Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 25 April 2019

THE DOMAIN OF FREEDOM - Work and Labor between Nature and Society

This Part of "The Concept of Freedom in Arendt and Weil" was meant as an Easter gift to all our friends - but we never made it in time. Still, I truly hope you all enjoy this contribution to the Auf-er-stehung ("Resurrection") of Europe, America, and the enduring quest for Freedom!

To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, "to begin," "to lead," and eventually "to rule," indicates), to set something into motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin agere). Because they are initium, newcomers and beginners by virtue of birth, men take initiative, are prompted into action. [Initium] ergo ut esset, creatus est homo, ante quem nullus fuit ("that there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody"), said Augustine in his political philosophy.2 This beginning is not the same as the beginning of the world;3 it is not the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself. With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before. (H. Arendt, Human Condition, p.177)

Just as Freedom is the abyss of Thought, so Thought is the abyss of Being – and hence also of Life. Thought is the only human activity whose content we cannot detect – and therefore can neither evade nor control without eliminating it altogether. Thought is the arche’ , the “origin” that was the quest of the earliest philosophers, the pre-Socratics. We can observe all kinds of human actions, but it is impossible for us to observe what someone is thinking. The peculiarity of thought is that it is an activity that initiates spontaneously, that is, in a manner that is not traceable to a material origin other than itself. The origin and source and content of thought are inscrutable and ineffable. It is impossible to trace the origin of thought because thought is accessible only by thought – and that through introspection and reflection. Reflection is not the direct object of thought; but thought is inconceivable without its own ability for introspection and reflection. Thought is reflexive in itself.  It is impossible to conceive of thought except as an inner dialogue of thought with itself – whence arises the delusion of “self”. As it was said of Seneca, “never was he less alone than when he was alone”. Cruel was the god Apollo that enjoined all who consulted it at Delphi “to know thyself” – because the god must have known that thought cannot have a self, an ego, an I. Just as it does not have an origin outside itself, Thought does not individuate because it is inclusive and universal – whence the experience of empathy (or Schopenahuer’s “sym-pathy” [Mit-leid]). Above all else, thought is volition, it is a commencement, a beginning – it is the faculty that decides where the de-cision is literally a “cut”, an in-cision in the flow of time.

(This section is an excerpt from “The Philosophy of the Flesh”.)
The decision the will arrives at can never be derived from the mechanics of desire or the deliberations of the intellect that may precede it. The will is either an organ of free spontaneity that interrupts all causal chains of motivation that would bind it or it is nothing but an illusion. In respect to desire, on one hand, and to reason, on the other, the will acts like "a kind of coup d'etat," as Bergson once said, and this implies, of course, that "free acts are exceptional": "although we are free whenever we are willing to get back into ourselves, it seldom happens that we are willing." In other words, it is impossible to deal with the willing activity without touching on the problem of freedom. (Arendt, Lectures, p.4)

Arendt is magnificently right. The bourgeoisie is always torn between promulgating the scientific necessity of capitalism with its “economic laws” and, in contradiction, championing the “freedom” that this objectively necessary system bestows on all of society. We have thus an authoritarian economy and a liberal society. How social freedom can be guaranteed objectively, that is, in the absence of participatory democracy, is the great Arcanum of liberal-capitalist society. Thus, the bourgeoisie always totters between the necessity of the allocation of social resources to production and distribution according to capitalist laws – and the “freedom” of consumer choice that supposedly drives production. But as Arendt reminds us, it is the irreducibility of the communicability of human thought – even when thought is supposedly the innermost and most “ineffable” element of human existence – that is the insuperable obstacle of scientism. Thought is intrinsically communicable not because we can relate our experiences to “others” – indeed, Arendt is wrong in presuming that any human experience is “communicable” in her sense, because, as Nietzsche stressed, all human concepts are mere signs. But what is “communicable” about human thought is precisely the fact that all thoughts are inconceivable without a “dia-logue”, a splitting up, of the thinker into a dialogue with its own “self”. The “self” therefore can no longer be seen as “one” but involves an ineluctable duality. This is consistent with Merleau-Ponty’s “phenomenology of perception” on which Arendt based her Life of the Mind.

