On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 9

Index to this series

CHAPTER V Action [2]

It can be a challenge to read Hannah Arendt. At the end of the first paragraph of the present reading, she says,

Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose reali­ties, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.

If these words are themselves not empty, what are they full of? “To establish relations and create new realities” would seem to be just what George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin have tried to do in Iraq and Ukraine, even as their words are empty and deeds brutal.

I do grant, having done the next reading too, that the end of this chapter on action is very interesting.

Picnic table under the sun in the midst of of flowering groundcover and budding trees
Yıldız Parkı, April 9, 2022
Where I did some of the next reading

In the present reading, I detect the continuation of themes from last time:

  • theoreticians make things up to explain away what they do not want to recognize;
  • what they do not want to recognize is that we are capable of action.

Last time there was

  • “the Platonic-Aristotelian assumption that political communities … owe their existence to material neces­sity” (¶ 25.5, note 8, page 183);
  • “the metaphor of an actor behind the scenes,” invented by Plato and exemplified in “Providence, the ‘invisible hand,’ Nature, the ‘world spirit,’ class interest, and the like” (¶ 25.8, page 185);
  • the “invisible hand” in particular, credited to Adam Smith: it “shows plainly that more than sheer economic activity is involved in exchange.”

This time we have

  • genius, which is supposed to explain how some works of art can be great, but avoids recognizing that greatness is really a criterion for action (¶¶ 29.6–8, 30.2);
  • Adam Smith’s denigration of performance as menial labor (¶ 28.13).

I may not understand Arendt’s take on genius very well. According to her (¶ 29.6),

The frustration of the human person inherent in a community of producers and even more in commercial society is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of genius, in which, from the Ren­aissance to the end of the nineteenth century, the modern age saw its highest ideal … It is only with the beginning of our century that great artists in surprising unanimity have protested against being called “geniuses” and have insisted on craftmanship, competence, and the close relationships between art and handicraft. This protest, to be sure, is partly no more than a reaction against the vulgariza­tion and commercialization of the notion of genius; but it is also due to the more recent rise of a laboring society …

In The Principles of Art (1938; pages 312–3), Collingwood recognizes the same historical shift. However, his explanation is not the “rise of a laboring society,” but rather a rise in the recognition of art as action in the original sense described by Arendt in the previous reading (and the next). Action may be initiated by a single person, but then others must join in: Arendt says that, and here is how Collingwood does:

We have inherited a long tradition, beginning in the late eighteenth century with the cult of ‘genius’, and lasting all through the nineteenth … I have already said that this tradition is dying away. Artists are less inclined to give themselves airs than they used to be; and there are many indications that they are more willing than they were, even a generation ago, to regard their audiences as collaborators. It is perhaps no longer foolish to hope that this way of conceiving the relation between artist and audience may be worth discussing.

There are grounds for thinking that this idea of the relation is the right one … we must look at the facts; and we shall find that, whatever airs they may give themselves, artists have always been in the habit of treating the public as collaborators. On a technical theory of art, this is, in a sense, comprehensible.

To me a memorable example of this collaboration is in drama, where, as Arendt reported last time, “the specific revelatory quality of action and speech … can be represented and ‘reified’” (¶25.11, page 187). For Collingwood, at a dress rehearsal, “The company are going through the motions of acting a play, and yet no play is being acted” (page 322):

every line, every gesture, falls dead in the empty house. The company is not acting a play at all; it is performing certain actions which will become a play when there is an audience present to act as a sounding-board.

I note by the way that Collingwood says both “company are” and “company is.” I count neither construction as an error. Meanwhile, even if one works in isolation, as does every worker as such, for Arendt—even so, for Collingwood (page 313),

The man who feels that he has something to say is not only willing to say it in public: he craves to say it in public, and feels that until it has been thus said it has not been said at all.

The artist’s first audience may still be himself (pages 283–4):

Corruptions of consciousness are always partial and temporary lapses in an activity which, on the whole, is successful in doing what it tries to do. A person who on one occasion fails to express himself is a person quite accustomed to express himself successfully on other occasions, and to know that he is doing it. Through comparison of this occasion with his memory of these others, therefore, he ought to be able to see that he has failed, this time, to express himself. And this is precisely what every artist is doing when he says, ‘This line won’t do’. He remembers what the experience of expressing himself is like, and in the light of that memory he realizes that the attempt embodied in this particular line has been a failure.

Since Arendt cites so many other writers and thinkers, but not Collingwood, I infer that she did not read him. This is unfortunate, for me at least, since her comments on Collingwood would have been useful for clarifying what she is trying to say.

Summary by sections

  • 28 power and the space of appearance Power, strength, and force (or violence) are distinguished. The power of the masses can overcome strength, though perhaps only by instituting ochlocracy, to which the “best” people may respond with violence. Violence can overcome power to establish tyranny, whose characteristic feature is not cruelty, but isolation.

    Arendt does not explicitly refer to the transition in the Republic from aristocracy, timocracy, and oligarchy to democracy and then tyranny.

    She ends the section with how Adam Smith debases what were for the ancients among “the highest and greatest activities of man”: the arts whose “product” is the performance.

  • 29 Homo Faber and the space of appearance Workers appear in public, but only as producers. Somehow the notion of genius is supposed to make up for what is missing, but it cannot ultimately succeed.
  • 30 the labor movement The section may be summed up in the sentence,

    This apparently flagrant discrepancy between historical fact—the political productivity of the working class—and the phenomenal data obtained from an analysis of the laboring activity is likely to disappear upon closer inspection of the labor movement’s develop­ment and substance.

    Presumably this is the language of existential phenomenology, which Arendt is said to practice; but “phenomenal data” would seem to me to be better described as theoretical speculations. Labor as such is not supposed to be able to accomplish anything political; and indeed, though there have been revolutions in modern times, supposedly accomplished by the “working” or laboring class, the appeal had to be to all people—to “men qua men.” As usual, Arendt’s section seems to be a summary of what could be a book.

