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Labour, Politics and Emancipation, Arendt and the Historical Materialist Tradition

Labour, Politics and Emancipation, Arendt and the Historical Materialist Tradition

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Published by fusionulle
This is a Ph.D. thesis. In it I examine the concept of labour as it occurs in the tradition of Historical Materialism.
The way in which labour is defined, the position it has, and the role it plays within the tradition has major consequences for the political philosophy of Historical Materialism. Chapter 1 deals with Marx, chapter 2, opening the opposition to Historical Materialism, with Hannah Arendt, who I consider to be very underestimated in terms of the social ontology that she presents in 'The Human Condition'. Chapter 3 returns to Historical Materialism with the early publications of Jürgen Habermas (particularly his 'Theory of Communicative Action'). I discuss the merits and demerits of his position. In order to round off the tradition, chapter 4 turns the current neo-Marxists Hardt, Negri and Lazzarato. Chapter 5 offers a final discussion.
Ulrich Mühe ©2010
This is a Ph.D. thesis. In it I examine the concept of labour as it occurs in the tradition of Historical Materialism.
The way in which labour is defined, the position it has, and the role it plays within the tradition has major consequences for the political philosophy of Historical Materialism. Chapter 1 deals with Marx, chapter 2, opening the opposition to Historical Materialism, with Hannah Arendt, who I consider to be very underestimated in terms of the social ontology that she presents in 'The Human Condition'. Chapter 3 returns to Historical Materialism with the early publications of Jürgen Habermas (particularly his 'Theory of Communicative Action'). I discuss the merits and demerits of his position. In order to round off the tradition, chapter 4 turns the current neo-Marxists Hardt, Negri and Lazzarato. Chapter 5 offers a final discussion.
Ulrich Mühe ©2010

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Published by: fusionulle on Jan 17, 2011
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Marx considers human needs and production to be necessary and sufficient for an account of
society and history. I have claimed that this characterisation of human life as a whole is un-
satisfactory: it is not an exhaustive picture of human life but insufficient. There are two ele-
ments to this critique:

There are firstly ‘internal’ problems: namely a clash of two intuitions which are a result of
Marx’ fudging on the needs-issue: seen in terms of the pure biological life-process produc-
tion is not a distinctive feature of our species since all life has to produce the means for the
satisfaction of the needs it has to fulfil. Thus, having and satisfying the needs of life is ex-
actly not human.17

If it is replied that Marx means the production of objects (e.g. tools),
which admittedly does distinguish us from other life-forms, then this is no longer a necessary
condition of human life as such anymore, since we do not produce artefacts necessarily. In
short, Marx cannot have it both ways: production cannot be necessary in the survival sense
and be the essential human criterion, for whatever is necessary in this physiological way does
not distinguish us from animals. The reason for this dilemma is that Marx does not distin-
guish between labour and work.18

The difficulty is therefore that, for all his criticism of
capitalism, Marx himself turns humans into mere producers and consumers. Of course he
thinks he has liberated man from this fate, especially once communism is in place: by
changing the economic system he hopes to liberate man from capitalism which is unfair
and leads to alienation. But Marx’ own ontology never comprises more than production to

17

This approach is very old: when Aristotle enquires what makes humans special he also discards the
vegetative and appetitative aspects of life.

18

See chapter 2 for this distinction.

Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism

46

which everything is related and thus humans are still just oscillating between their desires
and the production of things that satisfy them.19

Secondly, and connected with the former, is the external problem that production is also
insufficient as an exhaustive characterisation of human beings: we are not only more than
animals but also more than just ‘the productive species’, which Marx reduces us to. The hu-
man species is exactly not determinable in its necessities – rather, it is the species of excess,
the one that does ‘more’ than what it has to. Whatever this ‘more’ is, it is not included in
Marx’s ontology of human life, even though he may have wanted to pave the way for it by
establishing a system of production that would ensure everyone’s physical needs to be met.
This indicates that it is not material but comparatively immaterial. In this case, Historical
Materialism as a whole is insufficient, if it wants to stay true to its name. I will later present
two attempts of subsequent Historical Materialists to escape its entrapment and this con-
clusion. Habermas tries to alter the scope of Historical Materialism in order to allow the
inclusion of language and action; and postmodern Neo-Marxists Hardt and Negri try to
integrate ‘immaterial labour’.20

Both attempts fail.

The materialist approach finds its limits in its ontology that tells us what we are, but not who
we are, yet the latter is important in order to account for human life, because it is one of
the fundamental characteristics of our species that we are not just indistinguishable subjects
in anonymous societies, but unique agents. That is, we are the species whose members have
individual identities. This feature of identity, this who of each person, is, according to Ar-
endt, what no materialism can account for because it does not manifest itself materially, as
in production. It is internal to each agent and only becomes realised directly between people,
without recourse via production. This is the feature in which we are more than animals and it
is the feature Historical Materialism cannot accommodate because it stops at the what. I will
return to this thought later with Arendt’s writings particularly in comparison with Haber-
mas.21

19

And what capitalism currently shows is that the veneration of production and the appeal to needs
and desires quickly changes into the cult of consumption.

20

See below pp.130ff., 169ff., 202 ff.

21

See below pp.148ff.

Consequences and criticisms

47

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