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Policy-Making or the Victory of the Animal Laborans?

In “the Vita activa and the Modern Age” section of The Human Condition (Arendt 1959) , Arendt explains how the invention of the telescope changed the relationship between truth and appearance. “Truth was no longer supposed to appear…to the mental eye of a beholder” (Arendt 1959, p. 263). Indeed, as the telescope has demonstrated that we are fooled by our senses, “nothing could be less trustworthy for acquiring knowledge and approaching truth than passive observation or mere contemplation. In order to be certain, one had to make sure, and in order to know, one had to do” (Arendt 1959, p. 263). The telescope has undermined deeply and for centuries our epistemological confidence in what we perceive without instruments, either by our senses or by mere thinking and contemplation. As a result, “in modern philosophy and thought, doubt occupies much the same central position as that occupied for all the centuries before by the Greek thaumazein, the wonder at everything that is as it is” (Arendt 1959, p. 249). This has had a great effectiveness in the relationship with nature and the universe. Without the Cartesian “de omnibus dubitandum est” (“everything should be doubted”), we would not have taken the same technological path nor landed on the moon. The Cartesian doubt has shaped the relationship of men to nature in terms of questions to be answered through xperimental settings, and this has opened an era where, on the one hand, technological artefacts have been invented and widely spread, and where, on the other hand, the conscience of the finiteness and fragility of the earth and the environment surrounding us has arisen. The relationship between men and nature is made of triumph and pride, on the one hand, for all the technological artefacts, and fear and guilt, on the other hand, for the consequences of having “disturbed” the global ecosystem to the point that we are now feeling responsibility for it9. It is against this general background that the development, diffusion and uptake of information and communication technologies take place. If there is no doubt that the Cartesian doubt has played a decisive role in this course of action, the disappearance of thaumazein (“wonder”) has had great damaging consequences, at least in the field of human affairs.

Having been fooled by our senses until Galileo and Copernicus did not prevent humanity from living on the earth and no longer being fooled by our senses did not prevent humanity from committing the notorious monstrosities of the twentieth century. The suspicion against thinking and contemplating, in favour of the confidence in doing, has led, first, to the reversal of the primacy of the vita contemplativa over of the vita activa, and, second, within the vita activa, it has modified the hierarchy10 of the labour-work-action tripartition by putting work over action. Indeed, work is the activity of the doer, par excellence, and a telescope is an object produced by Homo Faber.

The signature of this reversal in today's policy-making is the importance of the “means-to-end” or instrumental logic, testified by the sequence: objectives, strategies, implementation, monitoring. Policies are meant to be means to higher ends. The risk of this means-to-end logic in policy-making is to consider that any means is good as long as it serves the end. Another shortcoming of importing the meansto-end logic in the political realm is to lock-in or close down the capacity to begin. Indeed, the Homo Faber is judged against the conformity of his work with the original plan. But the political leader will not: “In contradistinction to fabrication, where the light by which to judge the finished product is provided by the image or model perceived beforehand by the craftsman's eye, the light that illuminates processes of action, and therefore all historical processes, appears only at their end” (Arendt 1959, p. 171). Indeed, political actors know that their mandate cannot only be captured by a mere implementation of the original strategy. For example, although EU2020[1] is the overarching strategy of the Commission, it will be judged, not only on the implementation of this strategy, but more surely on its sense of opportunity in dealing appropriately with the crisis and the other events as they arise, in the course of time, and on its ability to take initiatives. Similarly in national contexts, electoral campaigns are never won only on mere implementation of past promises but also on the ability to generate trust and confidence with a winning mix of vision and skilful sense of opportunism. Hence, even if it would be stupid to deny that policy-making should be transparent, soundly-based and monitored, it would be as stupid to think that transparency, sound foundations and monitoring is all that matters. Instead, what really matters is the ability to deal with the unexpected and make sense of it. Policy-makers are judged on this very ability, their ability to begin, to impulse and to make sense, much more than on their ability to achieve pre-defined goals.

One of the main current higher ends to which policy-making is deemed to be a means is “boosting growth and jobs”. This in itself has also been anticipated by Arendt, even if, in the '50s and '60s of the last century, there were no “growth and jobs” issue at the level they are today. She anticipated that beyond the reversal of action and fabrication, or the “victory of Homo Faber”, there would be a second reversal, i.e., that the lowest of the three activities in the vita activa tripartition—labor—would take over work and action with the “victory of the Animal Laborans”. Labor is the lowest of the three activities in the vita activa, because it is defined by Arendt as “bound to the vital necessities” (Arendt 1959, p. 9). It is indexed on necessity. It is highly repetitive and leaves no trace behind. It is also characterized by its processual nature, i.e. the fact that it is continuous and has no beginning nor end. Labour, in that meaning, does not allow any room for experiencing freedom, nor the pleasure of appearing in front of others and experiencing the joy of plurality. Indeed, for Arendt, what makes us human is what happens, once each of us has coped with the necessities of the biological life: “The 'good life' as Aristotle called the life of the citizen, therefore was ….'good' to the extent that by having mastered the necessities of sheer life, by being freed from labor and work, and by overcoming the innate urge of all living creatures for their own survival, it was no longer bound to the biological life process” (Arendt 1959, p. 33).

