Digesting Arendt’s ideas on Work

I’ve moved on to the ‘Work’ chapter of Arendt’s Human Condition. It wasn’t as full on as I’d expected; because Labour/Work is a dichotomy, much of the meaning of Work was contained in the Labour chapter.

This week I really just want to focus in on just a couple of key insights I’ve gleaned from Arendt. I’ll apologise in advance for the shape of this post. It’s not the sort of thing I enjoy writing. Unlike last week’s efforts, it’s really just an attempt to ‘digest’ Arendt. It’s a necessary kind of writing – writing to think – but will doubtless be of little interest to anyone else.

Blueprints on a Cave Wall

Arendt characterised Labour as ultimately cyclical. Because it attended to the Life Process, growth and decay, and each individual human life was subsumed by it, birth and death were not beginnings and ends but simply part of something larger than one consciousness. Work, on the other hand, is an activity that helps to found the human subject as a distinct individual. For Arendt, Work is oddly private – it demands isolation:

“This isolation from others is the necessary life condition for every mastership which consists in being alone with the ‘idea,’ the mental image of the thing to be. This mastership, unlike political forms of domination, is primarily a mastery of things and material and not of people. … There can be hardly anything more alien or even more destructive to workmanship than teamwork, which actually is only a variety of the division of labor and presupposes the ‘breakdown of operations into their simple constituent motions’.” (HC, 161)

Privacy is also essential because of what Arendt calls the ‘model’. This is the idea that precedes the manufacture of an object – it’s part plan, and part Platonic solid:

“The actual work of fabrication is performed under the guidance of a model in accordance with which the object is constructed. This model can be an image beheld by the eye of the mind or a blueprint in which the image has already found a tentative materialization through work. In either case, what guides the work of fabrication is outside the fabricator and precedes the actual work process in much the same way as the urgencies of the life process within the laborer precede the actual labor process.” (HC, 140-1)

I think it’s important to point out that for Arendt the model ontologically precedes the craftsman. Given that all ends are destined to become means as soon as they are complete – building blocks towards some other model – in a Lacanian sense, they are the impossible but necessary object, one that can never be realised. That being said, Arendt understands all Work as repeatable – so the model is also in its dullest form merely a blueprint or plan.

But note the distinction between the craftsman’s thoughts and the Labourer’s feelings. There is a

“…veritable gulf that separates all bodily sensations, pleasure or pain, desires and satisfactions—which are so “private” that they cannot even be adequately voiced, much less represented in the outside world, and therefore are altogether incapable of being reified—from mental images which lend themselves so easily and naturally to reification that we neither conceive of making a bed without first having some image, some “idea” of a bed before our inner eye, nor can imagine a bed without having recourse to some visual experience of a real thing.” (HC, 141)

The Spiral of Instrumentality

Compared to the cycle of Labour, Arendt suggests that Work relies on what she terms ‘instrumentality’: “the use of means to achieve an end” (157). Ends and means form a sort of spiral, a feedback loop, with every object added to the things of the World then becoming yet another object that homo faber can use in fabrication: “[I]n a strictly utilitarian world, all ends are bound to be of short duration and to be transformed into means for some further ends” (154). I read this as Arendt’s theorisation of growth or progress – a narrative in which every human action adds something to the world, even if only iteratively.

Instrumentality helps to explain automation, as Arendt sees it. At some point around the industrial revolution, homo faber bent his manufacturing capacities towards making machines that could aid the animal laborens in his efforts to stave off growth and decay. In a weird way, homo faber ended up contributing not to the world of permanent, man-made objects as he ought to have done, but to nature. Forgive the long quote, but I can’t really paraphrase this:

“Unlike the products of human hands, which must be realized step by step and for which the  fabrication process is entirely distinct from the existence of the fabricated thing itself, the natural thing’s existence is not separate but is somehow identical with the process through which it comes into being: the seed contains and, in a certain sense, already is the tree, and the tree stops being if the process of growth through which it came into existence stops. If we see these processes against the background of human purposes, which have a willed beginning and a definite end, they assume the character of automatism. We call automatic all courses of movement which are self-moving and therefore outside the range of wilful and purposeful interference. In the mode of production ushered in by automation, the distinction between operation [by ‘operation’, Arendt means the process of manufacture] and product, as well as the product’s precedence over the operation (which is only the means to produce the end) [here Arendt is talking about the ‘model’], no longer make sense and have become obsolete. The categories of homo faber and his world apply here no more than they ever could apply to nature and the natural universe.” (HC, 150-1)

By using their skills to build the machines that automate Labour, the Worker has done themselves out of existence.

