Paper delivered at Communitarian Summit, Geneva July 12-14, 1996

The Limits of Necessity


Freedom and necessity
What very recently was regarded as the necessities of life, i e the material needs for human existence, are now produced in ever shorter time with ever less manpower. As a consequence we should have more time and space to lead a life which is not determined by biological necessity but by more distinctively human needs. What seems to grow however is the realm of necessity, not the realm of human freedom (from necessity).
The distinction between freedom and necessity, and the various attempts to delineate their respective spheres of life, have been a recurrent theme in Western discourse since Greek antiquity. In a more modern sociological context we will find the same discussion and the same distinction in Max Weber’s two worlds of Zweckrationalität and Wertrationalität. On one hand a rationality based on achieving certain goals (i e production of goods, income per capita, improvement of health, physical survival), on the other a rationality based on values and human actions that are independent of exterior goals. The latter seems to embody an innate human quality beyond biological needs and desires, and thus belongs to the sphere of freedom, while the former mainly seems to respond to exterior demands and responsibilities and thus belongs to the sphere of necessity. Some argue that the moral capacities of men are nurtured in the sphere of valuebased rationality, and that a radical expansion of goal rationality at the expense of value rationality, will damage our ability to create and sustain moral values.
I will here propose that today’s debate on local community vs global village, can be conceived in the classical terms of freedom and necessity, and that the role of community is to provide
• a sphere where valuebased rationalities remain valid, and which thereby limits the pervasiveness of goal rationality
• a sphere where the line between necessity and freedom can be perceived and acted upon.
The limits of community will in this perspective be more than a geographical or political dividing line, but also a line that to some extent will allow us to distinguish between what we have do out of necessity and what we wish to do out of other, more distinctively human, motives.

The expansion of necessity
If someone today would pose the question Why freedom? the answer most probably would be: Freedom is a value, or a goal in itself, or a means that is its own end. We are otherwise not used to think of means as their own ends, the mere idea tends to make us restless and nervous, since we have been accustomed to think of most things and actions as means to ends. We eat to become healthy or slim or fit. We work to make money and be able to retire and do something else. We study to be competitive. We consume to fulfil a need or a dream. Even when we act within the sphere or freedom, or at least within our free (or leisure) time, we appear often to act out of purpose and necessity. The rapid growth of the experience and entertainment industries seems to create or reveal ever more needs to be satisfied and ever new solutions to not yet existing problems. An ever-increasing demand of goods and services is, if nothing else, the necessary source of energy which fuels the global economy and theoretically is supposed to create ever necessary jobs to ever more people who are expected to continue this cycle of “fordistic” growth.
Time Magazine recently (Jan 29 1996) tried to explain how an increase in the average material living standard of Americans could go hand in hand with a growing sense of insecurity and unfreedom:

Professional economists are puzzled: more and more their numbers don’t seem to add up. Wages for the typical worker have fallen behind price increases ever since the early 1970s, and the trend has worsened during the Clinton years. Yet in every way that can be measured, from ownership of color TV sets to the numbers of people vacationing in Europe, Americans are living much better than two decades ago… Ordinary citizens are perhaps most puzzled of all. Rising standards of living, to many, mean largely an increase in the number of things they ‘must’ buy. This is not just crass materialism; many of the new musts are not goods but services--medical insurance, day care for young children, college tuition for teenagers--which have rocketed in price. Small wonder that so many people feel they are working harder and harder just to keep up.

What thus seem to increase are the necessities of life. What economists manage to measure is our capacity to meet needs created by the global economy. Ever more aspects of human life are drawn into a sphere permeated by goal rationality. The Swedish households are reproached for saving too much and spending too little, by politicians trying to invigorate a sagging economy. It does not seem to matter whether people wish to consume or not. What we would like to regard as our free actions are by others regarded as means to a necessary and predetermined end. Acts of freedom tend in real life to be limited to acts of necessity.
Aristotle might not be an undisputable authority in the modern debate on freedom, but to him this was not freedom at all. On the contrary, it was slavery. Freedom, to Aristotle, was freedom from the slavery of necessity.

