Thursday, November 19, 2009

Notes on an Elementary Ethical Understanding of Labor

(The following is a potential guide blueprint for a discussion of the trinity of movement that Arendt discusses in The Human Condition. Please critique and contribute some points, as well as point out problematic issues or likely misconceptions).

Labor and work, for Hannah Arendt, are two distinct words as contextualized in her work The Human Condition: the first being a movement which produces products that could be easily consumed and the other one turning out works of craftsmanship seen to stand the test of time. Despite sharing the likely similar ancestor, the Latin word labore which puts forward the image of the person in the movement as being incorporated into the process of creation, they have evolved into highly different denotions. LABOR has been classically shown to be of a “slavish nature,” present in “all occupations that served the needs for the maintenance of life.” (THC 83). I cannot help but remember the character of an old fencing master, Don Manuel Escalante, in Isabel Allende’s rendering of the masked vigilante Zorro, which stated that “the only occupations worthy of a gentleman are those without tangible products.” In devoting oneself to the practices of labor, one would be indeed intimate, but nevertheless sucked up in the cycle of nature’s creation and destruction, one’s means of existence being as flitting as the wind of necessity and therefore dispensable. It is not probably without reason that one would be moved by Edwin Markham’s description of such a condition in his poem The Man with the Hoe.

With the ideal being presented as freedom from necessity, one might argue that Arendt is being elitist (as evidenced by Hannah Pitkin’s critique, Fry 57) in the sense that the practice of politics presupposes a certain level of wealth necessary, therefore exclusive, therefore anti-democratic as well. However, it would be an injustice to Arendt to claim such due to her very persistent stressing of a permanent necessity of pluralistic concerns, a means by which communal unity might be assured for the maintenance of the importance of the political life. It is unfortunate, we have to give it, but there are also opportunities of satisfaction to be had from practices of labor by which one partakes in being an animal laborans. (Fry 42). They may have an understanding that their condition and formation is suited for such an activity (which probably necessitated the mythology of elemental biology [i.e. rulers have qualities of gold while the participants of labor have qualities of bronze or iron] in Plato’s The Republic, 451a-c), which contributes to an organic view of the functioning of an ideal state. We might even think of it as actually consistent to our Christian understanding of vocation, in the sense that though they are put there as per ideas of predestination, they still choose to persist as practice of whatever little freedoms they have as slaves, and not commit suicide or choose to rebel and run away, bearing another proscription (as in the conflict discussed in the Epistle of Paul to Philemon). The reality remains, though, that in such conditions participants to labor are not considered persons worthy of public life as well, so that is, to use an economic term, an opportunity cost. It gives us an idea as to why it would not only be anti-democratic to forcefully emancipate people from their slavish duties as proponents of the radical Left are prone to, it would also upset the field of politics as discourse, elucidation and persuasion.

With such contexts and situations being understood, we see why labor is more often than not mostly related to the maintenance of the family, the private sphere by which most of us are given sustenance for the development of ourselves as participants in the public life. The danger, however, lies when labor has become the fetish for existence and accumulation, as Marx would appear to have noticed in Capital Volume 1:

… the means of production and subsistence, while they remain the property of the immediate producer, are not capital. They become capital only under circumstances in which they serve at the same time as means of exploitation and subjection of the labourer. But this capitalist soul of theirs is so intimately wedded, in the head of the political economist, to their material substance, that he christens them capital under all circumstances, even when they are its exact opposite.

If labor is characterized as already traipsing the fine line separating humans from animals, the fetish for labor as the very existence is an unhealthy assumption of the animalistic capacity of humankind. We might even dare to say it is a violation of the Machiavellian balance regarding virtu which in itself promotes the utilization of animalistic tendencies when the situation of necessity arises.

We must remember that labor is an essential tool, a stepping stone if you will, by which the practices of work and action are given potential to exist and therefore proliferate. The sustenance by which people outside the labouring force enjoy permits the fabricating or “working” nature of humans, the homo faber. As Arendt has succinctly proposed: “No work can be produced without tools, and the birth of homo faber and the coming into being of a man-made world of things are actually coeval with the discovery of tools and instruments.” (THC, 121). And yet work appears to be more destructive than labor due to its nature of “wrestling raw materials” from the Earth before being made into more stable fabrications. Though “labor, too, joins to nature something of man's own, but the proportion between what nature gives— the "good things"—and what man adds is the very opposite in the products of labor and the products of work.” (THC 103). Work, though essential to the fulfilment of praxis, is no less destructive, binding and, to a current perspective “dehumanizing” than labor.

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