The Sickness Beyond the Infection: Social Structures and Work

Part 4

Beyond essential services, has anyone, ANYONE, complained about working from home? I am an instructor, and other than not seeing my students, and missing the occasional conversation near my office with a colleague, I could not imagine how freeing working from home could be.  I have become WAY more productive.  Probably, this has something to do with the strange alignment between my daily work and more meaningful passions.  But I don’t have the only type of job in the world.

Picking up the theme of common resentment toward mass society,, we should ask, how will the concepts and practices of work be affected?  Will it have deep effects on existing social structures that will transform them?

Jeff Noonan, the eminent professor of philosophy from the University of Windsor, writes:

The growing material, social, and cultural-spiritual exhaustion of capitalist civilization is becoming more evident to ever more numbers of people. The Arab Spring, struggles across Africa it has inspired, on-going resistance to austerity in Europe, the Occupy movement in the United States and Canada, and the still unfolding experiments in twenty-first century socialism in Latin America are linked at the deepest moral level by consciousness of the universal life-values threatened by capitalism. Life-values are resources, relationships, institutions, and practices that satisfy natural and social life requirements as well as the enjoyed expression of the life-capacities the satisfaction of these requirements enable. A materially rational form of civilization ensures the comprehensive satisfaction of life-requirements for the sake of ensuring that finite life-times are as rich in intrinsically valuable experiences and activities as possible. Capitalism, by contrast, treats life-requirements as forms of weakness that can be exploited to make people dependent upon labour and commodity markets. The more dependent people can be made to be, the more ruthlessly they can be exploited. Proving its material irrationality, capitalism attempts to solve its on-going crisis by intensifying the dynamics that demonstrably caused it in the first place.

Life-requirements, according to Noonan, are intrinsically valuable.  The material forms of capitalism are antithetical to their fulfillment. If Noonan’s “capitalism” and my “mass society” are the same, then there is more than simple anecdotal resentment.  It is widespread, and it has reached a critical juncture.

There are two watersheds in this narrative of social structure and work, and both require a new orientation.  The first involves the nature of work itself. The second involves the social structure of how we work.

To understand the nature of work historically requires a significant undertaking, and perhaps would take us far afield here.  After all we are concerned with the illnesses in our base concepts of the nature of work.  As I mentioned in part 3, Hannah Arendt gives us a project management view of work. Using precise etymological analysis, she clearly differentiates labour, work, and action, which are the three primary types of human activities. Work differs from labour in the sense that work is something which has a definite beginning and a definite end.  This includes tools we make to help us in the laboring process, to less “useful” objects of fabrication such as works of art.  Visualized, the concept of time that accompanies work is a line segment.  Labor, on the other hand, is visualized as a circle.  To have a definite beginning and a definite predictable end is the mark of fabrication, which through this characteristic alone distinguishes itself from all other human activities.  Labour, caught in the cyclical movements of the biological life process, has neither a beginning nor an end properly speaking – only pauses and intervals between exhaustion and regeneration.

Action, though it may have a definite beginning, never, has a predictable end.  The great reliability of work is reflected in that the fabrication process, and unlike action, is not irreversible: everything produced by human hands can be destroyed by them, and no use object is so urgently needed in the life process that its maker cannot survive after its destruction.  You might wonder what you would ever do if your dishwasher broke, but one thing is certain: you would survive.  Humans, the fabricators of the human world are indeed lords and masters, not only because we have set ourselves up as the masters of all nature, but because we are the master of ourselves and our doings.  This is true neither of laboring, where persons remain subject to the necessity of their life, nor acting, where they remain dependent upon their fellow people. Alone with the image of the future product, homo faber is free to produce, and again facing alone the work of her hands, she is free to destroy.  The idea of instrumentalism, that things are made or used for specific ends, which do, in fact, end, is the operating principle of the work of fabrication.

The most fundamental experience we have with instrumentality arises out of the fabrication process.  Here it is indeed true that the end justifies the means; it does more, it produces and organizes them.  The end justifies the violence done to nature to gain the material, as the wood justifies killing the tree, and the table justifies destroying the wood.  In the same way, the end product organizes the work process itself, decides about the needed specialists, the measure of cooperation, the number of assistants or cooperators.  Hence, everything and everybody is judged here in terms of suitability and usefulness for the desired end product, and nothing else.  It is project management logic extended.

