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Hannah Arendt's Relevance for Sociology

"If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is."[1]

These lines are from Hannah Arendts 1959 masterpiece The Human Condition. The gloomy picture she painted had an immediate appeal in the aftermath of the Second World War. Public intellectuals like Arendt had personally gone through the horrors of concentration camps and the Cold War; and the persistence of totalitarian systems left doubt over the future of humanity as a whole. This period in history is now so long gone that even the alleged inception of a post-ideological, post-modern or post-historical age has already turned into an uninspiring trope. Consequently, it might be assumed that together with the "age of extremes" Hannah Arendt's voice would also have withered away.[2]

Of course this is not what has happened. Arendt's writings still exercise an extraordinary influence within academia, arguably more so than ever. Increasing geopolitical tensions in Europe and the Middle East, as well as the so-called "refugee crisis," are likely to increase the attention she receives. Social philosophers from the continental European tradition, such as Butler, Kristeva, Agamben or Virno have dedicated important discussions to Arendt; legal and political theorists have recently sought inspiration from her writings too. [3] Strangely enough, however, the empirical social sciences have found Arendt's diagnosis uniquely unimpressive. Notwithstanding the shared admiration for Weber and the phenomenological tradition in parts of sociology (Schütz, Berger/Luckmann), one is hard-pressed to find active engagement with Arendt from within sociology. The easiest way to account for this distaste is probably to say that it was mutual. It thus comes as no surprise that the major exception to the general neglect is Philip Walsh's recent book, which revealingly bears the title Arendt contra Sociology.[4]

This article attempts to reclaim Arendt for sociology, not by theory comparison or historical reconstruction, but through the force of a researcher's na?vet? with which he dives into his field. After having re-examined Arendt's core concepts of labor, work and action, I will try to match her terminology with observations from a ten-month ethnographic project that took place at a German multi-level marketing financial advisory firm. The work and employment practices at such firms have variously been described as post-Fordist or hybridized: blurring conventional borders between the private and the public, clients and employees, work and free time.[5] Arendt's concepts of labor and work will prove useful in grasping this setting as a part of contemporary economic life in the second part of this paper. The last part will examine to what extent the notions of speech and action are helpful in describing the excess that these work places produce. Such a pragmatic approach will surely not be able to fully claim Arendt for sociology as a whole. But since nobody could honestly claim that sociology is a unified discipline, the risk of provocation seems worth taking. The purpose is rather an exercise at "concept-work."[6] The following is an invitation for an experimental combination of empirical, methodological and conceptual issues.

Phenomenological Essentialism Today

Seyla Benhabib has described the approach of The Human Condition as a phenomenological essentialism.[7] It rests on an investigation of forms of practical human activity. At the core of this conceptual framework are three concepts: labor, work and action, whose origins Arendt traces back to the Classical Period of Ancient Greece. While they are not the only relevant concepts discussed in The Human Condition, they do form its core and the wider framework is largely deduced from them.

"Labor" characterizes the activity "which corresponds to the biological process of the human body" to eat, suffer diseases, to defecate and reproduce. "The human condition of labor," Arendt says, "is life itself." In Ancient Greece, the laborious life was mostly restricted to the slaves within the oikos, the household.[8] The second concept - "work" - "provides an 'artificial' world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings."[9] It is linked to labor, but it is also "its very opposite," insofar as in work humans exhibit their strength. Work "can provide self-assurance and satisfaction."[10] The working man creates "models" before he produces, thereby distancing himself from the immediate, passionate urgencies of labor and distinguishing himself, as Marx famously wrote, from the mere industriousness of bees. It is in this realm that humanity establishes itself against and above a merely natural world. Lastly, on the basis of a shared world of things, humans erect a realm of "action." Its main features are public speech and plurality. "Plurality," Arendt says, "is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live."[11] In action and speech we build up an identity in the presence of another. Action is not a given fact. It is fragile – a capacity that can be lost, but also cultivated.

While this phenomenological essentialism had affinities with works of some of Arendt's contemporaries within and close to the tradition of philosophical anthropology (Buber, Cassirer, Scheler, Plessner, Gehlen), it must strike the sociologically-minded reader as conspicuously outdated. After all, sociology's founding question, "How is social order possible in spite of a range of centrifugal forces within society?" is inherently modern and sensitive towards historical change.[12] Talcott Parsons has famously related this central quest of sociology to Thomas Hobbes' dismissal of a natural order and the inauguration of its artificial – i.e. "social" – construction.[13] The rejection of essentialism, it might seem, is at the very heart of sociology.

