Of all the things to stop me in my tracks, it was the well-known way that so many of us over-identify with one of our two political parties, Democrat or Repulican. That’s not a metaphor. It really did stop me in my tracks. I was running down a long country road on which I’ve laid some well-worn tracks, and listening to a podcast hosted by a trailrunning coach who I admire, and who continues to play an outsized role in my infatuation with mountain trails. This coach said to his guest, and into my earbuds, that he didn’t vote in his state’s primary because he’s a registered Rebulican, and so his choices were garbage. This guy is a registered repulican!? I stopped in my tracks. A guy who has helped me ask better questions about caring for public land, for my own body, and for the more holistic reasons underlying the joy I find spending all day propelling myself through mountain trails? Not this guy. I stood in the middle of that empty road, my dog pulling at me, thinking, well, I probably can’t learn much from him anymore then. That felt like a bummer. But I also stood there feeling this strange tension in my throat and on the backs of my shoulders. What is going on with me? Am I really going to stop learning from this registered republican? I took out my earbuds and finished that run listening only to the sound of my feet.
I think it’s easy enough to explain my reaction as just a symptom of an old, but super intensified political and cultural divide. We are Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, with the Jets or with the Sharks, Gryffindor or Slytherin. We are one or the other. So a liberal-leaning English professor with pseudo-hippy sensibilities like me cannot learn from a registered republican. That is to say, we are all completely free to choose our identities, and even personalize those identities, as long as they match the choices offered us by a drop-down menu. And it’s this sad drop-down menu notion of freedom, of action, of living that I felt in my throat and on my shoulders, that stopped me in my tracks.
I’m dwelling on this small story because it helps me think about the challenge of what Summer, in her recent Yoga Church sermons, has called the “next, right action.” Taking the next, right action in our lives is too often already wrapped up with what we already identify as and, then, with the set of possible actions that are already available to that identity. Again, our roles and our actions can feel like little more than selections from a drop-down menu that we identify with but we certainly didn’t build.
I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt lately, a political theorist working in Germany at the end of WWII, and she’s been really helping me get a handle on this sad drop-down menu.
Arendt organizes human activities into three (admittedly reductive) categories: We humans Labor, we Work, and we take Action. So: Labor, Work, and Action. What she’s going to say is that while Action is where we really flourish, or sometimes she even says that Action describes what it means to do human being, Action has not been available to us in a long, long time–since well before the Enlightenment principles that grounded so many governments and nations (the United States chief among them). Action cannot (cannot!) exist on a drop-down menu. And so, we are going to have a hard time understanding it, and an even harder time engaging with it.
But let me backup for just a second and explain how the categories of Labor, Work, and Action fit together for Hannah Arendt.
Labor is pretty straightforward. For her, Labor names the stuff we have to do to sustain our daily existence. So the stuff that fits into this category has to be done again and again and again pretty much the same way. It’s just gotta be done and it’s not going to change. We eat, sleep, move about, poop, hopefully brush our teeth, and on and on. Labor keeps us alive.
Her category of Work is more complex. So if we all labor to sustain our existence, then we need a place or a culture, or she says, a world, to exist within. We gotta have somewhere to live and engage with each other. And we gotta have something to be in that world. So Arendt used the word Work to name all the stuff we do to continually build a ‘common world.’ That includes the literal building of, say, walls, overpasses, parks, airplanes. And importantly, it also includes the building of scientific methods and categories, laws, novels, social media posts, TV commercials, holidays, political parties. Our work allows for a division between nature and culture. Just think about that rather tired but common question, “How do you contribute to society?” For Arendt, that’s the same as asking “What’s your work?” Work is what we do to create and maintain our public world, physically, institutionally, and perhaps spiritually.
Alright, still with me? Labor is necessary and repetitive. You just gotta keep eating to live; that doesn’t change. Work is what we all do to build and maintain a world in which we can live together. You gotta keep going to work to build and maintain things in one way or another.
So here’s the big deal–here’s what Hannah Arendt thinks we’ve been missing since those who get called ‘founding fathers’ tried so hard to solve what they understood as the problem with constant political fighting. We’re missing Action. We’re missing a real politics–a way to value an unending practice of imagining with others new possibilities, beginnings, new worlds.
