Going to Work at all is a Political Act

Living simultaneously in the Public Sphere and the Private Sector

Image source unknown. Probably American. Who knows?

Last week I wrote about the idea that work is always political. It secures us in relationships of inequality, and try as we might to place boundaries around it in time and the law, it often breaks those boundaries. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that work forms a key part of one’s selfhood, and Marxists who are trying to push back the tide of identity politics would certainly claim that ‘worker’ was the original identity. We’re deluding ourselves if we think having a job or going to work is not a political act. In this post I want to argue that going to work is always a public act as well.

What is the Public?

I read a fair bit about the public sphere for my PhD thesis. The public is a contested conceptual space; you can find a theorist to support just about any argument you want to make about it. For this post I want to consider ‘the public’ as ‘people acting collectively’, just as a baseline for analysis.

Le Bon, image: Wikipedia

Gustave Le Bon was not the first theorist of the public, but he’s one of the first to think about it in mass psychological (or proto-behaviourist) terms. For Le Bon the crowd was a pathological, bestial thing. When groups of people conglomerated in public spaces, they became suggestible and easily led astray by demagogues. Writing in the middle 19th century, in the wake of revolutions across Europe, Le Bon wrote of the dark political potential of the Crowd:

“A chain of logical argumentation is totally incomprehensible to crowds, and for this reason it is permissible to say that they do not reason or that they reason falsely, and are not to be influenced by reasoning.” (Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, 28).

For Le Bon, people became more like animals in crowds:

“…by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings … and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits.” (OPR, 29)

Le Bon is far from the only one to bring the savage/civilised dichotomy to bear on political philosophy. Arendt makes the same move when she describes animal laborens as being animated by “a more powerful drive than anything else, because life itself depends upon it.” (HC, 87) At least for Arendt, writing a century after Le Bon, the ‘Life Process’ is ambivalent, affirming in the embodied pleasures it brings, even if limiting in its inescapability.

But Arendt has her own take on the public sphere. Metaphorically it’s a space, the agora or forum, but conceptually it’s not really a space but a discursive medium for politics. When things are running smoothly it’s where Action takes place; the problems of the middle 20th century were caused in part by its occupation, first by artisans — Workers — who supplanted men of Action monopolised it as a market, and then by Labourers who by becoming purchasers in the market claimed to be the equals of the artisan sellers:

“Historically, the last public realm, the last meeting place which is at least connected with the activity of homo faber, is the exchange market on which his products are displayed. The commercial society, characteristic of the earlier stages of the modern age or the beginnings of manufacturing capitalism, sprang from this “conspicuous production” with its concomitant hunger for universal possibilities of truck and barter, and its end came with the rise of labor and the labor society which replaced conspicuous production and its pride with “conspicuous consumption” and its concomitant vanity.” (HC, 162)

Arendt argues that supplanting politics with the market is a problem. Given that she wrote these words in 1958, that feels pretty prescient.

So what is the Private then?

Arendt’s ideas about the private realm are perhaps more interesting. To enter the public realm, one must by definition leave the household. This “demanded courage because only in the household was one primarily concerned with one’s own life and survival” (HC, 36). The public realm was one of scrutiny that constituted reality, but paradoxically to enter into this realm of reality required keeping some secrets:

“Since our feeling for reality depends utterly upon appearance and therefore upon the existence of a public realm into which things can appear out of the darkness of sheltered existence, even the twilight which illuminates our private and intimate lives is ultimately derived from the much harsher light of the public realm. Yet there are a great many things which cannot withstand the implacable, bright light of the constant presence of others on the public scene … For instance, love, in distinction from friendship, is killed, or rather extinguished, the moment it is displayed in public.” (HC, 51)

Structural Transformation, image: Wikipedia

Arendt belongs in an intellectual continuum that includes Immanuel Kant and Jurgen Habermas. Kant argued that rational-critical debate would inevitably and naturally produce both rational and moral conclusions; debate requires others. Habermas’ influential model of the public sphere understood it as the source and regulator of all democratic or collective power; it was the public’s job to regulate the State through Kantian debate. It’s her notion of the private that makes Arendt interesting. Like Habermas and others, she understands the private and the public as being a mutually constituting dichotomy that between them encompass all human activity:

“A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.” (HC, 71)

This could easily describe social media. In our epoch, even privacy has been exposed to the market. It’s the reason ‘work/life balance’ is a thing — we don’t have it, so we’ve invented a phrase to help us imagine what it might look like. We are shallow because we’ve forgotten how to live in private.

