Richard Halpern, “Eclipse of Action: Hamlet and the Political Economy of Playing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 450-482
As he formulates an original response to the classic problem of Hamlet’s non-action, Halpern offers one of the few critical analyses of Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith in The Human Condition. He shows how Arendt draws on Smith’s concepts of productive and unproductive labor to articulate her key concepts of work and labor. Moreover, his close reading draws our attention to an intriguing paradox in the temporality of action that may indicate a corrective—albeit a difficult one—to the current demand for instant gratification that often leads to cynicism in the face of great political challenges.
Halpern reminds us that Aristotle separates action from labor; Smith replaces action with production; and Arendt seeks to restore action to a place of prominence in the political realm. Arendt explicitly says that “the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor” (HC 87). She does not simply take over Smith’s idea, but wishes to transfer his distinction from his own economic system (the “prejudice” of his own thought) to her own thinking of labor and work. Halpern’s analysis of Arendt’s move helps us start to think about her surprising appeal to 18th century economic theory. Moreover, it her discussion of Smith (and better known critique of Marx), I see her posing an even broader question: what does it mean to be productive and what are the appropriate spheres of different types of productivity?
Within the realm of production, Halpern looks at how Smith offers a further distinction in Book 2, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, under the heading “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor”:
There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976), 351.)
Smith draws a distinction between labor that holds or builds value (say the manufacture of a chair), and labor that evaporates the moment the worker completes it (such as cleaning the house or washing clothes). Classical political economists of the 18th and 19th century engaged in wide ranging debates over what should “count” as value before capitalist countries agreed on the ratio of labour to output or per capita GDP as the standard; socialist countries, following the USSR, adopted an alternative “material product system” that prioritized the amount of goods. In a time of environmental change, this glimpse into the history of economic theory may offer a helpful reminder that society can decide to change the standard of economic success.
According to Halpern, Arendt draws from Smith not to rehabilitate an outmoded aspect of economic theory, but to draw inspiration for her creation of distinct conceptual spaces for labor, work, and action. Specifically, she aligns Smith’s “unproductive labor” with her circular conception of labor and “productive labor” with her linear conception of work. This does not mean that labor is unproductive but it does require a clarification of different types of productivity. I see it as useful to keep the discussion on productivity since these spheres of private life and cultural and industrial economy then offer a contrast to the political sphere where action can happen. Action is neither circular like labor, nor linear like work, but has its own peculiar directionality and temporality. Halpern’s analysis helpfully zeroes in on the perplexing relation between the ephemerality of labor and action and action’s desire for permanence:
The temporal paradox of the political is that while it aims at immortality, action and speech are, in themselves, evanescent: “Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption” (HC 95). Like Smith’s unproductive labor, action disappears in the moment of its occurrence because it leaves no material trace behind. (Halpern, 457)
Politics demands an extraordinary effort. It asks that one expend energy indefinitely for an uncertain reward. Discussion and debate goes on and on, only occasionally clicking with spectacular agreement or deflationary compromise. Arendt’s analysis can help us perceive the difficulty of contemporary politics that attempts to fit into consumer culture that preserves, and thus remembers, nothing.
Arendt’s attention to the aspects of debate and negotiation that might be seen as unproductive (a dimension that in other parts of the Human Condition she relates to menial work, again often in relation to Smith) offers a corrective to a misguided understanding of politics that leads to frustration and despair.Even if we are not at the extreme level of the menial functioning of a New England town hall meeting debating the budget for potholes or an Occupy Wall Street discussion that requires unanimous consensus for closure, politics works in a different temporality. Rather than the fever pitched accusations of crisis that in the U.S. actually covers up rather than encourage political risk, a more humble sense of public debate as requiring something like the patience of the menial task may be a corrective.
