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15 May 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 10:10am

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

The philosopher’s distinction between work and labour should guide our attempts to build a better society.   

By Lyndsey Stonebridge

According to the government, we are now supposed to be getting back to work. But what does “work” mean in the time of Covid-19? Amid the debates about how we might return to work, what is being forgotten is that work is a crucial part of what the 20th-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt called the human condition.

The government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, published on 11 May, states that people will be “eased back into work” as into a dentist chair: carefully, and with face masks.

The reason they need to be coaxed is, of course, the economy. At one point in the document, it reads as though it is the economy, not people, that has been sick: “The longer the virus affects the economy, the greater the risks of longterm scarring.” The economy needs ventilating, and people are its oxygen.

Arendt would not have been surprised by this commonplace personification. From the moral and political thought of John Locke and Adam Smith in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, to Karl Marx in the 19th century, left, liberal, and right have all seen man as a labouring being, toiling away at getting machines, services, cash and liquid capital working. The economy “works” while we “labour”.

In her 1958 book, The Human Condition, Arendt suggested we think again. It is not enough to imagine that we graft away, striving for some point at which we might be free of labour: in future automation or artificial intelligence, for example, or in the venal fantasies of super-richness, in socialist utopias of common ownership that might liberate us from toil, or, if you are a Greek philosopher, in a life of the mind. For Arendt, it was the active life, the vita activa, that we need to attend to, the lives we live together with others, now and in the future.

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Arendt’s vita activa has three components: labour, work and action. It is her distinction between labour and work that should concern us just now.

Labouring is simply what we do to survive. We labour to eat, to keep our bodies healthy, to keep roofs over our heads, and to keep life reproducing. All animals labour, with or without coaxing, as do slaves and women who, often literally, labour behind closed doors. There’s nothing special about labour, save for the fact that without it we would die.

Work, on the other hand, gives collective meaning to what we do. When we work to produce something we both put something into and leave something lasting in the world: a table (Arendt, like many philosophers, was fond of furniture examples), a house, a book, a car, a rug, a high precision piece of engineering with which we can order the days into time, or keep a body breathing.

In short, what we work at makes up the human reality that we all share. Work is part of what Arendt called “human artifice”: it means that we are more than mere nature, and that we have made something that endures. We labour by necessity; we work to create a human reality.

Already in the 1950s, Arendt was worried that capitalist consumption would transform work into sheer labour. If we all make only to consume, we leave nothing in the world, and we lose that shared sense of the world. Make burger, eat burger, be burger. The collapse of the distinction between work and labour really matters because without the meanings work gives us there can be no shared ground for politics – for action, as Arendt called the third, and most important, part of her vita activa.

This is why her example of the table is so important. A table is a solid piece of craftwork. It is also something people sit around, together and yet apart; being social while keeping their distance. Without the table, Arendt said, there could be no forum for the politics of plurality that she thought societies should be aiming for. For politics to happen we need something that we can all gather around, but which also marks out the differences between us. That is what work gives us.

If people were upset when the government issued its call back to work on 10 May, perhaps this is because what they heard was not a call for a return to work, but a demand for their labour. When, at that point, it was obvious that neither workplaces nor public transport were “Covid-19 secure” (that is, safe for human life) it was hard to escape the idea that we were not so much being coaxed back to work, as commanded to get our bodies back into the service of the economy – as though the scarring of its lungs took precedence over the rasping of the guy who had no choice but get on the number 73 bus.

This was not simply a case of maladroit messaging. It was a failure to recognise the value not only of the work we have to do, but of the work we do together in order to be human.

This is why debates and policies about how we get back to work matter so much: we are also talking about what kind of human society we are – or want to be.

If taking the human value of work more seriously is key to a better politics, we should also grasp this opportunity to think about what counts as valuable work.

Arendt might show us the way, but her philosophy only gets us so far. As feminists have noted, the labouring necessities of life Arendt described are also descriptions of traditional women’s work. The labour of keeping human bodies alive over the past three months has, in the main, been done by women and, at great cost, BAME people.

Making a table is a great thing, but the work of creating a dignified human being out of an ailing, suffering, possibly dying body is too. The NHS was set up to do that work.

What if instead of seeing the NHS as a frail but plucky thing that needs protecting, we thought of it instead as the table around which we all need to get to create a really different – and possibly more human – political future? What if getting back to work might also be a way of getting back to the human condition?

Lyndsey Stonebridge is the author of “Placeless People: Writings, Rights and Refugees” (2018). Her forthcoming book on Hannah Arendt will be published by Jonathan Cape

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This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show