by Joe Jones
It is fair to say that the ongoing global pandemic and resultant lockdown have shaken the landscape of work more significantly than any other event this century. The increase in general appreciation of key workers, along with an opportunity to reassess the place of work in our lives, has challenged many preconceptions about the nature of working today. At the same moment as many are enjoying an influx of free time, so too are many more facing sharp economic precarity and uncertainty.
While movements for reducing working time have existed in the UK for over 200 years, progress seems to be inevitable in response to COVID-19: we seem to be becoming more used to the idea that once our economic necessities are met, our time is better spent primarily doing meaningful, fulfilling activities, rather than overly long mind-numbing paid employment. The pandemic seems to be offering this promising possibility against the backdrop of the uncertain and terrifying recent times, and I believe that it calls for a further consideration of the distinctions Hannah Arendt’s makes between labour and work.
My key aim in this blog is to explore how Arendt’s thought might both solidify reduced working time, and ensure that all workers can enjoy the resultant free time as a source of meaningful activity.
Let’s begin with labour. For Arendt, labour is the mode of activity that concerns the survival of the human race and is the means by which our biological metabolism is maintained. It relates to human beings in their "natural" state, before complex social concerns can be considered. In this sense, it is the basic and fundamental mode of activity that ensures our survival but does not provide meaning beyond this. However: this understanding of the fundamentality of labour presupposes a space, time, and ability to engage in meaningful activity that is not preoccupied with satisfying our biological needs.
Now, whether human beings can ever fully escape their biological condition is tangential to this exploration, but the current pandemic inescapably highlights our biological necessity as human beings and forces us to come to acknowledge it more clearly. One of the most widespread public responses to the pandemic, that is echoed in political statements across the world, is the importance of, and praise for, key workers. The overriding feeling here is that the biological metabolism of the many has been supported by the continued labour of the (comparatively) few.
This not only highlights a distinction between key work (and, by definition, non-key work), but demonstrates our biological necessity in a much clearer light. For Arendt, the notion of labour therefore encompasses a set of activities necessary for our survival (procuring food, sleep, and shelter). However, in performing these activities within the context of COVID-19 our fragile condition as biological creatures is made undeniably clear.
Rather than being a base, inherently meaningless activity that creates the groundwork for more meaningful pursuits, labour is meaningful in its own right because it celebrates the biological condition universal to all human beings. The pandemic shines a very bright light on this fact, but it has ramifications beyond COVID-19: the same revelations can apply to the environmental and ecological position our species still finds itself in today.
Moreover, this understanding of labour as something more significant than "a means to an end" ought to change the way we approach "reproductive labour", that so often is forgotten in broader discussions of labour. In praising key workers so specifically (and so rightly) during the pandemic, and given that their work will remain largely the same afterwards, it must logically follow that this understanding of the importance of labour and "labourers" will persist after lockdown. This doesn’t mean just clapping for the NHS or thanking delivery drivers, but making a concerted effort to not only properly value labour, but also ensure that the conditions under which it is taken are fair and equitable for all labourers.
By highlighting the centrality and meaning of labour, the pandemic has also shown a tension in the field of work.
For Arendt, work is the mode of activity chiefly governed by utility and fabrication: it is the means by which we create and turn the raw and ephemeral exertion of labour into something more permanent. But in many ways COVID-19 has highlighted that much of the "work" we undertake is primarily concerned with the generation of a wage, rather than the construction of a meaningful human artifice.
By this, I mean that COVID-19 has highlighted how the temporal, spatial, and economic conditions of working can transform a meaningful act into one that is considerably less so. Many of the activities of modern work do not fall into the category of "key work", in that they are not biologically necessary. But nor do they create the human artifice in a significant sense: they are, at heart, solely a means of generating a wage.
To clarify, the generation of a wage is always, in a sense, biologically necessary in the modern world, and furthermore any task undertaken by a human being is necessarily a facet of the human artifice. Moreover, I am not claiming that there is something morally wrong about undertaking a task solely to generate a wage. But what the pandemic has highlighted is that on, Arendt’s view, work is achieved through a completely different set of activities than many jobs offer. It follows for Arendt that our time is, in many ways, being wasted in meaningless work, rather than spent in meaningful work.
Many countries around the world are beginning to relax lockdown measures, and so questions about the shape of the working landscape to which we’re returning are becoming more pressing. With Jacinda Ardern proposing a 4-day work week in New Zealand, and companies like Facebook and Twitter proposing more permanent flexibility in their working conditions, it seems like there is a growing move towards spending less time in meaningless work, and more time in meaningful activities, that both celebrate our biological condition, and meaningfully fabricate the human artifice.
This is historically consistent: in the UK working hours have become shorter, and working conditions more flexible, in times of economic and social upheaval. As early as 1847, a 10-hour working day was achieved in the UK textile industry, motivated by an economic recession triggered by the European Potato Famine; the now-standardised 8-hour day was achieved in 1919 as a response to cultural shifts following the First World War; the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s brought about significant working time reductions in America at the time. It would seem that COVID-19 is another addition to this historical trend of global crises leading to reductions in working time, and greater valuation of meaningful, non-work activities.
But following these periods of improvements in working conditions is always a regression when economic conditions improve. The 1847 10-hour day was repealed in 1850 when the recession ended, and wasn’t achieved again until 1874; the gains made in 1919 gave way to 20 years of incremental increase before a further drop was achieved in the 1940s; and the measures used to combat the Great Depression were repealed when it ended.
The worry here is that as lockdown measures ease, we will return to the pre-COVID "normal", and forget the valuation of labour and importance of work as a result. As such, I believe that if Arendt’s notions of labour and work are held at the forefront of the post-lockdown working landscape, working conditions can continue to improve after the pandemic and its inevitable economic recession. Moreover, an Arendtian approach to post-lockdown work will maintain the primacy and fundamentality of our biological condition, and will encourage the valuation of key workers beyond the publicised praise of recent months.
In campaigning for a shorter working week, the reductions must not be seen only as tools for combatting economic recession. Any economic benefits drawn from working time reduction in the coming months and years on a governmental level must be considered in conjunction with Arendt’s distinctions between labour and work. Ultimately, working takes up roughly a third of our day: in making it more meaningful, and allowing more time away from it for fulfilling activities, the quality of life for workers around the world will improve dramatically.
About the Author
Joe Jones is a doctoral researcher at the University of Kent. His thesis is an Arendtian investigation of the ways in which automation might affect the future of work.