"On Levin's “Animal Laborans and Homo Politicus in Hannah Arendt” (Volume 7, No. 4, November 1979)"
by Canovan, Margaret (1980)
In the November 1979 issue of Political Theory Martin Levin has accused me of misrepresenting Hannah Arendt’s views’ on the “animal laborans” by taking the notion to refer to a specific social class, namely the “working class” or “Marxian proletariat.” According to Levin, animal laborans is an abstract category that does not refer to any particular social group,* so that Arendt’s strictures upon it do not amount to “elitism.” Dr. Levin is barking up the wrong tree. I did not claim that Arendt meant the modern sociologists’ ”working class” by animal laborans, neither did I suggest that her elitism was a matter of middle-class contempt for the proletariat. But the fact is (contrary to Levin’s claims) that Arendt frequently does use the term animal laborans and its analogs to refer to particular social groups, especially in her frequent discussions of premodern societies.
Arendt frequently does use the term animal laborans and its analogs to refer to particular social groups, especially in her frequent discussions of premodern societies. This is a claim that is easy to document. In The Human Condition, for example, Arendt considers Labor partly as one human activity among others, but also identifies this mode of life with particular social groups, such as the slaves of ancient Greece, whom she sees as restricted to a life of Labor and nothing else. It is clear that in this context, animal laborans refers not to all men some of the time, but some men all of the time. Slaves, apparently, are pure specimens of animal laborans. Where they are concerned, man is what he does: his mode of life limits his whole outlook, disabling him from Action. Even more explicit assumptions about the connection in certain social groups between biological necessity and incapacity for freedom pervade On Revolution. Instead of using the term animal laborans in this book, Arendt talk about “the poor,” who are obsessed with consumption and with escape from the pressure of life’s necessities. She therefore makes quite explicit the connection between a particular class and a particular materialistic attitude to life which poses a threat to the free politics that only those liberated from biological necessity can appreciate. (p.403)
KeywordsArendt, Marx, Animal Laborans, Social Class, Working Class, Social Groups, Sociology
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