I have submitted the (hopefully) final changes of the manuscript of my third book* to Verso. As an answer to the question, What is your book about? and as part of the labor of self-promotion that is required of all of us in the twenty-first century, even those published with radical presses, I am posting part of the introduction here:
Work is all around us. For most of us it is the basis of our economic life, in the form of wage labor, the condition of food, clothing, and shelter, not to mention all those other objects of desire. It is not limited to that purely economic function, however, defining our culture and society. The creation of jobs and the protection of jobs is the seemingly dominant political demand and function. Every politician regardless of party claims to be the one who can create jobs. Work expands from the economy to politics to be become central to social existence. To have a job, to contribute to society and pay taxes, is taken as fundamental to one’s standing in society as well as necessary condition for one’s own self-regard. To be unemployed, without work, or to engage in an activity that is not valued in terms of wage labor, is to be held in contempt and disregard. Work is at the center of economic, political, and ethical life.
Understanding and critically engaging with this situation means moving beyond the very concepts and schemas that define critical thought. Case in point: a more or less common conception of ideology takes its bearings from Marx’s figure of base and superstructure. The economy, which includes selling labor power is part of the base. Ideology is part of the superstructure which is defined by both its dependence on and separation from the economic base. As much as it functions in the service of the economy, reproducing the relations of production, it does so in and through its distance from the economy. Ideologies engage with morals, religion, and nation, and in doing so they necessarily reproduce the conditions through which workers return to work, but they do so without directly addressing the economy or the world of work. Ideology serves the economy, reproduces the relations of production, by eliding it or not addressing it at all. The corollary of this view of ideology is a view in which the economy, capitalism, is bereft of any meaning, any symbolism. It is as Marx described it, system in which all of the values and norms of culture and society are dissolved in the “icy waters of egotistical calculation.” The economic world is not only disenchanted, but without meaning, axiomatic in its function. These two ideas, the extra-economic nature of ideology and its corollary the meaninglessness of the economy, ideas which appear in an nascent form in Marx’s writing, have only continued to develop to become basic axioms of critical thought in the twentieth and twenty-first century. The economy has been presented as an iron cage, as functioning through axioms devoid of meaning and motivation, while ideology has subsumed all of culture. The division between ideology and economy has become as entrenched as that between mind and body; two separate systems functioning together because they are separate.
Understanding an ideology of work, work as playing a role politically and ethically disrupts this division, forcing one to grasp the way in which the economy, or more to the point, capitalism always already functions as an ideology. Work is not just part of some base, determining the superstructure from below, but entails its own ethical and political evaluation, which is to say its own ideology. As much as an idea of work as an ideology short circuits the division between base and superstructure it also solves a nagging problem of the very definition of ideology. In The German Ideology, Marx’s most sustained, but also partial and fragmented work on the concept Marx puts forward two theses about ideology. The first, contra the claims of the original ideologists, German Idealists, Marx argues that “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” This assertion of the practical and material basis of life is then put to the test by Marx’s definition of ideology which asserts that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” This raises the question that if life is determined by consciousness how do the ruling ideas ever become ruling ideas? How do people live a world dominated by ideas that do not correspond to their lives and their material conditions. Marx’s definition of ideology as the ideas of the ruling class was in some sense preemptively critically interrogated by Machiavelli who argued that the ruler must appear to be of the people, to share their values, norms, and ideals, most importantly their religion in order to rule. In other words, an ideology can only become dominant if it at least simulates the perspective of the ruled. The ideological function of work would perhaps resolve this tension between Marx and Machiavelli, offering a connection between the consciousness of the ruling class, predicated on the necessary extraction of value from work, and the life of the ruled class, predicated on the necessity of work as a way of making a living. The ideology of work connects experience, life, with consciousness, with the ruling ideas and ruling conditions.
As much as the ideology of work offers a redefinition and foundation of ideology, the contemporary politics of work necessarily also exceeds ideology as it has at least been conventionally understood. Work is not just a matter of ideas, or even practices, it necessarily encompasses an experience that exceed the terrain of ideas or even consciousness. Work is lived on a level that is affective as much intellectual. There is suffering, exhaustion, and humiliation in work, but there is also sense of accomplishment, pride, and even an attachment to the trials, tribulations, and difficulty of labor as they become sources of pride. Work has become such a powerful lynchpin of ideology precisely because of the way in which it organizes and is organized by the most immediate and thus seemingly natural aspects of human existence, suffering and striving, needs and desires, so much so that it appears to be less a practice and an institution than a fact of life. These affective dimensions underlie and exceed the more conscious thoughts and ideas surrounding work. At the same time that work is lived at a level that passes below an explicitly formulated ideology, experienced intimately as a it is also elevated to a level that exceeds ideology to become almost mythic. As much as Prometheus was a figure of work, of the transformation of nature by work, work is our generalized Prometheus, in that there is no problem, personal or political that cannot be solved by work, by working harder. Work has become the answer to every problem, the solution to everything, not just one’s economic status, but one’s relationships, self, and so on. In a society that increasingly eschews politics, or collective action, as a way of remedying or transforming life, work is that last remaining activity of transformation left to us. This is work stripped of any collectivity, any solidarity, to become a sheer test of individual will and intention.
Spinoza and Marx
Work is the central problem, the object of this book. It defines the problem, but not the method. The method, or philosophical orientation, is framed in the intersection of Marx and Spinoza. That Marx would be a point of reference for a study of work goes without saying, or should go without saying. Spinoza remains a question, as does the intersection of Spinoza and Marx. A few words about this intersection of Marx and Spinoza would perhaps be necessary at the outset. What is perhaps most challenging about thinking the relation of Marx and Spinoza is that it exceeds the two dominant models for thinking about the relation between two philosophers, influence and argument. While it is true that Marx studied Spinoza and copied passages from Spinoza’s writing, specifically the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus into his notebooks the intersections between their thought exceed the few points of reference found in the latter. Nor can the relation between Spinoza and Marx be a relation of opposition or argument, in which Marx can be understood as an argument with or negation of Spinoza. Not only do they not directly respond to each other, but their objects of investigation and modes of inquiry are two different to allow for a direct comparison. The relation between Marx and Spinoza has to be invented, not invented ex nihilo, but from points of contiguity and connection of seemingly different and disparate philosophical texts, contexts, and practices. These points of connect are not found in a direct relation of influence or opposition, but in the way in which the points of contact of their thought opens up new concepts and articulates the basis for a new reading of both Marx and Spinoza.
There are multiple attempts to articulate the virtual, or possible relations between Spinoza and Marx. For the purpose of this project the relations that are explored deal with the intersection between work, ideology, and politics. Each of these points can be considered as both points of intersection and provocation, points where Spinoza and Marx overlap on some fundamental point or orientation, but also where the relation between the two opens up a way of thinking that cannot be reduced to one or the other. Both Spinoza and Marx put practical activity, work, at the basis of human existence and consciousness, there is a striving and an acting that is prior to, and the condition of thought and reflection. As much as this practical orientation grounds and determines thought it does so in a way that is condition for mystification and distortion as much as knowledge and understanding. How we perceive the world, rightly or wrongly, is a product of the way that we are determined to act in it. For both Marx and Spinoza ideology (or the imagination) is the original form of consciousness (or as Etienne Balibar suggests, Conscientia sive Ideologica), the most immediate form of knowledge, our awareness of our desires and our individual thoughts is ideological in that it occludes the causal conditions of our desires and thoughts. Of course ideology is a woefully underdeveloped concept in Marx, emerging briefly in the manuscript on The German Ideology only to be abandoned, at least in name, and gnawed away at by so many different theorists. What Spinoza offers is an insistence on the material nature of ideology in terms of its causal conditions and effects, and most importantly, its embodiment in imagination and affects. Such a development is not without its precedence in Marx, but is more fully articulated in Spinoza, and is more necessary in thinking the ideological which cannot be separated from the embodied nature of work, as something that entails pain and pleasure, fear and desires.
The relation between the social order, in terms of production and reproduction, and individual life is a relation of immanence rather than expression or linear causal determination: they are two different ways of expressing the same thing, the same relation. This statement cuts two ways, first individual existence is nothing other than an effect of a the social order—it is thoroughly social through and through, this could be considered the Marxist emphasis. Second, social relations can only exist, can only perpetuate themselves, if they are intimately lived at the level of imagination, affects, and desires, this can be considered the Spinozist dimension. To read Marx with Spinoza is to read both of these moments into each other, to see the individual and the social as two sides of the same coin. This shapes and alters how we think about politics as much as social relations: or more to the points, politics cannot be thought of as practice independent from making, or an event that ruptures with the coordinates of day to day life, politics is shaped by social relations. Thus, to briefly sum up what will be developed in the rest of the book, the central terrain of intersection between Marx and Spinoza is immanence: immanence examined in terms of the immanence of economics to politics (which is also politics to economics); ideology to bodies (which is also bodies to ideology), and praxis to poiesis (which is also poiesis to praxis). These are three different double shifts that constitute the method and theoretical orientation of this book.
The Double Shift
What follows examines work by three “double shifts.” Three ways in which practices, concepts, and problems do double work, shifting from one aspect of reality to another. The first is that of the economic and the political. To some extent this the question of any engagement with Marx, a question to which the figure of the base and superstructure is the most immediate and common response. In what follows I take a different provocation as a starting point, one based on a less well known passage from Marx. In Capital, Volume III Marx writes,
The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant. It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of production to the immediate producers—a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds always to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power—in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of the state in each case.
This passage (which forms the basis for the reading of Marx in Chapter One) puts forward a different reading of the intersection of the economy and politics than the more familiar topography of base and superstructure. It differs on two fundamental points. First, it stresses the immediate identity of economics and politics, the economic relationship directly determines the political rather than a series of mediations. Second, and no less important, the economic in this sense is not ownership of the means of production or the demand to extract surplus value, but the labor relation. The connection is between work and politics, between the relations of hierarchy, cooperation, and domination in the labor process and the relations that constitutes the state. In part this political dimension is found in the dual nature of the labor process, which is, as Marx argued both concrete labor, a specific task or function, and abstract labor, an interchangeable activity. The two sides of the labor process, concrete specificity and generic indeterminacy, shape and determine the fundamental political problem of hierarchy and equality. If such a determination seems too rigid, deterministic, and mechanical that is perhaps because it is necessary to examine its “innermost secret,” the specific relation that constitutes the intersection of the economy and politics. The labor process directly acts on the political edifice because it acts on and shapes not just the production of commodities and wealth, but also much of people’s understanding of themselves and the world. In other words, it produces subjectivity as much as commodities.
In Chapter Two I argue that the double shift of the economic into the political (and vice versa) has as its corollary the double shift of the material into the mental (and vice versa). The way in which material relations shape ways of thinking and ways of thinking act on material relations. This is another point in which Marx and Spinoza intersect and transform each other. It is not just a matter of Spinoza’s assertion that things and ideas, mind and body, were two different ways of looking at the same thing but two different ways that have to be understood in terms of their identity and non-identity. Spinoza’s reflections on the identity and non-identity of mind and body, habits and the imagination, make it possible to theorize the way in which ideology directly emerges from material relations as well as the way in which ideology also distorts and deviates from its material conditions. Work is situated at the intersection of both of these tendencies: the ideology of work is at once a direct reflection of material conditions, as a material imperative is transformed into an ethical ideal, and a distortion, as this the ideal of a well-rewarded work ethic increasingly deviates from a reality of increasingly demanding but poorly compensated jobs. Ideas and ideologies of work cling to lived reality and deviate from it, and it is precisely this tendency to reflect and distort that reproduces our individual and collective attachment to work.
These two double shifts, from the economic to the political and from the material to the mental, ultimately lead to a third double shift, in which action, the way we comport ourselves in the world, relating to others, shapes and determines production and production, the material conditions of work, shapes and determines action. Or, if one prefers the more classical terminology of praxis determines poiesis and poiesis determines praxis. This double shift in some sense is the culmination of the other two, of the double shift of economics into politics, and the material and the mental, since the myths and ideologies that shape work are situated at the point of intersection of action, informing and shaping politics, and production, following the transformations of the labor process. This double shift of production onto action and action unto production means that all action, even the seemingly mundane task of going to work each day, is strategic, is an attempt to realize particular goals, but all such strategies are necessarily determined by not just the material conditions that shape their conditions but also the larger ideological and cultural relations that shape and determine how and what people can imagine. Understanding work, wage labor, as a strategy, entails understanding its material and ideological conditions, conditions that expand beyond the immediacy of the labor relation to the general cultural views and attitudes with respect to work.
These three double shifts, economics to politics, material to mental, production to action, form the basis of a philosophical orientation that is put to work and illustrated by examinations of popular culture and politics, or more to the point, where popular culture and politics intersect in the popular imagination. As much as popular culture is in many ways the escape from the world of work and its concerns, constituting a distraction, it is shackled to its opposite, especially in the way in which it engages with the ideological and mythic dimensions of work. In Chapter One I examine two films from the late nineties Office Space and Fight Club, that reflected a profound anxiety about the dominant regimes of office work and the emergent regimes of service work and emotional labor. These anxieties demonstrate that work, wage labor, is as much a matter of the production and reproduction of subjectivity, of identity and a sense of self, as it is as about the production of things or wealth. This leads to the second examination of popular culture in Chapter Two, an investigation into the television shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I argue that the popularity of these shows stem from the way in which they refract and engage with fantasies and fears about work. Most importantly they reveal to what extent ideas about the mastery of one’s work and self-mastery constitute modern strategies for not only making a living but the good life. For all of their melodrama of drug dealers and corrupt lawyers, the two shows stage and in some sense subvert the dominant mythology of our society, that being good at one’s job can transform one’s fate and lot in life. In Chapter Three I examine Compliance and The Assistant, which show how work compels people to identify with their own subjection. These films demonstrate the extent to which people adapt to and adopt their material constraints, identifying with the very conditions that determine them. Popular culture constitutes a feedback loop of existing ideologies and attachments to work, reflecting them and intensifying them. In order to develop this relationship between popular culture and work, I turn to Yves Citton’s concept of “mythocracy,” a concept that articulates the way in which the ruling ideas maintain themselves as ruling ideas by rearticulated the fears and hopes of the ruled. It is in popular culture that we can see both the domination of work over the popular imagination, but also the moments of imagining and feeling that cannot be captured by the demands of wage labor.
The examinations into popular culture pave the way into a larger examination into the predominant ideological orientation of the current moment, what I call, borrowing a term, “negative solidarity.” Negative solidarity is not just an inversion of solidarity, a focus on the individual rather than the collective, but one in which any collectivity, any connection between one individuals struggles and an others are actively refused. Negative solidarity is a transformation of one’s own particular destitution into a virtue. A virtue that is founded upon an attachment to the trials and tribulations of work. It is the belief that because one has suffered through work, or believe that they have suffered, than others should too. Any attempt to improve one’s conditions is seen as a betrayal of the validity of one’s suffering. This solidarity is negative in the sense that the only way it operates is downward, reducing everyone to the most disadvantaged position. However, this negative solidarity is still solidarity, albeit a thin one, in that it makes work, especially the difficulty of work, the basis of recognition and social belonging. A critique of negative solidarity is matter of not only understanding the way in which this solidarity is in some sense the spontaneous ideology of work itself. Spinoza famously asked the question as to why people fight for their servitude as if was salvation; I argue that the answer to such question can be found in the way in which people increasingly identify with work, seeing it as the key to their sense of self-worth and a better life, to their salvation, and not as the basis of their subjection, of their continued subordination to work.
Finally, the book ends with a brief provocation in what it would take to develop a politics and an imaginary that would change work. To this end the film Sorry to Bother You is briefly examined as a rearticulation of imagination, oriented towards solidarity: affect, that makes the difficulty of work the basis of refusal not a point of pride; and concept, articulating the reality of exploitation. The concluding chapter also makes the point that work must be contested at the level of affects and imagination, as well as at the level of understanding and concept. This is necessary because work, being a worker, structures not just our economic life but also our imagination and sense of who we are and what is possible. In place of the negative solidarity of work, which makes our individual trials and tribulations a point of pride it is necessary to construct a rebellions solidarity, that recognizes work as our subjection and collective action as our liberation against a negative solidarity that presents the individual work ethic as salvation and collective action as the basis of subjection.
*= since this is all about self promotion. I have a book of essays and articles, some previously published some not, forthcoming from Historical Materialism that will be out before this. More about that later.