And it is perhaps a reorientation of the awarenesses in the watershed that is the understanding the nature of work. COVID-19 puts into stark relief the nature of work by the political action of ceasing all non-essential services. Essential services, in Canada, fall under the general categories of health, safety, security, and economic well-being. ( Essentially, non-essential work excludes anything that is produced by and for mass society, unless it meets some essential need in the cycle of labour and consumption, or for the effort of political maintenance and security.  That means, they are inessential to life.

In the nature of work, therefore, there are two ideas that need a new orientation, and it may be of substantial benefit to do so now: 1) changing our instrumental orientation to the world around us to something that has its own value beyond our projected purposes; and 2) that any work of our hands which does not contribute our biological life processes or our ability to meaningfully act upon the public world should be understood as inessential.

The other watershed, of course, is how we work. And this raises the spectre of the state of our technological tools and the role they have in what we do in public.  But I first want to establish something of a choice in orientation.  In Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger had written that ‘when the farthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically; when any incident you like, in any place you like, at any time you like, becomes accessible as fast as you like’, then time became ‘nothing but speed, instaneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Dasein of all peoples’ (As quoted by Waseem Yaqoob in, The Archimedean point: Science and technology in the thought of Hannah Arendt, 1951-63).

The choice in orientations with the application of technology (beyond mere tools) is between having a history, and seeking to overcome it.  That is, the work projects we choose, those with a definite beginning and end, may in fact be transcended by technology.  And in this case, the technology available to us may transform the work itself.  Although it may not illustrate the point most clearly, the transformation of work technologically has led to the transformation of the projects themselves.

In moving from “in-person” classes to online environments (one of the most far-reaching trends instigated by COVID-19) no longer am I employed to really teach students in one arena.  I am there to offer classes.  These classes are often thought of as mere technological products.  It takes conscious effort to keep teaching students.  And the difference between offering a class (a product) and teaching students (a service) is not so blurred as it is until it becomes technologically constructed.

And that is, of course, motivated by mass society rather than by anything having to do with a direct watershed in how we work.  And the reorientation is thus, a political resistance to mass society to protect the realm of political and communal action, and an orientation to the free person who is nurtured in such environments.

With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance.  Since through birth we entered Being, we share with all other entities the quality of Otherness, an important aspect of plurality that we can only define by distinction.  It is that feature by which we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else.  In addition to this, we share with all living organisms that kind of distinguishing trait which makes it an individual entity.  However, only human beings can express otherness and individuality, only she can distinguish herself and communicate herself, and not merely something – thirst or hunger, affection or hostility or fear.  In human beings, otherness and distinctness becomes uniqueness, and what human beings insert with word and deed into the company of their own kind is uniqueness.  This insertion is not forced upon us through necessity like labor and it is not prompted by wants and desires like work.  It is unconditioned; its impulse springs from the beginning that came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative.  To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative (as in the Greek word arkhein), to begin, or to set something in motion (as in the Latin word agere).

All human activities are conditioned by the fact of human plurality, that not one person, but people in the plural inhabit the earth and in one way or another live together.  But only action and speech relate specifically to this fact that to live always means to live among others, among those who are my equals.  Hence, when I insert myself into the world, it is a world where others are already present.  Action and speech are so closely related because primordial and specifically human acts must always answer the question asked of every newcomer: “Who are you?”  The disclosure of “who somebody is” is implicit in the fact that speechless action somehow does not exist, or if it exists it is irrelevant.  Without speech, action loses the actor, and the doer of deeds is possible only to the extent that at the same time she is the speaker of words, who identifies herself as the actor and announces what she is doing, what she has done, or what she intends to do.  It is exactly as Dante once said, “For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer… is the disclosure of her own image.  Hence, it comes about that every doer, in so far as she does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desired is its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows…  Thus nothing acts unless by acting it makes patent its latent self.”  To be sure, this disclosure of “who” always remains hidden from the person herself – like the daimon in Greek religion who accompanies man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters.  But this may also be true of us as Christians.  By acting we disclose the living God who has forgiven us.  Still, though unknown to the person, action is intensely personal.  Action without a name, a “who” attached to it, is meaningless, whereas an artwork retains its relevance whether or not we know the master’s name.  Let me remind you of the monuments to the Unknown Soldier after World War One.  They bear testimony to the need for finding a “who”, an identifiable somebody, whom four years of mass slaughter should have revealed.  The unwillingness to resign oneself to the brutal fact that the agent of war was actually Nobody inspired the erection of the monuments to the unknown ones.  It is those whom the war had failed to make known, and robbed them thereby, not of their achievement, but of their human dignity.

