Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition (1958)

Critique of Marx’s “conflation” of political activity and labor. She claims that Marx, and other political thinkers (since Plato) have ignored the distinction between labor (life), work (making) and action (politics), by imagining politics in terms of utopia above and beyond the plural world of human affairs. For Arendt, the polis is constructed in and through plural activity: this can never be utopian, because action is unavoidably contingent. But she also imports her own modes of “transcendence” (used in a very special way–perhaps dualism is a better term) when she strictly divides the three spheres of life activity, My critique of Arendt, which is little more than claiming that early Marx proleptically anticipates Arendt’s argument, is that life-sustaining activity is never stable, habitual and repetitive–rather, the processes of sustenance require acts of creativity. In Arendt’s argument, this lack of stability would preclude the emergence of polis. However, I argue that acts of sustenance can themselves be political: modes of action in the Arendtian sense. In fact, they have to be action if they are going to make a bid on stability. Thus Arendt’s utopian polis can be read back onto labor and work as conscious life activity.

This does not need to be abstract. What is the food movement if not a political act of sustenance? Once this is recognized, we can begin to talk about taste and “aesthetic education” in ways that do not depend on determinate political forms that are forever receding. Arendt will claim that a Marxian conception of freedom (that realm where aesthetic activity takes place) is derived from a notion of man as animal laborans: drawing from Capital, Vol 3, she points out that Marx gives us the “rather distressing alternative between productive slavery and unproductive freedom,” since the realm of freedom can being only when the realm of necessity and labor cease. Arendt points out that getting rid of this realms of “necessity” is tantamount to getting rid of life, of aliveness, all together. In other words, the realm of freedom is no longer desirable because the sheer bliss of participating in natural cycles is withheld from “free” individuals. Thus the price for absolute freedom is life itself, an insight that Adorno would have done well to register.

Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity. (121)

Thus, via Adorno, we see Hegel’s dialectic of consciousness imbedded in Marx at the level of labor. The danger, Arendt repeats over and over again, is that the dialectic between freedom and necessity will collapse into identity, and that human activity will be indistinguishable from the “deathless” cycles of nature itself. So long as animal laborans inhabits the center of the public realm (which is how Marx envisions the route to freedom, acc. to Arendt) there can be no true polis, and sheer abundance would unreflectively swallow the possibility of the emergence of the new.

Arendt cites the “waste economy” as a sign of the danger. Already here we can see her bias for productivity (biological reproduction even). What she means by waste is something that lacks “permanence”: the work of homo faber. But what she can’t imagine is something that is made to be wasted, something that one lets go to waste.



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