Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

The Unproductive Labor of Politics: Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith


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.

-Jeffrey Champlin


The Way Forward

It is a fallacy to think that political thinking can exist separately from economic thinking. Hannah Arendt, no economist, saw clearly that the origins of totalitarianism were, in large part, traceable to the importing of economic thinking (unlimited growth) into the political realm, where politics is concerned with geographical, social, and moral limits. The economic victory over politics at that time went under the name of imperialism. Today, under the rubric of globalization, economic thinking continues to subsume political thinking to economic calculations.

The economic crisis of the last four years has brought with it a particular challenge to politics. The crisis is so large and so devastating and it so completely threatens to undermine our ways of life that there is a feeling of political futility. What possibly can be done to address this crisis? From out of this futility arises a kind of head-in-the-sand approach that denies the crisis instead of addressing it. One end point of such an approach is the kind of technocratic governance by bureaucrats now holding sway in Greece and Italy, as well as in a selection of American cities and counties. If we are to avoid giving up our political self-determination and if we want to engage the crisis rather than submit to it, we must first understand it, something that few politicians have been willing to do.

To confront the depth of our ongoing crisis, it is helpful to look at a new report out from the New America Foundation, authored by Daniel Alpert, Robert Hockett, and Nouriel Roubini. This report was sent to me by a long-time supporter of the Arendt Center. It is well worth reading in full.  A few basic facts to set the stage:

•Four years into the Great Recession, more than 25 million working-age Americans remain unemployed or underemployed;

•The employment-to-population ratio lingers at a near-historic low of 58.3 percent;

•Consumption expenditure remains weighed down by massive private sector debt overhang left by the bursting of the housing and credit bubble a bit over three years ago (even if debt levels are coming down, as Floyd Norris argued today in the NY Times.)

The basic argument that Alpert, Hockett, and Roubini make is that economists and politicians have misunderstood the nature of the financial crisis. As a result, our responses have been ineffective. As they write: "The principal problem in the United States has not been government inaction. It has been inadequate action, proceeding on inadequate understanding of what ails us. "

So what is really the problem? Alpert, Hockett, and Roubini argue that the crisis is a conjunction of an extreme a credit crisis along with two other long-term trends that exacerbate that crisis. While most commentary and political response has focused on the credit crisis, the importance and impact of the two long-term trends have been largely overlooked. The two trends are:

First, the steady entry into the world economy of successive waves of new export- oriented economies, beginning with Japan and the Asian tigers in the 1980s and peaking with China in the early 2000s, with more than two billion newly employable workers.

Second, the "long term development that renders the current debt-deflation, already worse than a mere cyclical downturn, worse even than other debt-deflations is this: The same integration of new rising economies with ever more competitive workforces into the world economy also further shifted the balance of power between labor and capital in the developed world. That has resulted not only in stagnant wages in the United States, but also in levels of income and wealth inequality not seen since the immediate pre-Great-Depression 1920s."

The upshot of these two trends is that wage labor in developed countries is under continuing downward pressure. Whether the limpid economic recovery continues or not, the wage levels of the pre-crisis period will not return and those workers who earn wages for their performance will continue to experience lower real wages and thus a deteriorating standard of living.

What many still have not wanted to see is that the crisis itself was a response to these trends. For the last 20 years, the decreasing wages of workers in developed countries was hidden and compensated for by increasing debt, both private and public. As the report sees,

Easy access to consumer credit and credit-fueled rises in home values – themselves facilitated by recycled savings from emerging economies’ savings – worked to mask this widening inequality and support heightening personal consumption.

There is a chart in the report that itself shows the problem with crystal clarity. In Figure 2, we see that until 1982, the wages of workers and the income of non-wage earners (thus the higher-paid supervisory workers) was largely equal. Beginning in 1982, however, the earnings of non-wage earners began to rise significantly faster than the income of wage workers. This is at least one original source of the increasing inequality of the American populous and it is exacerbated by an increasingly less-progressive tax code and also by the increasingly profitability of capital investments in the global economy. As the report concludes,

Because many workers were no longer sharing the fruits of the economy’s impressive productivity gains, capital was able to claim a much larger share of the returns, further widening wealth and income inequality which by 2008 had reached levels not seen since the fateful year of 1928.

For anyone concerned with politics in the 21st century, understanding our current economic predicament is essential. That is why reading such a lucid report as this one from the New America Foundation is so important. It is, this weekend, your weekend read.

New America Foundation Article, The Way Forward



For the Welfare of All

A reader responds to my post on The Great Cultural Divide and reminds me that perhaps Charles Murray's most interesting suggestion in his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, is for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) or what used to be called a "negative income tax." The post, by a reader named Murfmensch, reads:

Murray also calls for a Basic Income Guarantee to replace all other government provisions. I think his particular proposal would harm the wrong people. He thinks provisions for “widows and orphans” have wrought harms that I don’t see.  However, I think a Basic Income Guarantee, funded by a tax on pollution and/or income past twice the median, would increase the number of people conducting civic, cultural, entrepreneurial, and political work. Alaska has a small BIG and it seems to help out in this way.

 One point Murray made at a conference was interesting. With a BIG, not only would people receive money they need, others would [not] know you are receiving money.

While I don’t know what amount would “do the trick” I think a BIG would offer a corrective to problems that Hannah Arendt diagnoses as stemming from a “job-holder” society.

The Basic Income Guarantee is basically a refashioning of the proposal for a negative income tax (NIT), which is commonly thought to have originated with economist Milton Friedman, who advocated it in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. I have long been an advocate of a negative income tax, for many of the reasons Murfmensch mentions.

