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Hannah Arendt on labour and consumption, automation and Utopia

… the developments of the last decade, and especially the possibilities opened up through the further development of automation, give us reason to wonder whether the Utopia of yesterday will not turn into the reality of tomorrow, so that eventually only the effort of consumption will be left of “the toil and trouble” inherent in the biological cycle to whose motor human life is bound.

However, not even this Utopia could change the essential worldly futility of the life process. The two stages through which the ever-recurrent cycle of biological life must pass, the stages of labor and consumption, may change their proportion even to the point where nearly all human “labor power” is spent in consuming, with the concomitant serious social problem of leisure, that is, essentially the problem of how to provide enough opportunity for daily exhaustion to keep the capacity for consumption intact.

Painless and effortless consumption would not change but would only increase the devouring character of biological life until a mankind altogether “liberated” from the shackles of pain and effort would be free to “consume” the whole world and to reproduce daily all things it wished to consume.

How many things would appear and disappear daily and hourly in the life process of such a society would at best be immaterial for the world, if the world and its thing-character could withstand the reckless dynamism of a wholly motorized life process at all.

The danger of future automation is less the much deplored mechanization and artificialization of natural life than that, its artificiality notwithstanding, all human productivity would be sucked into an enormously intensified life process and would follow automatically, without pain or effort, its ever-recurrent natural cycle. The rhythm of machines would magnify and intensify the natural rhythm of life enormously, but it would not change, only make more deadly, life’s chief character with respect to the world, which is to wear down durability

In other respects, the specter of a true consumers’ society is more alarming as an ideal of present-day society than as an already existing reality. The ideal is not new; it was clearly indicated in the unquestioned assumption of classical political economy that the ultimate goal of the vita activa is growing wealth, abundance, and the “happiness of the greatest number.” And what else, finally, is this ideal of modern society but the age-old dream of the poor and destitute, which can have a charm of its own so long as it is a dream, but turns into a fool’s paradise as soon as it is realized.

The hope that inspired Marx and the best men of the various workers’ movements—that free time eventually will emancipate men from necessity and make the animal laborans productive— rests on the illusion of a mechanistic philosophy which assumes that labor power, like any other energy, can never be lost, so that if it is not spent and exhausted in the drudgery of life it will automatically nourish other, “higher,” activities.

The guiding model of this hope in Marx was doubtless the Athens of Pericles which, in the future, with the help of the vastly increased productivity of human labor, would need no slaves to sustain itself but would become a reality for all.

A hundred years after Marx we know the fallacy of this reasoning; the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving his appetites. That these appetites become more sophisticated, so that consumption is no longer restricted to the necessities but, on the contrary, mainly concentrates on the superfluities of life, does not change the character of this society, but harbors the grave danger that eventually no object of the world will be safe from consumption and annihilation through consumption

One of the obvious danger signs that we may be on our way to bring into existence the ideal of the animal laborans is the extent to which our whole economy has become a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world, if the process itself is not to come to a sudden catastrophic end. But if the ideal were already in existence and we were truly nothing but members of a consumers’ society, we would no longer live in a world at all but simply be driven by a process in whose ever-recurring cycles things appear and disappear, manifest themselves and vanish, never to last long enough to surround the life process in their midst.

The easier that life has become in a consumers’ or laborers’ society, the more difficult it will be to remain aware of the urges of necessity by which it is driven, even when pain and effort, the outward manifestations of necessity, are hardly noticeable at all. The danger is that such a society, dazzled by the abundance of its growing fertility and caught in the smooth functioning of a neverending process, would no longer be able to recognize its own futility—the futility of a life which “does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject which endures after [its] labour is past.”

Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition

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