Political action in Arendt’s sense differs from work in being freed from a fixed goal. She links this freedom, which for her is based on self-referentiality, to drama:
Arendt’s discomfort with the economic dimension of theater reveals itself when she criticizes Adam Smith for grouping actors, along with churchmen, lawyers, musicians, and others, as unproductive laborers and hence as lowly cousins of the menial servant (HC 207). Arendt would distinguish all of these activities from labor in that they “do not pursue an end . . . and leave no work behind . . . , but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself ” (206). Smith’s inclusion of these autotelic activities under the category of labor is for Arendt a sign of the degradation that human activity had already undergone by the early days of the modern era. By contrast, “It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man” (207–21). What Arendt overlooks is that—already in the ancient world—healing, flute playing, and playacting became remunerated professions and differed in this respect from politics, which was not the work of a professional class of politicians. (Halpern 458)
Arendt agrees that actors on the stage perform fleeting scenes, but wishes to link this to “the highest and greatest activities of man,” ie. those of politics. Halpern argues that in fact, actors in ancient times already worked for wages and were thus not independent like citizens in their roles as politicians. Nonetheless, Arendt shows us that in the modern period we can learn something about acting in politics from acting in the arts. The key point for Halpern is that drama, etc. are “autotelic activities.” They do not even keep up the house like menial work; they have their own end and really evaporate in reaching this end. Political action works along an undecidable edge: even less productive than labor but at any moment potentially the most lasting. Against the odds, politics holds open the space in which something new can begin and thus renew the human world against the circular forces of nature.
One could reasonably argue that in his focus on the connection between labor and action, Halpern fails to adequately emphasize the importance of work. In a world of labor and the victory of animal laborans, there is no work to preserve action and no polis/world to give action memorialization. Indeed, we face the danger of the collapse of the world into the “waste economy” (HC 134) and the seductions to action disappear. However, Halpern does not say that play is action for Arendt but rather, as I understand his argument, that it there is an aspect of action that is like play. Action requires debate that may seem to be going nowhere, or just be undertaken for its own sake up to the moment that it takes a risk. When it dares to venture into the public realm, action clearly very different from play as a hobby.
Labor is both constant and fleeting. On the one hand, the demands of the body never end, nor do the cycles of nature. On the other hand, labor is also fleeting in that its mode of production only temporarily maintains life. Action is also fleeting from the perspective that the risk it takes often evaporates but has the utmost political constancy when one considers those actions that succeed in forming the power of a new beginning.
In the remainder of the article, Halpern moves from The Human Condition to Hamlet, arguing that Shakespeare replaces action on the classical model of tragedy with the ceaseless activity of Hamlet’s thoughts. This activity runs in circles like unproductive labor in Smith and labor in Arendt rather than the action of Aristotle’s aesthetic and Arendt’s political ideal. From an Arendtian point of view, the modernity of the drama reveals a challenge to politics, the challenge of a time out of joint that action has to face again and again.
Controversy is raging around Thomas Friedman’s column today advising the presumptive Secretary of State John Kerry to “break all the rules.”
In short, Friedman—known for his faithful belief that technology is making the world flat and changing things for the better—counsels that the U.S. ignore hostile governments and appeal directly to the people. Here’s the key paragraph:
Let’s break all the rules. Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.
Foreign policy types like Dan Drezner respond with derision.
Friedman's "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials. Worse, he's recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran. This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy. God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman's advice.
I’ll leave the debate to others. But look at the central assumption in Friedman’s logic. If the leaders of a country don’t agree with us, go to the people. Tell them our plan. They’ll love it. But why is that so? For Friedman and so many of his brothers and sisters on the left and the right in the commentariat, the answer is: because our proposals are rational. Whether it is Friedman on Iran or Brooks on the economy or liberals on gun control or conservatives on the budget, there is an assumption that if everyone would just get together and talk this through like rational individuals, we would agree on a workable and rational solution. This is of course the basic view of President Obama. He sees himself as the most rational person in the room and wonders why people don’t agree with him.
