Books Discussed in this Section
Hannah Arendt (1958) The Human Condition The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
People operate on unexamined assumptions most of the time. If you want to get a quick list of these assumptions, just write down the bumper stickers you see. If we relied only on what knowledge we could gather directly, we would live deep in the Great Mystery – the ur-ground of reality. Though some knowledge may be the prerogative of the few, there is no knowledge without the some, for knowledge is a condition of human plurality. I don’t personally know that the solar system exists in such and such a way—I share that it does, in a way that makes meaning. Knowledge, unlike experience is communal.
Since experience is unique and personal, and knowledge is shared and communal, it may be impossible to “verify” shared assumptions other than by their share-ability (i.e. acceptance by a community of the adequate); and perhaps also by their utility—I find that if I make the correct mathematical equations, I know how much money I can earn at the bank. However, examining such assumptions can be a liberating experience, especially when one has been visitedby doubts.
During this election year, I had come to doubt a familiar assumption of my generation: that one should “Think Globally and Act Locally”. Unexamined, it makes perfect sense. Subjected to a critical inquiry however, this prescription quickly became problematic. Because I don’t want to disappoint you at the end, I will admit this up front: Perhaps I should have left well enough alone, because my attempt to silence my doubts, only fueled them with bigger questions. Perhaps I merely journeyed toward the depths of the Great Mystery in equal and opposite altitudes as Icarus’ flight toward the sun. His wings fried, my ballast burst. Despite this affiliation, I trust you might see a difference in the final act, as he felled himself irrevocably into the sea, yet I have since come up for air.
Section I : The Life of Human Action
When the Greek philosophers of antiquity contemplated the human condition, they distinguished the vita active from the vita contemplative – the life of action from the life of contemplation. For these Greek philosophers, there was no continuum between the two—they seemed distinct in every way—as if the two were separate realms that humans might inhabit. Surely, not all people had access to both realms—for there were people, unlike the philosophers themselves who were men almost exclusively of the vita contemplative—who hardly thought at all.
Within the vita active, Hannah Arendt identifies three further distinctions as the fundamental human activities labor, work, and action. She writes
Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. The human condition of labor is life itself.
Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition—not only the condition sine qua non, but the condition per quam—of all political life. … Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.
Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever-recurring life-cycle. Work provides an “artificial” world of things, distinctly difference from all natural surrounding. Within its borders each individual life is housed, while this world itself is meant to outlast and transcend them all. The human condition of work is worldliness.
Arendt considered these fundamental human activities to be both distinct and discontinuous. To enter the world of either work or action, men first must free themselves from the necessities of labor. The organization of the family and community were two crucial steps in the evolution of human action—these small social groups created excess human capacity such that men “of family and property” could escape the merely biological and cyclical patterns of living. While men labored both to keep themselves alive and to reproduce themselves, the cyclical patterned of both life and death in the process held little promise of starting something new, or a completely new beginning. In labor, man shared his destiny with slaves and beasts of burden. The possibility for action—to create and make anew—presented itself only with this first prerequisite of freedom—the escape from the cycles of labor into new possibilities of human activity.
Once freed from mere laboring, men were eager to pursue other types of human activity. Those of the merchant class, the artisans and craftsmen engaged the world through work. For these men, the world and its worldliness mediated all their interactions, and set the stage for the notions of “exchange rates” and “transactions.” Of the men who had liberated themselves from a life of labor, Aristotle considered these the less free. These “men of work” had escaped “living conditions” yet remained tied to “worldly conditions,” whose outcomes rose and fell according to patterns of production and acquisition.
On the difference between labor and work, Arendt writes: “Labor assures not only individual survival, but the life of the species. Work and its product, the human artifact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time.”
The end-products of labor and work can at times be strikingly similar. It is the motivation or driving force within the individual that defines them . If I am producing paintings to make a living, I am still laboring, regardless of my skill. If, on the other hand, I am painting in pursuit of a kind of “immortality” project – to make a lasting impression—then I am working, regardless of how much or how little money or comfort I derive from the activity. In one case I tune into to certain kinds of feedback from my efforts—how much certain styles sell for, what is in popular demand—and tune out other kinds of feedback – what kinds of art I might really love to b doing, for example. In the other case, the situation is reversed—I ignore what is popular and profitable, and tune into a more private, radically creative urge. We intuitively make this distinction when we judge works of art. We intuitively make this distinction when we judge entrepreneurs by their visionary capacity versus their salesmanship. Marx understood the importance of this distinction in his critique of capital systems of production—when work is reduced to labor, men are somehow reduced too—the principle of alienation and disenfranchisement.
Collective Behavior, Collaborative Work
In this series, I propose adapting Arendt’s tri-fold division of labor, work and action to the pluralistic dimensions of human activity, and in doing so consider three spheres of the vitae activae: collective behavior, collaborative work and political action. Wherever and whenever men and women labor we see collective behavior. We see collective behavior through systems analysis of the type that are easily reproduced in computer programs and actuarial studies. The nature of the collective in collective behavior is a multiplier, an issue of quantities and statistics and their relative quantitative together, we see collective changes in time.
The collective nature of labor means the loss of individuation of the person, bringing men together to labor as though they were one. The collective nature of labor is a kind of super-organism—it is the collectively accumulated activity of individuals, each alone with his body, “facing the naked necessity to keep himself alive. Therefore, collective labor is essentially anti-political, (“This unitedness of many into one is basically antipolitical; it is the very opposite of the togetherness prevailing in political or commercial communities…” and the values of the collective are entirely social. Arendt writes:
But this “collective nature of labor, “ far from establishing a recognizable, identifiable reality for each member of the labor gang, requires on the contrary the actual loss of all awareness of individuality and identity; and it is for this reason that all those “values” which derive from laboring, beyond its obvious function in the life process, are entirely ‘social’ and essentially not different from the additional pleasure derived from eating and drinking in company.
Until the modern age, the notion of collective work was rare, and may have been impossible to conceive. Prior to the modern age the notion of work applied to the independent artisan or merchant—the captains of industry, the great leaders and visionaries craftsmen, architects and artists. These are individuals, like Plato’s philosopher king, who are very often either exempted from the norms of society, or expelled from the Republic. They are significant in their individualization and their engagement with the world and its worldliness – the maestros and geniuses– persons of significant achievement or masterpiece often garnered through a life lived at the expense of others. Only recently, and due in a large part to the enormous scale of modern-day undertakings, the creative and aesthetic impulses in man have come to produce great collaborative work.
Unlike the quantitative nature of collective labor, the nature of collaborative work is qualitative. Where people labor together they become a “mass”—a kind of organism without individuation. The notion that “all men are created equal” is more apt to describe the laboring masses, than men of work or action. The collaborative group, on the other hand, sorts participants by the quality of their workmanship and their talent with respect to the world—the project at hand. However, just like the labor collective, the collaborative group needs individuals unlike themselves, to lead them into the public eye, and to represent them there. In other words, collaborative groups themselves lack men of public action.
The convictions of collaborative enterprise are not the convictions of the company of laborers which is to make life easier or more secure, along with the belief that life itself is the highest good. The conviction of the collaborative group is not merely the completion of the project at hand, but the lastingness or endurance of the work, which ultimately is the only way to gauge its merit. The conviction of collaborative enterprise is a kind of collective remembrance of a people’s history—an enduring record of “where we are, where we are going, and where we have been.” These convictions do not preclude a political way of life per se (as do those of labor)—but it lacks the central conviction of a political way of life—the who of “who we are”—and therefore remains unpolitical. Only collective action maintains the conviction of the who of “who we are” – and to which we now turn.