The “means-to-end” register that has invaded the public space turns itself into an even more pervasive register: the processual register. Policy-making has not only substituted making for acting, but it has further substituted processing for making. This is a negative trend, according to Arendt, because processes leave no room for plurality and freedom, or for meaning. The policy's increasing and almost exclusive focus on processes thereby leaves unattended a central aspect of the human condition.

One of the key features of the human condition is that human beings do not need to allocate the totality of their energy to their survival: a surplus is available. Human beings, if and when healthy, have a satiety threshold: at one point they have enough: they are not hungry, not cold, clean…and can turn to other activities, for example engaging with others or fabricating objects. That satiety threshold, or better what happens beyond it, is what allows us to experience the human condition as such and enjoy freedom.

With the centrality of the “growth and jobs” rationale in policy-making, process and necessity have pervaded the rationale for policy-making. Necessity has been hijacked to cover the survival needs of enterprises, rather than those of human beings. These organisational beings have no satiety threshold. For them, by design, “more” is “better” and “enough” not part of their vocabulary! Addressing needs of a-satiable beings, or, in other words, of beings not having a satiety threshold, leads to the hegemony of necessity at the expense of any sense of freedom and plurality. It is in this sense that what Arendt calls “the social” has indeed colonised the public space. Wealth, which was a typical private concern in Greek times, became a dominant public concern. With an endless processual perspective anchored in necessity, and the oversight or denial of the notion of satiety threshold, phronesis, i.e. practical wisdom and prudence, a critical value for public action in the Greek polis, is substituted by hubris, i.e. extreme pride, arrogance and “never-enoughness” in a systemic way.

Facing this “growth and jobs” rationale, indexed on the needs of a-satiable organisations, there is another rationale: the one of precaution and fundamental rights. The a-satiability of organisations and their overarching influence on policy-making in the name of growth and jobs may distort the use of these counter-tracks, as they are sometimes put forward in absolute and irrealistic terms, with the purpose to counter the endless voracity of enterprises, as organisational beings. The problem is that this mechanical approach fails to grasp meanings, on both sides. Hence, policy-making is locked in a vision, which is either superseded by the overarching objective of “boosting growth and jobs” or by the quest for control, certainty and predictability. In Arendtian terms, one might say that policy-making is disconnected from endorsing the openness of the future, through a double regression, first by running away from freedom by invoking causality, i.e., with work taking precedence over action, and then by redoubling causality with necessity, i.e., with labour taking precedence over work. The loss of this double regression is plurality and meaning.

Policy-Making and the Devaluation of the Present

The modern overarching confidence in progress and the lock-in of policy-making in causality (means-to-end) and necessity (process) has deep consequences for the underlying representations of the past, the present and the future in policy-making: meaning and purpose are exported in the future, the present is …what is broken, the past balances between “golden age” and “never again”!

Future is where meaning and purpose are stored: future generations are called to justify policies, notably regarding climate change policies. Long-term objectives are set, against which current decisions are justified. The long-term perspective is value-loaded, unveiling interestingly that the short term has indeed been emptied of meaning and purpose. “Short termism” is an expression denoting the inability of policy making to form appropriate judgments of what needs to be taken into account. It is the signature of the fact that policy decisions have parted company with meaning. This is highly problematic in the perspective of natality and plurality, as will be shown later.

The past is either idealised or demonised, much more rarely simply endorsed, acknowledged and made sense of in a rationale and distanced manner.

The present is what is broken. It is indeed mainly perceived and described as what is broken and requires action to be fixed! Policies are then designed to fix those problems: low-carbon, training, budgetary discipline. The present is where problems lie and the future where solutions need to be found. Tomorrow will be better than today, thanks to the policies. As if there would be no need for policies or institutions if there were no problem to be fixed. In that framing, the bigger the problems and the worse the present, the easier the demonstration! Metaphorically, policy-makers tend to describe the challenges as if we had to run away from a fire or to hurry up to win a supposed race. It is about pointing to the future as a fire exit from a present in flames. This systematic, even if implicit, devaluation of the present has pervasive consequences on the mood with which men and women interact with each other and with the world. It undermines the possibilities for a rich experience of plurality and freedom.

  • [1] COM (2010) 2020 final. Europe 2020: A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
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