Hannah Arendt is considered one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century and, it must be stated, a profoundly influential contributor to the social and political theory of the Isocracy network. Two of her major works include The Origins of Totalitarianism, a sociological study of the Stalinist terror and Nazi genocide, and On Revolution, which combined political science with history, both highly important for an isocratic perspective. Arendt is difficult to position in a traditional political sense; she is a supporter of constitutionalism and the rule of law, yet she also disparaged representative democracy in favour of high levels of deliberative participatory democracy and the revolutionary spirit. Both anarchistic in her love of political pluralism, political involvement, and direct democracy she also emphasised the fundamental roles of government in establishing lasting institutions and laws as the free agreements of behaviour between members of the polis.
The Human Condition, reviewed here in summary form, emphasised the vita activa and distinguished between three fundamental activity; labor, work and action, distinguishing the "human condition" from "human nature", the latter existing within human beings, the former between. The vita activa, or active life, is necessarily distinguished by what has been more popular in the western philosophical tradition which concentrated on vita contemplativa (contemplative life). Famously Arendt refused to describe herself as a philosopher precisely because of the historical attachment of that discipline to contemplativa; Arendt (to use the Platonic philosophical language which she targets) attended to the world temporary 'appearances', rather than the world of eternal 'forms'. For her, life was to be lived with others in the practical tasks of common activity i.e., praxis.
Labour is defined as the biological process of the human body, and life-sustaining activities, noted for its remorseless repetition. On the latter point a comparison is made with the slaves of the Hellenic world; not because of the harshness of the work, but rather because it was dedicated to the production of necessities, and those which would be consumed with immediacy. Arendt refers to those who through circumstance or even choice, are engaged only in labour as 'animal laborans', as it is such a state that human beings are closest to the animal world. To be trapped in the world of 'animal laborans' is to be barely human; it is not living but mere survival, to paraphrase the attributed words of Chief Seattle. This is, of course, a novel definition which constrasts strongly to theorist such as Marx (for example) who combined labour, work, and activity into the single category of "labour". Whereas Marx compared the labour in relation to ownership of the means of production, Arendt is looking at the activity itself. For it is quite possible for even a highly democratised ownership to exist and for the population to be still engaged in labour, in Arendt's sense. Further - and Arendt is particularly critical of Marx in this regard - the assumption that the mechanisation of necessary consumables would lead to a higher civilisation is fallacious without the opportunity for action. As has become very evident, mechanisation has simple exapanded the appetite of consumption; from necessities to luxuries.
In contrast the activity of work is defined as the the interaction between the natural world and human artisanship, involved in the creation of lasting things, the 'mixing of labour' to paraphrase Locke, or 'homo faber', the production of things with an end, a final good or service, in mind. All work involves violence against nature, as part of the human transformation of the natural world. The distinction between labour and work, as Arendt notes, can be found in most European languages; e.g., 'arbeiten' and 'werken' in German; 'laborare' and 'fabricari' in Latin; 'ponein' and 'ergazesthai' in Greek, for example. It is the point where there is labour transcends itself into permanence. But this process involves a reifiction, to the conversion of an idea into a thing and instrumentalisation, "a degredation of things into means" (p156), as evident in utilitarian approaches, the exchange market, which itself is a new public world, albeit one which is not part of political action. Applying a Marxist analysis, it is at this point where alientation in the relations of production occurs.
Finally, action is defined as the interaction between people "without the intermediary of things or matter" (p7), which has some semblance to Habermas' public sphere and the ideal speech situation and inevitably comes with plurality ("this plurality is specifically the condition - not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam - of all political life" p7). The principle of action is it required freedom, in a political and economic sense, and produces political power; contrary to popular belief the dictator is a person who prevents politics and preventing the development of power. Its orientation was towards the deeds and ideas that aspired toward the eternal remembrance, and hence Arendt make the seemingly surprising turn to explicitly tie action to concepts of promising and forgiving as the means to establish a degree of certainty in the supposedly unpredictable world where action is provided.
Common to a lot of her works, Arendt raises comparison of contemporary society with that of the Ancient Hellenic, starting with distinguishing the despotism of the private life with the engagement in the public polis. In modernity, especially through the politics of the nation-state, a new realm arises "a curiously hybrid realm" called 'society', where private interests enter the public realm, but without an orientation towards res publica, "the public thing", or public interests. Indeed the public interest has become almost lost ("withered away") with a bourgeois infatuation of household happiness, the 'freedom' to be trivial and vacuous, but never excellent.
In concluding, Arendt considers the modern age to be one of 'world alienation', where the pretense of the abolition of the unhappy state of 'animal laborans' is in reality shifted to the third and fourth world. The instrumentalisation of production has also become an instrumentalisation of social relations, to the point that the only people engaging in free action are the scientific community, with its multi-authored papers and stringent peer review, whose tests are limited to facticity alone.
Whilst Arendt does not explicitly tie her theory of the human condition to an explicit political economy, it is a relatively painless task to do so. The principle of abolition of the undignified status of animal laborans is achievable within its own context, that is, what reduced human beings to animals of nature is the exclusion of the equal right to the value of nature from human beings. Likewise the world of the instrumental homo faber, to paraphrase Saint-Simon's famous dictum, must exist only for the administration of things, and not the governance of people. Essentially, free people must be 'ungoverned', and a sphere of life - the public sphere - must exist for independent human action; the expression of thoughts, ideas and the reaching of consensus, independent of coercive influences.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
Commenting on this Page will be automatically closed on October 2, 2010.