The Freedom to Be Free at Work

Nicholas Smith in IAI:

If we were to stop and ask ourselves how our lives might be improved, one likely answer that might occur to us is that we should spend less time at work. At least that is what the statistics suggest.

…In her book The Human Condition (1958), Arendt argued that most of what we now do when we say we ‘work’ has the essential character of what she calls ‘labour’. Labour resembles the artisanal work of previous times in that it is a means to an end, but unlike work in its true sense, which leaves some enduring useful object behind, it produces something to be consumed, and is done for the sake of empowering one’s consumption. Labour is our ‘metabolism with nature’, a phrase Arendt borrows from Marx, which ties us to the eternally recurring cycle of life. Labouring activity, no less than the behaviour of any other living organism, inherently lends itself to scientific measurement and enhancement. For this reason, well-meaning efforts to humanise labour were, in her view, futile and ill-conceived. But labour, however highly valued it is in the modern world, represents only one aspect of the human condition. Human beings are also capable of what Arendt calls ‘speech and action’, in which they deliberate over matters of common concern and act together. It is only through action in this true sense, Arendt believed, that human beings show themselves to be more than members of a species, or cogs in a machine, and appear to themselves in their uniqueness and plurality. When we act, in this sense, we break out of the cycle of endless repetition and bring about something genuinely new, something unpredictable. In the making and retelling of history, Arendt thought, we attain a kind of immortality, or at least some redemption of our earth-bound, life-bound condition, our condition qua labouring animal. 

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