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Commentary on The Human Condition - III

In the beginning of chapter III on Labor, Hannah Arendt emphasis that a distinction between work and labor must be made since even Karl Marx considered both terms interchangeable. The word labour is derived from the Latin words laborare and fabricare in which the root of the word implies a pain or a trouble of the body.1 After the fifth century BC, the Greek polis as well as the Romans, started classifying occupations according to the extent of which the body of their subjects is deteriorated.2 This in turn was the reasoning for which the ancients justified and defended the slavery institution, according to the idea of which, the slave was akin to a tamed animal whose sole function is to be subjected to the pain of labor. Unlike the function of the slavery institution that was embraced as an instrument for colonization and increasing profits by Western Europe during the 15th to the mid-18th centuries, ancient slavery institutions saw slavery as a mean for excluding labor from the condition of human life.3

The fundamental distinction between work and labor that Arendt emphasizes, is that labor is meant to be a producing and self-consuming process at the same time. The process itself is particular to any living process. As was sensed by Karl Marx, the laboring activity itself is independent from any historical prejudice that may judge the end product of labor as something futile or non-durable.4 The laboring process main determination is to secure the means for its own reproduction, and to allow the continuation of its laboring process. According to Marx’s terms, labor power (Arbeitskraft) is what gets secured by the laboring process and what also secures its continuation and protect’s from nature’s decaying process.

The common characteristic among the biological processes and the humans process of growth and decay, is that both are cyclical movements that are bounded to the repetitive cycles of nature.5 Unlike work which is put forth into the world as something finished and valuable in itself, the laboring cycle is meant to be a functional part to the repetitive processes of consumption and accumulation. From the viewpoint of nature however, work is more destructive than labour because it does not contribute back to the metabolism of living nature and body.6 Labour is therefore a process that secures and preserves the world against natural process that constantly threaten it with decay, it is secured by the process of monotonous reputation of daily chores.

Arendt argues that labor as a process is something that actively replaces human activity and occupation. Empires and states are transformed into “gigantic bureaucratic machines” that transform something that was once considered work and techné into an automated laboring process.7 This process itself prioritizes the increase of labour power as apposed to the quality and character of its productions. This form of transformation of the means by which labour power is secured and consumed is one of the most significant determinations of the human condition. The intercourse that a man therefore has with other men and objects becomes increasingly conditioned by labor.

The human strife to overcome the decaying process of nature can be observed by the introduction of methods that allow new ways of accumulating the products of labour. Such was the introduction of money which is described by Locke as a “lasting thing which men may keep without spoiling”.8 Hannah Arendt refers to this process as a “kind of deus ex machina”, inspired by the convention of Greek tragedy where a seemingly unsolvable problem is resolved by an unexpected intervention of some new event, ability or object. An invention like money, is an example of an invention that not only allowed humans to overcome decaying processes of nature, but also altered the human condition since the natural processes no longer interfere with the human processes of accumulating and securing labor power.

  1. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. Print. p.80, footnote 3 

  2. Arendt, p.81 

  3. Arendt, p.84 

  4. Arendt, p.88 

  5. Arendt, p.98 

  6. Arendt, p.100 

  7. Arendt, p.93 

  8. Arendt, p.102