- The Labor of Politics:A Review of Steven Klein's The Work of Politics
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the inadequacies of residual welfare arrangements to counter injustices. When Uber drivers lack trip requests in lockdown, the gig economy shows new highs of underemployment; when poorly paid cleaners of city buses or hospitals lack adequate personal protective equipment, exposure to health risks becomes even more uneven; and when disadvantaged children lack the safe haven of a classroom, lasting harm to their life chances results. Examples abound. But the pandemic also inspires a newfound collective resolve to refurbish the welfare states upon which democratic societies rely, from relatively gratuitous gestures such as #ClapForO-urCarers to newfound support for bold ideas like the establishment of a Global Fund for Social Protection.1 While it may be too early to tell what the future of the welfare state will look like after COVID-19, reading Steven Klein's The Work of Politics will help you to hope for the best but also to expect the worst. In this magnificent book, he presents an original theory of the welfare state, arguing that it functions simultaneously as a site of lasting democratic empowerment, and as a vehicle for the reproduction of domination in a capitalist social order.
A particularly insightful part of his account is to look at welfare institutions as "worldly mediators" between calculable, material needs and non-technical, political judgments. In constructing this theoretical building block from Arendt's writings, Klein engages in what may be called a hermeneutics of depurification. He shows that Arendt does not empty or cleanse the political of its socio-economic dimensions, but instead offers the vocabulary (with her notions of "class," "interest," "property," etc.) with which they can become part of an enduring common world. Klein takes his cue for this depurified (and hence also socio-economically relevant) reading of Arendt from Markell, who proposes a work- rather than action-centric reading of Arendt's The Human Condition.2 The activity of work and its lasting, worldly objects function as mediating or bridging concepts between the futility of labor's economic needs and the fragility of political action. Klein praises the transfigurative and reifying potential of homo faber's work, and points to Arendt's phenomenological insistence on connecting instrumentality to appearance. "Everything that is," writes Arendt, "must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own; hence there is in fact no thing that does not in some way transcend its functional use, and its transcendence, its beauty or ugliness, is identical with appearing publicly and being seen."3
By depicting democratic social movements and the welfare institutions which they help construct as not only stories of action but also as instantiations of work and its objects, Klein offers an attractive, non-reductive theory. [End Page 881] Things like pensions, social housing projects, classrooms, or hospital beds are never merely commendable out of life's dire necessity or instrumental usefulness—although they deserve praise for this as well. Instead, these objects are always also part of an infrastructure that generates a meaningful and enduring world. So understood, welfare arrangements provide the scene and occasion for democratic action, but they also turn those episodes into some of the lasting institutions that Arendt's politics requires. Klein's book thus renders vivid and concrete Arendt's insistence that the intersubjective disclosure of words and deeds is always "about an objective worldly reality" yet spoken among agents "to one another."4 This unorthodox, depurified reading is particularly forceful to invalidating the endlessly recurring trope of Arendt's alleged aestheticism. Yet I think it would be a mistake to abandon orthodox, purified readings altogether. What interesting puzzles arise from pairing both hermeneutic strategies?
One obvious, remaining puzzle is that while depurified readings hinge on Arendt's claim that "everything that is, must appear," one cannot easily discard her insistence that "the most elementary meaning [of the public-private distinction] indicates that there are things that need to be hidden and...