Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital

I’ve found Frédéric Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital a bit hit or miss (often he seems to be merely finding ways to express platitudes in more complex language, though that may indicative of my own ignorance of the stakes). But he makes a few arguments that I found thought-provoking.

1. Lordon configures authenticity not as the basis of a kind of resistance to power (or servitude) but as the ultimate mark of obedience to it. The concept of one’s “true self” only appears as a knowable, consciously considered thing in order that it may be remolded to suit capitalism’s demands for the totality of one’s productivity. Authenticity should not be seen as a personal goal but as a employer demand. Or rather, if you are consciously pursuing the goal of authenticity, it’s because a job (or some freelance pursuit of human capital) is forcing you to.

Under neoliberalism, Lordon argues, employers have enough leverage to insist that workers’ desires align completely with that of employers, so that all their life force essentially goes into enterprise. He even provides this somewhat unnecessary Lacan-style chart to illustrate it:

The goal of employers under neoliberal conditions is to make d1 and d2 align completely (a=0). This is mainly a matter of getting workers to identify completely with their job, to see work as the forum for self-fulfillment (“meaningful work”) and to accept obedience as a kind of autonomy or volunteerism. 

The strength of the neoliberal form of the employment relation lies precisely in the re-internalisation of the objects of desire, not merely as desire for money but as desire for other things, for new, intransitive satisfactions, satisfactions inherent in the work activities themselves. Put otherwise, neoliberal employment aims at enchantment and rejoicing: it sets out to enrich the relation with joyful affects.

In other words, neoliberalism hinges on making people work for love rather than money.

But as with all things neoliberal, the burden for making this motivational shift falls on the employees: To qualify for jobs, they have to convince prospective employers that they want to work not just for the money but because they love what they job would entail and want to identify themselves with it completely. Workers need to make job tasks seem like things they spontaneously wanted to do anyway; they have to perform an implausible enthusiasm that seems more and more ludicrous the more employers expect it. After all, once one level of enthusiasm is performed, a more intense level must be reached for the next show to be persuasive.

Pret a Manger notoriously demands this kind of excitement from its fast-food workers (they are supposed to smile and make small talk with customers and rate other employees in terms of their team spirit and so on) — in Lordon’s words, such employers aim for “the ultimate behavioral performance in which the prescribed emotions are no longer merely outwardly enacted, but ‘authentically’ felt.” They have to smile and “really” mean it.

This puts employees in a “double bind” in which they have to “manufacture artlessness.” Since no one can actually succeed at this, it means that workers are (1) always having to work hard on their emotional disposition at all times and (2) they can always be disciplined or terminated for failing to successfully be emotionally “real.” What is “real” is determined by those who have the power to insist on what is real — in this case, employers who can withhold the means for survival.

2. Lordon defines “liquidity” in much the way I typically define “convenience” — a fantasy about “never having to take the other into consideration”: 

Keynes had already noted the fundamentally anti-social character of liquidity, as the refusal of any durable commitment and Desire’s desire to keep all options permanently open – namely, to never have to take the other into consideration. Perfect flexibility – the unilateral affirmation of a desire that engages knowing that it can disengage, that invests with the guarantee of being able to disinvest, and that hires in the knowledge that it can fire (at whim) – is the fantasy of an individualism pushed to its ultimate consequences, the imaginative flight of a whole era.

When convenience is trumpeted as a value, it’s really celebrating this kind of antisocial flexibility, the refusal to commit to any project and privileging instead the ability to switch at a moment’s notice to a more profitable alternative. Lordon argues that “liquidity in the narrow sense (financial liquidity) acquires a broad signification: the unconditional right of desire to do as it pleases.” It is a fantasy about money becoming pure potency, pure potential. Convenience reflects this same dream of noncontingent possibility, of being entirely self-reliant when it comes to pleasure, as if pleasure wasn’t intrinsically social.  

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