Wherever humans live together, there exists a web of human relationships that is, as it were, woven by the deeds and words of innumerable persons, by the living as well as by the dead.  Every deed and every new beginning falls into an already existing web, where it nevertheless somehow starts a new process that will affect many others even beyond those with whom the agent comes into direct contact.  It is because of this already existing web of human relationships with its conflicting wills and intentions, that action almost never achieves its purpose.  And it is also because of this medium and the attending quality of unpredictability that action always produces stories, with or without intention, as naturally as fabrication produces tangible things.  These stories may then be recorded in documents and monuments, they may be told in poetry and history, and worked into all kinds of material.  They themselves, however, are of an entirely different nature than these reifications.  They tell us more about their subjects, the “hero” in each story, than any product of human hands ever tells us about the master who produced it, and yet they are not products properly speaking.  Although everybody starts her own story, at least her own life-story, no individual we can point at is the author or producer of it.  And yet it is in these stories that the actual meaning of a human life finally reveals itself.  That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with a beginning and end is the apolitical and non-historical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end.  But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes the storybook of humankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any recognizable author, is that both are the outcome of action.  The real story in which we are engaged as long as we live is not made.

This accounts for the extraordinary frailty and unreliability of strictly human affairs.  Since we always act into a web of relationships, the consequences of each deed are boundless; every action touches off not only a reaction but a chain reaction.  Every process is the cause of unpredictable new processes.  This boundlessness is inescapable.  It could not be cured by restricting one’s acting to a limited graspable framework or circumstances or by feeding all pertinent material into giant computers.  The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness and unpredictability.  One deed, one gesture, one word may suffice to change every constellation.  In acting, in contradistinction to working, it is indeed true that we can never really know what we are doing.

However, in stark contrast to this frailty and unreliability of human affairs another character of human action seems to make it even more dangerous than we are entitled to assume anyhow.  This danger is the simple fact that, though we don’t know what we are doing when we are acting, we have no possibility ever to undo what we have done.  Action processes are not merely unpredictable, they are also irreversible.  There is no author or maker who can undo, or destroy, what he has done if he does not like it or when the consequences prove to be disastrous.  This peculiar resiliency of action, apparently in opposition to the frailty of its results, would be altogether unbearable if this capability had not some remedy within its own range.

The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility is the ability to forgive, and the remedy for unpredictability is contained in the ability to make and keep promises.  The two remedies belong together: forgiving relates to the past and serves to undo its deeds, while binding oneself through promises serves to set up in the ocean of future uncertainty islands of security without which continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would ever be possible in the relationships between people.  Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover.  We would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.  Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able achieve that amount of identity and continuity which together produce the “person” about whom a story can be told.  In other words, each of us would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of her lonely heart, caught in its ever-changing moods, contradictions, and fickleness.  In this respect, forgiving and making promises are like control mechanisms built into the very faculty to start new and unending processes.

If I were to outline the times of transformation and renewal in my life in a personal testimony, the transition point would always focus on forgiveness.  Let me give two brief examples.  First, it was only through forgiveness that Air and I could have moved past the poisoning of our son by a hospital, leading to a moment where they told us that he would die, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.  Without our ability to forgive, not only would the hospital have been trapped by unending legal processes, but Air and I would never have been able to be released from the intense anger and pain that began on that day.  Second, without being able to forgive myself for the liar I had become in my 20’s, and without letting myself be held accountable and forgiven for my many misdeeds, I would have been trapped into an ever-deepening reality of despair and destruction.

Without action, without the capacity to start something new and thus articulate the new beginning that comes into the world with the birth of each human being, the life of individuals, spent between birth and death, would indeed be doomed beyond salvation.  The life span itself would inevitably carry everything human to ruin.  Action, with all its uncertainties, is like an ever-present reminder that individual persons, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin something new.  “That there be a beginning man was created,” said Augustine.  With the creation of individual human beings, the principle of beginning came into the world – which, of course, is only another way of saying that with the creation of human beings, the principle of freedom appeared on the earth

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