Automation and its effects on the Political realm

The second idea that grabbed me in this chapter was the shift Arendt sketched out, away from an ancient  world in which Labour, Work, and Action were carefully relegated to their own spheres of activity. I’ve already discussed the notion that automation, which ushered in a Labourer’s society, was in part caused by the fabrication of machines that sped up Labour, thus reconfiguring everything as Labour. Prior to that, Arendt argues that homo faber pushed political man out of the public square, quite literally. Artisans, needing a place to hawk their wares, began to fill up the agora or forum, displacing the agonistic work of politics. The market became the only public realm:

“Unlike the animal laborans, whose social life is worldless and herdlike and who therefore is incapable of building or inhabiting a public, worldly realm, homo faber is fully capable of having a public realm of his own, even though it may not be a political realm, properly speaking. His public realm is the exchange market, where he can show the products of his hand and receive the esteem which is due him.”  (HC, 160)

Arendt connects this invasion of the public political realm by economics with her notion that use value has been replaced by exchange value:

“For it is only in the exchange market, where everything can be exchanged for something else, that all things, whether they are products of labor or work, consumer goods or use objects, necessary for the life of the body or the convenience of living or the life of the mind, become “values.” This value consists solely in the esteem of the public realm where the things appear as commodities, and it is neither labor, nor work, nor capital, nor profit, nor material, which bestows such value upon an object, but only and exclusively the public realm where it appears to be esteemed, demanded, or neglected. Value is the quality a thing can never possess in privacy but acquires automatically the moment it appears in public.” (HC, 163-4)

Contemporary theorists regard neoliberalism as the extension of the logic of the market to all realms of human activity. It’s for this reason that both classical liberalism and neoliberalism argue that a ‘small state’ is the ideal form of government. Arendt placed this development in her theory alongside the invasion of the public square by the market: “The modern age … regarded everything beyond the enforcement of law and order as “idle talk” and “vain-glory’ (HC, 159).”


There are a few sundry bits and pieces from this chapter that I liked. Last week I wrote about the idea that the tide of Twenty-first Century workers who struggle to find meaning in their jobs might be related to the rise of the Labourer’s society. What if people were expecting to produce lasting objects in the world, and instead found themselves as a “knowledge worker” in a post-industrial economy, labouring to keep the cyclic metabolism of the economy fed?

In this vein, Arendt has a few things to say about meaningfulness and Work. She argues, almost in an aside, that the utility of an object is not enough to give that production of that object meaning:

“Thus the ideal of usefulness permeating a society of craftsmen — like the ideal of comfort in a society of laborers or the ideal of acquisition ruling commercial societies—is actually no longer a matter of utility but of meaning. … utility established as meaning generates meaninglessness.” (HC, 154)

In other words, as a Worker in a Labourer’s society, it’s not enough to know your work is useful. You need something more.

One last thing that I liked was this massive backhand: “All that the giant computers prove is that the modern age was wrong to believe with Hobbes that rationality, in the sense of ‘reckoning with consequences,’ is the highest and most human of man’s capacities, and that the life and labor philosophers, Marx or Bergson or Nietzsche, were right to see in this type of intelligence, which they mistook for reason, a mere function of the life process itself, or, as Hume put it, a mere ‘slave of the passions’.” (HC, 172)

This week I also read Saeidnia and Lang’s short guide to The Human Condition. It’s the sort of book I’d never cite in a ‘real’ academic work, but one of my emerging priorities for this blog is to lay bare the sorts of work that goes into a research project like this. Sometimes you have to admit you read the dummies’ guide, because it was useful. I can recommend this one.