Summary by paragraphs

  • 28 power and the space of appearance
    • ¶ 28.1 People gathered together are only potentially a political community.
    • ¶ 28.2 “Power is what keeps the public realm, the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men, in existence … power is to an astonishing degree independent of material factors … ‘passive resistance’ … cannot be countered by fighting … but only by mass slaughter in which even the victor is defeated …”
    • ¶ 28.3 There is a reciprocal relationship between power and people’s staying together as a city: each one needs the other.
    • ¶ 28.4 Power is boundless like action and can be divided without decrease. However, it cannot be “be possessed like strength or applied like force,” and this is why only a unique god can be omnipotent.
    • ¶ 28.5 Strength cannot withstand power. Tyranny can destroy power but is itself impotent.
    • ¶ 28.6 “Montesquieu realized that the outstanding characteristic of tyranny was that it rested on isolation.”
    • ¶ 28.7 “Violence … can destroy power more easily than it can destroy strength … Strength … can cope with violence more success­fully than with power … Power corrupts indeed when the weak band together in order to ruin the strong, but not before. The will to power … is, like envy and greed, among the vices of the weak.”
    • ¶ 28.8 Tyranny tries, but fails, to substitute violence for power. However, “where the main public realm is society,” mob rule can successfully substitute power for strength; and “some of the best modern creative artists, thinkers, scholars, and craftsmen” may react with violence.
    • ¶ 28.9 “The melancholy wisdom of Ecclesiastes … is certainly un­avoidable wherever and whenever trust in the world as a place fit for human appearance, for action and speech, is gone.”
    • ¶ 28.10 Pericles’s Funeral Oration is unique in its “supreme confidence that men can enact and save their greatness at the same time” by “performance,” without need of making things as homo faber.
    • ¶ 28.11 Behavior is judged for its motives and aims, which are of a type; performance—action—, “only by the criterion of greatness,” which is “the specific meaning of each deed.”
    • ¶ 28.12 This “was conceptualized in Aristotle’s notion of energeia.”
    • ¶ 28.13 Adam Smith degrades action and speech by classifying as “menial services” the performative arts, “which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man.”
  • 29 Homo Faber and the space of appearance
    • ¶ 29.1 “Despite their material futility,” “speech and acting … create their own remembrance.”
    • ¶ 29.2 Labor and work seek supposedly higher ends: a life that is easier and longer and more useful and beautiful. “However … The human sense of reality demands that men actualize the sheer pas­sive givenness of their being …” “This is the meaning of the last sentence of the Dante quotation at the head of this chapter”; it “defies translation.”
    • ¶ 29.3 Decrease in common sense, increase in superstition are “almost infallible signs of alienation from the world.”
    • ¶ 29.4 Alienation is worse for the laborer, because the worker is together at least with things, and exchange is a kind of action. “Economic laws are like natural laws … only in a laboring society.”
    • ¶ 29.5 Still, the exchange market is constituted not by persons, but by producers.
    • ¶ 29.6 A laboring society rejects the notion of genius, which legitimates the pretensions to greatness of work.
    • ¶ 29.7 Genius still degrades the individual, who cannot reify his essence by himself.
    • ¶ 29.8 “Only the vulgar will condescend to derive their pride from what they have done.”
  • 30 the labor movement
    • ¶ 30.1 Work is unpolitical, but the worker is still attached to the world of things. Labor is antipolitical: laborers together form only a multiplicity, not a plurality.
    • ¶ 30.2 Thus “all those ‘values’ which derive from laboring, beyond its obvious function in the life process, are entirely ‘social’.”
    • ¶ 30.3 For labor, “the best ‘social conditions’ are those under which it is possible to lose one’s identity.”
    • ¶ 30.4 Political equality is an equality of unequals.
    • ¶ 30.5 In antiquity, a slave rebellion never asked for “freedom and justice for all.” The modern rebellion may do this, but not trade unions as such.
    • ¶ 30.6 Unions have been successful, and a new form of government—totalitarianism—has successfully been formed, but not “the system of people’s councils to take the place of the Continental party system.”
    • ¶ 30.7 In ancient times, emancipation from slavery was from labor also; in modern times, emancipation elevated labor itself, though even before the universal [male] franchise.
    • ¶ 30.8 With emancipation, “a whole new segment of the population appeared in public,” albeit “without … being admitted to society.” The sans-culotte demonstrates this appearance.
    • ¶ 30.9 “When the labor movement ap­peared on the public scene, it was the only organization in which men acted and spoke qua men—and not qua members of society.”
    • ¶ 30.10 “For this political and revolutionary role of the labor movement, which in all probability is nearing its end, it is decisive that the economic activity of its members was incidental and that its force of attraction was never restricted to the ranks of the working class.”
    • ¶ 30.11 “The politi­cal significance of the labor movement is now the same as that of any other pressure group; the time is past when, as for nearly a hundred years, it could represent the people as a whole …”

28 power and the space of appearance

¶ 28.1

The space of appearance comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action, and therefore pre­dates and precedes all formal constitution of the public realm and the various forms of government, that is, the various forms in which the public realm can be organized. Its peculiarity is that, unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, it does not sur­vive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only

  • with the dispersal of men—as in the case of great catastrophes when the body politic of a people is de­stroyed—but
  • with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.

Wherever people gather together, it is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily and not forever. That civilizations can rise and fall, that mighty empires and great cul­tures can decline and pass away without external catastrophes—and more often than not such external “causes” are preceded by a [199] less visible internal decay that invites disaster—is due to this peculiarity of the public realm, which, because it ultimately re­sides on action and speech, never altogether loses its potential character. What first undermines and then kills political com­munities is loss of power and final impotence; and power cannot be stored up and kept in reserve for emergencies, like the instru­ments of violence, but exists only in its actualization. Where power is not actualized, it passes away, and history is full of ex­amples that the greatest material riches cannot compensate for this loss. Power is actualized only

  • where word and deed have not parted company,
  • where words are not empty and deeds not brutal,
  • where
    • words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose reali­ties, and
    • deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.

Perhaps we should take the close of the paragraph as defining civilization through its absence.

Power and violence (also called force) will form a trio with strength.

Creating new realities is just what the George W. Bush administration was supposed to be doing, in the words of an anonymous official, as reported by Ron Suskind. The official denigrated the “reality-based community,” which is now the subject of a Wikipedia article. A source for the article is Unspeak (New York: Grove Press, 2006) by Steven Poole, who on page 40 quotes some of Suskind from “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004. Here is a fuller selection of Suskind’s words (the ellipsis is in the original):

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Who besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: “Look, I want your vote. I’m not going to debate it with you.” When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, “Look, I’m not going to debate it with you.”

Joe Biden may have been one of those members of Congress. Suskind quotes him as “telling the president of my many concerns” about Iraq.

Bush, Biden recalled, just looked at him, unflappably sure that the United States was on the right course and that all was well. “‘Mr. President,’ I finally said, ‘How can you be so sure when you know you don’t know the facts?’”

Biden said that Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator’s shoulder. “My instincts,” he said. “My instincts.”

Meanwhile, concerning the anonymous remarks about the reality-based community, Stephen Poole says,

This may fruitfully be read in parallel with the words of Hannah Arendt, who defined totalitarian thinkers specifically as having ‘extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.’

However, Poole gets the Arendt quote indirectly, from Pankaj Mishra, “A Cautionary Tale for Americans” (The New York Review of Books, May 26, 2005). This is a review of William Pfaff, The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia; but Pfaff talks also about Gandhi:

Gandhi was right to suspect that history in the twentieth century meant something more than how the first great historians Herodotus and Thucydides had seen it: as a record of events worth remembering or commemorating.

There is now a footnote, mentioning both Arendt and Collingwood:

For a stimulating account of the many perceptions of history see R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford University Press, revised 1993). See also Hannah Arendt, “The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern,” in Between Past and Future (Viking, 1961).

In the main text, Mishra brings up Arendt only later as follows, mentioning also the “reality-based community”:

With his many little deceptions, Malraux resembles the totalitarian thinker whose most significant quality, as Hannah Arendt once defined it, is “extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.” Although, as Pfaff points out, Malraux lied mostly about himself, this engagé intellectual now appears as a prototype of the ambitious ideologues of our time who busily create virtual realities for the rest of us, the “reality-based community,” to inhabit—even as the Asia they wish to hustle into form becomes ever more intractable.

There is no footnote for the Arendt quote.

¶ 28.2

Power is what keeps the public realm, the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men, in existence. The word itself, its Greek equivalent dynamis, like the Latin potentia with its various modern dervatives or the German Macht (which derives from mögen and möglich, not from machen), indicates its “potential” character. Power is always, as we would say, a power potential and not an unchangeable, measurable, and reliable entity like force or strength. While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse. Because of this peculiarity, which power shares with all potentialities that can only be actualized but never fully materialized, power is to an astonishing degree independent of material factors, either of numbers or means. A comparatively small but well-organized group of men can rule almost indefinitely over large and populous empires, and it is not infrequent in history that small and poor countries get the better of great and rich nations. (The story of David and Goliath is only metaphorically true; the power of a few can be greater than the power of many, but in a contest be­tween two men not power but strength decides, and cleverness, that is, brain power, contributes materially to the outcome on the same level as muscular force.) Popular revolt against materially strong rulers, on the other hand, may engender an almost irresist­ible power even if it foregoes the use of violence in the face of [200] materially vastly superior forces. To call this “passive resistance” is certainly an ironic idea; it is one of the most active and efficient ways of action ever devised, because it cannot be countered by fighting, where there may be defeat or victory, but only by mass slaughter in which even the victor is defeated, cheated of his prize, since nobody can rule over dead men.