Arendt, conversely, is led to reject this sociological project by her choice in favor of such a conceptual framework. The question concerning the possibility of social order, according to Arendt, is symptomatic of the dangers inherent to modernity. It should therefore come as no surprise that Thomas Hobbes, for Arendt, becomes a beacon of the totalitarian tendencies that asserted themselves some centuries later. "Hobbes points out," Arendt relays in The Origins of Totalitarianism, "that in the struggle for power, as in their native capacities for power, all men are equal; for the equality of men is based on the fact that each has by nature enough power to kill another."[14] Hobbesian social contract theory in fact reduces the bond between men to something that is imposed by mere life necessities. In this sense, "the social" is no more than the sum total of individuals forced into co-existence. As a result, a society built on such premises would be prone to exclude those who lacked a contribution to the "commonwealth": ''Hobbes liberates those who are excluded from society – the unsuccessful, the unfortunate, the criminal – from every obligation toward society and state (...). They may give free rein to their desire for power and are told to take advantage of their elemental ability to kill, thus restoring that natural equality which society conceals only for the sake of expediency. Hobbes foresees and justifies the social outcasts' organization into a gang of murderers as a logical outcome of the bourgeoisie's moral philosophy.''[15]

This kind of picture drawn by Arendt, as well as her critique thereof, is of course reminiscent of other sociological classics that have criticized the Hobbesian-Parsonian framework in favor of a more interactionist approach. The pragmatist and phenomenological traditions, as well as symbolic interactionism and later affiliated approaches (Goffman, ethnomethodology, grounded theory), come to mind. They all were united in their rejection of Parsons' functionalist normativism and they eventually led to the widespread acceptance that sociology must pay more attention to the symbolically mediated character of human conduct, its groundedness in a shared lifeworld[16], its double hermeneutics[17] or double contingency.[18] From this point of view, recourse to Arendt will again seem outdated, insofar as the technocratic vision of sociology has largely vanished from the academic stage. Her object of critique, it would seem, might have turned into a straw man. But this is to misunderstand Arendt's argument as a methodological inquiry. None of the three spheres of practical activity described above can fully capture the condition of human beings living together. As much as structural functionalism cherishes a vision of the social as overly assimilated by the smooth workings of a laboring body, it is fair to say that interactionist approaches tend to overestimate the degree to which "action" is a permanent condition of human sociality, hence the popular use of terminology that emphasizes "doing," "practice," "negotiation," and so forth.[19] Arendt's relevance can only be established if this second temptation is resisted too. It is therefore the third term, i.e. "work," and the corresponding figure of the "homo faber" which need to be put on center stage. As I will argue below, work takes a precarious middle position between the other two forms of practical activity. However, instead of abstractly asking whether Arendts distinctions are still methodologically permissible, I suggest they should be confronted with ethnographic data. The usefulness of her concepts can then be assessed by the reader.

At Flancrest Enterprises I: Labor and Work

The following thoughts are based on a ten-month participant observation at the trainee scheme of a financial planning agency. This particular firm, which for the sake of anonymity I will call Flancrest Enterprises, is a direct sales multi-level marketing company offering clients independent counselling on pension schemes, insurance and housing loans. It has around 600,000 clients in Germany as well as about 3,000 salespeople. The market for these kinds of companies has steadily increased after a shift to privatize old-age provisions and create hybrid forms of state-regulated private pension schemes under the SPD-led government in the early 2000s.[20] Its members, the Flanarians, are formally self-employed and earn money by commission and upstream revenues of Flanarians they have inducted into the business themselves. Flanarians start their work exclusively as a part-time job and for about the first two years they will keep another job which provides them with a stable income. Sales talks usually take place among friends and even within their own families in the beginning of a Flanarian's professional career and then proceed to wider and wider circles of people through the creation of an extensive network of personal and business contacts. The acquisition process unfolds over three stages. The first stage takes place in the potential client's home and its aim is to outline Flancrest Enterprises service (in the case of pensions) and to introduce the potential client to issues concerning pensions, cuts in the state pension provisions and income protection insurances. If the potential client shows interest, they can agree to fill out a form with their data. In the second meeting, the Flanarians present possible solutions and contracts based on this data. At this stage, the talk takes place at Flancrest Enterprises' office and, whereas a trainee conducted the first talk, in this meeting their line manager will take over. In a third meeting, also at the office, the potential client is supposed to decide for or against the contracts presented. For the purposes of this essay, the sequential ordering of the financial advisory process will be largely neglected. Instead I will focus on "topics" which the Flanarian present in each of these stages.