This rationalist fallacy is wrong. Neuro-scientists tell us that people respond to emotional and non-rational inputs. But long ago Hannah Arendt understood and argued that the essence of politics is neither truth nor reason. It is plurality and opinion. The basic condition of politics is plurality, which means people need to come together and pursue a common good in spite of their disagreements and differences.
For Arendt, Western history has seen politics had come under the sway of philosophy and thus the pursuit of rational truth instead of being what it was: a space for the public engagement of different opinions. The tragedy of the last 50 years is that philosophical rationality has now been supplanted by technocratic rationality, so that politics is increasingly about neither opinion nor common truths, but technocracy.
One lesson Arendt took from her fundamental distrust of unity and rationality was the importance of the diffusion of powers and her distrust of centralized power. Her embrace of American Constitutional Federalism was neither conservative nor liberal; it was born from her insistence that politics cannot and should not seek to replace opinions with truths.
Friedman wants rational truth to win out and believes that if we just talk to the people, the veils will fall from their eyes. Well it doesn’t work here at home because people really do disagree and see the world differently. There is no reason to think it will work around the world either. A thoughtful foreign policy, as opposed to a rational one, would begin with the fact of true plurality. The question is not how to make others agree with us, but rather how we who disagree can still live together meaningfully in a common world.
According to the NY Times and a report commissioned by the Mayor of Yonkers, that city may be the next municipality to trade democracy for a technocratic control board to control its finances. The key takeaway from the article:
In an interview, one of the report’s authors, former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, said that the projected shortfalls would be too large for Yonkers to handle on its own and that other options would eventually have to be explored, including bankruptcy or a control board, unless the state bailed the city out.
The report itself is viewable here. In it, the Mayor of Yonkers embraces the report as “a dose of reality to our City.” He continues,
"I want to thank the Commission for bringing these challenges to light and exposing the truth. We now must come to the table and work together as a City to best figure out ways we can overcome these issues and prepare for the coming years.”
I give the mayor credit. Unlike other municipalities, he asked for the report rather than have it imposed upon him, and he seems genuinely desirous of figuring out a political solution to the crisis. But once again, the crisis seems so big (Yonker's annual shortfalls over the next four years are projected to be more than 10% of its annual budget) that political solutions appear almost impossible to reach. That may or may not be, but one thing is true:
“Nothing is more important than getting accurate information about long-term fiscal challenges as a way of ending the use of gimmicks to mask fiscal realities,” said former Lieutenant Governor Ravitch.
It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. We have been living in passive agreement with Churchill's witticism for half a century. But slowly, harrowingly, fatalistically, people around the world are giving up on democracy.
Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and Italy (well, it's Italy) are now both governed by unelected technocratic governments charged with carrying out austerity programs that democratically elected leaders would not or could not bring about.
According to Gillian Tett, the Financial Times columnist, "the situation calls for very firm, forward-looking action that is almost impossible in a rowdy democratic political system at the moment." Tett is not alone in seeing the failure of democratic leadership in crises and the inability of democratic politicians to allocate pain and sacrifice amongst their constituents.
We in the United States are showing a similar predilection to trade democracy for technocratic management. Michigan is at the forefront of this trend. Governor Rick Snyder has been aggressive in appointing emergency managers to take control of city finances. In Pontiac, Flint, Benton Harbor and other Michigan cities, the mayors and town councils have been fired and rendered obsolete, replaced by a manager appointed by the governor.
In New York, Nassau County is now under the rule of an "oversight board" that controls its budget and finances. In Michigan, financial managers have the power to void labor contracts, privatize public services, and dismiss elected officials. These managers serve at the will of the governor, but they have no set term.
Tomorrow we may learn whether Detroit, Michigan's biggest and once proudest city, will also succumb to an emergency manager. The only alternative, it seems, is a consent decree with the State that will turn the city over to a manager jointly selected by the city and the state from a slate of candidates approved by the governor. The problem, once again, is that democratic governments have simply been unable to make the hard decisions needed. The result is that Detroit is bankrupt and in need of a state bailout and the state is treating Detroit like the spoiled child it is, just as the European Union treats Greece and Italy. Money will come, but only if the children agree to be treated like children.