The verb machen shares the meaning of, and is cognate with, “make.” It has the finite form appearing in the slogan Arbeit macht frei; but the noun Macht means “power” and seems to be cognate with the verb “may” (hence also with “machine”).

Arendt’s comments on passive resistance echo remarks of Orwell in “Reflections on Gandhi” (which I have in A Collection of Essays, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957):

Satyagraha, first evolved in South Africa, was a sort of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred. It entailed such things as civil disobedience, strikes, lying down in front of railway trains, enduring police charges without running away and without hitting back, and the like. Gandhi objected to ‘passive resistance’ as a translation of Satyagraha: in Gujarati, it seems, the word means ‘firmness in the truth’ … Even after he had completely abjured violence he was honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides … According to Mr [Louis] Fischer Gandhi’s view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which ‘would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence’. After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly.

… he believed in ‘arousing the world’, which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again.

¶ 28.3

The only indispensable material factor in the generation of power is the living together of people. Only where men live so close together that the potentialities of action are always present can power remain with them, and the foundation of cities, which as city-states have remained paradigmatic for all Western political organization, is therefore indeed the most important material pre­requisite for power.

  • What keeps people together after the fleeting moment of action has passed (what we today call “organization”) and
  • what, at the same time, they keep alive through remaining to­gether

is power. And whoever, for whatever reasons, isolates himself and does not partake in such being together, forfeits power and becomes impotent, no matter how great his strength and how valid his reasons.

Arendt said in the first paragraph that power could not be stored up. Wikipedia speaks of power as a capacity, thus a potential, while assigning it to individuals:

In social science and politics, power is the capacity of an individual to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct (behaviour) of others. The term authority is often used for power that is perceived as legitimate or socially approved by the social structure, not to be confused with authoritarianism.

However, Arendt is about to say that power does not belong to anybody.

¶ 28.4

If power were more than this potentiality in being together, if it could be possessed like strength or applied like force instead of being dependent upon the unreliable and only temporary agree­ment of many wills and intentions, omnipotence would be a con­crete human possibility. For power, like action, is boundless; it has no physical limitation in human nature, in the bodily existence of man, like strength. Its only limitation is the existence of other people, but this limitation is not accidental, because human power corresponds to the condition of plurality to begin with. For the same reason, power can be divided without decreasing it, and the interplay of powers with their checks and balances is even liable to generate more power, so long, at least, as the interplay is alive and has not resulted in a stalemate. Strength, on the contrary, is indivisible, and while it, too, is checked and balanced by the pres­ence of others, the interplay of plurality in this case spells a defi­nite limitation on the strength of the individual, which is kept in bounds and may be overpowered by the power potential of the many. An identification of the strength necessary for the produc­tion of things with the power necessary for action is conceivable [201] only as the divine attribute of one god. Omnipotence therefore is never an attribute of gods in polytheism, no matter how superior the strength of the gods may be to the forces of men. Conversely, aspiration toward omnipotence always implies—apart from its utopian hubris—the destruction of plurality.

In the index of the book, the current section is the earliest mention of power, except in Chapter II, where, in ¶ 4.8, Arendt points out that the ancients understood the tyrant’s power to be imperfect, “because absolute, uncontested rule and a political realm properly speaking were mutually exclusive.”

I wonder if

  • power arises from successful dialectic;
  • force knows only eristic.

I also wonder if the Greek theology was thoroughly polytheistic in Arendt’s terms. Socrates argues that the gods cannot be in conflict, or at least must not be thought of as being so.

¶ 28.5

Under the conditions of human life, the only alternative to power is not strength—which is helpless against power—but force, which indeed one man alone can exert against his fellow men and of which one or a few can possess a monopoly by acquir­ing the means of violence. But while violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it. From this results the by no means infrequent political combination of force and powerless­ness, an attay of impotent forces that spend themselves, often spectacularly and vehemently but in utter futility, leaving behind neither monuments nor stories, hardly enough memory to enter into history at all. In historical experience and traditional theory, this combination, even if it is not recognized as such, is known as tyranny, and the time-honored fear of this form of government is not exclusively inspired by its cruelty, which—as the long series of benevolent tyrants and enlightened despots attests—is not among its inevitable features, but by the impotence and futility to which it condemns the rulers as well as the ruled.

¶ 28.6

More important is a discovery made, as far as I know, only by Montesquieu, the last political thinker to concern himself serious­ly with the problem of forms of government. Montesquieu realized that the outstanding characteristic of tyranny was that it rested on isolation—on the isolation of the tyrant from his subjects and the isolation of the subjects from each other through mutual fear and suspicion—and hence that tyranny was not one form of gov­ernment among others but contradicted the essential human con­dition of plurality, the acting and speaking together, which is the condition of all forms of political organization. Tyranny prevents the development of power, not only in a particular segment of the public realm but in its entirety; it generates, in other words, im­potence as naturally as other bodies politic generate power. This, in Montesquieu’s interpretation, makes it necessary to assign it a special position in the theory of political bodies: it alone is unable to develop enough power to remain at all in the space of appear- [202] ance, the public realm; on the contrary, it develops the germs of its own destruction the moment it comes into existence.30

  1. In the words of Montesquieu, who ignores the difference between tyranny and despotism: “Le principe du gouvernement despotique se corrompt sans cesse, parcequ’il est corrompu par sa nature. Les autres gouvernements périssent, parceque des accidents particuliers en violent le principe: celui-ci périt par son vice intérieur, lorsque quelques causes accidentelles n’empéchent point son principe de se corrompre” (op. cit., Book VIII, ch. 10). [203]

¶ 28.7

Violence, curiously enough, can destroy power more easily than it can destroy strength, and while a tyranny is always char­acterized by the impotence of its subjects, who have lost their human capacity to act and speak together, it is not necessarily characterized by weakness and sterility; on the contrary, the crafts and arts may flourish under these conditions if the ruler is “benevolent” enough to leave his subjects alone in their isolation. Strength, on the other hand, nature’s gift to the individual which cannot be shared with others, can cope with violence more success­fully than with power—either heroically, by consenting to fight and die, or stoically, by accepting suffering and challenging all affliction through self-sufficiency and withdrawal from the world; in either case, the integrity of the individual and his strength re­main intact. Strength can actually be ruined only by power and is therefore always in danger from the combined force of the many. Power corrupts indeed when the weak band together in order to ruin the strong, but not before. The will to power, as the modern age from Hobbes to Nietzsche understood it in glorification or denunciation, far from being a characteristic of the strong, is, like envy and greed, among the vices of the weak, and possibly even their most dangerous one.

There seems to be an analogy

strength : power : violence :: rock : paper : scissors

Read on.

¶ 28.8

  • If tyranny can be described as the always abortive attempt to substitute violence for power,
  • ochlocracy, or mob rule, which is its exact counterpart, can be characterized by the much more promising attempt to substitute power for strength.