It is surprising and a little disappointing therefore that Arendt failed to go deeper than Kant in her amplification of the great philosopher’s notion of sensus communis as ontogenetic instead of phylogenetic – as is amply revealed in this quotation from her editor:

In the present context, the most important section of Kant's work is § 40 of the Critique of Judgment, entitled "Taste as a kind of sensus communis." Kant writes that

by the name of sensus communis is to be understood the idea of a public sense, i.e., a critical faculty which in its reflective act takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation of everyone else, in order, as it were, to weigh its judgment with the collective reason of mankind.... This is accomplished by weighing the judgment, not so much with actual, as rather


with the merely possible, judgments of others, and by putting ourselves in the position of everyone else, as the result of a mere abstraction from the limitations which contingently affect our own estimate.

Kant specifies three "maxims of common human understanding," which are: (1) Think for oneself; (2) Think from the standpoint of everyone else; and (3) Always think consistently. It is the second of these, which Kant refers to as the maxim of enlarged thought, that concerns us here, for it is the one that, according to Kant, belongs to judgment (the first and third apply to understanding and reason, respectively). Kant observes that we designate someone as a "man of enlarged mind ... if he detaches himself from the subjective personal conditions of his judgment, which cramp the minds of so many others, and reflects upon his own judgment from a universal standpoint (which he can only determine by shifting his ground to the standpoint of others)." Kant concludes that we can rightfully refer to aesthetic judgment and taste as a sensus communis, or "public sense." This particular discussion issues in the definition of taste as "the faculty of estimating what makes our feeling in a given representation universally communicable without the mediation of a concept." (pp.121-2)

Again, Arendt seemed to go along with Kant’s definition of sensus communis or “enlarged thought” as what a human does “if he detaches himself from the subjective personal conditions of his judgment”. But this is precisely the point! That “judgement” does not pertain to “the subjective personal conditions” of a single human being but rather judgement is the one condition that is essential to the very conception of a human being – because judgement (thinking) is the very essence of being human! The expression of a judgement may well be subjective and personal – but that is not what is important about the faculty of judgement. What is quintessential about judgement is precisely its being the human faculty kat esochen, par excellence! Thinking is judging: the voice of conscience, the vox interioris, is the most public voice of all. Just how little even the insightful Arendt penetrated this reality is shown in the Lectures – and in the Postscript by her editor:

But what renders this concept of considerably wider application is the idea that thinking in public can be constitutive of thinking as such. This insight runs counter to widespread assumptions about the nature of thinking, according to which thought can operate privately no less well than publicly. (p.122)

No. Not “thinking in public” can be “constitutive of thinking as such”. It is in fact the other way around: thinking as such is in reality constitutive of thinking in public! Arendt and Kant start from the false premise that thinking is “private”, in fact the most private reality of all! But it is not! Thinking is ineluctably “public” in embryo and in nuce. Failure to capture this phylogenetic element of human experience leads to the dead end of Kantian “sociability” (Geselligkeit) – a bourgeois concept if ever there was one – which is why Colletti (From Rousseau to Kant) correctly paused on Kant’s description of bourgeois society as ungesellige Geselligkeit (unsociable sociability) to highlight his inveterate liberalism. Communicability is central to thought. All thought, qua thought, is communicable. Thus, freedom is not to be understood as vapid decisionism, as a “spiritual” entity, but as the most materialistic, immanent aspect of human being, of being human. The emancipation of human society must be based on this fundamental realization:

And this is of some relevance to a whole set of problems by which modern thought is haunted, especially to the problem of theory and practice and to all attempts to arrive at a halfway plausible theory of ethics. Since Hegel and Marx, these questions have been treated in the perspective of History and on the as-

Postscriptum to Thinking 5

sumption that there is such a thing as Progress of the human race. Finally we shall be left with the only alternative there is in these matters. Either we can say with Hegel: Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht, leaving the ultimate judgment to Success, or we can maintain with Kant the autonomy of the minds of men and their possible independence of things as they are or as they have come into being. (Arendt, op.cit., pp.4-5)

As with Schopenhauer and predestination, for the bourgeoisie success or the accumulation of capital is its own justification. Even Marx, in seeking to historicise social antagonism, came close to turning his critique of capitalist society into a teleology or indeed (as Bobbio [Da Hobbes a Marx] says about the Paris Manuscripts) even into an eschatology, just like Hegel’s (again, Arendt’s judgement in the Lectures on Kant is impeccable, as is her reference there to Kojeve’s famous study on the Phenomenology).