At first sight, these "topics" exemplify clearly what Arendt understood as "the rise of the social" and its roots in the category of human labor:

Karsten (a Flanarian trainee) says he would first like to talk about income protection insurance. How many people do you believe, he asks, are at some point in their life unfit for their work because of illness or disability? Nora (a friend of Karsten, teacher, 25 years old) thinks about this briefly, smiles and puts her head in her hands: Umm. I don't know ... quite a lot I think. I mean, I can see it with my colleagues. Depression and burn-out and stuff like this ... it's just become so frequent these days. Karsten nods and smiles. He does not step in during this small moment of silence, but waits for Nora to give him a number: I don't know, she says, I would guess 10-15% at least. – Twenty-five per cent! Karsten responds promptly. Nora looks ever so slightly impressed. I know, it is pretty shocking, Karsten continues, but the real problem is that only young and healthy people can get insurance for good conditions without paying too much, which is one of the reasons why only 10% in Germany are insured against this scenario. Ten and twenty-five! Isn't that crazy? Nora leans back, she has put on a more serious face and does not immediately answer Karsten. Eventually, after about three seconds, she does: Yes. Yes it is, I guess.

In this sequence, Nora finds herself viewed in the light of "mere life," a fragile, sentient being that is threatened by accidental, but statistically determinable facts of life. The aim of this is to create fear by discussing dangers that are inherent to modern societies. The Flanarian construes a setting in which fear and the urgency of risks are perceptible and attached to individuals within a demographic community. The agents of this community are fictional characters. Statistical reasoning fictionalizes its protagonists and relates them in a way that leaves no space outside of this representation. This is exactly the gloomy picture that Arendt describes when she speaks of Hobbes and totalitarianism. The fictional persona is an abstractly determinable, non-effectual being within an overarching species being. The statistical representation is totalizing in the sense that the individual finds him or herself in it no matter what happens, because the likelihood of an event remains untouched no matter whether the event actually takes place or not. Within this representation, individuals are linked with one another only through the decision to overcome the fear of a fictional danger in much the same way that Hobbess social contract is built on the decision to overcome the hypothetical state of nature. Within an economic setting, none of this should surprise.[21] Insurance can be considered a prime example of socialization of human activities that catalyzes the dimension of labor. Arendt only claims that this realm of practical activity becomes problematic when it reaches over the narrow bounds of economic necessities. We must therefore continue and relate labor to Arendts second main notion, that of "work."

When moving to the notion of work Arendt's terminology already becomes less tangibly easy to connect to our field case. Financial planning nicely epitomizes the post-industrial world of service work. These white collar workers have largely replaced the blue collar workers that Arendt has in mind when she speaks of the homo faber. Most of their activities are of a communicative and intellectual nature. Does this mean that Arendt's homo faber is obsolete? Not necessarily. Communicative work can also share the same form of practical activity, with which Arendt wanted to account for craftsmanship. Most importantly, Flanarians go through a series of seminars and training to learn about their "topics," to discuss conversational strategies: ways to persuade clients and recognize the clients' inclinations and character traits through small cues. These "backstage" preparations are enacted on the "frontstage" when the Flanarian encounters his client as Goffman would put it.[22] Erving Goffmans sociology is particularly relevant for us, because his "sociology of soul-selling," as Gouldner called it, has an almost immediate evidence to it "(in) this »tertiary economy« with its proliferating services, (where) men are indeed increasingly producing »performances« rather than things."[23] His is an attempt to view the way people present themselves to one another in everyday interaction from the perspective of practice and fabrication. He asks what kind of "work" must be invested to achieve an accomplished social interaction. Interpretative sociology like Goffmans shares a search for certain "ground rules" of natural situations with the Flanarians.[24] But while the sociologist's eye is purportedly disinterested, the Flanarians will try to use this knowledge in order to manipulate situations in their favor. As a result of this practice, the Flanarians perceive a client's positive decision largely as an outcome of their work. We can therefore claim this connection between labor and work in our test case: Labor is found in the statistical representations, where individuals are linked together in order to overcome fear and necessity. Work can be found in the enactment of trained practices, with which the Flanarian creates a communicative situation which allows for the statistical representation to be accomplished.