Power indeed can ruin all strength and we know that where the main public realm is society, there is always the danger that, through a per­verted form of “acting together”—by pull and pressure and the tricks of cliques—those are brought to the fore who know nothing and can do nothing. The vehement yearning for violence, so char- [203] acteristic of some of the best modern creative artists, thinkers, scholars, and craftsmen, is a natural reaction of those whom society has tried to cheat of their strength.31

  1. The extent to which Nietzsche’s glorification of the will to power was inspired by such experiences of the modern intellectual may be surmised from the following side remark: “Denn die Ohnmacht gegen Menschen, nicht die Ohn­macht gegen die Natur, erzeugt die desperateste Verbitterung gegen das Dasein” (Wille zur Macht, No. 55). [204]

¶ 28.9

Power preserves the public realm and the space of appearance, and as such it is also the lifeblood of the human artifice, which, unless it is the scene of action and speech, of the web of human affairs and relationships and the stories engendered by them, lacks its ultimate raison d’être.

  • Without being talked about by men and without housing them, the world would not be a human artifice but a heap of unrelated things to which each isolated individual was at liberty to add one more object;
  • without the human artifice to house them, human affairs would be as floating, as futile and vain, as the wanderings of nomad tribes.

The melancholy wisdom of Ecclesiastes—“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. … There is no new thing under the sun, … there is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after”—does not necessarily arise from specifically religious experience; but it is certainly un­avoidable wherever and whenever trust in the world as a place fit for human appearance, for action and speech, is gone.

  • Without action to bring into the play of the world the new beginning of which each man is capable by virtue of being born, “there is no new thing under the sun”;
  • without speech to materialize and memorialize, however tentatively, the “new things” that appear and shine forth, “there is no remembrance”;
  • without the enduring permanence of a human artifact, there cannot “be any remem­brance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” And
  • without power, the space of appearance brought forth through action and speech in public will fade away as rapidly as the living deed and the living word.

¶ 28.10


  • nothing in our history has been so short-lived as trust in power,
  • nothing more lasting than the Platonic and Christian distrust of the splendor attending its space of appearance,
  • nothing [204] —finally in the modern age—more common than the conviction that “power corrupts.”

The words of Pericles, as Thucydides reports them, are perhaps unique in their supreme confidence that men can enact and save their greatness at the same time and, as it were, by one and the same gesture, and that the performance as such will be enough to generate dynamis and not need the trans­forming reification of homo faber to keep it in reality.32 Pericles’ speech, though it certainly corresponded to and articulated the innermost convictions of the people of Athens, has always been read with the sad wisdom of hindsight by men who knew that his words were spoken at the beginning of the end. Yet short-lived as this faith in dynamis (and consequently in politics) may have been—and it had already come to an end when the first political phi­losophies were formulated—its bare existence has sufficed

  • to ele­vate action to the highest rank in the hierarchy of the vita activa and
  • to single out speech as the decisive distinction between human and animal life,

both of which bestowed upon politics a dignity which even today has not altogether disappeared.

  1. In the above-mentioned paragraph in the Funeral Oration (n. 27) Pericles deliberately contrasts the dynamis of the polis with the craftsmanship of the poets.

The note on the Funeral Oration is in Arendt’s ¶ 27.7.

¶ 28.11

What is outstandingly clear in Pericles’ formulations—and, in­cidentally, no less transparent in Homer’s poems—is that the innermost meaning of the acted deed and the spoken word is inde­pendent of victory and defeat and must remain untouched by any eventual outcome, by their consequences for better or worse. Unlike human behavior—which the Greeks, like all civilized people, judged according to “moral standards,” taking into ac­count motives and intentions on the one hand and aims and conse­quences on the other—action can be judged only by the criterion of greatness because it is in its nature to break through the com­monly accepted and reach into the extraordinary, where whatever is true in common and everyday life no longer applies because everything that exists is unique and sui generis.33 Thucydides, or [205] Pericles, knew full well that he had broken with the normal stand­ards for everyday behavior when he found the glory of Athens in having left behind “everywhere everlasting remembrance [mnē­meia aidia] of their good and their evil deeds.” The art of politics teaches men how to bring forth what is great and radiant—ta megala kai lampra, in the words of Democritus; as long as the polis is there to inspire men to dare the extraordinary, all things are safe; if it perishes, everything is lost.34 Motives and aims, no matter how pure or how grandiose, are never unique; like psycho­logical qualities, they are typical, characteristic of different types of persons. Greatness, therefore, or the specific meaning of each deed, can lie only in the performance itself and neither in its motivation nor its achievement.

  1. The reason why Aristotle in his Poetics finds that greatness (megethos) is a prerequisite of the dramatic plot is that the drama imitates acting and acting is judged by greatness, by its distinction from the commonplace (1450b25). The same, incidentally, is true for the beautiful, which resides in greatness and taxis, the joining together of the parts (1450b34 ff.). [205]
  2. See fragment B157 of Democritus in Diels, op. cit.

What performances has Arendt got in mind? Maybe Pirsig had Arendt’s idea when in passing from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Lila he changed the key distinction, which had been between the classical and the romantic, and was now between the static and the dynamic.

¶ 28.12

It is this insistence on the living deed and the spoken word as the greatest achievements of which human beings are capable that was conceptualized in Aristotle’s notion of energeia (“actuality”), with which he designated all activities that do not pursue an end (are ateleis) and leave no work behind (no par’ autas erga), but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself.35 It is from the experience of this full actuality that the paradoxical “end in itself” derives its original meaning; for in these instances of action and speech36 the end (telos) is not pursued but lies in the activity itself which therefore becomes an entelecheia, and the work is not what follows and extinguishes the process but is imbedded in it; the performance is the work, is energeia.37 Aristotle, in his political philosophy, is still well aware of what is at stake in politics, name­ly, no less than the ergon tou anthropou38 (the “work of man” qua [206] man), and if he defined this “work” as “to live well” (eu zēn), he clearly meant that “work” here is no work product but exists only in sheer actuality. This specifically human achievement lies alto­gether outside the category of means and ends; the “work of man” is no end because the means to achieve it—the virtues, or aretai—are not qualities which may or may not be actualized, but are themselves “actualities.” In other words, the means to achieve the end would already be the end; and this “end,” conversely, cannot be considered a means in some other respect, because there is nothing higher to attain than this actuality itself.

  1. For the concept of energeia see Nicomachean Ethics 1094a1–5; Physics 201b31; On the Soul 417a16, 431a6. The examples most frequently used are seeing and flute-playing.
  2. It is of no importance in our context that Aristotle saw the highest possi­bility of “actuality” not in action and speech, but in contemplation and thought, in theōria and nous.
  3. The two Aristotelian concepts, energeia and entelecheia, are closely inter­related (energeia … synteinei pros ten entelecheian): full actuality (energeia) effects and produces nothing besides itself, and full reality (entelecheia) has no other end besides itself (see Metaphysics 1050a22–35).
  4. Nicomachean Ethics 1097b22. [206]

The cited passage of the Ethics is the opening (here with the translation of Roger Crisp (Cambridge University Press, 2000):

πᾶσα τέχνη καὶ πᾶσα μέθοδος,
ὁμοίως δὲ πρᾶξίς τε καὶ προαίρεσις,
ἀγαθοῦ τινὸς ἐφίεσθαι δοκεῖ:
διὸ καλῶς ἀπεφήναντο τἀγαθόν,
οὗ πάντ᾽ ἐφίεται.
διαφορὰ δέ τις φαίνεται τῶν τελῶν:

  • τὰ μὲν γάρ εἰσιν ἐνέργειαι,
  • τὰ δὲ παρ᾽ αὐτὰς ἔργα τινά.

