She Did Kind of Expect the End of Everything, Research Time, 05/10/2017

My musings yesterday got a little disconnected. Kind of went beyond “rough draft” and into “jottings on the asylum wall.” Okay, maybe not that bad. But it didn’t turn out to be as systematic as I wanted.

Here are some thoughts in reaction to Hannah Arendt’s longer discussion of human labour and industry. Even though she earlier wrote that humanity seemed far from maxing out our planet’s carrying capacity, she can see the danger coming.

Can we eat our whole civilization alive? When Hannah Arendt was
writing, that was almost literally the guiding principle of the entire
economy of industrial civilization in both capitalist and communist
Her concepts that she uses to analyze our society’s predicament come from Polis Greek culture, but she expresses them in universal terms. They become three categories of human production on a societal and global level.

Labour is the production of what we consume – human metabolism at work in the world. Work is the production of machines, infrastructure, and institutions that are built to last. Action is the production of acts themselves – deeds that leave no legacy except their memory and example.

Arendt’s analysis of how labour functions in 20th century industrial society – both in American-dominated and Russian-dominated societies – is the lynchpin of her critique of consumerism.

For the sake of maintaining such massive industrial productivity that we built to overcome the Great Depression, we were producing goods to consume them for our pleasure with the same speed as we’d consume weapons, ammunition, and human lives in war.

The problem was that consumption became the pinnacle purpose for production. So much of our production power was devoted to making things that we’d consume. They had high value in their use, but using them would also destroy them, so we had to make more constantly.

We were all, for our livelihoods, so dependent on the relentless pace of Western industry’s production that the system itself was becoming automatic. Its activity, as Arendt put it, was beyond the power of human decision-makers to stop.

Even an advertising man can have moments of profound insight and
a life remarkable enough to preserve in our community's historical
No matter how many people might decide that such an ephemeral, superficial lifestyle wasn’t for them, the machine couldn’t stop. The productivity of our economy was built around disposability.

However ethically empty economic life might have been under this arrangement, it did make for a great job creation plan. That was one aspect of the high-quality manufacturing sector jobs that drove the expansion of the middle class in the mid-20th century. We had to keep making those things to consume and destroy them.

The problem with our contemporary economy is much worse in particular ways. Now, so much of the extra value of our work goes to virtual sectors – banking, insurance, and stock investment.

A lot of the stuff we consume – games, information, media – is free or extremely cheap to buy. So there just isn’t as much money flowing through the production process as there used to be when Arendt was alive and writing.

And although she doesn’t say it directly, the economic cycle of ballooning over-production and over-consumption still has the effects of ecological destruction. Eating the planet alive.

In so many ways, our economies are unsustainable because nothing is built to last. We labour and enjoy, but we don’t build and act.


  1. One of the horrific pleasures of reading you is that you're gradually rediscovering a lost civilization called the late 20TH century: Check out 'planned obsolescence':

    1. I find the terror of it all for me, is seeing what had been going on around me when I was mostly too young to understand all its details. Remember: I was two months shy of 17 on New Years Day 2000.

      Now I see a more extreme version of planned obsolescence just from the fact that I don't bother replacing my Android 4 with a newer one even though it still works fine. Where I want to take this (for now) is understanding the different reactions to the need to maintain the economic intensity of the Second World War to prevent another global depression. Contrasting Hayek's vision of a new Great Depression through runaway inflation (like Hungary in WWII), with the path of the consumerist society that we actually got.