The notion of work, however, as it is laid out in The Human Condition, is not as unequivocal as this. Instead, it has an ambivalent relationship towards both of the other realms of activities. On the one hand, the products of work are always threatened to be absorbed into the life-process. The result of work appears as an end for homo faber as long as he is in the middle of the work process. But as soon as it exists complete in the world, it is bound to become just another means for the next work process. The accomplished situation of the sales talk can itself be viewed as a mere element within a larger economy in which it has a price tag that is expressed in the commission the Flanarian receives.

On the other hand, the things that the craftsman produces can also become the basis upon which the realm of action and speech can be erected. Arendt famously uses the example of the table around which people can assemble and which "relates and separates men at the same time."[25] More importantly even, she talks of artists as that class of workers, whose products carry forward the stories of men that act and speak and thereby secure their remembrance:

"If the animal laborans needs the help of homo faber to ease his labor and remove his pain, and if mortals need his help to erect a home on earth, acting and speaking men need the help of homo faber in his highest capacity, that is, the help of the artist, of poets and historiographers, of monument-builders or writers, because without them the only product of their activity, the story they enact and tell, would not survive at all."[26]

This intermediate position of work can be exemplified by another point: Arendt claims that for the homo faber, there is a certain kind of public realm – "even though it may not be a political realm, properly speaking." [27] According to Arendt, the last time this public sphere existed was in the early modern "commercial society." The public exhibition of goods for the sake of barter is what Arendt calls "conspicuous production"[28], in contrast with Veblen's "conspicuous consumption."[29] While the latter drags things down to the level of bodily consumption, the former elevates them at least to the level of a public realm of producing men. One could wonder, therefore, whether work has an inherently ambivalent character that opens it up for both of the other two realms of activity. If we, moreover, rejected Arendt's willingly exaggerated claim that the history of modernity has witnessed a progressive assimilation of work (and consequently action) under the tyranny of labor, we could start to see how Arendt's categories might be re-applied. Such a reversal of Arendts stance would then move into the opposite direction and ask whether work could also be absorbed by action.

At Flancrest Enterprises II: Work and Action

The approach presented here has one important forerunner in the writing of the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno.[30] He has argued that in a post-Fordist economy, work increasingly resembles action. This claim exactly reverses Arendt's claim that in her time "through society it is the life process itself which in one form or another has been channeled into the public realm"[31]. Virno's argument in A Grammar of the Multitude is interesting because it situates Arendt's critical view on modernity outside of a long-established tradition, which simply problematizes an "economization" of society, culture or politics. Such criticisms have accompanied modernity through its entire course and found its most politically pregnant renditions in the various forms of Marxism. Virno and Arendt alike believe this very criticism might give the economistic worldview too much weight and even suffer the fate of a self-fulfilling prophecy as might have been the case in Soviet Russia; this view allows Virno to problematize the relation of work differently. The two most important tendencies that he sees in post-Fordist work are, firstly, the conflation of fear and anguish, and, secondly, the increasing importance of virtuosity in work. Both of these tendencies can, to some degree, be detected at Flancrest Enterprises.

"Fear" and "anguish" form a conceptual pair that has been discussed by philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. Fear, in the sense employed here, denotes a cognitive-affective relation to the world, in which a concrete object poses a threat. In the state of anguish, the threat is not concrete, indeterminable. It is not a manageable negative experience which is at stake, but one which undermines our very "worldliness." While Arendt does not use these exact terms, they can be easily related to her analysis in The Human Condition. Fear is the basis upon which a society of laborers is built, as most explicitly argued in Hobbes' social contract theory. The occurrence of fear as such is not a worrying or objectionable, because it can be dealt with in the way of labor. We have encountered such an innocuous appearance of a fear-inducing threat above when the Flanarian confronts his client with a concrete, statistical danger. The very point of the Flanarians sale is to offer relief from fear through his service. Only when uncertainty spreads from a determinable object to ones worldly existence as a whole, does fear turn into anguish. According to Arendt, this is the determining feature of totalitarianism in which the origin, direction and limits of threats are indeterminable.  Virno's view is that in our increasingly precarious world of work, people's fears, too, take on the general character of anguish which extends to their whole existence. Whether or not this is empirically true is impossible to ascertain here. It is, however, remarkable that one of the goals of the Flanarians is the exact opposite: they (re-)establish the distinction between fear and anguish. There are groups of scenarios which can and those that cannot be insured. The Flanarian takes up the clients generic uncertainty and channels it into these two camps. Within this ordering, fear is more significant for the Flanarian. After all, an anguished self cannot take an economic decision because it has no object to decide for or against. The Flanarian discusses concrete scenarios and inserts his listener into a population within which there is a statistical occurrence of these threats. But philosophers and sociologists alike have repeatedly warned of the illusion that all uncertainty could be conquered technologically[32] or transformed into mere risks[33] or fear. As the following example indicates, there remains an area of scenarios in which the construction of such a risk-bearing subject does not apply:

After the client has had the advantages of investment funds and the security of long-term investments explained, he asks what he should do if funds didn't increase in value over the next 40 years. Timothy, the Flanarian, replies crude oil and weapons! The client is visibly dazzled and there is a second of silence. The advisor goes on to explain that if the economy as whole does not grow over the next 40 years, that's the only thing you can do. Crude oil is always going to have value and you will need weapons. Because then we're going to be in a situation in which the economy is bust, money is not going to be worth anything anymore and your pension is going to be the least of your concerns.

Timothy openly admits that there is a limit to the conquest over fear. The catastrophic scenario he describes marks the blind spot of a fully socialized (i.e. insured) world. To use another Goffmanian concept, Timothy must change his "footing."[34] He does this by using a half-shocking, half-joking rhetorical question, which sets a recognizably different tone within the conversation. Changes of footing are frequent within financial advisory and usually involve jokes or anecdotes from the advisors or the client's personal life. Most of these gestures can be explained by reference to "role distance,"[35] a display of playfulness and control in relation to the activities that the situation requires. Changes of footing can become fruitful resources for sociological analysis, because they tell something about the way the activity at the core of the situation is inserted into a wider context.

The change of footing in this scene takes the interaction out of the realm of fear, risks and economic decisions. The Flanarian and the specific form of work that he can offer appears devalued and empty. The homo faber that leans towards labor disappears from a picture where the life process of a society of laborers is interrupted. Anguish cannot be fully transformed into fear. It needs to be confronted in a different way. It is remarkable that this confrontation is what happens within a sales talk. Such a positioning, of course, secures the area of fear and economic decisions, but it also puts the Flanarian and the potential client on the same plane outside of the economic representation of the world. On this level, anguish about the very general state of the world within an uncontrollably wide time period can be admitted.

The admittance of anguish into interaction, however, marks the need for a social relation distinct from labor and work. The nature of this relation can be glanced at, if we look again at the means of production with which Flancrest Enterprises's homo faber operates. Flanarians rely on an asymmetry of knowledge as their resources, and they use knowledge as well as communicative skills as their tools. Virno has argued such kinds of work are qualitatively different from the isolated work of the craftsman. The ends of financial advisory are merely communicative acts devoid of any "worldly" materialization, too. Ultimately, it is only the economic decision that is produced.  This constitutes an "industry of the means of communication"[36] which according to Virno dominates the entire post-Fordist economy. But as long as the client leaves the series of conversation with a signed contract or some other form of economic decision, the whole process can easily be framed as a traditional instance of advisory. The end product can then be recognized as the contract, the price it bears and the contractual obligations it entails. The work process can thus be "black-boxed," even if it is not reified in a material sense. Such instances are in no way new. They define all white-collar work and are familiar from innumerable encounters at bank branches, car sellers, local shops, doctor's check-ups, and visits at post offices or local administration offices. But if the measurements of the homo faber fail, the product of the activity cannot turn into a means for more work. It then becomes constitutive of the very social relation[37] and "the industry of means of communication" produces activities with the peculiar quality of appearing as ends in themselves.[38] Anguish can bring this realm of activity on the radar because it undermines the relationship between means and ends. In order to specify what its character we must proceed to Virnos second point. When anguish is the problem that surfaces among the financial planners of Flancrest Enterprises, its precarious solution is the "virtuosity" of a social relation that resembles "action" rather than "labor." The following three points illustrate this shift.