The human condition
In the late 1950’s Hannah Arendt published an original and thought-provoking essay, The Human Condition, which probably appeared ahead of its time and therefore was overshadowed by Arendt’s earlier and seemingly more current studies on totalitarianism. The late 50’s was not a time when Western Man had any particular reason to reflect upon his existence. The totalitarian systems provided legitimacy and vitality to democratic societies which all came to view themselves as embodiments of freedom. Freedom and necessity went hand in hand. Freedom was defended and expanded by rapid growth of GNP and increased material well-being. The realm of freedom opened up to new segments of the population. To argue that this was not freedom in the classical sense, but rather the opposite, the invasion of freedom by necessity, was certainly not politically correct, and therefore doomed to have little influence on the political debates of the times.
What Hannah Arendt had brought forward, with characteristic clarity and elegance, was nevertheless a dilemma as ancient as Western society itself: when is a man a human being, and when is he an animal like all others? This was the question Aristotle once had formulated in the terms of freedom and slavery. Free, and thereby human, was a man who could act beyond necessity. Slave, and thereby non-human, was a man whose actions were steered by necessity only. Freedom did not come about through the elimination of necessity (slaves were very much the prerequisite of freedom), but through the ability to draw a line between the realms of necessity and freedom. Western societies, Arendt argued, had failed to see and draw the line and had thereby allowed for necessity to swallow up freedom.
A great part of human life undoubtedly is made up of necessities. What we commonly have in mind are the needs arising from the biological processes of life, activities related to the reproduction and sustenance of human individuals. Aristotle devoted a lot of energy in trying to define and enumerate these necessities of life, in order to delineate what was more central to him – the sphere of freedom. He saw nothing speci-fically human in the pursuit of necessities. In this regard humans were like any other species. A human whose actions were bound by the needs of biological survival, was basically an animal. Necessity must therefore not be allowed to invade every sphere of society. To those Athenians who, for example, maintained that households should endeavour to increase their wealth indefinitely, Aristotle responded: “The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well.” (Politics, 1258a.) Man lived well when he acted out of virtue – not when he acted out of need or necessity. The uniquely human capacity was the freedom to act on the basis of other and higher principles than those set by the life process itself, or by externally determined goals and pursuits. This freedom, writes Arendt, “[was] exclusively located in the political realm”. Necessity on the other hand belonged exclusively to the private realm, and thereby the use of violence and force which could be justified only by necessity: “Violence is the prepolitical act of liberating oneself from the necessity of life for the freedom of world.” (Arendt, p 31) In the public sphere of freedom, violence and force had no role to play. No activity that mainly served the purpose of biological survival and the sustenance of life processes (and thereby introduced the calculi of necessity into the actions of man) was thus allowed into the political sphere of Aristotle. Since the satisfaction of biological necessities required much time and labor, there were large segments of the Athenian population, in fact an overwhelming majority, which did not meet Aristotle’s criteria for citizenship, i e humanity. Not only slaves, but also women, artisans and merchants were all relegated to the sphere of necessity. Even highly skilled men of art who labored to satisfy external demands, were considered unfree. None of the great sculptors and architects of Athens were allowed to enter the realm freedom envi-saged by Aristotle – the realm of polis.

Polis as a sphere of Freedom
Aristotle’s idea of freedom was, like any other idea of freedom, based upon an idea of what it means to be a human. A most determining factor in this context was the inevitable mortality of humans. The Greeks of antiquity did not conceive of life after death (this option was later introduced by Christianity). The only way immortality could be achieved by mortal humans, was through immortal actions – actions that would perpetuate themselves beyond the finite life of their agent. These deeds and actions were not valued by their results or even by their motives, but by the act itself being carried out, observed and judged by peers on a public arena.
From this point of view, the Greek polis was not so much a city or a city state, but rather what Hannah Arendt calls “an organized memory”, a society made up of men liberated from the pressures of necessity and need, i e citizens, i e equals. Arendt sums it up: “Equality, therefore, far from being connected with justice, as in modern times, was the very essence of freedom. To be free meant to be free from the inequality present in rulership and to move in a sphere where neither rule nor being ruled existed.” (Arendt, pp 32-33.) Consequently the realm of freedom was the public sphere, and the realm of slavery the private sphere (“private” and “deprived” had common origins). Politics was an act of freedom – not of necessity.
Without going too deep into the matter, we will agree that this view of politics and freedom has become strange to us. We have come to regard the private sphere, not the public, as the arena for human fulfilment and achievement, while the public acts of freedom so cherished by Aristotle are valued useless and unproductive. Already in 1776, in his study on “the wealth of nations”, Adam Smith classified all occupations which rested essentially on performance such as the military profession, “churchmen, lawyers, physicians and opera-singers” – together with “menial services”, the lowest kind of “labor”. Arendt comments: “It was precisely these occupations – healing, flute-playing, play-acting – which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man.” (Arendt, p 207,)

