A recent critical metaphor analysis of EU strategic policy documents of the period ranging from 1985 to 2014 has brought to light an oddity in how the European Commission speaks of businesses  — which are functional entities — as if they were sensitive beings, but of people — which are sensitive beings — as if they were functional entities. In the words of EU policymakers over these three decades, businesses have to be “encouraged” and “supported.” Meanwhile, people as mere [human] resources are expected to “acquire skills,” “adapt,” and “be flexible.” This oddity, which we call sensitive inversion, is the conceptual trick that has enabled an environment in which it makes sense to prioritize business needs over people’s needs in the name of growth, competitiveness, and — ultimately — jobs.

The prioritization of business needs over people’s needs does not flow from the application of a supposedly sound economic knowledge. Scientific knowledge in general, and economic knowledge in particular, do not make sense on their own grounds, but only if they are implicitly supported by framing assumptions so entrenched that we don’t notice them anymore. This is what led Mary Midgley to compare philosophy with… plumbing!  Like plumbing, philosophy can be left to specialists when its conceptual frameworks are fit for purpose. When they are defective, breaking open walls and floors becomes a requirement. These are the moments when conceptual frameworks are revealed and nobody can ignore their presence and importance any longer.

We are living such a moment. The entrenched conceptual frameworks of modernity we live by are not fit for purpose anymore. To Latour’s “We have never been modern” I object: “The political realm is dying from being stuck in modernity!”

The conceptual frameworks of modernity have two axes: (i) agents are conceptualized as rational subjects, and (ii) relations are conceptualized as vertical or conflictual. The first axis — humanness is characterized by and through rationality — is fertile ground for the above-mentioned sensitive inversion: considering humans as functional and, a contrario, businesses as sensitive. The sensitive inversion leads to two critical weaknesses. First, it misses the largest part of what matters and is meaningful for human beings. By approaching human beings as if they were rational subjects, policymakers have a flawed representation of their expectations about politics. Citizens are expected to be mere optimizers: either consumers maximizing their consumer surplus or job-holders aspiring to maximize their wages. Indeed, looking at people as functional entities leaves no room for their empathy or sense of purpose and meaning. As recently put forth by our “tax lady” Margrethe Vestager, the EU Competition Commissioner, “we underestimate people if we think that they only vote with their wallet. There is so much more to life than the economic benefits or downsides.” Second, businesses are considered as sensitive but at the same time they are legitimized and encouraged to be blind efficiency-seekers and profit-maximizers in markets operating under supposedly perfect competition conditions.

The other feature of modern conceptual frameworks is to theorize relations as either causal — vertical connections in which there is imbalance of power and agency — or as horizontal, conflictual relations between independent agents. This potentially agonistic nature of horizontal relations — conceptually grounded in the Newtonian worldview by which the stability of matter is ensured when forces neutralize each other — surfaces in the need for independent executive, legislative and judiciary powers in Montesquieu’s model, on the one hand, and in the notion of perfect competition among economic agents in markets, on the other.

None of these representations (people as mere rational consumers or relations as agonistic) allow room for looking at the public space as an agora, as a “space between us,” that requires to be taken care of. Hannah Arendt correctly framed this problem as a critique of the colonization of the public realm by the social/economic one. She also offered a way to resist this colonization: a conceptual framework I argue we can mobilize to lead us out of the crisis of modernity.

Arendt grasped the shortcomings of modernity in terms of their impact on the Vita Activa. In The Human Condition she suggests another conceptualization of humanness and of relations. [1] According to Arendt, humans are not disembodied rational subjects standing in front of inert others considered as means to be enrolled or exploited. Moreover, freedom is not considered as absence of constraints and/or matter of will or choice. Arendt distinguishes between three fundamental types of activity: labor, work, and action. This distinction is grounded in a three-fold characterization of humanness, as (i) living (“the human condition of labor is life”), (ii) worldly (“the human condition of work is worldliness”) and (iii) plural (“action […] corresponds to the human condition of plurality”). A human being as living, worldly and plural, is what I call a relational self. Arendt is aware that both a person’s survival and her freedom depend on her relationship with others.

Besides this “3-D” conceptualization of humanness, Arendt’s distinction among labor, work and action allows distinguishing three types of others, and consequently three modes of relations. When working, the self relates to an other which is an object — even if this other-as-an-object happens to be a human being. Arendt characterizes the remit of work as being pervaded by instrumentality and means-to-end logic. When acting, the self relates to an other who is a plural peer or another self. This is essentially the mode of relation opening up to the experience of freedom and a mode which is, in Arendt’s terms, inherently political. When laboring, the self is totally drained by the necessity of survival and depends on an other which is her environment (and, in the case of the privileged class, on “servants”). This conceptualization of the human condition integrates rationality as one of three dimensions without making it hegemonic. By contrast, modern rational subjects are only left with labor, processes and necessity, without any means to imagine action in their lives.

Beyond a critique of modernity, the Arendtian framework unlocks the imagination for envisioning the EU as the — indeed fragile — experimentation of what politics is about in a globalized and hyperconnected era. Arendt’s conceptualization of humans as relational selves is applicable to businesses and Member States, alike. Relational selves are political agents, (i) conscious of their survival needs, (ii) able to improve their living conditions by making artefacts (material or institutional) and (iii) embracing their plurality, i.e. eager to act with their peers and reveal their identity through action. If we visualize and perform plurality as an essential concept of politics, the EU becomes a promising political object instead of a flawed and fragmented political space, as it is often described.

Through this lens, Hannah Arendt also allows coming to terms with the sensitive inversion. Economics (the efficient organization for satisfying basic needs of an increasing number of human beings) stops colonizing the public realm, which can be seen instead as the agora where political agents act their respective pluralities: as humans, as businesses, or as Member States, and join forces to care for the world and give a hand to those in need.

Nicole Dewandre is a researcher at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and in no way represent the view of the European Commission and its services.


[1] Dewandre, Nicole (forthcoming). “Political Agents as Relational Selves in Advance.” Philosophy Today.