Every skill and every inquiry,
and similarly every action and rational choice,
is thought to aim at some good;
and so the good has been aptly described as
that at which everything aims.
But it is clear that there is some difference between ends:

  • some ends are activities, while
  • others are products which are additional to the activities.

¶ 28.13

It is like a feeble echo of the prephilosophical Greek experience of action and speech as sheer actuality to read time and again in political philosophy since Democritus and Plato that politics is a technē, belongs among the arts, and can be likened to such activities as healing or navigation, where, as in the performance of the dancer or play-actor, the “product” is identical with the perform­ing act itself. But we may gauge what has happened to action and speech, which are only in actuality, and therefore the highest ac­tivities in the political realm, when we hear what modern society, with the peculiar and uncompromising consistency that charac­terized it in its early stages, had to say about them. For this all-important degradation of action and speech is implied when Adam Smith classifies all occupations which rest essentially on perform­ance—such as the military profession, “churchmen, lawyers, physicians and opera-singers”—together with “menial services,” the lowest and most unproductive “labour.”39 It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man.

  1. Wealth of Nations (Everyman’s ed.), II, 295.

Smith could not, or did not want to, recognize action as such. Arendt said this too in the parenthesis in ¶ 25.8:

the simple fact that Adam Smith needed an “invisible hand” to guide econom­ic dealings on the exchange market shows plainly that more than sheer economic activity is involved in exchange and that “eco­nomic man,” when he makes his appearance on the market, is an acting being and neither exclusively a producer nor a trader and barterer.

Smith still somehow knew that action was essential, but could not trust individuals with it in his theory.

29 Homo Faber and the space of appearance

¶ 29.1

The root of the ancient estimation of politics is the conviction that man qua man, each individual in his unique distinctness, appears and confirms himself in speech and action, and that these activi- [207] ties, despite their material futility, possess an enduring quality of their own because they create their own remembrance.40 The public realm, the space within the world which men need in order to appear at all, is therefore more specifically “the work of man” than is the work of his hands or the labor of his body.

  1. This is a decisive feature of the Greek, though perhaps not of the Roman, concept of “virtue”: where aretē is, oblivion cannot occur (cf. Aristotle Nicom­achean Ethics 1100b12–17).

I think of how one had to exercise one’s memory more, because writing materials were not so readily available. Phaedrus borrowed the text of the speech of Lysias, not to make his own written copy, but to learn it by heart.

In mathematics there was no written symbolism, beyond letters themselves. The mathematics too was to be learned by heart, not stored away on paper.

¶ 29.2

The conviction that the greatest that man can achieve is his own appearance and actualization is by no means a matter of course. Against it stands

  • the conviction of homo faber that a man’s products may be more—and not only more lasting—than he is himself, as well as
  • the animal laborans’ firm belief that life is the highest of all goods.

Both, therefore, are, strictly speaking, unpolitical, and will incline to denounce action and speech as idleness, idle busybody­ness and idle talk, and generally will judge public activities in terms of their usefulness to supposedly higher ends

  • to make the world more useful and more beautiful in the case of homo faber,
  • to make life easier and longer in the case of the animal laborans.

This, however, is not to say that they are free to dispense with a public realm altogether, for without a space of appearance and without trusting in action and speech as a mode of being together, neither the reality of one’s self, of one’s own identity, nor the reality of the surrounding world can be established beyond doubt. The human sense of reality demands that men actualize the sheer pas­sive givenness of their being, not in order to change it but in order to make articulate and call into full existence what otherwise they would have to suffer passively anyhow.41 This actualization re­sides and comes to pass in those activities that exist only in sheer actuality.

  1. This is the meaning of the last sentence of the Dante quotation at the head of this chapter; the sentence, though quite clear and simple in the Latin original, defies translation (De monarchia i. 13). [208]

We are something more than laborers and workers; but try to say what more we are—or perhaps I should say who we are—and we end up talking about “actualizing the sheer passive givenness of our being.”

Here is the 1904 translation of the Dante by Aurelian Henry Reinhardt (who “was a peace activist during the First World War, an active member of the Republican Party, and supported the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles as well as the formation of the League of Nations”), digitized at the Online Library of Liberty:

In every action the chief intent of the agent, whether it act by necessity of nature or by choice, is to unfold its own likeness; whence it is that every agent, in so far as it acts in this way, delights in action. Since every existent thing desires its existence, and since an agent in action amplifies its existence to a certain extent, delight necessarily ensues … Nothing can act, therefore, unless existing already as that which the thing acted upon is to become.

The ellipsis replaces, “for delight is bound up in the thing desired.” Arendt’s translation was,

For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or out of free will, is the disclosure of his own image. Hence it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows. … Thus, nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.

¶ 29.3

The only character of the world by which to gauge its reality is its being common to us all, and common sense occupies such a high rank in the hierarchy of political qualities because it is the one sense that fits into reality as a whole our five strictly individual senses and the strictly particular data they perceive. It is by virtue [208] of common sense that the other sense perceptions are known to disclose reality and are not merely felt as irritations of our nerves or resistance sensations of our bodies. A noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world.

Common sense is controversial. It can be either of two capacities:

  1. To recognize the same things through different senses (as when I use my eye to see the gull now squawking outside my window).
  2. To get along in the world of people.

Does anybody lack the first kind of common sense, as some people lack proprioception? I suppose it is lack of the second kind that Arendt takes for a sign of alienation; but then is alienation itself something different? Perhaps not; read on.

¶ 29.4

This alienation—the atrophy of the space of appearance and the withering of common sense—is, of course, carried to a much greater extreme in the case of a laboring society than in the case of a society of producers. In his isolation, not only undisturbed by others but also not seen and heard and confirmed by them, homo faber is together not only with the product he makes but also with the world of things to which he will add his own products; in this, albeit indirect, way, he is still together with others who made the world and who also are fabricators of things. We have already mentioned the exchange market on which the craftsmen meet their peers and which represents to them a common public realm in so far as each of them has contributed something to it. Yet while the public realm as exchange market corresponds most adequately to the activity of fabrication, exchange itself already belongs in the field of action and is by no means a mere prolongation of production; it is even less a mere function of automatic processes, as the buying of food and other means of consumption is necessarily incidental to laboring. Marx’s contention that economic laws are like natural laws, that they are not made by man to regulate the free acts of exchange but are functions of the productive conditions of society as a whole, is correct only in a laboring society, where all activi­ties are leveled down to the human body’s metabolism with nature and where no exchange exists but only consumption.

Labor seems now to be inherently alienating; but in our fourth reading, in ¶ 14.8, Arendt admired it, saying,

The “blessing or the joy” of labor is the human way to experience the sheer bliss of being alive which we share with all living creatures … The Old Testament, which, unlike classical antiquity, held life to be sacred and therefore neither death nor labor to be an evil (and least of all an argument against life), shows in the stories of the patriarchs how unconcerned about death their lives were …

¶ 29.5

However, the people who meet on the exchange market are primarily not persons but producers of products, and what they show there is never themselves, not even their skills and qualities as in the “conspicuous production” of the Middle Ages, but their products. The impulse that drives the fabricator to the public market place is the desire for products, not for people, and the power that holds this market together and in existence is not the potentiality which springs up between people when they come together in action and speech, but a combined “power of ex- [209] change” (Adam Smith) which each of the participants acquired in isolation. It is this lack of relatedness to others and this primary concern with exchangeable commodities which Marx denounced as the dehumanization and self-alienation of commercial society, which indeed excludes men qua men and demands, in striking reversal of the ancient relationship between private and public, that men show themselves only in the privacy of their families or the intimacy of their friends.

