Dialectics of wage work and leisurely freedom

Aufheben‘s review of Leopoldina Fortunati’s The Arcane of Reproduction has a clear explanation of the dialectic of wage labor and enforced leisure.

1. The effects of capital aren’t restricted to the sphere of production. People aren’t affected/exploited only when they are working. The demands of capitalism organize our lives in totality, so there is not a place from which we can imagine our lives or our identities outside capitalism. So we feeel compelled to be ourselves in a way that fuses alienation with self-realization in a confusing dialectic or amalgam.

It is true that a good deal of antagonism to capital is experienced outside the sphere of production: there are plenty of examples of struggles of the unemployed, students, etc. It is also true that antagonism is experienced within a society where capital effectively subsumes many of the activities that are done outside the workplace, so that not only are these activities functional to capital, but they also acquire an imposed, boundless and alienated character. The whole of society may then well be seen as an extended factory where direct or self-imposed discipline, haste, boredom, misery and sweat are the subjective aspects that necessarily complement the motion of self-valorisation of capital.

2. The work-leisure dialectic spins on an contrived ideology of freedom. Our loss of autonomy in the productive part of our day is compensated with a “relaxing” passivity in which we “choose” how to chill out and spend. But the spending is part of capital’s circulatory system, reinforcing the system that has depleted and exhausted us, stripped us of autonomy in work. I bolded the key conclusion: how we entertain ourselves is how we express our freedom (which is why people tend to take their tastes so seriously) but that state of affairs is compelled — it’s making the best of a bad setup, in which the better part of our being is squandering producing value for capital.

In the workplace, we are subjected to explicitly imposed orders, and we obey them consciously. Also, what we do is never ‘for ourselves’, but it is done for the sake of our employer’s business. The subsumption of our activity and of our aims, as well as the subsumption of the result of our activity and aim, is a real subsumption.

Outside the workplace we are ‘free’ to choose what to do, and how to do it. And we do what we do ‘for ourselves’. However, this freedom hides an indirect command of capital: in a world where ‘what I as a man cannot do, i.e. what all my individual powers cannot do, I can do with the help of money’ every need becomes necessarily subordinated to the need to play along with the market and its laws. 32 Even leisure is conditioned by what we can afford, both in terms of money, and time, since time is money. If we are in a position to spend time and resources in leisure and/or education, we may tend to spend more time in leisure and/or courses that are useful to improve or maintain our capacity to earn a wage. The mind exhaustion implied by alienated labour is likely to dictate the mindless and alienated quality of leisure – after a day’s work our brain cannot sustain more than a boring and non-involving night in front of the TV, for example. All this, is really ‘enjoyed’ ‘for ourselves’, and we do it with our free will, but it implies our subjection to the law of value.

3. The way we are free to spend our wages invests us in perpetuating the system, that is utterly naturalized, nearly impossible to think our way around.

Paradoxically enough, the command which I impose on myself is indispensable for my submission to the explicit despotism of capital in the workplace – how would the capitalist keep me in the workplace, if I did not see my job as in my own interest? My unfreedom, my forced labour, my painful experience of being despotically commanded within production is then one side of the same coin of my bourgeois freedom outside production. A theory that sees the working class only as a chain gang forced to work under a despotic command misses that other face of capital, our domination that is one with the naturalisation of the economy, of the necessity to exchange as an obvious and inevitable condition of life – the ‘arcane’ behind the fact that we reproduce capital with our ‘free’ actions and ‘free’ choices.

4. Capitalism works by suppressing the miserable half of the dialectic that purchases our constrained consumerist freedom. We mustn’t compound the effectiveness of that by buying into the same ideology with “prosumerism”. Or by severing capital from the consumer society it requires and posits — as if they are not two sides of the same coin. We can’t seize upon the “freedom” of creative consumption without at once reinforcing capital. Creative, productive consumption is never a weapon against capital; it’s a reinforcement and reproduction and elaboration of it.

here is a second understanding that is possible once the opposed aspects of capital are not both spelled out: one that takes only one side of the dialectic, and considers capital just in its aspect of despotism, of ‘imposition of work/ coercion/ discipline’. The other side of capital, bourgeois freedom, whose experience is rooted in the freedom to exchange, choose, consume, etc., is simply perceived as a force that potentially opposes the despotism of capital and which is potentially liberatory.


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