Sunday, April 07, 2013

Contradictions at Work: The Task for a Philosophy of Labor (with Hegel, Marx, and Spinoza)

Draft of Paper Presented at University of Memphis

The current economic crisis has returned the economy to the center of politics. The economy no longer functions as the silent backdrop of political contestations over rights and responsibilities, but has itself been politicized, at least in terms of rhetoric. Central to this new rhetoric of politics is the status of work, albeit in an ambiguous and contradictory manner. Occupy Wall Street, and the various occupations around the globe, framed the question of work, to the extent that they addressed in, in terms of a divide between Main Street and Wall Street, a divide between those who work, producing goods or at least services, that could be useful and beneficial to society, and those who only exploit this labor, whose elaborate and complex formulas for generating debt, and thus have no productive value or worth in society. It is a division between productive labor and unproductive labor, workers and parasites. This division is mirrored, which is to say reflected and inverted, in the rhetoric surrounding various government programs for austerity, cutting social services and programs, which are almost always framed in terms of “putting people to work” of ending the “entitlements” which have coddled the retired, disabled, or lazy, allowing them to parasitically live off of the hard work of others. We are no longer haunted by the spectre of communism, but by the spectre of the free-loader, but the identity of this free-loader is shifts across the political spectrum. Work is thus the basis for a left populism or right populism, in each case “work” represents the people, the masses, the majority, whose interest and efforts need to be defended against a parasitic minority of either venture capitalists or state employees, the unemployed, and retired. Between this war of competing populisms there is the social and technological transformation of work, the growing realization that the jobs, especially those that sustained the idea of a “middle class” jobs that provided a degree of comfort, security and stability, might be gone for good, replaced by some combination of technology and outsourcing. (When the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat imagines a world without work things have gotten very weird). Work is placed at the center of political life, defining the people, and the exact moment when its technological and political conditions are radically changing.
The task then of any philosophical investigation of work would be less a matter of trying to define work, to claim what it is on some ontological or anthropological level, or what it should be, defining in advance some ethical norm or political program, than it is a matter of working through the antimonies that define not only the current political moment, but labor as such. The general idea of these antinomies is borrowed from Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work, even if the specific antinomies are not. Following her suggest I will look at three different dualities of labor, framed in terms of antinomies or contradictions. These antinomies situate labor at once as an economic reality, fundamental to the production and reproduction of the goods for our survival and an ethical matter, a necessary component of the formation of responsibility and character; a political matter, situated between collective conditions and individual striving; and a fundamental existential orientation where individual striving situates and is situated by institutions and structures. In what follows I will look at the antinomies around labor through three different philosophers, Hegel, Marx, and Spinoza. Examining the ethical/economic with respect to Hegel, collective and individual with Marx, individual and institution with Spinoza. In each case my goal will be to look at what they say about work, focusing specifically on their ability to sort through the conflicting and different meanings of the concepts, but also what work illustrates, and draws out, about their philosophy. Finally, I should add that framing these in terms of antinomies is drawn from Weeks, who stresses “the effectivity of their internal conflicts without presuming their dialectical resolution and teleological trajectory,” but, as I will argue below, it is not clear that all the philosophers listed below share this view that the dualities internal to labor cannot be subject to dialectical resolution.

It is perhaps not surprising that Hegel has something to say about the contradictions, rather than antinomies of labor, contradiction being integral to Hegel’s dialectic. The most well known contradiction of work is found in Hegel’s famous “Master and Slave” dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit. In that section Hegel asserts that man’s self-consciousness is grounded in desire, but this desire cannot be the desire for the necessary material objects, food and water, that form the basis of natural life, but the desire for recognition. Recognition, however, is not possible without struggle, a struggle predicated on the idea that to be recognized, to be seen as human is to risk your life for recognition. This struggle comes to an apparent end with humanity split into two, between a master who has risked life in order to be recognized and a slave who has surrendered recognition in order to live, but this is really only the beginning of the story. Hegel then goes on to show how this appearance is contradicted by its reality, by the actual logic of recognition. 

With respect to recognition, the master finds himself in a position that is the opposite of what was first intended. The master becomes a master through struggle, through the assertion that recognition, being seen as an independent consciousness is more important than life, but ultimately finds herself recognized by one that she cannot recognize in turn. It might be possible to say that the opposite is true of the slave, that she first chooses life, but ends up finding recognition through the master. However, such a neat reversal is not possible, the slave never receives recognition from the master. In the dialectical reversal of this passage, the point where the master is revealed to be a slave, and vice versa, the reversal turns as much on the relation to the object, to material existence, as to the relation to the other: the master is a slave, not just because he is recognized by one who he cannot recognize, but because his relation to the object is as a pure object of desire, absolute mediation in its immediacy, while the slave works on object. As Hegel writes, “Work, on the other hand, is desire held in check, fleetingness staved off; in other words, work forms and shapes the thing" (Hegel 1977 p. 118). Work coupled with the fear of death proves to be another direction for recognition, at least in part: the slave is not recognized, but comes to recognize him or herself through a world that is the product of labor. Labor constitutes another basis for recognition. Whereas Hegel’s passage on self-consciousness began with a rigid division between appetite and desire, between relations with the world of objects and the world of subjects, desire for things and desire for recognition, the overturning of the relation of master to slave obscures this very distinction. What is more important to Hegel is less the sharp division between the desire for recognition, what we might want to call intersubjectivity, and the relation with things, than the fundamental negation of one’s determinate condition: to be recognized is to be seen as something more than this determinate existence, a point that can be arrived at through the instability of fear and the determination of work as much as it can through recognition. One can arrive at a recognition of oneself, an awareness of one’s potential, either through the recognition of an other or the recognition of oneself in the world transformed by work.

This idea of work as externalization and recognition of the self is in tension with Hegel’s discussion of work in the Philosophy of Right. In the section dedicated to civil society, work, labor, is no longer seen as the externalization of the self, but as the internalization of social norms and commands. Work is a process of education, an education inscribed in the materiality of things and the interconnectedness of social relations. As Hegel writes: 

"Practical education through work consists in the self-perpetuating need and habit of being occupied in one way or another, in the limitation of one’s activity to suit both the nature of the material in question and, in particular, the arbitrary will of others, and in a habit, acquired through this discipline, of objective validity and universally applicable skills."

Work sands off the rough edges of particularity, making individuals interchangeable, dependable, or, in word, disciplined. It is possible to grasp a contradiction between these two different texts written fifteen years apart. In the first work is seen primarily as externalization, as an expression of one’s thoughts, potential, and discipline onto the world, an expression that makes possible a reflection and recognition of that potential and of oneself. In the second, work is no longer an expression of individuality, of a particular self, but an education of the self into universal habits and norms. The contradiction between these two ideas of work, expression and education, do not just bear upon Hegel’s writing, on his philosophy, but touch upon the nature of work itself. We are forced, as is often the case with respect to Hegel, to admit that both sides are true, that work is both an expression of ourselves and a construction of ourselves, and search for some sublation, some resolution, of this contradiction. “What do you do for a living?” is more than just a cliché of small talk; it encapsulates both one’s self-expression and determination, the way that we make ourselves in what we do but also the way in which we are made and shaped by a history that we do not choose.

The central contradiction of labor of the Philosophy of Right implicates this contradiction between the individual and social dimension of labor from another angle. Not from the contradiction of its aspect of externalization and educational, or expressive and formative aspect, but its social contradiction between its ethical dimension, the role of labor in forming habit and character, and its economic aspect, producing goods. This contradiction comes to light in any attempt to resolve the crisis of unemployment and overproduction that is endemic to civil society. Hegel argues that as technology and the division of labor develop, they necessarily produce a mass of unemployed people, rendered obsolete by these changes. Dealing with this group, what Hegel calls the rabble, brings to light a central contradiction of not only civil society but, more importantly, of how work is viewed. As Hegel writes: 

If the direct burden [of support] were to fall on the wealthier class, or if direct means were available in other public institutions (such as wealthy hospitals, foundations, or monasteries) to maintain the increasingly impoverished mass as it normal standard of living, the livelihood of the needy would be ensured without the mediation of work; this would be contrary to the principle of civil society and the feeling of self-sufficiency and honour among its individual members (Hegel 1991a, p. 267) 

To provide resources without work, is to overlook its fundamental ethical role, creating individuals who have their all of their needs met except their need for recognition and belonging. The opposite solution is just as one-sided, just as flawed. Providing the unemployed rabble with work, with discipline and belonging, overlooks its economic aspect, overproducing goods and putting out of work those who have jobs (and places in the estates).Work’s status as simultaneously economic and ethical, providing for needs both material and spiritual, means that any attempt to focus on one side of the relation has disastrous effects for the other dimension.It is impossible to have work as an ethical task of discipline without effects on the economy just as it is impossible to provide needs without undermining the ethical dimension of work. Thus, Hegel concludes “…despite an excess of wealth, civil society is not wealthy enough.” Only the State can solve this contradiction of civil society, but it does so only by displacing it. The state sets up colonies to employ the unemployed and absorb the excess goods.

Once again Hegel’s identification of a contradiction is of interest not only for what it reveals about his thought, but about work in general. The contradiction between the ethical and economic dimension of work, between work as that which shapes individuals through discipline and character and work that provides goods and services, can be seen in the history of some of the earliest responses to the instability of capitalism, the workhouses and forms of public assistance, right down to the present. Throughout the history of this contradiction one could chart two different trends in this response. There are those who focus on the ethical dimension of work, insisting that people must be given work in order to learn responsibility and self-respect. As Kathi Weeks summarizes this point of view, “Work is not just defended on grounds of economic necessity and social duty; it is widely understood as an individual moral practice and collective ethical obligation" (Weeks 2012, p. 11). In this perspective, any attempt to give resources, or access to resources without work, is an ethical crisis. In contrast to this, there are those who focus on the economic dimension of work, who argue that if increased productivity of labor leaves a mass of people unemployed while simultaneously providing for sufficient resources, then the resources should simply be reallocated. In this case work is understood purely economically, it provides necessary goods; if a society can do this with a shrinking number of workers then the goods and works should simply be redistributed. However, the labels “ethical” and “economic” must themselves be subject to dialectical reversal, as this contradiction, like that between the master and slave, reverses itself. Much of the ethical focus on work, the critique of welfare which focuses on the demoralizing effects of dependence, is itself underwritten by the economic interests of those who would like to see state expenditures and thus taxation reduced; while the “economic” understanding of work, which focuses on its changing productive power, is itself underwritten by (an often unstated) ethic of human flourishing. Hegel’s argument pushes this contradiction between ethics and economics into their resolution in the state, but history has maintained this contradiction as an open struggle in which the ethics and economics of work is contested. 

Marx’s examination of the contradictions of work, from the critique of alienation of eighteen forty-four to the contradictions of abstract and concrete labor in Capital, would far exceed the time allotted here. My interest, following the discussion of Hegel, is to chart one of the way in which Marx explores and reveals a central duality of labor, a duality that is perhaps better described as an antinomy than a contradiction. Whereas Hegel stressed the gradual realization of the contradictory nature of work in civil society, contradictions that lead to their solution by the state, Marx does not accept such a teleological solution of the contradictions of capital. Marx interrupts this linear progression, insisting on the necessity of a radical rupture. 

One of Marx’s many interruptions or corrections of Hegel is his assertion that the economy has to be understood as encompassing two different spheres. Rather than see the civil society as defined by a single ethical ideal, that of the pursuit of individual interest, Marx sees capitalism, the mode of production as inherently divided between the sphere of circulation, the market where goods—including labor power, is exchanged, and what he sometimes referred to as the “hidden abode of production,” where not only commodities, but the capital relation itself is produced and reproduced. The shift from these two spheres, circulation to production, market to factory, profoundly alters how work is conceptualized and experienced . The market, including the labor market, is predicated on the principle of individuals seeking their own self-interest, negotiating for the best possible price for what they are buying or selling. As Marx writes in a particularly rhetorically dense passage in Capital: 

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, equality, and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labor power, are determined by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law…The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each. 

Two somewhat complex points follow from this dense passage. First, Marx’s somewhat sarcastic connection of the “Eden of innate rights of man” with the market suggests that our ideals of freedom, especially as they are defined in terms of free choice and autonomy, are the reflections of market relations. In the market, as consumers, we perceive ourselves to be free, isolated, and independent, subject to no constraints except the ones we willingly enter. This idea is extended into the labor market, becoming its spontaneous ideology, as the exchange of labor for a wage becomes yet another exchange of money for a commodity. This brings us to the second point, Marx contrast this Eden with what he calls “the hidden abode of production.” In this hidden abode the apparently equality of buyer and seller is transformed into the asymmetry of capitalist and worker. Marx’s passage illustrates this inequality graphically, stating that the worker has “brought his own hide to the market and now has nothing to expect but--a hiding" (pg. 280). Understood prosaically this “hiding” is the extraction of the maximum amount of labor, the maximum value, from the labor power once it is purchased. In the sphere of circulation capitalist and workers, meet as equals, as buyer and seller, but this very equality, that worker and capitalist are each entitled to the equal rights of commodity exchange, demands that they come into conflict. The capitalist, the buyer of labor power is motivated to get the most for his money, while the worker is trying to get the most for the commodity. The fundamental problem is that what the worker is selling is not a thing at all, but labor-power, time, and thus this conflict is not some kind of haggling or search for bargains in the sphere of circulation, but a conflict over labor within the hidden abode of production as the employer seeks to make labor power more productive. “There is here therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides" (pg. 344). The transition from the sphere of circulation to the sphere of production is the transition from the domain of equality to the domain of asymmetries of force.

The difference between exchange and production is not exhausted in the difference of equality and force. Exchange and production are also distinguished in terms of their specific apprehension of social relations. In exchange individuals interact as isolated individuals, contracting and struggling for their self-interest. In contrast to this, the sphere of production, especially as it is increasingly industrialized and subject to the division of labor, is irreducibly collective. This collective dimension is not explicitly lived as a collective project, or political unity, as Marx argues the collective increase of workers power has multiple causes—from imitation to competition—but what matters, what it adds up to, is a total greater than the sum of its parts. As Marx argues, 

[T]he special productive power of the combined working day, is under all circumstances, the social productive power of labor, or the productive power of social labor. This power arises from cooperation itself. When the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of this species [Gattungsvermögen]. 

As Etienne Balibar argues with respect to the passage, “If we want to understand the conclusions Marx is aiming at, we must give this proposition its maximum strength. Not only does labor become historically “socialized,” a transindividual activity; essentially it always was one, inasmuch as there is no labor without cooperation, even in the most primitive forms.”Production is always the production of a collective power, of the force of social relations, cooperation, and coordination. If one adds to this Marx’s thesis that all labor, from the most simple to the most complex, involves a necessary mental aspect, thoughts, habits, and conceptions, a mental aspect that encompasses the shared knowledge of mankind, what Marx calls “the general intellect,” then it is possible to say that this cooperation exceeds those that are physically present, encompassing shared social knowledge.

We can then add another contradiction, or another antinomy, that of the individual sale and collective power of labor, to Hegel’s dialectic of the ethical and economic dimension of labor. This is a contradiction between the social relations determining the way in which labor is sold, as an individual contract, and the way that it is performed, as a necessary collective and social process. Marx summarizes this antinomy in the opening of the Grundrisse as follows, 

Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations. 

In the realm of exchange, in the market, the world confronts us as a mere means to our private purposes, but in the sphere of production we put to work the entirety of the developed relations of mankind. As with Hegel’s contradiction between the ethical and economic dimension of work, this antinomy between the individual and social aspects of work defines a long history of political struggle. In this case the struggle is split between a capitalist tendency to reduce the social dimension of labor to a purely individual market relation, and an opposed tendency, which could be described as proletarian, to transform the implicit shared cooperative and social dimension of labor into solidarity. The current political and economic order, what is often referred to as neoliberalism, can be understood as an extreme individualization and competition of labor relation. Workers are increasingly encouraged to see themselves not as a class, less of all as a class with nothing to lose but its chains, but as companies of one, entrepreneurs of themselves and their own potential. As Michel Foucault writes summarizing this point of view: “Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself.” In this current imaginary, solidarity, the shared recognition of one’s condition as a collective condition, is by definition suspect, there are only individuals engaged in competition, society does not exist. Despite its dominance, this perspective, which would reduce all social relations to market relations, is not entirely hegemonic. Ecological dangers foreground the collective nature of our environmental conditions, while the rise of digital technology has unmoored knowledge from its physical embodiment, bringing the common intellectual heritage of mankind to light. The tendency to see everything, every human relation and attribute, as marketable and sellable is undermined by the possibility of recognizing that the basis of experience, from the planet and the natural basis of existence to social habits, language, and knowledge as existing as common. Marx’s contradiction between the isolated individual and the most developed social relations manifests itself politically as the conflict between neoliberalism and the common.


Of the three philosophers collected here Spinoza seems to be the most unlikely. The letter of his works say nothing about work, and the spirit of his writing would seem to be attuned to contemplating God or nature sub specie aeternitatis without room for the historical contradictions of labor. While it is true that Spinoza does not offer anything like a specific contradiction between the ethical and economic dimension of work or its collective and individual aspect, he does, however, offer a way of thinking about the larger question underlying each of these contradictions—the relation between our individual and collective striving to preserve existence and the existing social order. As Weeks argues, one of the central antinomies of labor has to do the rationality and irrationality of labor, labor as the rational pursuit of one’s self-preservation and irrational preservation of a social order that may thwart self-preservation. 

At the center of Spinoza’s ontology is the idea that everything is defined by its particular striving, a striving, that in the case of humanity, is aligned with desire. This striving, what is called the conatus, has led some readers to see in Spinoza a conceptual precursor to contemporary neoliberalism. The conatus would explain the irreducible struggle for self-interest, defined in terms of pleasure or pain, which underlies every desire and action. However, much of the recent interest in Spinoza from such thinkers as Antonio Negri, Etienne Balibar, Frédéric Lordon, and Pascal Sévérac is in how his work articulates a concept of striving, of subjectivity, that is rigorously transindividual. In different ways they all argue that such a “neoliberal” reading overlooks the way in which Spinoza’s assertion of the striving underlying each thing, every existence, is profoundly modified, affected by, the multiplicity of relations that define and determine finite being. Striving is determined by the affects, by the increases and decreases of power to act perceived in terms of joy and sadness. These fundamental affects of joy and sadness are extended to include a more complex articulation of affects; joy becomes love when it is extended to an object that is perceived as its cause, while hatred is oriented towards the perceived cause of sadness. The affects become increasingly complex, which is to say increasingly relational or transindividual, as they encompass not only an object of love or hate, but the vicissitudes of this relation and relations to relations. As Spinoza argues, we love what others love, and hate that which seems to cause harm to the object of our love. Far from asserting the primacy of self-interested striving, Spinoza’s anthropology of human interaction asserts the fundamental relational aspect of all striving. Our striving is always determined as much as it is determining, but we are unaware of this. As Spinoza argues, “it is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it” (EIIIP9Schol). Our desire is always situated, always composed, in and through its capacity to be affected and relations with others. The complex circle of relations entails an increasing degree of ambivalence as the same object, the same person or thing, becomes both the object of love and hatred, hope and fear. These complex and ambivalent affects fundamentally orient the conatus, forming the basis of what we could call its affective composition.

If capitalism has as its defining characteristic the separation of workers from the means of production, then this separation radically alters the particular way in which we strive to acquire what we love and avoid what we hate. Frédéric Lordon argues that the fundamental transformation necessary to bring Spinoza’s affective composition into the present is the fundamental separation between striving, the labor that we undertake to preserve our being, and its object, the commodities that satisfy our needs and desires. This separation from the means of production is less a fundamental loss, as it is in accounts of alienation, than it is a fundamental transformation of activity. There is an indifference to the activity itself, the goals of the particular activity are stripped of their meaning, their particular orientations of good and bad, perfect and imperfect. As much as we might affectively attach ourselves to any particular job, any particular task, developing our potential and relations, becoming the cause of our joy this is secondary to the desire, and need, for money. There is thus an affective split at the core of the labor process, between the joy of the power in one’s own activity and the objects and accumulation that it makes possible. What I am calling the affective composition of labor is how, at a given moment in time, these two aspects are valued or devalued, how much joy is sought in the activity of labor itself, or how much is sought in terms of the accumulation it makes possible. This shift between activity and object is complicated, both cause and effect, of the changing relations of hope and fear in a given historical moment.

Lordon offers a sketch of this history of the affective composition of labor, framed in terms of the shift between Fordism and Post-Fordism. The first period, that of Fordism, is defined by its intersecting transformations of both the separation of activity from value and the affective investment of consumption. Labor is simplified and fragmented, stripped of the pleasures and mastery. This is the work of the assembly line. At the same time the sphere of consumption, the number and types of goods, is expanded. Ford’s famous “five dollar day” increased the spending power or consumers.The affective composition of Fordism could be described as a fundamental reorganization of conatus, of striving, away from labor, from activity, and towards consumption. As Stuart Ewen states, summarizing this transformation, “Scientific production promised to make the conventional notion of the self-reliant producer/consumer anachronistic.”The worker’s activity is fragmented, made part of a whole that exceeds it, becoming as much passivity as activity. The sadness of work, its exhaustion, is compensated for with the joys of consumption. This transformation from an affective investment in work to an affective investment in consumption could also be described as a shift from active joy, joy in one’s capacity to act, and the transformation of action, to passive joy. 

Pascal Sévérac has argued that passive joys, increases in one’s power that one is not the cause of, function as a fundamental barrier to becoming active. Sévérac thus fundamentally modifies a general picture of Spinoza’s affective politics. It is not a matter of a stark opposition between sadness and joy, passivity and activity, in which the task would simply be the switch from sadness to joy, from passivity to activity. As Sévérac argues, the idea of a passive joy, a joy that one is not the cause of, fundamentally transforms this stark opposition. All the various modes have their specific joys and loves, Spinoza is attentive to the particular pleasure of the drunk, and other passive joys, such as those of the infant or the gossip.Sadness is not a necessary component of passivity. This is not to say, however, that all joys are equal. There is still a fundamental inactivity, a pathology, to these passive joys, but they are nonetheless joys. Sévérac’s reading has two primary effects for an understanding for the affective composition of labor. First, it offers clarification for what is meant by activity, activity is not some some specific action, but it is not a generic norm of activity but a capacity to transform the very conditions of activity. Active joy is not a norm but the capacity to create new norms. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Sévérac argues that passive joys function as a barrier to becoming active. This argument is based on Spinoza’s understanding of the partial nature of passive joys. Spinoza argues that such joys can be excessive because of their attachment to one “part of the body which is affected more than the others” (EIVP44Schol). As Sévérac argues parts in this sense can include not just the body’s organs, such as those of taste or sexual pleasure, but also the impressions and memories, and their corresponding ideas. Just as passive joys focus on one part of the body, passive ideas are isolated from the common relations of ideas. Passivity is not necessarily a sadness, an alienation, than it is the fixation on idea or memory, even one that brings one joy, that is outside of one’s control. It is from this perspective that it is possible to think of not only the passivity at the heart of the fixation on money, an idea and passive joy, but the pleasures of consumption. These pleasures are not only passive, subject to the marketing and control of others, but are also partial, engaging this or that pleasure rather than the capacity to produce and transform the very possibility of becoming active.

The Fordist compromise can thus be distinguished from later, post-fordist, articulations of affects. Broadly speaking, these transformations can initially be described by a dismantling of the security and stability of work. The Fordist compromise carried with it a dimension of security and stability, brought about by collective bargaining and the centrality of the contract.Post-fordism, as it is defined by Lordon, is a first and foremost a transformation of the norms and structures that organize and structure action. As such it is fundamentally asymmetrical, worker’s are exposed to more and more risk, while capitalists, specifically those concerned with financial capital, are liberated from the classical risks of investment. This loss of security for the worker fundamentally changes the affective dimension of money. It is no longer an object of hope, the possible means of realizing one’s desires, even in terms of the passive joys of consumption, but becomes that which wards off fear. Money becomes part of the desire for security, the only possible security: one’s skills, one’s actions, will have no value in the future, but money always will. One could understand this shift from Fordism to Post-Fordism as a shift from a regime of hope (tinged with fear) to a regime of fear (tinged with hope). Spinoza argues that hope cannot be separated from fear or vice versa. Any idea of what we hope to happen cannot be se separated from the fear that it might not. It could be argued that precarity is best understood as an affective concept. It is less of a matter of some objective shift in the status of security than it is a shift in how work and security is perceived. 

If precarity can be used to adequately describe contemporary economic life it is less because everyone is working under some kind of temporary or part time contract, although these have become significant, than it is because of a constant sense of insecurity infuses every work situation. Precarity affects even stable employment through its technological transformation, it is always possible to be working or at least in touch with work, and a generalized anxiety infuses all of work, as the standard or measure of work is harder and harder to perceive. Productivity is no longer measure in terms of things produced, as it was for the Fordist worker, but in terms of value attached to services or the stock price of the corporation. Work is further abstracted, not just from its object, but from the activity itself as the activity loses any internal standard from which it can be judged. 

Despite, or perhaps because of this generalized anxiety, post-fordism is characterized by a new normative regime. While Fordism was characterized by a regime of consumption, the passive joys of consumption, that compensate for the loss of control over work, its sadness, post-fordism is characterized by an increased identification with work. The post-fordist ideals of flexible capitalism present the precarity and instability of work as ideals of risk and self-transformation. This norm is a shift of the affective tenor. There is an attempt to transform the fear of instability into the hope that the next job will be better and that the next social contact will produce an opportunity. The linear accumulation of Fordism, the simple acting of putting one’s time in and accumulating experience and seniority, is replaced by the ideal of constant self-invention. While it might be useful to talk of the shift from hope to fear in the affective economy of work, it is more accurate to say that hope and fear have been fragmented, no longer subject to the linear trajectory of a career but to constant revalorization of networking. This is not just a revalorization of labor, of labor’s potential, but a fundamental breakdown of the division between work and life that Fordism previously institutionalized. As much as this is a transformation of the affective composition of Fordism, shifting fear and hope, activity and passivity, breaking down the divisions of work and life, it continues and deepens the Fordist indifference, and abstraction, to the content of work, or one’s task. As Paolo Virno argues, to be professional is no longer to be engaged in a specific profession, rather it is a manner of being in the world, the complete dedication of all of one’s being to whatever task. The watchwords of the "new spirit of capitalism, "network, flexibility, professionalism, are indifferent to content, but demand a particular intensification of subjective commitment, one that identifies its striving with the general striving of the social order. 

Thus, to complete the set of contradictions at work, we could argue that the picture painted here by Spinoza, and neo-spinozists, addresses the contradictory relation between activity and passivity. Work is an activity, a fundamental striving, but it is an activity defined by a fundamental passivity, separated from its object and goals. There is a passivity in an activity in our work, in that we neither directly strive for what we desire, nor control the conditions of that striving. There is also passivity in consumption, despite the fact that historically consumption has been presented as the compensation for the loss of autonomy and activity in work. Consumption too is passive, not the sad passion, of the alienation of work, but the joyful passive affect. At the exact moment that we strive to improve our condition and realize our desires, we are confronted by the fact that we neither determine nor dictate the condition of our desires. 

In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus Spinoza states that the true political question is why men fight for their servitude as if it was salvation. The idea of the passivity internal to activity helps answer this question. We struggle for our servitude because we must struggle, strive to persevere, but we do so as we have been affected, by the limits of our imagination.


Presenting Hegel, Marx, and Spinoza in this manner certainly risks obscuring their specific historical differences, as well as the very real differences of their specific ontologies. I could say that such a presentation is justified by their shared development of what Etienne Balibar calls a transindividual account of such relations. Neither Hegel, Marx, or Spinoza, begins from the idea of the isolated and autonomous individual, but examine how individuals and collectives are constituted by their constitutive relations, of which work would be one. However, in this instance my goal has not been to explore the productive similarities and differences between Hegel, Marx, and Spinoza, but to locate in each a way of thinking about a particular contradiction or antinomy of labor, a particular way in which work crosses between ethics and economics, individual and collective, activity and passivity. The ultimate merit is not simply to suggest that work “is spoken of in many senses,” as ethical discipline and economic necessity, individual project and collective relation, active striving and passive subjection, but to see the political and economic vicissitudes that privilege one term, one aspect, over the others. The merit of these contradictions seems to be is that from them one can begin to construct a picture of the paradox that I started with, the increased imperative to “get a job” proposed as a solution to both economic collapse and austerity. This imperative can be understood as a particular way of privileging one side of the respect contradictions, focusing on economic discipline rather than economic necessity, individual service rather than collective relation, passive fear rather than active hope. 

We could argue that we are in the grips of a political imaginary that privileges the moral, individualistic, and passive dimension of labor. Work is seen as a moral responsibility, valued morally but not economically; an individual and competitive relation, rather than a collective project; and it is passive in that the ceaseless activity, the ceaseless striving, can never transform its conditions. We could then ask what would it mean, and how would it be possible, to shift the terms of the relation, valorizing work as an economic reality, rather than a moral discipline; as a collective endeavor, rather than an individual project; and as an activity that increases one’s capacity, rather than the strange passive activity of contemporary capitalism, where one acts constantly just to stay in place. Drawing from Hegel, Marx, and Spinoza, it would seem that this struggle is one of knowledge, or recognition, recognizing the collective dimension of labor—sifting through its ethical and individualizing justifications—and of affects, and imagination, turning not only from sadness to joy but from passivity to activity, escaping the passive activity that increasingly defines the contemporary work ethic.

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