Labour, Politics and Emancipation

Arendt and the Historical Materialist Tradition

Ulrich Mühe (University of Kent)

Labour, emancipation and politics – Arendt and the Historical Materialist tradition
Ulrich Mühe (PhD-submission)

I investigate the role of labour in the tradition of Historical Materialism with particular focus on politics and emancipation. The centrality of labour in this tradition is crucial for its claims concerning human life, which is meant to be accounted for in a materialist fashion. Overall I argue that this approach is an insufficient and reductive account of human life. Starting with Marx’s writings I show the connections and relations between his account of labour and his account of society. I criticise Marx for an insufficiently differentiated account of labour and the confusion of poiesis and praxis. I will show that this leads to very particular outcomes in Marx’s thought on politics. In opposition to Marx I then present the approach to human life that Hannah Arendt provides. I explain Arendt’s account and the distinction between labour, work and action. Subsequently I defend her approach against several criticisms. In the third chapter I investigate Jürgen Habermas’s account of human action. He presents the account of a Historical Materialist who attempts to incorporate Arendt’s criticisms of this tradition. I will defend Habermas’ approach particularly in reference to objections to his division between communicative and instrumental action. Then I will criticise his approach to human interaction on the issue of his pragmatism in language with which he reduces interaction to the propositional content of people’s utterances. Habermas cannot escape the reductivism inherent in Historical Materialism either. Lastly, I will criticise current postmodern Neo-Marxists Hardt and Negri. In their recent publications they return to a more orthodox Historical Materialism but face substantive issues in their accounts of (immaterial) labour and the future global political subject (the ‘multitude’). Finally I end with reflections and projections on politics from an Arendtian view.


Acknowledgements I would like to thank the entire philosophy staff at the University of Kent, particularly my supervisor Prof. Sean Sayers who provided me with both freedom in and criticism of my research that allowed my project to be what it has been. Furthermore I would like to mention explicitly Dr. Alan Thomas, Todd Mei, Lorenzo Chiesa, the School of European Cultures and Languages at the University of Kent in general, Peter Andras and Sabine Pfeiffer. It is due to these and all the other people with which I have been in contact during my research that this project ended up teaching me a lot more than what I could have expected when I started. Thanks to you all!


Labour and Historical Materialism......................................................................................7 Introduction ...............................................................................................................7 I. Contra Historical Materialism...................................................................................17 1. Introduction to the Materialist Account of Human Life .......................................17 Preview ....................................................................................................................19 2. Marx’s Human Ontology......................................................................................22 2.1. Marx’s philosophical-anthropological account of human genesis..................22 2.2. Combating arbitrariness through controlled production ...............................25 The division of labour ..............................................................................................30 3. Consequences and Criticisms....................................................................................34 The problem of needs ..............................................................................................34 Marxian labour .........................................................................................................35 Work and Tools in Anthropology.............................................................................36 The physical process and Time.................................................................................38 Labour – due to need or free from need?.......................................................................39 Labour and alienation...............................................................................................42 3.2. A first conclusion - Insufficient Ontology ....................................................45 3.3. More Labour ................................................................................................47 3.3.1. Abolishing labour and alienation – the labour puzzle continued......................47 3.4. A second conclusion ....................................................................................54 3.5. Politics and the State ....................................................................................55 3.6. Materialism to replace politics ......................................................................58 3.7. The arbitrary.................................................................................................61 3.8. Summary ......................................................................................................66 II. A reply to Arendt’s critics: in defence of labour, work, and action............................69 1. Arendt’s ‘Human Condition’.....................................................................................70 1.1. Labour and Work .........................................................................................70 1.2. Action ..........................................................................................................75 1.2.1. Individuality ....................................................................................................77 1.2.2. Plurality...........................................................................................................79 1.3. Action: a beginning but no end ....................................................................82 1.4. Action compared to work and labour ...........................................................84 2. The objections..........................................................................................................89 2.1. Objection 1: Snobbism ......................................................................................89 2.2. Objection 2: Arendt’s distinctions are not applicable..........................................91 2.3. Conclusion to the first two objections................................................................98 2.4. Objection 3: Arendt’s supposed opposition to Hegel and self-awareness .........100 2.4.1. Labour vs. Labour.........................................................................................103 2.4.2. Work ......................................................................................................104 2.5. Resolving the puzzle – Conclusion ..................................................................107 III. Habermas...........................................................................................................112 1. Background ........................................................................................................113 2. Habermas’ labour-action distinction ...................................................................116 2.2.1. Lifeworld and system I..................................................................................119 2.2.2. System and Lifeworld II................................................................................124 3. Is there space for emancipation in Habermas action-labour distinction?.............130 3.1. Critics of Habermas....................................................................................130 3.1.1. Breen ............................................................................................................130 4

3.1.2. The Master-apprentice relationship ...............................................................133 3.1.3. Labour and the social ....................................................................................136 3.1.4. Honneth .......................................................................................................138 4. End of the debate...............................................................................................144 5. Habermas and Arendt on action.........................................................................147 6. Habermasian vs. Arendtian action ......................................................................148 7. Summary ............................................................................................................155 8. Deliberation, Consensus and Emancipation .......................................................158 8.1. Concerning 1 ...................................................................................................159 8.2. Concerning 2 ...................................................................................................162 9. Conclusion .........................................................................................................165 IV. Postmodern Neo-Marxism .................................................................................167 1. Hardt and Negri .................................................................................................169 1.1. Immaterial Labour......................................................................................172 1.2. Goods and services ....................................................................................175 1.3. What is new about ‘immaterial labour’? ......................................................178 1.4. Marx’s inheritance – the unsolved labour-puzzle ........................................181 2. The ‘Multitude’ ...................................................................................................186 2.1. Networks ...................................................................................................190 2.2. Contra the ‘multitude’ as a political subject.................................................193 3. Conclusion .........................................................................................................197 V. Conclusions and projections...................................................................................202 Bibliography: ................................................................................................................215


Abbreviations: Marx: GI C EPM CM Habermas: TCA Arendt: HC Hardt and Negri E M Empire Multitude The Human Condition Theory of Communicative Action The German Ideology Capital Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts The Communist Manifesto


Labour and Historical Materialism
Historical Materialism, the approach to human life, society and history originated by Karl Marx, has the concept of labour at its very centre. I became interested in labour independently of its connection with Marx’s writings but was quickly referred to them. For an investigation of the connection between man and labour, as I originally planned it, the insights of Marx and other Historical Materialists were to be important. Over the course of my research I then changed my perspective, namely into what this work now represents: an investigation into the concept and role of labour in Historical Materialism in particular reference to emancipation and politics. I came to realise that this concept and its role have very particular consequences for subsequent claims within this framework, consequences for the characterisation of human beings, for social life and for politics. These consequences and how they follow from the role of labour in Historical Materialism are what I want to display here. Initially I felt a lack of research on labour and mine was to be a contribution to remedy this lack, but in hindsight of my study I now feel this lack to be illusory. There have been numerous publications on work over the last dozen years, let alone reprints of Marx.1 Yet many academic publications in this field still start with the lamentation that not enough scholarship on labour exists. This itself is an interesting fact for my thesis: the amount of scholarship on labour shows our obsession with this activity, even more so since all of these publications emphasise the existential importance and meaning of work. This emphasis, however, is a historical development and Historical Materialism has done its share to support it. The focus on labour goes so far that ‘social reproduction’, a concept which to
1 For example the following: Sennett ‘The Craftsman’ (2008) and ‘The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism’ (1998), de Botton ‘The Joys and Sorrows of Work’ (2009), Svendsen ‘Work’ (2008), Martin ‘Meaningful Work’ (2000), Thompson ‘The nature of work’ (1997), Piper ‘Women and work in Globalising Asia’ (2007), Pfeiffer ‘Arbeitsvermögen’ (2004), Friedman and Greenhaus ‘Work and Family – Allies or Enemies’ (2000), Kang ‘Passion at Work’ (2007), Hemsath ‘301 Ways to have fun at Work’ (1997), Rapoport ‘Beyond Work-Family Balance: Advancing Gender Equity and Workplace Performance’ (2001), Colella ‘ Discrimination at Work’ (2009), Blackburn ‘A Fair Days Wage for a Fair Days Work?’ (2007), Anderson ‘The global Politics of Domestic Labour’ (2000), Margolis and Wilenski ‘There is no place like work’ (2006), Peppers and Briskin ‘Bringing your soul to work’ (2000), Furnham ‘Personality at Work’ (2002), Muirhead ‘Just Work’ (2007), Gini ‘My Job, My Self: Work and the Creation of the Modern Individual’ (2001), Meilaender ‘Working: its meaning and its limits’ (2000), Malin ‘Professionalism, Boundaries and the Workplace’ (2000), Gorz ‘Farewell to the Working Class’ (2001), Schreiner ‘Woman and Labour’ (2008), McKinlay ‘Creative Labour’ (2009), Donkin ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears: the Evolution of Work’ (2001), Rifkin ‘The End of Work’ (2004), Toynbee ‘Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain’ (2003), Waddell and Burton ‘Is Work Good for Your Health and Well-Being?’ (2006), M.B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, (Penguin Press HC, 2009).


my mind is far larger than what we can be said to produce, is often used synonymously with ‘labour’. This is again an interesting fact: that so many writers today equate the two shows how closely we have linked labour with the entirety of our life. Historically, the veneration of labour starts with industrialisation, before that time it was seen as a burden. The further we go back in history the more pronounced the distain for labour becomes. The ancient Greeks, for example, did not share our veneration of this activity. Rather, they held it in the highest disregard. The advent of Christianity changed the picture insofar as work was mostly seen as a duty to God. It was thus still merely instrumental and its corresponding value was external. The valorisation and glorification of labour started with the Calvinists (Fromm, 1941). They were the first to elevate labour to a meaningful activity in itself: work was one’s duty not merely in order to atone for an ‘original sin’ but in order to fulfil God’s intention for a meaningful human life: being successful in work and successful in God’s eyes started to become assimilated. By the time Marx starts writing on labour he has already dropped the religious connection. He affirms the link between human life and labour directly in a materialist conception of human life and history (Historical Materialism) without recourse to a transcendent reality. Work is not a duty to God but the essence of what it is to be human. However, this study is not intended to be one of history, even though the sequence of writers which I investigate fits their chronological order (Marx, Arendt, Habermas, Hardt and Negri) and even if, as will be seen, historical developments have no unimportant affects on the theories. My real interest, as just mentioned, is the conceptual consequences of the concept of labour in Historical Materialism, of which the veneration of labour is only one. Particular attention is paid to the relations between labour, politics and emancipation. The chapters are arranged as follows: Chapter 1 Although both Historicism and Materialism can be traced back much further than the 19th century, Marx is justifiably regarded as the creator of the school of Historical Materialism. The approach to history that he advances is clearly influenced by Hegel, but contrary to Hegel’s Idealism Marx wants to turn him ‘from his head onto his feet’, that is, ground the historical development of mankind on material factors, rather than an unfolding World Spirit. My main purpose in this chapter is to draw out the connections between Marx’ concept of man (i.e. ontology), in which labour plays a major role, and his political thought, i.e. his claims on the nature of the state. The role of labour within Marx’s account 8

is clear: labour is central to human beings, not just in terms of survival but also in terms of the relations it establishes between them. The emancipation of man, that is, the becoming of what he can be, namely a free producer (who is not slave to the things he produces), is therefore intrinsically linked to the activity of labour and the conditions under which it is performed. Man, labour, and emancipation are therefore clearly bound up in Marx’s theory of history and the relationship between labour and emancipation is direct. Chapter 2 is devoted to the thought of Hannah Arendt on human nature, or rather as she calls it, ‘the human condition’. The advocacy of an Arendtian approach in contrast to the Historical Materialist one is the critical part of this thesis. I present the social ontology Arendt provides in The Human Condition. The ontological and anthropo-philosophical thought which her book contains has not received enough attention. In the analytic tradition Arendt continues to be primarily known as a writer on politics. She is often hard to place in a particular tradition or field simply because she barely uses any philosophical jargon.2 In The Human Condition, however, she presents her approach to human life and, as a consequence, to politics. Since Arendt is mostly under-read and even less understood the second chapter is therefore mainly exegetical. I will outline and detail her - mostly ill-received - distinction of labour, work and action and will subsequently defend it against various criticisms. In a certain way Arendt poses the antithesis to Marx. It will become clear that overall I follow Arendt’s thought with which I will criticise Marx, Habermas and current Neo-Marxists. But this antithesis must not be misunderstood: Arendt is perfectly aware and moreover indebted to the insights that Marx provided, and so am I. Hardly any philosopher has had such an effect on the subsequent historical development. Arendt’s objection to Marx is that Historical Materialism is deadly to politics as she understands it: in his materialist focus, Marx exactly undermines what Arendt views as absolutely crucial, namely the realm of (inter)action. Furthermore, emancipation belongs to interaction rather than labour, and Arendt thus argues that the narrow attention to labour results in a mistaken view of action and therefore also emancipation. Contrastingly to Marx, labour and emancipation part ways in Arendt’s theory.
Even in political theory her position is hard to determine again because she refuses to use standard jargon or be put into a particular box. Thus, at a conference on politics she was once asked “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position within the contemporary possibilities?” Her answer must have been dissatisfying to the questioner “I don’t know. I really don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives sometimes think I am left or I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.” (Hill, M. A., 1979, p.333f.)


Chapter 2 therefore opens the opposition to Historical Materialism. Although Arendt’s claims may be the most pronounced, they are definitely not the only ones but stem from a particular circle of philosophers in the aftermath of Marx. Heidegger and Jaspers, who Arendt both new (with the first she had a, by now, well-known love-affair, the other was the supervisor of her thesis), had very similar views. They all took recourse to the ancient Greek distinction between making (poiesis) and doing (praxis). The objection to Historical Materialism is that it confuses the two, which results in a mistaken view of human interaction. This posed a challenge to the subsequent development of Historical Materialism and Jürgen Habermas, coming out of the heavily Marx-based Frankfurt School, attempted to meet it. Habermas was familiar with Arendt’s writings and due to her argument, but also several other reasons, his goal was to find a way to incorporate her insights. In other words, a follower of Historical Materialism himself, Habermas attempts to meet the criticisms by changing the theory. Chapter 3 will therefore deal with Habermas. Even though he cannot stand as an exhaustive embodiment of Historical Materialism, he is (for good reason) the most influential figure with an extensive and detailed account that is the focus in many debates. He also features because one particular strand of Historical Materialism with its (labour) debate come to end in his writings. This is not to say that there have not been fruitful criticisms and additions to particular parts of Habermas’ oeuvre, but only that it is exceedingly difficult to top a theory that is as vast and complex as Habermas’ whose writings concerning this field span almost three decades. In order to discuss Habermas adequately I will have to sketch his theory of communicative action and his account of language. Only then can the link between his theory, labour and Arendt, be made clear. Out of all political theorists Habermas is one of, if not the, most influential modern political thinker. He is still devoted to the Marxian project, namely to elucidate the relations between material culture and the historical development. His idea, in the light of the criticisms against Historical Materialism, was to widen the explanatory basis and resources of Historical Materialism in order to incorporate the phenomena that Arendt found it to exclude. In short, his version of Historical Materialism is meant to include the distinction between poiesis and praxis. The means with which Habermas does this is a linguistic analysis. In this way, he attempts to capture human interaction, which Arendt found insufficiently accounted for in Historical Materialism, by analysing communication. Hence his approach is that of ‘communicative action’. The way in which Habermas incorporates the distinction 10

between poiesis and praxis is to separate (like Arendt) labour from communicative interaction and find (unlike Arendt) a materialistic approach to the latter. This theoretical development, however, has met its own adversaries: many, most notably the current director of the Frankfurt School Axel Honneth, argue that in separating labour from communicative action Habermas has thereby severed the link between labour and emancipation, one of the core points of Marx’s approach. I will discuss these arguments. However, apart from these criticisms I have my own ones against Habermas. Despite his efforts to present a viable theory that still fits the Historical Materialist cause, I will argue that Habermas’ account is still subject to Arendt’s criticism, namely a mistaken view of interaction. What Habermas does is to reduce interaction to communication, where communication, in turn, is characterised in a pragmatic way. The important element for Arendt, however, was not just the information conveyed in interaction but the unique revelation of the agent in his actions. Habermas, in his pragmatism, again undercuts what Arendt diagnosed as a shortcoming for all materialist accounts: the neglect of uniqueness in human interaction. In this it becomes again clear that Habermas is still tied to the materialist approach: his analysis of communication can still not account what Arendt considers immaterial: the essential fact that every actor is uniquely revealed in his actions. I will supply two current criticisms of particular aspects of Habermas’ theory as examples in which this lack of uniqueness emerges (arguments against pragmatic and formal accounts of communication, and the consensus model for politics). This will validate my critique of Habermas and will link it to Arendt. Habermas thus faces a double stumbling stone: on the side of Historical Materialism he is accused of making labour too instrumental and thus diverging too far from Marxian Historical Materialism. On the side of Arendt’s arguments he still cannot, according to my analysis, capture what Arendt thinks is the crucial point of praxis over poiesis. Thus, in his attempt to reconcile both sides he has satisfied neither. The relationship between emancipation and labour in Habermas is, contrary to the one in Marx’s account, indirect at best, severed at worst. Chapter 4 The fourth chapter then picks up the contemporary debate, particularly the writings of expressed Neo-Marxians (Hardt, Negri, and Lazzarato). They mainly bypass the debate involving Habermas and are engaged in a postmodern re-evaluation and – application of Marx’s ideas. Their writings have been described as the ‘Communist Mani-


festo of the 21st century’.3 This resurgence is one reason for their inclusion in this study. Moreover, the Neo-Marxians, like Habermas, are trying to tackle the same problem concerning the scope of Historical Materialism, namely the account of action from a labourcentred analysis. Out of all the theorists that I will investigate I am most critical of these postmodern Neo-Marxians. The writings of Negri, Hardt and Lazzarato are mostly concerned with modern labourconditions and their aim, apart from a critique of capitalism, is political change. Apart from Marx these writers are also heavily influenced by postmodern French philosophy (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Guattari) including a typical attention to power and deconstruction. In their hope for a new communism they have turned once again to labour-practices and particularly a new variant of them: so-called ‘immaterial labour’. This suits Marxian theory at least insofar as ‘immaterial labour’ facilitates the synchronisation of workers’ aims and actions since the important aspect of ‘immaterial labour’ is its inherent connection with communication. Thus, if communication has become such an essential part of most labour-practices then this should allow the unification of the demands and actions of workers. The resulting future politics, however, is neither a standard ‘dictatorship of the working class’ (Marx), nor a mere ‘administration of things’ (Engels). Here the post-modern element comes most prominently to bear, namely in the characterisation of modern social life and politics in the form of the ‘multitude’. But I am critical of the political scope of the ‘multitude’ as well as their concept of ‘immaterial labour’. Despite the attempt to reinterpret Marx and provide a new grounding for the labour-debate on the shoulders of ‘immaterial labour’, this attempt still inherits the problems that already beset Marx’ account. Labour and emancipation join forces once again in this approach but the problems that lead to their dissociation during the 20th century are seemingly simply neglected. Moreover, I will show that ‘immaterial labour’ is simply a misnomer that relies on bogus differentiations between what is material and what is not, and a confusion between production and services. The concept of the ‘multitude’ as the bearer of politics is also not a viable model because it undermines several central elements crucial for any political order (representability, identifiable goals, the concept of a public with definable borders, bearers of responsibility). It furthermore relies on an analogy which is flawed and does not help to ensure the cooperation of individuals: the appeal to communicative networks as the future mode of political order

Steger (2002), Vazquez-Arroyo (2002)


does, firstly, not correspond with the characteristics of actual social networks and secondly it cannot provide stability – whether politically or socially – in fact, it undermines it, because the definition of the ‘multitude’ as a global class that has a fleeting membership and that is irreducible to a particular identity, makes it non-representable. The fifth and last chapter will then summarise and further my claims with the retrospective view that such a final chapter allows. I hope to pick up some of the issues that will emerge in the course of the previous four chapters and finish this thesis with some conclusions and projections concerned with the outlook that an Arendtian framework provides.


Terms and concepts: 1. Marx’s theory – Historical Materialism Although we may distinguish between Marxian theory and Historical Materialism, in most respects they are synonymous. Historical Materialism may be characterised as a more general account of society which is usually coupled with a Marxian human ontology. The latter has the flaw of reducing human beings to labourers, where this is meant to be exhaustive; Historical Materialism has the flaw of not being able to account for those things that are not material, but nevertheless decisive for our being.4 Insofar as Historical Materialism is not necessarily Marxian, criticisms levelled at Marx’s writings do not have to apply necessarily to it. However, unless otherwise indicated, I make no distinction between the two insofar as Marx’s theory is what is known as Historical Materialism. Of course it can be argued that Marx’s theory is a particular instance of Historical Materialism in general. Generally, however, I do not think that much hinges on this difference. I am not questioning whether Marx’s thought is a true instance of Historical Materialism, this is simply not my interest here; I simply assume that if there is a canon of Historical Materialism it is to be found in Marx’ writings. The role of labour and the link between labour and emancipation, which I investigate, is crucial and central in both. 2. Emancipation I understand emancipation in the Enlightenment sense of the term, namely of persons becoming increasingly self-reflective. Therefore, I am not talking about the emancipation of women, nor of any other modern identity-related issues as in gender-debates. What is decisive for the Marxian use of ‘emancipation’ is its connection with the underlying picture of the essence of man that Marx works out particularly in his early writings and which remains the crucial basis for his entire approach. Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers, Marx localises this essence in labour – the activity that, according to him, defines man’s relation to nature as well as to other men. Emancipation thereby becomes a specific trait of the working class. In short, ‘emancipation’ acquires a certain social and political spin since it now refers to the development of


This will become apparent in my criticism of Habermas, who may accordingly be classed as an unmarxian Historical Materialist.


the proletariat and its rise to political power. More than “just” this socio-political dimension, the concept remains true in form to the Enlightenment idea in ‘coming to be what one is only potentially’, where this potentiality is wherein the human essence consists. But through Marx the content of this potentiality, together with the characteristics of labour and the working class, changes: it now means the realisation of a state of affairs in which men make history, instead of suffering it (GI)5. The scope of emancipation available to the proletariat, according to Marx, is not just that of self-reflective writers in an intellectual world of a public of readers as during the Enlightenment (Marcuse, 2008, p.37), but that of a global society which can determine its own (future) historical development. This line of thought rests on the confusion of poiesis and praxis, includes a misinterpretation of human interaction, and leads to the abandonment of politics. This latter outcome is as explicit in Marx’s own writings as in current post-modern conceptions of politics. This particular Marxian understanding of emancipation will be explained and criticised in the subsequent chapters. For the most part, unless otherwise stated, my own understanding is based on the original Enlightenment-sense of the term which, compared to most modern debates on the matter, is by now, in this rough definition, almost a minimalist account. There is obvious scope to develop this matter a lot further but here I decided against this for two primary reasons: a) the minimalist Enlightenment understanding of emancipation that I have seems to me sufficient for this current project. I am aware that in various current debates most of the key terms in this definition are a matter of much argumentation: what ‘reflection’ is, what ‘realisation’ is, what or who exactly the ‘self’ is that is meant to be reflective as well as reflected upon. Emancipation is thus bound up with such various areas of enquiry as personal identity, epistemology and ontology. This then constitutes my second point: b) the literature on emancipation is just as vast as the literature on Marx or the literature on politics. If I can only begin to have some overview over the approaches in these fields then it would have simply exceeded my capabilities to also engage with the vast and varied academic writings on emancipation. There was simply neither scope nor time to include an analysis and


The standard reference for The German Ideology, unless otherwise indicated, is Riyasanskaya’s translation as in Marx, K., 1968, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow


discussion of emancipation on top of what I have done. I hope, however, that what I have done remains coherent and convincing without such a discussion. 3. Ontology and Politics These two areas are the prime bases in my thesis. For reasons of clarity it would have made sense to separate them, yet this proved almost impossible in a thesis concerning the role of labour and its connection with politics and emancipation in Historical Materialism. The reason for this difficulty, as I came to realise, is that these two areas are strongly interconnected. As will become clear, ontological accounts have immediate effects on the characterisation of politics: what we take to be the ontology of human beings and societies, whether politics is specifically recognised or not, and what shape and concerns the realm of politics has, are all intimately intertwined issues. This holds for any ontological account of human life, for my concern here, it holds particularly for both Marx and Arendt. The only difference is that Arendt is explicit about how her characterisation of the realm of politics is anchored in her ontology, whereas Marx comes to hold his particular views about politics without realising that they are a natural outcome of the human ontology he presents. I will try my best to separate ontology and politics as much as possible, where I am unsuccessful in this respect I now consider this as evidence of their intimate connection. Moreover, to stress this connection, and how it features in the various writers I discuss, is one of the main points of this thesis.


I. Contra Historical Materialism

1. Introduction to the Materialist Account of Human Life

For Marx, offering a materialist account of human life meant to present it without recourse to some transcendent reality and to explain it in terms of actual, or real, phenomena. This materialism all too often understands itself as sufficient and exhaustive. It is this narrower, and in my eyes reductionist, approach that I am opposed to: a materialist approach is an important part of an ontology of human life but it is not exhaustive. For reasons to be explained later, Marx, in his materialist approach, considers production, and thus labour, to be decisive: it is not just a primary feature by which our actions and history can be characterised but the determining phenomenon. But to single out this one feature of our species is reductive. Aspects such as agency and individuality are also central for any account of human life but are missing from Marx’s picture. I will argue that this is an outcome of his materialism and that the consequences are particularly damaging for the account of politics. A materialist account of life can, at best, only inadequately account for these features, at worst it neglects them. Treating a materialist approach as exhaustive therefore leads to insuperable problems. On the whole, Marx’s Materialism is itself only half the story: due to the reductive framework that a materialist approach demands it misses the uniqueness and individuality of human beings. It is these latter features, however, that I consider most noteworthy and which the reductive approach of Historical Materialism and the role of labour therein makes inaccessible. At times Marx is absolved from the task of human ontology since one of his claims is that human nature is socially and historically constructed. Since humans are so malleable there simply is no human nature. Rather than discerning the roots of human life it is claimed that Marx merely wanted to provide a way, not the way, to social developments or states of affairs. My arguments would accordingly misfire because they aim at a position Marx apparently did not occupy. However, I find such claims unfair to Marx. His project is based on a particular account of human life. Only because Marx thinks human life to be material does he think that his approach to society is realistic (in the double-sense 17

Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism of ‘correct’ and ‘realisable’).1 This by itself is not contentious. On the contrary, a comprehensive explanatory account better had some ontological roots because without such a basis on which an explanation can rest it would be merely imaginary and disconnected from human life. But to explain the latter was precisely Marx’ goal. Thus, my issue here is with Marx’ ontology of human beings and I take him to engage in this issue particularly in the publications before he started to work on Capital.2 But also after the early writings Marx did not change his mind on these topics significantly. To deny these writings the status of writings on human nature is to be unfair to Marx. Throughout all of his early writings from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) until the Preface to the Contribution to Political Economy (1859), it is clear that his goal is an account of human nature. We can summarise him by saying that individuals are what they do;3 and what they do that distinguishes them firstly from animals, is production, which is hence the distinguishing feature of humans.4 It separates them from animals and it is the basis for their mutual interaction. I agree that production does distinguish humans from animals but it does not suffice for the explanation of actions and other distinctively human features, for example that each individual has a unique personality that he/she is aware of. Marx does not claim that production is all there is to humanity, but he certainly thinks it is the real determining factor since everything else is built upon it. I will prove this below. Whether production is the genealogical base level (that is, whether it was the initial cause) of human interaction or not, my claim is that it does not suffice as an account of human interaction and the latter cannot be reduced to the former. The sheer fact that Marx enquires into man’s ‘species being’ or ‘essence’, as he sometimes calls it, indicates that he provides an ontological account. Thus, claiming that Marx merely focussed on one issue amongst many and that his account is only meant to be an explanatory
See also Cohen (1978), ch. 7; Simon (1994), p.xxiii; Karlsson, (2001), pp.4, 9ff.,; Runciman (1969), p.50ff.; I. Forbes (1983), McLellan (1984) p.43 2 Cf. Chitty, (1993), Press, (1977), Fromm, (2006). 3 “As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” (GI, p.32, original emphasis) “The fact is, therefore, that definite individuals, who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations. Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification or speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production. The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life-processes of definitive individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they really are; i.e., as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will.” (GI, p.36f. original emphasis) This is repeated very closely in the 1859 Preface including the well known phrase “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Simon, 1994, p.211) 4 “Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation” (GI, p.31, original emphasis)


account is to be too friendly and apologetic to Marx. He did think he discovered new insights into the being of man. Of course he thereby also gives an explanatory account, but the reason why he thinks that his explanation is better than that of others before him is precisely that he has an ontological foundation (which is moreover empirical, contrary to Hegel’s, at least as portrayed by Marx). Economy and production are important because they strike the very core of human life. Due to this conviction Marx is so adamant in his writings. Terms like ‘alienation’ and ‘self-realisation’ make no sense without supposing that Marx thereby thought on an ontological level of human existence in general. To remove him from this area is to be unfair to him. The direct correspondence between the conditions of production and social relations, which Marx points out, is the central claim of Historical Materialism. This correspondence must be based on at least some preliminary ontological account, for otherwise it would turn out altogether arbitrary. Thus, not only is it a mistake to deny Marx ontological claims, it is also inconceivable to be a Historical Materialist without assuming the direct correspondence between facts and norms to be backed up by at least some preliminary ontological account.5

In what follows I criticise Marx for an incomplete account of human nature. I will focus on 4 main areas: 1) the account of human life 2) the abolition of labour and the division of labour 3) the relation between individual and community 4) the view of politics The account of human life is the essential area in which all subsequent issues are rooted. A thorough critique of this account will therefore have important effects on the latter. Problems arise because a) the account is taken to be exhaustive when it is in fact reductive and because b) Marx does not sufficiently distinguish between necessary and artificial engagement with the world. The consequences of a) are inadequate accounts of human relations, politics, and history; the consequences of b) are inadequate accounts of labour and production.


Cohen distinguishes the “thesis that Marx vested primacy in the forces [of production] […] from the thesis that they are primary” (1978, p.134, original emphasis). The latter is a statement about a matter of fact, the former is the claim that Marx endorsed this statement. I think it is clear that Marx did endorse this statement and that it is the central statement of Historical Materialism.


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism

As helpful and important as such an approach is – Marx went too far. In his effort to remain empirical he reduces humans to what he, in his early writings, calls ‘species-being’. Even though he moves away from this term in his later writings he nevertheless sticks to the account of human nature presented in his early writings. These writings are the basis for his Materialism, which, in turn, is the motive for all his writing. In short, if one thinks about social reality in materialist terms, that is, real conditions such as need and production, then deciphering them is to inquire into the determining factors of social reality. If these factors can be discerned, analysed, and explained then one cannot only explain why social reality and its phenomena are as they are, but, more importantly, one can also start to direct it - this was Marx’ thought and project. At the stage when this is realised (communism) humans could then shape their own reality to the benefit of all. Marx saw human life and reality primarily shaped by production and thus economy. Hence, by analysing these areas Marx thought he was inquiring into the core factor of human life, or at least a factor the understanding of which could afford people with the power to attain freedom. However admirable, Marx’ framework cannot deliver the goods and the reason is that the frame is too tight: human reality is not only material and to explain it only in those terms either leaves out important human features, or implausibly reduces them to material ones. This is my central claim against Historical Materialism throughout this investigation and will be elaborated later. The problems that I point out will then lead to some specific criticism of what is missing from Marx’s account (and Materialist accounts in general). If production is taken as a sufficient basis to explain human life then its characterisation is always limited by this focus on production. What is left out by such an account is what Arendt called ‘action’ and Habermas calls ‘communicative action’. In short, work is, as Marx would agree, an instrumental relationship with the world and is driven by instrumental reasoning. As he said quite rightly, it is “a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between him and Nature” (C, p.173). Of course, man does not fully regulate it and also has to abide by the rules that Nature imposes on him. Man does not make Nature in its entirety after all. Although human life is greatly affected by this instrumental connection I claim that it does not suffice to account for human society and history. Marx thought that this functional relationship between man and world is the basis for and translates into relationships between people, i.e. the direct correspondence between 20

facts and norms. I argue that the framework guiding interaction is very different from that of instrumental rationality. The devil is hidden in the details about our individuality, our reasons to act, the interpretation of our acts by others, the way we are evaluated by others, etc. No knowledge stemming purely from and concerned with production can give an actor any information about the nature and values of interaction between persons. The simplest social situation of merely two people immediately confronts each with an infinity of actions, inactions and their meanings and values that is vastly different from our interaction with the world as an object.


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism

2. Marx’s Human Ontology

Marx starts with a straightforward claim, namely that the first condition for all human history is “the existence of living human individuals” (GI, p.31). This is true but in his account of human life Marx singles out one particular feature about humans and explains all of human life in its terms, that feature is production. Production is not only the first action that distinguishes man from animals, it is also the origin of all subsequent development. Marx’s account, to be sure, is coherent, but as an ontological basis to describe human history it is too narrow. He locates the origin of the distinction between humans and animals in the production of the ‘means to subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation’ (GI, p.31). By ‘subsistence’ Marx means ‘producing their own life’ and it is the concepts of ‘production’ and ‘life’ that are my primary concern. In the next few subsections I will point out various areas in which Marx’ Historical Materialism with its focus on production is evident.


Marx’s philosophical-anthropological account of human genesis

Particularly in The German Ideology we find a philosophical-anthropological account of the development of the human species. According to Marx humans have a history because they produce and have corresponding relations. The first historical act is the satisfaction of the first need, which then leads to the second act, namely the rise of new needs. The third historical act is procreation.1 These are the three aspects of human history for Marx. A fourth element needed for consciousness is being social, which, for Marx, means nothing more than that people have a ‘productive force’, that they cooperate in production (GI, p.41). It is evident that, from the start, Marx views production as the main feature of human life.
As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production. This production only makes its appearance with the increase of popu1 Although I will not elaborate this here, the second and third acts are questionable in their consideration as acts. If an act is something that one does, i.e. a deed, then this second act is questionable as a deed, since, that a new need arises is not an act, that is, something that I do, rather it is something that happens to me. Concerning the third we can ask why it is historical: because it relies on the first and second historical acts or because it is done by humans? All those options fail: neither does procreation depend on the production of means of life, nor is it specifically human, for all animals procreate too. Although the way Marx marries this into his account works out really well (see below p.30f., 35).


Marx’s Human Ontology and the Workings of Society
lation. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse [Verkehr] of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production. (GI, p.32, my emphasis) The fundamental form of this activity [interaction, U.M.] is, of course, material; on which depend all other forms – mental, political, religious, etc. (GI, p.89) The economic structure of society is the real foundation [of society], on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. (1859 Preface, Simon, p.211)

For Marx human relations, society and history are all based on production and can hence be explained by it. He sees this as the only adequate way of accounting for them. If it were otherwise his approach would only be one among many, but Marx thought he found the rock-bottom of all social phenomena.2
The fact is, therefore, that definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations.[…] The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will. […] The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. […] We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this lifeprocess. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, subli“Traditional history, which focuses on matters of state and political, diplomatic and military affairs, misses, according to Marx, the crucial level of historical explanation. Developments at the level of the relations of production explain political events rather than the other way round.” (Simon, p. xxii). Cf McLellan (1984) pp. 38-43, 67


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism
mates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence.” (GI, p.36ff.)

Thus, everything, including all human relations, is understood in terms of production.3 For Marx people are only together in order to produce and procreate. In other words, they are together because of their needs. This picture of humans as needy beings that create their own means of survival also emerges earlier in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in the notion of ‘species-being’. Concerning human interaction Marx then claims the following:
By social we understand the co-operation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end. It follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a “productive force.” Further, that the multitude of productive forces accessible to men determines the nature of society, hence, that the “history of humanity” must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange. […] Thus it is quite obvious from the start that there exists a materialistic connection of men with one another, which is determined by their needs and their mode of production, and which is as old as men themselves. This connection is ever taking on new forms, and thus presents a “history” independently of the existence of any political or religious nonsense which in addition may hold men together. (GI, p.41)

Also in Capital we still find this thought:
The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production […]. (C, p.84) […] the economic structure of society, is the real basis on which the juridical and political superstructure is raised […] the mode of production determines the character of the social, political, and intellectual life generally […]. (in a footnote, C, p.86)

Lukács (1980), as one among many, carries on this thought and claims „All those determinations which we shall see to make up the essence of what is new in social being are contained in nuce in labour.“ (p.v). Sartre (1990) also endorses this thought only that he expresses it in terms of lack, i.e. scarcity: “[…] we already know that conflicts and social struggles as much as individual battles are all conditioned by scarcity; negation of man by the Earth being interiorized as a negation of man by man.” (p.13, original empasis).



Marx’s Human Ontology and the Workings of Society The picture that emerges here and which runs like a thread through all of Marx’s writings is this: he analyses human nature with his focus set on needs, desires and their satisfaction. What is distinctive about humans is that they produce the means for their own subsistence (‘instruments of satisfaction’, i.e. foods, tools and other utilities). This subsistence is the rock-bottom of all existence, history, and relations, and hence Marx explains all of these in terms of production. Not ‘political or religious nonsense’ brings and holds people together but sheer ‘industry and exchange’. ‘Social’ means co-operation in terms of ‘productive force’. Thus, the theme of production is all-pervasive. Even the social sphere of human life is understood in terms of it and therefore also history: “Men have history because they must produce their life […]” (marginal note by Marx in GI, p.42, original emphasis).4 In short, life is material, it requires the satisfaction of needs, man must produce to satisfy his needs, hence, all of life centres on needs and their satisfaction through production. This account of human nature, for Marx, is empirical, exhaustive, and thereby, necessary and sufficient.5


Combating arbitrariness through controlled production

Further proof for this veneration of production is the conclusion that Marx draws from this account of human life, namely that the control of production is the key to the control of social relations.6 One major focus of Marx’s criticism is the seeming arbitrariness of pricedevelopments on the market. Capitalism is not only disadvantageous because it creates alienation, but also because life’s circumstances become external and seemingly arbitrary to the single person and society as a whole. The value of one’s labour-power is subject to external forces as well as the supply of goods needed for life and thus people have to worry

Further evidence for this account of history: “History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of which exploits the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed down to it by all preceding generations […].” (GI, p.50) “This conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of production, starting out from the material production of life itself, and to comprehend the form of intercourse connected with this and created by this mode of production (i.e. civil society in its various stages), as the basis of all history; and to show it in its action as State, to explain all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc. etc. and trace their origins and growth from that basis […].” (GI, p.50) “Thus all collisions in history have their origin, according to our view, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse.” (GI, p.87) 5 “The relation of the productive forces to the form of intercourse is the relation of the form of intercourse to the occupation or activity of individuals. (The fundamental form of this activity is, of course, material, on which depend all other forms – mental, political, religious, etc. the various shaping of material life is, of course, in every case dependent on the needs which are already developed, and the production, as well as the satisfaction, of these needs is an historical process […])”. (GI, p.89) 6 GI, pp.50ff., cf. Simon, 1994, p.xi



Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism constantly about their bare life.7 This also leads to social disintegration. Already in the German Ideology Marx complains that in most industrial societies the individuals are scattered (i.e. isolated), not geographically but socially and capitalism is particularly ‘successful’ at separating people despite close geographical proximity. The conditions of life appear to them external, coincidental, and uncontrollable.8 In Capital we find the elaborated version of this thought in Marx’s criticism of the fluctuating market prices. Not only do the supplies and prices of the products vary constantly, but due to them and the use of machinery also the price of labour-power (C, p.406, 414, 490, C III, p.180f.). So, not only is the supply of use-values increasingly variable but so is the price of the person’s own ability to work; not only external things (the social and economic system) are arbitrary but so seems the inner quality of one’s abilities. This quality does not really change, of course, because whatever the economic circumstances are one nevertheless keeps one’s labour-power. But under capitalism one may be an able-bodied worker, yet when one’s abilities are not needed, which is decided by external factors that the labourer has no control over, then one’s labour-power is worthless. Since the labourer does not own the means of production and has to sell his labour-power in order to have access to them, he has no means of producing for himself when he cannot sell his labour, i.e. when he cannot find employment. Hence, there seems to be insecurity all around: in the way the outside world works and in the way one’s personal contribution to it will be valued.
“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. […] All that is solid melts into air.” (CM, p.83)

Thus, it is the arbitrariness and fluctuation of the market that Marx criticises and he therefore attempts to regulate it since this would then resolve the disagreeable results of an unregulated economy. To regulate the market efficiently Marx has to find the root that causes these fluctuations. He detects it in the uncontrolled production of commodities by independent producers.9 Commodities are produced for exchange on the market and due to
Marx encountered this worry personally: many times during his life the family was bankrupt and if Engels could not help then the riches of his wife, who had a wealthy background, often ended up at the pawnbrokers. This constant insecurity was a strain on the family. 8 “Competition isolates individuals […] despite the fact that it brings them together.” (GI, Simon, p.142) 9 See Capital chapter 1, section 4; chapter 2; chapter 14, section 4; chapter 15, sections 3, 5, 7, 8; ch.23; C III, chapter 10 “Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” (CM, p.85f., see also p.89). See


Marx’s Human Ontology and the Workings of Society competition their quantities and market prices vary constantly. In capitalism, therefore, everything evolves around the profit to be made from commodities and they are regarded as objective entities. Consequently, interaction between people “takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them” (C, p.79). In short, it is the uncontrolled influx of commodities on the market that turns it into turmoil. The remedy therefore lies in the control of production:
The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan. (C, p.84, my emphasis)

If production was ‘consciously regulated’, Marx argues, i.e. commodities, supply and demand abolished, then the arbitrariness of the price of labour-power would disappear: then prices could be determined beforehand, namely through the amount of the socially necessary labour-time, and labour also more conveniently distributed.10 However, for Marx the source and the solution to this problem of arbitrariness are both located in production: it is the main determining factor of all social relations. The market prices, however, are only the economic indicator, the market expression, of the arbitrariness that underlies all human relations and Marx’s real project is to eliminate exactly this last factor (C, p.414f.). It is the relations between people that have gotten out of hand, more precisely, out of their own hands and thus external to them, and Marx’s project is to rectify this external rule of mere fortune.11 More important than the market, for Marx, are the people in the market. The problem is that what happens on the market, and therefore in production, is closely connected to what happens between people. This connection between the economic and the social realm is, after all, the most fundamental core of Historical Materialism. The arbitrariness of market prices is parallel with, and causally related to, the arbitrariness of the relations that govern people’s lives. This constitutes the connecalso The Poverty of Philosophy [Marx: Das Elend der Philosophie, S. 82. Digitale Bibliothek Band 11: Marx/Engels, S. 2389 (vgl. MEW Bd. 4, S. 93-94)]; “In existing society, in industry based on individual exchange, anarchy of production, which is the source of so much misery, is at the same time the source of all progress.” (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1963, p.68, emphasis added); see also Wages, Price and Profit; [Engels: Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie, S. 33. Digitale Bibliothek Band 11: Marx/Engels, S. 519 (vgl. MEW Bd. 1, S. 514)]; GI, Simon, p.120ff., 144ff.; 10 The same thought can already be found in the German Ideology (Simon, p.144). Whether this attempt would succeed or not is not my concern here. Planned economies have been and are still being used in some countries (Cuba, North Korea, Myanmar) but whether these economies are successful is another question. I think that Marx’s approach is too one-sided here, for Marx underestimates demand, which, importantly, cannot be controlled. See next section below and 3.8. Summary, p.66ff. 11 Schaff (1965, p.142f.) calls this the ‘spontaneity of progress’ and also advocates to defeat it.


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism tion of the economic and the social realm. Most generally we can say that the rule of things (commodities) over people is concomitant with the rule of external relations (economic, market, political relations) over people in general. This is already expressed in the different meanings of ‘alienation’: alienation from the object of labour, from the activity of labour, from other labourers, and overall from one’s essence (or species-being). That Marx subsumes those phenomena under one term expresses his thought that they are related, that they are one issue. Put more generally: alienation in labour leads to alienation amongst people and therefore if you combat one you thereby also combat the other. The most fundamental factors for Marx in this respect are the division of labour and private property: they are at the root of the entire problem since they enable the separation of man from his activities, i.e. they are the material preconditions of alienation (see next section). Changing them will affect all the various aspects of alienation. At the most general level we may say that the control of the economy will mean the control over these arbitrary human relations, that it will eliminate these external relations that rule the labourers. It is thus the arbitrariness of 19th century industrial life that bothers Marx. Capitalism has led to great advances, but at the price of millions of people labouring in appalling conditions. Through the economy acting on an ever larger scale (from local, via regional, then national, to international and, today, global scale) a vastly increasing number of people are subject to suffer the impact of processes that have seemingly nothing to do with them. But according to Marx we are capable of controlling these relations.12 We simply do not realise, or rather, we are kept from realising by the ruling ideology: one of Marx’s criticisms against the national economists is that they postulate the arbitrariness of supply and demand, and thereby the instability of prices, as an unchangeable fact. Marx thinks this is a mistake, in fact, it betrays the bourgeois intellect (C, p.85, 503ff., C III, p.181f). This is important for the connection between the economic and the normative realm. According to Marx we are the only species that is capable of analysing its own workings. That is, we can find out what conditions our lives. Marx thinks he has done this with his philosophical anthropology. Notably, he thinks that everything can be accounted for materially (however broadly this term is used) and that it can therefore be studied objectively (hence

This is another reason for why communism can only work globally, because only then all factors that can impact people’s lives are under control. As long as there is an outside, i.e. somewhere that is not under communist control, this outside will be unpredictable and a threat to the relations between people in communism. Note, however, that in this case any social system can only work globally, since the threat of the outside is common to them all.



Marx’s Human Ontology and the Workings of Society scientific socialism).13 This is the intention of Historical Materialism as a framework. Through it, we can advance from being subject to these conditions in which we live to being masters of them. This is what fuels Marx’s frustration: not only the glaring injustice confronting labourers but the fact that we are advanced enough in order to control our own destiny. As he says, we can become history makers, instead of being history sufferers, or that capitalism is the last stage in human pre-history, for human history truly begins when man not only realises his power but starts to use it.14 This can be traced back to Hegel who conceives of history as Spirit realising itself. The end, the telos, is Spirit realising its own realisation, i.e. that it becomes self-aware. Marx is dissatisfied with Hegel because realisation is not enough for him: action has to follow this realisation, otherwise it is useless.15 Hence Marx’s dissatisfaction with idealism: it focussed on realisation, but said nothing about action. Hence his words that so far philosophers have only interpreted the world when the real project is to change it (Theses on Feuerbach, Simon, 1994, p.101). To summarise: human life and relations, for Marx, are based on people’s needs. By accounting and analysing those needs he thinks it is possible to control human life in the sense of enabling people to take life into their own hands, rather than being at the mercy of Fortuna, that is, the arbitrariness of the circumstances of one’s life. Under capitalism this arbitrariness, or Fortuna, has developed into an absolute uncertainty about one’s future without any means to control or escape the impact of large-scale economic forces. Marx

Although Marx never uses the expression ‘scientific socialism’, Engels does. That Engels’ use is nevertheless based on Marx’s claims is clear. See EPM (Simon, 1994, p.76ff.): “But natural science has penetrated and transformed human life all the more practically through industry, preparing for human emancipation however much it immediately had to accentuate dehumanisation. Industry is the actual historical relationship of nature, and thus of natural science, to man. […] One basis for life and another for science is in itself a lie. History itself is an actual part of natural history, of nature’s development into man. Natural science will in time include the science of man as the science of man will include natural science: There will be one science. […] The social actuality of nature and human natural science or the natural science of man are identical expressions.” (original emphasis) 14 Engels expresses this later in this fashion: “With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man's own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” (Engels, 1962, p.153, my emphasis) 15 This is Marx’s criticism of Hegel. Whether this analysis and criticism of Hegel and idealism is correct is another matter.



Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism thought this arbitrariness to be an illusion: since the market and the economy is man-made and satisfies accountable human needs it ought to be possible to bring it under human control. That is, with the right approach, namely Historical Materialism, the supposed arbitrariness of modern life, which is due to the uncontrolled production in a capitalist market economy, can be replaced by man’s ability to direct his own life. All this can be accomplished by a study of production and human needs: needs are what brings people together, needs are what makes them trade, and through historical development this leads to the creation of the economy which centres on consumption, and therefore, again, on need. This is also why the notion of the ‘associated producers’ is crucial for Marx since they would pool the information about needs and production, distribute goods and work accordingly, and would thereby prevent the market from getting out of hand, more precisely, this would abolish the market as we know it. This, in turn, would prevent the situation in which goods dominate their producers.16 Throughout all this the link between the economic and the normative realm, between the relations of production and the social relations is asserted, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly.17

The division of labour
As just argued, at the basis of Marx’s thought of human nature is an attention to our physiological constitution. It is what he considers ‘real’ as opposed to such abstractions as Hegel’s ‘Spirit’. This constitution anchors us as beings with needs and hence the needs that Marx appeals to are mostly bodily: he refers to food, shelter, warmth, etc. Although he considers the emergence of new needs a positive development he does not give many concrete examples other than that of art. In order for his account to remain as ‘real’ and anthropologically based as he intends it, it is important for Marx to stress the connection to our physiological nature and therefore the image of needs remains bodily and physical. This appeal to bodily needs that runs through Marx’s account of human life and production reveals itself also in his account of the division of labour. The first natural instance, and therefore the origin of the division of labour, is located by Marx in the act of procreation and the roles of man and woman played therein: “[…] there develops the division of labour, which was originally nothing but the division of labour in the sexual act […]” (GI, p. 43). Bodily needs are here consistently united with his thoughts on the origin of social rela-

16 Lenin (1978, p.92), in adequate correspondence with this approach, writes: “The whole of society will have become a single office and single factory, with equality of labour and pay.” 17 This is the link that Habermas will later criticise (see chapter 3).


Marx’s Human Ontology and the Workings of Society tions in the relationship between man and woman. Generally this manifests Marx’ tendency to base labour in the process of life: labour is the necessary production of one’s own life and also the production of new life (i.e. procreation). A crucial point is the evaluation of the division of labour. Depending on the context, Marx varies between advocating and objecting to it. On the one hand, Marx is aware that the division of labour is one main reason for the increasing productivity of modern industry: “Labour itself can only exist on the premise of this fragmentation” (GI¸p.83).18 On the other hand, his analysis of wage-labour and private property leads him to identify the division of labour as the origin of alienation and therefore he wants to abolish it.
“[…] the division of labour implies the possibility, nay the fact that intellectual and material activity – enjoyment and labour, production and consumption – devolve on different individuals, and that the only possibility of their not coming into contradiction lies in the negation in its turn of the division of labour. […] With the division of labour […] is given simultaneously the distribution, and indeed the unequal distribution, both quantitative and qualitative, of labour and its products, hence property […]. Division of labour and private property are, moreover, identical expressions […]. Further, the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another.”19 (GI, p.44)

In other words: the division of labour means the unequal distribution of labour, the juxtaposition of individual and private interests, private property, and alienation. Thus, the division of labour triggers the division between individual and common interest: man gets lost in his own individual interests, becomes solitary and sees ‘all others’ as rivals to himself. He becomes, so to say, a psychological egoist. Consequently, Marx, in contrast, envisaged the ‘socialised man’ (vergesellschafteter Mensch) as an ideal. But as long as labour is divided this will lead to inequalities. Communism, by contrast, is meant to remedy all this by abolishing the division of labour.20 This will free the individual from his own egoistic interests and lead it to true (un-alienated) self-realisation within the general interest.

18 Lenin (1978) also relied on this fact and consequently advocated the division of labour for the sake of productivity to tayloristic proportions. A later outgrowth in the 1930’s was the Stakhanovite movement. 19 Notice that my reading here is even a favourable one, because the passages I leave out are those identifying the family as the hub of division of labour and thereby slavery. 20 Cf. GI, p.45, which includes the famous idealisation of “hunt in the evening, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”.


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism I do not want to argue about this approach to the division of labour as a whole, although it is question-worthy. But I would like to raise two related concerns. 1) One obvious question is how Marx envisages society to survive without the division of labour, let alone without labour in general. Marx imagines the communist society to be able to cater for everyone’s needs and allow every individual full freedom in the choice of his actions. Thus, what Marx needs is an efficiently running production and distribution of essential goods. Marx knows this of course, but only says that “society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow […]” (p.45) yet it “will make possible the normal satisfaction of all needs, i.e. a satisfaction which is limited only by the needs themselves” (GI, MECW, Vol.5, p.255-6). But how he wants to accomplish this without the division of labour and without limiting anyone’s freedom of action is a mystery. One escape is endorsed by Schaff (1965, pp.177,178) who solves this problem in the radical way of denying both of Marx’s claims: he judges the abolition of the division of labour, as well as the free choice of one’s activities, simply as unattainable.21 Whether one agrees with Schaff’s sobering analysis or not, the fact remains that Marx never specifies to what extent the division of labour is meant to be abolished. 2) The second question concerns Marx’ thoughts on distribution: as already mentioned above, he does not think that distribution will be directed by supply and demand. In fact, communism will “dissolve” this relation entirely (GI, p.47f.). But how will it do so? There are two options, neither of which is satisfactory: Either a) by focussing on supply Marx assumes a simply naïve and unrealistic view according to which, under the right kind of rule, everything can be supplied everywhere, anytime, to everyone’s satisfaction; or b) by focussing on demand, he thinks that human wants are actually fairly easy to fulfil. The first option is simply unrealistic because it postulates an infinite abundance of natural resources. The second option would find evidence in the examples Marx’ gives of some of the basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter. But it seems that one fact - that Marx himself mentions elsewhere and which we today know from experience - comes to his detriment: namely that many human wants are unsatisfiable. Marx himself noted as the first historical act the emergence of new needs after the satisfaction of prior ones. Today we know this from daily experience: in our, aptly called, ‘consumer-societies’ every satisfied need will either, given time, arise again or spawn a new need. It is because of this fact that modern economy, which is based on it, keeps on going and growing.
21 Interestingly Schaff does consider himself a Marxist. This correction of Marx’s thought is one amongst many that Schaff undertakes after which, despite Schaff’s assurances to the contrary, not much of Marx is left (see particularly pp. 167-181, ibid.).


Marx’s Human Ontology and the Workings of Society In the later passages of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx is absolutely right: we constantly create new needs and wants and with consumption we trigger new ones again. Under capitalism money becomes the arbiter and access to those wants and their satisfaction. But if wants are in principle unsatisfiable then it is a fact about us that no social system can change, not even communism, simply because it is not the result of the social world (already Hobbes (2005, esp. ch.6) pointed to this fact ). Of course we can still differentiate here: certain wants are surely a product of the social world and are, as Marx would say, historical. Thus, some people in the western world may impatiently await the next album of a particular artist, a book, a car, a clothing range, etc. whereas a monk in Tibet wants none of these things. But this says nothing about the nature of needs as such, only something about particular instances of them, namely that some have them and others do not. It may be healthy if we did cultivate some of the asceticism of monks but in that case we are starting to diverge from Marx, who considered the development and emergence of new needs to be a sign of progress.22 What I have done so far is to show the centrality of needs and production in Marx’s thought. They play the main role in his human ontology by defining our being and our social life. The increasing dependence of people (particularly workers) on the surrounding social system, as well as that system itself (namely capitalism), leads to an escalation of the factors that affect their lives. This is what I have referred to above as ‘arbitrariness’. By locating the root of this arbitrariness in the organisation of production Marx thinks that it is also here that we have to change the system. Since the arbitrariness is man-made we are, for Marx, also able to control it: instead of being subject to external factors we should be masters of them.

