When Corona virus struck some months back many of us suddenly found ourselves working from home in ways that we hadn’t thought was possible prior to this crisis. For me as an organizational consultant, some activities were postponed while others were moved to an online format.
In the following I will draw on ideas from the philosopher and political thinker, Hannah Arendt to make sense of some of the difficulties that I feel Covid-19 has created, and then conclude by drawing attention to aspects of this crisis, which leave me with a sense of hope.
Movements in the experience of virtual meetings
Back in March when many of us had to adapt to working from home while home-schooling our kids or do grocery shopping for our elderly relatives, I noticed a pattern in our virtual meetings: we developed a capacity to shorten our meetings and focus on key issues. We praised each other and ourselves for being effective with our use of time, and people started to talk about how – despite all the problems emerging from Covid-19 – there is a lot to learn. Personally, I felt a sense of optimism.
After the summer break my online meetings increasingly left me with a sense of disappointment and fatigue. The emerging habit of ‘effectiveness’, not spending too much time on inquiry or exploration, focusing more on decisions and action plans, led to a feeling of deprivation. I missed the lively engagement with difference; the sense of being able to explore each other’s thoughts and perspectives – and through this exploration – arrive at a sense of increased meaning and understanding. I missed the sense of spontaneity, which often gives meetings their unique quality of liveliness and significance. I found myself holding back from taking risks in conversations. The uncertainty of daring to act in ways that can seem disruptive of established norms and practices constrained me more than usual. The absence of physical presence of bodies, which provide a rich source of information made such risks feel more dangerous and unpredictable.
‘Work’ and ‘action’
Arendt’s (1958) distinction between ‘work’ and ‘action’ can help us understand this experience. When we ‘work’, we are involved in fabrication or production. Our capacity and desire to be effective allows us to be task-oriented in our virtual meetings. In a ‘community of workers’ we engage in order to achieve some desired goals or objectives and as such, our engagement is reduced to a means to an end. The unique identity and opinion of each individual is irrelevant when ‘working’. The ‘who’ of the participant is banished to the private realm, and what dominates the public sphere is the declared interest of the organization.
‘Action’, on the other hand is about speaking and acting politically. ‘Action’ is the most important activity, since “a life without speech and without action . . . is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men”. (Arendt, 1958:187, quoted in Loidolt, 2019:187).
For Arendt, the human condition is one of plurality. It is through acting in concert with others who are different from ourselves that we create a space between us where we can take responsibility. A key characteristic of action is that it is not a means. Acting politically is an end in itself, because of the important connection between political action and moral responsibility. According to Arendt, it is only possible to act responsibly through exercising thinking and judgment in our engagement with others in unique situations. It is exactly when we find ourselves confronted with difficulties or dilemmas emerging in the social that we can negotiate both the meaning and the ethics of our engagement through speaking and acting in the public realm. Thus, it is through showing up in the space of appearance that we become visible to each other (Arendt, 1958).
Becoming visible to each other is about allowing ourselves to be moved to take up a voice when something is going on, which we feel requires a response. When we take up a voice and express our thoughts, we become unique human beings. This visibility is a prerequisite for the generation of power, which Arendt understands as the potential for collective action.
Arendt sums up the distinction between work and action by stating that there is a profound difference between acting ‘in order to’ and ‘for the sake of’. The first (work) involves the pursuit of goals, whereas the other (action) involves the pursuit of meaning (Stivers, 2008). Through acting politically, we can act for the sake of the values and principles that are important to us as communities. We can pursue the renewal of meaning and identity that is bound to take place in a time of crisis.
One of the struggles of political action is its inherent unpredictability. Acting politically means acting into the unknown. We can be the heroes of our own experience, but we can’t be the sole authors of our stories (Arendt, 1958). Those stories emerge in cocreation with others and meaning emerges retrospectively. Therefore ‘acting politically’ feels risky, and potentially dangerous.
Reflecting with Arendt
Thinking about the spring in light of Arendt’s ideas makes me think that what we achieved was not effectiveness but an illusion of it. In the name of effectiveness, and with the help from the virtual media, we performed our identities in ways that involved a suppression of the inevitable struggles that arise when plural people engage with each other. The virtual setting makes it easier to conceal our embodied reactions. This concealment paves the way for a sense of disengagement and deprivation.
Despite the horrors that Arendt had to live through in her life as a survivor of the Holocaust, she remained hopeful about the future. She placed her hope in natality, in ‘new beginnings’. Every time a new human being is born into this world there is hope for difference, and every time a new virtual meeting begins there is potential for novelty. This potential for the emergence of novel patterns takes as its stating point the capacity and willingness of each of us to speak and to act politically.
Realizing that the autumn and the winter is going to be primarily virtual, I begin to feel that there is an urgent necessity to take seriously this experience of virtual work. Conflict is unavoidable when acting politically, but these conflicts don’t have to be polarized and stuck. According to Arendt, engaging with conflict through political action can be generative and explorative if we engage with skill, courage and restraint (Arendt, 1958).
Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Loidolt, S. (2019). Phenomenology of Plurality. Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity. London: Routledge.
Stivers, C. (2008). Governance in Dark Times. Georgetown University Press.