Thought is not opposed to matter. Thought is material, but not in the same manner that rocks are material. We conceive of thought immanently. (For a full exposition of this immanentist approach, see our “The Philosophy of the Flesh”.) The opposition of thought and matter – this chorismos (separation) that has plagued Western civilization from its inception, can arise only in a human community where humans view their Life-world, and thence Nature, as an Object, as a hostile environment to be used and abused for human consumption. Capitalism is the civilization of labor and consumption, where consumption serves (a) to perpetuate human living activity as labour-power (by reproducing the working class) and (b) to expand the necessity of labour-power through the overpopulation of the proletariat (which includes the working class and the reserve army of the unemployed), - which expansion is required for the purpose of end-less capitalist accumulation (that is, power over human living activity reduced to labour-power). Hence, the end or goal of work as living activity which was to emancipate human beings from the necessity of labor-as-reproduction has been turned by capitalism into a means – the end-less (aimless) accumulation of capital as power over living labor through the endless expansion of labour-power (the proletariat’s overpopulation) requiring ever-greater consumption of un-necessary “goods”. This endless accumulation is the ne-cessity (no turning back) of capital.

This vital distinction between production for reproduction and production for accumulation of capital, and thence for expanded consumption is one of the key points on which Hannah Arendt improves on the reflections of Simone Weil. It seems evident that – sadly without acknowledgement – Arendt based her exceptional work on The Human Condition on her further reflections and considerations over the earlier work by the French social theoretician. Arendt advances on Weil’s reflections by distinguishing between “labor” and “work”. Whereas “work” is the human activity of objectification whereby human beings exercise the freedom inherent in the act of thinking by putting into action the projects and judgements formed through thought, labor is the reduction of work to the mere objective of consumption. In this case, the original end of work, which was to expand and give material shape to human freedom becomes a mere means without end in view because consumption becomes an end in itself. And once consumption becomes an endless process, it loses all meaning, purpose and worth.
Truly, then, capitalism is “the civilization of labor” and in this regard alone it poses the greatest danger to humanity – the crushing of the domain of freedom that lies between the necessities imposed by nature at one pole and by society at the other. Arendt gives due credit to Marx for piercing through the delusional capitalist promise of a future of “leisure” for humanity under its search for profits:
The danger that the modern age's emancipation of labor will not only fail to usher in an age of freedom for all but will result, on the contrary, in forcing all mankind for the first time under the yoke of necessity, was already clearly perceived by Marx when he insisted that the aim of a revolution could not possibly be the already-accomplished emancipation of the laboring classes, but must consist in the emancipation of man from labor. (P.130)

This transformation of a means – “labor” – into an end in itself at the expense of “work” is, as it were, a transliteration of Marx’s distinction between living labor and labour-power, between the use value of human work whereby it is possible for the capitalist to extract surplus value and then realise it as profit, and the exchange value that the capitalist pays to the worker in wages for labour-power. Of course, Marx did distinguish between living labor and its capitalist commodification and reification as dead labor or labour-power through the alienation of the worker from the means of production. So much so, that the reflection on alienation and reification has become the biggest focus of Western Marxism from Lukacs to the Frankfurt School. Yet, it is possible to agree with Arendt on the rebuke that Marx did not sufficiently stress the difference between living labour as objectification for the purpose of production-for-consumption and the idea of work as the objectification of human freedom! (In an interesting parallel, Marx’s main criticism of Hegel was that he confused objectification with alienation. And Lukacs himself confessed that his own con-fusion of Marx’s notion of alienation [Ent-fremdung] with Weber’s Ent-zauberung [dis-enchantment] was the gravest error in his elaboration of the concept of reification [Ent-ausserung]. Arendt too, in The Human Condition, adopted the unwise habit of using the word “reification” to refer to objectification!)
Marx’s grave error of omission was to think that all human living activity is ultimately for the purpose of the reproduction of society, and therefore for consumption; and that consequently capitalism’s mortal sin is simply its failure to distribute equitably the products of human living activity reduced to mechanical labour-power (the “theft of labour time”). Arendt is right to assail this biologism implicit in all Western social theory, especially so in economic theory:

It is surprising at first glance, however, that the modern age— with its reversal of all traditions, the traditional rank of action and contemplation no less than the traditional hierarchy within the vita activa itself, with its glorification of labor as the source of all values and its elevation of the animal laborans to the position traditionally held by the animal rationaleshould not have brought forth a single theory in which animal laborans and homo faber, "the labour of our body and the work of our hands," are clearly distinguished. Instead, we find first the distinction between productive and unproductive labor, then somewhat later the differentiation between skilled and unskilled work, and, finally, outranking both because seemingly of more elementary significance, the division of all activities into manual and intellectual labor. 14

By insisting on the identification of human freedom with “emancipation from necessary labor intended as toil” – an emancipation that both Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt correctly insist is not possible! –, Marx relegated his “communism” to the utopian status of an “opium of the people”, - indeed, of an eschatology. For if we accept that human beings will never “free” themselves from Nature, as if Nature were a yoke to be discarded and jettisoned, then it becomes immediately evident that the liberation from the yoke of capitalism must not be confused with or reduced to liberation from the ineluctable necessity of Nature.

Once again, this novel yet formidable approach to the critique of capitalism – the transformation of means into ends and the necessity of work as part of “the human condition” – is too close to Simone Weil’s own critique to absolve Arendt from the imputation that she ought to have acknowledged the source of this reflection in Weil’s work: 

Productivity and creativity, which were to become the highest ideals and even the idols of the modern age in its initial stages, are inherent standards of homo faber, of man as a builder and fabricator. However, there is another and perhaps even more significant element noticeable in the modern version of these faculties. The shift from the "why" and "what" to the "how" [cf. our emphasis on the change from “knowing” to “doing” in the rise of European science, in our “Descartes’s World”] implies that the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things or eternal motions but must be processes…. Nature, because it could be known only in processes which human ingenuity, the ingeniousness of homo faber, could repeat and remake in the experiment, became a process,61 and all particular natural things derived their significance and meaning solely from their functions in the overall process. In the place of the concept of Being we now find the concept of Process… Here, from the standpoint of homo faber, it was as though the means, the production process or development, was more important than the end, the finished product…. The full significance of this reversal of means and ends remained latent as long as the mechanistic world view, the world view of homo faber par excellence, was predominant. (Passim, at par.42.)

Indeed, and furthermore, we could be entirely justified in reproaching Arendt also for her failure to look more closely, as Weil certainly did – especially in La Condition Ouvriere – not just at the overall sociological transformation of the nature of work to mere “labour” under capitalism but also and above all else at the effect this has had on workers themselves in terms of the existential meaning of work and their outright alienation from their living activity. (We shall examine this aspect of Weil’s work in the next section.) The actual experience of work by workers is paid very scant attention by Arendt in her overriding preoccupation to dissect the broader philosophical, phenomenological aspects of work in capitalist industry and society. It may seem harsh, but this failure vitiates Arendt’s critical work, turning it once again – as was the case also generally for Weil – into a generic “cri de coeur” against the evils of “modern society”.

