For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"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.

Key Passage

Arendt’s views on premodern societies (which arestrangely neglected by Dr. Levin) are clear, if unpalatable. The ambiguities begin when she comes to talk of Labor in the modern world. One might expect, given the rise in general prosperity and the liberation of whole populations from the pressure of objective bodily necessity, that there should be more scope for Action in the modern world than ever before. But Arendt maintains, on the contrary, that the effect of modeinization has been to give an undue predominance to the servile values of “Life” and to turn virtually everyone (not just the working class) into job-holders, animales laborantes, all sharing that base ideal of endless consumption that is really “the age-old dream of the poor and destitute.”6 As a result, free politics (which always was the business of an elite of free men guarding their public space against necessity in the shape of the slaves or the poor) now becomes the business of an elite of those who appreciate public freedom, in opposition to the consumption-oriented modern masses.’ The interesting point is that the basis for elitism in the present is different from its foundation in the past. In preindustrial societies, one of the necessary conditions for Action was freedom from biological necessity: if you were preoccupied with the cares of the body, you were objectively disqualified from Action. In the modern world, however, where according to Arendt all classes are “job-holders,” the qualifications appear to be subjective. Those who can rid themselves of the laborer’s and consumer’s rnentalify can “select themselves” as a true political elite. (p.404)


Arendt, Marx, Animal Laborans, Social Class, Working Class, Social Groups, Sociology


On Arendt

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