In search for meaning in the realm of freedom: Hannah Arendt on the threat of automation

It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s “The human condition” (1958) — on and off over the last couple of weeks, because it feels, most of the time, like a very depressive read, a look into a bleak and hopeless future of the humankind.

She writes about severable foreseeable events that threaten this future, and by now, one of them has already happened — or rather, is happening right now:

This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s “toil and trouble,” is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.

It may not feel like this liberation is happening right now — especially not to someone working long hours in a soul-deadening job and/or struggles to make the ends meet. But it is here, we are living it — even if this dream sometimes feel like a nightmare, showing itself in the threatening guises of unemployment and decreasing labor participation rate (so that “job creation” — making new opportunities for labor out of thin air — is perceived like a most useful activity). By the way, another well-know face of this dream come true is procrastination: one doesn’t procrastinate about something one is really bound to do by life’s necessity; procrastination is a sign of freedom — of a freely made choice to do something.

A slightly more “advanced” version of a society liberated from labour was (rather vividly) imagined by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1952 dystopia, “Player Piano”. There, nobody needs to worry about paying their bills, and most people don’t need to do anything — everyone has enough to consume; but, contrary to all expectations, this doesn’t make the liberation from labor feel like a dream come true either, because life becomes meaningless.

The threat, then, is not automation per se — the threat is our inability to find meaning in the realm of freedom from necessity. That’s how Arendt describes this threat:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

I feel this painful contradiction every day; I am living it. I dropped out of “labor force” quite a few years ago, and, apart from a few smallish household chores, I don’t really need to do anything which would qualify as “labor” — that is, anything necessary for the process of life. For all intents and purposes, I am living in the realm of freedom from life’s necessities, and my private realm of freedom is filled with painting, reading, contemplation, and love. Surely, nothing could be better.

But this lack of need for me to do anything often feels like it’s me that is not needed, and then the realm of freedom appears to me as the barren desert of uselessness and meaninglessness. I can probably think of myself as one of these few solitary individuals mentioned by Arendt in passing, those who still “consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living” (I have to, if only because I am not making a living). But an activity qualifies as “work” only insofar as its result enter the public realm — insofar as they are shared and, at least to some extent, seen.

And so my days are split between painting and this (blind and somewhat desperate) quest for contribution, for action, for participation in life. A search of how to share whatever it is I have to share — is it a search for meaning in the realm of freedom, or a quest to be bound by something, not so weightlessly and carelessly free? It requires some willpower and effort to drag myself away from the realm of freedom towards the whole range of different attempts to transform what I am doing into “work”, into something that has an existence, a way of being, in the public realm. And yet I keep doing it… all the time feeling that I would rather just paint privately and be free.     

I came across an interesting idea on Scott Young’s website the other day: if you work at home, he says, stop counting your work hours. Instead, maximise the free time — the time that remains when the necessary daily “work” tasks are taken care of. This idea brought this contradiction into the light of clarity: if I think of painting as “work”, this advice makes no sense at all; painting is something I want to be doing, not something I want to get done. It can only happen in the realm of freedom.

Arendt acknowledges that the artist is, in a sense, exempt from the general trend:

… we have almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of “making a living”; such is the verdict of society, and the number of people, especially in the professions who might challenge it, has decreased rapidly. The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist, who, strictly speaking, is the only “worker” left in a laboring society.

But this seems to have changed: the society’s verdict is now that the artist, too, has to either “make a living” or be condescendingly relegated to the status of “hobbyist”. Arendt writes about this change:

The same trend to level down all serious activities to the status of making a living is manifest in present-day labor theories, which almost unanimously define labor as the opposite of play. As a result, all serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness. In these theories, which by echoing the current estimate of a laboring society on the theoretical level sharpen it and drive it into its inherent extreme, not even the “work” of the artist is left; it is dissolved into play and has lost its worldly meaning. The playfulness of the artist is felt to fulfil the same function in the laboring life process of society as the playing of tennis or the pursuit of a hobby fulfils in the life of the individual.”

But here, I think, there is a glimpse of hope: a hope to turn the threat into a challenge, a way to perceive the liberation from necessity for the wished-for paradise it really is. What we lack, after all, what makes this wish come true into a threat is just the knowledge of “those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won”. The search for this knowledge one of the greatest challenges of our age, and the artist’s playful labor might just be one of the seeds from which it will emerge.

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