Foucault on Work

So, after my last post, I’ve been given the green light to keep publishing on the blog. It was all a bit of a formality in the end, but given how much synergy there is between the day to day of my job and the stuff I’ve been reading on Governmentality, it was a worthwhile process. So, back to the blog.

I haven’t been idle, I just haven’t been writing. Under radio silence, I’ve been slowly working my way through the second and third of Foucault’s lecture series on Governmentality. He gave these lectures between 1975 and 1979, and they’ve been published as ‘Society Must Be Defended’ (2003), Security Territory, Population (2004), and The Birth of Biopolitics (2004). I’ve read all of the second one, and most of the third one.

Before the hiatus, I’d fallen into the trap of trying to write for two audiences at once: myself, and Medium. After I had a few successful pieces on Medium, I was a bit entranced by the idea that I should keep writing like that – in small, discrete pieces that were attempting to capture a wide audience and a bunch of ‘claps’ (Medium’s method for apportioning payments to its authors). The problem was, it meant I was disregarding the original point of the blog, which was writing ‘to think’, no ‘to communicate’. The whole point was to write in a way that was rambling, thorny, and occasionally incoherent – to think through the ideas I was grappling with. Instead, I found myself trying to explain them to strangers despite not really understanding them myself.

So I’m going to go back to the drawing board, and start using this as a research blog again. The posts may or may not be interesting to people other than me – the point is to document my thought processes, play with the ideas I’m finding, see how they work, and how I can use them.

So: to Foucault. On Sunday I finally got up to the bit in Birth of Biopolitics where he talks about work. The lectures are about the epistemological development of neoliberalism as a system of thought and technology of power, so Foucault was lecturing on the 1920s to the 1970s – his own contemporary moment.

The lecture that interests me – number nine, delivered on the 14th of March, 1979, is dealing with what Foucault calls American ‘anarcho-capitalism’ and the ways it blended with German Ordoliberalism in the middle 20th century to produce a way of thinking about economics that we are now intimately familiar with.

In lecture six, Foucault outlined the Ordoliberal idea that the only way to prevent totalitarian states was through a liberal state that was self-limiting. He argues that the radical departure they made was to invert the relationship between the economy and the state. Where in 19th century Govermentality, a lassiez-faire state could act to form a market and an economy, in post-war German liberal thought, a properly liberal state would be formed through the regulatory mechanisms of the economy itself. The economy isn’t a thing that is regulated, it is a thing that regulates. This is an inversion of previous ways of thinking about the state and the economy.

He explains:

“They can say: You can see that there is no need to intervene directly in the economic process, since the economic process, as the bearer in itself of a regulatory structure in the form of competition, will never go wrong if it is allowed to function fully” (BoB, 137)

For this reason,

“[N]eo-liberal governmental intervention is no less dense, frequent, active, and continuous than in any other system. … Since this is a liberal regime, it is understood that government must not intervene on effects of the market. Nor must neo-liberalism, or neo-liberal government, correct the destructive effects of the market on society … Basically, it has to intervene on society so that competitive mechanisms can play a regulatory role at every moment and every point in society and by intervening in this way its objective will become possible, that is to say, a general regulation of society by the market.” (BoB, 145)

In lecture nine, he turns to the idea of work as economic conduct. For Foucault, the post-structuralist, one of the radical epistemological interventions made by neoliberalism is to unseat Marxist conceptions of labour. He begins this analysis with the surprising claim that, Marx notwithstanding, “classical political economy has never analyzed labor itself, or rather it has constantly striven to neutralize it, and to do this by reducing it exclusively to the factor of time.” (BoB, 220).

He goes on to argue that Marxist notions of labour rendered workers inert. Rather than being active participants in the economic processes that governed their lives, they were reduced to units of time:

“the concrete labor transformed into labor power, measured by time, put on the market and paid by wages, is not concrete labor; it is labor that has been cut off from its human reality, from all its qualitative variables, and precisely—this is indeed, in fact, what Marx shows—the logic of capital reduces labor to labor power and time. It makes it a commodity and reduces it to the effects of value produced.” (BoB, 221)

Foucault distances himself from Marx by arguing that Capitalism is not an ahistorical structure that has a single, unifying logic, but that there are many logics of capital: the one Marx outlined was one, another underpinned classical economics.

Here are the stakes, according to Foucault:

 “to bring labor into the field of economic analysis, we must put ourselves in the position of the person who works; we will have to study work as economic conduct practiced, implemented, rationalized, and calculated by the person who works. What does working mean for the person who works? What system of choice and rationality does the activity of work conform to? As a result, on the basis of this grid which projects a principle of strategic rationality on the activity of work, we will be able to see in what respects and how the qualitative differences of work may have an economic type of effect. So we adopt the point of view of the worker and, for the first time, ensure that the worker is not present in the economic analysis as an object—the object of supply and demand in the form of labor power—but as an active economic subject.” (BoB, 223, italics added)

I’d like to pull out a couple of important phrases here. Firstly, note that Foucault refers to “work as economic conduct”. That word – conduct – is important, because in his lectures on Governmentality, and in the work that other scholars have done to develop it since his death, Governmentality is often thought of as “the conduct of conduct”. It’s essential, however, to avoid thinking of governmentality as the state telling people how to behave. That is why he poses the question: “What system of choice and rationality does the activity of work conform to?” It’s not people with power, it’s the power of a system of thought, a system of practice, a system of choice and rationality.

This is how I want to approach the notion of work – as an evolving system of thought or technology of power, with its own logic, within which and through which we all conduct our lives. It’s historically contingent, entangled with modernity, and advancing in iterative and citative leaps, with occasional moments of rupture. It’s the stories we tell and the ways we think about the economy and work that matter, not the economy and work themselves.


Header image is a sceencap of the best tweet about Foucault.



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