It reminded me of something important – under Arendt’s undoubted capacity for lyrical prose lurks a poststructuralist eye for contingency. When Arendt begins to discuss the spiral of instrumentality – where the last work’s end becomes the next one’s means – she’s not talking about Work as an ahistorical concept. She’s talking about the specifically 20th century project of automation.

But perhaps more importantly for my project, Saeidnia and Lang point out that Arendt was “[c]oncerned about the managerial and controlling approach that pervaded politics” (S&L, 26). She “sought to present a new form of politics that did not rely on managing society or economics.” (S&L, 27). This was partly a response to the rise of Behaviourism, which she argued “disenfranchise people (deny them their rights) by allowing government to control their daily lives.” (S&L, 28). Obviously I share with Arendt a suspicion of quantitative methods, and of reducing human complexity to something predictable and manageable.

Featured image: Dylan Nolte, Unsplash


4 thoughts on “Digesting Arendt’s ideas on Work

  1. The thread of thought about the distinction between laboring & working was interesting and made me think of something else I’d read recently.

    There’s a new documentary out called “Bathtubs Over Broadway” which is about the almost entirely unknown intersection of modern art & modern work: industrial musicals. That is: musicals produced under commission for a company’s annual sales conference (or similar kind of event). They apparently had a heyday in the 1950s & 1960s when, for instance, a play for Chevrolet had a budget of $3 million. (By way of comparison, My Fair Lady was staged that same year on Broadway for $440,000.)

    The interesting (and for this topic, relevant) part is that the audience (of sales people, managers, suppliers) were genuinely enthusiastic to watch a musical about bathtubs.

    “Suddenly they were being shown a version of their world in which they’re heroes, and it’s glamorous.”

    All of that took place in an era where William Whyte’s The Organization Man was at its peak. Work was still work and not yet labor, so it could still be a subject of art & source of non-ironic excitement.

    Now fast forward to today. Where is the art about work?

    “More of the art under capitalism should be art about capitalism […] People spend so many of their hours and invest so much of their personality in working at jobs and buying things, so why shouldn’t work and consumption be at the center of our art? There are so many songs about love and so few about product design.”

    Matt Levine (a financial journalist for Bloomberg) was obviously sort-of joking when he wrote that. But I think there’s a good question in his half-joke: other than myth-makers like Ayn Rand, there is little art about capitalism (and by a slight extension, about work). What little there is tends to be comic-tragedies like The Office or Parks & Rec.

    My half-baked thought is that the slow slide from Work to Labor has meant all we have left is an object, mere labor, that we feel is not a worthy subject of art. Because we see it as meaningless? Because of its Sisyphean, repetitive nature? Because we don’t know how to capture ephemeral relationship tending in the medium of art? (Hm, that last hypothesis doesn’t hold much water given the prevalence of teenage love songs.)

    I’m not really sure. But it feels like there’s some relationship between the decline of work, the rise of labor, the lack of Capitalism Art that I can’t quite put my finger on.

    New Yorker review of the documentary “Bathtubs Over Broadway”: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/can-a-musical-sponsored-by-a-toilet-manufacturer-be-a-work-of-art

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been struggling to figure out what to say in response to your comment because you lay it out so well – you’re right – where *is* the art about work? And not just in the Parks & Rec/The Office (and I’d add ‘Office Space’ and maybe even ‘Thank You For Smoking’) way, but as an aesthetic outpouring about something we spend so long doing?

    I’d say a few things, disjointed, but I think relevant:

    First – consider the New Deal murals. If ever I’ve seen art about work, it’s that. It’s not quite art about capitalism (givent aht it bears more than a passing resemblance to similar Soviet aesthetic output), but it’s close.

    Second – what if the people who really love product design, or capitalism, aren’t enrgised or rewarded by art in the way we’re talking about? A product designer, after all, is satisfied with the end product of their desing – and design museums exist, which elevate those objects tot he status of art. See Eames, Featherstone (here in Aus), etc. And I’d say a stock broker who revels in their job might just think that it’s money, not art, that’s the reward. Why would someone passionate about, say, management consulting, write a musical about it instead of, say, doing more management consulting?

    Third – doesn’t the satiricalness/tragi-comedicness of the texts you mention say something about how people who “make art” think about work!


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