The invasion of Necessity
The Aristotelian distinction betweeen necessity and freedom was in fact blurred early on in history, Arendt shows. Already in the Middle Ages economic activities of households had begun to expand far into the public sphere, so that“housekeeping and all matters pertaining formerly to the private sphere of the family [had] become a ‘collective’ concern.” (Arendt, p 33.)
In modern western society we still distinguish between the private and the public, but these words now have an almost reversed meaning; in private we develop our truly human faculties, in public we mainly do what is necessary. More importantly, the once crucial line between the private and the public spheres has been dissolved. Instead Hannah Arendt postulates the emergence of a third “social sphere”, which has proceeded to engulf the other two. In modern society, one would perhaps say, necessity has invaded both the private and the public. Whatever we do nowadays, we ultimately do for the benefit of society. All our actions are measured and valued according to their social and economic impact. Everything is both private and public, or rather, everything is social.
This de facto socialization of Man, his incorporation into a globalized realm of necessity, is not a socialist intervention, but a development which has charac-terized both liberalism and socialism. What liberal democracy basically had to offer was the freedom to choose between different ways of organizing the necessary. In both traditions, the distinction between freedom as its own end, and freedom as a means to something else, is gone. “Something else” is the only remaining game on earth.
The “something else” of socialism and communism is a timeless and classless Schlaraffenland. The “something else” of liberalism is the final, harmonic order of the invisible hand – “the end of History” according to Hegel, Kojève or Fukuyama. We cannot or do not wish to rid ourselves of the notion that we are on our way to somewhere, and that everything we do or ought to do, are necessary steps on that way. Expressions like “the only way” or “the third way” (both frequent in Swedish politics) do not signify political or human actions that are desirable in themselves, but actions who will lead us towards more or less well-defined and desirable political ends.
Hannah Arendt’s political intentions in “The Human Condition” ultimately become clear. By reminding us of a basic dilemma inherent in human society, she wants us to be aware of the development of modern society into a globalized realm of necessity, where the space for human action finally is reduced to various forms of necessary behavior, and where the only humans genuinely free to act will be a shrinking elite of artists and scientists, in ever less interaction with others members of society. “It is quite conceivable”, Arendt concludes, “that the modern age – which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity – may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known.” (Arendt, p 322.)

The current perspective
The renewed interest in Hannah Arendt’s discussion most certainly is explained by the fact that modern society has arrived at a point in time where her perspective has become visible and even obvious. Necessity and freedom no longer seem to walk hand in hand. The new post-modernity, as defined and analyzed by, among others, Zygmunt Bauman, is a civilization which has seen through its own ends, or rather, has found these ends to be ever more temporary and illusory, and their meaning – beyond the most primitive phrases of utility – ever more unclear. The commodity of meaning has become short in supply, and the growing demand for it has to a large extent been satisfied by a growing corps of charlatans, peddlers of life styles and populist seducers.
In his latest collections of essays, Life in Fragments, Bauman argues that our modern civilization can survive “only as long as some frontier is still left as a site for the promised, hoped for, beginning; or, rather, as long as the world allows itself to be perceived – and above all treated – as a frontier.” (Bauman, p 23.) This perception has brought us to a point where we have increased the efficiency of labor far beyond what only yesterday was needed to satisfy every known necessity. We have learnt to come up with ever new solutions to not yet perceived problems. We reach new goals all the time, only to discover that there is nothing new waiting for us there. The satisfaction of one need or necessity immidiately craves for another one; “the achievement of the goal previously pursued discredits and ridicules the need (exposing its unforgivable modesty), instead of satisfying it.” (Bauman, p 77) One can also say that the marginal value of every new satisfied need or necessity is diminishing. What Bauman describes, in often provoking images and perspectives, is a civilization that has discovered the limits of necessity, without yet understanding the conditions of freedom.
With totalitarian utopias temporarily (?) discredited, a discussion has suddenly opened up around the hitherto almost taboo question whether we can create any form av meaning in an economic system which main driving force is the expansion of necessity beyond every limit, and in which ever more people seem to have ever less possibilities to decide for themselves what is necessary or not. “Publicly administered definitions”, writes Jürgen Habermas, “extend to what we want from our lives, but not how we should like to live, if we could find out, with regard to attainable potentials, how we could live.” In this process we have turned labor to satisfy necessity, the lowest and most animal-like activity in the world of Aristotle, into the highest and most central of all human activities. In a similar way we have come to regard politics as an activity with which to solve the new problems of necessity ceaselessly generated by society. Once in a while we may stop to ask ourselves how it comes that every technological landmark which promises to liberate us from the labor of neces-sity, carries with it ever more necessities to be liberated from.