Peter Sloterdijk (1995) has commented on this veneration of ‘productivity’: “The general industrial process consumes more natural and human “resources” than it can create or regenerate. In this way it is autopoietic like cancer, as creative as a firework, as productive as the growing of drugs. What has been hailed as human productivity without hardly any resistance for almost 200 years is becoming increasingly transparent in its destructive and addictive character. Over an entire sequence of generations did more-living, more-consuming, more-devaluing and younger generations replace more conserving, relatively saving, relatively less exciting older ones.” (p.75, translation U.M.)



Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism

3. Consequences and Criticisms

The problem of needs
As just argued, Marx defines humans via our needs: they define us as who we are.1 In many of his claims about the being of man, and also about the reasons for why we are social animals, he centres on the thought that we have necessary needs which are best served in society. Often these needs are physiological in nature and thereby independent from the particular social setting, for example when Marx considers production “a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life” (GI, p.39). Also the notion of “species-being” and the four constituents that he considers fundamental for human life and history – 1) the continuation of one’s own life through labour, 2) the creation of needs, 3) the creation of others’ life through procreation, and 4) the social being of humans, meaning that they have a ‘productive force’ (GI, p.39ff.) – clearly show the narrow focus on biological processes.2 The activity instrumental for the satisfaction of those needs, namely through the production of the means of satisfaction, is labour, which is therefore a necessary and an inviolable condition for our existence.3 This connection between needs and labour is central and crucial to Marx’s philosophical anthropology. Yet it is not clear what exactly the product of labour is. In what follows I shall prepare the grounds for what Arendt later (1958) distinguishes as two differing activities: labour and work.

See also Chitty (1993, p.24): “For Marx, the essence of man consists in the first instance in his characteristic activity, namely species activity. From this starting point, it is possible to see how the essence of man could also consist in his characteristic needs.” (original emphasis). See also Elster (1985, pp. 61,68) “[…] the beginning for Marx is not alienation. The beginning is need, and the satisfaction of need.” cf. Press (1977, p.331) 2 Cf EPM: “Species-life, both for man and for animals, consists physically in the fact that man, like animals, lives from inorganic nature; and because man is more universal than animals, so too is the area of inorganic nature from which he lives more universal. […] For in the first place labour, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man only as a means for the satisfaction of a need, the need to preserve physical existence. But productive life is species-life. It is life-producing life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, resides in the nature of its life activity, and free conscious activity constitutes the speciescharacter of man. Life appears only as a means of life. (Simon, p.63) Simon’s translation differs slightly but preserves the meaning. 3 Marx is furthermore fully aware that labour is bound up with our natural environment, as can be seen from his critique of the devastating effects of industry on agriculture (C, chapter 15). This is also the reason why an ecological critique of capitalism is possible through Marx.



Consequences and criticisms Marxian labour When needs are expressed in Marx’s biological terms, labour always revolves around survival, ‘the production of life’. It is this link between labour and life that is crucial for Marx’s approach. It also explains his references to procreation.4 The corresponding needs are therefore physical needs. It is this approach to labour that I have highlighted so far. This definition of labour, namely the necessary activity we engage in to satisfy these necessary needs would match Arendt’s (1958) use of the term. Arendt, however, is far from putting labour on the pedestal that Marx did because she does not consider the necessary satisfaction of our physiological needs to be a species-specific activity.5 Nor did she consider production in general the key to human freedom and emancipation. As much as it is plausible to focus with Marx on biological needs and their satisfaction as preconditions for human life, in terms of ‘species-being’ this turns out too meagre, since our ‘species-being’ is presumably meant to be something distinctive about our species. But it is obvious that our survivalneeds are not distinctive, instead they apply to every living being. On the level of physical survival we are on the same playing field as any being belonging to the kingdom of animalia: all survive on the basis of physiological processes: nutrition. In short, the necessary satisfaction of physiological needs is not a trait specific to human beings but a characteristic of all animal life. The reason why this thought is important is that the connection between labour and necessity is crucial for the theoretical as well as moral appeal of Marx’s account: only because Marx can appeal to the ontological status of labour that he claims of it, do his arguments about labour have such a force. This global equality, so to say, of the human species, namely that we all share at least a certain set of needs, is important for the universalist appeal of Marx’s theory and thereby Historical Materialism. He can make such a forceful moral argument out of the connection between human beings and labour because he has anchored labour in our physiology – because he has linked labour and life. His claims are therefore, so to say, not just another ideology but grounded in our empirical existence.

Such as: “For labour, life activity, and productive life appear to man at first only as a means to satisfy a need, the need to maintain physical existence. Productive life, however, is species-life. It is life-begetting life. In the mode of life activity lies the entire character of a species, its species-character; and free conscious activity is the species-activity of man. Life itself appear only as a means to life. (EPM, Simon, p.63, original emphasis) Or: „The production of life, both of one’s own life in labour and of another in procreation […]” (GI, Simon, p.116) ‘Labour’ here refers to the production of food for it is through the consumption of food and drink that man produces his own life. Producing other life, however, is the act of procreation. Also, a bit further removed but still relevant: “The immediate, natural, and necessary relation of human being to human being is the relation of man to woman.” (EPM, 1966, p.126, original emphasis) 5 More about Arendt in chapter 2.


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism They are not just theoretical conjectures but existentially necessary. This is one important part of Marx’s concept of labour. But Marx’s concept of labour does not only include necessary activities but also such ones that are not necessitated by our physiological constitution: ‘production’ also includes the creation of use-goods, e.g. the products of industrial labour.6 These, however, are arguably not as necessary as the production of ‘means of subsistence’, compared with the latter, usegoods are historically contingent. But in this case the ontological grounding that Marx gave to labour falls away. It is simply not necessary, in the same way that nutrition is, that the human species engages in industrial production or the production of use-goods (or “instruments of labour” C, p. 175) in general. The connection between material production in this sense and human life does not have the same direct and necessary link to physiological survival which Marx refers to in the ‘production of life’. I remain a human being even if I never produce a single thing in my entire life. Thus, there is clearly a difference between the two senses of ‘labour’ that Marx uses. ‘Labour’ and ‘production’ always refer to consumption as well as the production of usegoods, as if they were the same and as if the link between labour and life also included the production of artefacts. The latter, however, are clearly not dictated by life and its necessity but by mere utility. Thus, Marx includes the two activities, which I, following Arendt, would like to distinguish, in his grand notion of labour. The reasons why they should be kept distinct are that their processes as well as products radically differ. As just pointed out, concerning Marx’s account there is the added difficulty that the necessity on which the appeal of the connection between labour and the human being rests, is not transferable to the class of people he is concerned with, namely the industrial proletariat, simply because they are not engaged in the necessary ‘production of life’, but in the contingent production of usegoods. Although the distinction Arendt makes between labour and work is often a red herring even for her advocates and an object of ridicule for her opponents, I will demonstrate in several instances that they are indeed distinct: claims concerning labour hardly ever also apply to work (and vice versa), apart from very generalised ones. Work and Tools in Anthropology As just shown, in contrast to Arendt, Marx includes under ‘labour’ also human artifice. We not only survive through producing and consuming food, we also make artificial objects:

I will detail the concepts of use-goods and necessity in the next chapter.


Consequences and criticisms tools, machines, instruments, utilities, buildings, clothes, works of art, etc. These are not goods for consumption but use-goods. In fact, we are the only species that surrounds itself with such a freely and artificially created environment.7 Arendt calls such production of artefacts ‘work’. When within Marxian philosophical anthropology the focus shifts to the artificial creation of use-goods, this, and not the existentially necessary activity of labour, suddenly becomes specifically human. Not needs, but freedom from need, becomes the trademark of truly human activity.
’[…] man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom from such need.’ (EPM 329, MEW 517) In so far as man is characteristically human, his activity is motivated by needs which are not simply given by his physical constitution. They are not ‘immediate’. (Chitty, 1993, p.25f., my emphasis)

This production differs from the earlier catering for one’s survival exactly in that it is ‘free from need’, even though it is still conditioned by utility. But in this case the necessity previously attached to production is no longer available, more than that, necessity has now become a mark of inhumanity. When Marx previously used needs in order to define the human being, we are now confronted with the opposite: namely that freedom from need defines the human being. This already forecasts problems concerning the relation between freedom and labour.8 I consider this to be one of the main root problems with Marxian human ontology. Tool-creation plays a large role in the anthropological study of mankind generally. Although I oppose Marx on the connection between need and the production of artefacts, I do agree with the importance of tool-use for the development of our cognitive abilities. The definition of man as the ‘tool-making animal’ (Franklin) is, however, not without its opponents: Elster (1985, p.64f.) criticises this definition on the grounds that animals also use tools. His examples are, however, insufficient to refute the approach. He employs the fact that animals use sticks in order access food as an example of tool-use. But a stick is not a tool in the relevant respect: by ‘tools’ reference is not made to sticks, which many animals use in quite imaginative ways, but to ‘composite tools’, that is, tools that consists of several parts that have to be assembled. Elster thinks that the cognitive abilities necessary for tool7

Although ants, bees, beavers, etc. also build their housings they do not produce them freely, rather, they are genetically conditioned. 8 Press (1977), for example, is hopelessly confused on this issue.


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism creation merely comprise the use of found objects, but this is a mistake. Although some animal species use found objects, there is yet no evidence that any species constructs composite tools, nor does Elster cite any, his examples comprise only the use of found objects.9 The particularity of composite tools lies in the fact that in order to produce them the creator not only has to envisage the future use, thus the activity for which the tool is needed (which some animals can obviously do as well concerning found objects), but also that he envisages a thing which does not naturally exist or, in other words, lies around to be found. The construction of composite tools is the introduction of a type of objects that would not occur naturally, hence their status as ‘artefacts’. The creator must therefore be able to abstract objects from their natural occurrence as parts of an envisaged future composition in which they play a defined role. There has to be thus a pre-conceived image of what is meant to be created, in other words, it requires ‘working according to a mental plan’. When Marx refers to Franklin for his definition of man as a ‘tool-making animal’ Marx (and Franklin) are therefore, contrary to Elster, quite right and also true to the term: man is (so far) the only tool-making animal, even though he is not the only ‘tool-finding’ animal. This does not entail a rejection of the evolutionary development of this ability. That is, the development from the use of found objects to the use of composite tools can nevertheless be gradual and it seems that some higher apes come very close to it. In any case, concerning Marx the important point is the inconsistency regarding the definition of what is specifically human. Are we to be defined by our needs or by our freedom from need? The former refers to labour which produces the products to satisfy our necessary needs (goods of consumption). The latter refers to work, which is free from necessity. Marx struggles between the two: he wants to use the necessity with which we labour to ground a normative critique of the relation between man and work under capitalism. The physical process and Time A further element that compounds the confusion of labour and work is the role of time in Marx‘s account of production: he focuses solely on the process that the individual being has to subject herself to, her physical and mental engagement and the repercussions. He never attends in the same way to the outcome of the process, namely the product. His analysis stops with the end of the production process, and hence Marx identifies time as the measurement of work, rather than the produced good (C, p.46f., 52). Therefore Marx does not see the difference between products that are used (work) and such that are consumed (labour).

This includes recent experiments with crows. See:


Consequences and criticisms Thus, what the person actually produces is of little importance, it is a side-issue compared to the sheer fact that she is working (mentally or physically). Inasmuch as time is, of course, the adequate measurement of any process, it is also a value under which all actions must become equal; it annihilates any essential differences between the ways in which this time is spent and what the result is. It only matters that I do something from t1 until t2, not what the result after t2 is. That Marx is only looking at the physical process, that is, the exertion of (bodily) energy, can be seen from his definition of labour:
Productive activity […] is nothing but the expenditure of human labour-power. [The] expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles, […] in this sense are human labour. (C, p.51)

Marx only values the sheer activity, the expenditure, engagement or process, which in the case of humans is always the use of ‘brains, nerves and muscles’. At this level of abstraction, where we simply coin all ‘expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles’ labour, the only measure left over is the time spent expending this energy. Although time is an apt measure in this respect, it also removes all specificity concerning the object of one’s labour: the final product, that which remains after the process has finished, drops out of the picture. Labour-time is indeed the only common denominator of all production processes, irrespective of the economic paradigm, since the definition of labour-power that Marx gives is universal. It is not just particular to capitalism but applies generally. Yet this denominator allows no distinction between consumption- and creation-processes. This compounds Marx’s use of ‘labour’: sometimes as the creation of artefacts (material use-objects like tools, machinery, houses, clothes, etc.) that can be used and exchanged; at other times as ‘the production of life’10 and other such formulations of physiologically and biologically necessary processes. The making of things, however, is not a biologically necessitated phenomenon – as Marx himself maintains in other passages, it is free from need.11 Labour – due to need or free from need? We are thus left with the following problem: On the physiological (‘labour’) level of existential (life-sustaining) needs neither they nor our labour is distinctive, on the production level (‘work’) they are not necessary. As foreshadowed above, the relation between labour and freedom is then problematic. If labour is necessary, as Marx’s human ontology claims,
„Men have history because they must produce their life.” (GI, p.42) For example: “Man lives physically only by these products of nature; they may appear in the form of food, heating, clothing, housing, etc.” (EPM, Simon, p.63) Whereas food is a product of nature heating, clothing, and housing are not: they have to be produced artificially by us and do not occur naturally.
11 10


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism then how can it be free? Ignoring social pressures (duties, expectations) for a moment, even if I only produce for myself I cannot be free in this activity if its execution is necessary. Chitty (1993) reaches this same problem. He focuses on the production of use-goods and proceeds along the path outlined above: humans differ from animals exactly because they produce universally and free from immediate compulsion by physiological needs. ‘Man’ as Chitty quotes Marx, ‘only truly produces in freedom from such [physical] needs’.12 This dissociation of human freedom from animal necessity is important. Only due to this can Marx then criticise capitalism for the reduction of the human individual to his animal basis.13 On this basis Chitty can now answer why production for one’s own needs is not alienating when production for someone else is alienating. Namely:
Marx’s answer might have been that the satisfaction of a being’s intrinsic needs does not constitute a compulsion on that being. On the contrary, it is that being’s essential activity. (op.cit., p.28)

Chitty is right in supposing this to be Marx’s solution but it is no longer available because the satisfaction of one’s own intrinsic needs was previously explicitly denied the status of a truly human activity. Freedom from need was the mark of humanity before, now it is the opposite, namely production according to need. That those needs are intrinsic, rather than externally imposed, makes no difference to their compulsion. However intrinsic, in an account of human life, rather than death, there can be no question whether anyone is free to act according to his needs: in life one cannot choose to cater for one’s needs, instead one is compelled on pain of death (also Aristotle and Rousseau, for example, see it in this way). To take an example from literature: Robinson Crusoe was not free to search or hunt for food, unless he wanted to die he had to, whether he resented it or not. If labour is an intrinsic human activity that is essential and has to be performed in order for there to be a human species at all, as Marx argues, then we are not free to do it. Therefore if freedom from need is the mark of ‘truly human’ activity, as Marx argues elsewhere, then labour is not ‘truly human’. In order to remain within the Marxian framework Chitty has to avoid this last point. He does so by closing the gap between production and consumption:
Is gathering fruit, or hunting for game, a separate act of production or an initial phase of consumption? […] If I produce something for my own needs, there is no clear line between production and consumption. (op.cit., p.28)
12 13

See the previous quote from Chitty on p.36. See EPM (‘Estranged Labour’).


Consequences and criticisms But this claim is simply false, particularly when the production that Chitty refers to here is of that ‘truly human’ kind, which he indicates above, according to which we produce ‘free from need’ and ‘universally’ (cf. EPM, Simon, p.62). This production must be the production of artefacts: utilities, ‘the means of production’ and works of art. Only those are untainted by necessity because in the production of artefacts we are free from need. But exactly here it is false to say that production and consumption merge. In fact, it would undermine one of Marx’s insights into the production of artefacts and use-goods, namely that the process disappears in the product (C, p.176). This insight highlights the fact that the processes of production and use are distinct: as long as the construction has not finished the product cannot be used in the way it was intended. Thus, production and consumption cannot merge: I have to finish making the spear before I go out to hunt with it. Once the construction process has ended it disappears, as Marx says, in the finished object. Production and consumption therefore remain different and do not merge. But why is it convincing when Chitty (op.cit., p.28), in order to make his point, asks rhetorically “Is gathering fruit, or hunting for game, a separate act of production or an initial phase of consumption?” It is convincing because activities like gathering fruit or hunting do indeed stand in a circular relation with consumption. Yet, to be precise, even here we can distinguish the various processes: neither gathering nor hunting is consumption. I have to gather and/or hunt before I can consume. Admittedly, the two parts often follow each other so quickly that it is indeed difficult to tell them apart, they do appear like one. Furthermore, the circularity of these activities is also apparent insofar as we hunt in order to eat and eat in order to hunt again. Notice first, however, that hunting and gathering are far from those types of production that are ‘free from need’. Quite the contrary, as I claimed above, unless we want to die, we have no choice but to engage in them. Also, we have now adopted the Arendtian account: the given example as well its characterisation is exactly what Arendt understands as labour: necessary activities that follow each other in such a circular motion as the needs whose satisfaction necessitate them. We therefore have to adopt Arendt’s account if we want to succeed where Marx fails. The conundrum concerning needs and freedom in Marx’s labour account can only be resolved by distinguishing, as Arendt does, between labour and work. Unless we do this we will reach the deadlock above, in which exactly those activities we are not free to choose are those which are apparently ‘free from need’ and ‘truly human’. Notice that the reason for deliberating about the relationship between labour and freedom is Marx’s attempt to ground human specificity in our species-activity, that is, labour. I argue 41

Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism that this fails. The attempt to capture the distinctiveness of our human species in terms of labour connected to needs, has, as far as I know, not yielded any successful results.14 In other words, an account of what is distinctively human has to comprise more than labour. I will locate this distinctive trait later in what Arendt calls ‘action’. Labour and alienation As outlined above, Chitty wants to answer why labour under capitalism is enforced when it is free under one’s own directive. Working within the Marxian framework he therefore has to show that the essential activities man performs in a solitary situation are still human and not just animalistic. He tries to do this by closing the gap between production and consumption. I have argued that this approach fails. But I would like to continue using Chitty’s thought because it touches so many important points. The next one concerns alienation, which lies close because it is equally grounded in Marx’s ontology. The perceived proximity between labour and consumption is translated by Chitty into the proximity of means and ends. As long as both are close and internal to the agent we have a case on un-alienated labour. Thus, production for one’s own needs is not alienating because “The separation between means and ends which makes it possible for the means to appear as compelled by the ends simply does not exist for the animal, or man ‘in the savage state’, producing for himself” (Chitty, 1993, p.28). This means that only immediate production for one’s own needs is non-alienating. Marx himself, as well as much secondary literature, abounds with such claims:
In society the relation of the producer to his product after its completion is extrinsic, and the return of the product to the subject depends on other individuals. The product does not immediately come into his possession. [...] Distribution, which on the basis of social laws determines the individuals’ share in the world of products, intervenes between the produce and the products, i.e., between production and consumption. (Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1970 p. 199.) So far as the labor-process is purely individual, one and the same laborer unites in himself all the functions, that later on become separated. When an individual appropriates natural objects for his livelihood, no one controls him but himself. Afterwards he is controlled by others. A single man cannot operate upon NaAlso Stephen Mulhall, in an otherwise very insightful essay, cannot cover up the difficulties involved in such a project. He advances a very friendly reading of Marx but is also forced to such circular claims as: “In other words, human practical activity – the exercise of the distinctively human array of drives – is an essential mediating element in the process of developing those drives to the point where they can indeed be called “distinctively human”.” (Mulhall, 1998, p.16)


Consequences and criticisms
ture without calling his own muscles into play under the control of his brain. As in the natural body, head and hand wait upon each other, so that the laborprocess unites the labor of the hand with that of head. Later on they part company and even become deadly foes. The product ceases to be the direct product of the individual, and becomes a social product, produced in common by a collective laborer; i.e., by a combination of workmen, each of whom takes only a part, greater or less, in the manipulation of the subject of their labor. (C, p. 508).

Alienation in labour is characterised here as the circumstance in which the individual either does not own the means of production, or the finished product, or both. There is, so to say, too much distance between means and ends. One is neither in control of one’s activity, since one has sold it to the capitalist, nor in control of the object, since one does not own it. If so then the conditions for non-alienated labour seemingly must be this: I produce for myself, own the means of production and the final product. But this is extremely undesirable for Marx’ goal of communism because here I equally neither produce for myself nor do I own the means of production. Accordingly, communist production turns out to be alienating. But, it will be replied, in communist production I produce for society. Yet, by itself, this reply is a red herring: in capitalism I also produce for society. In response it will be said that my claim is false: under capitalism we do not produce for society but for the owners of the means of production. But also this reply is not that easily available: according to Marx’s own analysis, a product is of no use-value to the person who sells it, otherwise he would not sell it (C, p.89). If the product of my labour is of no use-value to the owner of my labour, then I cannot produce for him. Instead, I produce for those to whom my product is of use-value, i.e. the rest of society, or whoever buys the product. Of course, the apt reply is to argue that under capitalism we produce for the owners of the means of production for the exchange-value of the goods. The capitalist is indeed not interested in use-value of the product but in the exchange-value he can get for it. Nevertheless, since the goods would not have an exchange value if they did not also have a use-value for someone, it remains that I produce for those to whom the product is a usevalue. In other words, in both capitalism and communism, I produce for society. Furthermore, if, as shown above, the conditions for non-alienated labour are those in which I produce for my own needs, under my supervision and where I own all the means of production, then these conditions undermine the basis of communism, which is conceived as a commune of associated producers neither of whom owns the means of production. This last element, is also known as ‘collective ownership’, which is often treated like the Holy Grail for social harmony. But notice first that this does not escape the features of alienation 43

Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism that Marx outlines above. Alienation has more sources than just private ownership and they are not eliminated by advancing collective ownership instead. In other words, even if we add the collective ownership of the means of production, it is clear that other conditions of alienation will persist (for example the distance between means and ends for the single agent in production, i.e. that the labourer is not the master of his product). Here I also want to question the reality of collective ownership: owning something collectively means that I do not own what I work with, nor do my associate workers. In that case, we do not own anything either. If neither they nor I have access to ownership then no one owns anything at all. Collective ownership is an oxymoron. This judgement finds its proof in the actual experiences of peasants in the compulsory collectivisation of their farms under communist governments. Under communist rule all private peasants had to surrender their claims to private ownership of their means of production, that is, their farms. Their livestock and fields were simply usurped. In East Germany this took the form of LPG’s (Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft – association of agrarian producers), in Russia and its satellite states, the ‘Kolkhozy’. In the majority of cases the compulsory collectivisation fuelled the peasants’ resentment of collective ownership because it meant that they were deprived of the little property they had – in the process of collectivisation they ended up owning nothing. The productive output of the newly collectivised farms did not increase either, on the contrary, it often shrunk. To summarise: I have argued that the relationship between labour and freedom is difficult at best within Marx’s account. To be more reckless: labour and freedom do not mix. Yet it is important for Marx’s philosophical anthropology and social ontology that they do mix, in fact, that they become one, namely insofar as labour is meant to become life’s prime want.15 Chitty’s defence of Marx’s philosophical anthropology unintentionally brings out many of the problems that I am criticising (namely: needs as the distinctive feature of humans, the connection between labour and freedom, and a concept of alienation that seems to apply to communistic labour as well).16 Last but not least, it shows the difference between labour and work which Marx never makes. This is a major distinction for Arendt which I will explain in detail later. The further puzzle that Chitty wants to resolve, namely why there is compulsion and alienation under capitalism but in not production for one’s own needs, remains to be answered.

15 16

Critique of the Gotha Program, Simon, op.cit., p.321. More below pp.47ff.


Consequences and criticisms With the philosophical anthropology of labour that Marx gives, which anchors it in fundamental needs, in life, this will be impossible. Even if we grant, as Marx argues, that in exchange relations producers become enslaved by their own products, then why is this any worse than the compulsion and reduction we would be subjected to if we produced only for our own survival? To my mind, there is no answer to this question from Marx’s account since it is quite clear that Marx himself would also view such a situation as one of deprivation. Man would be deprived from those elements that make him essentially human, rather than a mere animal.


A first conclusion - Insufficient Ontology

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 unsatisfactory: it is not an exhaustive picture of human life but insufficient. There are two elements 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 production 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 exactly 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 distinguish 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

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 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 human 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 conclusion. 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 Arendt, 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 Habermas.21


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


More Labour

3.3.1. Abolishing labour and alienation – the labour puzzle continued The consequences of the problems pointed out above are substantial and revert back onto Marx’ own analysis of human life. The problematic relationship between labour and freedom emerges, for example in one of the most deep seated contradictions in Marx’s writings: that labour, on the one hand, is the activity we have to engage in necessarily to be alive at all22 while also “the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish […] labour” (GI, p. 96). Thus, the activity that defines the human being is also the one to be abolished under communism. This is a recurrent contradiction from the early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to the The German Ideology until the late Capital III. It therefore concerns all of Marx’s writings. The accepted standard interpretation is that when Marx advocates the abolition of labour he refers to its alienated perversion. The aim is to liberate labour, rather than to abolish it. However, this reading is not unchallengeable, even if it is the most plausible one. Firstly, in those sentences in which Marx calls for the abolition of labour he does not use the word ‘alienated’. Seeing that he had both senses of labour in his writings, alienated and un-alienated, it would have, at least, been better to clarify which one he was referring to. Also, the term ‘wage-labour’, as a possible referent to ‘alienated labour’ is explicitly used only from 1847 onward, by which both the Early Manuscripts and the German Ideology, in which Marx calls for the abolition of labour, were already written, so Marx did not just refer to the abolition of wage-labour in those texts. Secondly, there also are followers of Marx who take the call for the abolition of labour seriously, for example Herbert Marcuse:
The abolition of the proletariat also amounts to the abolition of labor as such. Marx makes this an express formulation when he speaks of the achievement of revolution. Classes are to be abolished ‘by the abolition of private property and labor itself.’ Elsewhere, Marx says the same thing: ‘The communistic revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labor.’ And again, ‘the question is not the liberation but the abolition of labor.’ The question is

“The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.” (GI, p.39)



Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism
not the liberation of labor because labor has already been made ‘free’; free labor is the achievement of capitalist society. (Marcuse, 1955, p.292, emphasis added)

The passage Marcuse refers to at the end is the following from the German Ideology in the chapter on ‘Saint Max’, who argues that:
“The state rests on the slavery of labour. If labour were to become free, the state would be lost.” (GI, p. 153)

Against this Marx argues that
The modern state, the rule of the bourgeoisie, is based on freedom of labour. The idea that along with freedom of religion, state, thought, etc., and hence “occasionally” “also” “perhaps” with freedom of labour, not I become free, but only one of my enslavers — this idea was borrowed by Saint Max himself, many times, though in a very distorted form, from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. Freedom of labour is free competition of the workers among themselves. Saint Max is very unfortunate in political economy as in all other spheres. Labour is free in all civilised countries; it is not a matter of freeing labour but of abolishing it. (GI, p.223f., original emphasis except the last sentence)

Marcuse (above) is thus quite correct: Marx criticises ‘Saint Max’ for interpreting the liberation of labour as the downfall of the capitalist state. Marcuse’s interpretation of the last sentence hits the nail on the head: free labour is already achieved, hence the liberation of labour is not what the communist revolution pursues.23 Instead, it is its abolition. Of course this must leave us puzzled since Marx himself is well aware that “labour, life activity, and productive life appear to man at first only as a means to satisfy a need, the need to maintain physical existence” (EPM, Simon, p.63). Thus, labour is necessary (here we are back to the ‘physical need’ interpretation of labour, but the problem remains even if we switch from ‘labour’ to ‘work’ which is free and universal) yet it is meant to be abolished. Marcuse explains that:
These amazing formulations in Marx’s earliest writings all contain the Hegelian term Aufhebung, so that abolition also carries the meaning that a content is restored to its true form. Marx, however, envisioned the future mode of labor to be so different from the prevailing one that he hesitated to use the same term ‘labor’ to designate alike the material process of capitalist and of communist society. He uses the term ‘labor’ to mean what capitalism actually understands by it in the last analysis, that activity which creates surplus value in commodity

For a good discussion of the views of Marx and Marcuse on this point see Andrew (1970).


Consequences and criticisms
production, or, which ‘produces capital’. Other kinds of activity are not ‘productive labor’ and hence are not labor in the proper sense. Labor thus means that free and universal development is denied the individual who labours, and it is clear that in this state of affairs the liberation of the individual is at once the negation of labor. (1955., p.293)

But this is not explanatory at all, for we are still not told what will be so different about labour under communism. We are told that labour will be restored its ‘true form’ instead of its current one which denies the individual universal development. But what is the ‘true form’ of labour? Here we return to the point I made above (p.42f.) already: inferring from the way in which labour alienates man, namely when the object of my labour is not mine, it seems that the ‘true form’ is attained when I work for my own benefit and not someone else’s. But surely this cannot sit easy with communism either, since production is meant to be universal and not just for me. In other words, since under communism the product does not belong to the labourer either why is it any less alienating than capitalism?24 Another expression of the problematic relationship between labour and freedom, which is very closely connected to this issue of the endorsement of labour vs. the abolition of labour, is issue of the relation between self-realisation and labour, namely whether selfrealisation for Marx takes place within or outside labour (Elster, 1985, p.84f.). Freedom, labour and self-realisation are closely linked phenomena: if self-realisation happens in labour, then labour must feature freedom, in which case its abolition would make no sense. The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the Comments on James Mill and the Critique of the Gotha Program support the reading of self-realisation through (or within) labour; here Marx claims that ‘labour has become life’s prime want’.25 Yet in Capital III (p.820) Marx is explicit that “the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour […] ceases” and that “the shortening of the working-day is its basic requisite.” I will come back to this quote shortly. The interpretation concerning the abolition of labour, namely that Marx is referring to alienated labour, may be justified since Marx only calls for the abolition of labour as such in The German Ideology. Elsewhere he refers to either wage-labour or, synonymously, alienated labour. It is also clear from many other passages in which Marx confirms the existential
24 Above I have also already commented why I do not consider the advocacy of collective property to be of any significant help. 25 “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want […]” (Critique of the Gotha Program, 1962, p.24)


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism need of labour that he cannot have thought about an abolition of the activity. But then the result is that the call to the abolition of it only amounts to change of the economic paradigm under which labour takes place.26 (I have already explained above why I do not consider communism to resolve alienation.) The important point is that subsequent adherents of Marx’s account advance opposing interpretations (for example: Schaff, Elster, Chitty, and Press). Thus, there is an issue here which is a stumbling block until today.27 Elster’s question (whether self-realisation takes place within or outside labour) therefore remains. He suggests a compromise (1985, p.85), namely a reading of Marx which allows both alternatives: some people will realise themselves in labour, some outside of it. But this would not have been to Marx’s satisfaction because it relies on combining two views of labour which Marx in different times of life seems to oppose quite clearly: namely that either labour can be free or that it is always bound to the realm of necessity. A third instance of the problematic relationship between labour and freedom is whether alienation is intrinsic or extrinsic to labour. If all labour is intrinsically alienating, then selfrealisation can only happen outside of it. Vice versa: if self-realisation is meant to be possible within labour, then not labour itself but an external factor makes it alienating. According to Marx’s own view man externalises himself in labour, he conditions the object as much as the object also conditions him.28 It is a dialectical relationship and self-externalisation is also self-realisation. But it is also part of the phenomenology of labour that the product, once externalised, confronts me as something that is ‘not-me’. That is, externalisation means that I produce an objective thing in the world independent of me, even when it is my property. This should not be surprising since Marx is explicit that it is part of man’s being to externalise himself and in so doing he objectifies himself.

26 Schaff (1965, p.178), judging from his own actual experiences of socialism, comes to the same conclusions. He also attributes the call for the abolition of labour to one of Marx’s ‘sins of youth’. 27 I will show in chapter 4 that current postmodern Neo-Marxists battle with the same point. 28 “Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. […] The labour-process, resolved as above into its simple elementary factors, is human action with a view to the production of usevalues, appropriation of natural substances to human requirements; it is the necessary condition for effecting exchange of matter between man and Nature; it is the everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence, and therefore is independent of every social phase of that existence, or rather, is common to every such phase.” (C, chapter VII, section 1, pp.173-179). “[…] The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labour. The realization of labour is its objectification. […] The workers can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material in which his labour realizes itself, in which it is active and from which, and by means of which, it produces.” (Early Manuscripts, Alienated labour, Simon, p. 59f.)


Consequences and criticisms Nevertheless, that my self-externalisation has resulted in an objective and independent entity can also be seen in a negative way: exactly because it is objective and independent it means that it can oppose me, that I cannot wish away, that is not only mine but has its own objectivity in the world. The connotation now changes: externalisation is not just affirmative for my being but also threatening. The created thing is independent and ‘not-I’ and therefore a little alienation (and un-freedom) hides inside all production. Thus, we can see that in the same way as it is easy to switch between the advocacy of labour and its abolition, it is also easy to switch from self-externalisation to self-alienation. This move is accomplished, for example, by Press (1977). According to him
[…] in producing objects, man becomes alienated, and this expression of his life becomes an alien power over him. Thus, "The product of individual consumption," as in any animal, "is the consumer himself; the result of productive consumption is a product distinct from the consumer." This production of objects, the production of the means of subsistence, makes it possible, indeed, inevitable, that the objects become separated, alienated, both in production and consumption, from the inward source of life: from need, from nature, from the body. The object, which is produced "outside," as a certain exteriorization, externalization, of the "inside," in order, in the peculiar way of men, to gratify the inside, thus acquires the character of a separated object. This loss of the object, this as it were Archetypal Loss, is at the root of all alienation. (p.333)

I consider this a misreading of Marx. However, to some, the production of objects, this distinctively human ability, is intrinsically alienating at the same time. Is alienation, so to say, ontologically given (intrinsic), or is it a social product (extrinsic/external)? The answer to this question becomes decisive once we deliberate about how alienation can be overcome, since if alienation is intrinsic to production then no overcoming is possible (except by ceasing to engage in production which is surely not Marx’ plan). If alienation is intrinsic then there can be no freedom in labour. It seems to me that this is not an uncommon problem concerning Marx since many interpreters divide in two major camps on this point: On the one hand there are those who argue for the incompatibility of labour and freedom: Marcuse (1955, 1965) argues that labour is by nature drudging and alienating, Andrew (1970) reads him likewise.29 They refer mostly to those radical sections from the German Ideology that I have quoted above and that often-quoted passage from Capital III (p.820) to


But compare Leiss (1971).


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism which I will now turn. Since according to these writers labour and freedom are incompatible they advocate the abolition of labour in general. On the other hand there are those who argue that self-realisation and freedom is possible within labour, i.e. that freedom and labour are compatible, (e.g.: Chitty, 1993, and Sayers, 2003).30 Their arguments are mostly based the Early Manuscripts, Capital I, and also the passage from Capital III which is worth quoting it once again:
In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite. (C III, p.820)

The ‘abolitionists’ of labour particularly refer to the first and the last sentence. Their opponents, the ‘compatibilists’, like to point out that in between Marx does also refer to the ‘freedom in this field’. Together with the main claims from the early writings (for example “self-realization, objectification of the subject, hence real freedom, whose action is, precisely, labour” (Grundrisse, 1973, p.611) it seems that a good and more plausible case can be made for the interpretation according to which labour and freedom are compatible. However, I contend that, although Marx makes space for freedom within labour in the passage above, he also makes it clear that this space is very confined: the realm of necessity

See also Schoolman (1973) and Schaff (1965). Gould (1978, ch.2) occupies a strange position between both camps. Like the ‘pro-labour’ claimants she thinks that labour implies self-realisation (under the right circumstances) and therefore allows for freedom. Yet, like Marcuse, she sees full automation as the precondition for self-realisation. She has to answer why labour would then still be pursued seeing that it is now fully automated (cf. Schoolman, 1973). Habermas (1971, esp. pp. 387ff.) also published on this debate and, for short, does not think that alienation is ontologically given.



Consequences and criticisms remains, by definition, one of compulsion. Freedom therein consists only in making the compulsory actions as humane (‘worthy of their human nature’) as possible.31 Acquiring the necessities is the pre-condition and basis for freedom but it is not freedom itself. Real freedom can only start outside of the realm of necessity. If it was not so, then why would the working-day have to be shortened? In short, with respect to each side of the divide we can ask questions that they will find hard to answer: To the ‘abolitionists’ we ask: 1. How can humans survive without labour, and 2. how humans otherwise externalise themselves (since externalisation is a crucial activity of man for Marx)? Another strong argument against the abolition of labour is the following: the ‘abolitionists’ collapse the distinction between externalisation and alienation. For if labour is intrinsically alienating then there is no distinction between this externalisation and alienation. Yet it is clear that Marx thinks the distinction to be important. So, for the respective Marx scholarship the question is why Marx upheld this distinction if the two amount to the same. More importantly, without the possibility of non-alienated labour we also lose the normative ground on which to criticise capitalism for being alienating. I therefore consider abolitionists to be in a very weak position. To the ‘pro-labour’ party we ask why, if freedom within labour is possible, Marx still calls for the shortening of the labour-day? If labour and freedom are compatible and labour becomes ‘life’s prime want’ then would it not be better to work 24/7? If labour is so essential and self-realising then why is it a prerequisite for the realm of freedom to shorten labour-time? Why is there is there still a distinction between the realm of freedom and the realm of labour at all? And is communism a state in which everyone or no one works? Marx’s catchphrase ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ allows both interpretations presented here: it could mean minimal as well as maximal working hours. The question of whether labour is to be abolished or not, i.e. whether there is freedom in labour or not, i.e. whether self-realisation happens in- or outside labour, is unresolved. At the very least, it continues to be matter of debate. As I have argued above, the relationship between labour and freedom, due to Marx’s definition of labour, is inherently problematic,

Cf. Popper (1958, p.129) and McLellan (1984, p.68). Also Lenin (1978, p.67) advocates a “shorter working day”.



Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism evidenced here by the three debates I have mentioned. This is indicative of the fact that in Marx’s own account no clear answer is available.


A second conclusion

Whatever the answers to the questions just put would be, according to my analysis, they arise and are based on the ontological and philosophical-anthropological issues pointed out above: What exactly belongs to this human essence that Marx is talking about (is labour free or necessary) and what do ‘labour’ and ‘production’ exactly refer to? If this can be answered questions concerning the abolition of labour could then be clarified as well. However, my view is that these issues cannot be resolved by studying Marx at all, simply because we find evidence for both approaches to labour and freedom in his writings.32 This is an inherent as well as crucial problem in Marx. To show this and the resulting problems is what I have done so far. To my mind, although it is true that one of the distinguishing features of our species is the creation of a world of artefacts in which we live, it is firstly unwarranted of Marx to elevate this activity to the human activity in general, particularly if it is undistinguished from the satisfaction of necessary needs, which is not specifically human at all. Secondly, this focus prevents the recognition of such truly human traits as uniqueness in identity and agency (to which I will come later). Furthermore, as shown, Marx’s account includes the substantial difficulty of the relation between labour and freedom: if the core-element belonging to our essence is production, do we produce according to need or free from need? Marx cannot have both, yet it is important that he does: he needs to characterise production as naturally free because this constitutes the normative ground on which to criticise capitalism (namely because under capitalism labour becomes unfree and alienating); and he needs it to be necessary in order to anchor it in his philosophical anthropology and social ontology. Only with this grounding can production play the central role that it does and the critique of capitalism be as strong.33 But these two features are mutually exclusive: if production is necessary then it cannot be free.


Many Marxians, however, do not accept that Marx is inconsistent on this point, even when the sheer existence of this debate indicates the opposite. McLellan (1984) is a noteworthy exception here. He simply asserts that Marx changed his mind on the matter over the course of his life (p.68). 33 Marcuse makes this point. For him Marx’s “examination of economy is specifically carried on with the question in mind whether that economy realises man’s Gattungswesen (universelles Wesen)” (1955, p.275)


Consequences and criticisms To summarise: the link between human nature, life, need, and production is as crucial in Marx’s account as it is problematic. Furthermore, Marx’s account of production is not as exhaustive as argued. He claims that all other phenomena depend on and are influenced by production. My aim is to point out the insufficiency of such a Historical Materialist approach to explain social reality. I will now elaborate some more points resulting from Marx’s account pertaining to his account of politics and history.


Politics and the State

By defining human beings as he did Marx thought to have solved the riddle of history. The object was to explain and describe the development of the human species and advance a future political project. To identify the central role and pervasiveness of production in this capacity was, according to Marx himself, his personal insight and contribution.34 In what he calls ‘natural societies’ with typical hierarchies, labour already confronts the individual as something alien - throughout most of human history it stays that way. With the rise of capitalism and the development of the industrial proletariat, production, as the driving historical force, becomes apparent. Hence Marx claims that capitalism simplifies the workings behind human history (CM) and he is the one to make us conscious of it. It follows quite naturally from an account of human relations which bases them on production and need, that politics is understood as nothing else than administration in the service of domination.35 For, if the major concern is life, which Marx describes in mostly physiological terms and thus depends on the satisfaction of needs, then all relations are at once necessary and antagonistic. I cannot share my survival with anyone else and in the satisfaction of my needs I am a rival to everyone else, in the same way as everyone else is to me. “In the framework of scarcity, constitutive relations are fundamentally antagonistic” (Sartre, 1990, p.15). In communism this would be recognised and used to avoid scarcity. Marx thought that antagonistic relations would then end, since my activity would also affirm that of everyone else:

The German Ideology starts with the following sentence: “Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be” (GI, Preface). When men were wrong about themselves so far then Marx is going to rectify this. “This conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of production […]. […] In the whole conception of history up to the present this real basis of history has either been totally neglected or else considered as a minor matter quite irrelevant to the course of history” (GI, Preface, p.23) 35 Cf. McLellan (1984, p.61) “On whatever base it [the state, U.M.] was constituted, the state was, for Marx, central to the alienating structure of capitalist society, and only a revolution could displace its pervasive influence.



Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism
In my individual life I would have directly created your life; in my individual activity I would have immediately confirmed and realised my true human and social nature. (Marx, Excerpt-Notes of 1844, Comments on James Mill, Simon, p.53, original emphasis)36

This shows how production and politics are linked: only as long as production proceeds under conditions of ownership and wage-labour will there be politics in order to dominate the labourer and the conditions of his labour. The end of production under domination will also be the end of politics. Thus, the dominating relations in production correspond exactly to the dominating relations (i.e. politics) between people. The fall of the first must bring about the fall of the latter. At least this is Marx’ thought and I take it that this is another central claim of Historical Materialism.37 Seen in this way politics must turn out to be a mere synonym for domination and it emerges explicitly already in Marx’s view of the towns. According to him, towns are the outcome of “direct need, the care of providing for the protection of property, and of multiplying the means of production and defence of the separate members” (GI, p.67, see also C, p.333). Again Marx stresses only material needs as the sufficient motive. And towns imply domination because they are centres of division of labour38:
The existence of the town implies, at the same time, the necessity of administration, police, taxes, etc., in short, on the municipality, and thus of politics in general. (GI, p.65, my emphasis)

This view of politics expressed in the quote is then continued and projected onto the State, government, and even rights: the modern State is a bourgeois invention to save the status of the ruling class; the government is the playground of those with vested interests in the control of labour-power and the productive capacity of others to ensure their own luxury; and rights are conceived as humbug that only serve the interests of some to the detriment of others.39 In line with production as the central element in human life Marx also thinks that the economic ordering under communism will suffice as the ‘political superstructure’: “Its [communism’s, U.M.] organisation, therefore, is essentially economic […]” (GI, Simon,

36 37

See also p.xxxii This is also the target of Habermas critique (1969) to which I will come back later. 38 Since towns, in this manner, foster and propagate what Marx criticises, he calls for the ‘abolition of the antagonism between town and country’ a few sentences later. 39 „To this modern private property corresponds the modern State, […][which] has become a separate entity, beside and outside civil society; but it is nothing more than the form organisation which the bourgeois necessarily adopt both for internal and external purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests.” (GI, p.79). Also for Lenin (1978) the state “is organised coercion” (p.69) “So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state” (p.86).


Consequences and criticisms p.147). Engels’ assertion that government can be reduced to an ‘administration of things’ and ‘the direction of production’ (see below) is then no longer surprising.40
Political Power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. (CM, p.105)

Thus, politics always comes across as something that takes place over people’s heads, in the superstructure, out of their reach, but impending upon and affecting them.41 Politics appears as additional and optional to human life. In fact, for Marx it is superfluous and hence he calls for its abolition.42 It is alien and Schaff (1965, p.120), who shares Marx’s view of the state, talks of ‘political alienation’. This constitutes an instrumental conception of the State: it exists only in order to facilitate something, in Marx’s case the domination of one class over another. This is the opposite of Aristotelian or Hegelian approaches, according to which the state exists for its own sake (Aristotle, 1995, Hegel 1991). Here, a state is the climax of human life, because only there can man engage and participate in those activities that set him apart from the animal kingdom – that accord with his being. But Marx carries the instrumental approach, which underlies all production, over into the political realm. All production is good for something, that is, it is instrumental, it is so to say utilitarian by nature. This links with his conception of human relations which are defined in terms of production. Production, in turn, is linked to domination, and thus he thinks that the state is only a vehicle for domination. Sartre phrases it in this way: “[…] the State […] would gradually become a useless factor of alienation, an absurd and harmful intermediary between the producer and production” (Sartre, 1990, p.121f., my emphasis). Thus, Marx has an instrumental conception of the state according to which its goal is domination. The root of this approach lies in Marx’s social ontology. The social existence of man, according to Marx, is already imbued with power- and means-end relations, since ‘being social’ means ‘productive co-operation’ (GI, p.41), as I have shown above (p.22f.). Thus, the relation between people is understood only in terms of their productiveness. Productivity, in turn, is a material phenomenon triggered by our needs which we have to satisfy through
40 In line with this is Marx’s account of justice: he seemingly believes justice to be a matter of distribution, at least he does not offer a different account. Inferring from all that I have read Marx thinks that social relations will be just when the relations of production are just. This constitutes an account of distributive justice. This furthermore manifests the claim that all social relations can be reduced to material relations. 41 “For the proletarians, on the other hand, the condition of their existence, labour, and with it all the conditions of existence governing modern society, have become something accidental, something over which they, as separate individuals, have no control, and over which no social organisation can give them control.”

(GI, Simon, p.145)

This is contrary to Arendt’s (1958) conception of politics according to which it is integral to human



Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism production. In this way, social existence is understood as the result of necessity issuing from material needs.43 To repeat, if the social being of people is only understood in terms of necessary needs, then it is not surprising that politics, which concerns the relations between people, is understood as relations of domination. Additionally, it is not surprising that Marx should hold this view also for historical reasons: the 19th century saw the last big wave of colonialism and empires, the biggest ones of which (England and France) controlled the majority of the world’s population. Politics thus appears as a mere means to rule over others. The state with its government must then appear as something negative.
Since the State is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests, and in which the whole civil society of an epoch is epitomised, it follows that the State mediates in the formation of all common institutions and that institutions receive a political form. (GI, p.79f.)

Moreover, the state also fosters the division of labour, which triggers unequal distribution and is the bifurcation point of individual and common interests, as argued above. The state thereby gives free reign to the perceived common interests, but due to the way in which Marx sees the state, these cannot be the ‘true’ common interests, since the state is a mere instrument of domination (ibid., pp.62-65). The ‘true’ common interests can, of course, only be realised in communism. The state as it exists so far, however, is the enemy of the individual since it legalises alienation and prevents its members from discovering their ‘true’ general interests. Consequently, Marx says, the state must be abolished.


Materialism to replace politics

Marx locates the source of human relations in the ‘productive cooperation’ to satisfy material needs. This is the basis for his proposal to control distribution and to allocate all products evenly. Then all human relations would be equal.
All-round dependence, this natural form of the world-historical co-operation of individuals, will be transformed by this communist revolution into the control

For example: „[...] all struggles within the State, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, the struggle for franchise, etc., etc., are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another […]. Further, it follows that every class which is struggling for mastery, even when its domination, as is the case with the proletariat, postulates the abolition of the old form of society in its entirety and of domination itself, must first conquer for itself political power in order to represent its interest in turn as the general interest, which in the first moment it is forced to do” (GI, Simon, op.cit., p.120). That the proletariat will abolish domination, as claimed here, does not mean that politics can be freed, but instead that politics will come to an end with the proletarian revolution.



Consequences and criticisms
and conscious mastery of these powers, which, born of the action of men on one another, have till now overawed and governed men as powers completely alien to them. (GI, p. 49f.)

Thus, with this Materialism as the origin of all human relations Marx thinks he has solved the riddle of human interaction and thereby history. The aim now is to administer and distribute all products equally. To paraphrase the passage above: we are all-round dependent because through the division of labour every individual relies on numerous others to provide what she herself has neither time nor expertise to produce. It is world-historical because modern industry acts globally. The exchange of goods as private property under the instituted law of supply and demand conjures up ‘these powers of actions of men on another’ which, because they exist under alienated conditions, ‘overawe and govern men completely alien to them.’ The progression of Marx’ thought here is ingenious, but it is a natural outcome in connection with the supposition that material relations are exhaustive as an account of human relations.44 In other words, because Marx reduces man to a needy creature and the needs themselves are material, it appears to him that the satisfaction of those needs can be calculated and controlled.45 Since all human relations are directed by those material needs, the control of the distribution of goods is the key to solve social problems because these problems are all based on unequal distribution. To do this is the aim of communist society. It is hence unsurprising that Engels claims:
Yet what is here already very plainly expressed is the idea of the future conversion of political rule over men into an administration of things and a direction of processes of production – that is to say, the “abolition of the state”, about which recently there has been so much noise. (‘Socialism: Utopian and scientific’, Selected Works in Two Volumes, Vol. II, 1962, p.123)

“This sum of productive forces, capital funds and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given, is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as “substance” and “essence of man”, and what they have deified and attacked: a real basis which is not in the least disturbed, in its effect and influence on the development of men, by the fact that these philosophers revolt against it as “self-consciousness” and the “Unique”.” (GI, p.51) 45 This, however, is nothing particularly new. Many schools of thought, especially hedonistic ones, are prone to quantify satisfaction and identify this as the basic principle of human happiness and human relations. A modern variant of Marx’ materialism is the concept of ‘immaterial labour’ advanced by contemporary Marxists, which I will explain in detail later. Their approach is identical to Marx’s with the only difference of a change in terminology. Their project, however, is exactly the same: ‘affects’ can account for all human phenomena.



Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism Politics is meant to be abolished; the only thing needed is an administration of things.46 What Marx is afraid of, and diagnoses as a fatal flaw of capitalism, is on the one hand the ‘individualisation’ of communities, that is, the alienation of man from his activity, himself, and his fellow human beings, and on the other the uncontrolled and thereby arbitrary supply of the means for the continuation of material life. This uncontrolled supply and distribution turns the conditions of life into something external and arbitrary in the eyes of the individual. Accordingly, he wants to remedy both by re-aligning the individual with the community, abolish the division of labour, and control of the means of production. The latter is the key to the former.47 In communism, it is claimed, the members of society will control the conditions of life. Here again Marx’ conception of politics comes to the fore. He thinks that these uncontrolled and arbitrary forces which the worker is subjected to under capitalism are the outcome of the division of labour and the arbitrary distribution of the requirements for material life (i.e. supply and demand). Relationships become infested with power, due to the unequal distribution of labour and its division, which then alienate and antagonise individuals and, later, classes. All this has its origin in material conditions: “Thus, all collisions in history have their origin, according to our view, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse” (GI, p.92). Thus, control of the productive forces and distribution is the remedy to social problems. Since Marx thinks that all interaction depends on production (‘social’ means ‘productive cooperation’ GI) he argues that by controlling the latter he also affects the former. In other words, the community is meant to control the conditions of its own existence. But is this realistic? Marx thinks that the control of all production in a communist fashion will lead to the elimination of supply and demand. This, however, has never been achieved. Sartre once commented on Russia:
Through planning, in fact, the full rigour of economic laws that liberalism was so fond of evoking was rediscovered – the sole difference being that this rigour was perceived through a system, whereas the liberals grasped it in pure exteriority. (Sartre, 1990, p. 131)

The ‘economic laws of liberalism’ (e.g. supply and demand) were thus not mastered but reasserted themselves. The defensive reply to such claims, as in Schaff’s case for example,

Likewise Lenin (1978, p.100) writes: “Accounting and control – this is the main economic task of every Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, of every consumers’ society, of every union or committee of supplies, of every factory committee or organ of workers’ control in general.” 47 “The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers into material powers, […] can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers themselves and abolishing the division of labour.” (GI, pp. 93ff.)



Consequences and criticisms is often that this perception ‘through a system’ enables one to fight the causes of these laws better. But so far this reply is unwarranted, as Sartre claims above, supply and demand cannot simply be eliminated through planning, they re-emerge, whether within or outside a system.


The arbitrary

There is one final element that is important for Marx’s approach. We have now already proceeded far into the deep theory that fuels his approach. What he saw was that life’s circumstances escaped the control of those who were affected by them, which is the opposite of what he thought humans to be capable of. That is, whereas in previous ages people had been able to determine their own doings to a good extent (cf. GI, p.89, with provisos of course: during the feudal period peasants were bound to their lords, for example, tradition often determined which child in a family would grow up to pursue which “career”, and guilds controlled who could exercise a certain craft and who could not), by Marx’s time the majority of people were subject to a whole new range and force of factors that they had to surrender to. Capitalism, for all its benefits, which Marx saw in the efficiency of production and which he thus wanted to copy to an extent, was the worst economic arrangement for society because it aggravates and empowers these forces. It is this that underlies Marx’s approach. Together with contemporary advances in the natural sciences (as is well known Marx wanted to dedicate the first volume of Capital to Charles Darwin and Engels called Marx the ‘Darwin of the social sciences’) Marx saw a clear path: biologically humans are like animals – we need to live, but what distinguishes us from animals is our ability to produce the means of production, understand this process and direct it. As long as production turns out a sufficient amount of goods and has the good of all as its goal it affords us the chance to live in a situation in which we can then enjoy the ‘realm of freedom’. But capitalism is ‘unfit’ for this arrangement because it takes the control out of the hands of the producers and puts it into the hands of a ruling elite which is concerned with its own good, not with that of all. Furthermore, the powers of an uncontrolled market assume control over the people, when it should be the other way round. With this insight and the conviction that our scientific knowledge allows us to understand and master this foundation of human life, Marx thought he had found the panacea to the human misery he witnessed in the working class and which he thought to be exemplary for the process of history as a whole. In Sartre’s (1990, p.15) words: “At this level, we can at once grasp the link between this


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism intelligibility and that of the historical process.”48 This belief in human understanding and man’s ability to consciously control the historical development is still at work in Schaff (1965) when he describes Marxian humanism, which
is grounded in the conviction that the world is the product of man, that man himself is the product of self-realisation and that therefore man has practically unlimited possibilities – as amongst other things the current technological revolution shows – to change the world, and practically unlimited possibilities to change himself. (p.231, my emphasis)

The object is thus to assume control over those factors that seemingly make our life so unstable, to control those external influences according to which our fate seems to shift. Seeing that human life is so dependent on production, according to Marx, the control of the latter would also mean control over the former. This is the connection between the realms of fact and norm in Historical Materialism. But also for many subsequent Historical Materialists the guiding thought was that rational and scientific understanding and control of production would disable the external and arbitrary factors, that seem to shape our existence so far (‘pre-history’) and which capitalism exaggerates, and instead allow the ‘realm of freedom’ for everyone (truly human history). Engels has a very definite view on this. For him “the course of history is governed by inner general laws” which he then identifies, unsurprisingly, as production and class-struggle.49 In earlier periods people were simply not able to compute all the relevant factors, but since capitalism has radicalised the underlying forces in history and thus brought the relevant ones to light we can now understand the forces of history: it is not so much the ends and
Sartre, however, already realised the underdetermination of human action (cf. 1990, pp.11-13). “But this distinction [between law-like events in nature and human action, U.M.], important as it is for historical investigation, particularly of single epochs and events, cannot alter the fact that the course of history is governed by inner general laws. For here, also, on the whole, in spite of the consciously desired aims of all individuals, accident apparently reigns on the surface. That which is willed happens but rarely; in the majority of instances the numerous desired ends cross and conflict with one another, or these ends themselves are from the outset incapable of realization, or the means of attaining them are insufficient. Thus the conflicts of innumerable individual wills and individual actions in the domain of history produce a state of affairs entirely analogous to that prevailing in the realm of unconscious nature. The ends of the actions are intended, but the results which actually follow from these actions are not intended; or when they do seem to correspond to the end intended, they ultimately have consequences quite other than those intended. Historical events thus appear on the whole to be likewise governed by chance. But where on the surface accident holds sway, there actually it is always governed by inner, hidden laws, and it is only a matter of discovering these laws. […] But while in all earlier periods the investigation of these driving causes of history was almost impossible — on account of the complicated and concealed interconnections between them and their effects — our present period has so far simplified these interconnections that the riddle could be solved. Since the establishment of large-scale industry — that is, at least since the European peace of 1815 — it has been no longer a secret to any man in England that the whole political struggle there pivoted on the claims to supremacy of two classes: the landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie (middle class).” (Marx, Feuerbach and End of Classical German Philosophy,MECW, Vol.26, pp.387-389)
49 48


Consequences and criticisms wants of particular individuals but the material conditions that underlie the actions of the many. These material conditions are production, the relations and the forces thereof. Thus, for Engels, as well as Marx, the answer to the question what the driving forces in history are, are the yet undiscovered material relations and conditions. These can be studied and calculated and the element of chance therefore eliminated. Since it is capitalism in particular that amplifies the element of chance in human interactions and capitalism is a historical development, it means that chance (or: accidental conditions) itself is equally historical. For Marx it is clearly bound up with the competition between classes:
The differentiation between the personal and the class individual and the accidental nature of the conditions of life for the individual appears only with the rise of the class which itself is a product of the bourgeoisie. Competition and the struggle of individuals among themselves engender and develop this accidental character. (GI, Simon, p.145) In the present epoch, the domination of material relations over individuals, and the suppression of individuality by chance, has assumed its sharpest and most universal form, thereby setting existing individuals a very definite task. It has set them the task of replacing the domination of circumstances and of chance over individuals by the domination of individuals over chance and circumstances. […] This task, dictated by present-day relations, coincides with the task of organising society in a communist way. (GI, p. 494f.)