Firstly, there is a structural feature of the company. Flanarians start working only while being engaged in other employment; this is supposed to guarantee that new trainees do not manipulate their clients for short term gains. Good financial advice is supposed to make for happier clients and, eventually, more recommendations and more clients. This technique is, in a way, reminiscent of the asceticism that characterizes capital accumulation more generally. Short term expenses are sacrificed for long time gains which, in this case, are based on good relations with clients. In another way, however, this formula also has an astonishing resemblance to Weber's advice to politicians, that they should be economically well off so they would not have to base their political decisions on short-term economic gains. It is perhaps no coincidence that within the Weberian tradition, entrepreneurs and politicians were assimilated to one another as potentially charismatic leaders of bureaucratic organizations. Arendt would not have signed up to such a personalized view of politics, but she, too, made it clear that action needed the "full independence from the necessities of life."[39] As a further result of this technique, Flanarians would be urged to cultivate long-term personal relations with their clients. A series of party events, personalized gifts and internal schooling on good manners and even good looks is supposed to strengthen these "weak ties."[40]

Secondly, the cultivation of personal networks entails a parallel necessity: the cultivation of the self.[41] Flanarians are dependent on the client's trust. This, of course, leads to an enhanced necessity for "impression management" in conversations. The sociologically-minded observer can easily detect this field as a treasure trove of Goffmanian anecdotes.[42] It is important, however, to look beyond communicative skills which help to generate trust in a quasi-technical manner. Such techniques of the homo faber exist and are important. But they are also easy to detect and the client (like the sociologist) is intent to find and decipher them. For that reason, such learned techniques which transparently relate back to the organization are more useful to build "systemic trust" into the organization, but less so in order to build "personal trust."[43] Of greater importance are the instances in which the link between the Flanarian and Flancrest Enterprises is recognizably subverted. Advertising, for example, is conspicuous in its absence. A client would be able to get into contact with the firm only through personal acquaintance with Flanarians or their clients. The Flanarian, in turn, can invoke this exclusivity during his talk or discuss the rationale behind the part-time employment as detailed above. Such reflexive explanation of Flancrest Enterprise's organization can display the trainee's independence and offer an apparently "exclusive" insight into the workings of the firm. The Flanarian thereby shifts his footing from that of a member of the organization to an observer of the organization. There are plenty of instances in which he distances himself from his role as an organizational member, for example the conversation digresses to personal topics and anecdotes from other clients are exchanged.[44] Most importantly, the presentation of the topics is chopped up into parts, told ironically or jokingly. The trainee often displays visible distress or uncertainty doing his work. His very non-professionalism is more important than successful "impression management." It undermines the distance that separates the situation and the wider organizational context of relevancies.

Following Virno, we could point out that virtuosity is not or not fully "played at," but emerges from the interstices of the Flanarian's craftsmanship. Relevancies from outside of the strictly circumscribed work place and work episodes therefore gain significance. The "multitude" of post-Fordist workers "rely on generically "political" skills," he claims.[45]  A Flanarians success depends on a whole range of activities that cannot easily be formatted as separate commodified actions. Instead, their entire communicative being bears a relation to their work and their skill-set must encompass. The flipside of this development is that the entire life of the Flanarian potentially becomes an interlude or an introduction to sales talks. Even encounters that are not framed sales talks can therefore be afflicted by their constraints. Others might view his activity as potentially manipulative or even suspect that the trainee is somewhat manipulated by the organization. This is to say that his activity is again reduced to a "diabolic"[46] version of the homo faber.

There is a third instance of virtuosity which is supposed to counter-act the reduction just described. In his encounters with clients, the Flanarian will never be able to fully prove his sincerity. Willingly or not, his entire presence will stand under constant observation as long as he remains a member of the organization. "Nobody is as poor as those who see their own relation to the presence of others, that is to say, their own communicative faculty, their own possession of a language, reduced to wage labor."[47] One way to deal with this difficulty is to suffer from it, which is most likely going to lead the Flanarian to leave the organization. The other way is to transcend the reduction of his activities to mere work and lift it to the realm of action at least for the consciousness of the trainees themselves. A major part of the background activity at Flancrest Enterprises is devoted to this task. The most important aspect of this is what Hannah Arendt put at the core of action: story-telling.[48] At every weekly meeting of the team, for example, one person would have to present the "scam of the week." In front of the group, he or she would explain how a client had been scammed or at least heavily overcharged by a competitor. The members harshly criticise and insult banks, insurance firms and other financial advisors and display collective moral outrage. Beyond these ritualised occasions, almost every Flanarian has a few personal stories to tell about how he has helped a close relative or friend and how these people have been fooled by banks or insurance companies. As a result, such "confessionary tales"[49] circulate within the offices of Flancrest Enterprises and bolster a strongly missionary consciousness. They cross the boundaries between personal, organizational, moral and political concerns. The actions of competitors feature as much as state regulations, the idiosyncrasies and ingenuities of clients or ideas about the wider ethics of German culture. While bureaucratic hierarchies are largely absent at Flancrest Enterprises, these stories construct a cohesion which is constantly under attack when the Flanarians confront their potential clients. Suspicion and reduction to instrumentalism can then become the basis for new stories to tell and old stories can help to overcome new attacks: if the doubters just knew what they are missing out on! What from the standpoint of the "homo faber" is an impediment appears as a mere plot twist from the standpoint of the virtuoso. As self-employed workers they are completely independent from one another economically, but through their stories they constitute what the Flanarians themselves call "an entrepreneurial community."

