Get Back to Laboring05-16-2020
Governments and businesses are telling people to get back to work. Lyndsey Stonebridge notes that what what they really are saying is to get back to the business of laboring. The distinction between work and labor is central to Hannah Arendt’s thinking about the human condition. Stonebridge writes:
In her 1958 book, The Human Condition, Arendt suggested we think again. It is not enough to imagine that we graft away, striving for some point at which we might be free of labour: in future automation or artificial intelligence, for example, or in the venal fantasies of super-richness, in socialist utopias of common ownership that might liberate us from toil, or, if you are a Greek philosopher, in a life of the mind. For Arendt, it was the active life, the vita activa, that we need to attend to, the lives we live together with others, now and in the future.
Arendt’s vita activa has three components: labour, work and action. It is her distinction between labour and work that should concern us just now.
Labouring is simply what we do to survive. We labour to eat, to keep our bodies healthy, to keep roofs over our heads, and to keep life reproducing. All animals labour, with or without coaxing, as do slaves and women who, often literally, labour behind closed doors. There’s nothing special about labour, save for the fact that without it we would die.
Work, on the other hand, gives collective meaning to what we do. When we work to produce something we both put something into and leave something lasting in the world: a table (Arendt, like many philosophers, was fond of furniture examples), a house, a book, a car, a rug, a high precision piece of engineering with which we can order the days into time, or keep a body breathing.
In short, what we work at makes up the human reality that we all share. Work is part of what Arendt called “human artifice”: it means that we are more than mere nature, and that we have made something that endures. We labour by necessity; we work to create a human reality.
Already in the 1950s, Arendt was worried that capitalist consumption would transform work into sheer labour. If we all make only to consume, we leave nothing in the world, and we lose that shared sense of the world. Make burger, eat burger, be burger. The collapse of the distinction between work and labour really matters because without the meanings work gives us there can be no shared ground for politics – for action, as Arendt called the third, and most important, part of her vita activa.
This is why her example of the table is so important. A table is a solid piece of craftwork. It is also something people sit around, together and yet apart; being social while keeping their distance. Without the table, Arendt said, there could be no forum for the politics of plurality that she thought societies should be aiming for. For politics to happen we need something that we can all gather around, but which also marks out the differences between us. That is what work gives us.
Stonebridge worries that the call to return to labor ignores the dangers to life that are part of laboring amidst a pandemic. And this is true, especially when labor is seen as simply necessary work to provide money.
But Arendt does not only see labor in a negative light and she offers as well a way to imagine labor as a life-affirming activity. Laboring is an essential part of the human condition because it is what we humans need to do not simply to live, but to find happiness. Labor is the source for property and all productivity and the “expression of the very humanity of man.” The fertility of labor generates an upsurge in our ability to live and thus happiness. As Arendt writes, the “blessing or the joy” of labor is the human way to experience the sheer bliss of being alive which we share with all living creatures.” The blessing of labor is that effort and gratification follow each other as closely as producing and consuming the means of subsistence, so that happiness is a concomitant of the process itself, just as pleasure is a concomitant of the functioning of a healthy body.”
Insofar as labor offers man both life and the fertility of abundance that can lead to happiness, it is an essential activity of the human condition. Arendt’s worry about labor is not about labor itself. She worries that labor has increasingly supplanted other human faculties such as work and action, that man has become essentially an animal laborans. When that happens, we humans so value our lives and our happiness that we lose sight of other equally essential human faculties, like work and action. Such faculties require us to put aside our happiness and risk our lives for other human values such as worldliness, plurality, and brilliance of a life in public with others.
The Corona virus does, of course, threaten our lives. But the urge to labor is real and meaningful. And it is not simply about the need for money and subsistence. Laboring is fertile and nurtures in laborers also the drive to produce and be part of a commercial world. Laboring pushes us to get up and out of our houses and into the world. The urge to labor, therefore, need not be in tension with our equal needs for work and action. Indeed, laboring can also be a spur for a human life with others in public.