The crucial difference between labor and work
Only one of them can be entrusted to machines By George Alliger and Robert Zaretsky Updated April 26, 2023, 11:59 a.m., The Boston Globe
May 1 will be a Monday like any other in the United States, with Americans going about a typical workday. Yet across the globe, in communist and capitalist countries alike, workers will mostly spend the day not working, but instead marking Labor Day. In many European countries, this will amount to little more than celebratory parades, but in others — France comes to mind — governments will brace themselves for massive and potentially violent protests over what labor has become.
The reasons for the holiday’s different dates and traditions in the United States and the rest of the world are revealing. Following violent labor strikes in Chicago in May 1886, climaxing in the Haymarket massacre, American unions chose May 1 to commemorate these events. While this date caught on in the rest of the world, not so here. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland defused the holiday by deciding on a new date. This is why you may spend Labor Day marching to a beach while carrying folding chairs rather than marching down a boulevard while carrying protest signs.
The differences in the holidays raises a question: What do we expect of labor, our own and others’? And in an age where machines labor for us and, it seems, artificial intelligence may soon think for us, we ought to also ask: What work should humans be doing?
No one can better help us answer these questions than the political thinker Hannah Arendt. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the publication of her book “The Human Condition.” It has been overshadowed by Arendt’s more controversial books, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Yet “The Human Condition,” devoted to “nothing more than to think about what we are doing,” is perhaps the most prescient and perturbing of all her writings.
Arendt observes that we use “labor” and “work,” two etymologically unrelated words, as if they were one and the same activity. Yet labor and work are different. Driven by urgent necessity, a laborer lives a life of “repetition and the endlessness of the process itself,” Arendt wrote. To live, men and women and children labor in sweatshops and call centers, fields and factories, meat-packing plants and distribution centers. While one of us was recently mowing his lawn, a sleek Amazon van pulled up and its harried driver lurched out with a package. When asked, jokingly, if he wanted to switch jobs, he blurted, resignedly, “One day of this and you wouldn’t want to do this job no more.”
The object inside that package — a ceramic bowl purchased from an artisan — captured the difference between labor and work. Work creates an object or something else outside of ourselves that will persist over time and leave an individual legacy to future generations. The worker crafts not just bowls and tables and turbines but also political and social institutions that will outlast us. Labor, on the other hand, simply moves things around or creates something transient and immediately consumed.
You may say that all things are transient, and so they are. But Arendt warns that the pace and intensity of the production-consumption cycle are ever increasing. We are, she says, abandoning the building of tools that are under the control of the laborer in favor of building machines that set the pace.
Although Arendt wrote at a time when current forms of AI were unimaginable (even if conceived in rudimentary ways by visionaries like Allen Newell and Herb Simon), she anticipated its tremendous influence when she underscored the alien and dangerous powers of the “machine.” Just as we have wondered whether machines serve us or vice versa, we now question whether AI will be used to support or supplant our thinking. Consider customer service. One application of AI (and its metastasizing attendant, electronic surveillance) is to listen carefully to call center reps, nudging them, when necessary, to speak with more “empathy.”
We should know better than to create jobs where such absurdities are allowed to take root. Work psychologists long ago identified how jobs can be designed so humans might thrive. Such jobs will stress optimal, not maximal, worker effort. They will entail autonomy, responsibility, transparency of communications, and the sense of creating an entire product or outcome, where that outcome is understood to be of value to society. David Graeber, in “Bullshit Jobs,” notes that under specifications such as these, many jobs simply should not exist. Advertising generates false needs, which are then met by the production of goods that are, humanly speaking, in some sense false.
Rather than run to exhaustion on this treadmill, Arendt says we should free ourselves for real action — action that goes beyond labor and work. This action is the freedom to begin “something anew” — to transform the social and political world we share with our fellow human beings.
So though Arendt was thinking about labor and work in the office or factory space, she was also thinking about acting in the public space — that place, both precious and precarious, where we engage one another in the common project of democracy. If she were alive today, Arendt would hardly be surprised by new technologies that undermine the purposefulness of work and thoughtfulness of action.
Arendt ended her book on a guardedly optimistic note, suggesting there are still enough people who value work and thought sufficiently to prevent the unmaking of our world. But she also warned that “our apprehension of reality is dependent upon our sharing the world with our fellow men.” Sixty-five years later, we might take a few minutes from work to think if we are still doing that.
George Alliger is an industrial psychologist and a lecturer in psychology at Rice University. Robert Zaretsky is a professor in the department of modern and classical languages at the University of Houston.