The dual society
Hannah Arendt did not mean to say that we could, or even that we should, try to restore the polis of Aristotle, neither that all new necessities in modern society are superfluous. What she wished to demonstrate however, was the importance of restoring the limit between necessity and freedom, between what we do to sustain our human life process, and what we do as uniquely human beings.
The question once posed by Aristotle, must therefore be posed again, under new and seemingly more favorable conditions. We now live in an era when the necessities of life no longer demand the hard labor of slaves, not even the unpaid labor of house wives, when we with ever less contributions of time and and physical effort can produce far more than we just recently needed, when we at least theoretically could achieve the British ideal of gentlemanly living, on a hitherto unimaginable scale.
Instead, the rationalization of labor has become the perhaps most serious challenge to modern western society. Far from opening up the gates to a sphere of freedom where men would be free to act without regard to ends and demands defined by necessity, it has led to utter frustration and unhappiness among millions of jobless people, who see themselves deprived of their role in society, and thereby of their value as human beings. The man or woman who is not needed in the labor for necessity, has become the most tragic figure of our civilization, instead of the most enviable. What the French social critic André Gorz feared most in his thought provoking essay from 1980, Adieu au prolétariat, has come true.
Gorz’ main idea was that modern society had to draw a distinct line betwen the sphere of work necessary to maintain the welfare of modern society, and a sphere of individual autonomy which would be based, “not on simple demands for consumption, neither on activities of recreation and entertainment”, but a sphere where “non-economic activities… constitute the very fabric of life.” With his point of departure in the socialist left, Gorz maintained that this limitation of the sphere of necessity in fact was the essence of socialism, and that Karl Marx in the third part of Das Kapital, had left no doubts about it: “The realm of Freedom can only begin where the labor determined by necessity and exterior needs ceases to be. Beyond [the realm of Necessity] commences that human development which is its own end, the true realm of Freedom, which however can flourish only with the realm of Necessity as its foundation.”(Marx, from the Swedish translation, Cavefors 1973, p 726)
Gorz ultimately regarded the creation of a free or autonomous human sphere in society as a matter of moral formation. Without a sphere for autonomous human action there could be no foundation for a human moral, only for a moral imposed by need and necessity: “For morality to exist, there must exist a sphere of autonomous activity. Within this sphere the individual must be able to act with full sovereignity. His actions must not to be deemed necessary and they will demand no excuses or evasions.”(Gorz, p 132)
Martha C Nussbaum has in some of her essays further emphasized that the rise of such a free, Aristotelian, human sphere in society, presupposes an idea of what it means to be a free man, i e an idea of what we mean by a good human life, i e a moral discourse. In the Athens of Aristotle the good human life was defined by virtues. These virtues had not the character of imposing moral imperatives (Thou shalt or Thou shalt not) but each of them distinguished “a certain area in the human experience which occur in almost every human’s life and in which every human will have to make one decision, and not another one, and act in one way and not another one. (Nussbaum, s 132)
Our era has basically written off virtue as a basis for defining human action. We now seem to believe that all virtues are ethnically or culturally determined and that they thereby express human values and actions that cannot be generally or universally defined. Various utilitarian and liberal attempts to replace virtue with more rational measures of the human good, have in practice handed over the definition of goodness to the rising elites of social necessity. Since we dare not have a common idea of man, we dare not have a common idea of freedom. The only thing uniting us is necessity.
Against this, Nussbaum argues that we continuously, whether we wish it or not, are facing the Aristotelian question: “Wat human functions are important? What are the prerequisites for a good human life?” She maintains that these questions can and should be asked with far more vigour and clarity than by today’s utilitarians and liberals, with the point of departure in a renewed Aristotelian discussion of what we mean to be distinctively human.