The “reversal of the ancient relationship between private and public” has something to do with liberation of slaves, hasn’t it?

¶ 29.6

The frustration of the human person inherent in a community of producers and even more in commercial society is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of genius, in which, from the Ren­aissance to the end of the nineteenth century, the modern age saw its highest ideal. (Creative genius as the quintessential expression of human greatness was quite unknown to antiquity or the Middle Ages.) It is only with the beginning of our century that great artists in surprising unanimity have protested against being called “geniuses” and have insisted on craftmanship, competence, and the close relationships between art and handicraft. This protest, to be sure, is partly no more than a reaction against the vulgariza­tion and commercialization of the notion of genius; but it is also due to the more recent rise of a laboring society, for which pro­ductivity or creativity is no ideal and which lacks all experiences from which the very notion of greatness can spring. What is im­portant in our context is that the work of genius, as distinguished from the product of the craftsman, appears to have absorbed those elements of distinctness and uniqueness which find their immedi­ate expression only in action and speech. The modern age’s obses­sion with the unique signature of each artist, its unprecedented sensitivity to style, shows a preoccupation with those features by which the artist transcends his skill and workmanship in a way similar to the way each person’s uniqueness transcends the sum total of his qualities. Because of this transcendence, which indeed distinguishes the great work of art from all other products of hu­man hands, the phenomenon of the creative genius seemed like the highest legitimation for the conviction of homo faber that a man’s products may be more and essentially greater than himself.

Genius is like the invisible hand, something invented to explain what one wants to avoid understanding. Read on.

¶ 29.7

However, the great reverence the modern age so willingly paid to genius, so frequently bordering on idolatry, could hardly change [210] the elementary fact that the essence of who somebody is cannot be reified by himself. When it appears “objectively”—in the style of an art work or in ordinary handwriting—it manifests the iden­tity of a person and therefore serves to identify authorship, but it remains mute itself and escapes us if we try to interpret it as the mirror of a living person. In other words, the idolization of genius harbors the same degradation of the human person as the other tenets prevalent in commercial society.

Genius is invented to hide the need for others.

¶ 29.8

It is an indispensable element of human pride to believe that who somebody is transcends in greatness and importance any­thing he can do and produce. “Let physicians and confectioners and the servants of the great houses be judged by what they have done, and even by what they have meant to do; the great people themselves are judged by what they are.”42 Only the vulgar will condescend to derive their pride from what they have done; they will, by this condescension, become the “slaves and prisoners” of their own faculties and will find out, should anything more be left in them than sheer stupid vanity, that to be one’s own slave and prisoner is no less bitter and perhaps even more shameful than to be the servant of somebody else. It is not the glory but the pre­dicament of the creative genius that in his case the superiority of man to his work seems indeed inverted, so that he, the living creator, finds himself in competition with his creations which he outlives, although they may survive him eventually. The saving grace of all really great gifts is that the persons who bear their burden remain superior to what they have done, at least as long as the source of creativity is alive; for this source springs indeed from who they are and remains outside the actual work process as well as independent of what they may achieve. That the pre­dicament of genius is nevertheless a real one becomes quite ap­parent in the case of the literati, where the inverted order between man and his product is in fact consummated; what is so outrageous in their case, and incidentally incites popular hatred even more than spurious intellectual superiority, is that even their worst product is likely to be better than they are themselves. It is the hallmark of the “intellectual” that he remains quite undisturbed [211] by “the terrible humiliation” under which the true artist or writer labors, which is “to feel that he becomes the son of his work,” in which he is condemned to see himself “as in a mirror, limited, such and such.”43

  1. I use here Isak Dinesen’s wonderful story “The Dreamers,” in Seven Gothic Tales (Modern Library ed.), especially pp. 340 ff. [211]
  2. The full text of the aphorism of Paul Valéry from which the quotations are taken reads as follows: “Créateur créé. Qui vient d’achever un long ouvrage le voit former enfin un étre qu’il n’avait pas voulu, qu’il n’a pas conçu, précisément puisqu’il l’a enfanté, et ressent cette terrible humiliation de se sentir devenir le fils de son œuvre, de lui emprunter des traits irrécusables, une ressemblance, des manies, une borne, un miroir; et ce qu’il a de pire dans un miroir, s’y voir limité, tel et tel” (Tel quel II, 149).

For Arendt, is pride a vice? I wonder to what extent the appeal of Christianity—Islam too—was not having to care about whether one was “great.” As Fred Rogers says, “You are an important person just the way you are … You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you.”

The quote of Isak Dinesen (pseudonym of Karen Blixen) is on page 423 of the undated Putnam edition (Covent Garden, London) from the Digital Library of India at the Internet Archive; “The Dreamers” is on pages 339–442. A story is being recounted about a woman injured in a theater fire in Milan while singing as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni:

I sat in the darkened room and thought of the case. This to her is, I thought, like what it would be to the priest to find the miracle-working image of the Virgin, which he has served, only a profane, an obscene, pagan idol, hollow and gnawed by rats. Like what it would be to the wife to find her heroic husband no hero, but a lunatic or a clown.

No, I thought again, it is not like that. I knew the distress to which hers might be compared. The distress of the royal bride, who goes, with a kingdom for her dowry, adorned with the treasures of her father’s house, her young bridegroom, a king’s son, waiting for her, the city decorated for her welcome, and ringing with cymbals and songs of maidens and youths, and who is ravished by robbers on her way. Yes, it was like that, I thought.

None of the great people arriving from all parts of the world to inquire about her ever obtained access to her house. From that fact grew the rumour that she lay dying. What would they have said had she let them come in, I wondered. That she was still young and beautiful, and beloved by them all?

What would those people, I thought, have said to the ravished royal virgin to comfort her? That she was young and lovely still, and that her bridegroom would cherish her? They might have told her that she had no fault, and had done nothing wrong: “There is no sin in her worthy of death, for he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.” But the consolations of the vulgar are bitter in the royal ear. Let physicians and confectioners and the servants in the great houses be judged by what they have done, and even by what they have meant to do; the great people themselves are judged by what they are. I have been told that lions, trapped and shut up in cages, grieve from shame more than from hunger.

30 the labor movement

¶ 30.1

The activity of work, for which isolation from others is a neces­sary prerequisite, although it may not be able to establish an autonomous public realm in which men qua men can appear, still is connected with this space of appearances in many ways; at the very least, it remains related to the tangible world of things it produced. Workmanship, therefore, may be an unpolitical way of life, but it certainly is not an antipolitical one. Yet this precisely is the case of laboring, an activity in which man is neither to­gether with the world nor with other people, but alone with his body, facing the naked necessity to keep himself alive.44 To be sure, he too lives in the presence of and together with others, but this togetherness has none of the distinctive marks of true plurali­ty. It does not consist in the purposeful combination of different skills and callings as in the case of workmanship (let alone in the relationships between unique persons), but exists in the multipli­cation of specimens which are fundamentally all alike because they are what they are as mere living organisms. [212]

  1. The loneliness of the laborer qua laborer is usually overlooked in the liter­ature on the subject because social conditions and the organization of labor de­mand the simultaneous presence of many laborers for any given task and break down all barriers of isolation. However, M. Halbwachs (La classe ouvriére et les niveaux de vie [1913]) is aware of the phenomenon: “L’ouvrier est celui qui dans et par son travail ne se trouve en rapport qu’avec de la matiére, et non avec des hommes” and finds in this inherent lack of contact the reason why, for so many centuries, this whole class was put outside society (p. 118). [212]

¶ 30.2

It is indeed in the nature of laboring to bring men together in the form of a labor gang where any number of individuals “labor together as though they were one,”45 and in this sense togetherness may permeate laboring even more intimately than any other activity.46 But this “collective nature of labor,”47 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. The sociability arising out of those activi­ties which spring from the human body’s metabolism with nature rest [sic] not on equality but on sameness, and from this viewpoint it is perfectly true that “by nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter as a mastiff is from a greyhound.” This remark of Adam Smith, which Marx quoted with great delight,48 indeed fits a consumers’ society much [213] better than the gathering of people on the exchange market, which brings to light the skills and qualities of the producers and thus always provides some basis for distinction.