I can only point out so many times that Wall Street bankers also acted like spoiled children, but they received their bailouts and undeserved bonuses without the demeaning financial oversight. Hypocrisy, however, is not an argument for or against such oversight, even if it does reveal that there are issues beyond simple economic calculation at play. In Europe, there are prejudices against the laziness of southern peoples, and here in the U.S. racial prejudices are no doubt active, as can be seen by one commentator's likening Detroit's citizens to addicts:
As those of us in surrounding communities watch the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Detroit, we really need to hope that this once great city can stop its decline, and begin to recover. But just like with an alcoholic, the city's so-called leaders must first admit they have a problem, and that they are unable to fix it on their own. Unfortunately, they do not appear to have reached that point yet. I guess a nice way of putting it would be to say that they are in denial.
Patronizing rhetoric aside, the basic problem is that the people of Detroit—like the people of Greece and Italy—are unwilling to govern themselves and are welcoming technocrats to take over that task. We witness once again how easily people will abandon democratic freedoms for the promise of a bailout. The current argument in Detroit is less about whether to give up self-government—a foregone conclusion—but how much money Detroit can extract in the deal for doing so.
The Romans had a provision in their law for the appointment of a dictator during emergencies, especially at war. A dictator, as Andreas Kalyvas reminds us, was not a tyrant. A dictator in Roman law was a 'temporary tyranny by consent' while a tyrant was a 'permanent dictator.' The Roman Republic recognized that crises required decisive action that a sprawling democracy was frequently unable to muster. The dictator was not illegal, but was a constitutionally approved office that was appointed for a set term, after which time power would revert back to the people. In other words, a dictator was a constitutionally regulated and democratically agreed upon safety valve for the failures of democracy.
Modern democracies have largely avoided such emergency powers, and for good reasons. It seems, however, that such resistance is fading. Will it be until we have no choice but to appoint an emergency financial manager to do the job we won't do for ourselves? But then again, who would appoint such a person?
For Hannah Arendt, this was and remains a crucial question. For human beings are political beings who actualize their freedom in public action with others. The entire premise of what Arendt once called the "dictatorial intervention" is to replace politics with the temporary tyranny of the educator. It is to admit our immaturity and call for a tyrant who will treat us as children. And yet that is, precisely, what it seems we want.
The public pension crisis is eroding the American social contract. While many are up in arms against Governor Scott Walker's heavy-handed attack on public unions, the fact is that Democratic governors in NY and California are also struggling with the inevitable need to reduce public pensions. Governor Jerry Brown in California admitted recently that public pensions were a Ponzi scheme. That is obvious. What is now sinking in as reality is that the Ponzi scheme is out of money and falling apart.
The Pew Center on the States published a study in 2011 called the Trillion Dollar Gap. The first sentence states the point:
$1 trillion. That’s the gap at the end of fiscal year 2008 between the $2.35 trillion states had set aside to pay for employees’ retirement benefits and the $3.35 trillion price tag of those promises.
A mere one year later, the gap had increased 26%!
The gap between the promises states have made for public employees’ retirement benefits and the money set aside to pay for them grew to at least $1.26 trillion in fiscal year 2009-a 26 percent increase in one year-according to a Pew report.
The gap is actually much bigger than the Pew Center numbers suggest, since the report is based on the official numbers that use way too optimistic expectations of returns.
The Pew Center Report continues, stating the reason this matters so much:
Why does it matter? Because every dollar spent to reduce the unfunded retirement liability cannot be used for education, public safety and other needs. Ultimately, taxpayers could face higher taxes or cuts in essential public services.
Municipal bankruptcies are mounting. Prichard, Alabama and Central Falls, Rhode Island both filed for bankruptcy, and they have had to vastly reduce the pensions promised to their public employees. The city of Stockton, California is in bankruptcy court now, and it must pay $30 million every year in pension costs, even as it only sets aside .70 cents for every dollar it must pay.