Repeatedly we find claims like these in Marx and Engels, they belong to the standard repertoire of Marx-scholarship, socialism and communism and are perfectly woven into the ontology behind these approaches.50 Schaff therefore comments on the above passage by Marx in this way:
The task to organise society in a communistic way is thus for Marx identical with the task to organise a society in which the people direct the material relations and not the other way round. (1965, p.243, translation U.M.)
Schaff, as shown above, in his late exposition and defence of Marxism, takes up this control of the external factors and also here it is bound up with the entire ontology. “Marx sees it [the answer to the question ‘What is man?’, U.M.] in the sphere of human labour, in human praxis, conceived as the process of change of objective reality by man and thereby changing himself. […] The basic form of this doing is […] labour. Human labour shapes objective reality and turns it into human reality in this way, thus the result of human labour.” […] “In this way one can construct a thoroughly anthropocentric anthropology that does not require any non-human embellishments and which views the world as man’s product. […] Such an anthropology – anthropocentric and thus materialistic – is at once autonomous anthropology in the sense that the world of man is only understandable as independent of any forces that exist outside this world (that is outside of nature and society), that it is understood as the work of man.” (Schaff, 1965, pp.94f., 132f., translation U.M.)


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism He summarises succinctly:
What does it mean when we say that alienation is the domination of man’s own products over man? It is a synonym for the spontaneity of social development, when the profit of goods on the market, the competitive armament between states, nationalist inclinations, racial hatred, religious intolerance etc. not succumb to the will and control of human individuals, when they enslave the individual, even threaten its existence and thereby limit its freedom. The battle against alienation is thus a battle against the spontaneity of development, for a development planned by man and subordinate to his will. In other words, it is a battle for the freedom of man, not an apparent, but real freedom, in which man becomes the conscious maker of his own destiny. […] Only in this way can we fully understand the meaning of Marxist socialism. (1965, p.142f., translation U.M., my emphasis)

Clearly, the ‘spontaneity’ (which in Marx is translated as ‘chance’ or ‘fortuitous circumstances’, or ‘accidental conditions’, depending on the edition) of development is marked as negative and is, in fact, to be abolished. With the materialism that Marx has in mind and which is pursued within Historical Materialism as a broad approach, this looks plausible: since all of the decisive factors of human history are explained materialistically and therefore as an object of science, without any non-materialistic hocus-pocus, we should be able be in control of them, just in the same way as we are in control of the process and object of production. Also Sartre (1990, p. 125) claims: “Thus unity of production and management must characterise the socialist order: socialist man is human because he governs things; every other order is inhuman, to the (variable) extent that things govern man.” Soviet Russia was a large-scale attempt to put this theory into practice: by streamlining production and catering for all needs via plans. These plans were drawn up by the government and had to be implemented in society. At worst, these plans had lost all connection with what was realistically possible and available. At best, they constituted a new medium and therefore a new element of chance: they became a medium between the worker and his product, i.e. exactly what was meant to disappear under communism. The plan thus becomes a new spontaneous factor: the creator has to establish it on the basis of something, i.e. he works under constraints, and the worker equally acts under constraints, namely those laid upon him by the plan.51 The constraints were under control of neither planner, nor worker and therefore


“This implied a reification of the citizen’s relations with the sovereign. The former was defined through the latter’s calculations as a mere unit of production and consumption. Between the two of them, there was the mediation of the Plan: an ambiguous reality which was both the voluntarist political project of a certain ruling milieu and at the same time – at least as it presented itself through the instruction imposed on this factor or that combine – the simple, rigorous determination of the condition to be fulfilled by each and


Consequences and criticisms constitute an arbitrary limit and influence upon them. Spontaneity, chance, or fortuitous circumstances have not been eliminated but were merely shifted and re-introduced at another level. Contrary to this approach, in which spontaneity is a threat to human freedom, I will later argue with Arendt that it is exactly this spontaneity which is important for development and it has nothing to do with the ‘material conditions’ of the world around us. What Marx and Engels want to capture in Historical Materialism and subsequently remove is the uncertainty inherent in human interaction. All terms used in this respect (spontaneity, chance, accident, arbitrariness) are indicative of uncertainty perceived as a threat. Marx and Engels want to remove this uncertainty. In response, theirs is a factory-model of human interaction: it presumes that all essential conditions of human history are material, thereby empirical, and thus graspable. There is to be a direct and, moreover, material link between the realm of facts and the realm of norms. Since, according to Marx, labour is our speciesdistinctive activity which is at the origin of our knowledge of the world and our relations with others, the features that pertain to labour therefore link with human history: in work we master the process of production – the corresponding view of history is one of a process we should be equally able to master. I consider this approach as mistaken. I have shown that the central claim of Historical Materialism is the direct correspondence between conditions of production and social relations, and the aim of communism is the control of the latter through the former.52 But production and the relations thereof are not the only influential factor in historical development. Moreover, historical development does not proceed along the lines that Marx and Engels proclaimed. Neither our material relations with Nature in production, nor our social relations are as determinable as claimed. Although we constantly improve our grip and understanding of Nature, with every new discovered fact we also discover new questions. Thus, even on the material side of life cannot gain complete control. In addition to this is the non-material side, which Arendt called ‘action’, and for which Habermas claimed that its rules are different from those of the material world. This side I have so far only hinted at and it is linked to the phenomena of spontaneity, chance, arbitrariness and the missing
every one in order to save the USSR (the foundations of socialism).” (Sartre, 1990, p. 130f., original emphasis) 52 „Marx saw labor as the essential human activity, and human potential at any point in history was determined by the forms that labor took. This ideal of the fundamental role of labor is expressed in historical materialism in the claim that the development of the forces and relations of production determines and explains the course of history. Implicit in idea is the further claim that human beings can only be free and flourish when they freely labor under conditions they control.” (Simon, op.cit., p. xxiv, my emphasis)


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism ‘more’ of human characteristics mentioned above. Arbitrariness and chance are not due to human negligence but ineradicable elements of human interaction. I will elaborate this shortly. This nonmaterial element is, however, what Historical Materialism does not and cannot account for.



Marx’s approach to human beings contains problems on the level of definition (what is distinctive about humans) and leads to a strange account of human relations and politics. The nature of humans (or rather their essence, because part of the claim about human nature is that there no such thing) is seen as production. This is their species-activity. Production is taken as the stepping stone from which all subsequent human development has commenced. For Marx it is the origin of human discovery and knowledge, the key to our life, its secrets, and of our mastery of the world. His ideas together with his directness and rigour certainly make him very persuasive. In the way that the relation between man and world is seen and weighted it results in claims central to Historical Materialism: the view of human relationships in terms of production, and our mastery of the world of labour as the mastery over human life in general (because life is seen in terms of labour). That man can make things affords him in Marx’s eyes with the ability to thereby also make himself.53 Our knowledge originates from the insights gained in and through the activity of labour, and our related problem-solving strategies have seemingly led to the advent of science. Because Marx takes labour and production to be the fundamental features of human life, he thereby thinks that in understanding production we will reach the ability to change human life. But human life does not just consist of the mastery of Nature, this is a modern thought undoubtedly triggered by the staggering scientific and technological advances we have made in the last 400 years. At the same time this is a reductive approach. Although humans live off the environment in the same way as animals do, we have individual histories, we bring together individual viewpoints. Additionally to our biological existence we have, for example, the spheres of interaction, social life, and politics (praxis). Although the events that take place in these spheres are connected to, and often concern, our biological existence there is no simple causal link from the latter to the former. Yet this connection between human productive activity (poiesis) and human social life is central to Historical Materialism. Praxis


Cf. Popper (1958, p.130ff.)


Consequences and criticisms is seen as poiesis (labour). The Aristotelian understanding of praxis, by contrast, comprises more activities than just labour. ‘Praxis’ refers to action or conduct in general, it is otherseeking and dialogic. 54 I take ‘materialism’ to refer to the ability to account for the workings of human life in a verifiable way, i.e. that it will enable us to determine exactly how human society works. These insights will then enable us to construct human society accordingly and shape human history consciously in our own fashion. This is Marx’s goal when he tries to eliminate the arbitrary factors in human life (for example by controlling production and thereby eliminating the arbitrariness of supply and demand). Thus, the view that praxis is in principle determinable persists even if the extension of ‘praxis’ comprises more activities than just labour, since for Marx all relations are based on production. Again, I take this approach to be central to Historical Materialism. My concerns here are the following: Firstly, the account of human life falls short of interaction and even if it wants to incorporate it this Materialism is prevented from accounting for, so-called, unscientific explanations. Secondly, in its attempt to consciously regulate human relationships it impedes human freedom: the spontaneity which is meant to be eliminated is essential to freedom and by battling the former, Historical Materialism also impinges on the latter. The spontaneity is partly hidden exactly in those features of persons that Historical Materialism cannot account for (freedom, uniqueness). Although we are the authors of our actions we are not thereby in full control of them. This is what Marx cannot accept. According to him, all of life’s circumstances are man-made and should therefore be controllable. But even if we were to accept the premise we would not have to accept the conclusion. The problem is not one of understanding but the way in which social life is constituted, the way in which we perceive other persons and ourselves. Historical Materialism claims that all relevant features here are historical developments that can be studied, understood, and then altered according to our wishes if we have the relevant knowledge. An agent’s personality, however, is not open to change in this way and the reason is that we are not fully in control of our persona.55 Although I am the author of my actions I am not the writer of story in which they take place. This is not due to a lack of knowledge but constitutive of human interaction. Control cannot be achieved. Man can make things, but he cannot control the impact of these things on him. This, again, is seen as a threat because if we view human history as an object of conscious human control then such undeterminable factors seem to deprive us of our humanity and limit one’s personality. Both of these con54 55

Aristotle (1976, p.369); Taylor (1993, ch.3) I will come back to this later.


Chapter I: Marx and Historical Materialism cepts are equally seen as objects of mastery, therefore not being the master of one’s own self appears as a backlash from a non-human reality, i.e. one that is not of one’s making. If ‘socialist man is human because he governs things; then every other order is inhuman, namely to the (variable) extent that things govern man’ (Sartre, 1990, p. 125). Spontaneity, chance, accidental conditions, arbitrariness, alienation, are all understood as impositions upon man, threats to his humanity, or essence. They are flaws to be conquered; they are what Marx’s materialism tries to bring under human control. Here the theory can have devastating practical consequences because the drive to control it is politically dangerous: Arendt (1958) argued that it is this drive to control history, and with it human interaction, which has led to totalitarian regimes. I do not suggest that Historical Materialism necessarily leads to totalitarian regimes, what is important for me here are the underlying ontology and some of the conceptual consequences. The next chapters will now be concerned with interaction, which I have only hinted at so far. It is this that is left out of the materialist picture because it escapes the material realm.


Arendt’s Human Condition

II. A reply to Arendt’s critics: in defence of labour, work, and action

This chapter serves three purposes: 1. it is an exposition of Hannah Arendt’s ontology as presented in The Human Condition, 2. it constitutes an approach with which to counter Historical Materialism, 3. in doing so I reinstate Arendt as an important writer concerning social ontology. The first chapter showed the reduction of human life in Historical Materialism to labour. Whether ‘labour’ is meant to refer to the satisfaction of necessary needs or the production of useful objects or both, it is insufficient as a characterisation of what is distinctive about human beings and as an explanation of history. Moreover, I argued that the two senses of ‘labour’ differ to such an extent that they cannot be compressed into one concept without thereby implying difficulties concerning the object of enquiry: the life and characteristics of human beings. Not only does the needs-based account of sociality in Historical Materialism lead to an account of politics that ultimately wants to abolish politics, in its attempt for a rationally ordered society according to principles of distribution it also tries to eradicate whatever does not fit into organised plans. The unpredictability of human beings and events are perceived as a threat to be overcome. This attacks a part of our human condition that is constitutive of the way in which we experience life – namely the characteristics of ‘action’ (interaction), as Arendt called it. Her approach is decisively different. Distinctive of human beings is not their ability to labour but their ability to act. To explicate this is Arendt’s goal in The Human Condition. Here, she offers an account of what she calls, ‘the active life’ (vita activa).1 She wants to describe ‘what we are doing when we are active’ by which she means to account for the basic activities that we are engaged in as human beings and that shape our existence; or, in her words, “the most elementary articulations of the human condition, with those activities that […] are within the range of every human being” (p.6).2 She finds three categories of activities

Hence the original title “Vita Activa”, contrary to the English The Human Condition, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1958). Arendt herself later came to regret the title she had chosen for the English edition because it is misleading (see Benhabib, 1998, p. 170). Important for Arendt was the distinction between the active life (vita activa) that appears to others and the contemplative life (vita contemplativa) which is accessible only to oneself. 2 This excludes thinking “the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable” (p.6) because thinking is part of the vita contemplativa she exempted from The Human Condition which only deals with the vita activa. To describe the vita contemplativa, including thinking, was Arendt’s project for her The life of mind.


Chapter II: Arendt that serve as the main features of human life: labour, work, and action. For this categorisation Arendt received much criticism, especially for the distinction between work and labour, mainly because it opposes the Marxian (but also Hegelian) concept of labour, as Arendt herself points out. There have been three main types of objections to Arendt’s distinction: First, that Arendt’s account devaluates labour and praises work, thereby expressing an intolerable snobbism concerning the “lower activities”. Second, that such clear distinctions between work, labour, and, in addition, action cannot be drawn. Third, that Arendt’s distinction violates important Hegelian concepts thereby making the emergence of selfconsciousness, at least along Hegel’s lines, impossible. I will defend Arendt’s account against these objections. The overall aim is to present a defence of Arendt’s account of, what she calls, the vita activa.

1. Arendt’s ‘Human Condition’


Labour and Work

The distinction between labour and work is Arendt’s own peculiarity (as she herself acknowledges) and earned her much criticism. Usually the two terms are used interchangeably but Arendt points out that already etymologically the two terms have different roots in every modern or ancient European language (in English labour and work, in Greek ponein and ergazeshai, in Latin laborare and facere, in French travailler and ouvrer, in German arbeiten and werken), which indicates a difference in meaning. Secondly, historically, she says about her distinction that “apart from a few scattered remarks, which moreover were never developed even in the theories of their authors, there is hardly anything in either the premodern tradition of political thought or in the large body of modern labour theories to support it” (HC, p. 72). Despite this she claims that the phenomenal evidence in favour of this distinction “is too striking to be ignored” (ibid.). First, in an account of the conditions that shape human life, Arendt accounts for the activities in which we are engaged in order to stay alive. We are embodied beings. In fact, all life, as far as we know it, is embodied. We, and all other life, are thus necessarily required to engage in activities that ensure sheer physiological survival. Thus, corporeality comes at the 70

Arendt’s Human Condition price of the necessity to remain embodied, and thus to maintain the body. As embodied beings we are part of nature’s requirements, if we do not fulfil its demands life will cease. As argued in the previous chapter this corresponds to one side of Marx’s definition of labour, namely the side that is stressed when the focus is the importance of labour for survival. The necessary activities that pertain to this end Arendt collects under the term ‘labour’. This activity has the following characteristics: 1. The goal and concern of labour is consumption, not production. Although we may produce our ‘means of subsistence’ we do so only in order to consume them. To live we have to consume the amount of energy that life itself requires every day. In this consumption labour disappears – its fruits are destroyed and the only evidence of it is the continuing life. The products of labour are so short-lived that they hardly exist long enough in order to become part of the world of things that we surround ourselves with.3 What we produce in labour is almost immediately consumed. It is part of the circle of life, so to say. All the effort leaves “no trace, no monument, no great work worthy of remembrance” (HC, p.81), it is only spent in order to stay alive. Food is procured and consumed. The only evidence that we must have engaged in labour is the sheer fact that one is alive. 2. Since labour pertains to our survival it is therefore characterised by necessity. It refers to those activities we have to engage in simply because our physical being demands it: we need to stay alive. Being a living, physical being has the price of constant upkeep of our physicality which requires bodies to consume the energy they spend being alive. The satisfaction of our physical needs is a matter of pure necessity, since otherwise life ceases.4 3. Labour is repetitive. Our physiology works in such a way that energy resources are depleted and refilled again: we cannot eat only once but have to engage in the activities that satisfy life’s demands repeatedly. Since it is concerned with necessary needs, i.e. life-sustaining needs, it satisfies demands that are principally unsatisfiable. As long as we are alive we will have such needs. We satisfy our physical demands,

3 It is due to this that Chitty (op.cit., p. 40f. above) can say above that in labour there is no distinction between production and consumption. 4 Labour activities are often tiring and exhausting (hunting, gathering, farm-work, etc.). Although labour often features these characteristics they are nevertheless not definitive, they are contingent rather than necessary. Thus, it would be wrong to describe any exhausting activity as labour.


Chapter II: Arendt but due to the constitution of the living body the supply is soon used up and the demand rises again. Hence, needs, motivation, supply, and satisfaction move in circular motion and are directed towards a reoccurring and identical goal. We (or any life for that matter) are thus caught in a never ending cycle and therefore labour has neither a concrete beginning nor an end. Instead, it is a constant and repetitive cycle. The purpose for which the product is created in the first place is the mere ability to start the next labour-process, i.e. to have enough energy in order to satisfy our needs as soon as they arise again, hence the never-ending cycle of labour. “One must eat in order to labour and one must labour in order to eat” (HC, p.143) The physical object that stands at its end will be destroyed in the use of it. Disappearance in consumption is therefore the goal, purpose, and use of the product. The disappearance, or destruction, of the product in consumption is inherent to its being and the process must therefore be repeated for reasons inside the product. 4. Therefore, labour is tied to a kind of destruction since the satisfaction of the need demands the undoing of the object. This destruction becomes apparent in the products of labour: products of consumption. In this literal meaning of the term, products are not just for consumers but are actually consumed or destroyed (e.g. food). Destruction is therefore internal to the products of labour, it is their destiny: they are only produced in order to be destroyed in consumption. Consumption (destruction), necessity and repetition are thus the characteristics of labour. Arendt finds the term animal laborans for beings engaged in this activity. The term expresses the sense that these activities are done in accordance with the characteristics we share with animals.5 This is not intended to be derogatory: we are all animal laborans, all humans, and all animals. Labour applies to all embodied living beings since it is a necessity stemming from the simple fact of embodied life and its requirements. It would not make sense to use a term which denotes a necessity in a derogatory way.6 Although not distinctively human (because it applies universally), labour nevertheless shapes human existence. Contrasting are the features that apply to activities in which we produce things not for consumption but for use. This is what Arendt calls ‘work’. This is the other side of the definition

Arendt writes: “The animal laborans, which with its body and the help of tame animals nourishes life, may be the lord and master of all living creatures, but he still remains the servant of nature” (HC, p. 139, original emphasis). 6 More about this below.


Arendt’s Human Condition of labour that Marx has. Above I criticised the conflation of these two terms. With the following characteristics it becomes clear in how far work differs from what Arendt calls ‘labour’. 1. Work is world-building, that is, it creates an artificial environment consisting of manmade objects (i.e. artefacts), or things (hence Arendt calls it ‘thing-world’). Human life is life in a thing-world: a world built by producing artefacts that last. Building and the production of artefacts is an activity humans, as the only species, engage in. The world in which humans live is not just a natural world in which they only find themselves but one that they create: we live in a thing-world.7 Animals also affect their environment but this is part of the natural order, whereas the creation of the human thing-world is part of our un-naturalness. Our creations are not simply part of nature since they are not made by natural processes, instead they are meant to resist, namely outlast and transcend, them. This man-made, enduring environment is the world in which man lives (HC, p.7). Without a trace that somehow indicates human presence we cannot even tell whether they existed, in fact, we often use this to deny those beings the status of ‘hominids’: the beginnings of a distinctively human culture are currently dated back to the time when the early hominids started to make tools (about 2.6 million years ago). The things that constitute the thing-world are man’s creations, are the physical marks of his existence that he leaves upon it (i.e. tools, buildings, roads, aqueducts, monuments etc.). In this way, humans make a unique impact by changing something from its natural state (trees for example) into something else (a hut or house) which would otherwise not exist if not for man’s conscious activity. The products of work are thus not natural occurrences, they are not part of nature’s cycle but new things in the world which would not exist if humans did not produce them. They make a perceivable difference in the world and the sheer physical presence is an objectification, or reification, of man’s own existence.8 Arendt writes: “against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world rather than the sublime indifference of an untouched nature […]. (HC, p.137)

Arendt uses the term ‘earth’ for our planet as such, but ‘world’ for the environment constituted by human artefacts. Just like all other living beings we live on earth but humans furthermore build a world for themselves. 8 This is identical with Marx’ claims.



Chapter II: Arendt 2. Work is not a necessity like labour. Whereas we would die if did not labour, we could survive without working. Work therefore embodies a kind of freedom, which is also evident from the fact that the maker of a piece of work can demolish it without fatal repercussions, whereas the labourer cannot demolish the product of his labouring without endangering his life.9 In other words, it is possible to survive the destruction of the world of human artefacts, but even the most advanced manmade environments could not aid our survival if the products of labour (or the basis thereof) would disappear.10 3. Work is accumulative, contrary to labour’s repetition. Whereas labour repeats because its products are destroyed by the very processes that demand their creation in the first place, work multiplies the amount of things that exist since their intended end is not destruction but endurance. 4. Therefore, the end of work is production and not destruction. Products of work do not carry an internal destruction as products of labour do. Whereas productions of consumption are created only in order to be destroyed, products of work are meant to last. Their point is exactly to stay in the world. The destruction of the workproducts and the repetition of the work-process are thus not due to the nature and purpose of the product as in labour, but factors outside of it (making a living for example, or demand for more on the market, in which case work and labour coincide). Hence, the process here is not one of repetition but multiplication. The workprocess is finished once the object is created and it has “enough durability to remain in the world as an independent entity [that] has been added to the human artifice” (HC, p.143). Thus, the end of the work-process is determined by the final product (Marx equally says: “the process disappears in the product”, C, p.176), whereas the end of the labour-process is determined not by the product but the exhaustion of labour-power. The products of work are accordingly use-objects instead of objects of consumption. They have a longer lifespan; they are enduring and thus can actually be counted as parts of the thing-world. Consumer goods, by contrast, do not last long enough; their “life expectancy” is limited since they are either deThis of course does not deny that products of work can be important for survival. Arendt acknowledges that man is a conditioned being, which means that anything he encounters immediately becomes a condition of his existence, even if this thing is something of his own creation (see HC, p. 9). Certainly the creation of tools allowed the colonisation of new regions which were otherwise uninhabitable. 10 This constitutes the threat with which the scarcity of resources that enable life (water, soil, etc.) dominates over any threat posed by the destruction of our artificial environments.


Arendt’s Human Condition stroyed in the act of consuming them, or, as part nature, they disappear quickly (they mould, rot, etc.). Use-goods, on the other hand, endure longer and are usually not limited to a single application but continue to exist in the thing-world and hopefully help us to make life easier (e.g. tools, machines). When consumption (destruction), necessity and repetition were the characteristics of labour, work can be summarised by production, freedom (within certain constraints), and accumulation. This corresponds to the ancient distinction between agere and facere: “whereas the product of the activity in agere is within ourselves (i.e. satisfaction of internal needs through consumption), the work of activity in facere is in the determined products, having an artistic and technical character” (Rotenstreich, 1977, p.26). Humans are the only beings on Earth producing a world of artificial objects. Work is thus a distinctively human activity and singles us out as a species. Arendt hence gives humans the title homo faber (the producing human) and it is in these activities that man transcends his mere animal biology. Of course it might be objected that also some animals build things (e.g. bees, ants, beavers, spiders etc.) but the difference is that man conceptualises his final product before he starts producing it. In this way work is an expression of the most human feature: thought.11 The distinction between work and labour is sometimes difficult to maintain. Products such as toothpaste, shampoo, or single-use items like certain types of protective clothing, kitchen roll, etc. make it difficult to apply the features of consumption and endurance as outlined above. This difficulty is also often due to the abundance in which these products exist and the speed with which they are used. Arendt says about our modern societies of mass-production: “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” (HC, p.125). Most of those borderline cases are nevertheless resolvable. I will return to this issue later.



Action, this most important part of the human condition within the vita activa for Arendt, is also the most difficult. Whereas labour and work can be enumerated as above, action requires a different strategy. I will now try to explain this concept, even if this can be, so far,


We find the same idea in Marx (C., p.173f.).


Chapter II: Arendt nothing more than scratching the surface. It is this third fundamental element of human life that captures what Historical Materialism cannot: the ‘who’ of a person. Despite Arendt’s efforts, the concept of action remained irritating. One reason may simply be found in the translation of ‘action’ for the German ‘Handlung’ because ‘action’ is misleading exactly on the feature Arendt wants to highlight, namely its social dimension.12 ‘Action’, in English, refers to general processes and events that can be physical, biological, chemical, mechanical, psychological etc. For example, falling rocks, digestion, hormone emission, bodily motoric abilities, like the pumping of blood by the heart, or breathing, can all be called ‘actions’. But compared to the German ‘Handlung’, these events are rather reactions, namely automatic and unintentional responses or consequences of unintentional causes. A ‘Handlung’, however, is intentional. For example, talking to someone is a ‘Handlung’, breathing, digesting, or hormone emission is not, since one cannot be said to do those things in the same way that one talks to another. The one is intentional whereas the others are not. A ‘Handlung’ thus requires agency - as the ability of the subject to act - and other agents - to allow for the opportunity to act - hence it being a relational term because one can only act (handeln) with others. Thus, depending on the context, I suggest ‘agency’, ‘dealings’ or ‘interaction’ as a better match for ‘Handlung’, because these terms do have the relational and intentional qualities Arendt is concerned with: they emphasise the ‘inter’ in ‘interaction’ and also suggest its non-material nature.13 In its relational character, that is, as interactions between agents, Arendt’s concept of action also differs from the ‘theory of action’, as known in analytic philosophy. This field is concerned with the processes of decision and execution of intentions through the use of the body. In this way, however, it remains unrelational, that is, the analytic ‘theory of action’ deals with intra-personal intentions and their execution, rather than the social interaction between agents that Arendt is concerned with. This social interaction is hence relational, since it requires the presence of at least two agents, and intentional insofar as the agents can be said to initiate their dealings with each other, which does not mean, of course, that therefore all consequences are intended. It means that they initiate interaction by themselves; it is something that they intentionally do without being necessitated, unlike their breathing.

A note on language as this might be where Arendt’s mistake lies: the closest noun to ‘Handlung’ is ‘agency’ (except for its use for non-intentional events such as ‘reacting agents’ in chemical processes). There is, however, no direct verb for this noun. The usual one is ‘to act’, which, taken by itself, seems to point to ‘action’ as its noun rather than ‘agency’. 13 More about the immaterial nature of interaction below pp.84ff., p.147ff., 152ff.



Arendt’s Human Condition Roughly, then, ‘action’ refers to the interaction between people. The complexity of this interaction far exceeds that of any other animal species. We do not just express emotions or signal actual occurrences as many species of animals can; human interaction is far more versatile and complicated. A major ingredient is the possession of a language which allows for most of the characteristics we consider special about us (e.g.: personal identity, reasons, plans, conscious intentions that are open to reflection, etc.). Being relational, interaction at once implies the two concepts of individuality and plurality, plus speech as a means of communication. Interaction thus covers the individual (individuality) as well as the social dimension (plurality) and the means of communication (language). I will now address these in turn. Individuality and Plurality, those two central elements of our human existence for Arendt, are intimately connected with interaction. It is here that Arendt finds this ‘who’ that Historical Materialism attempts to explain with reference to material media such as labour or use-goods, or production in the widest sense. But for Arendt the essential features of human life remain hidden to such enquiry.

1.2.1. Individuality We are all individuals, this sounds like a platitude, but it is not. In fact, we have to clarify the sense of ‘individual’: every ant in an anthill is an individual but only to a certain extent, and certainly not in the sense that a human is an individual. To bring out the difference we have to distinguish between ‘otherness’ and ‘uniqueness’ both of which we connote with ‘individuality’. As Arendt explains, every single being on this planet, whether human or not, is ‘other’ from its fellow beings, they are all different tokens of a particular type, so to say. A person, by contrast, is not just a token of the type ‘human’, not just an-‘other’ physical object, but furthermore an individual agent, a distinct personage, a unique human being with his/her very own characteristics, contrary to an ant.14 Arendt writes:
In man, otherness, which he shares with everything that is, and distinctness, which he shares with everything alive, become uniqueness, and human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings. Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. Through them, men, distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; they are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men. (HC, p.176, original emphasis)
Cf. Buber (1958, p.8) “Thus human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and escribed, a loose bundle of named qualities.”


Chapter II: Arendt In order to be unique, that is, for every human being to be his/her own personage which has never existed before and will never exist again, we must be distinct from each other: if you were identical to me then neither of us would be unique. Yet it is an undeniable fact that every single human being is unique. Nevertheless this uniqueness does not prevent us from interacting, so there is also a degree of similarity, or equality.15 This equality is important for the fact that we can relate to each other, but because we are all unique the relation does not go far enough to presuppose each others wants, desires, projects, intentions, etc. In short, we are similar but not identical. If we were identical we would not need the elaborate kind of language we have, mere signs and sounds would be enough to indicate our matching interests.16 Equally, if we were not even similar then we could not relate to each other, it would be hard to find any basis for a unitary communication system and we could not make sense of each other. Thus, we are distinct, yet alike; uniqueness and similarity are both required. Any reduction of one to the other results in a world that is unlike the one we inhabit. What makes us individuals is the possibility of each and every single one of us to have their own experiences, history, reasons, motivations, feelings, intentions, projects, etc. The way in which this stronger sense of individuality is exposed is through speech and interaction. As quoted above, it is through interaction that people ‘distinguish themselves’, that is, they actively reveal themselves as a particular someone, rather than only being passively distinct merely because they have different bodies and representing only another something, or anyone. This links with the active sense of initiative mentioned above. We only know that we are unique because everyone conducts their own actions and it turns out that none of these actions between several people are identical. When I do something it has the unwavering stamp of being done by me, where this is not simply reducible to the conditions in which I find myself but also incorporates the particularity in which I respond and which is unlike anyone else’s response. And even if someone else acts like I do, this does not negate the fact that he acts as he does, where as I act as I do. Actions are thus not merely indicative of the kind of species we belong to, but of the respective person, namely due to the way one acts, the kind of action, for which reasons, and with which aim. The reasons as well as the
‘Equality’ here is non-normative. It refers merely to the fact that we are similar beings. We can express this in terms of Popper’s functions of language. He outlines a hierarchy of four features where each higher one presupposes those underneath: 1) the expressive or symptomatic function; 2) the stimulative or signal function; 3) the descriptive function; 4) the argumentative function (Popper, K.R., 2002, pp.397, 398). If humans were identical then communication could be reduced to expressing and signalling identical wants, the two lower functions of language that many species of animals possess. But over and above that we also have the descriptive and argumentative function in order to discuss concepts we use. Doing so reveals our individual perspectives. (See Popper, 2002, pp.397, 398)
16 15


Arendt’s Human Condition kind of action (e.g. good, malicious, fake) can only be conveyed through speech. Through speech we get to know another person, we discover their reasons for acting as they do and their particular perspective. I can tell you a project of mine that is particular to me (and even if it is not then the reasons and aims for which I’m doing it can differ from other people with the same project) and you might give me your thoughts on it. In this case we have both revealed ourselves to each other. Importantly, this revelation is not reducible to the content of what we have said.17 Uniqueness is not just the propositional content of one’s speech-acts but is a part of interaction that emerges as one acts. Thus, the access to everyone’s distinct uniqueness is through interaction. If we did not interact we would not know that we are individuals in this strong sense. Interaction flows out of, and reveals, our individuality and through speech we make it explicit.
Only man can express this distinction and distinguish himself, and only he can communicate himself and not merely something (HC, p.176).

Interaction and speech ‘reveal this unique distinctness’ that is not exhausted by having distinct bodies but, additionally, features unique personas. That is, only of humans can we ask who the person is and expect an answer that will tell us of an identity which is unique. In no other activity does the uniqueness of the agent become so apparent as in interaction, for it is here that the individual experiences, reasons, motivations, feelings, and intentions enter the world that we share with others. Therefore, the fact that we are all unique individuals is of utmost importance, since without it interaction would not exist, nor would speech have developed, for if we were all the same then there would be no need to communicate but just a blind understanding as among, aptly called, anonymous social animals like ants or bees. Uniqueness and interaction therefore require each other, they are co-referential.

1.2.2. Plurality The other essential element for interaction is plurality: the fact that there are always many people, that we live with others, that human life is social life.18 Without the presence of others we are deprived of the opportunity to interact and therefore to be social agents in the full sense of the term, namely to act among and with others. Thus, plurality is the conI return to this point in the next chapter in my criticism of Habermas. For Arendt this Heideggerian idea (being is being with others, Being and Time, §26) became absolutely central. Of course also Marx thinks that all human life is social, but as shown in chapter 1, Marx conceives of human sociality instrumentally: it is an outcome of the need to reproduce and labour together with others.
18 17


Chapter II: Arendt dition within which our individuality can exist, namely between several agents capable of interacting. Interaction therefore presupposes plurality since a solitary human being cannot interact. To use the literary example: Robinson Crusoe, as long as he was alone, did not interact because he could not interact. He was deprived of the opportunity to act as a social agent due to his solitude. Once there are several individual agents capable of interacting an entire new level of life comes into existence: the social world, in which the individual is not just subject to its own drives and reasoning about which it may reason but also to the behaviour of other agents about which it has to reason. The social world is the product of the continuous interactions of the participating agents. Like in a team game, the social world requires not just a single but constant participation, that is, interaction, of the members. If an agent stops interacting, he falls out of the social world. We find the same thought in Aristotle, claiming that the kind of life for man is “an activity or series of actions […] in a complete lifetime.” (1976, Book 1, 1098a). Life requires constant interaction, thus each agent must continue to interact and thus continuously import himself. By doing so the agent constantly affects the social world anew and contributes to its existence as well as his own within it. However, this does not require a particular conscious effort because we are social beings by nature. We do not have to remind ourselves, so to say, to keep interacting. Rather, it is something we do naturally. Yet it does rely on initiative, compared to other things we do and which we do not have to be reminded of (like breathing) and which proceed passively – interaction, however, proceeds only actively (hence vita activa). The general will to interact and to communicate is not triggered by necessity, like labour, or by the expectation of utility, like work but simply stems from within ourselves. That repeated participation nevertheless affects the social world anew is itself an important feature for Arendt. Even if I repeated the same action daily it may very well be that today it has very different consequences from those it had yesterday. This ‘newness’ is a further feature of interaction: the setting of a new beginning, the possibility for ‘initiating new things’ as Arendt calls it (HC, ch. 5). An agent’s individuality brings, through interaction, something new into the social world. For example, if I tell you my view about an issue, something new has entered our relationship, something that was not there before and which is not exhausted by the content of what I told you. You not only know what I told you, but by telling you I also revealed something about myself. You might go and do something because of what I said, or you might have a different view of me now. Our ability to interact is the 80

Arendt’s Human Condition ability to initiate something, which is a condition no human being can escape, once he is thus capable, without ceasing to be human. This warrants a lengthy quote:
This appearance [as a unique persona, U.M.], as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative, but it is an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human. This is true of no other activity in the vita activa. Men can very well live without labouring, they can force others to labour for them, and they can very well decide merely to use and enjoy the world of things without themselves adding a single useful object to it; the life of an exploiter or slave-holder and the life of a parasite may be unjust, but they certainly are human. A life without speech and without action, on the other hand – and this is the only way of life that in earnest has renounced all appearance and all vanity in the biblical sense of the word – is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men. With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity, like labour, and it is not prompted by utility, like work. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them; its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative. To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, “to begin”, “to lead”, and eventually “to rule” indicates), to set something into motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin agere). (HC, p.176f.)

Expressed in terms of agency: humans are capable of agency, in fact, it is so central that if someone did not interact they would cease to be what we consider a person. Essential, in order to allow agency in the first place, is a social environment. Without plurality, that is, without the existence of other agents, agency is impossible, contrary to labour and work.
Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live. (HC, p.8)


Chapter II: Arendt


Action: a beginning but no end

As a further characteristic, interaction has a specific beginning, namely the point in time when someone interacts, but no specific end. For example, a worker may be unhappy about the working conditions at his site and put forward a motion to change this. The beginning of this interaction is clear, namely when he put forward the motion. But there is no determined end to this action. Even if it falls ‘on deaf ears’ someone else may reintroduce it later, or the worker’s initiative may gain symbolic status among other workers, or, if it is successful, it may lead to several changes in the working conditions. Thus, it is of course not guaranteed that the worker’s action will have the effect he intends, but as long as it is remembered it never looses the power to spark a new action. This is different from both labour and work. As characterised above, labour is a never-ending circular motion without beginning or end and work-processes have a definite start and end. Interaction, by contrast, has a definite start but no determined end.19 Every person capable of interaction can initiate new things and set a new starting point but because we live amongst others, all of which are equally agents, actions have no determined end. I can start a discussion, say, and the talk as such might come to an end, but the way in which this discussion has influenced all the participants which, in turn, might influence their actions with others, is beyond me. One can neither exactly foresee nor plan the course of one’s interactions once they enter the social world. Yet, whatever I do, the action is still mine. I am the originator and since I am an individual my action is particular to me. As such it reveals me - I am identified by my actions.20 It is hence a further strange feature of interactions that they reveal the person who sets the starting point and is the originator (they make them the person they are), and yet as soon as they are initiated they are taken out of one’s hands. The influence of our actions is largely out of our control.21
For labour, HC p.98, for action section 26, esp. pp.188-191 This is why Sartre (1973, p.41) can claim: “There is no reality except in action.” 21 A recent example which illustrates this fact is, what has become known as, the ‘cartoon wars’ (i.e. the issues surrounding the Mohammad caricatures in the Danish newspaper “Jyllands Posten” in September 2005). Whatever the motives of the creators might have been, it was hardly to spark a wave of sometimes violent protests (139 deaths and 823 injured persons) around the world. The cartoons had been published six months prior to the protests without causing problems. When a Muslim cleric drew attention to the cartoons the issue spread like a wildfire. Thus, at a time when the authors had probably already forgotten about them, the caricatures spawned a wave of protests which, in turn, spawned discussions about political correctness, freedom of expression etc., the authors and the publisher of the cartoons receiving death-threats and some of them being forced into hiding. In other words, the action had unintended consequences the extent of which were very unforeseeable. As the editor explained later, this was quite the opposite of their intention: instead of being alienating, the caricatures were meant to show how integrated Muslims are within the Danish nation, namely so integrated that they can also be caricatured. The reasoning was that not being able to make fun of someone is a way of excluding them. Therefore the caricatures were actually meant to indicate integration. (Der Spiegel, 22/2006, p.136). However much one may question the editor’s reasoning, it is unquestionable that he did reason. There are two main acting parties in this example: on the one hand the caricaturists and the editor, on the other hand the Muslim cleric who castigated the cartoons. Both parties acted and started some20 19


Arendt’s Human Condition

This is part and parcel of the social world. Our actions are taken up and influence the social world in a way we cannot predict because we are all unique agents living in this social world of interweaving dealings. Although we presuppose with every action that it will influence others we have nevertheless no exact idea how it will do so. Arendt chose to call this reality
the “web” of human relationships, indicating by metaphor its somewhat intangible quality. […] The realm of human affairs, strictly speaking, consists of the web of human relationships which exists wherever men live together. The disclosure of the “who” through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already existing web where their immediate consequences can be felt. (HC, p.183f.)

This “web” of human relationships is also the reason why, as mentioned above, even identical actions may have differing outcomes, namely because the “web” always changes. The constant interactions of the many participants involved in a particular issue have the effect of always altering the connections and the meanings of the interactions between them. It is due to this that we ‘can never step into the same river twice’, or ‘into the same web’ as the analogy goes. As long as people interact the “web” will exist, but it never has a constant, finished, or stable constitution. To summarise: through action and speech man participates in the social world and only there can interaction take place, it constitutes the social world. Being similar yet unique, living together with others, being capable of action and possessing speech, these are the pillars on which the social world rests. Interaction presupposes plurality and also reveals the individual because it is through speech and interaction that the individual develops and that his/her uniqueness can exist at all. We realise through interaction that we are individuals amongst other individuals. Interaction makes every participant a unique persona in a social reality. A single human being is therefore not a human being in the full sense, only the existence of other human beings, the existence of a community, creates the possibilities for, what Aristotle would have called, human excellences. Thus, plurality is essential for human life as we know it. These three aspects of our reality (interaction, uniqueness, plurality) can therefore not be prized apart. Each one requires the two others: without interaction
thing the end of which was not determined by their action. Nor has the issue lost its potential: the cartoons could be used any time again if fundamental Muslims wanted to trigger action against the West. Alternatively, the Muslim protests may also be used by anti-islamists to show how ‘intolerant’ Muslims are. Again, the potential inherent in the original action remains.


Chapter II: Arendt we would not know what plurality and uniqueness mean; without uniqueness plurality would be impossible and interaction would be reduced to indicate identical wants and desires; and without plurality we would be deprived of the opportunity to act and therefore realise ourselves as unique individuals. Interaction, as characterised by Arendt, is thus constitutive of the kind of beings humans are (individually) and the world we live in (a social, thus plural, world). Plurality, with its two elements of numerousness (of all agents) and uniqueness (of every single agent), is the framework within which both human characteristics of sameness and distinction have their place. Only in interaction can all of these develop at all.


Action compared to work and labour

Some differences have now already been mentioned: whereas labour is motivated by necessity and work by utility, interaction needs no such causes but is innate; whereas labour is circular and work has a concrete beginning and end, interaction has a beginning but no end; whereas labour and work are relations between man and his surrounding physical environment, interaction concerns the social environment. As a consequence, and this is also a feature that distinguishes Arendt’s account from Hegel’s and Marx’s, labour and work are in themselves not necessarily social activities. Keeping myself alive as well as producing material products are activities I can perform on my own. Of course it is practical to divide the necessary labour between several people and specialise in a particular part of the workprocess, but there is nothing that makes those activities impossible without other agents. The presence of others is not constitutive since it is not necessitated by these activities. This is not to deny that labour (in the way it is performed by humans for example in the form of agriculture) and work are outcomes of our social existence insofar as all culture relies on this basis. Although we are always part of a social environment which we are simply born into, there is nothing that stops an individual human being from engaging in labour and work in solitude in the same way that deprives people of the opportunity for interaction. Labour will have to be performed in order to remain alive and work can also be performed. Contrastingly, interaction is impossible since there is no interacting in solitude. Conceptually interaction requires the presence of others. Solitude negates the ‘inter’ in ‘interaction’ and it thus becomes conceptually impossible, let alone practically. Robinson Crusoe could certainly work and labour but he was deprived of the realm of interaction.
Action, as distinguished from fabrication, is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act. Action and speech need the sur-


Arendt’s Human Condition
rounding presence of others no less than fabrication needs the surrounding presence of nature for its material, and of a world in which to place the finished product. (HC, p.188)

As mentioned above, contrary to labour and work, interaction is the only activity a person cannot do without. Labour and work can be performed by others as long as they also provide for my corporeal demands. Our modern societies are based on these simple facts: other people produce the food that we eat and the goods that we use. We can ‘outsource’ labour and work activities, but not interaction. It cannot be transferred to others for in that case we would neither act nor speak, we would cease be human, because without interaction the particular ‘some-one’ that I am would become a mere ‘some-thing’. I would cease to be an agent, to make use of my capacity for agency, which makes me the unique person that I am. Furthermore, and this is again important in contrast with Historical Materialism, whereas work and labour are activities of material transfer (producing food or objects) interaction is comparatively non-material. Although it is an activity that we engage in it is nevertheless ephemeral and intangible. It often certainly concerns labour and work but is itself neither a product of labour nor work. Work and labour are both activities we engage in due to our embodiment. Labour out of necessity for the sake of the body, work for the sake of utility of a physical world in which we live among human artefacts (buildings, tools, etc.). They are activities with products that are material and locatable, like our physical existence on Earth. But interaction constitutes the dealings between people; it is non-material and as such non-locatable. Interaction, “the web of human relationships”, is non-material and is not necessitated by our embodiment. We could go so far as to say that conceptually interaction does not depend on our physicality.22 We can grasp this idea when we imagine being ghosts, or Cartesian non-extended thinking substances, although the latter have the tendency to be singular entities in solitude. The activities of labour and work would drop out of the range of activities we can engage in, since we are not embodied. Yet we could, in such an imaginary condition, still interact with others. If they still feature the same characteristics of individuality and plurality then the social world would still exist, for example, there could still be gossip, discussions, and
22 A hint of this is also hidden in the problems we are concerned with in interaction, such as goodness, justice, or fairness. These concerns have nothing to do with embodiment. This is also Habermas’ reason to reject Marx’s materialist reconstruction of interaction. Marx’ model subordinates language to labour and thus reduces ‘communicative action’ to ‘instrumental action’ (Sherman, 1999, p.210). More about this in chapter 3 and 4.


Chapter II: Arendt also political societies. Contrary to labour and work, the concept of interaction is thus not negated by non-embodiment. The physicality, so to say, of communication, that is, its materialisation as sound or sign, is only the mediator but not the communication itself because the latter is hidden in the content, which, in turn, only unfolds in the mind. This can be shown in two ways. On the one hand, as before, it is conceptually possible to imagine communication without sound or signs (sight): a common idea of this is telepathy. On the other, we can also imagine a scenario in which exist the mediators of communication (its physicality or materialisation, the sounds and signs) but no minds. In this case the mediators would make no sense, because they lack content. In other words, without minds speech and signs would be meaningless. To be clear, none of these two scenarios are real, but they help to clarify the point that communication is immaterial and happens in the mind, or better, directly between minds. (Telepathy may be fiction, but it is certainly not conceptually impossible). The physicality that is so intrinsic to labour and work is inessential for communication and interaction. Being non-material and inter-personal, interactions are direct relations between people. Whereas the concepts of labour and work have the products of these activities as (literally) mediating objects, interaction features no such thing. Instead, interaction is immediate and occurs directly between agents.23 Arendt writes:
Distinguished from both, consumer goods and use objects there are finally the “products” of action and speech, which together constitute the fabric of human relationships and affairs. Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption. Their reality depends entirely upon human plurality, upon the constant presence of others who can see and hear and therefore testify to their existence. […] Viewed, however, in their worldliness, action, speech, and thought have much more in common than any one of them has with work or labour. They themselves do not “produce,” bring forth anything, they are as futile as life itself. In order to become worldly things, that is, deeds and facts and events and patterns of thoughts or ideas, they must first be seen, heard, and remembered and then transformed, reified as it were, into things. Into sayings of poetry, the written page or the printed book, into paintings or sculpture into all sorts of records, documents, and monuments. The whole factual world of human affairs depends for its reality and its continued existence, first, upon the
23 Cf. Buber (1959, p.11f.). “The relation to the Thou is direct. […] Every means is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting [with a Thou, U.M.] come about.”


Arendt’s Human Condition
presence of others who have seen and heard and will remember, and, second, on the transformation of the intangible into the tangibility of things. (HC, p.94f.)

Another way to bring out this difference in materiality between labour/work and interaction is in terms of ontological objectivity/subjectivity (Searle, 2003). Firstly, once created, products of labour (even for their short period of existence) and work exist independently of human presence. They are therefore ontologically independent or –objective. By comparison, the “products” of interaction, namely the things we say and do, are dependent on the presence of human beings who remember them. As long as they are not reified in ‘sayings of poetry, the written page or the printed book, paintings, sculpture, or any other sort of record or document’, they do not exist independently but, on the contrary, only in the minds of those who know about them. For example, fairy tales that are not written down, or any oral tradition for that matter, exist only for as long as they are told, spoken about or remembered. Once they lose this merely ‘subjective’ existence they cease to exist completely. Secondly, interaction as such, and not just the “objects” in interaction (such as fairy tales), relies on presence of many (at least two) individuals, since a single agent cannot interact. Without the recognition of others interaction does not exist at all. We have reached the requirement of plurality again: interaction is not only subjective, or observer-relative, but intersubjective, that is, relational and therefore requires the actual presence of others. In this presence of others I become the unique agent that I am. I am not just another functioning physiological body (labour) and also more than another token of that type of beings on Earth with the gift to produce ‘universally’, as Marx says, that is, to surround myself with a physical environment of my making that goes beyond the ability of any other animal species (work). Above both of these I am an individual agent who is unlike any other agent. Thus, it is in interaction that every single human can distinguish him/herself as a unique person. This uniqueness cannot be captured in products of labour or work even though they may undoubtedly indicate such a presence. This ‘who’ that every single human being is, cannot be reified.24 In the process of materialisation the artefact cannot embody the character of maker. We may of course say that something is a ‘typical Rembrandt’ or ‘typical Rodin’, but here we mean their skill and way of representing something. We do not therefore know who

“[The] subjective in-between is not tangible, since there are no tangible objects into which it could solidify; the process of acting and speaking can leave behind no such results and end products. But for all its intangibility, this in-between is no less real than the world of things we visibly have in common.” (HC, p.183)


Chapter II: Arendt Rembrandt or Rodin were. In order to get a sense of the latter we write biographies, or make documentaries in which an artist’s work, say, is embedded in a story that retells his/her interactions. In other words, we are presented with the unique persona of the artist: his life-story, that is, his actions. Individuality is what appears in interaction and through speech and which cannot be replicated in material products. An artist could produce innumerable artworks and yet we would not know what kind of a person he/she is. Moreover, another person may, however unlikely, produce exactly the same objects, nevertheless we would not suppose that the two makers therefore identical. The ‘being of man’ therefore goes beyond his material existence, material activities, and material products. It is not exhausted by theoretical approaches that focus only on these features, such as Historical Materialism. Human beings are moreover endowed with the capacity for agency which turns them into unique individuals, where this agency is neither necessitated by, nor objectifiable through, our material relations with the world. Rather, it remains immaterial in the interactions between agents. To summarise: we can now see in how far interaction is immaterial, compared to labour and work. The latter are both prompted by our embodiment and their products are themselves embodied, or material. Interaction, by contrast, is neither prompted by our embodiment nor are its “products” embodied, or material, things. On the contrary, in order for actions to become as objective as products of labour or work, namely to become independent of those who are engaged in interaction, the interactions themselves have to be objectified. They have to be reified into ‘sayings of poetry, the written page or the printed book, paintings, sculpture, or any other sort of record or document’. These reifications are then themselves products of work, yet in that case they have ceased to be interactions and are now records of them. By itself, however, interaction only requires plurality, individuality and communication – none of which necessitate embodiment, or reification. Again, this does not deny or downplay our embodiment but only describes the differences between interaction, labour and work. Contrary to some of Arendt’s critics, one of the aims of The Human Condition was to give credit to our earthly existence (and thus labour and work) since so much depends upon it (cf. HC, p.16f.). Yet labour, work, and action can still be distinguished concerning their ‘worldliness’, or objectivity, in the way Arendt does and in such a comparison it becomes clear that interaction, this distinctively human activity, in the way we practice it, is not material at all, yet nonetheless just as real.


Objections to Arendt

2. The objections

In order to further my endorsement of Arendt’s account I will now answer some of the objections that have been raised against it over the years. In regards to my focus on the concept of labour in Historical Materialism I focus on objections from this tradition against Arendt’s distinction between labour and work. It was argued that her distinction is snobbish, that it is not applicable, and lastly that it obliterates the dialectic between man and nature which is important for the emergence of self-consciousness along Hegelian and Marxian lines. In what follows I will answer these criticisms.

2.1. Objection 1: Snobbism
An often made objection to Arendt from her opponents has been to accuse her of snobbism (e.g.: Parekh, Bakan, Engler, Sayers). The argument goes as follows: the distinction between labour and work either leads to, or is an explicit expression of, an elitist disregard for the “lower activities”. Sayers (2003, pp.117,118) for example, writes concerning Arendt that
[…] she tends to treat those who perform it [labour] as in effect a sub-human species, animal laborans. In a corresponding way, she elevates ‘work’ (and what she calls ‘action’) above the material realm. She thus transcendentalises ‘work’ and gives it an exaggerated and false human significance. She treats with disdain and contempt the labour which meets consumer needs and those who do it. Such élitist attitudes may have been tenable in the ancient world, where they corresponded to the prevailing social conditions. They are inappropriate and unacceptable in the modern world where such conditions have long passed.

