What Hannah Arendt can teach us about work in the time of Covid-19

Lyndsey Stonebridge in New Statesman:

According to the government, we are now supposed to be getting back to work. But what does “work” mean in the time of Covid-19? Amid the debates about how we might return to work, what is being forgotten is that work is a crucial part of what the 20th-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt called the human condition. The government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, published on 11 May, states that people will be “eased back into work” as into a dentist chair: carefully, and with face masks.

The reason they need to be coaxed is, of course, the economy. At one point in the document, it reads as though it is the economy, not people, that has been sick: “The longer the virus affects the economy, the greater the risks of longterm scarring.” The economy needs ventilating, and people are its oxygen. Arendt would not have been surprised by this commonplace personification. From the moral and political thought of John Locke and Adam Smith in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, to Karl Marx in the 19th century, left, liberal, and right have all seen man as a labouring being, toiling away at getting machines, services, cash and liquid capital working. The economy “works” while we “labour”. In her 1958 book, The Human Condition, Arendt suggested we think again. It is not enough to imagine that we graft away, striving for some point at which we might be free of labour: in future automation or artificial intelligence, for example, or in the venal fantasies of super-richness, in socialist utopias of common ownership that might liberate us from toil, or, if you are a Greek philosopher, in a life of the mind. For Arendt, it was the active life, the vita activa, that we need to attend to, the lives we live together with others, now and in the future.

More here.