Here are a few leftover notes I took while reading Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital, material that I didn’t incorporate in the essay I posted at New Inquiry.
1. Lordon argues that neoliberalism entails a process of lining up workers’ desires with the demands of capital so that they are synonymous. This extends to such a degree that workers believe they are fully autonomous in electing their pursuits, which just happen to serve the capitalist order. It becomes necessary at the margins for capital to eschew management altogether:
Of course, the ideal of the totalitarian practice of the neoliberal makeover of souls is that it should be merely transitional, reaching as fast as possible its (oxymoronic) horizon of free wills permanently conforming (‘consenting’), so that once the norm has been perfected and engrammed the normalising scaffolding can be withdrawn. The goal is reached when employees, ‘moving entirely of their own accord’ and without needing to be further co-linearised, strive in the organization’s direction and bring it their power of acting unreservedly as a perfectly voluntary commitment.
What’s somewhat surprising is that Lordon labels this perfectly, permanently conforming self-directed servant of capital as an artist.
a good number of recent studies in the sociology of work discovered in the figure of the artist a pertinent metaphor, and even more than a metaphor, a common model, for those employees reputed to have personal qualities of strategic importance to their company, notably ‘creativity’.
The artist is the self-motivated producer par excellence; all that is required is to keep the artists besotted on their own creativity, so they don’t recognize how it suits and is shaped by capital. “Is not the artist the very emblem of ‘free will’, and the unreserved commitment of the self?” Lordon asks.
Art critic Ben Davis makes a similar case in his book (I reviewed it here), and I’ve argued before along these lines more broadly: Social media make us all performance artists, and then as artists we work away at producing content for the capitalist companies that are positioned to harvest the work product of our self-construction and self-expression. I wrote a post called “Worker = Hipster” back in July 2010 about how the capitalist economy necessarily turns leisure into work in order to have labor to exploit, turning leisure consumption into “skills” that can valorize capital (i.e. make brands more valuable, etc.) If only I had neoliberalist jargon in my arsenal then, I would have called it “Hipster Neoliberalism” and turned it into a book or something.
Lordon thinks that the transformation of workers into artists potentially threatens the entire hierarchy of capitalism. “If indeed the artist is a possible and desirable avatar of the worker, and from capital’s own point of view, then the very idea of employment as a relation of hierarchical subordination is fundamentally called in question.” If capitalism can run on worker autonomy, why bother to get rid of it? HIs answer is that capitalism will only ever turn an elite strata into artists and even these elites are basically deluded if they think they are not confined with capitalism’s horizons. Like Davis, I am inclined to think that artists become the alibi of the entire neoliberal ideology of risk-bearing individuality as the apotheosis of the self. Their brand is strong, and becomes a strong example to the rest of us that we can find “creative” fulfillment within the world as it is by working hard on ourselves.
2. Lordon wants to redefine alienation in ways that suit his allegiance to Spinoza. Thus alienation cannot be a matter of escaping determinism and realizing a true self: “autonomy does not exist, and passionate servitude is ubiquitous,” he bluntly declares. Instead alienation should be understood as “the contraction of the scope of one’s effectuations” — the scope of activities that you help constitute and are constituted by is smaller when you are “alienated."
His example of alienation — "the condition of the mind filled with too few things” — is addiction.
Passionate exploitation fixes the power of individuals to an extraordinarily limited number of objects – those assigned by the master-desire. If the concept of alienation is worth rescuing, it would be for the sake of giving it the meaning of ‘the stubborn affect’ and ‘the occupation of the mind’ – the condition of the mind filled with too few things, but completely so, thus impeded from expanding comfortably. It is in this sense that employees riveted to ‘their’ one activity-object, be it joyfully, are ‘alienated’, no differently than the cocaine addict, whose mind is entirely filled by images of white powder.
This makes me think of machine gambling, and the compulsions social media instigate by drawing on the example of slot machines. (I wrote about that here.) Slot machines control users by schematizing the pursuit of rewards, and then calibrating the reward schedule to extract maximum “productivity” from the user. On a video poker machine, that means getting the player to keep sitting in front of the machine and pumping money into it; on social media, that means keeping users logged in and contributing their content and their feedback, all of which can be resold as data.
Lordon offers another way of describing this phenomenon, as a systematic limiting of what one’s mind can think about. I have argued that people seek these limitations out as a form of relief from oversaturation. Information overload, then, is a was of stupefying people under the guise of informing them; supplying too much information may prove a better way of constraining people’s horizons than censorship. Then it feels like the person’s own fault that they have narrowed themselves down to the limited number of topics and activities they can handle. Why do we let ourselves get oversaturated and stupefied? Maybe our isolation from other people disrupts the system by which we might otherwise filter our information to the scale of a healthy social life.