Unlike the others, Arendt gives the private a positive definition. One of the most frequently-cited definitions of the private comes from Isiah Berlin, who argued that it was defined by ‘negative liberty’ — that is, the private realm was defined by the limits of the state’s laws — whatever the state did not curtail was permitted, and this space of permission became the private. Arendt understands the private household as shelter. Private property is important because it’s a refuge from the world that enables the individual to be themselves.

The problem is that ‘private’ has dual meanings: it can mean secrets — as in contemporary discussions of data — or it can mean commercial activity or personal wealth — as in the discussion of the private sector. Capitalism — specifically wealth accumulation — has made it impossible to separate this private property from wealth, which perverts the notion of a room of one’s own as a bulwark against the public eye: “For wealth … has grown to such proportions that it is almost unmanageable by private ownership. … The greatest threat here, however, is not the abolition of private ownership of wealth but the abolition of private property in the sense of a tangible, worldly place of one’s own” (HC, 70). This should sound familiar to anyone who has read anything about the Australian property market, which converts homes into commodities through negative gearing, capital gains tax concessions, and the pernicious language of ‘investment properties’ — all of which puts houses out of reach of a large minority of Australians, and justifies the massive mortgages of another large minority.

So this is where we are — a public realm that has been invaded by private concerns, and a redefinition of the notion of the private away from a refuge for people and towards a refuge for wealth. One of the major questions that comes up in this literature then is how to reconfigure the relationship between the economic and the political so that people can once again take solace in the private and their rightful place in public debate.

Hang on, what does all this have to do with work again?

So where does work fit into all of this? Arendt describes work as one of the spheres of activity that have grown to supplant politics, and that’s what led me here. Arendt predicted the reconfiguring of the public realm as a marketplace; contemporary theorists argue that Neoliberalism is the extension of the logic of the marketplace to all aspects of human life. The market is a site of large-scale, collective exchange. Just because those exchanges are financial shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it’s a place we can all go to encounter one another. If we think of the Market as a site of collective engagement, we can also think of the State that way. After all, advocates of neoliberal reforms want to see the State privatised, so they see the Market and the State as providing equivalent services.

Although we think about employment as a private matter, I think that’s a mistake. We cannot live without others, and simply by being one of the major reasons we get out of the house, by bringing us into contact with others, work helps to institute and form the public. The need to secure our lives, whether it be through work or labour, puts us in front of others. So my first point is, work is a public space that should be thought of as a primary site of political engagement. Although we’d love to keep the economy and society separate, it’s impossible.

But the centrality of work to our lives also shapes the way we treat other people. As I said last week, equality is a fundamental aspect of democracy, and work is a site of fundamental inequality. Dunlop talks about the entangled radical reform of wealth, work, and education through the provision of a Universal Basic Income that secures free time — and personal liberty — for all, equally. His phrase for a renewal of the public is to find a ‘life in common’. Like Arendt, and Chantal Mouffe, he’s keen on the notion of agonistic pluralism — the fostering of democratic ways of relating that allows difference to thrive and doesn’t depend on the subordination of the one to the many. Work has to be part of that project.

And lastly, we might need a better theory of the private. Arendt’s idea that the private is a refuge or shelter, rather than just a jealously guarded set of secrets or possessions — space to be oneself, free form the public eye — then rather than placing limits on the public as liberals have always liked to, perhaps it’s time to place limits on the private. When you commodify privacy — in the form of data or ownership but also in the form of refuge — you make it much, much harder for people to participate in the political life of the public.

This story was originally published on my blog.

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.

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