Nevertheless, Arendt’s own enucleation of these concepts constitutes a huge step forward not just with respect to Weil’s earlier analysis, but also in the critique of capitalism in that (a) it historicizes the critique by focusing on concrete capitalist social relations of production rather than on a vague trans-historical “human condition” as does Weil; and (b) by improving even on Marx through the valuable distinction between “work” and “labour” and thus, (c), by placing appropriate emphasis on the capitalist reification of human living activity and forced abandonment of the essential goal of turning work as much as possible into an expansion of the sphere of human freedom. It is the very hypnotic mirage and delusion fostered by capitalism of the attainability of the earthly Eden of effortless end-less consumption that serves to entrench and perpetuate on an expanded scale the triumph of work-as-labor in the pursuit of production-for-consumption and, tragically, the depletion of the ecosphere.

As both Arendt and Weil quite correctly impetrate upon us in the works we are reviewing, the incontrovertible and undeniable reality remains that human beings will never emancipate themselves from the necessity of working for their reproduction (“labour”). Nor will they be ever be able to eliminate the constraints on freedom posed by the very existence of society – by the inter homines esse. So that what Marx was proposing as the eventual emancipation of humans from the necessity of work-as-labor leads merely to the end-less accumulation of products for consumption and thereby to the reduction or compression of all human living activity (“work”) to labour-power (“labour”), of “Being into Process” – the reduction of homo faber to the animal laborans. Unless human beings come to recognize the necessity of work for sustainable reproduction, the Marxist and bourgeois-capitalist utopia of the total emancipation from “labor” will lead to the destruction of the ecosphere, of Nature, through the wasteful exasperation of overpopulation and consumption!

It is indeed the mark of all laboring that it leaves nothing behind, that the result of its effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort is spent. And yet this effort, despite its futility, is born of a great urgency and motivated by a more powerful drive than anything else, because life itself depends upon it. The modern age in general and Karl Marx in particular, overwhelmed, as it were, by the unprecedented actual productivity of Western mankind, had an almost irresistible tendency to look upon all labor as work and to speak of the animal laborans in terms much more fitting for homo faber, hoping all the time that only one more step was needed to eliminate labor and necessity altogether.17

Once again, Arendt is right to state that Marx “looked upon all labor as work” (and not “upon all work as labor”) because labor (the part of work necessary for reproduction) is not “work” (which encompasses all human living activity): it is this Marxian reduction of all “useful” human activity to “productive labor” by confusing the two concepts of work and labor and, much worse, by promoting labor as necessity as “productive” and that part of “work” that is not labor because it is dedicated to free not-necessary activity as “unproductive” that is almost unforgivable in the thinker who most comprehensively and critically penetrated the workings and contradictions of capitalist industry and society. In contrast, this critical insight into a fatal contradiction in Marx’s critique of capitalism, buried in a work of vast intellectual acuity highlights the unjust neglect that Arendt’s socio-theoretical work has received.

As we saw earlier in connection with Weil’s critique of Marx, the great thinker most certainly fell into the delusion that the end-less expansion and extension of human production for consumption was not only possible without depleting and destroying the ecosphere, but would also lead to the abolition of human necessity in the communist utopia (“hoping all the time that only one more step was needed to eliminate labor and necessity altogether”). What Marx neglected was that this utopia was founded on the degradation of human ends (freedom as we are defining it here) to means, to end-less production for consumption and, therefore, of all living activity to thoughtless, unfree labour-power or “productive labour” – which, ironically and tragically, is the identical “goal” of capitalist accumulation!
This all-important distinction is made more explicit in Arendt’s elaboration of the notions of productive and unproductive labour that were and are essential in political economy and indeed in all economic theory:

Moreover, both Smith and Marx were in agreement with modern public opinion when they despised unproductive labor as parasitical, actually a kind of perversion of labor, as though nothing were worthy of this name which did not enrich the world. Marx certainly shared Smith's contempt for the "menial servants" who like "idle guests . . . leave nothing behind them in return for their consumption."16 Yet it was precisely these menial servants, these household inmates, oiketai or familiares, laboring for sheer subsistence and needed for effortless consumption rather than for pro- [   86   ] duction, whom all ages prior to the modern had in mind when they identified the laboring condition with slavery. What they left behind them in return for their consumption was nothing more or less than their masters' freedom or, in modern language, their masters' potential productivity. In other words, the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor.16 