Action, for Arendt, names a kind of wild freedom to engage with others. It’s not the freedom we’re used to, which is just the freedom to choose among possible existing alternatives. There’s no drop-down menu here. Action names a politics designed to go on and on, forever shaping and reshaping how we are together. In fact, for her, to experience freedom is most certainly larger than just having a choice among lots of options. Action is a wild freedom because it’s all about having the capacity to constantly engage with others to imagine and make something new, unexpected, something that comes only from our never-ending interactions in public space. She says, “[people] are free…as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” And that engagement, that freedom is an end in itself. It’s not for anything else. Action has nothing else to accomplish but the act of engaging others again and again.
So unlike Labor, the things we do to keep ourselves alive and healthy, and unlike Work where we need to make products to sell in order to maintain an economy, or make laws in order to govern our activities, Action has nothing to do beyond itself. For Hannah Arendt, and this hit me hard last week, we have to labor and we need to work so that we get to, ultimately, engage in action. The problem, she says, is that our capacity to value and engage in action was more or less robbed once we decided that political activity serves only to support our economic work, our property rights, and our individualized pursuits of happiness. (Especially a specific kind of peoples’ work, rights, and pursuits).
We are all left to find meaning in our own work because political action, for us, has only been in the service of work and not the other way around. That’s probably why I’ve been trained to ask my niece what she wants to be when she grows up instead of who she imagines herself to be. It’s also why my insightful, lovely, powerful students constantly have to defend their choice to study art, rhetorical theory, literature, philosophy. I mean, “what are they going to do with that?” “How are they going to be a productive member of our working economy?”
In Hannah Arendt’s imagined world, we would make sure that everyone can labor well and that everyone can comfortably do their work so that we can get on with our action, with imagining the new, the unexpected, together. Our work economy would support our political action.
Of course, these categories of labor, work, and action are blurry. They don’t have clear lines and we could argue forever about what counts as work and action. But what matters so much to me right now is the inventive possibilities–the possibility to imagine action beyond the options of a drop-down menu. She says, and I just love this, “The new … always appears in the guise of a miracle.” Action is an un-ending public conversation that is in the service of nothing but an un-ending public conversation, from which, change or the new emerges. And for her it’s in this kind of engagement where we are going to find and feel meaning.
One enormous and charged example of action, and how difficult it is to live and practice as an end in itself rather than as a means to get something specific and understandable done, is to consider the super important riots and protest happening right now in Minneapolis in response to a white American police officer killing yet another black American man. No matter how hard our differing media try to frame this protest as Work, as a means to a clear end that we could pick from a drop-down menu, this protest is not that. We can understand it, instead, as Action. Of course these mourners are in the streets because they want a world where being black is not a potential death sentence. These mourners have an end in their mind, yes. They are doing work.
But they’re also doing action. The value of these protests, and so many others that have erupted from the same grief and anger, is an action that demands (demands!) a public engagement of imagining, together, a new world where we can labor and work, a different beginning. This is so much more complicated and critical than some false notion of a drop-down menu choice between ‘Keep killing black men or stop killing black men.’ These protests imagine a world where the possibility of such a choice wouldn’t, couldn’t exist. Please God, a miracle. Hannah Arendt says, “revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning.”
Action demands engagement and that engagement never ends. It keeps beginning. Action, unlike work, demands invention and imagination for a world that could be made and, importantly, re-made otherwise. These protests born from mourning and anger can be understood as actions rather than work because they engage us in difficult considerations of the world our work supports, and asks us to imagine a different world. And listen, imagining a different world, means you don’t get to have the drop-down menu. The identities and ways of working currently available to us need not belong in our imagined future. That’s why Action has to be taken up together. We can’t do it by ourselves. For Arendt, it’s unending Action, not our individual roles or our work, that offers us meaning.
So, at my best, when I hear Summer ask: what’s my next, right action?, what I’m learning to hear is something different than ‘what do I want to do?’ or, worse, ‘what is it that somebody like me is supposed to do?’ I’m learning (very much still learning) to hear instead, “how do I want to be, and how can I imagine my world with others as if it could be otherwise?” From there, I do something. I take a next, right action with no outcome in mind other than wanting something otherwise, imagining a beginning.