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Understanding labor and work

The month of May marks the country’s Labor Day. As such, it would do us well to take a step back and to look at the concept of labor and work, which will hopefully help us face the challenges that workers all over the world face today. There seems to be a preponderance of looking at work only on the level of its economic dimensions and effects, but such a view is severely limited. Labor and work, being fundamental human activities, certainly have social, political, and cultural dimensions that needs bearing out. I suggest beginning our pondering on this topic by defining how labor and work are instrumental in the constitution of ourselves, the way that human beings relate with their world, and finally, the way that work is tied to our relationship to each other as human beings.

So, what is work’s relationship with the fact of being human? The answer to this question is simple: it is because work is one of the ways by which the human person is able to define themselves as having consciousness. For example, the eminent thinker Karl Marx, in his earlier work The German Ideology, tells us that:

“Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”

Such a view is hardly original to Marx and is in fact a widely accepted line of thinking about the person’s relationship with work. Marx’s novel contribution to how we think about work lies in his insistence that it is the material conditions of the human person that constitutes his essence. In the same work he says: “What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce, and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” Such links between human activity and arguing for its determinism about their essence, however, is a widely debated topic and should be discussed elsewhere.

The key takeaway here is that labor and work are important facets of our being because they affect not only the person doing the work, but the physical world around them as well. In other words, work is one of those human activities which not only lies in the realm of internalized pondering but is also necessarily an activity which makes sense and necessarily changes the world around us.

But what then is the difference between labor and work? In this regard, the work of Hannah Arendt is illuminating. For Arendt, labor and work can be broadly differentiated by defining labor as the kind of activity that we undertake in order to produce what is necessary to sustain only our biological life. Arendt, in her essay entitled “Labor, Work, Action” (and more comprehensively in her book The Human Condition), argues that labor encompasses the view of the person as animal laborans. Specifically, for Arendt, if we “follow solely the etymological and historical evidence, it is obvious that labor is an activity which corresponds to the biological processes of the body… By laboring, men produce the vital necessities that must be fed into the life process of the human body.”

Work, meanwhile, encompasses the view of the person as homo faber, wherein with the use of a person’s labor, talents, and tools, the person is able to create the world of things around them beyond what one needs for biological survival. For Arendt, work, or the human person as homo faber means that:

“The work of our hands, as distinguished from the labor of our bodies, fabricates the sheer unending variety of things whose sum total constitutes the human artifice, the world we live in. They are not consumer goods but use-objects, and their proper use does not cause them to disappear. They give the world the stability and solidity without which it could not be relied upon to house the unstable and mortal creature that is man.”

We can thus establish, from both Marx and Arendt, that our human consciousness is molded not just by how we construct ourselves inside our heads, but also in the way we human beings, relate to and situate ourselves in, the world of objects around us. This relationship of the person with the world of things thus anchors us to reality and enables us to make sense of the changes in ourselves and in the environment and measure these against the very same world that we have fabricated. Arendt further argues that: “Only because we have erected a world of objects from what nature gives us and have built this artificial environment into nature, thus protecting us from her, can we look upon nature as something ‘objective.’ Without a world between men and nature there would be eternal movement, but no objectivity.”

The last source which I will discuss here is Laborem Exercens, the Catholic Church’s Papal encyclical which dealt specifically on the topic of human work. Laborem enables us to situate the definitions which we have outlined so far and contextualize this towards a view of the relationship between work and the dignity of the human person. The document allows us to affirm that “work is a good thing for man — a good thing for his humanity — because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’” Laborem affirms that whatever work is done by the human person must be situated as “not only by personal effort and toil but also in the midst of many tensions, conflicts and crises, which in relationship with the reality of work, disturb the life of individual societies and also all of humanity.” These disturbances come in many forms, but its most fundamental appearance is in the reality of poverty. Laborem reminds us that “the ‘poor’ appear under various forms; they appear in various places and at various times; in many cases they appear as a result of the violation of the dignity of human work.”

Our contemporary discourses on work and all its elements, from wages, to labor conditions, unemployment, to worker’s benefits, all ought to be guided by a preponderance towards human dignity. This view can only be fruitful if we also bear in mind that work is an inherently social and worldly phenomenon. It is a constitutive element of how we relate and make sense of the world around us, and it also one of life’s main arenas where we relate and make sense of our own and other people’s value and existence.

It then baffles me as to why the circumstance of our work seems to be surrounded in so many layers of needless niceties and secrecy. We should do away our pretenses around a secretive and individualistic work culture that diminishes the social aspect of work and be more open to freely discuss matters such as wages, hiring policies, safety, benefits, among others.

The three sources which I have cited here today, Karl Marx, Hannah Arendt, and the social teachings of the Catholic Church, despite their fundamental disagreements and nuancing of the view of labor and work, all point in some way to a kind of solidarity that returns human dignity at the center of work. Marx points to a kind of class consciousness in order to cultivate a sense of species-being, Arendt defines politics as human action within the political realm as the highest expression of our capacity to live and work together in concert, Laborem Exercens affirms the “principle of the priority of labor over capital” and the fundamentality of the right to association, the right to form labor unions, among others for it is through these forms of solidarity where demands to build a society towards the common good are voiced out and actualized.

It is thus a key challenge to the security of our future that we must more deeply understand and fundamentally shift our relationship with work, and therefore also change our relationship to ourselves, towards others, and our world. The problems presented by the current global crisis and the already-too-real damage at the time of the Anthropocene, gives us an opportunity to cultivate a new kind of work that is not fundamentally rooted in the exploitation of ourselves, our environment, and of our neighbor.

 

Miguel Paolo P. Rivera is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University.

mprivera@ateneo.edu

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