In other words, snobbism is apparently a part of Arendt’s theoretical framework which she explicitly borrows from Aristotle who also had a profound disdain for physical work (cf. Engler, 2005, pp. 48, 49; Bakan, 1979, p.63). Arendt’s conceptual distinction is therefore part of a value-judgement that her critics are opposed to, hence the accusation of snobbism. Admittedly, in The Human Condition there are numerous passages that all seem to devalue labour and praise work. In trying to stress the difference between labour and work Arendt uses many terms for the former that have a negative connotation (toil, hard, unproductive, 89

Chapter II: Arendt exhausting, futile etc.) whereas the latter appears mostly in connection with terms of a positive air (creative, forming, free etc.). Nevertheless, there are passages that do emphasise the importance of labour. For example, about the labour of menial servants (that Adam Smith found so unproductive) she says that
what they left behind them in return for their consumption was nothing more or less than their masters’ freedom, or, in modern language, their masters’ potential productivity. […] It is indeed the mark of all labouring that it leaves nothing behind, that the result of its effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort is spent. And yet this effort, despite its futility, is born of a great urgency and motivated by a more powerful drive than anything else, because life itself depends on it. (HC, p.87, my emphasis)

Despite their rarity, passages like this already indicate that Arendt cannot have seriously intended to hail only work and scorn labour. Thus, when Mildred Bakan (1979, p.52) goes so far as to say that Arendt must have obviously forgotten that “without labor, no work as world-building would be possible” she has simply not read Arendt thoroughly, who was fully aware of this fact as the last quote shows. However, we can find more compelling evidence in a lecture she gave in 1967 (nine years after the first edition of The Human Condition) where she is more explicit about the value of labour and for which it is worth quoting her at length.
[…] it is in the nature of the human condition that contemplation remains dependent upon all sorts of activities – it depends upon labor to produce whatever is necessary to keep the human organism alive […]. (Arendt, 1987, p.29)

Concerning labour-products she notes that “they are the least worldly and, at the same time, the most natural and the most necessary of all things” (ibid., p.33, my emphasis). And finally
Since labour corresponds to the condition of life itself, it partakes not only in life's toil and trouble but also in the sheer bliss with which we can experience our being alive. The "blessing or the joy of labour", which plays so great a part in modern labour theories, is no empty notion. Man, the author of human artifice, which we call world in distinction to nature, and men, who are always involved with each other through action and speech, are by no means merely natural beings. But insofar as we too are just living creatures, laboring is the only way we can also remain and swing contently in nature’s prescribed cycle, toiling and resting, laboring and consuming, with the same happy and purposeless regularity with which day and night, life and death follow each other. The reward of toil and trou-


Objections to Arendt
ble, though it does not leave anything behind itself, is even more real, less futile than any other form of happiness. […] The blessing of life as a whole, inherent in labor, can never be found in work and should not be mistaken for the inevitably brief spell of joy that follows accomplishment and attends achievement. The blessing of labor is that effort and gratification follow each other as closely as producing and consuming, so that happiness is a concomitant of the process itself." (ibid., p.34, my emphasis)

Arendt is thus explicit that “labour is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body” (HC, p.7). It is absolutely crucial not only for our survival but also for our contentment. Contrary to Bakan’s claim, then, Arendt was fully aware of the importance of labour and did not mean to devalue it.1 In short, insofar as labour, according to Arendt’s own account, is a necessity it would simply be nonsensical to devalue it. The term ‘animal laborans’ is not a value judgement (although it was for the ancient Greeks, which is why they had slaves) but a description and a reminder of the fact for all our development we are still a species on this planet that is dependent on its surroundings like any other. It is rather part of the human hubris which speaks when we are outraged of reminders such as Arendt’s: the reminder that we are merely another animal species among all others.2 Moreover, as claimed before, one aim of The Human Condition was to give the vita activa an equal weighting to the vita contemplativa and accordingly Arendt does not intend to degrade the activities that keep us alive and allow for our ability to contemplate (HC, p. 16f.)

2.2. Objection 2: Arendt’s distinctions are not applicable
Another criticism has been the claim that Arendt’s categories of work and labour are not applicable in real life. There are two reasons for this inapplicability: on the one hand it is argued that Arendt’s categories are too narrow: namely that there are many more activities that we actively engage which do not fit into her distinction. On the other hand it was also
L.J. Disch (1994, p.27) also argues that Arendt is not elitist. In this connection it is worth mentioning a current debate which embodies this contention concerning the distinctiveness of the human species. In the last decade or so there has been an issue concerning the classification of human beings which is fought out on the field of anthropology. It is still customary to represent the class of hominids as a separate branch on the evolutionary tree, splitting from other primates about 7 million years ago. However, ever since molecular geneticists have found out that we share over 98% of our genes with our closest ancestors the chimpanzees, these scientists call for their inclusion into the branch of hominids. Genetically there is simply not enough difference between humans and chimpanzees to warrant the attribution of an entire separate branch on the evolutionary tree. Paleoanthropologists, who study early human culture, by contrast, insist on the customary distinction that distances us so clearly from those beings that we like to watch in the zoo. Currently both systems exist simultaneously in leading scientific journals such as Nature or Science and authors are so far not required to decide on one or the other. However, this issue is becoming increasingly pressing. Prof. Dr. Carsten Niemitz, in regards to this issue, has called humans the ‚animal that does not want to be an animal’. (see Neue Rundschau 117/4, Frankfurt/M 2006, pp. 53-68)
2 1


Chapter II: Arendt argued that these categories are too wide and allow for many activities to belong to both labour and work. Thus, there is no such clear cut distinction between these two activities as Arendt suggests. For the ‘too narrow’ side of the objection activities like sleep, rest, (Parekh, 1981, Sayers, 1998) and making love (Parekh, 1981) have been used as examples. Sleep and rest, however, fail immediately because they are not activities in Arendt’s sense. She is concerned about those activities that we actively engage in and which appear as signs of an active life. Sleep and rest are not activities that we actively engage in (how do you engage in sleep or rest?), instead we do the opposite: we let go, we disengage, which is why they are relaxing. If sleep and rest were engaging activities then they would not be relaxing, thus they are what they are because we do not engage with anything. Hence, they are not considered activities in the relevant sense.3 Thus, since Arendt is concerned with those activities that appear as active engagements that characterise active life as it appears to an observer, sleep and rest simply drop out of the picture. ‘Making love’ seems a tougher case. It is obviously an active engagement and it is characteristic of human life. But it is also characteristic of many other species, namely all those that procreate through sex. It is therefore not distinctive of human beings. But, it will be replied, Arendt also considers labour to be a part of the human condition which is equally not distinctive. So why is labour a part of the human condition and ‘making love’ is not? The reason may be that we do not have to engage in it once we are alive in order to be characterised as human beings. Society as we know would continue until the last person dies. Ceasing to engage in this activity would surely be very uncommon, but it is possible and would not deprive us of the status of human beings. It may be a natural inclination but by no means a necessity for the classification as human. Nuns and monks are still human beings - indicatively, they engage in those activities that Arendt describes: they live (labour), they build (work) and they interact.

Of course medically speaking sleep and rest are signs that the respective person is alive but they are not active engagements that characterise human life. Maybe a turn of phrase helps explaining here: people sometimes say about the severely disabled that they “do not have a life”, or bedridden patients talk about their life being reduced to this, that, or the other and we can find a similar intuition in us when we think about Nozick’s experience machine. The intuition is that without activities (as active engagements) it becomes hard to talk of a life. Being unable to act or to be an agent (to be unable to act or do something) deprives a human being of a big and important chunk that we, as ‘able-bodied’ persons, take for granted every day. This intuition makes us place a distinction between being alive and having a life. The difference is not, as the phrase may suggest, that the latter person possesses something the other does not, but that one is able to do things the other cannot and this ability to do things is what we take an active life to include. Rest and sleep are usually not considered here: it comforts no bedridden patient that he can rest and sleep all he wants.



Objections to Arendt Also, if ‘making love’ is meant to refer to the particular meaning that sex has between people who are in love, then we obviously do not refer to the mere physical act anymore. Instead, we refer to the meaning that sex has for those people. But then we have to include interaction: sex has its meaning due to the interactions (revelations) between people. In this case, however, the example is in Arendt’s favour. Thus, the examples that are given to show that Arendt’s list of activities is not exhaustive expose a misunderstanding of what she was trying to achieve. Her aim was not to categorise every single activity humans are capable of. Then the list would not only be endless (including scratching one’s head, putting stamps into a book, counting coins, walking, smoking, etc.), but it would also be a description of human nature, which she explicitly does not want to give (HC, p. 9f). Rather, her aim was to find those activities that are basic to our human life, that provide the platform for all else. Her book
[...] deals only with the most elementary articulations of the human condition, with those activities that traditionally, as well as according to current opinion, are within the range of every human being. (HC, p.5)

The other side of the claim that Arendt’s distinction is inapplicable is to say to that labour and work cannot be so rigorously distinguished. Some activities seem to fit both activities. But I maintain in Arendt’s defence that most activities can be accurately classified, and for other examples it has to be said that they presuppose the ontology Arendt outlines. This will become clear subsequently. The main contention is that several features of labour also apply to work, contrary to Arendt’s argument (Parekh., 1981; Sayers, 2003, p. 116, and 2005). Let’s turn to a particular case. Sayers (2003, p.116) writes:
it is impossible to detach ‘labour’ and ‘work’ as Arendt suggests: the two are necessarily and inextricably combined in human productive activity. The ‘labour’ which meets consumption needs also creates a product, it is thus at the same time a form of ‘work’ in Arendt’s sense.

What has been overlooked here is Arendt’s point about the endurance of objects. It is of course true that a loaf of bread is as much an object as a pair of shoes but, to answer in Arendt’s own words,


Chapter II: Arendt
what distinguishes the most flimsy pair of shoes from mere consumer goods is that they do not spoil if I do not wear them, that they have an independence of their own, however modest, which enables them to survive even for a considerable time the changing moods of their owner. Used or unused, they will remain in the world for a certain while unless they are wantonly destroyed. (HC, p.138)

It is this endurance which is one of the hallmarks of products of work and the reason why this is so important is that
the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table. (HC, p.137)

Thus, Arendt does not deny that labour-processes create objects, but what is important is that the environment they create is radically different from the world of the products of work. The latter can give man a place, belonging, and identity in the world, whereas the former cannot. Goods of consumption keep man in nature of course, because they keep him alive, but they cannot give him the objectivity of a man-made enduring environment in which he can feel at home. Products for consumption, the products of labour, perish: the gathered fruit, the prepared foods, they all go mouldy, or rot, or evaporate, etc. they are part of nature’s never-ceasing cycle of the natural processes of creation, withering, and disappearing, in which they are absorbed, so to say, as soon as they are produced. Without modern means of preservation, like a fridge for example, most products of labour hardly even last several days, some of them a few weeks, a very small number may last a season. The fridge, by contrast, is a product of work and lasts longer than any of its contents, yet it is the contents, not the fridge, that keep us alive and it is the fridge, and not its contents, that we get used to. The products of work are use-goods, they are meant to last and withstand the forces of nature. Of course they do not last forever: the tools and machines wear down, or disintegrate. Thus, also those products of human activity that are meant to last, instead of being consumed, gradually disappear. But note first, that, if everything was as we wanted it then they would last forever: ideal machines would be those that are not subject to wear and tear, which disturbs their use because it means that we will have to replace them eventually. The disintegration of use-goods is an annoying fact which counters our intention to use them forever, if we could, because it is their use, not the wear and tear, that we intent. This matches the characterisation of work given above: the reasons for the multiplication of use-goods 94

Objections to Arendt are extrinsic to them. We have to replace them because something happens that we do not intent with their use, namely wear and tear. Contrastingly, the products of labour have to be produced repeatedly for reasons internal to them: we have to re-produce them because their consumption, and thereby destruction, is their intended end. In other words, the distinction between labour- and work-products is the distinction between goods of consumption and use-goods. As the names suggest, the former are meant to be consumed, thus literally destroyed or annihilated, and the latter are meant to be used in order to perform certain functions. Consequently it is better if use-goods last long and can be used many times, in other words, they are meant to endure. To those enduring things we can then become accustomed to. An illustration of this thought is the feeling of homecoming, since a big part of this feeling is dependent on familiar objects. Of course we also ‘come home’ to people we love, but the environment in which the people live is also crucial. We cannot ‘come home’ to an entirely different place. That we do get attached to use-goods is also illustrated by the fact that people carry objects or images of places with which they are familiar around with them as they go through life. Often our attachment to them steps into the foreground and the use of these items steps into the background and we start talking about the ‘sentimental value’ of these items. This is only possible for use-goods. By contrast, no one attaches ‘sentimental value’ to a loaf of bread, an apple, or other consumer goods. In ‘sentimental value’ the stabilising function of use-goods, that Arendt stresses, has become explicit. This function can only be provided by objects that endure. A constantly changing environment can give us no feeling of home and no sense of belonging, simply because the ‘something’ to belong to is unavailable. This applies to labour-products: since they are part of the natural cycle, they cannot endure, their life expectancy, as said before, is too short. Again, we do not get attached to a loaf of bread, a fruit, or a drink, but we can become accustomed to work products, like the knife with which we cut the bread, the bag with which we collect the fruit, or the cup from which we drink.4 To speak in Arendt’s language, labour products keep us on Earth (i.e. alive) but they do not create a world of human artefacts. It is in this way that labour and work create two different aspects of the world we inhabit. Work creates the world (as distinguished from the Earth as our natural environment) we live in, the world of human artefacts, but labour is the condition that enables life in the first
Arendt writes: “against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world rather than the sublime indifference of an untouched nature […]” (HC, p.137).


Chapter II: Arendt place. Thus, labour serves life, whereas work produces the artificial surroundings in which we live. When labour is characterised by necessity, work is characterised by utility. It is possible to live in mere natural surroundings without any human artefacts. But firstly it would be very unpractical and secondly without the products or work, our life would lack something very distinctive, namely the world of man-made objects in which we live and which is typical for the human species.5 This world is particular to the human species, which is why Arendt included it in her analysis of the conditions in which human life takes place. As a final example of the argument that Arendt’s categories are not mutually exclusive, Parekh (1981, p.109) gives an example of a painting created for monetary purposes which has a political implication. This painting must then respectively be classed as a product of labour (since the money is necessary for survival), a piece of work (since it is an enduring human artefact), and it is also bound up with Arendt’s concept of action because of its political message. The painting thus seems to belong to all three of Arendt’s categories and hence they must be too broad. In one way Parekh is right, seen in this view the painting does belong to all three of Arendt’s categories. However, it should be said that painting does not feature in Arendt’s scheme because it is not a fundamental activity of human beings: we are not characterised by being able to paint. Of course it is one of the many things we can do and it is indicative of the human species, but so is collecting stamps, participating in the Olympic Games, or smoking a cigarette for relaxation. But are these fundamental activities? Rather not. Painting is one of the innumerable activities we can engage in because we are alive, live in a world of human artefacts and interact with other people. In other words, it is dependent on the basis that Arendt calls ‘the human condition’. Thus, examples like Parekh’s are unsuccessful because they are cases which rest on the foundation that Arendt wants to illuminate. They presuppose the condition they want to criticise. That a painting can serve as a means to survive only shows that people can create artefacts which, via interaction, can serve to fulfil a need which they otherwise could not satisfy. Here we have labour, work, and action united. The example therefore does not show the inadequacy of Arendt’s approach, on the contrary, it is evidence for the human condition as Arendt describes it. Even though her categories stress differing elements of his condition it is nevertheless one condition in which we live.
5 Although there are some human societies (like African bushmen or Mongolian shepherds) who live almost without any tools of human making, no society is completely without them. Even the most tribal communities have such early tools as knives, axes, bows and arrows, etc. Again, anthropologically one important element of the human species is its material culture.


Objections to Arendt However, to further respond to Parekh’s point: first and foremost the painting is a product of work: it is conceptualised beforehand, the production process finishes at a certain point, the product endures over time, it is a new entity in the world independent of its creator, and by itself it does not satisfy the painters physiological needs. These traits are intrinsic to it. Moreover, it has some of the features that only apply to works of art: for example, although, as any other product of work, it is meant to be used, instead of consumed, in the case of art its use is obviously unlike the use of tools, say. The use of art lies in its perception and contemplation. That the painting also serves as a means to survive, namely through exchange for money which, in turn, is used in order to buy food (products of labour), is extrinsic to the painting.6 That is, it is no necessary feature of it, nor is the political implication. To this latter aspect apply Arendt’s elaborations on action, namely that it relies on the existence of a ‘web of relations’, that it cannot be exactly foreseen nor controlled once it becomes part of this ‘web’ and that it retains the power to serve as a cause for action for as long as it exists or is remembered. Again, these features are not intrinsic to the painting as a coloured canvas but as an object in interaction. Thus, in order for Parekh to construct his example he relies on the basis which Arendt sets up: by itself the painting is a product of work and therefore unable to keep its producer alive. It can only be a means to survival when it is exchanged for labour-products that other people produce. For there to be an exchange the painter has to engage in interaction. Consequently, the objections that Arendt’s categories are not applicable can be countered. They are not too narrow, since Arendt did not want to list everything people can do but only the general activities that are elementary to the way we live and which create the basis for the innumerable other activities we can perform. These other activities are contingent on the basis established by labour, work, and interaction. Thus, examples that seem to apply to several parts of the human condition does not show that Arendt’s categories are too wide, but only that they have to be presupposed in order for these examples to work. Consequently, her categories are quite broad, but nevertheless with distinctive characteristics and not as wide and/or blurred as objectors have argued them to be.

A closely related point is MacIntyre’s distinction between internal/external features of a practice (A.MacIntyre, 1985, chs.14, 15). I will discuss this approach below with Breen and Honneth (pp.131ff.).



Chapter II: Arendt

2.3. Conclusion to the first two objections
As can be seen from the elaborations so far, Arendt is not concerned with the particular social situation in which labour, work and action are being performed, i.e. whether work and labour are divided between particular classes in a specific society, say. She is concerned with those activities in which we engage in order to live as human beings. This does not deny that we live in societies that are the reason for many of the things we do and the values we hold. Thus, it is true that labour, work and action are always performed in a given society. Nevertheless, labour and work can also be performed outside a social environment, whereas this does not apply to interaction because it establishes the social environment in the first place. So far, then, Arendt is not concerned with the social status, value, or ranking of these activities. Her evaluations arise purely out of the significance they have for human life in general, hence my arguments against the ‘snobbism-objection’. Labour, work and action are universal conditions of human life as we know it. Similarly Marx considers the satisfaction of needs to be a universal human condition.7 Of course these are not metaphysical necessities but they describe human life as we know it. For example, if people could ever live without a body, or if bodies could be maintained without consumption, then this would be an instance of human life without the necessity to labour. A change of such kind would, however, result in a drastic change of the conditions of life. As far as we know, labour, work and interaction are always performed in any human society. Of course they can be done under many different social circumstances, but the important point is that they are being done, not which status they have in a particular society. It is in this way that they are universal. Hence, Arendt is not talking about the status of labour and work as they are viewed in society. This is a contingent matter and not Arendt’s concern at a stage where she wants to find out what we are doing when we are active. In both labour and work we are active yet these activities do not depend on our social environment. When we engage in them we are active, whether within a society or as a lonely Robinson Crusoe. Therefore Arendt is also not offering job-descriptions (for example that labour is the hard toil of the working class and work the meaningful activities of the upper classes), which some of her opponents mistakenly assume. In everyday language ‘labour’ and ‘work’ are used synonymously and mostly in connection with what we call a ‘job’. But in the way Arendt uses these terms ‘labour’ and ‘work’ are not concepts of professional occupations such that labour and work constitute jobs that one does in order to earn one’s living. A job is a social


See chapter 1.


Objections to Arendt invention and does not have to do anything with Arendt’s tripartite distinction at all. What a job is and which activities can be executed in order to earn money is a contingent fact and not of interest for Arendt’s analysis because it is part of those further social circumstances she is not yet concerned with. She focuses on fundamental activities that are distinctive of humans as a species. Thus, when such points are used against Arendt her objectors misunderstand her. What is used to rebut Arendt are social circumstances and marks of our social system, not of labour or work themselves. The development of our modern “jobholder societies”, as they are sometimes called, is a social phenomenon and that within these societies most occupations are executed to ‘make a living’ is a result of this particular system. When Arendt says, for example, that work is a free activity because the creator’s life is not dependent on it, this does not exclude that there can be nevertheless social circumstances in which work is a matter of coercion. Against Arendt it is then sometimes argued that since work is a matter of necessity here, it therefore has the characteristics Arendt reserves for labour. In such a situation, however, coercion lies in the system, not in the activity itself. Arendt herself acknowledges this when she writes:
The impulse toward repetition comes from the craftsman’s need to earn his means of subsistence, in which case his working coincides with his labouring; or it comes from a demand for multiplication in the market, in which case the craftsman who wishes to meet this demand has added, as Plato would have said, the art of earning money to his craft. (HC, p.143)

Indicatively, Arendt says that working and labour coincide, not they become identical. Although in the situation of Parekh’s painter, for example, it is true that his work is his means to stay alive, they are distinguishable aspects of his activity. Negating this distinction would mean that all craftsmanship has no other value than earning money, in which case all artistic value is lost.8 Accordingly, examples to this effect do not succeed in showing labour and work to be identical, as Parekh, for example, claims in his example of the painting. That such attempts fail is testament to the correctness of Arendt’s thought, for it would have to be shown that all work is like labour, or that all labour is as free as work. Marx, as shown in chapter 1, varies between the two: on the one hand labour is a necessary activity, on the other hand it is that activity in which man is meant to realise himself. Marx intends this as a conjunction, but it is exactly this conjunction which is inadequate for the characteri-

In reference to MacIntyre, this would be the state of affairs he criticises, namely that all internal values of a practice (e.g. excellence, mastery) become subsumed to its external ones (e.g. fame, wealth, etc.).



Chapter II: Arendt sation of man because he is the only being that is not adequately characterised by what he has to do. An examination of the necessary activities of man will not provide what is so distinctive about him, namely that man is free. Man is not necessarily man but possibly man, it is not a given but an achievement. In short, man is the possibly free being, for if it was guaranteed then freedom would be no achievement. Yet if freedom is a possibility to be achieved then it cannot be a product of his necessary being. Again, as mentioned in chapter 1, it is not necessity but excess that characterises man. Yet, many opponents of Arendt continue to confuse necessity with excess or attempt to see excess (i.e. freedom) as the result of necessity. The entire tradition of Historical Materialism is unclear on this issue.9

2.4. Objection 3: Arendt’s supposed opposition to Hegel and self-awareness
As already shown, within Historical Materialism, or the Hegelian-Marxian tradition in general, Arendt’s distinction between labour and work has been discounted. But only to a few did the actual extent of her critique become apparent. In turn they have sought to defend the standard account of labour with reference to its ontological implications: as a case in point will serve the already well-trodden arena of Hegel’s dialectic of self-awareness in the master-slave section of his Phenomenology of Spirit. Some Hegelians have found Arendt to pose a threat to Hegel’s account and in response play out Hegel’s dialectic against Arendt’s. I will show how Arendt’ account is not only compatible, but actually improves Hegel’s. In this way, I will end up agreeing with Hegel but argue that some followers have misinterpreted him. I will begin by pointing out a weak link in Hegel’s dialectic, namely his account of labour, which seems insufficient for self-awareness, at least in the way that it has been defended by his followers. This gives rise to the misunderstanding that then results in the opposition to Arendt’s account, when the latter actually suits Hegel and, in fact, remedies the weak link. Thus, after a discussion I will proceed to show how Arendt’s account of labour and work resolves the dilemma that her opponents have put themselves in. According to Hegel the development of human self-realisation, in short, proceeds as follows: Animals go directly to the satisfaction of whatever desire they have. They do not labour; they just immediately do things without reflecting on them. They act according to
The reason that freedom finds no separate section in Arendt’s Human Condition is not that Arendt forgot about it, but that this book deals with the vita activa, that is, life as it appears to an observer. The capacity for freedom (for Arendt in terms of thinking, willing and judging) is, by contrast, part of the vita contemplativa, that is, the internal life of agents, which, by itself, never appears directly to others but only via outward manifestations of it in form of action. Hence freedom features in her chapter on action. (See also her Life of Mind, 1978).


Objections to Arendt instinct and have no inner dialogue. Labour, on the contrary, is the first non-instinctual activity and therefore the awakening of human self-realisation and self-objectification. What makes labour so special to Hegel is that the agent does not immediately proceed to the satisfaction of the desire anymore but defers satisfaction. Sayers (2006, p.264) explains by saying:
Human labour by contrast creates a mediated relation to our natural appetites and to surrounding nature. Work is not driven by immediate instinct. In doing it we do not simply devour and negate the object. On the contrary, gratification must be deferred while we labour to create a product for consumption only later.10

Thus, deferment indicates a mediated relationship between the subject and its desires instead of immediate reaction according to instinct. Rather than just having desires the subject can now see itself as having desires and, by deferring, be able to act contrary to them. The subject therefore develops a mastery over its desires and becomes independent of them. Bakan (1979, p.53) writes:
Because the slave defers desire – or appetite – he is open through labor to the object as independent of his desire. So labor, by virtue of its dialectical relation to nature, as split from and related to nature, is at the origin of the transformation of animal desire to human want.

Therefore, through labour the first step outside the confines of animal nature has been taken since it is the first non-instinctual (because contra-instinctual) action and therefore marks the emergence of self-awareness (or inner dialogue, or second-order thought). Thus, labour and its relationship with nature is crucial for Hegel’s account concerning the emergence of self-awareness through realisation. I find this problematic, for what exactly does Hegel mean by ‘deferment’? It simply seems to refer to the postponement of satisfaction and from this Hegel (1987, pp.140-149) and many Historical Materialists conclude self-realisation, the existence of second order thought and therefore the emergence of self-awareness. Bakan also thinks that deferment is distinctively human behaviour and announces: “deferred desire is not simply natural” (1979, p.53). The aim here is to drive a wedge between animalistic direct appropriation and human activity in order find an onset of self-realisation so characteristic of the latter. This wedge is meant to be provided by deferring, or postponing, desire satisfaction. However, postponement is no

Note that Sayers makes no distinction between labour and work; he uses the terms interchangeably.


Chapter II: Arendt sign of a primordial self-awareness or -realisation because the behaviour that Hegel describes and Bakan calls ‘not natural’ can be found throughout the animal kingdom contrary to Bakan’s claim: many animals store provisions for the winter; dogs bury bones; in many species the parents regurgitate food for their young or go through extended periods of hunger in order to care for them. What else do these examples show other than deferral? But presumably we equally want to say that these are examples of instinctual behaviour. If so, then the supposed distinction Hegel wants to draw between deferment and instinct is implausible and we simply have to conclude that deferment can be instinct. Thus, deferment does not indicate any second order thoughts of the subject about its desires and does therefore not show self-awareness. The wedge does not work. Bakan furthermore claims that deferring satisfaction of a given desire shows man’s independence from his desires. She writes (ibid, p.53):
According to Hegel the slave must be forced to defer desire, precisely because deferred desire is not simply natural. Because the slave defers desire – or appetite – he is open through labor to the object as independent of his desire.

Firstly, this scenario is not particularly human. Reference is only made to exhibited behaviour that is not exclusively human. For example, it is possible to train a dog not to touch its food until it has done something for it. Is the dog, because of this deferment, ‘open through labour to the object as independent of his desire’? Certainly not. However, more generally, deferring a desire does not show independence from it at all. Being able to eliminate a desire would prove independence from it, but being deferred the desire is merely staved-off and remains. In fact, in most cases when desires are deferred they grow (hunger being the most obvious one). Most importantly, the desire will have to be satisfied, this is unavoidable (except at the expense of one’s life) and therefore we cannot speak of a mastery, or power over, or independence from desire at all. Returning back to the quote above: the slave is not free because he can defer his desire, since he will have to satisfy it sooner or later. In a way he only remains longer under its spell.11 According to these considerations we have to judge Hegel’s account as mistaken, since deferment is neither non-instinctual nor does it show, as Bakan, following Hegel, argues, any


It is this spell that Arendt (HC) alludes to when she says that labour is a necessary activity, this is the spell of labour.


Objections to Arendt independence from desire. If this is the case then the self-realisation that is meant to be the result of deferring does not take place.

2.4.1. Labour vs. Labour However, putting the details about what exactly deferment is aside, there is still something plausible about Hegel’s dialectical account. It seems intuitive that through labouring the relationship between man and the object changes. We can easily imagine that creating an object does afford the maker with a sense of power or realisation – namely the power to change the world according to his plan. As already spelled out above, according to Arendt’s anthropo-philosophical account labour and work are two phenomenologically distinct activities. For the purpose here, the important point is that she puts labour into the same category of natural and animalistic features like desires and strivings. As a result Arendt was accused of undermining Hegel‘s dialectic by depriving labour of its supposed mediating power. However, I will show that Arendt’s distinction resolves the dilemma pointed out above, namely that labour is insufficient for self-awareness and which results from an account of self-realisation centred on mere deferral. Arendt’s account does not threaten the intuitive appeal of the dialectic, as supposed by her opponents, but explains and resolves the difficulties just pointed out. To quickly contrast the two differing accounts of labour: in the Hegelian sense, which was later adopted by Marx, labour is described as distinctively human: Hegel (1991, §56A, 86) talks of fields and windmills; Sayers (2007, p.436), following Hegel, writes
The simplest form of work, involving the most immediate relation to nature is direct appropriation from nature, as in hunting, fishing, or the gathering of plants, etc.[…] such work is a distinctively human rather than a purely natural and unmediated form of activity in that, in its human form, it is intentional, socially organized and usually involves the use of tools or weapons.

The last few words are the key: labour is seen as already involving man-made instruments. The typical examples of labour activities are hunting, fishing, baking bread, cooking, and other general food preparation.12 These are “the most unmediated form of relation of human beings to nature” (Sayers, 2007, p.436, footnote 5) for Hegel and Marx. Compared to
See for example Sayers (2007); Bakan, (1979) does not mention any real examples but also seems to think of labour as involving tools; Engler, (2005), and Parekh (1981), are also stern objectors to Arendt, but completely misconstrue her categories.


Chapter II: Arendt this Hegelian definition, Arendt’s concept of labour is narrower in its definition, but as a result wider in application. Most importantly for our purposes here, labour does not imply the use of tools for Arendt. Nevertheless it still exists as an activity we have to engage in, with or without tools. Labour, the activity to satisfy one‘s physiological desires, with or without deferral, does not by itself lead to self-realisation and does not necessarily require tools. This should be fairly intuitive, since all animals engage in activities to satisfy their desires without realising themselves, and without requiring to tools. 2.4.2. Work Now that Arendt narrowed labour down to the satisfaction of life-sustaining appetites what does she say about other activities that usually fit under this term? What about the making of tools for example, or the building of huts? This is where the second part of Arendt’s distinction comes in, namely work. It is this that affords us self-realisation and allows the ascription of self-awareness. So, what is so different about building or tool-creation13 from the satisfaction of desires? Firstly, it is not a necessary activity in the same way that labour is. Whereas all living beings have to engage in activities to satisfy their desires14, it is not necessary to create artefacts. Work is not strictly necessary for the possibility of life as life does not require artificial objects. This is quite intuitive, since all animals manage to live without creating objects. Secondly, tools require instrumental reasoning, whereas just satisfying my hunger does not. I need to be aware of what is meant to be done with the tool and I have to create it accordingly. I have to realise how to serve the purpose and then I have to search my environment for the respective parts and assemble them in a particular way. Tools thus require awareness of what is to be done (concerning the use/application) and how to construct this thing accordingly (concerning the construction/design). Tool-creation and use therefore displays instrumental reasoning15 and the ability to plan and execute particular steps according to that plan. This is distinctly different from the satisfaction of physiological needs, even if this does involve deferment. I cannot simply make a hammer without knowing what I am doing. Instead I need to know what I want to do with it. Tools are created according to functional purposes and require planning. Thus I need to know, more exactly, I need to be conscious of, that purpose.
13 As specified before, by tools I mean ‘composite tools’. Much depends on the distinction between ‘found objects’ and ‘composite tools’ which the term ‘tools’ glosses over. As shown, Elster’s (1985, p.64f., see above p.37f.) objection to Marx on this account fails because he does not recognise this difference. 14 Thus, labour is a necessary constituent in an account of life, because it is the very activity that makes life (as far as we know it) possible. 15 Arendt calls it the ‘in-order-to relation’. A similar account of tools, of which Arendt undoubtedly makes use here, can be found in Heidegger (2001, chapter 3, §15)


Objections to Arendt Thirdly, purpose, here, means use-for-something-else. In other words, the creation of the tool is not the end of the project but the activities that can then be accomplished with it. At the end of the construction-process stands a product, an entity in its own right, something with which another activity can be accomplished.16 All these points are dissimilar to the satisfaction of physiological desires: firstly, it is necessary that I satisfy physiological desires required for survival. Secondly, I can be absolutely unconscious of the purpose of my eating. In fact, animals are. Acting on desires can proceed absolutely un-reflected, without inner dialogue, second-order thoughts, or self-awareness. Thirdly, at the end of the labour-process stands consumption, the annihilation of an object, instead of a finished product for further instrumental use. The reason is that satisfaction of a need is reached through the destruction of the object of need, not its use. The products of labour are not used for some further end but destroyed because that is their end. In other words, the annihilation of the object is the purpose and the goal. Contrastingly, toolmaking is different because the final product is not the purpose of the creation, instead the use of it is. The goal of eating is eating itself, whereas the goal of creating a hammer is the use of the hammer for something else. Summing up, work requires awareness of the purpose as well as awareness of the requirements for the construction of the final object. The creator must have the ability to plan and execute that plan. Thus, the creator must be aware of his intentions and abilities, he must be aware of himself as an agent with certain needs and capabilities. In this way, work is distinctly human.17 This is important for the difference between the opponents of Arendt and Arendt herself. Whereas the former want to tell us that the distinctively human trait is the (deferred) satisfaction of desires, Arendt makes the more plausible claim that desiresatisfaction is not a good way to distinguish us from animals, simply because in this respect we are not distinct from them. Thus, it is the creation and use of tools that is important (when we want to say what is distinctive about human beings) not the satisfaction of physiological needs by itself.18 The latter does not require any higher level of reasoning, nor

Hence it is subject to the ‘in-order-to relation’. It is due to this that material artefacts play such a role in anthropology concerning the classification of hominids. Not only are they the only traces that actually survive (endure) large amounts of time but they are also evidence for the onset of culture, since the construction and use of tools is learned and not genetically inherited. 18 Nevertheless, however much we work the results will never free us from the necessity of labour because we will not be able to escape the necessary satisfaction of physiological needs. We can only find better ways to do so. Arendt writes: “Tools and instruments ease pain and effort and thereby change the



Chapter II: Arendt self-awareness, nor does it lead to self-realisation, but the construction and use of tools does. The Hegelian account of labour, as used by Arendt’s critics, does not distinguish between tool-making and the satisfaction of physiological needs, which suggests that the reasoning behind the satisfaction of physiological needs is thought to be the same as, or at least structurally similar to, that behind the creation of tools and instruments. That, however, is a mistake and it is pointed out by Arendt‘s distinction between work and labour. That in this mistaken account labour-activities are considered to indicate a mediated relationship between man and his doings is not surprising because they already involve tools which do afford self-realisation. It is however the creation of tools and not the activity they are meant to simplify, namely the satisfaction of desires, that has the mediating effect. Before I conclude let me add three more important points. Firstly, what I have claimed here applies to emergence of self-awareness and self-realisation and does not prohibit any reflection on labour activities thereafter. In other words, of course once humans are selfaware almost any activity, including labour, can be consciously examined and also be selfrealising. My point is that self-awareness cannot be born from an activity which does not require it; deferral being the case in point which does not require self-awareness. Once the latter does emerge it can be applied to any activity since the individual is now able to reflect on itself.19 Secondly, a likely criticism will be that Arendt’s account prizes apart the intertwined process of work and labour (Sayers, 2003). This is true, but only conceptually, not practically. That is, tool-making is conceptually different from the mere satisfaction of physiological needs, but practically tools are created in order to simplify and aid this satisfaction of needs. There is therefore still a strong relationship between work and labour, where the distinctively human ability of tool-making is a means to help us with our most basic concern of life, namely being, and staying, alive itself. But again, the satisfaction of physiological needs by itself is not a sufficient basis for the emergence of self-awareness and -realisation. Thirdly, I do not claim that work is the only sufficient condition for the development of human self-awareness. Human culture cannot be explained by reference to work alone. This would be an equal reduction as the one I am criticising, namely that the essence of
modes in which the urgent necessity inherent in labor once was manifest to all. They do not change the necessity itself; they only serve to hide it from our senses.” (HC, p.125) 19 For example, every student knows how satisfying and seemingly self-realising it is to clean the kitchen when he/she is actually meant to write an essay.


Objections to Arendt human life is to be found in labour. There are certainly numerous factors that play a role in the development of human culture as we know it, nevertheless, work is more indicative of the specifically human life than labour. In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, for example, we are, apart from work, also provided with the crucial element of recognition and interaction. The importance of interaction with others for the concepts of self and world cannot be overestimated. I have already explained some of the elements that are part of the experiences of every human being (such as plurality and uniqueness). These elements, and the characteristics of interaction, cannot be explained by reference to work alone. Labour and work are both ‘monologic’ activities, compared with the relational ‘dialogic’ relations that we have with others. Only in the latter can plurality and uniqueness emerge. Thus, we need to acknowledge interaction as its own particular activity. Buber (1958, p.21) writes:
“Consciousness of the “I” is not connected with the primitive sway of the instinct for self-preservation any more than with that of the other instincts. It is not the “I” that wishes to propagate itself, but the body, that knows as yet of no “I”. It is not the “I” but the body that wishes to make things, a tool or a toy, that wishes to be a “creator”.”

Thus, interaction with an other is required and Hegel retains this important dialogical element, whereas the focus on deferral reduces the emergence of self-awareness to a monologic experience.

2.5. Resolving the puzzle – Conclusion
Arendt’s opponents think that her theory threatens the Hegelian account of the emergence of self-realisation because labour, which harbours the all-important mediating effect between man and nature, is exposed as animalistic. Indeed this is true, but Arendt’s account of work, so crucial here because it provides the answers, has simply been overlooked. However, if both parts of Arendt’s account are integrated, the main point about the feedback that the agent receives from his abilities, namely self-realisation, still stands. It just has to be acknowledged that the important step is not the satisfaction of bodily needs but the reason-


Chapter II: Arendt ing we developed to create means in order to satisfy those needs easier, i.e. the instrumental reasoning required for tools. 20 The reason why opponents of Arendt thought that their own account of labour establishes an instrumental relationship is because their definition of labour already includes the use of instruments. In other words, labour already involves instrumental reasoning and thus there is no clear cut off line between this and, what Arendt calls, work.21 However, as just argued, conceptually there is quite a distinction to make between the two, for they feature vastly differing cognitive requirements. Moreover, if the distinction is not made, then, as argued above, we make the mistake of trying to reach the definition of man as a free being out of activities that feature no freedom at all. Hegel’s original account in the Phenomenology of Spirit can incorporate Arendt’s distinction between labour and work. Firstly, there is nothing in the master-slave section that prohibits reading what Hegel refers to as ‘labour’ as actually referring to (Arendtian) work. However, secondly, the formulations that Hegel chooses indicate that he has work (in Arendt‘s sense) in mind. He talks about ‘permanent forms/things’ that ‘acquire the element of endurance through work’ the activity of which is ‘pure being-for-self of consciousness’ which, in turn, ‘acquires an element of permanence’ through the work outside of it (Hegel, 1977, p.118). These expressions lend themselves far easier to an interpretation about the creation of usegoods rather than goods for consumption. There is further back-up for such a reading in other parts of The Phenomenology of Spirit. When Hegel talks about necessity he is concerned with desire and its satisfaction, which corresponds to Arendt’s concept of labour. In further agreement with Arendt Hegel claims that “the element in which desire and its object subsist […] is animate existence“ (Hegel, 1977, p.218), in other words the living body, which requires maintenance, just as Arendt claimed. This necessity pertains only to the single individual and is not dependent on the surrounding social environment. Thus, in necessity the individual is concerned only with itself, which before the stage of selfconsciousness means being-in-itself. The step from this to the being-for-itself cannot be accomplished by necessity (drives and their satisfaction) itself, because if the step from the in-itself to the for-itself was accomplished by the sheer having and satisfaction of desires as

Even one of main critiques of modern work conditions ever since Marx, namely that they are miserable and alienating, can be maintained with Arendt. Insofar as it is maintained that work should be objectifying and a free activity, what these writers, unknowingly, stress is that work, by itself, has exactly the features that Arendt ascribes to it and that those should come to the foreground. 21 Sayers, S., 2003; Bakan (op.cit.) and Suchtig (1962) also make this point



Objections to Arendt such, then any being with desires would be for-itself, which was meant to be a particular feature of humans. Therefore, labour cannot entail self-consciousness. But even after the emergence of self-consciousness and self-realisation we can steer an Arendtian course with Hegel, for he says that self-consciousness
comprehends itself as this particular individual who exists for himself, but the realization of this End is itself the setting-aside of the latter. For it is not as this particular individual that it becomes an object to itself, but rather as the unity of itself and the other self-consciousness, hence as an individual that is only a moment, or a universal. […] The transition is made from the form of the one or unit into that of universality, from one absolute abstraction into the other, form the purpose of pure being-for-self which has thrown off all community with others, into the sheer opposite which is thus equally abstract being-in-itself. […] The abstract necessity therefore has the character of the merely negative, uncomprehended power of universality, on which individuality is smashed to pieces. (1977, pp. 218, 220, 221, original emphasis)

Thus, although pleasure and necessity are personal experiences they nevertheless are as such not individuating and the experiencer is a universal rather than unique being. In contrast to these points, one of the last sections of the “Phenomenology” explicitly concerns the worker (translated as ‘artificer’) and here Hegel writes not only that the
artificer of the self-conscious form at the same time destroy the transitoriness inherent in the immediate existence of this life and brings its organic forms nearer to the more rigid and more universal forms of thought. (ibid, p. 422)

but also that
in this work, there is an end of the instinctive effort which produced the work that, in contrast to self-consciousness, lacked consciousness [i.e. labour, U.M.]; for in it the activity of the artificer, which constitutes self-consciousness, comes face to face with an equally self-conscious, self-expressive inner being. In it he has worked himself up to the point where his consciousness is divided against itself, where Spirit meets Spirit. (ibid, p.424)

Thus, life as pure corporeality (as pure being-in-itself) performing instinctual labour bears mere transitoriness and no self-realisation, whereas the enduring nature of products of work break the finitude of being-in-itself and afford their creator with the dualism of con109

Chapter II: Arendt sciousness that is so particular to the human species. Thus, the mistake that has been made by Arendt’s opponents is the insistence on deferral, which by itself, is insufficient for the self-realisation we are after. If we simply shift the emphasis from deferral to the creation of artefacts, then not only do we realise that Arendt’s account is not opposed to Hegel’s, but that it also remedies a problem that otherwise produces an implausible distinction between humans and animals. It cannot lie in mere deferral because that can be instinctual, does not require self-awareness, and does not, by itself, lead to self-realisation. So we have to look elsewhere for the wedge with the right levering power and it lies in the active engagement with the environment by which humans display the use of understanding, reason, planning and execution; in short, the abilities of a self-conscious agent as exhibited in the creation of artefacts. Here we find mediation between man and nature in a way that is distinctively human and that affords the subject with a sense of realisation of his powers. Mediation, to talk in Arendt’s terms, does thus not occur at the level of labour, but when work is introduced. My criticism against the writers mentioned above is that too much emphasis has been put on deferral. This led to the problem of not differentiating between activities that are self-realising and ones which are not. Therefore, my conclusion is that Arendt’s distinction between work and labour, far from threatening Hegel’s dialectical account, puts it from a shaky basis onto a solid one. The dialectic relationship is thus not destroyed; it is left intact but put on a stronger basis, the conceptual wedge between humans and animals is not deferment but instrumental reasoning displayed in the creation of artefacts which, finally, allow for self-realisation. Note, however, that intersubjective recognition is also required, as just mentioned, and which Arendt includes in her characterisation of interaction. This concludes the first two chapters: the exegesis and criticism of Marx and Historical Materialism and the defence of Arendt’s approach. Most important is the reductionism inherent in Historical Materialism, namely that it reduces human ontology to a single activity (namely production) which is meant to provide the explanatory basis for human life in general. I have argued that this reduction not only faces internal difficulties but also leads to particular consequences for the conception of and in the political realm. In response I have advocated Arendt’s ontology, which cannot only acknowledge the importance of labour for human life, but which also points out the confusion of two different activities under the


Objections to Arendt term ‘labour’ in Historical Materialism, and which provides and account of human interaction. The second half of this thesis will be concerned with the remainders of the tradition which I criticise. Emblematic are, among others, the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas and the recent writings of postmodern Neo-Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. I will show in how far they still follow the Marxian account which considers human material activity to be the sufficient basis for the analysis of human life. Insofar as they do, their approaches are mistaken. In this second half the concept of emancipation will come more into the foreground. For Marx emancipation was rooted in labour: man emancipates himself through his labour. In political terms this meant the universalisation of the working class and its ascension to power. The connection between labour and emancipation, which can already be found in Hegel, was thus made explicit by Marx. The critique of Marx, for example by Arendt and Habermas, has often led to the rejoinder that by criticising the emphasis of labour they thereby deprive it of its value and elementary importance for emancipation. I will show in how far this objection to the critics of Marx is mistaken because emancipation is not to be found in labour but in interaction.


Chapter III: Habermas

III. Habermas

Jürgen Habermas is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. His contributions to social and political philosophy, sociology, and philosophy of language have had an enormous influence. Furthermore, his intellectual influences and educational background make him relevant for my purposes. Not only has he been under the tutelage of Horkheimer, Marcuse and Adorno, all of whom had a significant impact of their own and who are based in a Marxian approach to social theory, but his further philosophical yardsticks are particularly Hegel, Marx, Arendt and the American pragmatists, and one of his main concerns has been an account of labour and action. Since, above all, he is also a Historical Materialist he is a central figure for my concern. Central to Habermas’ approach is his distinction between instrumental and normative action (TCA I), which he develops into the binary of system and lifeworld (TCA II). He has many precursors for this. Aristotle is often the first one credited with such a distinction and is often the main source in the debate concerning this issue. He distinguishes between praxis (doing) and poiesis (making). The distinction re-appears to a certain extent in Schütz’ Structures of the Lifeworld (2003), which Habermas, in turn, makes use of in his description of social reality. Karl Jaspers (1999) is equally explicit about it and his pupil Hannah Arendt then uses it as a crucial element in her The Human Condition as I have shown in the previous chapter. Habermas’ own use is largely based on Arendt (particularly work vs. action). From a standpoint of differentiation Habermas occupies a position between Schütz and Arendt: Schütz has the most general account, Arendt the most detailed: Schütz Affecting
(the environment, physical and social)

(goal directed activity)



Labour (poiesis)
(affecting the physical environment, instrumental reasoning)

Communicative Action (praxis)
(normative reasoning)

Subjective internal states


(necessary involvement)

(construction of tools, free change of the natural environment)


The life of mind
(thinking, judging, willing)


Habermas’ Historical Materialism This distinction between poiesis and praxis is the object of much debate. It is furthermore connected with the concept of emancipation, which occupies a special place in social philosophy ever since it became the leading value during the Enlightenment. Marx, with his focus on production, locates the source of emancipation in labour (poiesis). Contrastingly, for Habermas and Arendt it is clear that emancipation is bound up with action (praxis). First, however, in order to approach the distinction between instrumental and normative action, I will present a historical account which also provides the background from which Habermas is working, namely political theory, broadly construed.

1. Background

Many writers have argued that there is a distinctive change in the understanding of politics roughly from the Middle Ages onwards, particularly ever since the advances of western civilisations through the development of science, technology and the merging of the two in the industrialisation.1 Social and political revolutions in the 18th century (the American Revolution and the French Revolution) denounced the dogma of a god-given political hierarchy and governmental structure. The notions of progress, advancement, historical development and the centrality of human action therein became dominating. The increase in kinds and amounts of things we were able to produce led to significant changes in the way action was perceived. To shorten it unduly: everything was understood as a matter of making or production: that we can only understand what we can make (Vico), that we are only what we make of ourselves, that we can only own what we make (Locke), that only what we make has value, etc. Thus, doing and making not only merged, making was clearly in the driving seat and Aristotle’s distinction between poiesis and praxis negated. The critique of this subversion of human action, of the primacy of scientific explanation and notions of progress that proceed from the domination of nature pervades much of 20th century philosophical literature, for example Heidegger, Jaspers, Arendt, Habermas. In response these thinkers revive the ancient Greek distinction between poiesis and praxis. Production (poiesis - the production of things, which has an end “other than itself” Aristotle, 1995, Book I, 1094a1-6, Book IV, 1140a1-1140b10) is not done for its own sake, we do it in-order-to have the finished object at the end, with which we then do something else

E.g.: Weber, Jaspers, Arendt, Marcuse, Fromm, Habermas, Taylor


Chapter III: Habermas (it is an instrument and thus, for Marx, has a use-value). One does not make a hammer, a table, or a house, just for the sake of the activity but because you want to use the finished product. Not the production, but the use of the finished product is the intended end. This corresponds with Arendt’s concept of work above. Contrastingly, in the case of praxis (action) there is no end outside of the realm of action but only within it: the aim, “doing well”, is inherent (Aristotle, 1976, Book 6, chapters 4 and 5 (1140a1-1140b7)). Whereas in the case of production we can clearly distinguish the processes of production from the subsequent use of the product, there is no similar distinction available in the realm of praxis. We cannot distinguish between a stage in which we do something that we then use in and on the world once it is finished. Instead, an action is realised as it is done, it has no other use apart from its sheer realisation, in fact, it is sheer realisation. Contrary to products of work-processes actions also cannot be undone (HC, sections 30-32). Whereas we have the ability to destroy everything we make, we cannot undo our actions (or those of others).2 We could only attempt to erase all memory of them.3 So, according to this classical understanding, there is a distinction between making and doing. With the rise of the sciences from the Renaissance onwards this distinction becomes increasingly blurred, until it is simply undermined in the 19th century. All doing becomes a making. The resulting problem is the instrumentalisation of action, which continues until the early 20th century. Habermas criticises Marx for making exactly this mistake. The distinction between normative and strategic action that Habermas makes, is devised in order to point out that although there is an instrumental kind of action (strategic action) there is also the normative side (e.g. rule-following) which cannot be reduced to the former. Even if Habermas' criticism of Marx is quite complex, in short he faults Marx for buying into the conflation of praxis and poiesis. In Theory and Practice, for example, Habermas writes:

2 The fact that we cannot undo what we have done is the reason for Arendt to highlight the importance of forgiving (HC, section 33) because it is the only salvation from the actions we have committed. We cannot undo but we can forgive. 3 Forgetting, which Jaspers (Chiffren der Transzendenz, Auditorium, 2007) describes as one of the ‘discontinuities of life’, also plays a major role in Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting (2004). Already the ancient Egyptians punished unwanted pharaohs by erasing their names from any man-made thing that may serve to keep their memory alive. Thus, the highest form of punishment available to be unleashed on another is to make it appear as if he/she never existed. A modern example is the final judgement on Captain Vidal in the movie ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ in which he is punished with something worse then death, namely that his son (whom he wanted in order to be remembered) will never even know his name. The highest form of praise, by contrast, is to be remembered forever (which is why we build statues and memorials). An extreme example here is the life of those who only live on being constantly remembered, namely modern celebrities, and for whom there is thus no worse fate then being forgotten and for whom hence no publicity is bad publicity.


Habermas’ Historical Materialism
Marx declares the will to make to be the precondition for the ability to know […]. (p.248, original emphasis)

Thus, Habermas accuses Marx of endorsing the Vico-principle (verum esse ipsum factum), namely that only what can be made (by man) is truly known. Habermas himself, by contrast, vigorously supports the distinction between, as he calls it, communicative action and (instrumental) labour.
Marx does not actually explicate the interrelationship of interaction and labour, but instead, under the unspecific title of social praxis, reduces the one to the other, namely, communicative action to instrumental action. […] everything is resolved into the self-movement of production. (J. Habermas, 1996, p.147)4

Yet, despite his criticism, Habermas does, or at least did then, consider himself a Historical Materialist and therefore heir to the project that Hegel, and particularly Marx, started, namely the conceptualisation and realisation of the emancipation of society.5 Again in Theory and Practice Habermas writes:
Historical materialism aims at achieving an explanation of social evolution which is so comprehensive that it embraces the interrelationships of the theory's own origins and application. The theory specifies the conditions under which reflection on the history of our species by members of this species themselves has become objectively possible; and at the same time it names those to whom this theory is addressed, who then with its aid can gain enlightenment about their emancipatory role in the process of history. (Theory and Practice, Boston 1973, pp. 1f., quoted in Keane, 1975)

Habermas wants to revitalise Historical Materialism by differentiating between instrumental and communicative action (i.e. realm of facts and realm of norms) because reducing one to the other leads into a dead end. The instrumental side has been sufficiently developed over the 19th and early 20th century but the normative side has been left out and thus Habermas’ main task is to provide an account of norms. This is his main task in TCA I. Yet exactly this distinction that he employs in order to escape the results of a reductive Historical Materialism is what many others object to. The argument is that Habermas not only differentiates between instrumental and communicative action, but that he splits them to such a degree that they become separate spheres. They become independent and, at times, even op4 5

See also Knowledge and Human Interest, (London, 1972), esp. chap.3 See for example: Habermas (1975, 1987, ch.VIII, section 2,3); Honneth (1991, p.261); Smith (1984); Eyerman (1981)


Chapter III: Habermas pose each other (Habermas’ claim of the ‘colonisation of the lifeworld’ in TCA II). Habermas is therefore accused of depriving the instrumental realm (and thus labour) of all connections to emancipation, since emancipation is a normative phenomenon and all normativity seems banned from instrumental action, thus from labour, and therefore from the working subject. The question is therefore whether there is any space for emancipation in Habermas’ approach. I will answer this question with respect to two critics of Habermas. But first I have to explain Habermas’ approach further.

2. Habermas’ labour-action distinction

Habermas’ distinction between labour and communicative action is very closely modelled on Arendt’s distinction between work and action but also refers to sources such as Aristotle (poiesis and praxis), Marcuse (realms of necessity and freedom), and Hegel (family, language and tools).6 Since I have already explained Arendt’s account I will only reiterate Habermas’ version as far as required, even though they differ. Subsequently I will describe Habermas’ development of the distinction between lifeworld and system. For a start, Habermas follows Arendt. The only difference noteworthy for the moment is that Habermas omits Arendt’s category of labour (in distinction to work) and only has one term, namely ‘labour’, just like Marx. He simply joins labour and work as activities of ‘material reproduction’. Whereas, as shown above, Arendt sees important differences between work- and labour processes, Habermas combines them because, to him, they are both instrumental relations with the natural and objective world which we inhabit. They both comprise the material reproduction of our species. Contrasting to this material reproduction are the processes of cultural reproduction, social integration and socialisation which are the result of communicative action (see e.g., TCA II, pp.138ff.). In Theory and Practice, for example, Habermas outlines his distinction in the following way:
In the functional sphere of instrumental action we encounter objects of the type of moving bodies; here we experience things, events, and conditions which are, in principle, capable of being manipulated. In interactions (or at the level of possible intersubjective communication) we encounter objects of the type of speaking and acting subjects; here we experience persons, utterances, and con-


J. Keane, 1975, p. 89


Habermas’ Historical Materialism
ditions which in principle are structured and to be understood symbolically. (p.8)

Keane (1975) explains:
Interaction or communicative action, the other moment of conscious human activity, includes that sphere of social institutions (such as the family, mass media, etc.) mediated by language and governed by social rules. It is the sociocultural life-world. […] It is logically irreducible to the technical cognitive interest, for the truth of social rules depends not on testable laboratory processes, but on the promotion of mutual understanding of obligations and expectations. Therefore inquiry in this realm must be concerned not with behavior and its manipulation (cf. positivist social science), but with the meaning and interpretation of that behavior and the question: How can the social world be rendered intelligible and meaningful to its interacting constituents? (p.88)

The similarity to Arendt’s account is unmistakable: labour is an instrumental relation with the material world whereas action is a non-instrumental relation between persons. As a further source for the distinction between the normative and the instrumental, Habermas refers to Durkheim for whom the distinction is apparent when we consider the differing consequences of non-compliance. Instrumental activities intervene in the natural world which we inhabit: we extract minerals, we plough fields, or build houses. These interventions have to follow particular laws so that, if we make a mistake or break the rules of instrumental activities, we will simply not succeed in reaching the intended end (extracted minerals, ploughed fields, housing). The normative realm is different: the result of a broken moral rule, say, follows neither necessarily, nor is it merely non-success. Instead, the person will experience a sanction or punishment conferred upon him by other agents. The connection between action and outcome is contingent.7 Already in TCA I Habermas touches the difference between the understanding of communication among two agents and the knowledge of instrumental actions. For the develop-

7 Habermas writes: “The violation of a valid technical rule leads to consequences that are internally connected with the action in a certain way: the intervention fails. The goal striven for is not realized, and the failure comes about automatically; there is an empirical, a lawlike relation between the rules governing action and the consequences of action. By contrast, the violation of a moral rule brings a sanction that cannot be understood as a failure that automatically follows. The relation between the rules of action and the consequences of action is conventional; on this basis, behaviour conforming to norms is rewarded, behaviour deviating from norms is punished.” (TCA II, p. 47)


Chapter III: Habermas ment of norms it is crucial that participants in communications learn to distinguish the success of communication from the success of their respective instrumental actions. The telos between communication and action differs: for the former it is understanding, for the latter is instrumental availability (TCA I, p.11).8 Instrumental actions can fail when the desired end was not attained, communication fails when no consensus can be reached. Even if both ends (a different state of the world, or an agreement) are said to be equal because both are outcomes of a person’s doings, it is clear that there is a difference: the means by which the end is reached (if you want to view communication in a such a means-end way) changes between particular movements and conditions we have to fulfil and the understanding that guides communication. Plus, in order to succeed in an argument you have to comply with the recognised rules of argumentation and thus Habermas can say that rationality is also evident in communication. Once communication is thus available, effective instrumental interventions in the world are not enough anymore: actors also have to be successful also in communicating and they are only accepted as capable agents if they can conform their actions with intersubjectively accepted guidelines for reasons.
In the context of communicative action, only those persons count as responsible who, as members of a communication-community, can orient their actions to intersubjectively recognised validity claims. (TCA I, p.14)

This will suffice for an initial account of Habermas’ distinction between instrumental- and communicative action. I want to pick up the trail when the distinction between communication and labour leads to the binary division of lifeworld and system. It is particularly this
At the very emergence of symbolically coordinated action, when two organisms are meant to use a system of shared and identical symbols, they will have to distinguish between their act of communication and that of the subsequent action which the communication is meant to coordinate. Being in communication the organisms know that at this point they are not acting but are communicating about an action that is to be undertaken. They do not merely react adaptively yet instinctively to behavioural signals which usually mean x, instead they utter or convey symbols in conscious expectation of the fact that the other organism will understand the symbol in the same, that is, identical, way. Communication here appears as just that, communication, not action – the two are not synonymous anymore. Instead, certain expectations of the other’s behaviour are connected with an utterance. Again, the main fact is that the organisms now distinguish between communication and action. In doing so they can now distinguish between failures in communication and failures in action: the other may fail to do what I expected because he/she did not understand what I wanted to convey, and the other may also fail to act appropriately he/she simply failed to execute the action correctly. Already at this early stage of language development, then, two spheres separate: that of linguistic competence and that of competence in action (see TCA I, p.13). Habermas also finds his views confirmed in Durkheim’s studies. Human interaction is aimed at establishing consensuses, instrumental action is not (a person wants to create/manipulate a thing and not establish a shared basis for action). In instrumental actions there is no ‘shared world’ to be established precisely because, in that instance, my relationship is with a thing, not another actor. Habermas says later: “Because communicative action demands an orientation to validity claims, it points from the start to the possibility that participants will distinguish more or less sharply between having an influence upon one another and reaching an understanding with one another.” (TCA I, p.74, original emphasis)


Habermas’ Historical Materialism latter distinction that evokes much criticism and which is the focus of the objections I will discuss subsequently.