  1. Viktor von Weizsäcker, the German psychiatrist, describes the relation­ship between laborers during their labor as follows: “Es ist zunächst bemerkens­wert, dass die zwei Arbeiter sich zusammen verhalten, als ob sie einer wären. … Wir haben hier einen Fall von Kollektivbildung vor uns, der in der annähernden Identitat oder Einswerdung der zwei Individuen besteht. Man kann auch sagen, dass zwei Personen durch Verschmelzung eine einzige dritte geworden seien; aber die Regeln, nach der diese dritte arbeitet, unterscheiden sich in nichts von der Arbeit ciner einzigen Person” (“Zum Begriff der Arbeit,” in Festschrift für Alfred Weber [1948], pp. 739–40).
  2. This seems to be the reason why, etymologically, “Arbeit und Ge­meinschaft für den Menschen älterer geschichtlicher Stufen grosse Inhaltsflächen gemeinsam [haben]” (for the relation between labor and community see Jost Trier, “Arbeit und Gemeinschaft,” Studium Generale, Vol. II, No. 11 [Novem­ber, 1950]).
  3. See R. P. Genelli (“Facteur humain ou facteur social du travail,” Revue française du travail, Vol. VII, Nos. 1–3 (January-March, 1952]), who believes that a “new solution of the labor problem” should be found which would take into account the “collective nature of labor” and therefore provide not for the individual laborer but for him as member of his group. This “new” solution is of course the one prevailing in modern society.
  4. Adam Smith, op. cit., I, 15, and Marx, Das Elend der Philosophie (Stuttgart, 1885), p. 125: Adam Smith “hat sehr wohl gesehen, dass ‘in Wirklichkeit die [213] Verschiedenheit der natürlichen Anlagen zwischen den Individuen weit geringer ist als wir glauben.’ … Ursprünglich unterscheidet sich ein Lasttrager weniger von einem Philosophen als ein Kettenhund von einem Windhund. Es ist die Arbeitsteilung, welche einen Abgrund zwischen beiden aufgetan hat.” Marx uses the term “division of labor” indiscriminately for professional specialization and for the dividing of the labor process itself, but means here of course the former. Professional specialization is indeed a form of distinction, and the craftsman or professional worker, even if he is helped by others, works essentially in isolation. He meets others qua worker only when it comes to the exchange of products. In the true division of labor, the laborer cannot accomplish anything in isolation; his effort is only part and function of the effort of all laborers among whom the task is divided. But these other laborers qua laborers are not different from him, they are all the same. Thus, it is not the relatively recent division of labor, but the age-old professional specialization which “opened the gulf” between the street porter and the philosopher.

¶ 30.3

The sameness prevailing in a society resting on labor and con­sumption and expressed in its conformity is intimately connected with the somatic experience of laboring together, where the bio­logical rhythm of labor unites the group of laborers to the point that each may feel that he is no longer an individual but actually one with all others. To be sure, this eases labor’s toil and trouble in much the same way as marching together eases the effort of walking for each soldier. It is therefore quite true that for the animal laborans “labor’s sense and value depend entirely upon the social conditions,” that is, upon the extent to which the labor and consumption process is permitted to function smoothly and easily, independent of “professional attitudes properly speaking”;49 the trouble is only that the best “social conditions” are those under which it is possible to lose one’s identity. This unitedness of many into one is basically antipolitical; it is the very opposite of the togetherness prevailing in political or commercial communities, which—to take the Aristotelian example—consist not of an asso­ciation (koinōnia) between two physicians, but between a physi- [214] cian and a farmer, “and in general between people who are differ­ent and unequal.”50

  1. Alain Touraine, L’évolution du travail owvrier aux usines Renault (1955), p. 177. [214]
  2. Nicomachean Ethics 1133a16.

¶ 30.4

The equality attending the public realm is necessarily an equali­ty of unequals who stand in need of being “equalized” in certain respects and for specific purposes. As such, the equalizing factor arises not from human “nature” but from outside, just as money—to continue the Aristotelian example—is needed as an outside fac­tor to equate the unequal activities of physician and farmer. Politi­cal equality, therefore, is the very opposite

  • of our equality before death, which as the common fate of all men arises out of the human condition, or
  • of equality before God, at least in its Christian interpretation, where we are confronted with an equality of sin­fulness inherent in human nature.

In these instances, no equalizer is needed because sameness prevails anyhow; by the same token, however, the actual experience of this sameness, the experience of life and death, occurs not only in isolation but in utter loneliness, where no true communication, let alone association and commu­nity, is possible. From the viewpoint of the world and the public realm, life and death and everything attesting to sameness are non-worldly, antipolitical, truly transcendent experiences.

¶ 30.5

The incapacity of the animal laborans for distinction and hence for action and speech seems to be confirmed by the striking ab­sence of serious slave rebellions in ancient and modern times.51 No less striking, however, is the sudden and frequently extraor­dinarily productive role which the labor movements have played in modern politics. From the revolutions of 1848 to the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the European working class, by virtue of being the only organized and hence the leading section of the people, has written one of the most glorious and probably the most prom­ising chapter of recent history. However, although the line be­tween political and economic demands, between political organi­zations and trade unions, was blurred enough, the two should not [215] be confused. The trade unions, defending and fighting for the interests of the working class, are responsible for its eventual incorporation into modern society, especially for an extraordinary increase in economic security, social prestige, and political power. The trade unions were never revolutionary in the sense that they desired a transformation of society together with a transformation of the political institutions in which this society was represented, and the political parties of the working class have been interest parties most of the time, in no way different from the parties which represented other social classes. A distinction appeared only in those rare and yet decisive moments when during the process of a revolution it suddenly turned out that these people, if not led by official party programs and ideologies, had their own ideas about the possibilities of democratic government under modern condi­tions. In other words, the dividing line between the two is not a matter of extreme social and economic demands but solely of the proposition of a new form of government.

  1. The decisive point is that modern rebellions and revolutions always asked for freedom and justice for all, whereas in antiquity “slaves never raised the demand of freedom as an inalienable right for all men, and there never was an attempt to achieve abolition of slavery as such through combined action” (W. L. Westermann, “Sklaverei,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Suppl. VI, p. 981). [215]

¶ 30.6

What is so easily overlooked by the modern historian who faces the rise of totalitarian systems, especially when he deals with developments in the Soviet Union, is that

  • just as the modern masses and their leaders succeeded, at least temporarily, in bring­ing forth in totalitarianism an authentic, albeit all-destructive, new form of government,
  • thus the people’s revolutions, for more than a hundred years now, have come forth, albeit never successfully, with another new form of government: the system of people’s councils to take the place of the Continental party system, which, one is tempted to say, was discredited even before it came into existence.52

The historical destinies of the two trends in the work- [216] ing class, the trade-union movement and the people’s political as­pirations, could not be more at variance:

  • the trade unions, that is, the working class in so far as it is but one of the classes of modern society, have gone from victory to victory, while at the same time
  • the political labor movement has been defeated each time it dared to put forth its own demands, as distinguished from party pro­grams and economic reforms.