The centrality of locality
Richard Sennett has approached the same problem from the perspective of physical space. His argues that the locality – the city or village or community – where we live, determines not only how we live, but also how we perceive the meaning and possibilities of life. While the polis of antiquity set the stage for the public sphere of Aristotle, the modern city according to Sennett, has lost its character of public arena altogether. With the course of time the private has taken the place of the public, or rather, the public has retreated into the private. The private has become a refuge from the increasing brutality and lawlessness of the public space. In his study The Fall of Public Man, Sennett searches the historical factors behind, what he sees as, the depletion and impoverishment of public space, and thereby the diminishing possibilities för human beings to live in a dimension of society where they are “at a distance from intimate desire, need, and identity.” (p. 267) Without such a sphere modern man has become “an actor deprived of an art”. Politics as become the production and consumption of intimate feelings, not an arena for free acts. In the “intimate society” the important thing is not what you do, but what you feel.
Sennett’s most basic tenet is that the modern city must restore its public sphere – or decay. I his latest work, Flesh and Stone, Sennett adopts a strict sensual perspective on locality, with a study of the physical interplay of human bodies in the various urban settings of history; Athens and Rome of antiquity, Venice of the Renaissance, Paris of the Middle Ages and the French revolution, London of the industrial revolution, New York of the great immigration. His argument in crude brevity is that cities which have torned down city quarters to increase the physical distance between its inhabitants, “to make room for air and light” (August Strindberg), which from the best of motives and intentions have planned for movement rather than for meeting, have to some extent also torned down the conditions for a functioning public space. Such a space, according to Sennett, presupposes a purely physical sense of dependence and belonging. Only from realizing our irretrievable existential insufficiency, vulnerablity and mortality, can we be persuaded to once again enter the public square. This, Sennett summarizes in a tone of resignation, requires in its turn a city which enables us to form a community with other people in their capacity of – human beings. And thereby, with Hannah Arendt, to become aware of the genuinely, in the classical sense of the word, tragic dimensions of human existence; life as a never-ending drama, with ourselves as actors, not fully knowing the consequences of our actions.

Community as polis
It is probably no coincidence that so many participants in the current debate are finding new inspiration in the discourses of Greek antiquity. Modern democracies are today confronting a truly classical problem: how to combine the craving for human freedom with the demand for social order? For some time we have managed to hide the problem by having order parade as freedom, but now we seem to have reached a point where the masquerade is no longer credible and where we, with Aristotle, again are forced to ask: What is a good human life? How is such a life possible? What must we do out of necessity? What ought we do as free human agents?
Perhaps the renewed relevance of the antique experience is due not only to the fact that the issue is a very old one, but perhaps also due to a feeling that the level in society where it can be dealt with, if at all, bears some similarities to the polis of Greek democracy – a small city with a functioning public arena. What we from various points of departure seem to be looking for, is a sphere in modern society where human beings can develop relations that are different from the relationships of “necessity” between producer and consumer, patron and client, state and subject, a sphere where men and women also will relate on the basis of “free” commitments and responsibilities.
Here we will still have to take on the never-ceasing and necessary tasks linked to our biological reproduction, the fostering of our children, the nursing of our sick and elderly. But here we might also find a space where our genuinely human actions in life will be observed, valued and – at best – remembered, and where true moral choices, often difficult and painful, will have to be confronted and made. This modern polis might create a public sphere small enough to make free human actions possible and visible, but large enough to make them challenging and meaningful. It is an arena in society where we will be given a chance to make an impact on other human lives which is deeper and more lasting than the fifteen-minute-clearings of fame offered to us in the global realm of necessity.
It is finally here, if anywhere, that we might be able to draw the evasive line between what we must do out of necessity, and what we strive to do in freedom. This kind of community, limited in size and restricted in scope, cannot exist outside the global world of necessity, or remain disconnected from it. But it could perhaps constitute the basic building block in a democratic society which recognizes and supports the vital need for a physical and political space where free human interaction is possible, where true moral values can take shape, where distinctions between good and evil may regain and retain their legitimacy, where individual human experiences might strengthen their moral relevance and where the classical distinction between the private and the public can be made and acted upon.
Is there a way to strengthen those parts of modern existence where true meaning can occur, where the distinctively human freedom to create and act can be separated from the demands of necessity and exterior goals – without demolishing the foundations of material welfare (the realm of Necessity)? This is the truly “antique” question that Western civilization is confronting, and which we seem to have good reasons to ponder anew.


The Works of Aristotle
W D Ross edition
Oxford University Press

Hannah Arendt
The Human Condition
The University of Chicago Press 1958

Zygmunt Bauman
Life in Fragments
Blackwell, Oxford 1995.

André Gorz
Adieu au prolétariat, au delà du socialisme
Editions Galilée, Paris 1980.
Swedish translation:
Farväl till proletariatet
Bokomotiv 1982.

Martha C Nussbaum
Quality of Life
Oxford Clarendon Press 1990
Swedish translation:
Känslans skärpa, tankens inlevelse
Symposion 1995

Richard Sennett:
The Fall of Public Man
WW Norton, New York 1974
Flesh and Stone
WW Norton, New York 1995