Unions and the Labor Movement

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Compare Marx’s analysis of pre-capitalist work/alienated work with Arendt’s concept of work/labour/action.

In Marx's analysis of pre-capitalist work, he believed that in order for capitalism to form in a society, laborers had to go through a set process, whereby they were divorced from the land and free landownership and became more in touch with their reality as workers and owners. Through capitalism, Marx saw laborers as forming communal relationships and achieving political agency. On the other hand, Hannah Arendt saw early labor as animalistic at it's core and unrelated to political agency.

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Karl Marx outlines a detailed process, which he believes must precede the formation of capitalism or wage labor. Once capitalism formed, Marx saw it evolving into communal ownership—a precondition of communism. He believed labor was an important pre-condition for the formation of capitalism and political agency for laborers in a...

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Karl Marx outlines a detailed process, which he believes must precede the formation of capitalism or wage labor. Once capitalism formed, Marx saw it evolving into communal ownership—a precondition of communism. He believed labor was an important pre-condition for the formation of capitalism and political agency for laborers in a way that Hannah Arendt did not. She saw labor as a necessity, strictly divorcing it from political agency.

He wrote that one of the historic conditions for capitalism was to form was free wage labor or the exchange of free labor to produce wealth, which was then converted into value, and then currency. Another precondition is the separation of free labor from the conditions of what that labor produces. In other words, a separation from the means of labor (working in a factory night and day, or on a farm) and the materials of that labor (finished textiles or crops). He believed that capitalism formed only when workers were separated from the land, and that free landownership and communal land property would have to be dissolved, in full, for workers to have an objective existence independent of their labor alone. Once value was attached to labor, capitalism would grow and the rich and poor (proletariat and bourgeoisie) would become clearly defined, sparking class struggle.

Marx says that once the worker is more in tune with his reality and feels in touch with his existence, he is more able to understand that he can control or change the conditions of his reality as a worker or owner. He also believed that once individuals in a community relate to others as co-owners, thus seeing family and other people as independent owners merely co-existing with them in a society, change would take place. Eventually, an individual would see the common property that used to consume everything in his life as ager publicus (common land) separate from the private owners. In all, he saw individuals behaving as owners and not just laborers. When capitalism formed, individuals would eventually view themselves as members of a larger community of laborers who were also the owners of their means of production (think factory workers owning the factory and working together communally).

In contrast to this view, Arendt’s concept of work, labor, and action was much different. Hannah Arendt was a twentieth century political philosopher who focused on the nature of politics and political life, viewing them as distinct from other domains. She saw labor as the activity that corresponded to biological processes and the necessities of human existence—essentially, the practices which are necessary to maintain life itself. Arendt likens human laborers to animals and notes that because labor is commanded by necessity, the human being is essentially a slave and marred by unfreedom intrinsically. She says that when human labor is seen as separated from necessity and contrary to unfreedom, it can be seen as distinctly human and removed from the animal world.

Arendt is critical of Marx’s view of labor, as he writes that animal laborans, or animal laborers (beasts of burden) should be elevated to a position of primacy in his hierarchy of human existence, while Arendt puts it squarely at the bottom. Using Aristotle’s distinction of oikos (the private realm of the household) compared to polis (the public realm of the political economy), Arendt argues that labor and economy fit into the first category, while Marx would argue the second. Arendt would argue that because labor is chiefly an animalistic necessity, it cannot be used to argue meaningful political agency or the pursuit of higher goals and ends which would secure a space in public life and a higher position on her hierarchical vita activa.

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