public sphere like a cuckoo fills another bird’s nest, and Work itself was colonised by Labour:

“The rather uncomfortable truth of the matter is that the triumph the modern world has achieved over necessity is due to the emancipation of labor, that is, to the fact that the animal laborans was permitted to occupy the public realm; and yet, as long as the animal laborans remains in possession of it, there can be no true public realm, but only private activities displayed in the open.” (Human Condition, 133-4.

This change was produced in part by a shift in the disciplines of economics and political science that reclassified all activity on the demand side of the equation as consumption. This process was aided by the tide of automation – as much a concern in the late 1950s as it continues to be now:

“Here the very nature of work is changed and the production process, although it by no means produces objects for consumption, assumes the character of labor. Although machines have forced us into an infinitely quicker rhythm of repetition than the cycle of natural processes prescribed—and this specifically modern acceleration is only too apt to make us disregard the repetitive character of all laboring—the repetition and the endlessness of the process itself put the unmistakable mark of labouring upon it.” (HC, 125)

It’s worth noting that Arendt’s framing of Work and her notion that ‘use’ is opposed to ‘consumption’ is in part pushback against this trend. Along with its reliance on the ancient Greeks, this gives her work its somewhat reactionary character.

I want to turn now to Arendt’s idea of ‘metabolism’. She does not use it simply to signify the operations of the human body. Instead, she uses it, as Marx did, to describe “man’s metabolism with nature [emphasis mine]” (HC, 98). This is important because it refers to a very large aggregation of individual actions that can only be understood metaphorically in relation to biology or natural laws. The shift from use object to consumable is important because it means that permanent objects – like cars, washing machines, and televisions – are also part of a much larger metabolism in which “earning and spending power, which are only modifications of the twofold metabolism of the human body” (HC, 124) – that is, production and consumption. We call this metabolism ‘the consumer economy’:

“In our need for more and more rapid replacement of the worldly things around us, we can no longer afford to use them, to respect and preserve their inherent durability; we must consume, devour, as it were, our houses and furniture and cars as though they were the “good things” of nature which spoil uselessly if they are not drawn swiftly into the never-ending cycle of man’s metabolism with nature. It is as though we had forced open the distinguishing boundaries which protected the world, the human artifice, from nature, the biological process which goes on in its very midst as well as the natural cyclical processes which surround it, delivering and abandoning to them the always threatened stability of a human world.” (HC, 125-6)

For Arendt, the boundary between Labour and Work, Nature and the World, must always be carefully policed and maintained in order to preserve stability in the face of inevitable death and decay. Permanence here is in a Lacanian relation with decay; the impossible but necessary object of human activity. The perversion of Work and its supplanting by Labour means that impermanence and instability break their banks and infect the World. All of a sudden, this is sounding like a prescient critique of contemporary financial insecurity and precarious employment.

Arendt and the Neoliberal Self

That’s the danger of The Human Condition; it’s so fecund that I found myself read all sorts of things into it. It’s important to remember she wrote it in 1957 and 1958, well before the internet and social media. But I feel like the post-internet, post-social media, neoliberal world can be fruitfully read via Arendt, and that’s what I want to turn to now. According to Arendt, the industrial revolution emancipated ‘man’ from necessity but valorised Labour to the point that the production of durable use objects no longer concerns us. I would argue that the rise of the internet, social media, and the neoliberal cult of the self has done the same to Action, which is the realm of the intersubjective and political.

Dardot and Laval argue that neoliberalism turns everything into a market, “realis[ing] an extension of market logic far beyond the strict boundaries of the market, notably by generating an ‘accountable’ subjectivity by systematically creating competition between individuals (Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World, 14).” It’s for this reason we talk about the job ‘market’, or ‘putting oneself back on the market’ in dating. In each case we are expected to present ourselves in the best possible light for a stranger to judge us against all the other strangers they are exposed to, as a potential employee or lover. For Dardot and Laval, neoliberal subjectivity “involves generating a relationship of the individual subject to him- or herself that is homologous to the relationship of capital to itself: very precisely, a relationship of the subject to him- or herself as ‘human capital’ to be indefinitely increased” (NWotW, 15). This is another way of talking about the much-vaunted construction of a ‘personal brand’.

The careful construction of the self for consumption by others on Instagram, Tinder, Medium, or on your CV, could be described in metabolic terms, much like Arendt’s (and Marx’s) framing of ‘man’ in nature. The mindless scrolling or swiping of carefully produced (‘curated’) but disposable output built into most apps feels futile, much like Labour. Or, to quote Arendt: “the endlessness of production can be assured only if its products lose their use character and become more and more objects of consumption, or if, to put it in another way, the rate of use is so tremendously accelerated that the objective difference between use and consumption, between the relative durability of use objects and the swift coming and going of consumer goods, dwindles to insignificance (HC, 125).”

I know Hannah Arendt was not talking about Facebook when she wrote those words, but I do feel like her realm of Action – “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter” and “corresponds to the human condition of plurality” (HC­, 7-8) – has been subsumed by Labour alongside that of Work. The logic (and metabolism) of the market, so totalising in our moment, has not freed us from the endless drudgery of Labour, but has instead re-framed almost everything as necessity, and in doing so, made everything futile.

Arendt opens The Human Condition with the story of Sputnik, which suggests to her a future of emancipation from the earth, and an end to the limits imposed by the earth on the human condition itself. She notes that “men everywhere are by no means slow to catch up and adjust to scientific discoveries and technical developments, but that, on the contrary, they have outsped them by decades (HC, 1).” Fifty-seven years later, in The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber considers the broken technological promises of late Twentieth Century Science Fiction. He also conjures space exploration, recalling being eight at the time of the moon landing: “I have very clear memories of calculating that I would be thirty-nine years of age in the magic year 2000, and wondering what the world around me would be like. … Certainly, I didn’t think I’d see all the things we read about in science fiction realized in my lifetime. … But it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t see any of them.” Similarly, Srnicek and Williams use collective dreams of space travel – specifically Russian space travel – as a sign of a healthy utopian imagination (Inventing the Future, 137-141). All four authors suggest that the collective imagination is important in its ability to “outspeed” the future. In contrast to Arendt, Graeber, Srnicek and Williams all agree that the utopian imagination has failed in the early Twenty-first Century, and that the future looks banal at best, and dystopian at worst.

I have some lingering questions about grown men and space rockets that I’ll put to one side for a moment. To be fair, Srnicek and Williams do point out that contemporary sci-fi often concerns itself with race, class or gender rather than technological advancement in the mechanical sense, so it’s not all just about thwarted entitlement. But I do want to make one final connection.

Assume for a monent we can take Arendt’s taxonomy as given, and that it has utility in describing something about the world we inhabit. Assume that the realm of Work – where people could produce lasting objects in the world that outlived them, and could be used rather than consumed – and of Action – where people would, essentially, build connections to one another, and act together – have both become realms of endless, repetitive, and above all private production and consumption.

Is it any wonder that our dreams of the future have disappeared? In a moment where all human activity has collapsed into futile but necessary maintenance of the self as a competitive subject, effort that can never conclude because it pits us against elemental forces of growth and decay, where is the space to dream?

Featured image: Hannah Arendt, via Pacific Standard, used without permission.


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