Hannah Arendt’s political theory, and broader account of the human world, amongst other things, shows a way that we can understand the movement from antique philosophical contempt for the slave, and the labourer, to political philosophies of human equality. The broad point is that the kind of equality Marx sought for all who work is a product of capitalism itself. [Capitalism makes clear a distinction present, but only a very submerged way, in antique concepts between the labour of the whole body and the work of the hands. It is labour which is one of the things that distinguishes us from animals according to Arendt. Her capacity to assume an absolute opposition between the merely animal and the human, is not so widely shared now, but we can hold on to it as a form of ranking which is not reliant on absolute distinctions, including any absolute distinction between the animal and the human.] The modern commercial, or capitalist world, of production driven by trade across large areas unified as markets, is contrasted with production by the household, for the household, at the centre of antique understanding. An understanding in which any kind of labour degrades, a labourer is a slave or only just above servitude in status, and can be tortured in judicial proceedings since that disgrace enacted on the body is just an extension of the disgrace of labour. Again these are no absolutes. We would have a very poor understanding of the antique world, and even of pre-historic human communities, if we do not appreciate that there was trade across large areas. The point is that the weight of trade across large areas compared with more self-contained forms of production and consumption increases, creating a sense of nationhood and of humanity as unified by trade and by participation in production. That production for trade is what pushes in the direction of egalitarianism in ethics and politics, and then egalitarian ideas of income and wealth distribution
Arendt’s alleged nostalgia for ancient Athens provides a useful way of thinking about why income and wealth egalitarianism are not necessary outcomes of moral equality, other than reasons of economic efficiency. Arendt emphasise the antique Greek aristocratic pursuit of excellence, but not simply by going back to antiquity. It is something emphasised in the late 19th century by Jacob Burckhardt, the historian and cultural historian, so we might see an implicit attempt there to find something equivalent to economic competition in antique aristocratic competition. Burckhardt was a friend of Nietzsche, there is some common purpose and some benefit in framing Nietzsche’s political thought in relation to Burckhardt, but we cannot go into that right now. Arendt does not suggest that aristocratic competition finds a direct equivalent in market competition, emphasising political competition. There as a distinct 19th century bourgeois tendency towards seeking dignity in antique and medieval heroic references, and this is open to charges of anachronism, if not outright absurdity. The point is that the political realm of competition provides the nearest equivalent to ancient aristocratic competition, which included the idea of political honour. We could take the economic realm as something completely different, as if politics was heaven in relation to economic materialism. That is Marx’s critique of Hegel, and he was right in analysis if not so right in his offered solutions. There must be some spill over between economic efforts, which are efforts to find social status, ‘honour, as much as anything, and the search for political office, though hopefully with the minimum of confusion between the political search to provide public goods, and the sectional work of economic self-interest. Back in antiquity, Pericles himself suggested in his famous funeral oration that poverty is not disgraceful, but a failure to struggle against it is.
Amongst other things, Arendt shows the broad history and conceptual transformation which led from an Ancient Greek understanding of equality, and inequality, in justice to modern assumptions regarding those issues. Arendt does refer to Ancient Rome as the most political of communities. We can see that Arendt did not make an opposition between Athens and Rome in the way that Pettit does, though she certainly does note some differences. Arendt contributes to an already well established interest in law as fundamental to the difference between Athens and Rome. We can see such a suggestion in the philosophical idealist history of Hegel. The way Arendt understands the difference is that Greek law is a form of divine authority over humans, while Roman law is about contractual relations between individuals and at the basis of political institutions. That is a distinction that suits the idea that Rome was the most political of communities, since it is the possibility of freely held relationships, which is the meaning of politics in the ancient world. That is Arendt refers to politics as the realm of freedom, as distinct from necessity. The work at issue, is most obviously slave labour. Arendt notes ancient distinctions between slaves (presumably by birth) and conquered peoples who become slaves. That separation of freedom from work includes the work of free labourers, on the whole. Ancient democracies, including Rome though that democracy was rather rigged to the benefit of the aristocracy, gave political rights to free labourers but never lost the disdain for labourers. Both Plato and Aristotle assume that political leadership should be in the hands of an elite not concerned with work or money making, and even regard politics itself as non-serious and secondary compared with philosophy, an inevitably elite pursuit. Arendt does allow for the political vision of human life in Plato and Aristotle, but also makes us pay attention to the opposite drive in their thought, the thought that the polity is something for the philosopher to ignore as far as possible.