Let us pause here for an instant to consider the momentous implications of Arendt’s contention – one that we believe is both valid and of paramount importance. What Arendt is saying, in her convoluted way – and perhaps due partly to the fact that she herself who had little or no training in economic theory, did not entirely understand the full import and implications of her critique of Classical Political Economy. Both Smith and Marx, though they differed on the definition and content of the labour theory of value and of capital, believed that the labour that does not end up yielding a profit for the capitalist is “unproductive” whereas the labour that does so is “productive”. The reason for this is that for both Marx and Smith capitalism was, whether one sees it as exploitative (Marx) or market efficient (Smith), the most efficient economic system known to humanity to date for maximizing the accumulation of capital (Marx) or “the wealth of nations” (Smith). It follows that for both thinkers only productive labour was socially “efficient” because, for Smith, it maximized national wealth, and for Marx because it could sustain the greatest “reproduction of society on an expanded scale” through the heightened production of “surplus value”. 

So far, so good. But the problem for Marx immediately arises because, given that productive labour maximises the accumulation of capital, and therefore the exploitative power of the capitalist vis-à-vis the worker, then it is not clear how such “productive” labour could be any better than “unproductive” labour, at least from the point of view of the proletariat so dear to Marx! Arendt’s objection does more than show up a mere contradiction in Marx’s labour theory of value and of surplus value: it goes right to the heart of the nature of the “exploitation” that Marx intended to denounce! Indeed, as Arendt remarks with admirable acuity and perspicuity, if only the labour that increases capitalist accumulation and exploitation is “productive”, then it goes without saying that this labour, however “productive” it might be in terms of value, will only lead to even greater worker exploitation! By contrast, it is extremely difficult to see, where it is not impossible, how such “productive” labour could ever lead to the emancipation of workers from the yoke of capitalists! In other words, Marx’s analysis and prescriptions for capitalist society will lead us to the paradoxical situation where we may well prefer “unproductive freedom” to “productive slavery”!

These certainly are minor points if compared with the fundamental contradiction which runs like a red thread through the whole of Marx's thought, and is present no less in the third volume of Capital than in the writings of the young Marx. Marx's attitude toward labor, and that is toward the very center of his thought, has never ceased to be equivocal.48 While it was an "eternal necessity imposed by nature" and the most human and productive of man's activities, the revolution, according to Marx, has not the task of emancipating the laboring classes but of emancipating man from labor; only when labor is abolished can the "realm of freedom" supplant the "realm of necessity." For "the realm of freedom begins only where labor determined through want and external utility ceases, where "the rule of immediate physical needs" ends.49 Such fundamental and flagrant contradictions rarely occur [   104   ] in second-rate writers; in the work of the great authors they lead into the very center of their work. In the case of Marx, whose loyalty and integrity in describing phenomena as they presented themselves to his view cannot be doubted, the important discrepancies in his work, noted by all Marx scholars, can neither be blamed upon the difference "between the scientific point of view of the historian and the moral point of view of the prophet"60 nor on a dialectical movement which needs the negative, or evil, to produce the positive, or good. The fact remains that in all stages of his work he defines man as an animal laborans and then leads him into a society in which this greatest and most human power is no longer necessary. We are left with the rather distressing alternative between productive slavery and unproductive freedom.

Finally for this section, let us recapitulate with what is perhaps the best summary we could find for this complex jumble of ideas in Arendt’s own words:

The endlessness of the laboring process is guaranteed by the ever-recurrent needs of consumption; the end- lessness 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. In our need for more and more rapid replacement of the worldly [125] 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, deliver- ing and abandoning to them the always threatened stability of a human world. The ideals of homo faber, the fabricator of the world, which are permanence, stability, and durability, have been sacrificed to abundance, the ideal of the animal laborans. We live in a laborers' society because only laboring, with its inherent fertility, is likely to bring about abundance; and we have changed work into laboring, broken it up into its minute particles until it has lent itself to division where the common denominator of the simplest performance is reached in order to eliminate from the path of human labor power —which is part of nature and perhaps even the most powerful of all natural forces—the obstacle of the "unnatural" and purely worldly stability of the human artifice.

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