A negative income tax, as Friedman wrote in 1968 in Newsweek,

is to use the mechanism by which we now collect tax revenue from people with incomes above some minimum level to provide financial assistance to people with incomes below that level.

The point is to replace the overlapping and bureaucratic welfare programs in society (welfare, food stamps, unemployment, etc.) with a simple cash payment to every citizen.

Let's imagine that every person would receive—to take just one number often used—$8,000/year. Whatever the number, it is one we determine is necessary to live with some dignity in contemporary society.  If you make $0 in a year, you receive $8,000 from the IRS—in essence a negative income tax. If you make $5,000, you'd receive $3,000. Anyone making more than $8,000 pays no taxes on that first $8,000 and begins paying the "positive" income tax on all extra income that supports those who make nothing. A family of four with no income would receive $32,000/year. With your base income you can do whatever you want. You can freeload or work, your choice. You can be an artist or a father. These are your choices.

The advantage of the negative income tax is that it offers a guaranteed minimal cash payment to every person and yet does away with the dehumanizing and costly apparatus of the welfare state. We could still offer Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. But all other bureaucracies go. Everyone, rich and poor, fills out the same tax forms. Those who choose not to work (let's stop calling them poor) simply get a check. They don't have to use food stamps or live in a shelter or apply for welfare. They can share apartments or group houses with others. There is no long-term unemployment insurance. They can simply use their money to live as they will.

Obviously some people will benefit pretty well doing nothing. Some will game the system and freeload. But the real advantage is that for those who don't care about making lots of money, for those who choose professions with inconsistent and often low remuneration, and even for those who simply prefer raising a family or doing community service to working, there is another option. You can basically choose to drop out of the jobholders society and the rat race with the security that you will have enough money to survive. Sure, you won't be buying fancy clothes or driving a big car. You won't be able to send your kids to fancy schools. But you can take years off work to take care of a dying relative or choose to be an artist, craftsperson, or thinker and know that in those years when you don't make enough to live on you will have a guaranteed income every year that you need it.

What the negative income tax or the Basic Income Guarantee does is make it possible to choose to opt out of the economy without stigma or danger to one's health and ability to live.

Political thinkers and economists on the left and right have embraced these proposals since Friedman originated them. There have been two major sticking points.

On the right, the fear of freeloaders and thus the desire to prevent people from choosing not to work—which is something I think is one of the great advantages of the program. There is a real debate about whether the negative income tax will increase laziness or free people to do what they love. It is probably some of both.

On the left, the fear is what happens when someone spends their money unwisely and then has nothing left. Once we get rid of welfare and food stamps to replace them with the negative income tax, there is always the danger that people will end up starving out in the cold. This too is a real risk and no doubt it will happen. There is of course charity, but that may not be enough for some people. And what about parents who waste their children's guaranteed income?

Questions remain about the negative income tax and there are details to be decided. But the benefits of negative income tax are worth these risks on both right and left. It seems that this is an Arendtian idea whose time has come.

Read an interview with Milton Friedman on the Negative Income Tax Here.

Read and essay in the NY Times about the Negative Income Tax Here.




Vigilance in the Name of Freedom

I recently was sent the following quotation by Friedrich Hayek, the economist and political thinker.

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into or prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

The quote is from an essay titled "Why I am Not a Conservative." Hayek is still today labeled a conservative (for whatever labels are worth). Here Hayek rejects the label, while also disdaining the modern conceptions of both liberalism and socialism. His efforts to stake out a position that defends freedom is as honest as it is relevant. It deserves to be read.

Hayek's quote is making the rounds not because of an interest in Hayek. Rather, the quote is being used (dare I say abused?) because it is thought to show the anti-science obscurantism and thoughtlessness of those who refuse to believe in evolution or global warming. The duplicitous refusal of politicians to even acknowledge the now undeniable scientific consensus about global warming is just the kind of obscurantism Hayek disdains. But it is a mistake to find in Hayek's attack common cause with efforts to enlist the government in the environmental cause.

Hayek's chief complaint with conservatism is its often uncritical defense of authority. The "main point" he takes issue with is the "characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened, rather than that its power be kept within bounds." In other words, the conservative is willing to put so much trust in authority and leadership that he tends to overlook those instances when government exceeds its authority and impinges on individual freedoms.  This is why Hayek argues that conservatives are often closer to socialists than to liberals. Like socialists, conservatives are willing to excuse governmental action they agree with, even when such action impedes on liberty.

It should be clear that many who go by the name liberal today are not liberal in the sense Hayek means--which is closer to libertarian, although he also rejects that label and what it represents. His problem is with all those who would excuse government overreach for particular ends, when that regulation will restrict individual liberty.

Hayek's thought warns about the political dangers for freedom posed by both conservatism and socialism, two forms of increased respect for authority, one in the persona of a charismatic leader and the other in the rationality of bureaucracy and the welfare state. On both scores, Hayek's impassioned defense of freedom shares much with Hannah Arendt, although she undoubtedly disagrees with Hayek and liberalism's location of freedom in the private sphere. 

For Arendt, liberal constitutional government is absolutely essential insofar as it is the best way to protect the realm of private liberty Hayek values so highly. For Arendt, however, it is not enough to protect freedom as a private citizen. Freedom includes not simply the right to do as one will in private, but also the right and the ability to act and speak in public. Freedom—human freedom—is more than the freedom simply to live well. Freedom also demands spaces of appearance, those institutionally protected realms where free citizens can engage in the debate and action about the dreams and hope of their life together. It is this freedom to be participate and act directly in government that is too frequently forgotten by those like Hayek.

That said, few thinkers better call us to vigilance in the cause of freedom. You can read the entirety of Hayek's "Why I am Not a Conservative" here.