To sum up, if we allow Hannah Arendts partition of practical human activity to describe field notes from a participant observation at Flancrest Enterprises, we become aware of two main results. Firstly, Arendts conceptual framework only allows application if we make it revolve around the notion of work. But work is not a mediator, nor a tertium datur, nor a compromise. It is the precarious activity of human beings that can be regarded as autonomous only instantaneously. Beyond the context of a sheer moment, it necessarily ushers into relevancies of either labor or action. Work is the starting point; the sociologists would have to trace the trails to the other two realms of practical activity. This way it is possible to take up Arendts terminology without reproducing her dated verdict on the state of society. Such sociology can be likened to the topology that corresponds to phenomenological essentialisms topography. This is the second point. The Flanarian invokes a representation of labor and "the social" in the form of statistical and probabilistic reasoning. The complete absorption of this activity into the laborious society is, however, impeded. Neither the means, nor the ends of the work involved can be fully framed in terms of work only. The Flanarian needs to distance himself from his own immediate economic needs, from a description of uncertainty only in terms of fear and risk and from the organization within which he operates. As a free-standing virtuoso, the Flanarian must stand above labor and work. This disconnection likens the activities of Flancrest Enterprises to those of politicians and missionaries. Of course, this cathartic sublimation of work into action is fragile and remains ambivalent, however, much story-telling contributes to the construction of a community at the backstage of the company. For Flanarians, action and work constantly collide. The acquisition of new clients takes on the character of agitation for a higher cause. The transformation from before to after a sale can hardly be regarded in terms of "exchange," but should be seen as a communicative, transformative process in which client and Flanarian are engaged together. The Arendtian dystopia, according to which all human activities become assimilated to labor, turns into its opposite: work and action become inextricable at this site. Whether such a development should be judged in a more favorable light cannot be assessed here. Arendts terminology, however, can still offer points of orientation when we try to describe what kind of socialities we are dealing with – provided we make cautious use of it.


[1] Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959,  p. 3

[2] Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991. Repr. London: Abacus, 2011.

[3] Goldoni, Marco, und Christopher McCorkindale. Hannah Arendt and the Law, 2013; Gündogdu, Ayten. Rightlessness in an age of rights: Hannah Arendt and the contemporary struggles of migrants. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; Hayden-Roy, Patrick. Political Evil in a Global Age: Hannah Arendt and International Theory. 32. London: Routledge, 2009.

[4] Walsh, Philip. Arendt contra sociology: theory, society and its science. Farnham, Surrey, UK ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015.

[5] Biggart, Nicole Woolsey. Charismatic capitalism: direct selling organizations in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; Groß, Claudia. Multi-Level-Marketing: Identität und Ideologie im Network-Marketing. 1. Aufl. VS Research. Wiesbaden: VS Verl. für Sozialwiss, 2008; Bredenkötter, Bastian, Karl Musiol, und Birgit Geissler. „Schalten Sie um auf Erfolg!": paradoxe Versprechen von Arbeit und Anerkennung im Versicherungs-Strukturvertrieb. Berlin: Ed. Sigma, 2012.

[6] Rabinow, Paul. „Concept work." Biosocialities, genetics and the social sciences: Making biologies and identities, 2007, p. 188.

[7] Benhabib, Seyla. The reluctant modernism of Hannah Arendt, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

[8] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 7.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, p. 140.

[11] Ibid, p. 8.

[12] Joas, Hans, und Wolfgang Knöbl. Social Theory: Twenty Introductory Lectures. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[13] Parsons, Talcott. The Structure of Social Action. New York, NY: Free Press, 1968.

[14] Arendt, Hannah. The origins of totalitarianism. New ed. A Harvest book HB244. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

[15] Ibid., p. 142.

