Blogger Template by Blogcrowds

In section 2 of The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt offers a fascinating analysis of the difference between labor, which produces the basic necessities of life, and work, which produces tools, durable goods, artifacts. Even in 1958, though, she saw that this distinction, so basic to the human condition, was being destroyed, as all work was being turned into labor--more and more of the products of work were being treated as necessities of life to be consumed like food, rather than tools to be used. This process began in the quest for economic abundance--since possible consumption is in principle infinite, then the only way to increase wealth infinitely is to turn everything into an object of consumption. But to do this is to destroy the fabric of truly human society and reduce us again to an animal state.
But I will let her say it all in her own words, which are breathtaking as always:

"Since mankind as a whole is still very far from having reached the limit of abundance, the mode in which society may overcome this natural limitation of its own fertility can be perceived only tentatively and on a national scale. There, the solution seems to be simple enough. It consists in treating all use objects as though they were consumer goods, so that a chair or a table is now consumed as rapidly as a dress and a dress used up almost as quickly as food. This mode of intercourse with the things of the world is perfectly adequate to the way they are produced. The industrial revolution has replaced all workmanship with labor, and the result has been that the things of the modern world have become labor products whose natural fate is to be consumed, instead of work products which are there to be used."

"The endlessness of the laboring process is guaranteed by the ever-recurring needs of consumption, or if, to put it in another way, the rate of use is so tremendously accelerated that the objective difference between use and consumption, between the relative durability of use objects and the swift coming and going of consumer goods, dwindles to insignificance. In our need for more and more rapid replacement of the worldly things around us, we can no longer afford to use them, to respect and preserve their inherent durability; we must consume, devour, as it were, our houses and furniture and cars as though they were the 'good things' of nature which spoil uselessly if they are to be drawn swiftly into the never-ending cycle of man's metabolism with nature, the biological process which goes on in its very midst as well as the natural cyclical processes which surround it, delivering and abandoning to them the always threatened stability of a human world.
The ideals of homo faber, the fabricator of the world, which are permanence, stability, and durability, have been sacrificed to abundance, the ideal of the animal laborans."

"One of the obvious danger signs that we may be on our way to bring into existence the ideal of the animal laborans is the extent to which our whole economy has become a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world, if the process itself is not to come to a sudden catastrophic end. But if the ideal were already in existence and we were truly nothing but members of a consumers' society, we would no longer live in a world at all but simply be driven by a process in whose ever-recurring cycles things appear and disappear, manifest themselves and vanish, never to last long enough to surround the life process in their midst.
....Without taking things out of nature's hands and consuming them, and without defending himself against the natural processes of growth and decay, the animal laborans could never survive. But without being at home in the midst of things whose durability makes them fit for use and for erecting a world whose very permanence stands in direct contrast to life, this life would never be human."


Newer Post Older Post Home