The crisis is spiraling. In essence, cities and states around the country will have to decide whether to honor their legal debts to public employees or pay for services like police, fire, and parks needed by their current residents. The only other option is a bailout from the federal government, but the size of the problem is enormous and such a bailout seems highly unlikely.
In the meantime, states continue to juggle money around to keep the Ponzi scheme going. Just this month New York State decided to let municipalities and public entities borrow money from the state pension fund to make their payments back into the state pension fund. This is nonsense. Dangerous nonsense.
And while New York State did finally pass a version of pension reform last week, the reform falls far short of what Governor Cuomo wanted and what is needed. The Assembly raised the retirement age for public employees (not for policeman and firemen) to 63 from 62, whereas Cuomo sensibly asked it be raised to 65. As it stands now, the New York State pension plan is expected to consume 35 percent of the New York State's budget by 2015. This is up from a mere 3% in 2001. More.
For anyone who cares about government and wants government to succeed, the pension problem must be addressed, for it threatens not only economic disaster, but political cynicism beyond even today's wildest dreams. Across the country, teachers, policemen and firemen, not to mention civil service employees and others, will see their promised pensions shrink precipitously. Not only will this devastate retirement nest eggs for millions of people, it will fray the social contract—pitting young against old and taxpayers against public employees.
It is bad enough that we will have to renege on pensions owed to public service employees (as municipalities in Rhode Island, Alabama, and California are already doing), but it is worse that we will do so after bailing out Wall St. bankers and allowing taxpayers to pay their contractually-obligated bloated bonuses. That these seven-figure bonuses were paid and yet we are unable and unwilling to pay contractually obligated pension costs is both a fact and an example of why the bailout of the bankers was so deeply wrong and misguided.
The issues around public pensions are complicated. They involve contractual promises made to workers that simply cannot be honored as well as pitting public servants against everyday taxpayers. There is also the fact that public employees are paid significantly more than similarly educated private employees at all but the highest levels of income and education. A recent Congressional Budget Office study concluded that:
- Average benefits for federal workers with no more than a high school diploma were 72 percent higher than for their private-sector counterparts.
- Average benefits for federal workers whose education ended in a bachelor's degree were 46 percent higher than for similar workers in the private sector.
- Workers with a professional degree or doctorate received roughly the same level of average benefits in both sectors.
The CBO chart below shows clearly the relative overcompensation of public workers against their private-sector counterparts. While one could turn this around and argue that private-sector workers are underpaid, the fact is that the current level of benefits for public-sector workers is bankrupting our municipalities and states. We can argue all we want about what is fair pay, but the current pay levels are clearly unsustainable. More, they are threatening to devastate public services as we continue to cut services in order to pay outsized benefits to retired public-sector workers.
Do public employees deserve to make more than private employees? Should we say that someone teaching in public schools deserves more than one teaching in private schools? For some, the answer is yes and there is a sense that it is more noble and thus valuable to serve in the public interest. Some might even turn to Hannah Arendt to justify such a claim, that a public-service career is more public-spirited and thus more socially valuable than a private-service career.
As much as I value public-sector employees, it is a mistake to put them on a pedestal. It is unclear whether most public employees are more public-spirited than their private-sector counterparts. It is also unclear whether public school teachers and professors are better, more important, or more noble than their private school counterparts.
What is clear, however, is that public employees have a private interest in taking more and more of the taxpayer-generated revenue for themselves. In other words, public employees have a private interest in diverting public funds from public services to their wages and pensions. In this sense, the increasing numbers of public employees and their increasing wages and benefits threaten to hollow out public services in our country.
This is not to condemn public employees. Nor is it to deny that at the higher incomes, wealthy Americans should pay more in taxes to support governmental services. But we should be honest and contest the prejudice that public employees have the public interest at heart. And we need to have an adult debate about what to do about underfunded and ballooning public pensions.