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The Freedom to Be Free at Work

Now is the time to take Hannah Arendt's ideas on what makes us human further

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If we were to stop and ask ourselves how our lives might be improved, one likely answer that might occur to us is that we should spend less time at work. At least that is what the statistics suggest. According to the OECD better life index, for example, the English-speaking countries – Australia, New Zealand, UK and US – all perform badly when it comes to ‘work-life balance’ (they are all in the bottom third), though they all do quite well in the overall rankings (all in the top half). The work-life balance score is calculated on the basis of ‘time devoted to leisure and personal care’ and ‘employees working very long hours’. So, if you live in one of these countries, and are an average member of it, a major drag in your quality of life will be lack of time for leisure and personal care and too much time at work.  

Small wonder then that the recent introduction by a New Zealand financial services company of a four-day week should be greeted with such enthusiasm. The UK Green Party, which had already committed to a four-day week in its 2015 election manifesto, has also just resolved to introduce a ‘Free-Time Index’ that would measure the total amount of leisure time available - a sort of non-work equivalent to GDP. Since the Free-Time Index would be a better indicator of overall quality of life than GDP, growth in it rather than GDP, the Greens argue, should be a higher economic priority. We need a reorientation of economic policy so that we get the right balance between work and leisure, a balance that the four-day week and Free-Time Index will help to achieve.

This broadening of the terms by which we measure economic performance is to be welcomed. Leisure is clearly no less an important source of goods, the things we want from life, than work is. And certainly, GDP is a hopelessly inadequate measure of success in the production and enjoyment of these things. We need an alternative set of reference points, and available leisure time, radical though it is, is one such candidate.

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"We need a reorientation of economic policy so that we get the right balance between work and leisure."

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But is it radical enough? One problem is that, like GDP, it would be a sheer amount, a quantity indifferent to quality. Just as GDP does not distinguish between the value added by the production of nuclear warheads and life-saving medicines, a Free-Time Index would not discriminate between the use of leisure time for good and its use for bad. 

Another problem is that the value of free-time is situation-dependent. It is precious for people in full-time employment, and full-time carers, but for the unemployed it can feel more like a curse. Having lots of time available isn’t worth much if there isn’t much to do. Doing something requires having opportunities for action – access to transport, playing fields, art galleries, adult education classes, for example – as well as time on one’s hands. Lacking such opportunities, unemployed people can suffer from a surfeit of free-time (though the time-consuming business of satisfying the welfare bureaucracy may well see to that).

Unemployed people in particular have a grasp of this general truth – the value of time is tied to the opportunities for action it affords. Some philosophers have also argued that the very meaning of time is tied to the fundamentally distinct types of action human beings are capable of. They have argued that, in doing the things that human beings have a distinctive capacity to do, they come to inhabit distinct temporal orders, and thus to experience time in fundamentally different ways. Human beings, on this view, are the beings that inhabit time in those ways: they are the beings whose being is being-in-time.

The philosopher most famous for advancing this thesis is Martin Heidegger. But the philosopher most relevant for our current reflections is one of Heidegger’s most famous students: Hannah Arendt.

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"The value of time is tied to the opportunities for action it affords."

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In her book The Human Condition (1958), Arendt argued that most of what we now do when we say we ‘work’ has the essential character of what she calls ‘labour’. Labour resembles the artisanal work of previous times in that it is a means to an end, but unlike work in its true sense, which leaves some enduring useful object behind, it produces something to be consumed, and is done for the sake of empowering one’s consumption. Labour is our ‘metabolism with nature’, a phrase Arendt borrows from Marx, which ties us to the eternally recurring cycle of life. Labouring activity, no less than the behaviour of any other living organism, inherently lends itself to scientific measurement and enhancement. For this reason, well-meaning efforts to humanise labour were, in her view, futile and ill-conceived.

But labour, however highly valued it is in the modern world, represents only one aspect of the human condition. Human beings are also capable of what Arendt calls ‘speech and action’, in which they deliberate over matters of common concern and act together. It is only through action in this true sense, Arendt believed, that human beings show themselves to be more than members of a species, or cogs in a machine, and appear to themselves in their uniqueness and plurality. When we act, in this sense, we break out of the cycle of endless repetition and bring about something genuinely new, something unpredictable. In the making and retelling of history, Arendt thought, we attain a kind of immortality, or at least some redemption of our earth-bound, life-bound condition, our condition qua labouring animal. 

Arendt had a dim view of the opportunities afforded for action in this lofty sense in the modern world. The labouring animal had won the day, she thought, and there was no way back for the political animal, the human type who prevailed, at least as an ideal, in ancient times.   

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"We can not just reduce the time of work, but also transform the character of that time, and unleash the potential for action that resides within work itself."

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But was Arendt too pessimistic? A desire for something like a return of the political animal in Arendt’s sense is behind demands for a shorter working week and a Free-Time Index, at least from some quarters. Freedom from the pressures of work, and in particular more time away from work, seems to be precisely what is needed to make the life of political engagement and participation in communal affairs, what Arendt took to be the highest expression of the active life, a real possibility once more (and, unlike the past, a possibility available to everyone). What seemed impossible by way of opportunities for action, as distinct from labour, in Arendt’s time might be within reach today.  

But this might not be the only way in which Arendt was unduly pessimistic. For in addition to her pessimism about the opportunities afforded for action in the modern world, she also had a quite bleak view of what is possible by way of labour.  The idea that the activity of earning a living could at once be in the service of life and an opportunity for self-expression and communal deliberation was alien to her. Consigned as it was to the realm of mere life – that is, to our biological condition -- labour lacked any moment of transcendence, and hence any existential significance beyond the exigencies of survival and bodily satisfaction.

That is not how many people actually experience their labour, their paid or unpaid work activity. More precisely, they do not experience it as necessarily bound to the demands of survival, as inevitably blind to their singular talents and needs, as if it is just in the nature of work to be treated like an animal or a cog in the machine. They expect, and in many cases demand, their work to be better than that. They also expect, and in many cases demand, a voice, a hearing, an opportunity for self-expression and a part in the collective decision-making of the workplace. In other words, they experience their work as apt for action in Arendt’s sense, even if they are disappointed in this experience.

The idea that labour and action are mutually exclusive types of activity finds echoes in the current debate around work-life balance. Advocates of better work-life balance want to reduce the time we spend in work, as it is by spending less time in work that we improve our opportunities for action and better enjoy the goods of family life. Opportunities for action and the goods of family life are certainly things we should want and demand more of. But we can obtain more of them not just by reducing the time of work, but also, and more radically, by transforming the character of that time, by unleashing the potential for action that resides within work itself. 


Nicholas Smith is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University, Australia. He is author of The Return of Work in Critical Theory: Self, Society, Politics (2018)

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