2.2.1. Lifeworld and system I
The reasons for which Habermas comes to the binary division between lifeworld and system are manifold but the main reasons are these: firstly, there is the difference between action and labour as just described and secondly there are two prevalent approaches in sociology (at least when Habermas wrote most of his early works up until the early 1980’s) that can almost be viewed correspondingly. One approach was to conceive a society as a lifeworld, that is, sociologists viewed and explained societies from the inside and especially tried to understand the normative relations between people (e.g.: Durkheim, Luckmann, Schütz). The other approach was the system-theoretic perspective (e.g.: Parsons, Luhmann) in which sociologists viewed societies from the outside as observers instead of as participants. Here the structural features of society are viewed as the salient ones. Habermas spells out the advantages and disadvantages of either approach in TCA I and II and ends with his own approach which combines both strategies, preserving the best insights and avoiding the worst mistakes of each. The lifeworld-approach has the characteristic of equating the social integration of individuals with the differentiation of society. That is, societies differ and develop only in how and how many individuals are integrated. With this approach Durkheim, according to Habermas, reaches the conclusion that through the rationalisation of society a universalist morality ought to be forthcoming. In other words, if a society becomes increasingly rational through the sciences and the liberation from mythical worldviews and it is only defined from the point of view of the participants in a shared lifeworld (i.e. from the inside point of view that a member of a group has), then through communication it ought to be possible that all members come to an agreement. If societies function like large groups and there are no external features that differ from those of the inside perspective, then it should be possible for all members to adopt a universalist morality. Yet for some reason this does not happen and Durkheim, according to Habermas, cannot solve this problem because for Durkheim all of society is a shared lifeworld, thus a universal consensus must be possible. It must be possible for a group to come to an agreement. For Habermas the problem is clear: there is obviously something missing from Durkheim’s 119

Chapter III: Habermas account. Something external to the lifeworld affects it in such a way as to prevent a universal morality. Thus, a theory of society is obviously not exhausted by the lifeworld-perspective: the inside view of society is not enough. In order to prevent Durkheim’s dilemma Habermas looks at the relation between the differentiation of society as a whole (as a system, hence ‘system-differentiation’) and social integration.
It is only possible to analyze these connections by distinguishing mechanisms of coordinating action that harmonize the action orientations of participants from mechanisms that stabilize nonintended interconnections of actions by way of functionally intermeshing action consequences. In one case, the integration of an action system is established by a normatively secured or communicatively achieved consensus, in the other case, by a nonnormative regulation of individual decision that extends beyond the actor’s consciousness. This distinction between a social integration of society, which takes effect in action orientations, and a systemic integration, which reaches through and beyond action orientations, calls for a corresponding differentiation in the concept of society itself. (TCA II, p.117, original emphasis)

In other words, contrary to Durkheim's singular characterisation of society as a lifeworld, the term ‚society’ has to differentiate between social and systemic mechanisms: 1) social mechanisms bring action orientations of single individuals in agreement (harmony) with those of others; that is, integration is reached through normative consensus 2) systemic mechanisms stabilise non-intended relations of actions through the functional connection of action-results; that is, integration is reached through the non-normative organisation of individual decisions The issue Habermas is concerned with here is the regulation of action: to verify how this happens and which requirements actors have to fulfil in order to do it successfully. He turns to G.H. Mead to attain an approach of actions and speech-acts for individuals in general, namely that they are socially regulated. But on the level of society as a whole Mead’s theory remains too idealistic for Habermas because Mead does not adequately address the material reproduction of society. In simpler terms, Mead’s social theory only concerns


Habermas’ Historical Materialism speech and communicative action but ignores the fact that individuals have to survive and reproduce.9 Durkheim’s sociology has the advantage of addressing exactly what Mead misses: Durkheim (1984) focuses on material reproduction through the concept of the division of labour. Yet, as just claimed, he has the disadvantage of ignoring the systemic mechanisms of society for the sake of the social ones. Marx’s analysis, in distinction to Mead and Durkheim, has both parts, the focus of socially regulated action and material reproduction. This is why Marx remains so important for Habermas and so dominant in social theory generally. The mistake in Marx’s account is that action and material reproduction are interwoven to such an extent that they are not discriminated any more: systemic changes are meant to be identical with social ones – changing the system of production means changing the social system. As claimed above: Habermas faults Marx for confusing praxis (communicative action) and poiesis (material reproduction). With Mead and Durkheim we see societies from the inside perspective of the participating individuals: society is conceptualised as the lifeworld of a social group. But from this perspective the process of socialisation (Habermas calls it 'sociation') of individuals appears to be an intended and controlled one.
If society consists only of relations entered into by subjects acting autonomously, we get the picture of a process of sociation that takes place with the will and consciousness of all adult members. (TCA II, p.149)

Yet it is equally evident that:
Actors never have their action situations totally under control. They control neither the possibilities for mutual understanding and conflict, nor the consequences and side effects of their actions; they are, to borrow a phrase from W. Schapp, “entangled” in their (hi)stories. (TCA II, p.149)

Thus, Habermas concludes concerning this approach that
A verstehende sociology that allows society to be wholly absorbed into the lifeworld ties itself to the perspective of self-interpretation of the culture under investigation; this internal perspective screens out everything that inconspicuously affects a sociocultural lifeworld from the outside. (TCA II, p.148, original emphasis)

This focus on material reproduction shows again Habermas' continuation of Marx's project.


Chapter III: Habermas In other words, the lifeworld approach (Durkheim and Mead) has its limits because to explain society in the way it presents itself from the internal standpoint of a participant is not enough. We have to add those structural characteristics which are visible only from the external observer standpoint (the system-theoretic approach). This latter approach, however, also has its flaws:
In contrast, form the observer’s perspective of someone not involved, society can be conceived only as a system of actions such that each action has a functional significance according to its contribution to the maintenance of the system. (TCA II, p.117, original emphasis)

Here the integration of society is identified with the integration of the system - and society appears like self-controlled system. This observer viewpoint, as the quote highlights, has the disadvantage that relations between actions can only be explained functionally and Habermas spends much time in TCA I to argue that human actions cannot be adequately explained in this way. Human actions are not the same as biological behaviour but a pure functional approach would treat them exactly in this fashion. Thus, the internal perspective of the participants has to be included in the account of society (while being aware of its disadvantages) because otherwise we cannot understand that processes such as social integration and socialisation constrain actors also through internal limits. We could only conceive of them from the outside, as part of the system, but we could not account for, or adequately address, the internal restrictions that moral imperatives, for example, place on individuals. We could not conceive of them as internal limits, only as functional external impositions. Instead of either identifying the lifeworld with society or reducing it to systemic relations Habermas thus endorses a joint approach, which, as can be seen from the quotes, is overall still materialistic.
This materialist approach to disturbances in the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld requires a theory that operates on a broader conceptual basis than that of “the lifeworld”. It has to opt for a theoretical strategy that neither identifies the lifeworld with society as a whole, nor reduces it to a systemic nexus. (TCA II, p.148) Every theory of society that is restricted to communication theory is subject to limitations that must be observed. The concept of the lifeworld that emerges from the conceptual perspective of communicative action has only limited analytical and empirical range. I would therefore like to propose (1) that we conceive of societies simultaneously as systems and lifeworlds. This concept proves


Habermas’ Historical Materialism
itself in (2) a theory of social evolution that separates the rationalisation of the lifeworld from the growing complexity of societal systems so as to make the connection Durkheim envisaged between forms of social integration and stages of system differentiation tangible, that is, susceptible to empirical analysis. (TCA II, p.118, original emphasis)

From the above we can now distinguish at least three reasons for Habermas’ distinction between lifeworld and system: 1) Analytically: the distinction between poiesis and praxis (with Aristotle): production and interaction are two different things, the former can be organised nonnormatively and then becomes the system, the latter can endure increasing rationalisation but remains the lifeworld. 2) Concerning Marxism (or previous Historical Materialism): orthodox Marxism fails in Habermas’ eyes because of its reduction of the lifeworld to norm-free imperatives of the system. Habermas, by recognising the difference and nonreducibility of the two, improves this approach to society. 3) In terms of social theory (closely linked with 2): social theory tended to vary between two extremes: either to explain everything from the inside, i.e. as lifeworld, or to explain everything from the outside, i.e. the system-theoretic approach. The former identifies system and lifeworld and the latter cannot account for the internal meaning that actions have for actors. Habermas finds either approach by itself mistaken, so he combines them: from the internal perspective we are concerned with action-orientations as they appear to the agents themselves, i.e. the lifeworld converges action intentions; from the external perspective we are concerned with consequences of actions, i.e. the system exists in order to regulate these consequences, unintended by-products and developments. In short: a) the lifeworld perspective cannot account for the systemic features of society (Durkheim); b) the system approach (Luhmann, Parsons) subsumes all relations between persons under systemic and thus functional imperatives, thereby misses out the internal perspective of the participant in social relations and cannot account for meaning and understanding of communicative action; and c) the orthodox Marxist approach does not differentiate enough between those two aspects of society. At least in Habermas’ own mind, it therefore seems that the Marxist approach is the most promising one but it needs his theory of communicative action in order to be adequate. The Historical Materialist account of society requires, if we go along with Habermas, a theory 123

Chapter III: Habermas that differentiates between lifeworld and system (in order to make Historical Materialism viable) and yet combines both of them in an integrated way (in order to overcome the limits of both the lifeworld and the systems approach). To supply such a theory is Habermas’ goal.

2.2.2. System and Lifeworld II
When society and lifeworld are no longer treated as synonymous we are no longer prone to see the integration of society as a process solely accomplished by communicative means. The inclusion of the external perspective of the systems-theoretic approach allows us to adequately explain functional (non-normative) relations and action consequences that are not intended. The best example of such an external and functional system is the market in capitalist societies.
In capitalist societies the market is the most important example of a norm-free regulation of cooperative contexts. The market is one of those systemic mechanisms that stabilize nonintended interconnections of action by way of functionally intermeshing action consequences, whereas the mechanism of mutual understanding harmonizes the action orientations of participants. Thus I have proposed that we distinguish between social integration and system integration: the former attaches to action orientations, while the latter reaches right through them. In one case the action system is integrated through consensus, whether normatively guaranteed or communicatively achieved; in the other case it is integrated through the nonnormative steering of individual decision not subjectively coordinated. (TCA II, p.150, original emphasis)

According to Habermas communication itself harbours a certain ‚potential for rationality’ (i.e. we only take someone to be a capable agent if he can supply his claims with reasons). We cannot argue in any way we want to, if an argument is to be accepted it has to adhere to certain standards respected in the group. Increasing communication will then uncover more and more of these standards and they become increasingly defined. In other words, once we realise that claims have to fulfil certain conditions in order to be accepted as valid, we can then question previously unquestioned claims: we can problematise previously simply accepted opinions and start to rationalise the lifeworld that we share. Thus, the ‘rationalisation of the lifeworld’ can be understood for Habermas as the “successive releases of the potential for rationality in communicative action” (TCA II, p.155). The problem is that 124

Habermas’ Historical Materialism this ‘rationalisation of the lifeworld’ increases the possibility for the growing complexity of the system, which then impacts back on the lifeworld in a negative way:
The rationalisation of the lifeworld makes possible a heightening of systemic complexity, which becomes so hypertrophied that it unleashes system imperatives that burst the capacity of the lifeworld they instrumentalise. (TCA II, p.155)

Thus, the rationalisation of the lifeworld triggers an increasing complexity the system (i.e. here: the market) to such an extent that this external feature then influences the lifeworld. Durkheim’s approach, which omits the system, is therefore sufficient only as long as the lifeworld remains understandable (überschaubar) for the participant. Anything further, namely the system with its imperatives, remains neglected. Such an approach is adequate for societies in which lifeworld and system have indeed not yet reached the level of differentiation.
The sketch of a collectively shared, homogeneous lifeworld is certainly an idealisation, but archaic societies more or less approximate this ideal type by virtue of the kinship structures of society and the mythical structures of consciousness. (TCA II, p.157,)

In such societies the family system plays the role of the relations of production and the society is still base-level and superstructure in one. But if the differentiation proceeds further lifeworld and system start to separate: social integration and systemic mechanisms only remain combined as long as the kinship system (Verwandtschaftssystem) continues.
With the formation of genuinely political power that no longer derives its authority from the prestige of leading descent groups, but from disposition over judicial means of sanction, the power mechanism detaches itself from kinship structures. (TCA II, p.165)

When the state thus becomes organised in a way that is independent from the system of family relations it can be viewed as a mechanism. Of these regulating mechanisms (mediums) that transcend particular lifeworlds (i.e. communities) and apply nationally there can be several and they can continue to develop (the market is one of them). Once state and economy have become such mechanisms and go separate ways this development reaches a new climax. In the history of the western world, the emerging capitalist economy compelled the states to reorganise themselves. 125

Chapter III: Habermas
However, this medium has a structure-forming effect for the social system as a whole only when the economy is separated off from the political order. In Europe during the early modern period, there arose with the capitalist economy a subsystem differentiated out via the money medium – a subsystem that in turn necessitated a reorganisation of the state. In the complementary relationship between the subsystems of the market economy and modern administration, the mechanism or steering media – which Parsons referred to as symbolically generalised media of communication – finds its appropriate social structure. (TCA II, p.165)

Only now, claims Habermas, are relations of production economically manifested and base-level and superstructure start to part ways.10
In place of the stratification of similar social units, we find a political organisation of dissimilar social units, in place of hierarchised descent groups, stratified classes. […] Disposition over the means to sanction binding decisions provides the basis for an authority of office with which organisational power is institutionalised for the first time as such – and not merely as an appendix to, and filling out of, pregiven social structures. (TCA II, p.169f., original emphasis)

The state now becomes subdivided into several governmental and non-governmental systems of action (governmental: e.g. administration, military, judiciary; non-governmental: e.g. economy). For Habermas it is clear that only the capitalist system of economy could lead to this level of differentiation of the system (TCA II, p.171). The economy can no longer be conceived as an institutionalised order. The medium of exchange (money) is institutionalised but the subsystem in which it functions (i.e. the market) is a piece of ‘normfree sociality’. Money, however, has the characteristic of invading almost every other system and lifeworld: it appears in the state, in wage labour and in private households; it thus becomes an ‘intersystemic medium of exchange’ and has structural effects.
The state apparatus becomes dependent upon the media-steered subsystem of the economy; this forces it to reorganise and leads, among other things, to an assimilation of power to the structure of a steering medium: power becomes assimilated to money. (TCA II, p.171)

The phenomena guiding lifeworld and system are power (Macht) and money (Geld) respectively. This results from and fits Habermas’ analysis: the lifeworld is constituted by com10 Note that Habermas does not equate the base-level with the economy or the forces of production as Cohen (1978) does.


Habermas’ Historical Materialism municative action, through which power and power-relations are established; the system, being partially independent of (particular) lifeworlds, is structured by a non-normative medium, namely money. The system of the capitalist economy, for example, has ‘liberated’ itself from the lifeworld to such an extent that it does not have to respect the particular lifeworlds that it affects.
The traditional state is an organisation that structures society as a whole; in defining its membership, shaping its program, and recruiting its personnel, it therefore has to link up with the established lifeworld of a stratified class society and with the corresponding cultural traditions. By contrast, the capitalist enterprise and the modern administration are systemically independent units within norm-free subsystems. (TCA II, p.172)

Lastly we now come to the uncoupling of lifeworld and system. The uncoupling of action orientated at success and orientated at understanding corresponds to the difference between system and lifeworld; and they now go separate ways. But the system, due its medium of money, has by now such an influence on the lifeworld that it restructures it, since money pervades an increasing number of communicative relations. The media can now play the role of either focussing communicative action or replacing it (and thereby uncoupling it from the lifeworld context). The lifeworld becomes increasingly problematised since its rationalisation proceeds further. This, in turn, increases pressure on understanding and also increases the demand for communication. The extent and effort of interpretation therefore increases the possibility of criticism and consequently the risk of disagreement. The media can buffer this threat and from the perspective of the lifeworld, effort and risk decrease but it becomes more and more technical.
The transfer of action coordination from language over to steering media means an uncoupling of interaction from lifeworld contexts. (TCA II, p.183) The more consensus formation in language is relieved by media, the more complex becomes the network of media-steered interaction. […] Delinguistified media of communication such as money and power, connect up interactions in space and time into more and more complex networks that no one has to comprehend or be responsible for. (TCA II, p.184)

In other words, money and power substitute processes of communication while the steering media can only focus and/or relieve them. This, according to Habermas, is our present condition. The uncoupling of lifeworld and system dissolves a unity between the single per127

Chapter III: Habermas son, her society, and the role she plays within it, which critics deplore. On all three levels we encounter problems. On the level of society we encounter no homogenous whole anymore but a complex set of interwoven organisations. These organisations fulfil various functions and occupy various positions within the state depending on whether they are civil, governmental or economic ones, which, in turn, determines the hierarchy and means of influence they have on other institutions. The government must attempt to order such levels of complexity by an equally complex system of administration.11 The principles guiding this administration, but also the justification of most organisations, are not embedded in a particular moral tradition, but are functional (in the economic sphere often utilitarian) considerations and abstractions in terms of positive rights. The state and all the organisations it contains therefore gain independence from any particular moral background. In terms of secularisation we often see this as progress (unless one is against secular states) but it brings with it problems of legitimacy because, at least traditionally, legitimacy was build into the spiritual world order. Today, without recourse to a transcendental ordering, the ground for legitimacy has vanished and functional explanations cannot replace it because they leave the final question, as to what grounds their particular station and approach, open. On the level of social roles people fulfil particular roles within the institutions and organisations that make up the state. Here we encounter the same problem. The organisations are not guided by an overall normative domain or fit a place within an all-pervasive cosmology. These spiritual aspects have been lost in what Weber would have called secularisation and rationalisation. In other words, people evaluate these roles, and the actions they commit as a part of them, not in terms of a transcendental order but purely in functional terms (having a job to earn money, acting in a particular way because the organisation requires it). Thus, the individual can and often does separate herself from this part of her social life. On the level of identity the knowledge of this functional ordering of the state according organisational principles and the separation of the self from the role that the individual plays in this administrative economical-political machine (both of which do not have to correspond with the individuals’ own values), lead to problems. In this set-up the person does not identify herself with the state or her role within it. This, however, for the longest time of human history has been the source of people’s identity. The questions are thus whether any sense of identity can be attained in these conditions of unprecedented social complexity and in11 “However, the politically supported, internal dynamics of the economic system result in a more or less continuous increase in system complexity – which means not only an extension of formally organised domains of action, but an increase in their internal density as well.” (TCA II, p.351)


Habermas’ Historical Materialism strumental rationality and whether modern states can somehow fill the gaps that they have opened up. To pursue and maybe answer these questions is however, unfortunately, far beyond the scope of the present investigation. It is clear, however, that the problems Habermas identifies here, are all aspects of what Marx would call alienation. This oversimplified summary of Habermas' two-volume magnum opus that I have just given serves two purposes: 1) it was necessary to provide at least a sketchy background of Habermas' theory in order to do it justice and make the criticisms that I will go on to discuss understandable. 2) Habermas' attention to the relationship between material reproduction and institutional superstructure, so to say, indicates once again his adherence the Marxian project and explanation, namely Historical Materialism. Habermas' approach invoked a varied reception. Among other criticisms, important for my purpose are those attending to the link between labour and emancipation.


Chapter III: Habermas

3. Is there space for emancipation in Habermas action-labour distinction?


Critics of Habermas

Often those who criticise a particular view for being too extreme later have to face the very same accusation, or its opposite. When Habermas criticised Marx for being too instrumental in his argument, i.e. treating the normative sphere too much like the instrumental one, Habermas himself is now being criticised for treating the instrumental sphere not normative enough. He ‘instrumentalises’ work too much, that is, his classification of work as purely instrumental activity in contradistinction to communicative action strikes some writers as too functional. Honneth (1982) and Breen (2007), for example, want to re-infuse labour with emancipatory potential which, they argue, Habermas has distilled out of it. I focus on Honneth and Breen because they both instructively represent the general direction in which critiques of Habermas have tended to go.1 3.1.1. Breen Breen’s criticism, because it radicalises Honneth’s, can be answered quite easily: Breen seems to think that work activities cannot even be looked at normatively under Habermas’ scheme when he says that
Habermas’s dualist theory of society […] excludes work and the economy from ethical reflection. (2007, p.381)

But this is simply false: just because the activity is instrumental that does not mean that the person doing the work becomes a mere lifeless instrument. She remains a person with respective abilities, preferences, etc. Furthermore, because the person is embedded (with her work) in a communicative group or context, there is obviously scope to have a debate about how satisfying or humane work is for her. So, when Breen’s argument is the following:
In short, what Habermas ignores in interpreting modern economic institutions in systemic-functional terms is the dependence of these institutions on specific moral-ethical attitudes, the fact that they are never norm-free.
1 For similar criticisms see for example: J. Keane (1975); Axel Honneth (1982); Charles Taylor (1991); Ron Eyerman (1981)


Habermas and Emancipation Habermas replies in seemingly direct response in TCA II that
Instrumental actions are set within the cooperative interrelations of group members and presuppose regulated interactions. The functional circuit of instrumental action cannot be analysed independent of structures of cooperation, and cooperation requires social control regulating group activities. (TCA II, p.44, my emphasis)2

But Breen continues on this typical line of argument and argues that Habermas’ distinction between labour and interaction results in a purely instrumental view of labour also for the labourer herself. That is, Habermas’ scheme undercuts the connection between the single agent and her labour, i.e. due to its instrumentality the labourer cannot identify with her work any longer. This technical approach to instrumental action then develops into the functional ordering, or administration, of society (Weber’s rationalisation). It is characteristic of what Habermas calls the ‘system’ (in contradistinction to the ‘lifeworld’) which then, in its cold and purely functional rationality, starts to interfere (colonise) the normative realm. Thus Breen claims that
Habermas’s ‘colonization’ thesis, as a result of the communicative versus instrumental reason binary which provides its foundation, has the decidedly uncritical effect of effacing the ethical-political significance of work and production for people’s everyday lives. (op.cit., p.381f.)

This argument misfires. Habermas is simply, at this point, not concerned with the significance that someone’s work has for that person. But this does not mean that he rejects it, it is just a different question that is not Habermas’ target. Whether someone identifies with her labour or not remains an empirical question and cannot be decided on the theoretical level. Habermas is only interested in outlining the differing rationalities pertaining to different kinds of action. Apart from that a person may or may not identify with her work, this is a conditional matter which Habermas does not undermine conceptually. The ‘system’ is not norm-free because actions therein are purely rational, as Breen sees it, but because it does not have to concern itself with particular lifeworlds.3

Also: “In introducing the concept of communicative action, I pointed out that the pure types of action oriented to mutual understanding are merely limit cases. In fact, communicative utterances are always embedded in various world relations at the same time. Communicative action relies on a cooperative process of interpretation in which participants relate simultaneously to something in the objective, the social, and the subjective worlds, even when they thematically stress only one of the three components of their utterances.” (TCA II, p.120, original emphasis) 3 To repeat a passage already quoted above: “The traditional state is an organisation that structures society as a whole; in defining its membership, shaping its program, and recruiting its personnel, it therefore has to link up with the established lifeworld of a stratified class society and with the corresponding cultural



Chapter III: Habermas

Honneth’s (1982) project, in contrast to Breen’s, is rather more basic: he wants to rescue that emancipatory element inherent in the work activity itself that Hegel4 pointed out and which allows him to understand
work as one constitutive aspect of self-consciousness. […] Hegel can thus interpret work as the self-actualisation (Veranschaulichung) of cognitive capabilities and thus as a process of intellectual self-development (Bildung), because he supposes that the product of work has a retroactive significance for the working subject. (p.32f.)

The question is thus not, as Breen seems to think, whether we can debate (subsequently) about the humaneness of work (the answer is a simple ‘yes’), but whether there is a reflective and therefore potentially educational element in labour. The answer is of course ‘yes’, again, from all participants: Honneth, Breen (who refers to MacIntyre), but also Arendt and Habermas. Firstly, the worker becomes aware of his own instrumental abilities (this also Habermas would allow), but Honneth, Breen, and MacIntyre are interested in the normatively emancipatory potential hidden in work. Does the worker become a (normatively) better person? This is where the arguments diverge: Honneth, Breen, and MacIntyre want to say ‘yes’, Habermas and Arendt rather ‘no’. The crux lies, as before, partly in the definition of work as social. Breen advances examples that are meant to show how normativity is inherent in all instrumental action. A first example, applying to the functional practice of contractual relations is this:
Durkheim famously made clear that the market mechanisms of contract and exchange are impossible without trust, without the assumption that agreements will be honoured. Such trust is not secured by coercive legal enforcement alone, but also by a scheme of social conventions and mores that render capitalist exchange both desirable and normal, indeed the ‘natural’ order of things. (op.cit., p.388f.)

But Habermas could respond to this. A contract requires communication, in fact, a contract is a piece of communication and is therefore part of the normative realm. Particularly since we regard it as a pre-condition of a proper contract that both parties understand what
traditions. By contrast, the capitalist enterprise and the modern administration are systemically independent units within norm-free subsystems.” (TCA II, p.172) 4 For example: “This is the infinite right of the subjective individual, to satisfy himself in his activity and work.” (Hegel, 1988, p.25).


Habermas and Emancipation it entails. That is, the involved parties must agree on the relevant expectations, actions, rules, and sanctions. Of course a contract is intrinsically normative and as Breen quite rightly says, it relies on ‘social conventions’ - and Habermas would agree. Thus, Habermas can happily acknowledge what Breen denies him. Furthermore, Habermas himself makes much use of Durkheim’s approach to norms, agreements and contracts because he is acutely aware that coercion cannot be the reason for people’s compliance with them. Compliance and duty are not binding because nonfulfilment would result in punishment; it is rather the other way round: punishment is justified because of the rule or norm (see TCA II, section 2). A contract may be of instrumental use, but it is, so to say, a piece of objectified communal understanding and can thus hardly be used as an example against it, as Breen intends. But Breen also focuses on work itself. According to him and MacIntyre, the work activity will teach the person firstly to be honest with herself, namely to properly judge her powers. This, so it is argued, immediately puts the worker into the normative domain. But this is unconvincing and plays on a double-meaning of ‘honesty’. For surely, honesty towards yourself and your own abilities it is not the honesty we demand of someone whom we suspect of cheating in an exam, say. The kind of honesty work teaches is simply being realistic, that is, judging properly whether one’s actions will lead to the outcome that is envisaged. This is not honesty as it is valued in communicative action, this is merely instrumental: I face an objective world of facts in which my actions either lead to success or failure. Learning to judge my abilities properly is elementary for success. ‘Success’, here, is meant nonnormative: it does not mean climbing up the social ladder, or gaining esteem but being able to deal with the world of facts adequately. Of course in this way it does not only apply to humans anymore: analogously we may say that any cat, before it jumps from one roof to another, has to be honest to itself. If not, it will be unsuccessful, i.e. it will misjudge and fall. Thus, the honesty that Breen talks about and which he considers an intrinsic part of work and the respective learning-process, is hardly the intersubjective, and therefore normative, honesty he is after. He is talking about true or false judgements of my own technical abilities, not evaluations concerning right and wrong. His argument commits the error of equivocation.

3.1.2. The Master-apprentice relationship Another example Breen uses to show how the normative domain is part of work is the master-apprentice or teacher-pupil relationship that is involved in learning. This relation133

Chapter III: Habermas ship, it is argued, is constitutive also of technical aspects of a craft that the apprentice has to learn. Thus, the instrumental and normative realms are immediately interwoven. But by introducing interpersonal relationships we are providing a communicative environment and thus Habermas can happily agree that this environment is normative. To the law-governed relationship between man and the world is now added the norm-governed relationship between man and other men. In the same way Adam’s world was enriched when he encountered Eve, or Robinson Crusoe’s world when he discovered Friday. Thus, that the social environment, here the master-apprentice relationship, is guided by norms is one of Habermas’ main points and thus in no way critical of him. Furthermore, the ideal of work that Breen advances together with MacIntyre is much idealised.5 Much emphasis is put on the ethical relationship between teacher and pupil which is, apparently, required for learning. This may suit some learning-situations but not all of them. We wish that learning had more of that kind of connection, but much learning today is, for example, ‘distance-learning’: there is no noteworthy ethical relationship, nor does this relationship have a necessary impact on learning. A good ethical relationship is no guarantee for internal (excellence) or external (fame, money) success in a trade. I can get along brilliantly with my teacher, yet maybe I am simply not good at what I do. The existence of ‘distance-learning’ and the fact people also discover new things by themselves strongly suggests that that normative relationships are not a necessary part of labour. Nevertheless, insofar as we grow up in a social environment almost all labour takes place within the normative realm. Yet that the two coincide is a contingent matter. The social norms are part of the communicative environment in which a craft takes place (the social relations between people); they are not part, as such, of the mastery of the craft (the man-world relation). Conversely, the rules guiding the craft are only effective in the man-world relation, not concerning the social man-man relation. Note that I am not arguing that a good teacher-pupil/master-apprentice relationship is unimportant for many areas of learning. Also I would wish that more pupils had the chance to enjoy more attention. But only on this basis I cannot conclude that a good masterapprentice relationship is constitutive of labour. Nor can this relationship be conceived inIt is indicative that the activities that are mentioned in arguments against Habermas are all crafts: sculpting, carpentry, mining, building, etc. This is quite a narrow focus and the same as Marx’s occasional romanticism about work activities, although Marx is otherwise not a romantic. See Sayers (1998, 2003, pp.122ff, 2007, p.449f.). However, note also that, as Svendsen (2008, p.36) points out, when Marx gives examples of non-alienated activities he never mentions factory work. Thus, industrial labour does not really seem to be an ideal either.


Habermas and Emancipation strumentally, that is, it cannot be viewed as a means to an end in the same way that a hammer is a means to hit a nail in the wall. I cannot say “I want to learn well therefore I will have a good relationship with my teacher.” Such an opinion would strike us as too calculated and the relationship dishonest, or, in the worst case, deceiving. The pupil is not valuing the teacher for who she is, but only what use she is to her. Habermas calls this ‘strategic action’. If anything, we would consider such an approach blameworthy. In other words, the instrumental approach that appropriately guides labour (namely, what am I doing this for and what is the best way to reach this end) is exactly inadequate for the relationship between people. To this normative dimension between agents apply different rules than to the relation between an agent and the material world. These normative rules are established in communicative action, not in labour. Thus, the normative side that Breen wants to establish can itself only be explained in terms of social norms that have developed independently of the (technical) rules of work. Although the instrumental and communicative realms are connected insofar as they both belong into the lifeworld, we should not discard the analytic distinction between them.6 This inclusive yet differentiated approach is the advantage that Habermas has over Breen. The inclusion of instrumental and normative realms in the lifeworld is one of Habermas’ own later realisations. He admits that:
In "Technik und Wissenaschaft als Ideologie" (1968) I still tried to separate the action-systems of state and economy in terms of purposive rational orientation or success-oriented action on the one hand and communicative action on the other. This parallel approach of action-systems and action-types led to difficulties which led me, already in “Legitimation Crisis”, to combine the concept of the lifeworld, which I introduced in “Logic of the Social Sciences”, with the concept of the system. This resulted in the double-sided concept of society as lifeworld and system in “The Theory of Communicative Action”. (translation U.M., emphasis added) .7

The claim that Habermas cannot account for the teacher-pupil relationship nor internal standards of excellence can thus be answered: Habermas includes all labour-activities, practices, etc., in the lifeworld, i.e. the social world, which means that they are embedded in

6 Also Keane (1975, p.87) says: “Habermas stresses that this distinction [between communicative and instrumental action] is analytical only, and that the two interests are always empirically interwoven.” 7 This is my translation of a later (1990) edition of Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Earlier editions do not feature this admission by Habermas of this change in his approach. For the original quotation see Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 1990, p.35f. The ‘difficulties’ to which Habermas refers concern those pointed out in Honneth (1985, so far not translated, U.M.)


Chapter III: Habermas communicative surroundings. Thus, the normative realm is connected with instrumental activities, contrary to Breen’s argument. The differentiation between communicative action and labour within the lifeworld, as defended by Habermas, allows the intuitive realisation that one does not have to be a good person in order to be a good labourer and vice versa. Breen, in his critique of Habermas, ends in a position in which it is increasingly difficult to separate the mastery of the material world from the mastery of interpersonal relationships when it is obvious that one can be successful in one while failing in the other. The inclusion of communicative action and labour within the lifeworld, contrary to Breen’s claims, allows Habermas to conduct a normative debate concerning the labourers and consider, for example, standards of humaneness or decency (Zumutbarkeit). After all, it is still human beings who work, not machines. Habermas’ intention is to locate the emergence of norms in the realm of communicative action. This does not mean that norms are therefore restricted to that domain. It only means that this is where they originate: it is in interaction that we come to know normative standards.

3.1.3. Labour and the social The crux in debates such as the above with reference to Habermas concerns the sociality of labour. I have discussed this already above with reference to Arendt’s characterisation of labour and work vs. interaction and I will now return to this issue. The claim often advanced is that labour is ‘intrinsically’ or ‘necessarily’ social, thereby indicating that there is special weight behind this assertion. Labour, it is said, always takes place in a social world, shared with other people. But this is trivial, for insofar as humans are always in a social context it is not insightful to say that labour is necessarily social. On this level, all human actions, in fact, human existence in general, is social. I do not consider this point controversial. So when Breen asserts, repeating MacIntyre, that “all practices are communal endeavours” (2007, p.393), last but not least because they are bound up with past generations, then this is surely not just particular to practices but applies to human life in general. Yet more can be said because it is obvious that we can differentiate further. Some activities are ‘more social’, or ‘communal’, than others: playing tennis is more social than watching TV, having a party is more social than laying puzzles in your room, playing in a band is more social than practicing scales, and going to a concert is more social than doing research for a PhD. That is, we want to distinguish between things you can actually do on your own (as a single per-


Habermas and Emancipation son, despite the fact that you live in a shared world) and those you can only do in concert with others. With Arendt we can say that I can labour and work on my own, even if we often do it together with others. In fact, it must be possible to engage in these activities by oneself because otherwise it would be impossible to be a hermit, Robinson Crusoe could not have survived and feral children could not exist. Contrastingly, as I have shown above, I cannot interact on my own. The claim is therefore that for some activities the presence of other people is required and for some it is not.8 In fact, for some it is important to be in solitude, to ‘left in peace’, as during research for example or writing a play, or novel, or working out a scientific formula. Such solitary engagements also allow learning things about oneself: one probably even wants to do one’s work as well as possible and perfect it, etc. That is, Adam and Robinson would have been able to pursue the good in their instrumental actions (which Breen, following MacIntyre calls ‘internal good’, e.g. standards of excellence).9 But the normative rules that apply to our societies can only be gained through interaction, not through instrumental action. Adam and Robinson Crusoe were only able to become normatively good persons after Eve and Friday arrived. This issue also persists in Breen’s own argument, because when he describes the features of a practice he says:
Third, as implied by the terms ‘co-operative activity’ and ‘goods internal’, each practice is defined by ‘standards of excellence’ which both determine the goal of the activity, its telos, and regulate its internal functioning. That is, to be able to perform within a practice one must initially submit to the authority of the impersonal standards which encapsulate the highest level of achievement attained within that practice at a given point in time. (ibid., p.394)

With ‘co-operative activity’ and ‘goods internal’ Breen wants to refer to the normative dimension of practices that Habermas, he claims, cannot capture. But exactly in this regard I find the claim above counter-productive because it rather seems to enforce a Habermasian perspective. The ‘authority of impersonal standards’, in the second half of the quote, are
8 A rejoinder here might be to claim that even solitary activities presuppose a level sociality (this is in fact what Breen does). But notice that neither Arendt nor Habermas disagrees with this. This is discussed below. 9 See Breen, 2007, p. 393f. “External goods are the generic goods of money, power, status, and prestige, whereas internal goods are specific to an individual practice, that is, can only be known and achieved through sustained engagement in the practice itself.”


Chapter III: Habermas surely the technical demands that any labour/work activity is ruled by, otherwise why would they be impersonal. It must be the objective laws that constrain and limit the practitioner in what he can and cannot do and what means he can use to achieve particular effects (for example the painter must know which ingredients to mix in order to get a certain colour, or which painting techniques to use in order to attain a certain effect). Yet surely this is the instrumental dimension that Habermas points out. Even if painting methods change over time they cannot escape the objective borders given by the way in which our world works. Although these changes are due to social development this does not mean that they are any less impersonal, or technical. ‘Co-operative activity’ and ‘goods internal’ as the opposing sides must then refer to the normative dimension. Thus, it seems to me that in distinguishing between ‘goods internal’ on the one hand and ‘impersonal standards’ on the other, Breen is invoking a distinction which weakens his own argument against Habermas, because this relies on the distinction between the instrumental and the normative that he criticises Habermas for. But it is clear that such a separation of technical and instrumental demands from interactive ones is very sensible. Breen attempts to cover up this divide by linking impersonal (instrumental) standards as ‘internal goods’ to co-operation (thus interaction) or the role of authority. ‘Standards of excellence’ is meant to refer to both dimensions the normative and the instrumental. To be a true paragon of a given trade is to have acquired the technical knowledge, mastered the available techniques and internalised the intrinsic (normative) good of the practice. Yet, again, this unified account does not erase the analytic distinction that Habermas puts forward. There are two sides to being a master practitioner and neither can be reduced to the other. To argue this is Habermas’ main concern, he does thereby not deny that they interact. Therefore, Habermas’ account is not only defendable against criticisms such as Breen’s, but it also has the advantage of being more discerning. This advantage is given away by moving from the general claim that all human practices are social to the more specific, and contentious, claim that they are necessarily social, require the presence of others and that the relationships we have with those others are constitutive of the excellence concerning those practices, even when those practices are instrumental.

3.1.4. Honneth Contrary to Breen, according to whom the labourer himself becomes non-normative under Habermas, Honneth (1983) argues for the more plausible claim that there is emancipatory 138

Habermas and Emancipation potential in the labouring activity. By making labour purely instrumental and locating all emancipation in communicative action, Habermas is firstly decidedly unmarxian and secondly deprived of the means for a critique of labour practices. He is unmarxian because Habermas undercuts the emancipatory function of labour that Marx relies on:
[…] Marx’s […] world history is defined as the self-creation, self-preservation and self-emancipation of society through work. (op.cit., p.34)

Thus, Marx counts on the emancipatory potential of labour and requires it for his theory of revolution. Habermas, contrastingly, by reducing labour only to instrumental activity deprives it of its emancipatory potential and therefore the labourer of his chance for Bildung (education, intellectual self-development). The reason that Honneth points out for this distancing from the emancipatory potential of labour is the following: the gradual deemancipation of the concept of work in the literature is due to the increasing division of labour and automation in the course of the 19th and 20th century. Because labour-processes became dissected into smaller and smaller parts (particularly through Taylorism) the intellectual content was gradually eradicated. This is often referred to as de-skilling.10 And so
the causal relation which Marx believed to exist between the intensification of labour productivity and a constant increase in the workers’ level of qualification has ceased to be empirically plausible; the revolutionary notion that an intellectual and strategic socialisation of the proletariat is possible within the framework of capitalist industrial work has foundered upon the reality of massive disqualification. […] thus, it is the fundamental structural change in capitalist industrial labour which has finally brought to light the categorical difficulties in which Marx involved himself when he attempted to develop a theory of revolution on the basis of his conception of work. (op.cit., p.37f.)

In short, the deskilling in industrial labour prevents the development of a class qualified enough to stage a revolution. Industrial labour, contrary to Marx’s claims, does not produce revolutionaries but docile workers. This is difficult for Marxian theory because it means that the industrial labour required for the adequate satisfaction of everyone’s needs prevents emancipation. The satisfaction of needs stands in opposition to emancipation. The difficulty is not only that this goes against Marx’s thoughts on emancipation and revolution but also that it coheres with his thoughts on production: also Marx endorsed a rigid enforcement of labour and hailed the productive success of capitalism. However much he

See also Braverman (1974) particularly chapter 3.


Chapter III: Habermas disliked the division of labour, he also knew that it was necessary for the scale of production he envisaged. We are thus left with a dilemma: either one has to increase the division of labour to keep up the rate of production, in which case even Marx would have to acknowledge deskilling (but it may be argued that this would be outweighed by the amount of spare-time every one has if every one is working, like in More’s ‘Utopia’); or one has to opt for automation and envisage a future in which machines do all of the work and humans can engage in other activities (e.g. Marcuse), or a mixture of these two. In both cases we have abandoned the central Marxian idea of emancipation through labour: work is now clearly marked as necessary toil which is unfulfilling and that truly human activity starts when work is over. On the one hand, this is inherently un-Marxian insofar as Marx thinks that work is the distinctive characteristic of our species. On the other hand, however, it fits with Marx’s own call for the ‘abolition of labour’ in the early German Ideology and the ‘shortening of the labour-day as the first step towards the realm of freedom’ in the late Capital III. In short, first de-skilling is accepted for the benefit of a high production rate, and secondly it must be admitted that work is merely instrumental and not fulfilling. As Arendt (HC, p.123) rightly contends: on the one hand, work is the unmistakable and central element of emancipation for the human species under Marx, on the other hand man’s future lies in time that is not used for labour. So, by explaining Habermas’ instrumentalisation of labour as an outcome of modern labour practices, Honneth also issues his own critique of Marx’s theory of revolution: namely that industrial labour has the opposite effect to Marx’s claims. This confirmation of the missing emancipatory potential in labour is, however, not due to labour itself but, and here Honneth can return back to Marx and Hegel, due to modern labour conditions. More ‘wholesome’ labour, that is, labour that has not been divided, does still have emancipatory potential. Here we come to Honneth’s second argument, namely that Habermas has deprived himself of the means for a critique of labour practices. According to Honneth, Habermas has accepted divided and deskilled labour as the nature of labour as such. But if Habermas had “differentiated the category of instrumental action internally as much as he differentiates the spectrum of social action normatively” (op.cit., p.53) then he would have to recognise
the existence of a type of practical and moral knowledge which is based not upon the consciousness of systematically distorted relations of communication, but upon the experience of the destruction of true acts of work in the course of the rationalisation of production technique. For when the argument is first admitted, that only those instrumental acts may be called acts of work which the


Habermas and Emancipation
actor himself independently shapes and directs, then the possibility emerges of a process of intellectual self-development (Bildung), in which working subjects can systematically maintain their right to the control of the work process, i.e., to the work character of their instrumental acts. (op.cit., p.53)

the concept of instrumental action itself is too thin thematically to be able to grasp the moral tension inherent in established work relations. (op.cit., p.54)

For Honneth, this criticism of Habermas’ scheme also applies to Arendt: due to the instrumentalisation of labour they are both unable to distinguish alienated from nonalienated labour. But Arendt commented on modern work-conditions that with the increase of the division of labour and automation, they resemble rather the repetitive cycle of labour. In other words, if productive activity (of whichever kind) becomes as repetitive and enforced as (Arendtian) labour then it becomes equally oppressing and features the same amount of self-realisation – none. Accordingly, Arendt’s approach retains its critical potential. But this reply will not be sufficient for Honneth. For him Arendt still instrumentalises labour too much. What he really attempts is, on a socio-genetic level, to preserve the educational content of labour, on the critical-analytical level the ability to distinguish between ‘wholesome’ and alienated labour, and on the normative level, possibly the person’s right to demand fulfilling work.11 Honneth is using the standard ‘social labour’ argument in which labour is a priori defined as a social activity.12 The trick is again to move from the general social existence of human beings to the far more narrow meaning of ‘social’ in which labour is bound up with the personality of the agent. The argument therefore combines the activity of labour with the normative aspect of ‘working together’ (Zusammen-arbeit). But here we are clearly not just talking about the general social existence of human beings but the actual presence of others during one’s work. That is, there is already a mixing of the technical and the normative aspects, the former belong to labour itself, the latter to the social interaction of the members of a group of labourers while they are working. Not labouring itself is normative but the social aspect of
11 However pressing the normative element is for Honneth, I think it was simply not Arendt’s concern. Whether the increasing division of labour is to be resisted or not is not part of her study in The Human Condition. Many commentators made the same mistake with the result that they see Arendt as an aloof aristocrat who simply despises all labouring/working activities as low (see chapter 2). But Arendt would have agreed that working on a conveyor belt is stultifying for a human being. Yet whether we judge the historical development good or bad is another question. 12 As discussed above, see: chapter 3, 3.1.3. Labour and the social.


Chapter III: Habermas labour, that is, the actual presence of others at the same place and time. This ‘togetherness’ while working is responsible for the normative dimension. Thus, this is not the general social aspect of labour which applies to all human existence but the much narrower sense of the actual presence of other people. Neither Habermas nor Arendt would deny the normative dimension of labour while working together with other people. But they do deny that the activity of labour itself, which can be accomplished in solitude, has this dimension. The normative structures of human groups arise out of the interactions of the group members. I need to be in contact with other people, not just the world, in order to learn the social rules, expectations, values and in order to have access to Bildung in order to debate my labour. Thus, with Habermas we can say that the normative structures have to be established first through communication-processes. Again, this does not deny that people interact while they labour, but these interactions are not the productive activity itself. A carpenter is productive when he crafts wood, not when he is talking to his customer. At least at some point the customer wants him to stop interacting and get on with the work that he ordered from him. Thus, instrumental and normative levels overlap and flow into each other, simply because human beings are social agents. But although we are involved on both levels this does not mean that we cannot distinguish instrumental engagements from normative interactions. The advantage of the ‘social labour’ argument, as advanced by most writers in the Hegelian-Marxian tradition concerning labour, is that descriptive and normative claims can be so easily connected.13 The argument against de-skilling is that it stupefies the workers when the ‘practical and moral knowledge’ inherent in ‘wholesome’ productive activity is crucial for them as persons: they have a right to Bildung. Intellectual self-development, apparently inherent in un-alienated forms of labour, thus becomes the basis for a rights-attribution. Does Habermas have to be concerned by this? He can quite happily agree that a more complex task challenges a person more than a less complex one. But whether this can be turned into a claim-right on behalf of the workers will depend on functioning channels of communication and debate. Thus, Habermas will bring the communicative dimension right back in. Furthermore, even if we acknowledge this claim-right then Habermas will point out that the discovery of it presupposes a process of emancipation. That is, we are not born with the realisation that we may have a right to ‘wholesome’ labour. Instead, this realisation will be part of a historical process of labourers emancipating themselves. Emancipation, in turn, is only possible through communicative action since it is viewed as a process of under-


This connection is also pervasive in Honneth’s recent Reification (2008) and is the (justified) object of criticism of Judith Butler, Jonathan Lear, Raymond Geuss (published with Honneth) and Sayers (2009).


Habermas and Emancipation standing and self-realisation which depends on communication.14 Therefore, the communicative dimension not only appears when it comes to the actual event of claiming this right, but already beforehand in the process of realising this right in the first place, irrespective of whether we then claim it or not. From this historical vantage point we can now criticise Honneth. According to his claims, ‘wholesome’ labour has far more emancipatory potential than its modern divided forms in industrial labour. In this case we should expect more revolutions before the industrial revolution. Yet there is no evidence for it. Why did all those groups of oppressed workers (e.g. Greek slaves) that did engage in ‘wholesome’ labour not emancipate themselves? If the answer is that the conditions were not right, this clearly refers to the ‘social conditions’ which must lie outside the actual activity of labour itself. In short, other conditions than those concerning labour are responsible for emancipation: other interactions outside of labour had not yet happened. But this answer is unavailable to the critics of Habermas since they dispute exactly this difference, namely the distinction between labour and interaction. Therefore, the emancipatory potential, or reflection, inherent in work, this “retroactive significance for the working subject” that Honneth (1982, p.32f.) is concerned with, is not sufficient for the emancipation Honneth envisages. It is the interaction between people, not the reflection inherent in work, which allows for emancipation. Let me, finally, just point out one danger. The assimilation of instrumental and normative sphere, as defended by Honneth, Breen, MacIntyre and others, however well it is intended, must not lead to collapse the distinction between objective facts and normative claims. This would lead to the inability to distinguish factual from normative errors, which Habermas (TCA I, p.48f.) outlines as one of the features of the mythical understanding of the world, in which failures in instrumental activities are seen as being the result of normative wrongdoings. The overemphasis, to my mind, of the ethical dimension within the masterapprentice relationship sometimes likens objective and normative world too much. A critical understanding of labour should retain the ability to distinguish instrumental and normative aspects, even if these are interwoven because we are dealing with human agents that are at home in both worlds. Habermas, as I have argued here, retains this critical aspect.


See for example Collins (1965)


Chapter III: Habermas It is important to consider these objections to Habermas since the distinction between instrumental and communicative action is so similar to Arendt’s distinction between work and action. Thus, similar criticisms can be, and, as we have seen, have been, wielded against Arendt. Her critics I have already considered above (Chapter 2 above), here I have replied to exemplary criticisms levelled against Habermas. Although I recognise the dangers and deficiencies that writers such as Honneth and Breen point out in Habermas’ account, I think there is enough scope within his account to reply to these concerns. My own critique of Habermas will be presented in the next section and has another target. Overall, it seems to me that the original intention behind Habermas’ distinction between instrumental and communicative action has been obscured if it is alleged that he relies only on the differing telos that already Aristotle pointed out. The introduction of the sphere of communicative action is important for Habermas because a material account of human history merely in terms of forces of production and the resulting relations thereof, as in classical Historical Materialism, cannot explain the normative changes in human history which often occur prior to material changes as in the forces or relations of production.15 Furthermore, the theses of the uncoupling of lifeworld and system and the colonisation of the former by the latter are intended by Habermas as critical concepts. That is, although he sees the uncoupling as a necessary condition in order for western societies to develop the shape and structure that they now have, he is also critical of this development, particularly when it progresses into what he considers the colonisation of the lifeworld by the system. In this respect Habermas has the same aim as most of his critics, namely to point out and trace the ills of modern life in our post-industrial and post-modern states and societies.

4. End of the debate

See Habermas (1975), esp. pp 288-294 “The structures of role behaviour mark a new evolutionary threshold compared to the structures of social labour; the rules of communicative action, that is intersubjectively valid norms of action, cannot be reduced to rules whether of instrumental or strategic action. (p.289) […] for the introduction of new forms of social integration, as for instance, the replacement of the kinship system with the state, demands a knowledge of a practical-moral kind. Technical knowledge, which can be implemented with rules of instrumental and strategic action, or an expansion of our control over external nature, is not what is required, but, rather, a knowledge which can seek its embodiment in structures of interaction. (p.293) […] the species not only learns technical knowledge relevant for the development of the productive forces, but also the decisive dimension of moral-practical knowledge which can be embodied into structures of interaction. The rules of communicative action do not automatically follow changes in the field of instrumental and strategic action; they develop rather by virtue of their own dynamics.” (p.294). see also TCA II, ch.VIII, section 1. Compare also S. Weil (1958, pp.42 ff.)



Habermas and Emancipation This labour debate, concerning the degree of normativity in labour, comes to a halt here. Marx’s connection between labour and emancipation, and the role that labour played in his theory of history, has been heavily criticised in the 20th century (e.g. Jaspers, Arendt, and Habermas). The last development in this debate has been the opposition to Habermas, represented here by Honneth and Breen. As interesting as the publications on this issue are, the debate is a mere continuation of the arguments that are already known. I have defended Habermas’ distinction between instrumental and communicative action because there is sufficient scope within Habermas’ writings to reply to the criticisms levelled against him on this matter. This means, however, that we are now merely discussing whether the characterisation of labour, as spearheaded by Habermas, is correct or not. Whatever the outcome of this debate is, the role that labour plays in the theory of Historical Materialism has been significantly lessened and even if Honneth’s argument proved to be pervasive, it seems unlikely that the direct connection between labour and the normative issues in our modern societies (be it at the social level of the division between capitalists and proletarians or the individual level of pathologies such as alienation) will ever be as strong as it is in Marx’ writings. No one thinks any longer that a re-structuring of the labour-sphere will have an automatic corresponding re-structuring effect in the normative sphere as its consequence. Thus, even if Habermas was proven to be guilty of ‘instrumentalising’ labour too much this would not result in a return to orthodox Marxism. The impact that the critique in the 20th century has had on the role of labour in original Marxian Historical Materialism, is a lasting one. If a Historical Materialist theory of society is to be developed then it will have to take far more factors into account than those that seemed sufficient before this critique. In this way, Habermas’ theory of communicative action is, as far as I can see, still the most systematic and exhausting approach that is available. Of course there have been various disciplines which have developed since Habermas published his theory, but in terms of the range of factors and explanatory potential that his theory offers, it is unsurpassed in its entirety. The task of the Historical Materialist critical of Habermas would be to provide an account as integrated and extensive as Habermas’ and yet without distinguishing between labour and communicative action to the extent that Habermas has. But without this distinction many of Habermas’ insights will be rendered unavailable, which would be a serious disadvantage. In the meantime a new area has opened up in which the theorists consider themselves to be neo-Marxists, to be precise, postmodern neo-Marxists. It is within these writings that 145

Chapter III: Habermas labour has once again returned as a central concern. In this field, however, the traditional labour-debate is simply bypassed because a different phenomenon is the focus: the socalled ‘immateriality’ of labour in our post-industrial societies. In a way, here it does not matter whether labour is originally inherently social and emancipating or not, the more important fact is that it does have these features now. The advances in telecommunication, production techniques, and producer-consumer relations have introduced communication into almost every kind of labour. Again, it seems that capitalism has produced its own gravediggers, or rather, the tools for the potential gravediggers: namely the means of communication. But before I come to this final part there is one more section to go through. I have argued that Habermas is still pursuing a Historical Materialist approach to society. More than any other Historical Materialist before him Habermas has focussed on actions and language, one of the main outcomes of which it is to be able to account for action materialistically. The problem of orthodox Marxism is the confusion of praxis and poiesis, as argued by Habermas. He wants to solve that problem by finding a theory that presents an integrated account of both praxis and poiesis without confusing them. In the course of doing so he thereby attempts to render praxis materialistically available – it is no longer meant to be the missing element but part of a materialistic account. Arendt argued that one main problem of Historical Materialism is its second half: its materialism, because for Arendt praxis (or action) is non-material. This is not a mere terminological debate, for Arendt the outcome has important political consequences: attempting to capture action materialistically has, for Arendt, so far led to the political consequence of undermining individuality (and therefore freedom) when this is one of the most distinctive features of human beings. Therefore, she is opposed to such projects. The next section will therefore briefly outline the differences between Habermasian and Arendtian action and argue for the latter. Thus, after a defence of Habermas I will now turn to my critique of his approach. This critique does not focus on his binary division of instrumental and communicative action, but his approach to communication and action in general.


Habermasian vs. Arendtian action

5. Habermas and Arendt on action

Habermas is still a materialist, he only thinks that Marx' Materialism is a reductive version that conflates instrumental and communicative action (1969, 1971). He accepts Arendt's concept of action and tries to pin down its essence in his linguistic theory (TCA I & II). But in his effort to explicate Arendtian action through his linguistic analysis he does exactly what Arendt denies: he tries to materialise a phenomenon Arendt understood to be immaterial. Doing so, Habermas thinks that he can construct a materialistic social theory that can escape the pitfalls that Marx could not. Margaret Canovan (1983, p.108) claimed contrastingly that Habermas substitutes “talking for acting, consensus for disagreement and unity for plurality in politics”. This claim is quite considerable; after all, Habermas wants to be the thinker who is able to develop a theory of Historical Materialism that can make sense of action, contrary to most other theorists in this tradition before him, including Marx. His worry about previous materialist theories of history is exactly that action was insufficiently categorised, or rather analysed mistakenly (namely that communicative action was understood as instrumental action). Thus, to say that Habermas conflates talking and action, that he still does not really grasp action, is substantial. In a simple way, the truth of Canovan's claim is already displayed in the title Habermas chooses for his theory of action: 'communicative action'. It is therefore clear that he ties the concept of action to that of communication. The reason for this connection is his thought that action is the goal-directed cooperation of one’s own actions with those of others. This requires communication and hence the link between action and communication.1 His analysis of language, particularly in his Theory of Communicative Action (1981, translated 1984), focuses on the telos of communication and the rationality of the actors engaged in it. He distinguishes three kinds of utterances: evaluative utterances, expressive selfrepresentations, and statements of fact. Each of them features differing characteristics and truth conditions. What is missing, however, from his analysis of language is an idea that is central to Arendt's thought on both speech and action: namely the sheer performance, the fact that we do something that appears to others, puts the performer in a certain light that
1 “In actions, the factually raised claims to validity, which form the underlying consensus, are assumed naively. Discourse, on the other hand, serves the justification of problematic claims to validity of opinions and norms. Thus the system of action and experience refers us in a compelling manner to a form of communication in which the participants do not exchange information, do not direct or carry out action, nor do they have or communicate experiences; instead they search of arguments or offer justifications.” (Habermas, 1974, p.18)


Chapter III: Habermas emanates with every single action but which the performer himself cannot control. Arendt considers this aspect of action immaterial in that it cannot be grasped in any objectified way as the sciences do. Habermas, in his effort to rectify and enlarge the concept of Historical Materialism, tries to objectify language in his theory of communication. In this way he intends to capture Arendt's thoughts, but he either misses, or simply neglects, this aspect of action that Arendt considered immaterial. This has implications for the realm of politics. Particularly in Theory and Practice (1971, translated 1973) Habermas is concerned with accounts of history and conceptualisations of human action.2 According to him political thinking underwent a fundamental shift during the Middle Ages: politics as a matter of the good and virtuous life, as it had been in ancient Greece, was replaced by new understanding, according to which pure physical survival and practicality are the guiding considerations. Action was thereby gradually increasingly instrumentalised – away from the virtue in action (praxis) and towards the satisfaction of strategic goals through action (poiesis). This instrumentalisation of action continued until the early 20th century and Habermas also criticises Marx for adopting this view. The distinction between normative and strategic action that Habermas makes, is devised in order to point out that although there is an instrumental kind of action (strategic action) there is also the normative side (e.g. rule-following) which cannot be reduced to the former. Habermas' basic criticism of Marx, for all its complexity, is that Marx adopted the conflation of praxis and poiesis. Yet, despite his criticism, Habermas does consider himself a Historical Materialist.3 In order to make this possible he widens the concept of Materialism by advancing his own theory of rationality and language and in this way makes communication ‘materially graspable’. In other words, he conceptualises communication in such a way that he thinks it falls under the broad approach of Historical Materialism.

6. Habermasian vs. Arendtian action

At first sight Habermas and Arendt are similar in their thoughts on action, but in a more detailed comparison he changes her approach considerably.4 The origin of this difference is rooted in Habermas’ pragmatism. Even though the communicative realm is clearly bound up with the normative domain, he views communication in a very functional fashion. All

2 3 4

See particularly Habermas (1974, p.50f.) See p.115, footnote 5 Cf. Habermas (1996, originally in Habermas 1974)


Habermasian vs. Arendtian action communication is aimed at the establishment of consensuses and the successful coordination of subsequent action. Its telos is ‘communicative understanding’ (kommunikative Verständigung (TCA I, p.11). I do not argue that this false when it is used with caution, but it does encounter problems when it is regarded as exhaustive, which is what Habermas does. For him communicative understanding is the only dimension there is to communication. Particularly (in view of Habermas’ differentiation between the objective, social and subjective world), language becomes a tool to: a) coordinate instrumental actions in the objective world, b) coordinate norm-regulated action in the social world, and c) have a reflexive relation to one’s own inner states, i.e. to be able to see one’s subjectivity as a world. Accordingly, for Habermas language requires only a functional analysis.
For the communicative model of action, language is relevant only from the pragmatic viewpoint that speakers, in employing sentences with an orientation to reaching understanding, take up relations to the world, not only directly as in teleological, normatively regulated, or dramaturgical action, but in a reflective way. […] The concept of communicative action presupposes language as the medium for a kind of reaching understanding, in the course of which participants, through relating to a world, reciprocally raise validity claims that can be accepted or contested. (TCA I, p.98f.) […] one does not understand the theory of communicative action unless one is prepared to acknowledge a formal-pragmatic theory of meaning. (1991, p.233) To sum up, we can say that action regulated by norms, expressive selfpresentations, and also evaluative expressions, supplement constative speechacts in constituting a communicative practice which, against the background of a lifeworld, is oriented to achieving, sustaining, and renewing consensus – and indeed a consensus that rests on the intersubjective recognition of criticisable validity claims. (TCA I, p.17)

Of course it is not required of speakers themselves that they are cognitively aware of the instrumental function of their language, but this function is constitutive for the ability to differentiate and reflect on the objective, social and subjective world. It is constitutive and thereby instrumental for this differentiation. What Habermas neglects, yet what is of utter importance to Arendt, is the revelation of the individual in speech and action. Habermas only touches on this feature once, namely when 149

Chapter III: Habermas he describes the dramaturgic approach to action in sociological literature (TCA I, pp 8595). This approach attempts to understand interaction as an actor-audience relation. It is conceived as an encounter in which “the participants in interaction constitute a public for one another, to which they present themselves” (TCA I, p.86). The actors are aware of this meaning as actors for each other and self-presentation thereby becomes the central concept of this approach to action. It is understood as “stylising the expression of one’s own experiences with a view to the audience” (ibid.).5 In other words, I am aware of you as my audience and express my experiences accordingly. With such a cognitive focus it is no surprise that for Habermas
each agent can monitor public access to the system of his own intentions, thoughts, attitudes, desires, feelings, and the like, to which only he has privileged access. (TCA I, p.86)

Although we do not do this all the time (i.e. there are times when we do not attend to the performance aspect of our action), ‘self-representation’ therefore is conceived cognitively.6 Although Arendt also conceives of interaction as an actor-audience relation she does not emphasise the conscious ‘acting out’ or ‘stylising’ of ‘what I want them to know’. Even though this can obviously be achieved it does not feature in the majority of our interactions. The intentional presentation of oneself is not the main point. For Arendt it is more important that all of one’s actions, once they enter the public domain, become representative of oneself, whether one is aware of it or not, and whether this is intend or not. The particular representation of oneself, one’s uniqueness, is not an intentional part of action nor need it be, in fact, it is not even a matter of choice: no one can help but act in his own way. This is what Arendt at one point refers to as ‘daimōn’:
In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world, while their physical identities appear without any activity of their own in the unique shape of the body and sound of the voice. This disclosure of “who” in contradistinction to “what” somebody is – his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide – is implicit in everything somebody says and does. It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity, but its disclosure can almost never be achieved as a wilful purpose, as though one possessed and could dispose of this “who” in the same manner he has and can dispose of his qualities. On the con5 6

TCA I, p.86, Goffman is an often-mentioned exponent of this view. Hans Joas has also pointed this out (Honneth, 1991, p.101).


Habermasian vs. Arendtian action
trary, it is more than likely that the “who” which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, [but] remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimōn in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters. (HC, p.179f., my emphasis, except for the last sentence)

This feature of action is so important to Arendt that only several pages later she makes the connection between this self-revelatory aspect in interaction and the error of materialism:
The basic error of all materialism in politics – and this materialism is not Marxian and not even modern in origin, but as old as our history of political theory – is to overlook the inevitability with which men disclose themselves as subjects, as distinct and unique persons, even when they wholly concentrate upon reaching an altogether worldly, material object. (HC, p.183)

Habermas does not mention this dimension at all. For him interaction is exhausted by the establishment of consensuses and the successful coordination of subsequent instrumental action (as in the quote from TCA p.17 above). This focus maybe partly a result of the area in which he is working: academic writing and political action. The prevalent aims in these fields are to understand in terms of consensuses and to act in terms of coordination. The ideal of communication and action in these fields is indeed, as Habermas envisages, a selftransparent and clear (eindeutig) debate aimed at solving problems and coordinating actions. The content must have the form of communicable information and so it is unsurprising that, in light of such debates and their content, Habermas construes knowledge as having a ‘propositional structure’ at the very outset of his Theory of Communicative Action (TCA I, p. 8). The subsequent view of the person that he develops in TCA I and II leaves out any nonlinguistic or linguistically ungraspable element. The presence of such an element would not just constitute an obstacle to both understanding and action, that is, one’s relations to others, but also for one’s relation to oneself and thus for self-emancipation. Yet in the tradition within which Habermas is writing, emancipation can only be complete if we have a total understanding of ourselves; that is, if there is nothing that an actor himself cannot reflectively get hold of.7 In short, for true emancipation we must be fully transparent to ourselves and thus things that are impossible to communicate as the propositional content of an utterance are therefore a threat. It is as if Habermas took Wittgenstein’s ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one shall remain silent’ too seriously, because for Habermas, whatever one cannot talk about is simply irrelevant for communicative action. Arendt argues the

Cf. Benhabib (1986, ch.4)


Chapter III: Habermas opposite: interaction is not exhausted by an analysis of talk and what is being talked about, the particularly human element of action is the ‘who’ that is talking. This ‘who’, although we can talk about it, nevertheless evades the control of the speaker: you may debate about the presentation of yourself to others but while so doing you are already engaged in self-presentation again. That you appear as a particular actor remains an uncontrollable feature of yourself, however much one reflects on it. This revelation of oneself is therefore impossible to objectify because no one can get hold of his own representation. For this reason Arendt invokes the analogy of the daimōn. Again, even in articulating this daimōn you cannot help but reveal yourself to others as someone who is doing so. It remains a part of every single person that is constitutive of him/her and which is not under one’s control. The actor on stage is playing out a character which is, obviously, not himself, but even an actor impersonating a role reveals something about himself in playing out this role. Thus, whereas under Habermas communicative action is reduced to mere transferral of information, for Arendt it is more than that (HC, p.175ff.). If the only purpose of talking was the exchange of information, then a sign language, as it is used in mathematics or other sciences, would be sufficient and less distractive, lose, uncertain, vague, etc. than any natural language (which is why these special linguistic means have been devised, HC, p.179). Insofar as for Habermas all linguistic interaction is aimed at the establishment of consensuses he defines language in such a way that it becomes a mere debating process over things that can be resolved, or decided upon.
Thus the rationality proper to the communicative practice of everyday life points to the practice of argumentation as a court of appeal that makes it possible to continue communicative action with other means when disagreements can no longer be repaired with everyday routines and yet are not to be settled by the direct or strategic use of force. (TCA I, p.17f.)

As if in direct communication, Arendt argues exactly against such a view by saying that
[…] if nothing more were at stake here than to use action as a means to an end, it is obvious that the same end could be much more easily attained in mute violence, so that action seems a not very efficient substitute for violence, just as speech, form the viewpoint of sheer utility, seems an awkward substitute for sign language. (HC, p. 179)


Habermasian vs. Arendtian action Thus, communication is exactly not just a means to reach consensuses which could be otherwise resolved through violence (but which we merely shy away from). In all of Habermas’ characterisation of language he defines it as a useful tool, so to say, namely to come to an agreement and/or coordinate actions.8 What he neglects is what is of utmost importance to Arendt, namely that persons reveal themselves in their actions, that they link themselves irrevocably with their deeds and utterances. Arendt would not deny that language does have the function that Habermas attributes to it, but she would be against a reduction of the nature of interaction to that function. She is concerned not only with what action and communication does factually in the social realm (i.e. whether it leads to agreement or coordination) but also with the connection between people and their words and actions, that it is indeed this which is an important part our human being. In his pragmatism Habermas identifies language as a means to establishing consensuses and coordinating actions. The content of language is therefore information that is truth-apt with identifiable truth-conditions for the various claims a speaker can make: statements of fact, claims about norms, evaluative utterances and self-expressions.9 In his way of conceiving language pragmatically Habermas has found a way to make all communicative action materialistically available, that is, open to investigation and thereby reflective control (emancipation). He has managed to fit his entire account into a wide Historical Materialism which was his project from the outset, but at the price of neglecting that which lies outside the content of one’s utterances. My claim against Habermas in this respect, contrasting to Canovan’s, is that he does not confuse talking with interaction, but that he reduces communication to the propositional content of what is said. Habermas tries to 'objectify' or, in other words, 'materialise' communication and correspondingly he argues for a pragmatic account. I do not claim that this is wrong, but, as with Marx and production, I argue that it is wrong to assume that it exhausts all there is to human interaction. Interaction is not exhausted by propositional content or the truth-aptness of what it is said in communication. In evolutionary terms it may of course very well be true that the ability to convey information to an ever more abstract degree is an advantage, but what Habermas seems to forget, and what distinguishes him from Arendt, is that more than the mere transferral of information takes place. By reducing communication to the conveyance

8 As already quoted above ‘language is relevant only from the pragmatic viewpoint that speakers, in employing sentences with an orientation to reaching understanding, take up relations to the world […]’ (TCA I, p.98f.). 9 Here it would be worth asking at which consensus, argument, or debate, say, ‘expressive selfdisplays’ aim? This can only be maintained by construing these concepts very widely.


Chapter III: Habermas of truth-apt information Habermas also succumbs to the materialistic tendency of locating the origin of politics within the single agent – that it is something within one’s constitution, or in what one says. Arendt argues contrarily that politics can exactly not be located in one human being, or the human being. Instead, the realm of politics, like interaction, can only exist in-between agents and is not reducible to ‘material factors’ or the truth of statements that one agent makes (HC, p.182ff.). It is not an analysis of the propositional content of language that will reveal politics. The origin of politics does not lie in the propositional content of truth-apt utterances but in the prior and underlying fact that people interact, that they initiate things and thereby influence the web of relationships that exists between them. Without being a necessity in the way that labour is, politics is thus intrinsic to human life but not locatable within one agent or any amount of facts about him/her. Every individual also presents his/her unique self in this act of communication where this is not an intentional part of one’s doing. This links to the difference between Habermas and Arendt concerning their views on the 'dramaturgic' explanation of action: in reducing language to the intentional transferral of information, Habermas thus claims the dramaturgic approach to be one of intentional self-presentation. Arendt, contrarily, says the opposite: self-representation is simply a part of all of our actions and utterances, whether we intend this or not (HC, section 24). We simply cannot help representing ourselves. Importantly, this means that, although self-representation is open to reflection, it is not thereby open to control and emancipation. The self is, contrary to Habermas, neither transparent nor controllable. Both aspects go against underlying presuppositions inherent in Historical Materialism. Self-representation is therefore contrary to Habermas’ Historical Materialism. Whereas Marx sought emancipation in labour, Habermas seeks it in communicative action and in order subordinate it to analysis and control he advances his pragmatic account of language. In this way he supposes to gain the same insight that Marx thought to be available from an analysis of labour – namely to open social development (i.e. history) to human control. Where Marx outlines ideal labourconditions Habermas outlines criteria for ideal speech situations. Both suppose that their respective proposal will, if put into practice, allow mankind to emancipate itself from the shackles of fate, arbitrariness, chance, the irrationality, or however else they conceive what they think is an eliminable aspect of human life.



7. Summary

Habermas’ critique is, so to say, too linguistic. Canovan’s criticism, namely that he substitutes talking for acting, is not quite right. Habermas (1984, 1987, 1991, esp. p.242f.) is explicit about the difference between communication and action at several points, but what he does do is to put all communication in the service of reaching consensuses and coordinating subsequent instrumental action in the world. He thereby instrumentalises language as such: it is a means to an end, which is not surprising given that he still considers himself a Historical Materialist (for whom, in his very Marxian moments, the aim is still to make possible a historical progress that is directed by man).1 Habermas thus occupies a middle position between Marx and Arendt: unlike Marx and like Arendt, he has shifted the basis of emancipation from labour to interaction, but unlike Arendt he supposes interaction to be reducible to the propositional content of assertions. In this way he supposes interaction to be fully transparent to reflection and unguided historical progress therefore merely to be due to a lack of reflection. What Habermas simply does not mention at all is the performative aspect of communication in which a person always reveals herself. This may not be the telos of communication, but it is an undeniable part of it. Interaction between people cannot be reduced to the transferral of truth-related (wahrheitsbezogen) information. In the actual

1 “There is no reason for assuming that a continuum of rationality exists extending from the capacity of technical control over objectified processes to the practical mastery of historical processes. The root of the irrationality of history is that we “make” it, without, however, having been able until now to make it consciously. A rationalisation of history cannot therefore be furthered by an extended power of control on the part of manipulative human beings, but only by a higher stage of reflection, a consciousness of acting human beings moving forward in the direction of emancipation.” (1974, p. 175f., my emphasis). This is evidence for Habermas‘ conviction that a rationalisation of history can still be achieved, only not through ‚an extended power of control‘ but through ‘a higher stage of reflection‘. Arendt, by contrast, separates history from reflective access in the moment of action. That is, of course we can reflect on the past, but not on the present: we do not have reflective access when we are still engaged in action. In order to reflect we have to stop acting and vice versa, so that the two never meet. Habermas tries to circumnavigate Arendt’s critique by locating the flaw that prevents the ‘higher stage of reflection’ in a mistaken concept of rationality, in order to then introduce his own wider understanding of rationality and thereby be able to make history accessible to reflection once more. But also Benhabib (1986) denies reflection the power to fully contemplate man and his relation to the world in total. In short, there is no complete transparency of man and his situation in the world. Habermas, by contrast, is still committed to a ‘forward directed reflection’, that is, the idea that if one only knows enough about oneself and the world, one could fully understand and predict it. Marx and Engels thought this could be achieved through the calculation and control of consumption and production once all class differences have been eradicated. Although Habermas adds the manifold characteristics of communicative action, he also cannot resist wanting to re-appropriate them for reflection and control. In a ‘higher stage of reflection’ they can then serve as materials for a ‘rationalisation of history’. This idea, that history ought to be a rational and thus controllable movement, is a remainder of Habermas’ Historical Materialism. See Benhabib (1986, esp. ch.4) for a further critique.


Chapter III: Habermas experience of direct one-on-one communication there is always much more transferred than only what is being said.2 However, if it is Habermas’ expressed goal to ‘supply a concept of action that includes the relation to the social and the subjective as well as the objective world’ as he claims 3, then the theory of communicative action is either incomplete or, at worst, a failure. I would opt, respectively, for the former because I still consider Habermas’ approach very insightful. But the revelation of the person with which Arendt was so concerned does simply not appear in his theory of communicative action at all. It is pragmatically reduced at the price of neglecting what was so important to Arendt and which is so evident in our daily life: that every person is unique. Habermas cannot capture this uniqueness because it lies outside of what he considers relevant for communicative action. It is also what lies outside of his Historical Materialism, despite Habermas’ efforts. To bring this back to labour: we can now see why labour and action are so separate for Arendt and why glorifications of labour (as in Marx) are so unfit: in these productive activities people do not act, instead they are engaged in a process of production (whether of goods of consumption or of use-goods). Furthermore, they do not come across as unique individuals, but as replaceable workers. Conceptions of human beings that focus on productive activity as the salient feature easily come to the point where people are nothing more than ‘human material’ (Menschenmaterial) in the service of production. Here everyone can be replaced in what he produces.4 If it is only the material products that count, then the producers count only half as much.5 Habermas attempts to circumnavigate this threat by focussing on action, i.e. on the feature that makes people the unique personae that they are. But with his pragmatic perspective on language he immediately turns the ‘material results’ of language (namely consensuses and action-coordination) into the main task and the meaning of language. He considers the connection between person, speech and action only insofar as in psychological and ontogenetic terms the person can then conceive of herself as a person. Since Habermas’ focus is the establishment of consensuses it is not surprising that he is
2 In psychological studies it has been verified that what a speaker actually says makes only a small percentage of the experience a listener has. 3 “There is no corresponding concept in philosophy that includes relations to the social and the subjective worlds as well as to the objective world. The theory of communicative action is meant to remedy this lack.” (TCA I, p.45) 4 The ‘ausführende Künste’ (peforming arts) constitute an exception, which have, since antiquity, been counted as those closest to human life. But this exception is exactly due to the fact that they are immaterial. They do not produce anything tangible but represent the direct relations between persons. 5 “If the measure of the human being is the average labour-power, then the individual as individual is meaningless. No one is irreplaceable.” (Jaspers, 1999, p.46, translation U.M.)


Summary interested in analysing formal features of speech, argumentation and consensus-formation. But just for that reason he should not neglect that speech and action do more than that. The feature that differentiates interaction from labour and work in its connection to the individual person is that without interaction there would be no person. Action is the only activity without which the single human agent cannot do. As claimed above, people who never produce either goods of consumption or use-goods are nevertheless still persons (even though in a Marxian vain we may call them unproductive), in fact in today’s society the majority of people live in this way. To use another analogy, Hegel’s master is still a person, even though he may be morally reprehensible. But no one could be a person in any meaningful way if he/she would never speak nor interact. Importantly, and in contrast to Habermas, the uniqueness of a person is not adequately conveyed by a collection of the propositional contents of their utterances, that is, what they have said. An actual encounter with the person tells us far more about them than mere statements ever could, it is here that we get a real sense of who the person is, even if we are often unable to convey this in words. Furthermore, as claimed above, Habermas makes no distinction, as Arendt does, between labour and work and simply joins both work and labour together as activities of ‘material reproduction’. This is also indicative of his remaining Marxism. Arendt distinguishes the two because they have differing results even if they are both instrumental relations with the world. To invoke her distinction once more: labour maintains our survival and creates no artificial environment; it creates the goods of consumption that we live on, not use-goods. Work, vice versa, produces nothing we can ‘live on’ but the things that we ‘live with’, namely our artificial environment (buildings, roads, tools, cars, computers, artworks, fridge magnets, footballs, etc.) that is so distinctive of the human species. When Arendt already criticises Marx for neglecting this difference, Habermas follows Marx in this neglect. When considering instrumental activities Habermas focuses, like Marx, only on the instrumental process itself and from such a perspective the difference between producing a loaf of bread and a table is indeed merely marginal.6 Concerning communicative action however, Habermas is much more aware of the outcome, but again in instrumental terms. That is, Habermas has done much work on the process of communication but what he is really interested in is the outcome, namely consensuses and action-coordination. This is the pervasive grounding that HaberWhether in labour or work the labourer/worker has to submit to the objective facts and laws of nature or else he will fail to produce what he intended. Hence the difference between the two processes is neglectable. But from the perspective of whether we can ‘live on’ or ‘live with’ the product there is a massive difference. (see Arendt, HC, p.94)


Chapter III: Habermas mas asserts for communication in TCA I and II. Communicating, however, the act itself, is viewed only as a means to these ends; but what happens in the meantime, namely that a person makes herself a participant in the society she lives in, and automatically appears as a unique being, is left out.

8. Deliberation, Consensus and Emancipation

I have claimed that Habermas leaves no room for the uniqueness and thus individuality (or identity) of an agent because he does not recognise that in being an agent, that is, performing actions, one communicates more than merely what one says. Are there any developments that support my conclusion that Habermas is missing something fundamental in his theory of communicative action? That is, are there arguments which fault Habermas for his negligence of the individual in his theory? These arguments do indeed exist. I will now present two issues within recent political theory that are linked to my critique of Habermas. Habermas and other theorists like him, who see the most apt and viable view of politics as one of discussion and consensus formation, have been classed to pursue so-called ‘discoursive democracy’ or ‘deliberative politics’.1 This approach has its critics ever since ca. the mid 1980’s.2 How could such an approach come under fire? What could be wrong with a conception of politics which is aimed at consensus? The problems emanate once again from the pragmatic interpretation of language which, in connection with politics, often leads to a very formal interpretation of deliberation. But also the aim of consensus itself has been attacked. Thus, there are two issues: one on the level of argumentation and another on the level of ontology. 1) A formal analysis of argumentation serves in no way to establish apt criteria for the ‘strength’ of arguments that Habermas is so interested in. We rather have to stress ‘informal’ elements of argumentation. (B. Yack, 2006) 2) Agonist critiques of deliberative democracy point out that plurality is not properly valued, i.e. consensus is not all there is to be had in politics, in fact, in the pursuit of consensus plurality is actually undermined: consensus does not value plurality intrinsically (e.g. C. Mouffe, 1993).

1 2

For example: J. Bessette (1994); J. Cohen (1989); J. Elster (1998); C. Nino (1996). For example: B. Honig (1993); E. Laclau (1985); W.E. Connolly (1987), J. Rancière (1992).


Two examples of the missing of uniqueness in Habermas’ account Both attack Habermas’ model of ‘discursive democracy’ and aim exactly at the issue of uniqueness of agents.

8.1. Concerning 1
Bernard Yack (2006) has recently argued against analyses of communication that attempt to define the constitutive elements of arguments and processes of argumentation in terms of such formal attributes as consistency, non-contradiction, clarity, etc. Habermas’ formal analysis of language is an example of the approach Yack attacks because due to its pragmatism it leads to accounts of deliberation that are guided merely by formal factors.3 As much use as such analyses may have, for Yack they do not serve to establish the criteria for what counts as a stronger argument. The strength of an argument sometimes depends on criteria that formal accounts discard. Aristotle, for example, considered appeals to emotion, which formal analyses judge to be illegitimate or even fallacious, to be some of the strongest means of argumentation. Firstly, emotive appeals are important and telling because they are instructive. They have at least, so to say, educational purpose.4 If a speaker is already in advance forbidden to use appeals to authority or emotion then we cannot find out why, when and in how far such appeals may indeed be insufficient.
Arguments that no one could reasonably defend or reject particular proposals have an important part to play in public reasoning, but as part of a practice of persuasion, not as its precondition or regulatory principle. In other words, it does not disrupt the relationship between speakers and listeners in public reasoning to complain about each other’s unreasonable behavior. But it does threaten that relationship and the practice it sustains when we demand some norm of reasonableness as a condition of public engagement. (Yack, 2006, p.430)

Secondly, such appeals also display something about the engagement of the speaker with the topic about which he is talking. If uttered sincerely and not just in order to deceive the audience about the speaker’s emotional attachment to a certain topic, then such appeals can indicate how much someone cares for the issue under consideration. In the choice between one detached and one involved speaker on a particular issue, there are often good reasons


See for example Knops (2006) who explicitly takes his analysis to develop Habermas’ approach

further. A similar argument can be found in Mill’s (1978) defence of freedom of speech, where any rejection of arguments on merely formal grounds is dismissed because it would prevent the engagement and thus reflection on such arguments.


Chapter III: Habermas for preferring the involved one. Important for Yack is that we should not rule out such strategies merely for the sake of complying with a pragmatic conception of language or formal accounts of argumentation because there are cases in which appeals to authority or emotion are justified.
Decisions about future action, as Aristotle insists in the Nicomachean Ethics (1139b, 1113a), draw on an inseparable mix of desire and intellect, emotion and reason. In other words, it requires a live reason propelled by desire out into the world rather than the dead, emotionless reason that best serves legal judgment. (op.cit., p.432)

Note that Yack specifies ‘decisions about future action’, thus, exactly those discussions for which Habermas endorses a rigorous straightjacket when it comes to determine the ‘stronger argument’.5
Dead reason, impartial reasoning without emotion, may be worth trying to recreate when adjudicating cases. But deliberation about what serves the common advantage requires a living reason, reasoning informed by the emotions that interest us in the consequences of our decisions. Since we need to call on our emotions to help us judge the value of competing proposals, we must be willing to accept the risks that they will mislead us as well. (op.cit., p.433)

All in all, we find here a much richer concept of discussion, particularly one which does not hide the speaker behind ‘impartial reasons’ but brings him out. Even though no one can hide his/her uniqueness completely (even if someone was to present something as impartial as a scientific theory or mathematical theorem), Yack’s proposal emphasises this feature when most accounts of reasoning still attempt to prevent it. Yack therefore implicitly acknowledges that communication and coordination of future action is not merely a transferral of information, but that in every such instance the actor reveals himself in his action. The individual element is not denied but recognised as a valuable part of arguments. The

Note also that Aristotle’s and Arendt’s account of politics and public deliberation differs from Habermas’: for Habermas, in typical Franfurtian but also postmodern style, the realm of politics is beset with power, it almost seems to be its telos. For Aristotle and Arendt public deliberation and politics is not aimed at power but at recognising different points of view. The aim of public deliberation is not to endorse only my view and criticise that of others, but simply to allow differing views to be heard so that it can be realised that there are such differing views. “Decisive is not to turn arguments around or claims on their head, but that one gained the ability to really see the issue from various points of view. Politically that means that one is able to occupy the many points from which the same issue can be viewed, revealing its various aspects.” (Arendt, 2005, p.96f., translation U.M.). It is clear to Arendt that “every issue has as many sides and can appear in as many perspectives as there are people involved in it.” (p.96). cf. Disch (1994, p. 42ff.)



Two examples of the missing of uniqueness in Habermas’ account intrusion of ‘partial reasons’ and ‘informal arguments’, etc., which most theorists try to prevent, is here acknowledged as something valuable. The reason why it proves so hard for the defenders of formal accounts of argumentation to extinguish all partial reasons and/or informal arguments is that it is an inevitable part of an acting person that she reveals herself (and that includes subjectivity) in every act. Whenever one attempts to purify a statement from all traces of partiality one separates it from the person who said it and the context in which it was uttered. In this case, however, statements become either increasingly meaningless or unintelligible.6 ‘Purified’ approaches to argumentation (i.e. the attempt to give formal guidelines for successful arguments) leave out the person, it leaves out who speaks. As Yack points out, such approaches have only a very limited use and often prevent, or rule out, appeals that we should better include. An Aristotelian understanding of deliberation, such as Yack endorses, does not exclude such appeals. A formal analysis of argumentation, which follows from Habermas’ pragmatic account of communication, does not do justice to deliberation as it is experienced and practiced. Public reasoning
[…] relies heavily on appeals to character and emotion as well as the giving of reasons. In short, Aristotle places rhetoric, the art of identifying and using “the available means of persuasion” (Rhetoric 1355b), at the heart of political deliberation. That makes the Aristotelian model of public reasoning much more familiar than its currently popular counterparts, much closer to the actual practice of political deliberation in our world as well as his. But it also distances his model from recent theories of deliberation, theories that are designed to correct the deficiencies of the past and present practice of democracy. (op.cit., p.417f.)

Thus, according to Yack, attempts to ‘purify’ or ‘de-personalise’ communication actually weakens public deliberation and thus have the opposite effect of what was intended since these attempts actually deprive us of strategies we often use in arguments. For my purposes, critiques such as Yack’s point towards the inadequacy of pragmatic and formalised accounts of communication because they ‘de-personalise’ it to an extent that does not cohere with the entirety of features that play a role in it. In other words, formal accounts of deliberation actually neglect features that have their justified use. In this case, a pragmatic account of communication such as Habermas’ is not exIn the case of action such an attempt becomes even worse. We may be able to deal with a statement all on its own (although in order to understand it we would have to know more about the social environment), but actions cannot be conceived without an actor. Action and uniqueness cannot be separated.


Chapter III: Habermas haustive, as claimed above. It does not account for those features of communication that lie outside the propositional content of utterances. Even more, since according to formal approaches all strength, meaning and extent of communication is located solely in the propositional content, any features that lie outside this boundary are judged as disturbing influences that are to be avoided. According accounts will thus attempt to eliminate this disturbing factor. Ultimately that means that the speaker himself stands outside of what he says. Evidence for this exclusion of the speaker is the castigation of partial reasons as an intrusion, threat and distraction on what is said. In short, if we conceive of communication as nothing else than the transferral of information then anything apart from the information is an intrusion that is to be avoided. Yet, such purification of communication does not do justice to our daily experience, in which every act of communication conveys so much more than merely what is being said. This ‘more’ includes such features as the relation between a person’s utterance and the person herself, her involvement with a particular issue, but also the kind of person she is and which is so difficult to put into words. It is the sense of the person that we, as the ones spoken to, get yet which the speaker herself is unaware of. Hence Arendt refers to the image of the daimōn that appears to everyone else yet not the person herself. To shrink all communication merely to the propositional content of utterances is to remove the speaker from what he is saying and therefore to remove the who from the what. Yet without the context in which something is said and without the mention of who said it, the meaning of statements often evaporates. With the exclusion of the who we also loose our grip on the what. It turns out that the uniqueness of persons has a vital role to play, just as Arendt argues.

8.2. Concerning 2
If we follow Habermas’ views on language, according to which understanding and agreement are the most crucial elements, we get a picture of politics according to which consensus is the highest aim. Particularly the legitimacy of regimes and institutions relies on the consensus of the respective citizens. Good, one should think. But some writers have come to criticise the quest for consensus in the political sphere. The core argument is that this does not cohere with our actual social ontology: everyone is an individual therefore everyone will have a slightly different view on things, therefore not consensus but difference lies at the root of the political sphere.7 Concerning deliberation we may thus oversimplify: people differ
7 Such an argument is indeed easily available from Arendt, who constantly points out that there is never just one person, but that we are always many, i.e. that human existence is one of plurality.


Two examples of the missing of uniqueness in Habermas’ account more than they converge. In the pursuit of consensus, advocates of discursive political theories therefore neglect, or label as negative, any unresolved differences when these ought to be accepted. This line of argument constitutes so-called ‘agonist critiques’ as pursued by C. Mouffe, W. Connolly and B. Honig (Fossen, 2008). They argue against political theories such as liberalism or ‘deliberative democracy’ as advanced by Rawls and Habermas that embed this ideal of consensus (in fact we have seen that for Habermas it is the telos of communication). Homogeneity (in terms of social identity) is contrasted by Mouffe with “a conception of identity to which difference is essential” (Mouffe, 2000, p.12f.).8 Thus, for agonists the exaggerated valuation of consensus undermines the value of difference, which they see as constitutive of personal identity as well as communities. The advocates of consensus, so it is argued, pride themselves with valuing difference because they let every different voice contribute, but in the next step, namely the formation of consensus, they disrespect that difference: many voices are meant to become one, difference is supplanted by unity. In general I am sympathetic to the agonistic approach and expressions of it can be found throughout the history of political thought.9 But I would not go so far as to endorse difference over consensus. As Fossen (2008) also remarks, it is one thing to acknowledge the existence of antagonisms but another to elevate this to a value. According to the agonists, there are fundamental ruptures and differences that make politics. Liberalism and the consensus view either neglect or eradicate them. Thus there is no appreciation of difference and plurality. So far, so good. But at times agonists go too far: even if it is true that politics is beset with conflict, it would be wrong to narrow politics down only to the occasions of conflict. Furthermore, the notion of conflict is in need of definition since it is a short step from conflict to violence.10 Although the acknowledgement of violence as a formative feature in the genesis of societies is mostly historically accurate, this does not make it a political phenomenon. If politics is a phenomenon of our ability to speak (as Aristotle, for example, argues, see Politics, Book 1, ch.2, 1253a10-20) then violence cannot be part of the realm of

See also Fossen (2008), p. 379. Canovan can also be situated here. See for example Aristotle, (1995), Book 2, ch.2; Kant (2000) 10 These points pertain particularly to Mouffe. Due to her allegiance to Carl Schmitt’s conception of politics she only views friend-enemy (and therefore antagonistic) relations as political relations. Not only is this a reductive approach to politics but it also burdens Mouffe with the task of explaining why and how antagonistic (friend-enemy) relations can be changed into agonistic (friend-adversary) relations without thereby ceasing to be political relations as she herself conceives them.



Chapter III: Habermas the political anymore.11 When confronted with violence there is no scope for talking or discussion, thus we are deprived of that feature that makes us political beings, namely the ability to speak. But maybe this entire stage of the debate (i.e. consensus vs. difference as the basis of politics) is a dilemma. In the same way that “what is primary: individual or society?” is a dilemma, the same applies here where we ask “what is at the basis of politics: consensus or disagreement?” It is a dilemma because two mutually exclusive intuitions strike us as equally true: a) there must be agreement on some issues, otherwise there simply is no community (arguments for this case can be found in Aristotle, Rousseau, Durkheim, Habermas), and b) the sheer fact of human plurality (Aristotle, Arendt, Mouffe, Honig), i.e. the fact humans live in communities of individual actors.12 But is either of these intuitions exhaustive? Only then would they have to be mutually exclusive. It seems that this is not the case: in the same way that we cannot conceive of individuals without societies and vice versa, we are also unable to conceive of a community that either only agrees or only disagrees.13 Both cases are contrary to our experience. In the first case, if we all agreed constantly, we seem to have no individuals and rather be members of anonymous communities, like those of ants and bees. Plurality is lost and there would therefore also be no politics. In the second case, if we never agreed on anything, we would simply have no community but would be isolated individuals living alongside each other. In the light of this, more work has to be done on the side of the agonists because so far their conception cannot stand on its own, but I will not pursue this route any further here. Arendt’s conception of action and politics, by contrast, avoids this debate and the dilemma.14 Action is differentiating insofar as it is always an expression of uniqueness and thereby difference. Yet it is not antagonistic because it occurs in a public space, i.e. a space that is shared. To act and experience in a community means to encounter the same world, to have a shared understanding, and thus consensus, of the issues that one is faced with. Thus, presenting difference and agreement as exclusive opposites misrepresents social life. Either one constitutes a mistaken reduction of our communities. As just stated, we have neither complete agreement, this would eradicate the realm of politics, nor constant difference, for then we would not inhabit the same world and would therefore not constitute a
11 Even though Arendt criticises that the phenomenon of violence is not paid enough attention to (Macht und Gewalt, 2006, p. 12f.), Arendt would be far from considering violence to be a political phenomenon, for where violence begins, politics ends. 12 “Action, [...] corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” (HC, p.7) 13 See for example Aristotle, Politics, Book 2, ch.1, 1260b37-1261a5, ch.5, 1263b30-35 14 Cf. Disch (1994, p.70f., 84-90), Benhabib (1992, pp. 91ff.)


Two examples of the missing of uniqueness in Habermas’ account community. Thus, difference and agreement are both essential elements of our social existence and do not eradicate each other. To either side of the debate we can reply that the irreducibility of human differences does not mean the incommensurability of differences as its necessary result.15

9. Conclusion

As I have claimed, Habermas’ consensus-model of politics neglects the differentiating qualities of interaction. But the uniqueness of persons cannot be overlooked and it emerges, for example, not only in people’s differing views but also in their choice of arguments (Yack), their deliberation, and the inevitability of dissent (agonism). In short, difference is part of uniqueness, in fact, we cannot conceive of one without the other. We have seen that on the level of argumentation the neglect of uniqueness leads into reductive accounts of communication and we have seen that on the socio-ontological level the neglect of uniqueness undermines plurality: the sheer fact that we are always many, capable of speech and action, due to which we are able to have political societies. Agonists argue that difference is overlooked by the consensus-model because here consensus is valued only as the start of deliberation, not as the end. The consensus model therefore does not value difference intrinsically but only as something to be overcome. Political theories that do not value difference intrinsically are, for agonists, based on a mistake. Again, it is evident that the feature of uniqueness confronts us here. As I have argued above, uniqueness is the feature that appears nowhere in Habermas’ account and which is actually neglected, or at worst undermined, by his theory. In this way he still cannot escape Arendt’s argument against Historical Materialism, namely that it cannot account for uniqueness; politically this has the consequence of undermining it. The two critiques of his theory that I have mentioned, Yack’s on the level of argumentation and the Agonist critique on the political and socio-ontological level, point exactly to this omission and show that uniqueness cannot be neglected. They are two issues in which the lack of uniqueness in Habermas’ theory emerges.

We can ‘visit’ each others’ perspective without thereby forgetting one’s own. Disch (1994) expresses this concisely when she writes: “Arendt defends the possibility of visiting on the premise that human differences are irreducible to one another but not incommensurable. Thus, although there is no reason to expect public debate to produce consensus, there is no reason to assume that differences obviate understanding and render all consensus suspect.” (p.164)


Chapter III: Habermas I therefore conclude that Habermas, despite his efforts to widen Historical Materialism and include action, does still not succeed in avoiding Arendt’s critique. His pragmatic approach of language is meant to account for the immateriality that Arendt claimed of speech, but it is thereby not avoided. Even if communication is conceived in Habermas’ way, the uniqueness that Arendt claimed to be so essential of human beings still manifests itself. The pragmatism to which Habermas takes recourse in order to supply a theory of communication that still fits under Historical Materialism, cannot account for the crucial feature of action that persons, more than just propositionally conveying information, also expose themselves as individuals. This exposing, or revealing, is not the ‘monitored public access’ of ‘stylised self-representation’ that Habermas views it as, but the inevitable revelation of one’s identity in a way that is not accessible for the agent him/herself. It is not only impossible to focus on it while acting without ceasing to attend to the interaction itself, but also subsequently in reflection. Despite reflection, the part of oneself that appears to others does not become subject to one’s control, simply because it only appears to others and not to oneself. One therefore remains non-transparent to oneself in the way that one appears to others. There is hence a limit to emancipation which is fatal to approaches that see the telos of history as man’s complete transparency of himself to himself. Also Habermas’ enlarged Historical Materialism cannot escape this limit. Although Habermas, through his criticisms, re-interpretations and endorsements of Marx, has succeeded in employing a Historical Materialist approach that suits our current postindustrial societies, he is nevertheless unable to circumnavigate Arendt’s argument. The omission of uniqueness from his account is telling and the mentioned criticisms of his theory are manifestations of the pervasiveness and strength of this phenomenon. It not only affects his account of persons but also his Marxian view of history as one of man’s mastery of Nature as well as himself. But the self, as shown, is not open for inspection in the same way that the laws of nature are, not even with his account of communicative action. In this way, then, also Habermas’ Historical Materialism fails on grounds that are inherent to the approach as a whole, namely the disparity between its goal of complete emancipation and the reality of human interaction which it cannot adequately address. For the last chapter, it remains to be seen whether current postmodern revivals of Historical Materialism can escape this fate. It is again in the political realm that the consequences are most readily visible and again their roots lie in the account of labour.


Hardt and Negri

IV. Postmodern Neo-Marxism
This final chapter will concern some of the most contemporary writings which continue the project of Historical Materialism and in which the relationship with labour is again crucial. As indicated at the end of the last chapter, alongside the debate between Habermas and his critics, a separate strand of Historical Materialist writing has developed ever since the 1980’s. Whereas the debates described so far are influenced primarily by German commentators and analytic philosophers across the world, this new strand is majorly continental in tone and originates specifically in 20th century French and Italian philosophy. The main influences are the writings of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Guattari. These writers have generally enjoyed a wide reception, my focus, however, will be the writings of a particular group of Italian Marxists, who adopt many of the concepts developed by these French writers for their own project of postmodern Neo-Marxism. The important names for this group are writers such as Negri, Lazzarato, Hardt, and, to an extent, Agamben and Virno. These authors employ Marxian terms and strategies in order to describe contemporary developments in politics, economics, the state and society. At the centre stands a theory of labour which is directly linked to the possibilities of emancipation. These writers therefore continue the relation between labour, emancipation and politics with which I am concerned. Particularly Hardt and Negri’s writings have had a considerable impact within postmodern circles. Their book Empire (2000) and its sequel Multitude (2004) are attempts to further the Marxian project for the 21st century.1 Both have been, and are being, widely discussed.2 Hardt and Negri are concerned with several important issues such as the growing disparity between a globalised economy and state-bound governmental action and the ensuing social effects, the enforcement of law and jurisdiction on foreign sovereign states (such as the USA’s refusal to have its soldiers subject to any, even international, agreements) and connected issues of sovereignty. Central to the possibilities of restructuring the current global political-economic capitalist empire is an analysis of modern labour conditions (‘immaterial labour’) and the corresponding working subject (the ‘multitude’).

1 They state at the outset of Empire: “Two interdisciplinary texts served as models for us throughout the writing of this book: Marx’s Capital and Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus.” (p.vxii, footnote 4) 2 See, for example: positive receptions: Morris (2004), Sassen (see Tilly, 2002), Coward (2005); Negative receptions: Tilly (2002), Seth (2002), Clark (2005); In between: Steger (2002), Ninkovich (2000), Vazquez-Arroyo (2002)


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism There may be doubt about whether Hardt and Negri can be considered to be Historical Materialists but there are sufficient reasons that ground them comfortably in this tradition: at least seven claims that show their alliance with Marx. 1. Everything is production. ‘Immaterial labour’ (see below) facilitates the “productions of communications, relationships and forms of life” (M, p.xv). Again, as with Marx, all action is understood as, or under the guise of, production. ‘The common’ that biopolitical production brings about, for example, is not so much discovered but produced (M, p.xv). 2. The tight relationship between labour and emancipation is simply reasserted. There is, however, no engagement with the debate that I have considered so far. It is simply ignored. 3. Politics is again seen as domination. 4. Capitalism, as in Marx, has the advantageous effect of simplifying divisions (M, p.32). It thus serves again as a catalyst to bring about change (i.e. its own downfall in connection with the increased communication between labourers). 5. The characterisation of the ‘multitude’ is an exact copy of Marx’ characterisation of the working class (although Hardt and Negri distinguish the ‘multitude’ from the working class, because the latter no longer plays a hegemonic role, thus they need a new subject which does play this role, i.e. the ‘multitude’): a) it expresses the desire for a world of equality and freedom b) it demands an open and inclusive democratic global society c) it provides the means for achieving both of the above (M, p.xi) d) it functions beyond the imperial sovereignty of the bourgeoisie and looks towards a global society (i.e. it has no homeland, it is global, just like Marx’ working class) e) it is inherently democratic and ‘capable of forming society autonomously’ and globally (M, p.xvii). 6. The castigation of private property (it destroys ‘the common’). 7. History is again seen as an unfolding of what is meant to come (namely the global democracy of the ‘multitude’) and we just have to speed up the process. This mirrors Marx’ thoughts on communism.3
3 The following two quotes, for example, embody several of these points: “The multitude is working through Empire to create an alternative global society. Whereas the modern bourgeois had to fall back on the new sovereignty to consolidate its order, the postmodern revolution of the multitude looks beyond imperial sovereignty. The multitude, in contrast to the bourgeoisie and all other exclusive, limited class formations, is


Hardt and Negri

Before I describe the project in more detail let me make a preliminary note in comparison with the previous chapter: compared to Habermas, Hardt and Negri are not really developing Marxism: the success of either party concerning this matter may be an object of debate, but for me it is clear that Habermas engaged far more with the philosophical background of Marx’ theories than Hardt and Negri. Habermas does not just apply Marx to a new social situation but investigates how Marx defines what a social situation is and how it operates. Hardt and Negri, by contrast, are less concerned with this scholarship side of Marxism. The extent of their development of Marxism is the application of Marx’ approach to our current social conditions. Whereas with Habermas we have seen that he intentionally alters the scope (the ‘philosophical backbone’ so to say) of Historical Materialism in order to arrive at a new social theory that still incorporates Marx but avoids what Habermas considers its pitfalls, Hardt and Negri are content with the direct application of Marx’ theories. What they consider their development of his approach is its application to a different social setting in which there are some new elements and some of Marx’ terms have changed referent.4 In itself this does not constitute a judgement on the viability and/or appropriateness of Hardt and Negri’s project but is merely a difference between them and Habermas. Concerning the content of their theory I will continue the theme that has been running through all chapters so far: I will first consider Hardt and Negri’s thought on labour (see ‘B Immaterial Labour’) and then on politics (see ‘C The Multitude’). I will argue that their analysis of labour is inherently flawed and that the ‘multitude’ does not constitute a political agent. Before, however, I will give a brief exposition of their approach.

1. Hardt and Negri

On the whole Hardt and Negri analyse our current social, political and economic outlook and tendencies in a postmodern fashion and draw conclusions about current and future developments. As already stated above, they adhere to various typical Marxian understandcapable of forming society autonomously; this we will see, is central to its democratic possibilities. […] It is up to us in the remainder of this book to convince you that a democracy of the multitude is not only necessary but possible.” (M, p.xvii f.) “The biopolitical production of the multitude, however, tends to mobilise what it shares in common and what it produces in common against the imperial power of global capital. In time, developing its productive figure based on the common, the multitude can move through Empire and come out the other side, to express itself autonomously and rule itself.” (M, p.101) 4 It is due to this direct application of Marx’ thought that Hardt and Negri also inherit some of the problems that Marx already had to grapple with, for example his ambiguous position on labour. See below “Marx’s inheritance – the unsolved labour puzzle”. In addition, Slavoj Zizek (2006), claims that “if anything, the problem with NH [Negri and Hardt, U.M.] is therefore that they are TOO MUCH Marxists […].” (


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism ings of what the key-elements of these developments are and how they are to be conceptualised. In true Marxist tradition Hardt and Negri consider labour and its conditions to be the centrepiece of a social analysis. Crucial for their later political claims is the ascription of a new element in labour: communication. In short, their idea is the following: a particular and crucial element of our postmodern societies is its postmodern labour condition. Technological advancement has guided us from a Fordist to a post-Fordist model of production. In this model, communication plays a far more important and essential role than ever before, in the relationship between producer and consumer as well as between the various workers, work-teams and contributing suppliers to the production of the final good.5 This increase in communication and interconnectedness therefore affords the subjects of the post-industrial capitalist economy with the means to undermine it. This picture is familiar: Marx claimed the same about the working class in his time: the proletariat is capitalism’s gravedigger. The novelty in the postmodern development concerns the social structures that the new means of communication allow: because there is no monopoly on communication technology, i.e. because everyone can contribute equally since we are equal members of virtual social networks and communities, there does not have to be a hierarchical structure in these communities. There is no vertical but only a horizontal structure in which numerous flexible cells act autonomously. Modern communication technology and labour practices have thus enabled the communication, connection and mobilisation of many more subjects than ever before.6 The development of telecommunication has changed many aspects of life: most people in western industrialised countries have a mobile phone and the internet is an ever-present and increasingly important virtual world in which information is disseminated and communication is conducted. On a personal level we already are in direct contact (i.e. communicative contact) with far more people than our parents would have thought possible (or neces5 Production has become more dynamic and flexible and the product is more personalised insofar as it is meant not only to fit a general need of a general public, but fits in and contributes to everyone’s individual lifestyle. All these developments affect our social life: persons are meant to be dynamic, flexible and individual. For a critique on the applicability of post-Fordist production see: ‘Keep on smiling’ (2006) the authors of which remain anonymous. 6 Modern telecommunications also caused the structure of movements organised on this basis to change from that of spearheaded party to that of a swarm, which, for Hardt and Negri, means that they are more democratic. The swarm is said to have several advantages: 1.) since empire is a decentred global system of sovereignty and capital, a likewise structured subject is the best weapon against it, i.e. the resistance adopts the structure of its oppressor. 2.) Such a structure has all the advantages of a guerrilla resistance, which cannot be fought easily by empire’s armies or police, since it has no centre of command but feeds on the autonomy of its contributors and the support by the social environment due to its grass-roots appeal. 3.) The ‘decentredness’ and the autonomy of the various cells turn the resistance movement inherently democratic; this lastly leads to 4.) that all contribute and no one rules.


Hardt and Negri sary). In fact, modern telecommunications allow us to be potentially able to be in direct contact with anyone who also uses these modern technologies. On an indirect level this is already far more developed: all of us, in our daily activities, rely on the labour and services of a vast number of other people (e.g. those who produce mobile phones, their suppliers, and those who supply them with the raw materials in turn, the companies that own the mobile networks, the people who install their antennas, the ones that make the software for the phone or the computer, the person in the call centre who tells us the number of the business that we have forgotten, the people that pack the fruit somewhere in the world that ends up in your local supermarket, etc. etc. The list is endless.). As we all know, our modern global economy has changed the life of most people on Earth in some way or other, whether in a positive or negative way. This new situation of increasing interconnectedness and communication also allows, in Hardt and Negri’s eyes, new political developments. In fact, rather than merely ‘allow’ it produces them. Also the ‘average person’ can get hold of more information, can doublecheck the truth of what they are told, can find out more about different people and their conditions, can find out their needs, wants, and demands. People from various strands of life can discover their similarities and dissimilarities, can organise themselves and can make their voices heard. Modern labour conditions, i.e. post-Fordist production, triggers and enforces these conditions. In short: in producing a willing consumer, postmodern capitalist production also creates the critical activist. This is a very well-known picture: capitalism produces its own gravediggers by affording them with the appropriate means: telecommunications. If the production of the working class has been, for Marx, the creation of capitalisms gravediggers, the development of telecommunications is, for Hardt and Negri, the creation of the nail that will seal the coffin. Where Hardt and Negri differ from Marx explicitly, is that they do not consider the working class as a viable revolutionary subject anymore - the historical development since the 19th century has simply rendered it obsolete.7 In contrast, they put forward the concept of the ‘multitude’ which is meant to be a class-concept but less restrictive than that of the traditional proletariat. Modern telecommunications fit this situation perfectly, since they allow a far greater number of people to participate: they allow the inclusion of all those subject to the global economic-political regime of the western industrial countries with the potential

This point, however, is neither new, nor exclusively Hardt and Negri’s, Habermas, for example, already made the same claim in the 1970’s.


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism to organise themselves autonomously via the new means of telecommunication that capitalism devised in order to expand and streamline its production.
One initial approach is to conceive the multitude as all those who work under the rule of capital and thus potentially as the class of those who refuse the rule of capital. (M, p.106)

This all-embracing definition, I will argue later, is too wide and vague: according to the quote above, it is difficult to think of anyone who would not be part of the ‘multitude’. In any case, in virtue of its structural features the ‘multitude’ is meant to deliver the goods that the working class has not, and can no longer, bring about. Thus, (postmodern) labour is again meant to have a direct link with emancipation: it affords the labourers (now the ‘multitude’) with the insight and access to change the global economic-political regime. Hardt and Negri’s analysis of labour is my first target.


Immaterial Labour

The centre piece of the post-modern labour analysis is what Hardt and Negri have called ‘immaterial labour’, which has since its inception found many supporters and from which they distil analyses of the social realm, the state of capitalism, and/or human nature.8 I will argue that currently ‘immaterial labour’ cannot even be used as a helpful characterization of a particular kind of labour, because the concept is a misnomer. One main reason is that it includes activities of such vastly differing qualities that one wonders what they might have in common. The reason for the supposed commonality is a theoretical mistake which then takes its toll on the empirical investigation. This theoretical mistake is the negation of the distinction between products and services, which are, I will argue, very different phenomena. The following quotes will serve to outline ‘immaterial labour’. Hardt (1999) divides it into
three types of immaterial labour that drive the service sector at the top of the informational economy. The first is involved in an industrial production that has been informationalized and has incorporated communication technologies in a way that transforms the industrial production process itself. Manufacturing is regarded as a service and the material labour of the production of durable goods mixes with and tends towards immaterial labor. The second is the imma8 For example, we find such claims as: “the anthropology of cyberspace is really a recognition of the new human condition.” (M, p.291, my italics)


Hardt and Negri
terial labor of analytical and symbolic tasks, which itself breaks down into creative and intelligent manipulation, on one hand, and routine symbolic tasks, on the other. Finally, a third type of immaterial labor involves the production and manipulation of affects and requires (virtual or actual) human contact and proximity (pp. 97, 98).9

These passages reappear in Empire one year later.10 The clearest and most succinct formulation is the following:
Since the production of services results in no material and durable good, we might define the labor involved in this production as immaterial labour-that is, labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, knowledge, or communication. (Hardt, 1999, p.94)

The development of immaterial labour is for Hardt and Negri an important indicator of our post-industrial era. They write:
the process of postmodernization or informatisation has been demonstrated through the migration from industry to service jobs (the tertiary [sector of industry, UM]), a shift that has taken place in the dominant capitalist countries, and particularly in the United States, since the early 1970’s. […] the jobs for the most part are highly mobile and involve flexible skills. More important, they are characterized in general by the central role played by knowledge, information,
Hardt and Negri have already been, rightly, criticised for type 1 (e.g. Sayers, 2007). The fact that the production of material goods today often involves modern computer-, network-, and communication technologies does not change the fact that what is produced is nevertheless a material thing. This applies also to the Toyota model of production (see footnote 13 below). Types 2 and 3 are harder to distinguish and the reason is the same that led Hardt and Negri to the erroneous type 1 of immaterial labour. For what has been confused here is the distinction between production and service which I will describe below. In fact, with Hardt, Negri, and Lazzarato, all the main sources on immaterial labour confuse this distinction and the result is that the concept of immaterial labour is still relatively elusive. Also ‘affective labour, i.e. the manipulation of emotional responses as described by Hart (1999) is bogus. On a very abstract level every activity has some connection to an emotional response. Whether I bring my car to the garage because I am anxious for it to pass the next MOT, or I go to hospital because I am worried about my health, it would be possible in both cases to say that it all comes down to affects anxiety and worry. Such claims are not unfamiliar. The reduction of human activities, and sometimes life in general, to more or less particular affective states has its precursors: for Hobbes it was fear and egoistic gain, for Bentham it was happiness, for Nietzsche the will to power. 10 Hardt and Negri, 2000, pp.289-294. We are furthermore referred to an essay by Maurizio Lazzarato (Immaterial Labour) who writes: “immaterial labour […] is defined as the labour that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity. The concept of immaterial labour refers to two different aspects of labour. On the one hand, as regards the “informational content” of the commodity, it refers directly to the changes taking place in workers’ labour processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectors, where the skills involved in direct labour are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control (and horizontal and vertical communication). On the other hand, as regards the activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity, immaterial labour involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work” - in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.” (


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism
affect and communication. In this sense many call the postindustrial economy an informational economy. […] all production tends toward the production of services, toward becoming informationalised. (E, pp.285, 286).

To summarise the above, the features of immaterial labour are: a) the production of information and affects b) increasing communication and abstraction c) the completion of symbolic tasks The examples given are: health care education finance entertainment advertising fast food services transportation audiovisual production fashion software production photography cultural activities The question is whether there is a connection between the features and the examples. I am sceptical because I wonder what feature photography and transportation11 share, or fast food services and health care. To make it short, ‘immaterial labour’ is used for a range of activities that can hardly fit under any single descriptive term regarding the nature of these activities. There must be some strange theoretical goings-on in order to put activities together that differ so vastly on the empirical ground: the primary reason for why there is such a vast range of activities including radically differing ones under one single concept is that the concept of immaterial labour negates the distinction between products and services, as pointed out by Peter Hill (1999).12 We will see that Hardt and Negri’s categorization of goods and services does not cohere with the actual understanding of these terms as they are commonly Lazzarato (Immaterial Labour) Hardt, Hardt and Negri (E, p.285)

11 12

How is transportation immaterial? If it was then what is being transported? Hill uses slightly different terminology: he calls material goods ‘tangibles’ and immaterial ones ‘intangibles’. This, however, makes no difference to this investigation.


Hardt and Negri used. Moreover, Hill, unknowingly, also confirms Arendt’s characterisation of work and its distinction from interaction. 1.2. Goods and services

The decisive feature, in economics, for the status of a product or a good is that it can be owned, not whether it is physical. It is something over which ownership rights can be established and exchanged, which means that goods are tradable. They are distinct entities independently of their producers and/or owners. The production takes place separately in space and time, the finished product can be distributed and traded, and it can be consumed long after production. Importantly, these features can apply to both material as well as immaterial products: literature, music, theories, plans, designs, films, programs, etc. may be immaterial products because they have no spatio-temporal coordinates of their own and have to be recorded onto a medium, or at least be remembered. They nevertheless have all the characteristics of material products because for all their immateriality they are still produced, are separate entities from their makers, they can be owned, traded, copied, used, etc. all of which takes place independently of their production which thus remains a separate process. Services, by contrast, differ from both material and immaterial goods. They involve relations or agreements and therefore are not separate production processes resulting in separate entities independently of the people involved; thus, they cannot be owned and hence not traded, distributed, or copied. Services can only be rendered. Nor is it possible to distinguish a production-process from the ‘use’ or ‘consumption’ of a service, as you can in the case of goods. Thus, products are made, whereas services are rendered. Films, ideas, etc. may be immaterial but are made products, not rendered services. Hardt and Negri confuse these categories because they wrongly declare the physicality of something to decide over its status as a good or a service. But goods are not just physical objects (they also include non-physical products), nor are nonphysical objects automatically services. The difference between material objects and nonmaterial things is not the same as that between labour and service. Therefore, it is wrong to claim that “the division between manufacturing and services is becoming blurred” (Hardt, 1999, p.92). Goods and services remain distinct and the use of such terms as ‘production’ or ‘consumption’ with reference to services is metaphorical: services can only be offered, rendered, and consumption is often rather a taking part.13 Production, poiesis, making things,
Although under the Toyota-model of production the service relation is established first, this does not mean that the production-process therefore adopts the characteristics of a service because production remains a separate process in space and time. ‘Service’ describes the producer-consumer relation, not the production. Furthermore, we can also distinguish service from production by realising that production has to feature


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism whether material or immaterial, is something you can do by yourself (even if specialization and the division of labour brings with it the need for the helping hand of others), but a social relation can, by definition, not be established individually. It is a ‘doing’ rather than ‘making’, or, in other words, it is praxis. Thus, the distinction between poiesis and praxis, which has confronted us in every chapter so far, reappears here as well.14 In the same way that Marx has been accused of not distinguishing sufficiently between the two, adherents of the concept of ‘immaterial labour’ commit the same mistake. I will show that Hardt and Negri, in adopting Marx’ scheme so uncritically, also inherit its fundamental flaws and ambiguities. When we look back to Hardt‘s definition now we can see the mistake more clearly:
Since the production of services results in no material and durable good, we might define the labor involved in this production as immaterial labour-that is, labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, knowledge, or communication. (1999, p.94)

According to this quote any non-material product is a service and vice versa, i.e. the distinction between services and immaterial products is clearly negated. 15 However, maybe there are some less clear examples of activities that seem to cross the production-service divide, instances of maintenance, like car-repair, for example. It seems as if here the service is constituted by the material processes, i.e. the mechanics’ labour on the car. But Hill’s point remains: the mechanic is not producing anything but maintains or changes an existing state of affairs. In order for this maintenance to be possible, the service is dependent on the prior production of the good. In contrast to production, services also rely on being geographically located where the service is required. For example, the production of cars can be located anywhere on the globe. (Customary locations are today often outsourced and abandoned when the manufacturing can be accomplished more efficiently elsewhere. This, however, has no significant effect for the availability of cars for the potensome kind of new thing (whether material or immaterial) at the end of the process, whereas a service does not. Here it is often enough to maintain or re-create a particular state of affairs (like a clean house for example) instead of producing anything. 14 In neglecting this distinction between goods and services Hardt and Negri also neglect the poiesis/praxis distinction for which Marx has already been criticised (see Habermas, 1974). 15 Even critics of Hardt and Negri nevertheless fall for immaterial labour. It is claimed, for example that “‘immaterial production’ affects the substance of value since immaterial products can be duplicated.” (Keep on smiling, p.27, 2006) Can material products not be duplicated? It seems to me vice versa: ‘immaterial products’ can rather not be duplicated. Services, for example, are individual agreements according to often unique specifications. Particularly some of the ‘immaterial’ phenomena Hardt and Negri are talking about (a feeling of ease, for example) seem to me to withstand duplication more vigorously than any material item, exactly because they are social relations.


Hardt and Negri tial buyer.) Garages, contrarily, that do not produce but only service cars, have to be located where cars are owned. They rely on the fact that cars have already been produced and that those need to be maintained in a particular working order. The same holds for ‘immaterial goods’: the film-making industry in the USA is primarily located in Hollywood. That most films are produced there has no significant impact on where the films can subsequently be shown. The cinemas that show the films and thus offer a service, however, have to be located close to where the film-audience lives, or simply no one will attend the viewings. Again, contrary to production, a service involves a relation with the ‘consumer’ that cannot be separated from the actual rendering of the service. The reason for this is the following:
Because it is not an entity, it is not possible to establish ownership rights over a service and hence to transfer ownership from one economic unit to another. In contrast to goods, therefore, services cannot be traded independently of their production and consumption. (Hill, 1999, p.442) The best general, or multi-purpose, definition of a service is that it is some change in the condition of one economic unit produced by the activity of another unit. […] They are not entities and for this reason cannot be stocked. A hospital can hold stocks of medical goods and equipment ready for use but it cannot hold stocks of appendectomies ready to meet an epidemic of appendicitises. The notion of a stock of appendectomies that exists independently of both surgeons and patients is pure nonsense. The notion of a transport firm holding a stock of ton or passenger miles is equally absurd. This is not a physical impossibility attributable to the fact that ton miles are highly perishable (as it would have to be if a ton mile were a good) but a logical impossibility stemming from the concept of a service. (ibid., 441f.) These examples are intended to illustrate the fundamental point that the distinction between goods and services, and the industries which produce them, is a distinction in which terms such as ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’, or ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’ are irrelevant, unnecessary and misleading. (ibid., p.443)

Production and service can (and should) therefore still be distinguished, but this distinction, as Hill states, is independent of such factors as ‘materiality’ or ‘immateriality’ and hence the use of such terms is misleading. Hardt and Negri’s concept of ‘immaterial labour’ is an example of the consequences that the use of such misleading terms can have. Anything we produce for use has to be maintained in some way or other, depending on what the product requires, since all reified things are subject to natural decay. Immaterial things, which are things nevertheless, often require remembrance as the final kind of maintenance. Ideas, stories, poems, events, plans, theories, as long as they have not been reified in some way or other, in which case we have to maintain these materializations, have to be remembered or else it is as if they had never existed. It is true that with the ongoing production of things more maintenance (which then shares characteristics of labour in Arendt’s sense) is required simply because all products (of work in Arendt’s sense) would 177

Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism otherwise slowly decay. This, however, does not mean that all production therefore becomes a service. Production and maintenance are two clearly distinguishable processes, the former, for example comes to a definite end while the latter does not because the processes against which it is directed (e.g. decay, wear and tear) do not come to an end either.16


What is new about ‘immaterial labour’?

‘Immaterial labour’ is supposedly a new kind of labour with unprecedented features: that it follows demand, that it is more social, that it homogenises (due to the universal use of computers) in abstract labour, often accompanied by an increased distance between the worker and his object.17 These are claimed to be new features that only the post-industrial world developed and which now affect labour practices globally. But that production follows demand is not new: even agricultural societies function in this way.18 Secondly, already for Marx all labour practices were inherently social19 and hence he thought revolution to be possible because capitalism created a large working class that would congregate in big numbers and at regular intervals in the same place (i.e. go to

Note that services also differ from production in another respect compared to the way in which Braverman describes the latter. Services resist the kind of appropriation that a capitalist typically engages in: the capitalist, instead of paying for a whole product, buys the means of production, hires the workers and puts himself in charge of the labour-process which he can now control into the smallest detail (see Braverman, 1974, ch.1). Such appropriation applies to production processes but only to a much lesser extent for services. Since services are not things but relations they cannot be owned and dissected like production processes. 17 “in each of these forms of immaterial labor, cooperation is completely inherent in the labour itself. Immaterial labour immediately involves social interaction and cooperation. (E, p.294) Morris sums up adequately: “This labor indicates a unification of instrumental and communicative action in which "social networks, forms of community, biopower" (p. 293) are directly produced. Culture and production are more thoroughly integrated than they have ever been. (Morris, 2004, p. 130, he quotes Empire) “We should note that one consequence of the informatisation of production and the emergence of immaterial labour has been a real homogenisation of labouring processes. […] With the computerization of production today, however, the heterogeneity of concrete labour has tended to be reduced, and the worker is increasingly further removed from the object of his or her labour. […] Through the computerization of production, then, labour tends toward the position of abstract labour.” (E, p.292). “This becoming common, which tends to reduce the qualitative divisions within labour, is the biopolitical condition of the multitude.” (M, p.114) See also Morris (2004): “[…] production is integrated far more with communicative interaction (the greatly increased interactivity between production and consumption characteristic of just-in-time productionToyotism, for example). The second aspect of postmodernized production is the increasing centrality of the computer and the communications revolution. Both these developments have transformed productive labor. The computer is a unique tool because it is universal-every sector and productive activity is potentially subject to computerization. But as a result, all labor tends toward homogenization and immateriality: computerized tailoring and computerized weaving require basically the same skill sets of symbolic and informational manipulation. Labor becomes even more abstract and alienated.” (p.129) 18 Just because the reaction speed between production to demand has increased this does not turn the Toyota model into a new kind of production. 19 “The fact is, therefore, that definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations.” (GI, from: The Marx-Engels reader, ed. R.C. Tucker, NY, 2nd edn. 1978, p.154) “Here the particular and natural form of labour […] its general abstract form is the immediate social form of labour.” (C, p.82)



Hardt and Negri work), which meant that it was possible for people to communicate and organise themselves. Compared with today, the differences are a matter of degree, not a difference in kind. Thirdly, the supposed homogenization of labour is by no means a new idea, particularly within the Marxist tradition. Marx, and particularly Marcuse, also thought that increasing industrialization would lead to an assimilation of all labour practices. According to Hardt and Negri ‘immaterial labour’ leads to a homogenisation of various forms of work into ‘abstract labour’. This is due to the increasing use of computers and hence ‘informatisation’ of all labouring practices, which not only makes labour more abstract but in doing so also leads to a distancing between worker and object. These are some of the unifying features of the various forms of modern ‘immaterial labour’. However, this ‘homogenisation’ claim has never been successful and it also fails here.20 The computer is used in such differing ways that it is simply false to claim that it homogenises all of its applications into abstract, universal, symbolic, or interactive work (Pfeiffer, 2004, pp. 20 ff.). Whether you work in software design, consumer service, manufacturing control or supervision, graphic design, or simply text creation makes a vast difference as to how the computer (and which software) is being used. Thus the skills, knowledge, and experience involved vary drastically. Contrary to the claim that the use of computers distances the worker from his object and makes labour more abstract, various simulation techniques, for example, can lead to the understanding and control of processes that were previously inaccessible to the worker (such as in the chemical industry, the manipulation of digital images, or music recording). Thus, Hardt and Negri’s claim (E, p.292) is simply false: neither is there a ‘homogenisation’ of labour, nor does it necessarily become more ‘abstract’, nor is it necessarily ‘distancing’ (or alienating) the worker from his product. The concept of ‘immaterial labour’ thus includes several mistakes. Firstly, the already mentioned negated distinction between services and immaterial products: since all labour that does not involve material objects is now viewed as service, immaterial goods now seem to entail the social dimension that services do. In other words, immaterial products are supposedly collective and ‘immediately involve social interaction and cooperation’. But this is simply a mistake: an immaterial good can be produced and consumed alone; a service, by contrast, does involve interaction. But also this last claim must be used with caution: even services are not necessarily collective in any strong sense: consider most maintenance services: apart
This also manifests itself linguistically: most writers simply talk of ‘the computer’ so undifferentiating, that it seems as if a CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) System for the creation of a CNC (computer numerically controlled) control program follows the same logic and application as software which calculates cuts and cloth-consumption in a textile company. (Pfeiffer, 2004., pp. 22, 26)


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism from an initial agreement on what is to be done not much more contact is necessary. I do not have to be present when my car is being serviced, my house cleaned, or my TV fixed. The same holds in other examples of ‘immaterial labour’ that are advanced: advertising, fast food services, transportation, audiovisual production, etc. I thus contend that ‘immaterial labour’ mostly does not imply the kind of social dimension that these writers assert. It is an overgeneralisation and over-simplification to say that immaterial labour is ‘immediately collective’ (Lazzarato) or involves a level of ‘social interaction and cooperation’ that provides a basis ‘for a spontaneous and elementary communism’ (Hardt and Negri). To refer back to an earlier point: we have here the ‘social labour’ argument all over again. I claimed with reference to Honneth above that we are tricked from an uncontroversial claim to controversial one: namely to move from the general social existence of mankind (which applies to human life as such) to the claim that therefore productive activities are necessarily social, that is, require the presence of others. Hardt and Negri move from the ascription of the social nature of ‘immaterial labour’ to the claim that all such labourers will unite politically. I claim that ‘immaterial labour’ is a misnomer and that the assertion of political unification is ungrounded. More generally, Hardt and Negri claim a far too large convergence between various activities that can be described as services. When jobs in such varying fields as health care, cleaning, transport and audiovisual production are placed in the tertiary (i.e. service) sector of the economy this does not mean that they share any essential features. The reason why so many professions are classed under ‘services’ is because the activities involved are accomplished according to a prior order (or agreement). But such agreements do not thereby assimilate health care, cleaning, transport and audiovisual production to another: neither the production and transfer of information, nor of affects, nor the involvement of symbolic tasks applies equally, nor do they share in any noteworthy increase in ‘abstraction’ or communication. Yet these are the criteria that writers on immaterial labour use in order to define what they are talking about. ‘Immaterial labour’ rather leads to a misconception of labour as regards to times prior to our post-industrial phase: According to Pfeiffer (op.cit., p.22 ff.) the computer as the “universal tool” is regarded as introducing cooperation, communication, and interaction, as if these features did not exist beforehand. The concept of labour, prior to our post-industrial phase, is reduced to a “non-interactive, non-communicative, and machine-like counter-image” (Pfeiffer, op.cit., p.22, translation U.M.). I therefore conclude that immaterial labour is a misnomer. It confuses immaterial products with services, misrepresents previous labour-practices as


Hardt and Negri non-communicative, and misrepresents the computer as homogenising, alienating and abstracting.21


Marx’s inheritance – the unsolved labour-puzzle

One last point remains concerning ‘immaterial labour’: apart from the mistakes outlined, it also repeats Marx’ ambiguity concerning labour. That is, it is not clear whether ‘immaterial labour constitutes’ the future of work and a route to self-realisation or whether it is the new horrendous capitalist coup. On the one hand it is crucial for the ‘multitude’, since without ‘immaterial labour’ and modern telecommunication technology the resistance to global capitalism could not form adequately. According to Hardt and Negri ‘immaterial labour’ blurs the boundary between economic and social reproduction. It thereby establishes social relationships and becomes ‘immediately a social, cultural, and political force’ (M, p.66).
Its ability to engage and transform all aspects of society and its collaborative network form are two enormously powerful characteristics that immaterial labour is spreading to other forms of labour. These characteristics can serve as a preliminary sketch of the social composition of the multitude that today animates the movements of resistance against the permanent, global state of war. (M, p.66f)

Thus, the ‘hegemony of immaterial labour’, as Hardt and Negri call it, provides the grounds on which the future counter-empire can be build.22 On the other hand, ‘immaterial labour’ is also a new stage in the exploitation of the worker, who is meant to be flexible, social, perform her tasks with a smile, communicate, etc. In other words, not only the worker’s body is subordinated and directed but also her character, her identity, or as Hardt and Negri call it, her subjectivity:
When our ideas and our affects, or emotions, are put to work, for instance, and when they thus become subject in a new way to the command of the boss, we often experience new and intense forms of isolation or alienation. Furthermore,

Contrary to Hardt and Negri’s aim to put forward an empirically grounded theory, it is a very abstract one: it is not the outcome of an empirical investigation but its starting point. Such an abstracting methodology, in which the world is twisted to fit one’s theory, is ideological in Marx’s own terms. 22 “In any economic system there are numerous different forms of labour that exist side by side, but there is always one figure of labour that exerts hegemony over the others. This hegemonic figure serves as a vortex that gradually transforms other figures to adopt its central qualities. […] In the final decades of the twentieth century, industrial labour lost its hegemony and in its stead emerged “immaterial labour”, that is, labour that creates immaterial products, such as knowledge, information, communication, a relationship, or an emotional response.” (M, p. 107f.)



Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism
the contractual and material conditions of immaterial labour that tend to spread to the entire labour market are making the position of labour in general more precarious. (M, p.65f.) Furthermore, when affective production becomes part of waged labour it can be experienced as extremely alienating: I am selling my ability to make human relationships, something extremely intimate, at the command of the client and the boss. (M, p.111) Information, communication, and cooperation become the norms of production, and the network becomes its dominant form of organisation. The technical systems of production therefore correspond closely to its social composition: on one side the technological networks and on the other the cooperation of social subjects put to work. This correspondence defines the new topology of labour and also characterises the new practices and structures of exploitation. (M, p.113)

It is therefore not clear whether ‘immaterial labour’ constitutes the future of labour as it ought to be, or a new level of capitalist exploitation of the worker. This problem already manifests itself among the primary writers on this issue since they divide into two different camps: Hardt and Negri are more optimistic on the possibilities of ‘immaterial labour’, Lazzarato, by contrast, is very pessimistic.23 For him it is only another means by which capitalists extract more profit from their workers. And so for Lazzarato:
This activity shows immediately that which material production "hid": in other words, labour produces not only commodities, but first and foremost the capital relationship. In today’s large restructured company, a worker’s work increasingly involves, at various levels, an ability to choose among different alternatives and thus a degree of responsibility regarding decision making. […] What modern management techniques are looking for is for “the worker’s soul to become part of the factory”. […] This transformation of working-class labour into labour of con-

23 To be clear: both primary writing parties, Hardt and Negri as well as Lazzarato, have claims for both views, this is why they are ambiguous. Nevertheless, in Hardt and Negri there are more positive claims to be found than in Lazzarato, who is mainly critical. The authors of ‘Keep on smiling’ (2006) are also pessimistic: “Immaterial production defines a ‘new’ form of capitalist exploitation by the new global capitalist regime, Empire.” (p.24). Or: “The (either material or immaterial!) donkey worker who works under the command of blueprints, organisation IT frameworks, designs, etc. does not share the mind of capital or any creative ‘pleasure’ from it. In the ontological inversion, the information and knowledge of capital means the opposite for the worker. […] This ontological inversion is one with a subjective experience of boredom and pain.” (p.36) “For these authors Hardt and Negri’s positive stance amounts to a “petty bourgeois delusion” (p.34).


Hardt and Negri
trol, of handling information, into a decision-making capacity that involves the investment of subjectivity, affects the workers in varying ways according to their positions within the factory hierarchy, but it is nevertheless an irreversible process.[…] In this phase, workers are expected to become “active subjects” in the coordination of the various functions of production, instead of being subjected to it as simple command.[…] First and foremost, we have here a discourse that is authoritarian: one has to express oneself, one has to speak, communicate, cooperate, and so forth. The “tone” is that of the people who were I executive command und Taylorisation; all that has changed is the content.24 (, original emphasis)

For Lazzarato ‘immaterial labour’ intrinsically embodies all the hallmarks of capitalist exploitation. There is no sense here of ‘immaterial labour’ as an enabling condition for a future communism. Whereas Hardt and Negri see immaterial labour as a development with a possible beneficial outcome, Lazzarato’s conclusions are much more pessimistic: it establishes capital relationships, its discourse is authoritarian, it takes hold of the workers’ subjectivity, it is Taylorist, etc. Whereas Hardt and Negri claim that “in immaterial production the creation of cooperation has become internal to labour and thus external to capital” (M, p.147, my emphasis) Laz-

24 I consider the likening of ‘immaterial labour’ to Taylorisation erroneous. What critics of Taylorisation (e.g. Braverman, 1974) criticised was that the subjectivity of the worker was excluded from the labourprocess. There was no decision-making and no responsibility on part of the worker and he was nothing more than a passive receptacle. What Lazzarato describes above is the opposite. However, instead of this being a positive development it is branded as a means of control, an enslavement of the workers’ soul. Now that active participation of the worker finds its way back into the production-process it is not something to be welcomed, but rather now the worker is over-burdened with the choices he has to make, the information this involves, and the responsibility it affords. This is belittling. What were previously desired features are now also means to control the worker by the capitalist. Under such a wide definition of Taylorism as used here by Lazzarato it is of course possible to describe any form of division of labour as Taylorist. In other words, any breaking down of the labour process is Taylorist because it will always be carried out for reasons of efficiency. In Taylorism workers are nothing more than automatons, or tissue-based machines. In other words the worker’s mental health is of no concern. Current management literature, by contrast, now integrates psychological factors more than ever before. Even though competition is still often seen as the trigger for ambition between companies, it has recently also been noted that it is counterproductive when it is used within a company. Thus, companies increasingly advocate team-work and communal effort. See for example Whitmore (2002) who lists the following as criteria for team-development: support, trust, patience, commitment, humour, compatibility, cooperation, adaptability, friendship, courage, enthusiasm and unselfishness. Or Goldsmith (2007) who lists ‘goal obsession’ as a hindrance to success and instead advocates feedback, apologizing, listening, and thanking. Also Templar’s (2005) section headings on ‘managing a team’ read like a list of calls against internal competition: “Know what a team is and how it really works; Make your team better than you; Let them make mistakes; Accept their limitations; Encourage People; Take the Rap; Give credit to the team when it deserves it; Get the best resources for your team; Celebrate; Be sensitive to friction; Create a good atmosphere; Inspire loyalty and team spirit; Fight for your team; Have and show respect in your staff; Respect individual differences; Listen to ideas from others; Adapt your style to each team member; Don’t always have to have the last word; Understand the roles of others; Don’t try justifying stupid systems”.


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism zarato sees it, according to the quote above, in the opposite way, namely as the manifestation of “the capital relationship”. This ambiguity concerning the evaluation of ‘immaterial labour’ is indicative of the fact that Neo-Marxist writers inherit the flaws that are already present in Marx’s own writings: we find formulations concerning the relationship between freedom and labour in Marx that either exclude one from the other or locate the one in the other (and it is therefore ambiguous whether the communist society is one where everyone works to their full capabilities or everyone has to work only a minimum amount of time), it is unclear concerning ‘immaterial labour’ whether it is what labour ought to be (namely communicative and ‘immediately social’) or whether it presents a new stage of alienation.25 In a similarly ambiguous fashion Hardt and Negri entangle themselves with ‘bioproduction’, which is the follow-on concept from ‘immaterial labour’. On the one hand, under this concept everything becomes production, where this is decidedly positive;26 on the other the fact that in postmodern capitalism the distinction between work and leisure becomes increasingly blurred is bemoaned (M, p.111 ff.). This exhibits their ambiguous relationship concerning labour and human existence and it is Marx’ dilemma all over again: production is meant to be essential to human existence (even more so in bioproduction), but the real freedom also begins only after work. Thus, whether postmodern or not - the question concerning the characterisation of labour remains unanswered in a theory (Marxism/Historical Materialism) in which labour is of such central concern. As a final noteworthy point, we can also detect the reversal of Hardt and Negri’s appraisal of the immaterial worker elsewhere. Just as much as Fordist conveyor belt labour can be frustrating, so can ‘immaterial labour’: the modern ‘cubicle dweller’, as Crawford (2009) describes the immaterial labourer, is presented with the problem that his products are immaterial, that is, there are often no discernible products or measurable results. Contrastingly, Crawford endorses the joys of manual labour. In ‘immaterial labour’ we often do not handle actual material problems but are rather concerned with ‘office politics’, we have no
As commented before, Marx’s catch-phrase for communism “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” permits both alternatives: to reduce or increase labour-time. 26 “Anyone who works with information or knowledge – for example, from agriculturists who develop the specific properties of seeds to software programmers – relies on the common knowledge passed down from others and in turn creates new common knowledge. This is especially true for all labour that creates immaterial projects, including ideas, images, affects, and relationships. We will call this newly dominant model “biopolitical production” to highlight that it not only involves the production of material goods in a strictly economic sense but also touches on and produces all facets of social life, economic, cultural, and political. This biopolitical production and its expansion of the common is one strong pillar on which stands the possibility of global democracy today.” (M, p.xv f., emphasis added)


Hardt and Negri distinct skills that another could not also acquire within a few weeks of practice. Our ability of solving symbolic tasks may make us global labourers because we can use it anywhere and if we are connected through modern telecommunication technology then we do not even have to travel in order to employ it. However, this can also mean that we are expendable, stretched across the global network instead of rooted in a home, thus anywhere and therefore nowhere. Our skills may be virtual to the degree that they can be downloaded. The knowledge worker can end up in the same seemingly meaningless position as the Ford employee. One of Crawford’s reviewers poignantly comments:
Look around the field in which you toil, be it advertising, finance, or consulting. Who really gets to face new problems and make decisions based on their knowledge and instincts, and who is just another clerk, following instructions? […] What are you actually making? How do you know if you are advancing at your job? Does sending e-mail all day help the brand? Does my boss think I am a good guy? […] The "team" is what launches the product, lands the account, drives the business. "The individual feels that, alone, he is without any effect," writes Crawford. And worse: "He has difficulty imagining how he might earn a living otherwise." The team makes us passive and helpless. (

As is obvious, we are presented with the opposite of what Hardt and Negri argue. Crawford reminds his readers of the ‘real’ skills of manual labour where one can become a master of one’s craft. Concerning the scope of ‘immaterial labour’ Crawford is rather on the side of Lazzarato and already presents a first, and probably not last, appraisal of manual labour (cf. e.g. Sennett, 2008). Furthermore, as the final straw, team-work, which Hardt and Negri praise for its revolutionary potential, is even criticised as weakening the subject. We are thus presented with a view diametrically opposed to Hardt and Negri’s. To me this is evidence for particularly one point: that the interpretation of labour is very much dependent on the circumstances and on which aspect of labour we are focussing on. We may praise labour, or we may despise it, we may endorse singular craftsmanship or communal interconnectedness, etc. Those who ‘work with the head’ may come to glorify manual labour and practical work, those engaged in the latter often aspire to get away from it. What the ‘ideal labour’ would be no one can say, last but not least because every individual sees it differently. Many people would probably regard ‘not working at all’ as an ideal. Whether industrial labour (Marx) or ‘immaterial labour’, an analysis of it will not provide us with a sufficient characterisation of human beings, nor with a clear answer concerning its evalua185

Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism tion. So far no characterisation of labour has captured ‘the essence’ of human beings and contra Historical Materialism, and with Arendt, I maintain it cannot do so simply because there is more to human life than labour and that labour does not hold the answers to all social problems.

2. The ‘Multitude’
‘Immaterial labour’ plays such a central role because of the social and political implications that Hardt and Negri draw from it, ultimately that “immaterial labour thus seems to provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism.” (E, p.294) A short way of explaining this conclusion is to highlight the fact that through ‘immaterial labour’ the workers have access to means of communication as well as considerable power over the means of production. Thus, the basic elements for a revolution are present and would just have to be exploited. The postmodern immaterial labourers and all those affected by them thus become the subject of the revolution and thus the corresponding class to Marx’s industrial proletariat.27 Hardt and Negri give this new social subject the name ‘multitude’. The ‘multitude’ has superseded the proletariat because the latter, for various reasons, does not constitute a revolutionary subject: a) Marx’s industrial proletariat is hard to find these days, b) in the past, as well as in the present, the proletariat hardly ever is the revolutionary subject that Marx envisaged, c) the proletariat is a too limited class as well as concept for our postmodern world. These ideas, which I will not investigate further, have been advanced ever since the 1970’s. It is noteworthy, however, that they have not only been mentioned in opposition to Marx, but also by followers of his tradition in an effort to explain the outstanding global revolution. The ‘multitude’, in contrast to the proletariat, is a wider concept that is more apt to today’s conditions. It is the group of all those ‘who labour and produce under the rule of capital’.28 As explained above, Hardt and Negri take the modern labour conditions of ‘immaterial labour’ to be such that they involve a maximum of connectivity and interrelations between labourers. The increasingly dense network of trade and trade-relations in the global capitalist economy together with modern communication tech-


“Multitude is a class concept. […] Class is determined by class struggle. […] the classes that matter are those defined by the lines of collective struggle. […] Class is a political concept, in short, in that a class is and can only be a collectivity that struggles in common.” (M, p.103 f.) 28 “The multitude gives the concept of the proletariat its fullest definition as all those who labour and produce under the rule of capital.” (M, p.107)


Hardt and Negri nology and labour practices put all of the subjects into closer contact with each other. ‘Immaterial labour’, instead of the industrial labour of Marx’s time, influences all remaining areas of production and therefore assumes a hegemonic status and provides people with means to unite and rebel against the system (M, p.106f.). This is the ‘multitude’. This story is, of course, familiar: capitalist production triggers the conditions for its own abolition, i.e. capitalism produces its own gravediggers. The question is whether the ‘multitude’ is a subject capable of political action. Hardt and Negri claim that it is, in fact, the only one which will also have an intrinsic and radical democratic structure, whereas my claim is that the ‘multitude’ is impotent as a political player. In their own words
The multitude, designates an active social subject, which acts on the basis of what the singularities share in common. The multitude is an internally different, multiple social subject whose constitution and action is based not on identity or unity (or, much less, indifference) but on what it has in common. (M, p.100) One initial approach is to conceive the multitude as all those who work under the rule of capital and thus potentially as the class of those who refuse the rule of capital. […] The concept rests, in other words, on the claim that there is no political priority among the forms of labour: all forms of labour are today socially productive, they produce in common, and share too a common potential to resist the domination of capital. (M, p.105ff.)

There are numerous passages like the above. To shorten it, the ‘multitude’ a) consists of all those subject to empire b) is irreducibly different (many-faceted, multitudinous) by including various groups, e.g. workers, political activists, animal rights campaigners, homosexuals, rebellious groups like the Zapatistas, open source advocates, etc. c) it expresses the desire for a world of equality and freedom d) demands an open and inclusive democratic global society e) provides the means for achieving c) and d): a global democracy of equality and freedom (M, p.xi) Hardt and Negri deliberately make no distinction between political, social, and economic organisations or groups because for them it is part of the postmodern condition that the boundaries between these concepts are increasingly blurred. Everything becomes ‘biopoli-


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism tical’, i.e. it ‘engages life in its entirety’ (M, p.94).29 The ‘multitude’ is therefore the group of all groups, the one of which they are all parts but which does not reduce them in a way that undermines their differences (like other group concepts such as ‘people’, or ‘mass’). The ‘multitude’ is thus, so to say, a social universal set.30 My claim is that a social universal set cannot be a political agent. Hardt and Negri direct their attention to events which should indeed be considered. It is true that since a few years we can see resistance against the global capitalist order, particularly at the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and WTO (World Trade Organisation) summits. Starting with Seattle in 1999 and certainly not ending with the protests at the London summit in 2009, there has been a growing movement against global institutions. It is also true, as Hardt and Negri point out, that the protesters at these events come from all kinds of groups: anti-globalisation, green, hippie, left-wing, trade-unions, etc. The speed and accuracy with which these groups can organise their demonstrations (through modern communication technology) makes it difficult for the police to counter them and adapt their strategies in time. For Hardt and Negri these protests are the tip of the iceberg of grievances which the ‘multitude’ holds against global capitalism. The global capital world order subjects everyone to the same reprehensible conditions, unites them in their sentiments, and modern telecommunication technology and labour practices make it possible for them to actually unite. Importantly, the various groups that are pooling their frustration do not lose their individuality.
Common conditions, of course, does not mean sameness or unity, but it does require that no differences of nature or kind divide the multitude. It means, in other words, that the innumerable, specific types of labour, forms of life, and geographical location, which will always necessarily remain, do not prohibit communication and collaboration in a common political project. (M, p. 105f.)

Seen in this way, for the first time in history, a global front against capitalism, Marx’s idea of a world-historical opposition, seems possible.31 I doubt, however, both the ascription of revolutionary conditions and the aptness of the ‘multitude’ for politics. Hardt and Negri spend much time on the ascription of revolutionary conditions in Multitude. To make it

“Immaterial labour is biopolitical in that it is oriented toward the creation of forms of social life; such labour, then, tends no longer to be limited to the economic but also becomes immediately a social, cultural, and political force.” (M, p.66) 30 I refer to ‘universal sets’ or ‘set of sets’ as in set theory where this typically leads to a paradox. 31 “The possibility of democracy on a global scale is emerging today for the very first time.” (M, p.xi) Note that Lenin, in 1917, also already thought democracy to be possible for the first time (1978, p.80).



Hardt and Negri short, according to them there is firstly the global dominance of capitalism and secondly (at least potentially) communication between all those who oppose it. Thus, cause, possibility and willingness for revolution are given, and according to Hardt and Negri we also have a social subject, namely the ‘multitude’, that can carry it out. But firstly, even though IMF and WTO summits have witnessed demonstrations it is a leap to extrapolate from this to the existence of a global opposition. As Seth (2002, p.568) rightly comments Hardt and Negri’s “argument is not carried by the weight of evidence but rather by the momentum of their dialectic.”

Secondly, as argued above, Hardt and Negri

are simply wrong concerning the amount of relations as well as the level of sociality in ‘immaterial labour’. Some ‘immaterial’ activities can be done in isolation (e.g. design) and others that do require the presence of others (e.g. health care) do thereby not imply joining the revolutionary club. Thirdly, the communication and egalitarian tendencies that Hardt and Negri ascribe to the internet should be questioned. The internet is currently accessible only to 6 per cent of the world’s population and within those 6 per cent are great differences concerning the availability of information (Tilly, 2002, p.226). Both China and Cuba, for example, have tight restrictions on what information users can access. It therefore hardly fulfils the claims that Hardt and Negri make. Fourthly, the ‘multitude’, as described, is not an identifiable political player, as I will show.
The multitude is composed of innumerable internal differences that can never be reduced to a unity or a single identity – different cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations; different forms of labour; different ways of living; different views of the world; and different desires. The multitude is a multiplicity of all these singular differences. (p.xiv)

What gives this ‘multiplicity’ its commonality (one is afraid to use ‘unity’) are the shared grievances against empire. Hardt and Negri help themselves to an analogy of social organisation which is meant to explain how the ‘multitude’, despite its innumerable internal differences, can act: the network analogy. The communicative relations between people, which empire itself brings about through ‘immaterial labour’ establish a network of communication.33 This network, like empire, has
Cf. Seth (2002): “Hardt and Negri's argument has something of this quality: all indications are that the struggles they name are unconnected, and sometimes not very radical; but this turns out to be a virtue, for their very localness and inability to link up horizontally means that they 'leap immediately to the global level and attack the imperial constitution in its generality.'” (p. 568) 33 Cf. Richard Florida’s “creative class”, which is very similar, if not identical, with Hardt and Negri’s ‘immaterial labourers’ (see Svendsen, 2008, p.39)


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism no centre but consists of numerous autonomous cells linked only through communication. We can therefore speak of a group without requiring traditional hierarchical structures of status or functions. The participants in the protests at the IMF and WTO summits consisted of many different people who spontaneously and independently of each other organised themselves.34 Also the Zapatistas of Chiapas are organised in such a network of autonomous cells, according to Hardt and Negri. Because these networks deliberately have no centre and no authoritative hierarchy they are therefore intrinsically democratic.35 This is the main reason why the postmodern world is, for the first time, in the position to bring about a global democracy. Only through the globalisation of the proletariat, so to speak, and its interconnectedness due to modern labour conditions and communication technology in the ‘multitude’ can a global democratic counter-empire be realised. This hinges, however, on Hardt and Negri’s network-idea, which I will now criticise. 2.1. Networks

Hardt and Negri’s appeal to network structures is oversimplified: they assume that networks are equally balanced throughout, without a hierarchy, preferential statuses or functions. This, however, does not apply to all networks, crucially it does not apply to social networks, instead, recent research has revealed that many such systems are not as horizontally structured as Hardt and Negri suppose.36 There are two major types of networks. Firstly, so-called Erdos-Renyi networks with uniform probability of links between any two nodes, exponential distribution of connectedness and very few highly connected nodes.37 Due to their structural features these networks are relatively robust and their stability decreases gradually with increasing damage. This is the type of network that Hardt and Negri base their theory of the ‘multitude’ on. Secondly, there are so-called Scale-free networks, which feature more connected nodes that are more likely to be linked to other nodes, have a power law distribution of connectedness

“Not only do the movements employ technologies such as the Internet as organising tools, they also begin to adopt these technologies as models for their own organisational structures. […] Network organisation, by contrast, is based on the continuing plurality of its elements and its networks of communication in such a way that reduction to a centralised and unified command structure is impossible.” (M, p.82f.) 35 From this perspective Hardt and Negri can also criticise the Cuban revolutionaries of the 1950’s for their rigid military organisation which undermined the democratic roots that they themselves wanted to bring to fruition. 36 For the following details on networks I am indebted to Peter Andras. Most data is taken from ‘Network analysis of complex systems’ (Peter Andras, 2009). 37 Networks are described in terms that allow for substitution once a particular case is specified. That is, a node, for example, can be a nerve cell in a brain, a factor in a biological system (e.g. an animal, the presence of water), or a human being in a social network.



Hardt and Negri and some very highly connected nodes. Social networks have been found to accord rather to these Scale-free networks, than the Erdos-Renyi variety. The important points for our investigation are the following: a) Scale-free networks are not completely horizontal. Some nodes are more connected than others, there are clusters (i.e. centres of particular activity) and some nodes work as bottlenecks between clusters. Hardt and Negri’s claims to ‘inherent democratic’ structures in networks are therefore mistaken. b) In terms of the stability of such networks this means the following: although they are stable in response to random damage they quickly destabilise in case of targeted damage. That is, since some nodes are more important than others (for example bottleneck nodes) if these are damaged the overall stability of the network decreases rapidly. This undermines Hardt and Negri’s claims that networks are stable and can simply reform when empire strikes against them. This supports my claim that organisation requires at least some definable roles and responsibilities, authority and hierarchy. If key-positions are targeted then the overall structure will quickly disintegrate. An actual empirical example that has been used in this connection is the social network of Enron when the company approached its collapse. Before its demise the communications38 showed a particular (scale-free) network structure which accorded with the structure of the company and its decisional processes, i.e. the social network communications reflected the functional structure of the company. Deviations from the established structure indicate potential problems, which happened at an increasing rate the closer the collapse of Enron was at hand. The communications became chaotic, the overall network lost stability and eventually it collapsed. This is not meant to show that Enron collapsed as a result of disorderly e-mail exchanges. It shows that social networks are vulnerable to specific damages. When key-positions are lost and corresponding key-functions can no longer be fulfilled, then the overall network quickly disintegrates. Thus, when Hardt and Negri claim that network organisation
[…] provides the model for an absolutely democratic organisation that corresponds to the dominant forms of economic and social production and is also the most powerful weapon against the ruling power structure (M, p.88)

Considered were e-mail communications through Contents analysis, e.g. word stem frequencies, word consecutiveness networks and word patterns (Andras, 2009).



Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism I argue in return that this neglects the organisation in those networks. Contrary to what Hardt and Negri suggest, social networks are structured: some nodes (i.e. people) are more connected than others, some areas (i.e. groups) are more internally connected and constitute clusters and some nodes serve as bottlenecks (i.e. connectors) between clusters. Therefore, social networks are not equally balanced but have a hierarchy, and include preferential functions and statuses. In fact, Scale-free networks grow through preferential attachment, i.e. growth is linked to the status of the particular area where growth occurs. These networks therefore do not grow in an egalitarian manner as Hardt and Negri assume but according to preferential connections, i.e. according to the status of adjacent nodes (i.e. people). Without these features a network is simply not organised at all. It will not suffice to argue in response that with networks there is no need for big organisations or structures anymore.39 Structures, for whichever specific purpose, enable advancement through the order they establish. This order, depending on which particular area it concerns, then allows progress in terms of social complexity, knowledge and information, economic interchanges, approved or disapproved actions (i.e. law), etc.40 Any feasible social theory today has to include organisations, institutions and structures, because it is the structural and functional differentiation of our societies which enable our current life in the first place. To advocate the self-rule of the global working population (i.e. the ‘multitude’) is not progressive but, to use a Marxian term against Hardt and Negri, simply reactionary. Particularly on the global scale that Hardt and Negri advocate defined channels of interaction have to be given. Note that I am not arguing that the network idea as such is useless. Within limited confines horizontal network structures can have their use, for example in awareness-raising or public debates (See J. Dryzeck, 2005, p.230; D. Kellner, 2002, p.295ff.). These confines, however, pertain to deliberation, not decision-making, for which some kind of institutional order seems necessary. In fact, Dryzek considers it to be an advantage of such (smaller) networks that they are at a distance from decision-making because proximity to sovereignty tends to turn debates into struggles for power. Public deliberation, by contrast, is mostly local contrary to the global scale at which Hardt and Negri want to employ the network structure. In other words, the appeal of/to networks should be considered according to the function the respective network is meant to fulfil. Raising awareness and stimulating debate is an area in
As Hardt and Negri do when they claim that “The multitude, although it remains multiple and internally different, is able to act and rule itself. Rather than political body with one that commands and others that obey, the multitude is living flesh that rules itself.” (M, p.100) 40 “[…] structures can be seen as a set of constraints on communications that constitute the organisation. […] structures have a vital role in handling organisational faults, errors and failures, being able to limit their damaging effects within the organisation.” (Andras, 2005)


Hardt and Negri which the horizontal network approach suits the purpose, i.e. gathering as many views as possible and assessing them equally. When it comes to decision-making (law and policy for example) it is far better for particular units/clusters/institutions to have distinctive functions, such as we have, say, in the distinction between the legislative, judiciary and executive functions of the government.


Contra the ‘multitude’ as a political subject

My point should now be clear. From the way in which Hardt and Negri define the ‘multitude’, namely as the group of all groups, it is the social equivalent of a universal set. As such it can hardly be seen as a political subject in the normal sense of the term (because ‘subject’ usually implies some kind of unity which is stressed when we talk ‘one subject’ or a ‘unified subject’ but Hardt and Negri want undermine this by describing the ‘multitude’ as an ‘irreducible multiplicity’). Even more so, it cannot be seen as a political agent. Being a political player or agent requires an identifiable institution with identifiable representatives and goals, even if in order for something to count as an institution it does not necessarily require modern bureaucracies which are historically very recent developments.41 However, theories of democracy today, and Hardt and Negri understand their approach as one of them, have the idea of political representation at the centre. But by Hardt and Negri’s own definition the ‘multitude’ is non-representable since there is no one person, nor group of persons, who could legitimately claim to represent all the multiple subjects of the ‘multitude’. Hardt and Negri’s advocacy of the intrinsic internal difference of the ‘multitude’ undermines its representability and thereby removes it from the known spectrum of political practice. The problem is not that the ‘multitude’ is undemocratic, this would be a different investigation, but that it undermines political representation. Note that I do not claim that the actions of non-institutional subjects cannot be politically effective. Adherents of the ‘multitude’ may claim that even if it is a non-institutional subject, the ‘multitude’ may nevertheless, through its actions, trigger political processes. This I do not deny, but one can do so without being an identifiable political player. Al-Qaeda for example, which Hardt and Negri also refer to since it is a group that exhibits a network structure, triggers definite political responses and changes, but it can hardly be seen as a political organisation. If Al-Qaeda is indeed the network of autonomous cells it is assumed to be then, I

Sloterdijk (1995, p.95) aptly remarks that today the average person often cannot see the state for all the bureaucracy anymore.



Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism claim, it is not a political organisation. Any group of people, no matter where, can claim to be a cell of Al-Qaeda and act according to its cause.42 Insofar as it is then nonrepresentable (for who could claim to represent it?) it is not a group that can be included in debates or decision-making processes.43 In my view, the latter is needed in order for a group to be a political agent. The question of hierarchy may allow for some leeway44 but some structure and identifiable goals and members have to be detectable, otherwise we may have a social movement but not a political agent (or player). Hardt and Negri cannot answer the pressing issue with which they are concerned, namely how the public and its governance is to be construed for our post-national and global age. Their model of governance is one of self-governance and the sphere is global. But this is equal to having no governance. To govern oneself in a world without borders leaves one fighting for oneself instead of fighting together with others. A world without boundaries, without an “outside”, can also offer no “inside”. As a consequence, Hardt and Negri cannot answer to such a crucial issue as that of legitimacy. Customarily the critical role of the public as the normatively legitimating force and the basis of political efficacy is conceived in terms of unified subjects bound to a territory (Fraser, 2007, p.224-253). In Western Europe this took the form of nation-states. The modern global conditions undermine this approach since in the course of globalisation territoriality becomes increasingly outdated: without a geographical territory we lose one of the main ingredients of what constitutes a public. The same applies to the formerly unifying elements of a national economy, media, language, and literary heritage. Nevertheless the essential elements of a public can remain intact: it needs to be clear a) who can participate in which debate, b) how the members of a public are to deal with each other (this constitutes the normatively legitimating force of the public), c) how public decisions are to be implemented in the policies and d) how those policies can, in turn, be executed (this constitutes the political efficacy of the public). Hardt and Negri’s approach cannot supply these criteria. Without boundaries of inclusion/exclusion, that define who is a rightful party to a decision and the conditions concerning the legitimacy of political decisions we simply have no framework for any governance whatsoever. That is,
Moreover, like Arendt (2006), I do not consider terrorism as a form of politics. As mentioned in the previous chapter, violence is a contra-political phenomenon. For if politics has something to do, as I think it does, with the fact that we are speaking beings, then violence is outside the realm of politics and even inhibits it, because by the time it comes to violence the power of words has clearly lost all appeal. 43 Note that if an enticing reply seems to be Osama Bin Laden (as the leader of Al-Qaeda) then the network analogy crumbles since then there is a hierarchy within the group with a clear leadership at the top that decides who is in the group and who is not, and which acts actually do embody Al-Qaeda’s cause and which do not. 44 The Green Party in Germany, for example, which came out of the 1968 student protests, has no one party leader but a panel of leaders.


Hardt and Negri I cannot tell who is legitimately party to my concern; who is ‘sitting in the same boat’ so to say; who has a rightful claim to be included in the decision-making process - and who does not. Hardt and Negri suppose, like Marx, a global solidarity of the workers merely on the grounds of the supposed homogeneity of their labour. As I have argued before, the claim to homogeneity is mistaken and this severely weakens a concept of solidarity that is based on it. Furthermore, ‘it is by no means clear that the cosmopolitical form of solidarity and its institutional guises can outgrow the existence of democratic nation-states’ (Rainer SchmalzBruhns, 2007, p.271).45 That is, how can Hardt and Negri be so sure that the ‘multitude’ will be so collaborative? If the unity of the ‘multitude’ results from their opposition to empire, then what keeps them connected once empire has ceased to exist? If, as Hardt and Negri stress, the ‘multitude’ is, like Marx’s proletariat, a class-concept, then the same difficulty applies: class is defined by opposition to another class. In Hardt and Negri’s case it is empire, rather than a definite social class, but once the opposing concept is gone what will happen to the supposed victors? For Marx this problem was easier to face than for Hardt and Negri. Since Marx conceived of the proletariat as the class of the industrial labourers the post-revolutionary situation is one in which the proletariat stops being a class and becomes a global labour force united by the centrality of industrial labour. Hardt and Negri cannot adopt this strategy so easily. Why? Because they explicitly insist that the ‘multitude’ is irreducible to a particular central activity. The ‘multitude’ is by definition a class of irreducible differences. In that case the question is what will unite those irreducible differences once empire as the common enemy has ceased to exist? I do not think that Hardt and Negri can offer a convincing answer. With the ‘multitude’ and its open network-structure Hardt and Negri have deprived themselves of the means to ensure collaboration and prevent faction-building because without institutions they can no longer ensure collaboration – and global self-governance becomes rather akin to a Hobbesian state of nature. I do not want to advocate a Hobbesian understanding of politics in general, but Hobbes (2005) realised that it takes common institutions in order to ensure the mutual recognition of rights among otherwise free individuals. That is, he noticed the importance of a ‘higher court of appeal’ than mere self-governance. Unlike Hobbes,
Also Zizek (2006) asks: “what would "multitude in power" (not only as resistance) be? How would it FUNCTION? […] what about the complex network of material, legal, institutional, etc. conditions that must be maintained in order for the informational "multitude" to be able to function? […] How are these strong standards and funding - in short, the main ingredients of the Welfare State - to be maintained?”


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism however, today we suppose that higher institutions are responsible and accountable for their actions and that they can be criticised if necessary. In this interplay between an institution and its subjects a lose bunch of individuals become a public and the critical role of the public constitutes the normatively legitimating force that Fraser (op.cit.) refers to. This concept of a public is elementary for our modern understanding of politics. Hardt and Negri, through the ‘multitude’ and its ‘self-governance’ lose the interplay with accountable higher institutions that constitute a public. Without some kind of institution the public misses a bearer of responsibility, that is, a public has lost its agent and thereby the target for which it is a public in the first place. Such a bearer of responsibility would have to draw boundaries for whom and which issues it is responsible and for whom and which it is not. The concept of self-determination, which Hardt and Negri want to employ for this function is no solution since also ‘the selfreferential concept of collective self-determination requires on logical grounds the distinction between members and non-members’.46 Self-determination is what Hardt and Negri have in mind when they claim that the ‘multitude’ can rule itself. But any decision is a particular and has limits concerning its scope and applicability, i.e. a framework has to be established for whom such a particular decision is relevant and for whom it is not. That is, we have to define a particular public to which it applies. For the vast majority of decisions this public cannot be global because most decisions are made locally, or regionally, some nationally, and concern particular people or groups of people. Only very few decisions apply globally. In other words, for decision-making we need the relevant publics which thus need to have boundary-conditions. With the ‘multitude’ Hardt and Negri thus end up with concept for a movement, particularly a protest movement, but not a political agent. The switch from the former to the latter would, according to my argument, require a move away from Hardt and Negri’s beloved networkanalogy, or an acknowledgement that even networks are not as egalitarian as they claim. Modern means of communication may allow us to form open networks but political participation and action still needs to be structured. A patchwork of autonomous cells that continuously form, re-form, and disband, as Hardt and Negri imagine it, cannot be a political group. The latter requires organisation and cannot be as Hardt and Negri require their networks to be, namely “essentially elusive, ephemeral, perpetually in flight” (M, p.55). That is, it must itself be an organisation in order to act like one. Maybe the particularly bureaucratic system of representative democracy that we have in most western states with its

Habermas, 1998, p.161, my translation, as quoted in Schmalz-Bruhns, 2007, p.271


Hardt and Negri current building blocks of political parties is merely contemporary and not particularly well suited47, but the ‘multitude’ seems to me even more unsuited to allow for political representation: a network of autonomous cells cannot represent anything successfully politically. Contrary to what Hardt and Negri want to make us believe, the ‘multitude’, as conceived so far, does not constitute a political player. In being non-representable and global it cannot make any decisions because important referents and conditions for decision-making and the notions of legitimacy and responsibility are missing. These are, however, essential parts for any democratic theory.