[16] Berger, Peter L, and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor books, 1967; Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action. vol. 1. Boston: Beacon, 1985.

[17] Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986.

[18] Luhmann, Niklas. Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

[19] Dieckmann and Paul have traced the implications of terms like "negotiation" and "barter" in Conversation Analysis literature. See Dieckmann, Walther, and Ingwer, Paul. "„Aushandeln" Als Konzept Der Konversationsanalyse. Eine Wort- Und Begriffsgeschichtliche Analyse." Zeitschrift Für Sprachwissenschaft 2, no. 2 (1983): 169-196. "Praxeology" is now an established brand within German sociology. See Hillebrandt, Frank. Soziologische Praxistheorien: eine Einführung.  Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2014; Schäfer, Hilmar, (ed.) Praxistheorie: ein soziologisches Forschungsprogramm. Bielefeld: transcript, 2014.Meanwhile theoretical innovations which described "doing gender" or "doing race" have been supplemented by an infinite amount of "doings": "doing culture," "doing doing nothing," "doing 'Public Economic Sociology'." See Hörning, Karl H, and Julia Reuter. Doing Culture: Neue Positionen Zum Verhältnis von Kultur Und Sozialer Praxis. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2004; Berger, Israel. Inaction and Silent Action in Interaction, Master Thesis. Roehampton University, 2012; Block, Fred. "Confronting Market Fundamentalism: Doing 'Public Economic Sociology." Socio-Economic Review 5, no. 2 (2007): 326–34.

[20] A more encompassing analysis of Flancrest Enterprises was the object of my MA thesis. The ethnographic data is here merely used as an example to test the concepts from "The Human Condition." The specific context of a firm that emerges as a result of post-welfarist reforms and in many ways takes on functions that would have been exercised by the state makes it a particularly challenging and fruitful example. An in-depth sociological analysis of this company is, however, not the aim of this essay.

[21]It is rather a remarkable illustration of Arendt's affinity to Francois Ewald, who himself described the invention of the social as a result of a "metaphysical event" that was the introduction of workplace accident insurance in France. See Ewald, François. LEtat Provi dence. Paris: B. Grasset, 1986.

[22] Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Nachdr. Anchor Books. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990.

[23] Gouldner, Alvin "Other Symptoms of the Crisis: Goffmans Dramaturgy and Other New Theories." The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Books, 1970: 386.

[24] Holmes and Marcus have discovered a similar parallel between their work and the work they tried to do research on. See Holmes, Douglas R, and George E Marcus. "Para-Ethnography and the Rise of the Symbolic Analyst." Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, Durham: Duke University Press. 2006: 33–57.

[25] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 52.

[26] Ibid, p. 173.

[27] Ibid, p. 160.

[28] Ibid, p. 162.

[29] Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Reissued. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[30] Virno, Paolo. A grammar of the multitude: for an analysis of contemporary forms of life. Semiotext(e) foreign agents series. Cambridge, Mass ; London: Semiotext (e), 2003.

[31] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 45.

[32] Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.

[33] Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Theory, Culture & Society. London ; Newbury Park, Calif: Sage Publications, 1992.

[34] Goffman, Erving. Forms of talk. University of Pennsylvania publications in conduct and communication. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

[35] Goffman, Erving. Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961.

[36] Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, p. 62.

[37] Callon and Muniesa have made a related claim that the construction of independent economic goods (disentanglement) always necessitates a new form of relation between actors (entanglement). See Callon, Michel, and Muniesa, Fabian. "Peripheral Vision: Eco nomic Markets as Calculative Collective Devices." Organization Studies 26, no. 8 (2005): 1229–50.

[38] Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, p. 62.

[39] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 52.

[40] Granovetter, Mark S. „The strength of weak ties." American journal of sociology, 1973, 1360–80.

[41] Foucault, Michel. „About the beginning of the hermeneutics of the self: Two lectures at Dartmouth." Political theory 21, Nr. 2 (1993): 198–227.

[42] Beckert, Jens. „Vertrauen und die performative Konstruktion von Märkten/Trust and the Performative Construction of Markets." Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 2002, 27–43.

[43] Luhmann, Niklas. Vertrauen: ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität. Konstanz: UVK Verlag, 2000.

[44] Goffman, Forms of Talk.

[45] Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, p. 59.

[46] Luhmann, Niklas. Die Wirtschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998.

[47] Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, p. 63.

[48] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 184.

[49] Van Maanen, John. Tales of the field: on writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.