Discipline and Governance in the Neoliberal Workplace

My boss recently told me that in order to do my job I’d need to take work home with me. This is not the first time this has happened, but this time was different. I work in sales, and what my boss was trying to tell me was that to generate leads I needed to look in unlikely places. For this reason, I ought to remain open to opportunities I encountered outside of work. In this case it not only meant probing my social network – my friends and family – for the possibility of a sale, but also restructuring my social time so that I would always be on the lookout for opportunities relating to work. It’s good advice – if all you want to do is sell things. But he couldn’t see that this meant redeploying resources to my work that I usually used for myself, to recharge and to live.

This careful bending of social skills towards profit margins seems pretty usual for the contemporary office workforce. A mentor I’ve been getting coaching from is trying to tweak the way I have conversations at a sentence-structure level, instructing me to ask questions, ask for advice, and let the prospect be the expert in the room. In my annual performance review my boss decided to give me tactical advice on how to have conversations with my co-workers, and provided a sort of rotating roster of targets for informal coffees. These aren’t even customers or leads – they were other people in my office. Potential ‘internal stakeholders’.  He was essentially advising that I carefully choose my work friends because of the authority they wield in the organisation, rather than because they nourish me, and dare I say it, help me cope with the fact I am at work in a job that’s a poor fit.

Even though I am grateful for both a regular paycheck and development opportunities, the instrumentality of this advice has been shocking to my academic sensibilities. These tactics are just powerplays with profit as their aim. The tactical deployment of questions, coffee, and loved ones to make money for someone else is about as far from my values as possible. These acts of joy and sociality are part of what theorists have started to describe as ‘life itself’, a phrase which denotes the sort of web of intersubjective relations and other ephemeral cultural stuff that isn’t the state or the market. There are plenty of theorists who have been arguing – and perhaps warning us – for decades that the knowledge economy could only thrive on the exploitation of life itself, and that this might have consequences for work and workers.

Biocracy and governance

Peter Fleming calls this attempt to exploit workers’ “living labour,” or their lives outside of work, ‘biocracy’. He describes it like this:

“Many firms appear to be realizing that productive labor might just as easily occur outside office hours as during them. I argue that this is suggestive of a new form of power at work, one that aims to enlist social qualities that normally lie beyond the reach of corporate rationality. This is not to say that conventional management controls, such as bureaucracy or technocracy, have been supplanted. On the contrary. They have been augmented by what may be called biocracy, whereby bios or life itself becomes an essential human resource to be exploited.” (Resisting Work, 26)

‘Biocracy’ owes much to the work of Michel Foucault on governmentality, which he developed over three lecture series in the late 1970s and has become an influential concept in contemporary critical theory. Foucault was a historian, so his argument is about change over time. He argues that from the 16th to the 18th centuries, new techniques of analysis emerged – new ways of seeing the world – that worked to construct ‘the population’ as an idea, and to provide tools for governing it. Chief amongst these tools of analysis was statistics – a word that shares a word root with ‘state’, because it originated as a practise of government.

Foucault begins the second of those lecture series, titled Security, Territory, Population, by identifying the idea of the ‘milieu’, which is the contextual reality of the object of governance. The town, the state, or the workplace. The milieu is “a set of natural givens—rivers, marshes, hills—and a set of artificial givens— an agglomeration of individuals, of houses, etcetera. The milieu is a certain number of combined, overall effects bearing on all who live in it. It is an element in which a circular link is produced between effects and causes, since an effect from one point of view will be a cause from another” (STP, 21). The large-scale capture of data – statistics – is key to creating a working picture of this milieu, and planning interventions in such a way as to cancel out the unwanted consequences of circulation within it.

Foucault outlines overarching assemblages of power relations that act on people that matter for this discussion: discipline and security. Discipline – the topic of most of Foucault’s other work – is about the surveillance and correction, and acts on individuals in an attempt to shape their behaviours and thoughts, to transform them. Security – which selectively uses and sometimes builds on techniques of discipline, but is also underpinned by a statistical understanding of the milieu – is about “allowing circulations to take place, of controlling them, sifting the good and the bad, ensuring that things are always in movement, constantly moving around, continually going from one point to another, but in such a way that the inherent dangers of this circulation are cancelled out” (STP, 64-5).

The point of governing rather than policing is that you don’t discipline and punish – you shape the milieu so” that the behaviours you don’t want to see nullify themselves. In Foucault’s lectures, the object of this governance is the population, or large numbers of people in aggregate. In Fleming’s, it’s the workforce, or workers in aggregate. By shaping the milieu, you also shape the behaviours of the people in it.

Shaping the workplace, shaping the workforce

The notion of the norm is central to the operation of statistics, and thus the governance of populations. Discipline and security have different relationships to norms. Foucault argues that “disciplinary normalization consists in trying to get people, movements, and actions to conform to this model, the normal being precisely that which can conform to this norm, and the abnormal that which is incapable of conforming to the norm.” (STP, 57) When attempting to shape the behaviour of large numbers of people, there is instead “a plotting of the normal and the abnormal, of different curves of normality”. Security thus “starts from the normal and makes use of certain distributions considered to be, if you like, more normal than the others, or at any rate more favorable than the others. These distributions will serve as the norm.” (STP, 63) Unlike in disciplinary regimes, where individual people are shaped to the norm, in security regimes the norm is the product of large groups of people. What Foucault is describing is the birth of the bell curve.

Thirty years earlier, observing the postwar world, Hannah Arendt also became concerned with what she termed ‘conformism and behaviourism’. For her, modernity was defined by the systematic analyses of human behaviour, but such bureaucratic rationality also helped to create the conditions for some of the twentieth century’s worst excesses. For Arendt, the birth of economics “coincided with the rise of society” – which broadly covers the same period Foucault is analysing – “and which, together with its chief technical tool, statistics, became the social science par excellence.” For economics to function, it was necessary that people “unanimously followed certain patterns of behavior, so that those who did not keep the rules could be considered to be asocial or abnormal” (HC, 41-2). As Foucault argued, “the normal comes first and the norm is deduced from it, or the norm is fixed and plays its operational role on the basis of this study of normalities”. (STP, 63)

Consider the norm of homo economicus, which emerges from the large-scale aggregation of economic data and informs macroeconomic practise. The notion that people in the market are always rational and always self-interested forms the basis of the careful management of the economic milieu through manipulation of monetary controls like the cash rate.

But consider also Daniel Pink’s work on motivation, which argues that in the knowledge economy, autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the keys to unlocking human activity towards a goal. Pink’s goal is admirable- he’s trying to find a way out of the drudgery of work – but the end product is yet another set of security techniques that can be bent towards the shaping of workers’ lives. It’s textbook Foucauldian governmentality – it depends on the statistical studies of population (psychology), and it advocates re-shaping the milieu (employee-employer relations) to make the unwanted behaviour (worker disengagement) self-nullify.

In this video, he talks about “getting out of the worker’s way” to enable them to work harder for their employer. But it’s important to recognise that the aim here isn’t actually worker happiness – it’s productivity. The result of manipulating the relations that make up work to move work itself ‘out of the worker’s way’ is a dissolution between the boundaries between work and life itself. What Pink is trying to help employers capture is what Fleming calls ‘living labour’ and Illich calls ‘vernacular work’ – it’s the passion and drive that urges you to learn an instrument or master a hobby precisely because it’s not worth any money. As Tim Wu has argued, perhaps there needs to be space kept aside for mediocrity, and the things that we love doing might need to be left off the market to continue to bring us pleasure.

Nullifying Private Lives

The shift from disciplinary management to governance in the workplace has meant changes for how workers experience work. According to Fleming, under a disciplinary regime, “Employees tended to feign enthusiasm and cynically distance their authentic feelings from the firm.” When approached as an object of security or governance, however, the workplace is shaped in such a way as to cancel out this worker cynicism:

“workers no longer screen or defer the personal side of themselves as they may have done in a strong cultural setting. Companies in the service sector, education, IT, and many other industries now demand natural social performances in order to get the job done well. They want to see the buzz of life in the office, often indicative of a world beyond the workplace, and utilize social indicators that workers carry with them all of the time.” (RW, 86)

Fleming gives the example of JB Hi-Fi allowing staff to dress as they want, because customers will interpret them as expert interpreters of youth culture and thus buy more products. They consume the worker’s sociality along with the products in the store. The ‘Shadow Work’ that the employees do in choosing clothes and outfits is directly monetised by their employer.

This is nothing but the capitalist exploitation of life itself. Ivan Illich talks about the history of wage labour as “progressive forms of enclosures” (104), using the notion of the enclosure of the commons as a metaphor for the progressive movement of all worker activity away from subsistence activities and towards the market. In those terms, the application of governmental techniques to the workforce is nothing less than the enclosure of private life.

Fleming gives the example of a software developer who regularly dreamed about his job:

“Rob Lucas’s autobiographical essay “Dreaming in Code” exemplifies this inessential but ritualistic element of biopower. The computer programmer describes a life so integrated with his job that sleep is even a place of labor, dreaming up solutions to problematic code conundrums in the middle of the night. He writes, ‘Dreaming about your work is one thing, but dreaming inside the logic of your work is another. . . . [I]n the kind of dream I have been having the very movement of my mind is transformed: it has become that of my job. This is unnerving’.” (RW, 34-5)

Fleming interprets this as “presence bleed,” where “the job is no longer a concrete task that can be delineated in time and space, and then forgotten once the workday is over. It is now somehow inscribed inside and between us as an inexorable pressure to produce.” (9) This might be the best way to manage a population towards productivity in aggregate, but for individuals, this is not a sustainable or survivable trend.

Deadly, Sterile Passivity

Arendt is clear on the consequences of relying on statistics:  “The application of the law of large numbers and long periods to politics or history signifies nothing less than the wilful obliteration of their very subject matter, and it is a hopeless enterprise to search for meaning in politics or significance in history when everything that is not everyday behaviour or automatic trends has been ruled out as immaterial.” (HC, 42-3) Statistics normalise, they flatten, they deaden the vibrancy of life itself. Combined with disciplinary regimes, they also police difference, punish it, stamp it out. Discipline and governmentality in the neoliberal workplace make life less liveable.

She closes with this thought:

The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society. It is quite conceivable that the modern age—which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity—may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known. (HC, 322)

I’m coming around to Srnicek and Williams’ argument in Inventing the Future, which is that we need to act collectively to reduce the stranglehold work has on our lives; to collectively demand a world that spreads its resources more equitably and makes it possible for our lives to be more liveable. It’s also a way to save and safeguard pleasure, to reduce anxiety and work-related illness, to reduce consumption, and to reduce the burden of the economy on the environment. So I say, just say no. Say no to the five day week. Say no to the colonisation of your pleasure and sociality. Say no to work.

It won’t be easy. It might not even be possible for people with commitments and dependents. But for those of us who can manage it, will be worth it, and by refusing to sell life itself to your employer, you might help others escape too.

Header Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash


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