If the tragedy of the Hungarian revolution achieved nothing more than that it showed the world that, all defeats and all appearances notwithstanding, this political élan has not yet died, its sacrifices were not in vain.

  1. It is important to keep in mind the sharp difference in substance and politi­cal function between the Continental party system and both the British and Amer­ican systems. It is a decisive, though little noticed, fact in the development of European revolutions that the slogan of Councils (Soviets, Räte, etc.) was never raised by the parties and movements which took an active hand in organizing them, but always sprang from spontaneous rebellions; as such, the councils were neither properly understood nor particularly welcomed by the ideologists of the various movements who wanted to use the revolution in order to impose a precon­ceived form of government on the people. The famous slogan of the Kronstadt rebellion, which was one of the decisive turning points of the Russian Revolution, [216] was: Soviets without Communism; and this at the time implied: Soviets without parties.

    The thesis that the totalitarian regimes confront us with a new form of govern­ment is explained at some length in my article, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” Review of Politics (July, 1953). A more detailed analysis of the Hungarian revolution and the council system can be found in a recent article, “Totalitarian Imperialism,” Journal of Politics (February, 1958). [217]

¶ 30.7

This apparently flagrant discrepancy between

  • historical fact—the political productivity of the working class—and
  • the phenomenal data obtained from an analysis of the laboring activity

is likely to disappear upon closer inspection of the labor movement’s develop­ment and substance. The chief difference between slave labor and modern, free labor is

  • not that the laborer possesses personal free­dom—freedom of movement, economic activity, and personal in­violability—
  • but that he is admitted to the political realm and fully emancipated as a citizen.

The turning point in the history of labor came with the abolition of property qualifications for the right to vote. Up to this time the status of free labor had been very similar to the status of the constantly increasing emancipated slave popula­tion in antiquity; these men were free, being assimilated to the status of resident aliens, but not citizens.

  • In contrast to ancient slave emancipations, where as a rule the slave ceased to be a laborer when he ceased to be a slave, and where, therefore, slavery re­mained the social condition of laboring no matter how many slaves were emancipated,
  • the modern emancipation of labor was intended to elevate the laboring activity itself, and this was achieved long before the laborer as a person was granted personal and civil rights.

When Arendt talks about “phenomenal data obtained from an analysis of the laboring activity,” perhaps she is talking only about what she is doing in the book, as by first analyzing activity into labor, work, and action.

The “turning point in the history of labor” did not happen in a single year, did it?

Women’s suffrage is not a concern. The last mention of women in the Index of the book is a supercilious comment from ¶ 9.9:

The fact that the modern age emancipated the working classes and the women at nearly the same historical moment must cer­tainly be counted among the characteristics of an age which no longer believes that bodily functions and material concerns should be hidden.

¶ 30.8

However, one of the important side effects of the actual emanci- [217] pation of laborers was that a whole new segment of the population was more or less suddenly admitted to the public realm, that is, appeared in public,53 and this

  • without at the same time being ad­mitted to society,
  • without playing any leading role in the all-impor­tant economic activities of this society, and
  • without, therefore, being absorbed by the social realm and, as it were, spirited away from the public.

The decisive role of mere appearance, of distin­guishing oneself and being conspicuous in the realm of human affairs is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the fact that laborers, when they entered the scene of history, felt it necessary to adopt a costume of their own, the sans-culotte, from which, dur­ing the French Revolution, they even derived their name.54 By this costume they won a distinction of their own, and the distinction was directed against all others.

  1. An anecdote, reported by Seneca from imperial Rome, may illustrate how dangerous mere appearance in public was thought to be. At that time a proposition was laid before the senate to have slaves dress uniformly in public so that they could immediately be distinguished from free citizens. The proposition was turned down as too dangerous, since the slaves would now be able to recognize each other and become aware of their potential power. Modern interpreters were of course inclined to conclude from this incident that the number of slaves at the time must have been very great, yet this conclusion turned out to be quite er­roneous. What the sound political instinct of the Romans judged to be dangerous was appearance as such, quite independent from the number of people involved (see Westermann, op. cit., p. 1000).
  2. A. Soboul (“Problèmes de travail en l’an II,” Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique, Vol. LII, No. 1 [January–March, 1955]) describes very well how the workers made their first appearance on the historical scene: “Les travailleurs ne sont pas désignés par leur fonction sociale, mais simplement par leur costume. Les ouvriers adoptérent le pantalon boutonné à la veste, et ce costume devint une caractéristique du peuple: des sans-culottes … ‘en parlant des sans-culottes, dé­clare Petion à la Convention, le 10 avril 1793, on n’entend pas tous les citoyens, les nobles et les aristocrates exceptés, mais on entend des hommes qui n’ont pas, pour les distinguer de ceux qui ont.’” [218]

¶ 30.9

The very pathos of the labor movement in its early stages—and it is still in its early stages in all countries where capitalism has not reached its full development, in Eastern Europe, for example, but also in Italy or Spain and even in France—stemmed from its fight against society as a whole. The enormous power potential these movements acquired in a relatively short time and often under very [218] adverse circumstances sprang from the fact that despite all the talk and theory they were the only group on the political scene which not only defended its economic interests but fought a full-fledged political battle. In other words, when the labor movement ap­peared on the public scene, it was the only organization in which men acted and spoke qua men—and not qua members of society.

¶ 30.10

For this political and revolutionary role of the labor movement, which in all probability is nearing its end, it is decisive

  • that the economic activity of its members was incidental and
  • that its force of attraction was never restricted to the ranks of the working class.

If for a time it almost looked as if the movement would succeed in founding, at least within its own ranks, a new public space with new political standards, the spring of these attempts was not la­bor—neither the laboring activity itself nor the always utopian re­bellion against life’s necessity—but those injustices and hypocrisies which have disappeared with the transformation of a class society into a mass society and with the substitution of a guaranteed an­nual wage for daily or weekly pay.

¶ 30.11

The workers today are no longer outside of society; they are its members, and they are jobholders like everybody else. The politi­cal significance of the labor movement is now the same as that of any other pressure group; the time is past when, as for nearly a hundred years, it could represent the people as a whole—if we understand by le peuple the actual political body, distinguished as such from the population as well as from society.55 (In the Hun­garian revolution the workers were in no way distinguished from the rest of the people; what from 1848 to 1918 had been almost a monopoly of the working class—the notion of a parliamentary sys­tem based on councils instead of parties—had now become the unan­imous demand of the whole people.) The labor movement, equivocal in its content and aims from the beginning, lost this representation and hence its political role at once

  • wherever the working class be­came an integral part of society, a social and economic power of its own as in the most developed economies of the Western world, or [219]
  • where it “succeeded” in transforming the whole population into a labor society as in Russia and as may happen elsewhere even under non-totalitarian conditions.

Under circumstances where even the exchange market is being abolished, the withering of the public realm, so conspicuous throughout the modern age, may well find its consummation.

  1. Originally, the term le peuple, which became current at the end of the eighteenth century, designated simply those who had no property. As we men­tioned before, such a class of completely destitute people was not known prior to the modern age.

Is the labor movement a victim of its own success?

One Trackback

  1. […] §§ 28–30 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: