25 April 2015

the sphere of freedom among equals no longer exists in the modern world

Hannah Arendt's book The Human Condition seeks to develop a theory of politics very much alive in Classical Greece, but since lost in the modern age. The motivating factor for her inquiry is the perception that politics as the sphere of freedom – of action – among equals no longer exists in a general sense in the modern world, since the social sphere (or what is equivalent to the househould [oikia] in Classical Greece – the sphere of necessity, e.g. housekeeping) and the satisfaction of needs has all but completely dominated what is nevertheless still called political life. For Arendt, this is equivalent to the banalisation of politics (the evocation of totalitarianism [cf. Eichmann in Jerusalem] is no doubt not accidental), where utilitarianism reigns and action, having ceased to be creative and an end in itself, has become a mere means to action. Conformity and necessity have squeezed the political dimension out of human life, and an essential aspect of the human condition is thereby stunted: the aspect of creativity. Schematically, Arendt in fact makes a general distinction between the vita activa – which is comprised of labour, work and action – and the vita contempletiva, the realm of thought, or more precisely, the realm of the contemplation of the eternal. While the main focus of Arend'ts analysis here is on the vita activa, she argues that there is complete equality between the two realms.

Both labour and work in the vita activa – the former concerned directly with necessity and the satisfaction of immediate biological needs, the latter concerned with utility and the world of durable objects – are activities of means; they are not essentially ends in themselves. A person's life should not only consist of labour and work – the tragedy of modern democratic societies being that so many lives are indeed so limited. The realm of action is where individuals act in complete equality with others – freedom only being realizable in association with others. In general, the social has come to dominate what was once the dichotomy between the private realm of necessity and the public, political realm of politics. And the most influential thinkers such as Locke and Marx only confirm the importance of necessity. Marx's position is acutely paradoxical here. For while on the one hand he extols labour power (and not work) as the creator of all wealth and the "essence" of man, he also says that with the communist society and the "withering away of the state," no one will be forced to labour out of necessity, each having the freedom to be a hunter in the morning and a critic at night, without anyone being essentially a hunter or a critic. This conception of labour approaches what Arendt is alluding to with the realm of politics as pure creativity, the realm of the beautiful deed.

The human condition (which is never fixed) can have the realm of freedom restored to it, now, in the modern world, says Arendt, because developments in technology have rendered the "social question" (about needs and how to satisfy them) redundant.

John Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers (2008)