3. Conclusion
My final judgement, then, on the Italian postmodern Neo-Marxists spearheaded by Hardt and Negri and Lazzarato is fairly negative. I consider the concept of ‘immaterial labour’ a misnomer and the ‘multitude’ unable to be a political player. If my analysis is apt and the conclusion correct then I have undermined the two core concepts that these writers put forward.48 The important point, however, is that I have shown the issues to remain the same: Historical Materialism, whether in its original Marxian formulation or in postmodernism, suffers from the same flaws. I do not thereby argue that Historical Materialism as a whole is passé or defeated. Marx’ original contribution to social and political thought is invaluable. However, the shortcomings of Historical Materialism should be recognised. This means that it cannot stand as the sole and exhaustive approach to human life. Marx’s own account is already beset with particular problems. As I have argued in chapter 1, they originate mostly in Marx’s human ontology and take their toll on the account of politics. Not only are there difficulties concerning the relation between labour, freedom and emancipation but also very particular judgements on the characterisation and scope of politics. Marx conceived of politics as a necessary evil of means-end calculations by a dominating and exploitative class. Once the ideal conditions for human life are established (i.e. communism),
For a critique see Freystedt (2005). Freystedt, amongst other things, argues that our current party system is impractical because every party has to have a stand on every issue. Since any given party therefore also endorses points that an individual voter does not support, every voter basically tries to find the party that mostly embodies his views. To remedy this situation Freystedt advocates a governmental system that features different panels on different issues (for example, foreign policy, internal religious matters, economic policy, welfare policy, etc.) and people can vote separately on each panel. 48 A further reason to be sceptical is that so far the theory has not triggered any noteworthy success or even just engagement among the labour-force (or ‘immaterial labour-force’). A strong reason may simply be that without a substantial knowledge of political and philosophical theory these ‘communist manifestos of the 21st century’ are simply inaccessible. If these writers suppose themselves to write for the ‘multitude’ then they use a language which the addressee of their message does not understand.


Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism there would simply be no need for politics. It would wither away just like the state. Accordingly, in Marx’s ontology there is no space for politics: it is merely conditional to, instead of integral of, human life. Not politics but labour is central to human beings. Arendt, to say it drastically, argues the opposite, as I have shown in chapter 2. It is the human capacity for politics that is the most definitive and distinctive one. The labour of our bodies, as she says, is of course an undeniable part of human existence, but it does not pinpoint a distinctive feature since it is necessitated by a physiology which we share with many other living organisms. The work of hands, by contrast, does already pick out a trait that does indeed single out the human species. As Marx rightly says, no other species produces like human beings. We produce universally. This, however, only marks us out as a species, the most specific trait has not yet been mentioned: human beings do not only exist as a species, but also as individuals. To be more precise: we exist as individuals who conceive of ourselves as individuals. That an individual that is not just physically distinct, not just ‘other’, but unique in who one is, is one of the most fundamental experiences every human being has. This uniqueness emerges in action and this is why action is the most important trait for Arendt. Failing to consider it in this way means for Arendt to deny exactly what is most undeniable, namely the fundamental experience of every person that he/she is a certain self who is unlike any other person. Yet Arendt’s approach does thereby not constitute an equal reduction of human beings to the activity of interaction, as Marx’s reduction to the activity of labour. Arendt never denies the importance of all three parts of the human condition: labour, work, and action. Habermas is the Historical Materialist who takes on Arendt’s challenge of acknowledging uniqueness, the distinction between poiesis and praxis, the distinctiveness of action and the intrinsic capability for politics. As I have argued in chapter 3, he goes a long and complicated way in order to do so; to be precise, it takes the whole of the Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas is largely successful: he does indeed find a way to account for action in a framework that can still be conceived as a broad Historical Materialism. But as I have shown, in order to do so he provides a pragmatic account of language in the course of which he reduces communication to the propositional content of speech-acts. What he neglects is what has been so dear to Arendt, namely the uniqueness of the agents in communicative action. Furthermore, Habermas, by acknowledging the poiesis-praxis distinction, ends up with a binary division of system and life-world, instrumental and communicative action, for which he has received much criticism. The most substantial criticism on this matter is that he has cut 198

Hardt and Negri off the connection between labour and emancipation which was so important to Marx. I have shown in how far Habermas’ theory can answer these objections. The main point, however, is that since this debate in the 1970’s and 80’s, the arguments have not advanced much further. The debate on the connection between labour and emancipation in Habermas’ Historical Materialism has come to a stalemate. Enter the postmodernists. At the same time when the discussion between Habermas and his adversaries grinds to a halt, the postmodernists rediscover Marx for the new millennium. In chapter 4 I chose Hardt, Negri and Lazzarato because they are the most radical as well as some of the best known postmodern Neo-Marxists. Negri has the longest history on the subject dating back to the 1970’s. The fruits of his labour, however, only ripened within the last decade, namely with the publications of Empire and Multitude which received a global audience and caused much debate. Rather than following the Marxian path through Habermas, the Italian Neo-Marxists pick it up in the French postmodernist tradition. It is outside of the scope of this work to give a full account of the similarities and differences that mark the writings that I have considered in comparison to their French intellectual predecessors. What is important here are again the Historical Materialist roots and their postmodern outgrowths. I have claimed that, contrary to Habermas, Hardt and Negri apply Marx’s approach directly, changing only what is necessary to make the old claims fit the new global circumstances. Accordingly we should expect problems in the very same areas as in Marx’s account: this is where my critique of ‘immaterial labour’ and the ‘multitude’ fits in. The concept of ‘immaterial labour’ is, apart from other mistakes, beset by the same ambiguities as Marx’s labour: is it an inherently negative development or is potentially positive? In the same way that Marx’s texts do not provide an answer, neither do the postmodern ones. In fact, the core group of postmodern Neo-Marxists itself is split in two: Hardt and Negri standing on the side of the positive, Lazzarato on the side of the negative interpretation. This mirrors the bifurcation among followers of Marx on the question whether to abolish or universalise labour. Thus, insofar as the direct connection between labour and emancipation is simply reasserted, the difficulties of this move immediately present themselves again: do they inhere in one another or not? It is again supposed that emancipation can be produced like a (material or immaterial) thing, only this time not with industrial labour but with ‘immaterial labour’ and in ‘biopolitical production’. Thus the praxis of emancipation is again conceived as poiesis. This reduction of praxis to poiesis becomes only all-too explicit in their terminology (bioproduction, biopolitics) and their recurrent claims that life, as a whole, is produced. 199

Chapter IV: Postmodern Historical Materialism The ‘multitude’, then, is able to take matters in its own hands as life is again perceived as being a matter of production. Politically similar, Hardt and Negri revive the Marxian supposition that the state will wither away. The political subject is not the working class but the global ‘multitude’. With the improved means of communication technology and the sociality afforded by ‘immaterial labour’ Hardt and Negri argue that global communism is not only necessary but for the first time in history possible (M, p.xi). I have argued that this argument is at least premature. Furthermore, just as Marx thought that the state would wither away so Hardt and Negri claim that with increasing globalisation there will simply be no more need for states which are necessarily geographically limited. The abstract interrelations between national governments will, given the interconnectivity of the ‘multitude’, give way to the real and direct interrelations between actual individuals. Politics is no longer needed. Against this I have argued that the argument rests on the one hand on a mistaken idea about social life, namely the network-approach: networks are simply not as horizontal and egalitarian as supposed. Instead, empirical research has shown social networks to include hierarchical structures. The network approach, in the way that Hardt and Negri use it, is simply mistaken. Moreover, I have disputed that the ‘multitude’, in the way that this concept is conceived, is a political player even though the actions of those considered to be part of the ‘multitude’ may very well have political consequences. I have argued instead that a political agent (whether a single one or a group) requires discernible goals and at least a minimal hierarchy and differentiation of authority in order to be representative. Failing this we are left with a patchwork that may or may not have particular goals and which, according to Hardt and Negri, explicitly does not feature and preferential statuses or authority. Without these structures a network is simply not organised at all and while this may work for small-scale awareness-raising and debates it does not work for decision-making. But particularly on the global scale that Hardt and Negri want to apply their scheme decisions need to made and adhered to, for otherwise we cannot speak of a global subject at all. Again, my aim is not to defeat Historical Materialism as a whole. My intention was to show that there are certain flaws that are integral to this approach evidenced by the fact that the original formulations as well as the recent postmodern ones suffer them. One of the core assumptions of this approach is the direct connection between labour and emancipation and yet exactly this connection poses insurmountable problems. Within Historical Materialism itself they cannot be solved. Arendt’s approach offers a wider spectrum of considerations in which emancipation is not conceived as production, as a state of affairs that can be 200

Hardt and Negri brought about in a planned way and which is accomplished for everyone once a certain paradigm of production has established itself, but rather as a constant becoming possible through action. Contrary to Habermas this does neither require the implausible claim that persons intentionally regulate the public’s access to their inner private life, nor does it hold on to the supposition that we can ever become fully transparent to ourselves. Importantly this means that emancipation is unlike production processes, which come to a definite end, but is a constant possibility that cannot be ready-made by any political, social, or economic programme. This, last but not least, includes a different approach to politics, one which does not see it as a necessary evil, a mere means to an end that will disappear once that the paradigm of production has changed, but an end in itself which is indicative of the most important trait of ourselves: that we are not just exchangeable cogs in a global system of production working towards an aim for which no amount of production will suffice, but that we are non-exchangeable unique individuals. In order to be the latter we need the space where this can happen and for Arendt that is the realm of politics, the realm where we can act directly with each other, without recourse via the made products of work or labour.


Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections

V. Conclusions and projections

In summary of the previous chapters I can now claim the following: with the exception of Habermas, labour plays the central role in Historical Materialism, in fact, initially it was a Materialism because of this focus on labour (i.e. material reproduction). The history of mankind can then be described in material terms: in the process of physical life and the productivity of human beings. The aim which Marx connected with this analysis was the control of history by man: for if the historical forces that determine mankind’s development are material then this material system can be organised. Man no longer has to suffer the forces of history that seem arbitrary because they are unknown (the end of ‘pre-history’, 1859 Preface, Simon, op.cit., p. 212) but can direct them through the organisation of production and the organisation of the relations of production (the beginning of truly human history). The main goal of communism is to turn man into the maker of his own destiny and according to Marx this relies on the economic structure of society – on the ordering of production. This image of man as his own maker (in an intentional, directed and controllable way) is the one that presents itself when production assumes the role that it does in Marx: the image of man as a producer is not just the claim that human beings can make things (produce universally) but the much grander view that man’s own life is a production. He should therefore be able to direct and control the production of himself in the same way as the other things that he produces. Man dominates life instead of being dominated by it. To be dominated, instead of dominating, is to be alienated from one’s being. To be un-alienated for Marx, i.e. for man to be what he truly is, his essence, his species-being, is to be a producer not just of things but of himself. Anything that prevents man from this position as the producer of his own destiny is therefore a dominating force. To be over-powered by something external means to be dominated by it.1 Marx saw politics as the external imposition of a dominating force over the majority of mankind. Hence, politics means power over, or domination. In communism politics will not be needed and the forces of production are unleashed. Politics, in capitalism in the form of the ruling bourgeoisie, is a fetter to production, not just to material production but to the self-determination of man. Communism is meant to facilitate selfdetermination by unleashing the forces of production. But I have shown that this characterisation of human life is problematic: if labour is necessary (which it is according to Marx) then it cannot serve as an adequate characterisation of
1 In capitalism this external element is the class system and the market. A remnant of this thought is Habermas’ image of capitalism as a system that then colonises the life-world, i.e. capitalism as an external imposition that dominates the daily life which all experience as the lifeworld.


Conclusions and Projections human life because humans are only insufficiently characterised by what they have to do. Not necessity but excess (e.g. freedom) is what distinguishes man from other species. This excess cannot be captured by labour, in fact, it constitutes a problem for a view that supposes labour to be the (organisable and controllable) essence of mankind because excess escapes organisation and control. What does not fit the system must be eliminated.2 Seen from this perspective it actually appears that over the last 100 years Historical Materialists have attempted to tackle the problem of excess, or ‘that which is not in labour’, i.e. action (if we express what the poiesis-praxis distinction points out in this way), from two sides: Habermas by extending the Historical Materialist framework with a theory of language and communication to arrive at ‘communicative action’, and the current postmodernists Hardt and Negri by focussing on the non-material aspects of labour (affects, relationships, the ‘ideological content of products’ as Lazzarato puts it) to arrive at ‘biopolitical production’. Whereas Habermas explicitly separates communicative interaction from instrumental action (i.e. labour), the postmodernists are, in this respect, more Marxian, and view interaction as part of labour. That the postmodernists therefore come up with a concept of ‘immaterial labour’ is then no longer surprising: it unites the immaterial aspect of communication with the material activity of labour. When they then enlarge ‘immaterial labour’ to ‘biopolitical production’, which includes material labour again but also features social relationships which constitute the ‘reproduction of society as a whole’, they have gone as far as they can to capture action: they have widened the concept of production so far as to include the relations and subjective states of people in production. This is nevertheless still seen as production and this is typically Marxian: production has to remain the centre of their theory, whether by neglecting other phenomena or by widening the concept so much that it encompasses all that seems necessary, sometimes to such an extend that even metaphorical uses are taken as exemplary for the applicability of ‘production’.3

Because this excess is not a direct outcome of the labour-process but of the relations between people these relations become subject to the same rigorous control as the control of production. Politically this has a consequence which is evident in all states that attempted to realise communism: namely to control all interpersonal relations (the regulation of who is entitled to do, say, think, what in the last instance through a secret police). 3 “Postmodern warfare thus has many of the characteristics of what economists call post-Fordist production: it is based on both mobility and flexibility; it integrates intelligence, information, and immaterial labour; it raises power up by extending militarisation to the limits of outer space, across the surfaces of the earth, and to the depths of the oceans.” (M, p.40)



Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections Does this then simply turn the debate into a terminological one? Namely, who considers what to be production and who applies it in which way? No, the problem is that the production-model carries with it particular understandings of the phenomena we are concerned with. These understandings are not only mistaken but positively misleading because they re-establish the erroneous picture of man as his own maker and thereby the illusion that we can actively shape and direct the destiny of mankind world-historically.4 This image and the centrality of production in Historical Materialism is unsurprising given its historical environment, namely the western world during the industrialisation. Thus, only once labour, production and the domination of nature had reached the level they did in the industrialisation did people come to think that this is indeed man’s nature and that the understanding of it would allow him to shape his own destiny as he shapes objects in production. We could even say that only once an industrial population, a working class, existed did people think that this class embodies the heart and goal of human nature (Taylor, 1985, esp. pp.263-282; Svendsen, 2008, ch.1). Thus, the belief in the control of history through the control of production has particular consequences for politics. Firstly, if life is characterised by labour then one must come to Marx’s conclusion that politics is superfluous and with Engels one can conclude that all that is required is an ‘administration of things’(namely of the means, products and relations of production). But the essence of man is not captured in this framework, productivity is surely a feature of human life but more so are freedom and the uniqueness of every person. The interrelations between people, contrary to what Marx suggests, are not just an outcome of the relations of production and have more to do with emancipation than labour. Arendt’s approach to human life stresses these points without denying that we are also productive beings. We produce the means that we live on and we which we constantly have to reproduce, and we make the things that we live with and with which we enlarge the world of artefacts that we inhabit. Distinguished from both of these mediated (material) activities between man and world is the direct (un-mediated, non-material) relation between people in interaction. Here we confront each other not as producers of stuff but as unique individuals, as who each other is. This who cannot be accounted for by enumerating what one produces, nor does one confront another in one’s productive activity (poiesis). In direct interrelations (praxis) humans confront each other as totalities. These totalities constantly es4

Also Richard Sennett’s latest book ‘The Craftsman’ (2008) falls pray to this illusion. In trying to argue against what he perceives to be Arendt’s despise of the craftsman, he reveals his adherence to the view of man that has its root in the industrialisation and lies at the base of both Marxism and capitalism, namely that of as humans as their own makers (cf. esp., p.13).


Conclusions and Projections cape when we attempt to conceive them as a given set of aspects that we can name. Whenever we do so we have to realise that we still have not captured who this person is. Yet is clear that every human being is a unique who, and that every single one is confronted with a world of as many other unique people as alive at the time. These are the characteristics of uniqueness and plurality. They escape the reduction to a set of features of a person because they do not appear in isolation but only in the interaction between people. Habermas realises the difference between poiesis and praxis and how Marx reduces the latter to the former. Therefore Habermas accepts the distinction in order to capture the criticisms of Historical Materialism but attempts to explain praxis in terms of communicative action, where communication, in turn, is pragmatically reduced to the propositional content of linguistic utterances. Habermas thereby still falls prey to the assumption that the essence of man can be enumerated as set of nameable aspects that now contains all of what one says. But here he misunderstands what Arendt refers to when she considers interaction to be immaterial, because she does not just refer to what one says but to the uniqueness that emerges whatever on says. Habermas rightly distinguishes the normative from the instrumental sphere and thereby criticises Marx, but he still conceives of the human being as one that can be captured in a definite description, the recognition of which is then the means to complete emancipation. This ideal of complete emancipation does not only rely on the existence of a definite set of characteristics about human beings that can be enumerated but also on the assumption that every single person is fully transparent to him/herself, for only then can emancipation be complete. This constitutes the remainder of the materialistic approach that Habermas retains from Marx. This approach, in turn, is the outcome of a historical development in which the staggering advances in the sciences as well as productivity suggest that ultimately everything is merely a set of enumerable and nameable aspects. Marx still thought to capture those aspects in the concept of labour, Habermas realised that poiesis is here confused with the realm of praxis. He therefore switches the basis of emancipation from labour (poiesis) onto communicative action (praxis). Thus, in Habermas there is not just one central element to Historical Materialism (labour) but two: namely labour and communicative action, and emancipation happens through the latter. Habermas is therefore the odd Historical Materialist because, as Honneth realised, the role of labour in Historical Materialism has become a far more limited one in Habermas’ theory. Insofar has Habermas severs the connection between labour and emancipation with his distinction between instrumental and communicative action, he is, as Honneth points out quite rightly, a very un-marxian Historical Materialist. The relationship between labour and 205

Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections emancipation, which Marx defended with such vigour, has been separated. Habermas, in turn, went this way because in the separation of instrumental and communicative action he saw the only way to rescue Historical Materialism from its crisis. This stage of the debate looks like a dilemma for Historical Materialism: the most fruitful exponent carrying on this tradition in the most plausible way is Habermas, but through Honneth we know this to move away from the aim that Marx originally had in mind with his theory of history, namely to show the link between labour, emancipation and tie it to a story of progress. Thus, by changing Historical Materialism in order to encompass and account for the various failings, historical developments and counter-arguments that it experienced, Habermas offers the most plausible version, yet he disconnects labour from emancipation and history because of his distinction between instrumental and communicative action. Thus, we end up with a version of Historical Materialism that is painfully unmarxian. Honneth wants to argue that the separation of labour from emancipation is itself an outcome of the historical development: labour has, in line with industrialisation and automation become less and less emancipating. Hence, he argues, theories concerning labour have correspondingly given it less and less emancipatory potential. But Honneth’s valuation of labour as emancipating, in turn, is equally a historical product. As becomes clear, the evaluation of labour (necessitas) or work (utilitas) as productive and realising activities is itself only possible after a change in the way these activities are viewed. The ancients (and others until the Middle Ages) saw in work (in contrast to labour) a specifically human activity but not one that embodies the particularity of man himself. That is, of course only humans produce objects in the way we do but these objects do not embody the freedom or uniqueness of the person. They do not embody freedom because work is still part of utilitas and is therefore dictated by life’s circumstances and the way nature works. They do not embody the uniqueness of the person because it can potentially be done by someone else and also is no adequate representation of who someone is. The production of necessitas as well as utilitas was not seen as bringing something new to the world. Only once the making of things (poiesis) started to step in front of practical action (praxis) did artists, for example, start to claim their pieces, i.e. signed them. The development of the sciences, formerly a mere theoretical enterprise (in terms of survival an absolutely useless endeavour), started to produce its own things (for example the telescope as the first apparatus built purely for scientific and therefore otherwise useless purpose) and in the industrial revolution science connected with industry (Arendt, HC, sections 35, 36). Thus, work (and labour) got the final boost they 206

Conclusions and Projections needed in order to be viewed as productive phenomena. The creation of utilitas and necessitas could now be seen as productive and realising. Marx then proceeds to claim this productivity to be the crucial human ability in which the key to man’s destiny lies. The ancient view would have never supported this claim (cf. Jauss, 1982). Seen in this way it is not surprising that Marx had to get into problems. Only the modern age began to ascribe a creating and then emancipating character to work. Before, labour was merely ‘maintaining’ what was already there, it was consequently viewed as preventing man from emancipation insofar as there had been any kind of concept of ‘emancipation’ at all (for it is arguably a product of the Enlightenment).5 Only with the staggering increase in the kinds and amounts of goods people were able to produce did the judgement that man is productive in work become available, because now he really enlarged and filled the artificial world in which he lived. But these are rather quantitative states of affairs. Despite all its seeming productivity, labour and work cannot liberate themselves from the fact that they are connected with necessitas and utilitas, thus that they are determined by the world which we inhabit (whether the object is important or a mere luxury, like a toaster, say). Thus, they are not free but conditioned by needs. That Marx therefore had to entangle himself in his claims about labour is understandable: on the one hand he knew that work is necessary (hence he can claim that it is a universal human trait, one that is independent of any particular social arrangement) but on the other hand he claimed it to be man’s redemption since it is apparently so productive and emancipating. Hence Marx varies between praising work as the essence of human being yet also distinguishes the realm of work as the realm of necessity from the realm of freedom. This problem can only arise when work is regarded as free and self-realising. But this view only appeared with the start of the modern age (Neuzeit); until the Middle Ages this was unthinkable. Insofar as labour is conditioned by our biological existence it is exactly not free. Also utilities, the products of work, include a certain compulsion which can be traced back to our embodiment: if we want to live in an artificial world instead of untamed nature, then we cannot choose to construct buildings but we have to. The maintenance of this artificial world then follows necessarily and therefore becomes akin to labour. If the artificial world is meant to last then we have to maintain it: we have to repair roads, roofs, and mend broken clothes. If we did not, then within a single lifetime nature would reclaim most areas and resources that we have wrestled from her. Even if we were to liberate mankind from the

See also Taylor (1985, ch. 10) and Jauss (1982)


Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections economic necessity to work (in order to earn a living) the activities would therefore not become any freer in their essence. Of course, a carpenter who has to make a table for a living is under an additional strain to the one who makes it for himself, for which reason already Aristotle made the distinction between the activity on the one hand and the additional trait to make money with it on the other (1995, Book 1, chs.8, 9, also Plato, 1987, Book 1, 346b-e). But for both the need and the rules of how to construct a table are given by the world we inhabit, i.e. work still remains subject to utilitas. Marx says quite rightly that labour has to be done. This is why it is one of the few things that is not dependent on the social and historical environment. The details of how labour is done, for example, are, of course, dependent on the circumstances (particularly the knowledge and tools available), but that it has to be done is unquestionable. As Marx aptly puts it: life depends on it. This fact is unalterable, even in a communist society and therefore Marx has to encounter problems because he shows work to be necessary and liberating at the same time. Since he is aware of its necessity he ceases to call for its abolition (The German Ideology) and only calls for the shortening of the working-day (Capital III). However, the background admission is the same: namely that man is only free when he does not work. But it is not only these conceptual problems that are characteristic of Historical Materialism, there are also the political outcomes. Indicatively, from Marx, via Habermas, to Hardt and Negri Historical Materialism advances the universalisation of politics (if it does not want to eliminate politics completely, which is equally a universal aim). For Marx the proletariat has no home country and communism can only be achieved world-historically (i.e. globally). Habermas, in recent years, is also going down the path of global governance and Hardt and Negri, as shown, want to locate all sovereignty in a global ‘multitude’. Thus, we have the same political outcome from theories with the same analytical focus (labour). Since material production is an activity we pursue globally (everywhere people labour and work) the focus on this activity leads to political theories that are equally globalising. The universality of labour becomes the universalisation of the political subject. The focus on the universal activity of material reproduction has as a consequence the universalisation of politics. Arendt’s thought goes in the opposite direction: there can be no global politics. She presents a different view: not production is the salient feature of human history but rather the ability to live together despite6 differences and to be able to establish a realm in

6 Or even because of differences. Aristotle claimed that a group of people characterised by sameness will never make a state, it is always different people that make a state (1995, Book 2, ch.2).


Conclusions and Projections which the distinctive fact of everyone’s uniqueness can emerge: the realm of politics. Thus, not homo faber, the producing human, but Aristotle’s political animal is Arendt’s point of reference. Politics is not a necessity that we have to endure but a possibility that we can achieve.7 Politics is thus not natural in the sense that it does not come about by itself. It is an achievement, not a given. Unlike all production processes the political realm allows people to present themselves as they are: not as makers of things but as individual actors, thus in the way that they immediately appear to each other, without mediation via man-made objects. Not what one can produce is of importance here but who one is. This is also crucial for emancipation. Emancipation is an individual process (in the sense of ‘individuality’ I used above for the realm of politics) that has no determinable end.8 Accordingly, it cannot be produced, or made, because it is not a power that we hold and which we can employ like one’s labour-power. Just like the realm of politics it is not necessary or given but a possibility and an achievement. It is facilitated in interaction and not in production processes (whether labour- or work-ones). This does not mean that in production I cannot realise something about myself, but it will concern my abilities. Yet who I am is not exhausted by the set of my abilities since who I am as a person amongst other persons comprises more than just what I can do.9 In this way emancipation is linked to my being, when I am in relations with others, when I am interacting. This is not a labour process, for it is not necessitated by the way that I or the world function. Nor is this a work-process, for I am not creating a thing of which I have a definite picture in mind beforehand and which is finished at a particular point. This is interaction, an ongoing process, a ‘becoming’ as existentialists liked to say. Emancipation is neither necessary, nor useful, but it is a particular possibility given to human beings. When emancipation is seen here as an individual development, the effect that Arendt’s account of interaction has on politics is one of interdependence. Since, if the realm of inter7 Here Arendt diverges from Aristotle’s term of the ‘political animal’ since it is exactly in our ability for politics that man is not an animal. Man is a social animal, but uniquely human only in his ability for politics, a realm which is conditional and fragile. We always live together in social groups, but by no means are all social groups also political groups. Already Aristotle separates political communities from others. See for example 1995, Book 1, ch.5, 1254b4, Book 3, ch.4, 1277b8, ch.7. 8 This does, however, not mean that I can conduct it by myself. Insofar as all human action presupposes a social background so does emancipation. 9 This is the point at which Arendt argues that I can never be the master of my own person. This is at least partly due to the fact that I do not determine the end of my actions (what multifarious effects they have) nor my own end. I initiate my actions but I do not write the story in which they appear, nor can I determine as who I will appear. It is in retrospect, namely from the position of a storyteller, that the persons in the story can be evaluated for who they are according to their entire life’s story. I am the author of my own actions but the story in which they appear has to be told by another and this story-teller will be able to see how my actions that I initiate and the story which I do not write cohere and of what they are indicative concerning me as a person. I myself can never have this insight because I can never access the distant position of a spectator and storyteller that it requires. See HC, section 25, esp. p183ff.


Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections action is the realm of politics, and interaction can only happen between (the ‘inter’ of ‘interaction’) agents, then it is also here where politics is located, namely in-between people. The “essence” of politics, so to say, its origin and grounding, cannot be found in any one human being but only in those immaterial relations between them (Cf. HC, p.187ff., Arendt, 2005, p.11). Hence theories which attempt to give an exhaustive definition of human beings by locating all human-related phenomena, such as politics, within any single human being, fail. Arendt’s approach explicitly acknowledges the importance of those aspects of human life that are relational. In this way, politics is integral to the relations between agents and hence not a superfluous feature. It is an intrinsic possibility that human beings, as plural and unique interacting agents, can realise. The recognition of the uniqueness of individuals in interaction and of the plurality of the human condition, therefore, gives a radically different outlook on politics, namely an outlook which, contrary to Historical Materialism, also denies the possibility of global politics. Insofar as the political subject is universalised or globalised in Historical Materialism it becomes un-political: as Arendt claims, due to the focus on labour the approach is unpolitical because in labour individuality is neglected/undermined – one does not count as who one is but only as an exponent of labour-power. There can be no global political subject because ‘political’ means the coming together of individuals in a particular challenge facing them. These challenges are particular and contingent and no two communities will have the same concerns. The task of politics is to create a world for the future, where ‘world’ means ‘lifeworld’ rather than ‘global’. This future is thus local, namely the future of the community in which I live today and want to live tomorrow. On the global level any individuality is undermined: no individual can take responsibility for the whole planet, no one can represent everyone. On the global level we indeed face administration: not individuals making decisions but the bureaucratic machinery issuing edicts for which no one wants to claim responsibility – responsibility is deferred to experts, scientists, opinion polls and ‘the system’. This is not to deny that there are global problems but their number is small, namely only those in which actually everyone could come to harm (e.g. the threats of nuclear weapons or of global warming). On this global level we face the masses, whether in the shape of a universalised proletariat or the ‘multitude’. This could not be otherwise, for we are attempting to collect all living persons under one term, such as ‘mankind’. According to my argument, ‘mankind’ may have its use in biological, anthropological or related issues, but it cannot be a political term. Particularly, ‘mankind’ can be no political subject or agent because it undermines the sine 210

Conclusions and Projections qua non of politics: that it is an encounter of different people. ‘Mankind’ and other massconcepts like a global proletariat or ‘multitude’, however, undermines all differences and thus all individuality and uniqueness. Also the ‘multitude’ cannot escape this problem: although Hardt and Negri insist on the plurality of the ‘multitude’, I have shown in how far exactly this characterisation disables it from being a political subject. The ‘multitude’, as a universal set or set of sets, exhibits the same features as other mass-terms: it is faceless or anonymous, thus exactly the opposite of what human beings are. The masses, in whichever guise, remain anonymous and ungraspable. As soon as we are required to name the masses (mankind, the ‘multitude’) we realise that we cannot name anyone. We cannot, so to say, make a list of who belongs to the masses since any single person has characteristics that do not fit the generality we want to capture with terms as ‘the masses’, ‘mankind’, or the ‘multitude’. That such terms are not only inapplicable in politics but even politically dangerous is not new. Jaspers remarked in 1931:
The concept of ‘the masses’ seemingly has to rule, but it turns out that it cannot. It seems a monster but it disappears where I want to get hold of it. It is not clear what ‘the masses’ is. It remains only quantitative and thus without being. […] The human being lives as itself in its environment through remembering and forward-looking connectedness. Relieved of his grounding, without conscious history, without continuity of being the human being cannot remain human. The universal solution to being would reduce the being of actual people, who are themselves in their world, to a mere function. […] Today the mass appears in arguments as the unquestionable and infallible which we must serve and above which there is no reality; it is as if ‘the masses’ was the content of human history and of meaningful planning. ‘Masses’ has become the ensnaring word in order to think under the category of plurality a single anonymous singularity – mankind. But mass cannot be the carrier of meaning for the essence of that which concerns human beings. Every human being as possible existence is more than just a member of the mass, he experiences his own challenges which he cannot transfer to others, and he must not lose himself in the mass, because then he would lose his humanity. But the appeal to the mass becomes the sophistic means to uphold an empty machinery, to flee oneself, to escape the responsibility to the elevation of actual human being. (1999, pp. 34, 38f., 67f., translation U.M.);

Or in Buber’s succinct words:


Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections
But the mankind of mere It that is imagined, postulated, and propagated […] has nothing in common with a living mankind where Thou may truly be spoken. (1958, p.13).

A global subject cannot help but being a non-subject insofar as it has to deny all individuality, thus it cannot be a political subject, let alone a political agent. Of course such universalising tendencies of the political realm do not only come out of Historical Materialism but this tradition is one of the harbours of such tendencies. As Arendt claimed, a labour-centred ontology must misconstrue the political. In labour and work we can perform/organise/conceive globally and we can locate these activities within the single human being. But insofar as we are individuals in the sense described, namely relational plural and unique beings, there can be no global conception of it. “Globalität” (globality) undermines individuality and a global ‘fleeting’ subject, like the ‘multitude’, can have no stability, which is part of the job of politics. The world in which we live is ‘fleeting’ enough by itself – it is fleeting without politics.10 What we can achieve is to live in communities in which we can enjoy a degree of permanence and freedom which is otherwise unavailable, not by undermining individuality but exactly through acknowledging it. Politics does not just concern the organisation of labour, it is not simply domination, it is not just a means to an end and it will not simply disappear once labour is communally organised. Both politics and labour are aspects of human life, yet they are distinct, for no focus on only one will afford us all there is to know about the other. Likewise there can be no global emancipation, for if emancipation is meant to refer to our being and not just the level of material production or the domination of nature, then, again, we need to have an account of, and access to, the individual. As I have argued, Historical Materialism fails here: unleashing the forces of production is not synonymous with the emancipation of mankind.11 If emancipation does not just refer to the level of social and political influence that a group of people has (be it the proletariat or the ‘multitude’), but retains the Enlightenment sense of realising one’s potential as a human being, then it is clear in how far Historical Materialism misses the target: simply because the potential of
That the political subject of the Marxian postmodernists is ‘fleeting’ shows how similar this subject has become to all products of consumption: just like the latter the political subject is now equally without substance, without permanence or endurance. Hardt and Negri have nothing to offer against capitalist production, on the contrary, they theory is completely in its image. 11 “The general industrial process consumes more natural and human “resources” than it can create or regenerate. In this way it is autopoietic like cancer, so creative like a firework, so productive as the growing of drugs. What has been hailed as human productivity without hardly any resistance for almost two hundred years, is becoming increasingly transparent in its destructive and addictive character.” (Sloterdijk, 1995, p.79, translation U.M.)


Conclusions and Projections human beings is not exhausted in material (or immaterial) production. Furthermore, the production model, as a conceptual image, is not applicable to emancipation because coming to realise a potential and self-reflection are not processes for which the end is determinable – nor are we in charge of the process, as the image of man as ‘the producer’ suggests. Instead, the latter triggers the dilemma that I have pointed out: as also Taylor (1985, p.282) remarks, we have to live with a self-induced problem: we understand ourselves as the creators of our destinies, yet the development of modern states, life, work, etc. is such that our heightened sense of control, autonomy, and resulting self-worth and esteem, is precisely not met. Some of Marx’s characterisations of the industrial societies of his time still apply: we feel increasingly unfulfilled, unchallenged, insignificant and left out. This may partly be a result of capitalism, but it is also simply a result of mass-societies. The bureaucratic system of modern states adds its own share in reducing the single person to a number. Our frustration at realising ourselves is not just due to alienating work-conditions under capitalism but goes in hand with all paradigms that endorse the ideal of self-crafting, including Historical Materialism. Thus, when work is combined with one’s essence then one defines oneself through work. This is the legacy of industrialisation. As a result, today we accept the equivocation of individuality with work and we are also still under the influence of an ethic which tells us that we can (and should) make ourselves. I have argued that such an approach fails. The globalising tendencies that Historical Materialism harbours, because it does not account for persons as who they are but only as exponents of such general (and global) traits as labour-power, mirrors and manifests its neglect of uniqueness in the political realm. I do not, of course, thereby argue against globalisation. The increasingly dense traderelations that we witness are really a process that started long before the industrial revolution. I do, however, oppose global conceptions of politics. Sloterdijk’s (1995, pp.57, 64) remark that human communities can only regenerate from the small-scale level, links up with Arendt’s vision of politics, since she thinks it is only possible in a localised setting.12 Globalisation does present our species with a previously unprecedented condition of interconnectedness for which most of our social structures, as well as social theories, have nothing to offer. As Sloterdijk (1995, esp. p.55) states: the politics for the 21st century have not yet been written. Contrary to the adherents of globalising approaches of politics I consider

“In their decay the superstructures show that they have almost nothing to give to the single individual in order to continue his/her life. Rather it becomes clear: as soon as the opus commune disintegrates on the higher level people can only regenerate from smaller units.” (Sloterdijk, 1995, p. 64, translation U.M.)



Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections their attempts in vain.13 Historical Materialism is prone to advocate such approaches due to its reductive image of the human being. What Arendt can offer, and what I have supported and elaborated here, is a more encompassing approach to human life which does not conclude with an end of politics but with its appraisal. Whether the concept of politics that results from Arendt’s view is successful in the (post)modern world is not question that can yet be answered. As far as I have argued, however, contrary to Historical Materialism it acknowledges the intrinsic relational facts of uniqueness, plurality and interaction, that are central human life. To recognise these facts requires an Arendtian framework, one in which the interaction of human beings is conceived irrespective of their productivity but as the unique persons who they are.


“In the same way that there was no classical politics without the resistance of the tribes and hordes including an entire counter-world of anarchisms, privatisms, and childishness, there will also be no hyper [i.e. global] politics without the revenge of the local and the individual. Big regions will turn away in latent and manifested strikes from the world-form of globalised capital. In the same way, as already visible, considerable parts of the populations will turn their backs in hostile indifference to all things political.” (Sloterdijk, 1995, p.57, translation U.M.]


Conclusions and Projections

‘Keep on smiling’, 2006, Aufheben, Issue 14, Agger, M., 2009, Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Andras, P.,, 2005, Faults, errors and failures in communications: A systems theory perspective on organisational structure, in: Besnard, D,, (Eds.) Structure for Dependability: Computer-Based Systems from an Interdisciplinary Perspective, Springer-Verlag, pp.189-216 Andras, P.,, 2009, Network analysis of complex systems, Presentation given at the University of Kent 2009 Andrew, E., 1970, Work and Freedom in Marcuse and Marx, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 3, 2, 241-256 Arendt, H., 1958, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago Arendt, H., 1987, Amor Mundi: explorations in the faith and thought of Hannah Arendt, J.W.Bernauer (ed.), Canada Kluwer Academic Publishers Arendt, H., 2002, Vom Leben des Geistes, Piper, München Arendt, H., 2005, Was ist Politik?, Piper, München Arendt, H., 2006, Macht und Gewalt, Piper, München Aristotle, 1976, Ethics, Penguin Books, London Aristotle, 1995, Politik,Philosophische Schriften, in sechs Bänden, Band 4, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt


Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections Bakan, M., 1979, Hannah Arendt’s concepts of labour and work, in Hill, M.A.., 1979, Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, St. Martin’s Press, New York Benhabib, S., 1986, Critique, Norm and Utopia, a study of the foundations of Critical Theory, Columbia University Press, New York Benhabib, S., 1992, Situating the Self: gender, community and postmoderism in contemporary ethics, Polity, Cambridge Benhabib, S., 1998, Hannah Arendt, Die melancholische Denkerin der Moderne, Rotbuch Verlag, Hamburg Braverman, H., 1974, Labour and Monopoly Capital, the degradation of work in the 20th Century, Monthly Review Press, New York Breen, 2007, Work and Emancipatory Practice: Towards a Recovery of Human Beings’ productive Capacities, Res Publica, 13, 4, (December), 381-414 Buber, M., 1958, I and though, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh Canovan, M., 1983, A Case of Distorted Communication: A Note on Habermas and Arendt, Political Theory, Vol. 11, No. 1. (Feb.), 105-116 Chitty, A., 1993, The Early Marx on Needs, Radical Philosophy, 64, Summer, 23-31 Clark, S., 2005, A Grammar of the Multitude: for an analysis of contemporary forms of life, Political Theory, Vol. 33, No. 5 (Oct., 2005), pp. 735-737 Cohen, A.G., 1978, Karl Marx’s Theory of History, A Defence, Clarendon Press, Oxford Collins, H., 1965, Sociology of Emancipation, Phylon, Vol. 26, No. 2. (2nd Qtr), 148161 Coward, M., 2005, The Globalisation of Enclosure: Interrogating the Geopolitics of Empire, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 6, pp 855-871 216

Conclusions and Projections

Disch, J.L., 1994 Arendt and the limits of philosophy, Cornell University Press, New York Dryzeck, J., 2005, Deliberative Democracy in Divided Societies, Alternatives to Agonism and Analgesia, Political Theory, Vol.33, No.2, (April), 218-242 Durkheim, E., 1984, The Division of Labour in Society, Macmillan, Basingstoke Elster, J., 1985, Making Sense of Marx, Cambridge University Press, Paris Engels, 1962, Socialism, utopian and scientific, in Selected Works in Two Volumes, Vol. II, Lawrence & Wishart, London Engler, W., 2005, Bürger, ohne Arbeit, für eine radikale Neugestaltung der Gesellschaft, Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin Eyerman, R. et. al., 1981. Habermas on Work and Culture, Theory and Society, Vol. 10, No. 4 (July), 547-566 Forbes, I., 1983, Marx and Human Nature, Frances Pinter, London Fossen, T., 2008, Agonistic Critiques of Liberalism: Perfection and Emancipation, Contemporary Political Theory, 7, 4, 367-394 Fraser, N., 2007, Die Transnationalisierung der Öffentlichkeit, Legitimität und Effektivität der öffentlichen Meinung in einer postwestfälischen Welt, in Nielsen, P.,, 2007, Anarchie der kommunikativen Freiheit, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 224-253 Freystedt, V.,, 2005, Equilibrismus, neue Konzepte statt Reformen fuer eine Welt im Gleichgewicht, Signum Verlag, Wien Fromm, 1941, The Fear of Freedom, Routledge, London Fromm, 2006, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, Continuum, London 217

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Gould, C. 1978, Marx’s social ontology: Individuality and community in Marx’s theory of social reality, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. Goldsmith, M., 2008, What got you here won’t get you there, how successful people become even more successful, Hyperion, New York Habermas, J., 1969, Technik und Wissenschaft als Ideologie, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main Habermas, J., 1971, Theorie und Praxis, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main Habermas, J., 1972, Knowledge and Human Interest, Heinemann London Habermas, J., 1974, Theory and Practice, Heinemann, London Habermas, J., 1975, Towards a Reconstruction of Historical Materialism, Theory and Society, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Autumn), pp. 287-300 Habermas, J., 1984, The theory of communicative action, Vol. 1: reason and the rationalisation of society, Polity Press, London Habermas, J., 1987, The theory of communicative action, Vol. 2: Lifeworld and system, a critique of functionalist reason, Polity Press, Cambridge Habermas, J., 1990, Strukurwandel der Öffentlichkeit., Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, Frankfurt am Main Habermas, J., 1991, A Reply, in Honneth, 1991, Communicative Action, essays on Jürgen Habermas’ ‘Theory of Communicative Action’, Polity Press, Oxford, 215-293 Habermas, J., 1996, Labour and Interaction, remarks on Hegel’s Jena Philosophy of Mind, in J.O’Neill, ed. Hegel’s dialectic of desire and recognition, State University of New York Press, New York


Conclusions and Projections Hardt, M., 1999, Affective Labour, Boundary 2, Vol. 26, No.2, (Summer), 89-100 Hegel, G.W.F., 1977, Phenomenology of Spirit, Clarendon Press, Oxford Hegel, G.W.F., 1987, Phänomenologie des Geistes, Reclam (reprint 2003), Ditzingen Hegel, G.W.F., 1988, Elements of a philosophy of right, Phenomenology of spirit, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, transl. L.Rauch, Hachett, Indianapolis Hegel, G.W.F., 1991, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Heidegger, M., 2001, Sein und Zeit, Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen Hill, Melvyn A.., 1979, Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, St. Martin’s Press, New York Hill, P., 1999, Tangibles, Intangibles and Services: A New Taxonomy for the Classification of Output, The Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol.32, No.2, 426-446 Hobbes, T., 2005, Leviathan, in Morgan, M.L. (ed.), Classics of Moral and Political Theory, Hackett Publishing Company Cambridge Honneth, A., 1991, Communicative action: essays on Jürgen Habermas’s The theory of communicative action, Polity, Cambridge Honneth, A., 1982, Work and Instrumental Action, Critical Theory and Modernity, Spring-Summer, 31-54 Honneth, A., 2008, Reification: a new look at an old idea, Oxford University Press USA, New York Honneth, A.,, 1991, Communicative Action, essays on Jürgen Habermas’ ‘Theory of Communicative Action’, Polity Press, Oxford 219

Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections Jaspers, K., 1963, Philosophie und Welt, Piper & Co. Verlag, München Jaspers, K. 1999, Die geistige Situation der Zeit, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin Jaspers, K., 2007, Chiffren der Transzendenz, Auditorium Jauss, H.R., 1982, Poiesis (transl. by Michael Shaw), Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 3, (Spring, 1982), pp. 591-608, Joas, H., The Unhappy Marriage of Hermeneutics and Functionalism, in Honneth, 1991, Communicative action: essays on Jürgen Habermas’s The theory of communicative action, Polity, Cambridge, 97-118 Kant, Ideen zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht, Vierter Satz, (Mundus Verlag, 2000) Karlsson, J.C., 2001, The Ontology of Work: Social Relations and Doing in the Sphere of Necessity, (PDF), paper presented at the 5th Annual IACR Conference, held at Roskilde University, Denmark, Friday 17 to Sunday 19 August 2001.); available at: n_ow.pdf Keane, J., 1975, On Tools and Language: Habermas on Work and Interaction, New German Critique, No.6 (Autumn), pp. 82-100 Kellner, D., 2002, Theorizing Globalisation, Sociological Theory, Vol.20, No.3, (November), 285-305 Knops, A., 2006, Delivering Deliberation’s Emancipatory Potential, Political Theory, 34, 5, (October), 594-623 Lazzarato, M., Immaterial Labour, http://www.generationavailable at:


Conclusions and Projections Leiss, W., 1971, Technological Rationality: Notes on “Work and Freedom in Marcuse and Marx, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 4, 3, 398-400 Lenin, 1978, Marx, Engels, Lenin: on communist society, a collection, Progress Publishers, London Lukács, G., 1980, Labour, Merlin Press, London MacIntyre, A.C., 1985, After Virtue, Duckworth, London Marcuse, H., 1955, Reason and Revolution, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and Henley Marcuse, H., 1965, Kultur und Gesellschaft, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main Marcuse, H., 2008, A Study on Authority, Verso, London Marx, K., 1963, The poverty of philosophy, International Publishers Marx, K., 1962, Critique of the Gotha Program, in Selected Works in Two Volumes, Vol. II, Lawrence & Wishart, London Marx, K., 1966, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, in Fromm, E., Marx’s Concept of Man, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York Marx, K., 1967, The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth Marx, K., 1968, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow Marx, K., 1970, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow Marx, K., 1971, Capital, A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Volume I, Progress Publishers, Moscow 221

Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections Marx, K., 1971 b, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, Progress Publishers, Moscow Marx, K., 1973, Grundrisse, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth Marx, K., 1976, The German Ideology, MECW, Vol. 5, Lawrence & Wishart, London Marx, K., 1976 b, Feuerbach and End of Classical German Philosophy, MECW, Vol. 26, Lawrence & Wishart, London Marx, K., Wages, Price and Profit, MECW, Lawrence & Wishart, London Marx, K., 1994, Theses on Feuerbach, in Simon, L.H., Karl Marx, Selected Writings, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Cambridge Marx, K., Comments on J.S. Mill, MECW, Lawrence & Wishart, London Simon, L.H., 1994, Karl Marx, Selected Writings, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Cambridge McLellan, D., 1984, Marx, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., Glasgow Mill, J.S., 1978, On Liberty, Hackett, Indianapolis Morris, M., 2004, The Critique of Transcendence, Political Theory, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Feb.), 121-132 Mouffe, C., 1993, The Return of the Political, Verso, London Mouffe, C., 2000, The democratic Paradox, Verso, London Mouffe, C., 2005, On the Political, Routledge, London Mulhall, S., 1998, Species-being, Teleology and Individuality, Angelaki, 3, 1, 9, Carfax Publishing Ltd., Abingdon, 9-28 222

Conclusions and Projections

Negri, A.,, 2000, Empire, Harvard University Press, London Negri, A.,, 2004, Multitude, Penguin Books, London Nielsen, P.,, 2007, Anarchie der kommunikativen Freiheit, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main Ninkovich, F., 2000, untitled review, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 115, No. 3 (Autumn), pp. 488-489 O’Neill, J., ed., 1996, Hegel’s dialectic of desire and recognition, State University of New York Press, 1996 Parekh, B., 1981, Man and the World of Appearances, in Hannah Arendt and the search for a new political philosophy, Macmillan Press, London, 84-130 Pfeiffer, S., 2004, Arbeitsvermögen, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden Plato, 1987, The Republic, Penguin Books, London Popper, K.R., 1958, Die offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde, Band II, A. Francke AG Verlag, Bern Popper, K.R., 2002, Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge, London Press, H. 1977, The existential Basis of Marxism, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 37, 3, 331-344 Rancière, J., 1992, On the Shores of Politics, Verso, London Ricoeur, P., 2004, Memory, History, Forgetting, University of Chicago Press, London Rifkin, J., 2004, The End of Work, Penguin Books, New York 223

Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections Rotenstreich, N., 1977, Theory and Practice, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague Runciman, W.G., (1969), Social Science and Political Theory, Cambridge University Press, London Sartre, J.P., 1990, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Verso, London Sartre, J.P., 1973, Existentialism & Humanism, Methuen, London Sayers, S., 2009, Review, Mind, 118, 470, 476-9 Sayers, S., 2007, The Concept of Labour, Marx and his Critics, Science & Society, Vol. 71, No. 4, 431-454 Sayers, S., 2006, Freedom and the "Realm of Necessity'', The Left-Hegelians: New Philosophical and Political Perspectives, ed. Douglas Moggach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2006, pp. 261-74 Sayers, S., 2005, Why work? Marxism and Human Nature, Science & Society, Vol. 69, No. 4, 606-16 Sayers, S., 2003, Creative Activity and Alienation in Hegel and Marx, Historical Materialism, Vol. 11, No. 1, 107-128 Sayers, S., 1998, Marxism and Human Nature, Routledge, London Schaff, A.., 1965, Marxismus und das menschliche Individuum, Europa-Verlag, Frankfurt Schmalz-Bruhns, R., 2007, An den Grenzen der Entstaatlichung, Bemerkungen zu Jürgen Habermas’ Modell einer „Weltinnerpolitik ohne Weltregierung, in Nielsen, P.,, 2007, Anarchie der kommunikativen Freiheit, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 269-293 Schoolman, M., 1973, Further Reflections on Work, Alienation, and Freedom in Marcuse and Marx, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 6, 2, 295-302 224

Conclusions and Projections

Schütz, A., et. al., 2003, Strukturen der Lebenswelt, UVK Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Konstanz Searle, J.R., 2003, Rationality in Action, MIT Press, New York Seth, S., 2002, Back to the Future?, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 (June), 565575 Sennett, R., 2008, The Craftsman, Penguin Books, London Sherman, D., et. al., 1999, Hegel’s phenomenology of self-consciousness, State University of New York Press, New York Simon, L.H., 1994, Karl Marx, Selected Writings, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Cambridge Smith, A.A., 1984, Two Theories of Historical Materialism: G. A. Cohen and Jürgen Habermas, Theory and Society, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Jul., 1984), pp. 513-540 Steger, M.B., 2002, Review, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 96, No. 1, March, pp. 264-265) Sloterkijk, P., 1995, In Einem Boot, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main Suchting, W.A., Marx and Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, Ethics, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Oct., 1962), pp. 47-55 Svendsen, L., 2008, Work, Acumen, Stocksfield Taylor, C., Language and Society, in ‚Communicative Action, essays on Jürgen Habermas’ „The Theory of Communicative Action“, A. Honneth and H. Joas (ed.), translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones, (Polity Press, Oxford, 1991), 23-35


Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections Taylor, C., 1985, Philosophy and the Human Sciences, Philosophical Papers 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Taylor, P., 1993, The Texts of Paulo Freire, Open University Press, Buckingham Templar, R., 2005, The Rules of Management, Pearson Education Ltd., Harlow Tilly, C., 2002, Review, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 35, No. 1 (March), 224225 Vazquez-Arroyo, A.Y., 2002, Recasting the Left at the “End of History”, Polity, Vol. 34, No. 4, Summer, pp. 553-569 Weil, S., 1985, Oppression and Liberty, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London Whitmore, J., 2002, Coaching for Performance, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London Yack, B., 2006, Rhetoric and Public Reasoning: an Aristotelian Understanding of Political Deliberation, Political Theory, 34, 417-434 Zizek, S., 2006,

Further References: Anderson, B., 2000, The global Politics of Domestic Labour, Routledge, London Bessette, J., 1994, The Mild Voice of Reason: Deliberative Democracy and American National Government, University of Chicago Press, Chicago Blackburn, S., 2007, A Fair Days Wage for a Fair Days Work?, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot Cohen, J., 1989, Deliberative Democracy and Democratic Legitimacy, in Pettit, P.,, The Good Polity, Blackwell, Oxford, 17-34 Colella, A., 2009, Discrimination at Work, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, Mahwah Connolly, W.E., 1987, Politics and Ambiguity, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison


Conclusions and Projections Crawford, M.B., 2009, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Penguin Press HC, London de Botton, A., 2009, The Joys and Sorrows of Work, Hamish Hamilton Donkin, R., 2001, Blood, Sweat and Tears: the Evolution of Work, Texere Elster, J., 1998, Deliberative Democracy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Friedman, S.D.,, 2000, Work and Family – Allies or Enemies, Oxford University Press, Oxford Gini, A., 2001, My Job, My Self: Work and the Creation of the Modern Individual, Routledge, London Gorz, A., 2001, Farewell to the Working Class, Pluto Press, London Hemsath, D.,, 1997, 301 Ways to have fun at Work, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., San Francisco Honig, B., 1993, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, Cornell University Press, New York Honneth, A., 1985, Kritik der Macht, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main Kang, L., 2007, Passion at Work , Prentice Hall Laclau, E., (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso Books, London Malin, N., 2000, Professionalism, Boundaries and the Workplace, Routledge, London Margolis, S.,, 2006, There is no place like work, Gibbs Smith Peppers, C.,,2000, Bringing your soul to work, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., San Francisco Martin, M.W., 2000, Meaningful Work, Oxford University Press, Oxford McKinlay, A.,, 2009, Creative Labour, Palgrave Macmillan Meilaender, G.C., 2000, Working: its meaning and its limits, University of Notre Dame Press Muirhead, R., 2007, Just Work, Harvard University Press Nino, C., 1996, The Constitution of Deliberative Democracy, Yale University Press. New Haven Piper, I., 2007, Women and work in Globalising Asia, Taylor & Francis Rapoport, R.,, 2001, Beyond Work-Family Balance: Advancing Gender Equity and Workplace Performance, Jossey-Bass Schreiner, O., 2008, Woman and Labour, Bibliolife Sennett, R., 1998, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., London Taylor, P., 1993, The Texts of Paulo Freire, Open University Press, Buckingham 227

Chapter V: Conclusions and Projections Thompson, P., 1997, The nature of work, Palgrave Macmillan Toynbee, P., 2003, Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC Waddell, G.,, 2006, Is Work Good for Your Health and Well-Being?, Stationery Office Books


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