Foucault, Arendt, Human Capital, and Consumption.

I want to pick up where last week’s post left off, because there were a few more titbits from Birth of Biopolitics that will have bearing on what I’m trying to do.

After he makes the claim that Marx’s theory of labour power rendered the worker inert, Foucault moves on to talk about the idea of ‘human capital’. This, he argues, is a radical intervention that completely re-writes the idea of the worker in economics:

“Here, the American neo-liberals refer to the old definition, which goes right back to the start of the twentieth century, of Irving Fisher, who said: What is an income? How can we define an income? An income is quite simply the product or return on a capital. Conversely, we will call “capital” everything that in one way or another can be a source of future income. Consequently, if we accept on this basis that the wage is an income, then the wage is therefore the income of a capital. Now what is the capital of which the wage is the income? Well, it is the set of all those physical and psychological factors which make someone able to earn this or that wage, so that, seen from the side of the worker, labor is not a commodity reduced by abstraction to labor power and the time [during] which it is used. Broken down in economic terms, from the worker’s point of view labor comprises a capital, that is to say, it as an ability, a skill; as they say: it is a ‘machine’.” (BoB, 223-4)

Int his way a ‘worker’ – as a subject-position – is constituted by the sum total of their life experiences, education, skills, hobbies, preferences, etc. Except by applying this notion of capital to the worker, these aspects of bios or ‘life itself’ are reframed as capital. Like a business purchasing plant from seed funding, the worker capitalises themselves. But hobbies or life experiences are useful to the worker only inasmuch as they are attractive to their employer (the worker is constituted through their employment), so they must be re-presented. It is by representing those aspects of subjectivity as capital that the worker becomes a worker. This is why our resumes are different to our social media profiles, or why there are some subjects that are taboo in the workplace. This is, in part, what Fleming was getting at with his idea of ‘biocracy’.

Or, as Foucault puts it: “This is not a conception of labor power; it is a conception of capital-ability which, according to diverse variables, receives a certain income that is a wage, an income-wage, so that the worker himself appears as a sort of enterprise for himself” (BoB, 225).

Or, a page later: “In neo-liberalism—and it does not hide this; it proclaims it—there is also a theory of homo oeconomicus, but he is not at all a partner of exchange. Homo oeconomicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself. … being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings” (BoB, 226).

The entrepreneurial subject – this is Foucault’s most interesting intervention into the conversation about work in the neoliberal present. It’s also an idea picked up and re-framed slightly by Dardot and Laval. They argue that neoliberal subjectivity (not just the subject-position of ‘worker’) “involves generating a relationship of the individual subject to him- or herself that is homologous to the relationship of capital to itself: very precisely, a relationship of the subject to him- or herself as ‘human capital’ to be indefinitely increased” (New Way of the World, 15). Though they don’t cite Foucault particularly often, their influences are clear. They have a bit more to sa about an ‘accountable subject’ that I’m quite interested in, but haven’t digested yet (I put New Way of the World down last September and moved on to more interesting works), so stay tuned.

The Labour Market

Finally, Foucault makes a few comments that could act as points of interface with Arendt. Talking more about Homo oeconomicus, Foucault says: “this homo oeconomicus, partner of exchange, entails, of course, an analysis in terms of utility of what he is himself, a breakdown of his behavior and ways of doing things, which refer, of course, to a problematic of needs, since on the basis of these needs it will be possible to describe or define … a utility which leads to the process of exchange” (BoB, 225, italics added).

In a neat echo of this idea, Arendt describes “earning and spending power” as “modifications of the twofold metabolism of the human body” (HC, 124). As I’ve pointed out before, for Arendt, necessity is the foundation and context of the human condition; a term borrowed from Marx and understood the be the motive for labour. Without needs, Arendt argues, we would be a different sort of human altogether.

What Foucault is saying here is that necessity leads to exchange. This is the heart of neoliberalism, which diverges from classical liberalism by virtue of its emphasis on competition rather than lassiez-faire. This exchange takes place within a competitive market that is deliberately fostered by the neoliberal state. For Foucault, competition is not a natural occurrence. It is a fragile and delicate thing that is easily upset. It is

“…absolutely not a given of nature. The game, mechanisms, and effects of competition which we identify and enhance are not at all natural phenomena; competition is not the result of a natural interplay of appetites, instincts, behavior, and so on. In reality, the effects of competition are due only to the essence that characterizes and constitutes it. The beneficial effects of competition are not due to a pre-existing nature, to a natural given that it brings with it. They are due to a formal privilege. Competition is an essence. Competition is an eidos. Competition is a principle of formalization. Competition has an internal logic; it has its own structure. Its effects are only produced if this logic is respected. It is, as it were, a formal game between inequalities; it is not a natural game between individuals and behaviors. … This means that pure competition is not a primitive given. It can only be the result of lengthy efforts and, in truth, pure competition is never attained. Pure competition must and can only be an objective, an objective thus presupposing an indefinitely active policy. Competition is therefore an historical objective of governmental art and not a natural given that must be respected.” (BoB, 120)

Or, as Friedman himself put it in 1951:

“Neo-liberalism would accept the nineteenth century liberal emphasis on the fundamental importance of the individual, but it would substitute for the nineteenth century goal of laissez-faire as a means to this end, the goal of the competitive order. It would seek to use competition among producers to protect consumers from exploitation, competition among employers to protect workers and owners of property, and competition among consumers to protect the enterprises themselves. The state would police the system, establish conditions favorable to competition and prevent monopoly, provide a stable monetary framework, and relieve acute misery and distress. The citizens would be protected against the state by the existence of a free private market; and against one another by the preservation of competition.”

So Arendt’s Labourer, who must fend off the growth and decay of man’s metabolism with nature, is transformed in Foucault into a subject who is led by necessity to truck their own human capital in a competitive market. That market is designed, built, and maintained by the State as its highest and most inviolable priority.

Consumer Society

For Arendt, the rise of a consumer’s society – which seem to be an unqualified evil for her – was due to the feedback loop of instrumentality brought about by mass production and behaviourism. I’ve dealt with this in previous posts and won’t repeat it here as this post is already too full of blockquotes. But Foucault has an answer of sorts to Arendt’s despair:

“… in Gary Becker there is a very interesting theory of consumption, in which he says: We should not think at all that consumption simply consists in being someone in a process of exchange who buys and makes a monetary exchange in order to obtain some products. The man of consumption is not one of the terms of exchange. The man of consumption, insofar as he consumes, is a producer. What does he produce? Well, quite simply, he produces his own satisfaction.” (BoB, 226)

Arendt struggled with the notion of consumption, seeing it as something that dissolved the boundaries between the human world that strove for permanence and the natural world that offered only transience and mortality. To treat objects that were once considered permanent – like cars and whitegoods – as disposable was to lose the future and the past, it was to lose access to the highest reaches of the human condition, which were art, politics, and contemplation. Foucault, ever the critic, gives very little away in terms of his feelings about neoliberalism, and he refuses the category ‘human’ altogether – it’s too schematic to satisfy him. I have no answers yet.


Header image stolen from here.


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