On the Neoliberal employment bargain

Having finished the two Foucault lecture series I wanted to read, I’ve moved on to critique of Foucault. Gentle critique, it must be said, in that the book I’m now reading is Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller’s Governing the Present: Administering Economic, Social and Personal Life. Rose and Miller have been working in the governmentality space for two decades now, although rather than being inspired by Foucault, their work came to intersect more and more with Foucault’s over those two decades.

The first essay in the collection sketches out a potted history of British workforce management across the twentieth century, which I won’t go into here. Miller and Rose make the compelling claim that governmentality – or as they put it, the conduct of conduct – is readily applicable to the workplace. The major shift they identify is one from what Machiavelli (or was it Gramsci?) called coercion to what he understood as consent. By the end of the century, “autonomy was to be an ally of economic success, not an obstacle to be controlled and disciplined (GtP, 50).”

In a revealing synopsis towards the end of the paper, Miller and Rose make the following argument:

“…what is at issue here is the establishing of connections and symmetries, at both the conceptual and practical level, between political concerns about the government of the productive life of the nation, the concerns of owners of capital to maximize the economic advantages of their companies, and techniques for the governing of the subject.” (GtP, 50)

I do not think it is a mistake that this trilogy of interests – politicians, business owners, and the broad and nebulous techniques of power that make up governmentality – does not include workers. It is this idea that I want to talk about in this post.

Rose and Miller are careful to point out that concern for the welfare of workers was a motivating factor for employers and government in the middle of the twentieth century. They give the example of the development of ‘mental hygiene’ in Britain in the 1920s in which Charles Myers, the inventor of shell-shock, was key. This way of thinking about workers meant that the worker “came to be viewed as having a personal life that continued into his or her productive work, and … was to be understood as an individual with a mind, with fears and anxieties.” Thus this “‘new psychology’ of instincts and adjustment” was an effort to “conceive of administering the working environment to ensure simultaneously the contentment and health of the worker and the profitability and efficiency of the enterprise.” (GtP, 45)

But the fact that the welfare of the worker is omitted from Rose and Miller’s framing of neoliberal governmentality indicates something important to me about neoliberalism. The point, it seems to me, is this: Because techniques of neoliberal governmentality rely on the notion of the worker as an autonomous, self-managing, accountable, and above all entrepreneurial subject, they can ethically defer the question of the worker’s welfare. That question ultimately becomes a concern only for the worker themselves.

To put it another way, the aim of neoliberal governmentality is to convince workers that they have as much to gain from working towards the benefits of others as those others do in purchasing their labour. This is the instrumentality at the heart of the bargain between neoliberal worker and their employers. The enterprising, self-disciplined worker brings their human capital and time to the table, the commercial enterprise brings the promise of meaningful work, autonomy in its pursuit, and development opportunities.

It’s interesting that income is so rarely discussed in the neoliberal jobs market. Salary information is often hard to come by and it can feel gauche to ask about in an interview. As Foucault pointed out, income is “the product or return on a capital”, in this case human capital. The neoliberal worker is always already in the market, with jobs, side hustles, small businesses – capitalising themselves in an effort to accelerate the accumulation of the self.

If income is the return on capital, then interest is the return on borrowed capital, paid back to the lender to make up for lost opportunities. In a knowledge economy, the capital loaned to the worker is the resources required to produce human capital, and the interest is intellectual property. Professional Development and transferable skills are part of a new vocabulary designed to convince workers that although the majority of the fruit of their labour goes to someone else, once they eat through the interest and into the principal, their work will pay off in future. This is especially apparent in the large consulting firms, where the ‘rock star’ pull of the partner scores the contract, but the junior associate stays back until 9pm every night doing most of the work.

A more concrete example of this is the idea of ‘exposure’ in creative fields, scourge of aspiring graphic designers and photographers the world over. It’s telling that in arguments against working for exposure, the question of short-term vs. long-term gain emerges. You can see this explicitly here as a graphic, and it’s implied by the notion of ‘job security’ as a long-term aspiration here. This calculation is the logic of investment and capitalisation. It’s also telling that some photographers attempt to think of exposure in monetary terms, to better quantify the rate of accumulation of their human capital against the rate of profit their potential employers might gain from their work. Perhaps the most telling call is one for solidarity amongst creative workers: “If we all started saying no to unpaid gigs, we’d all be asked a lot less.” This is effectively a call for unionisation.

Workers in the middle twentieth century were merchants, bargaining their time on the market in return for income. But neoliberal workers are entrepreneurs. They borrow the opportunities for development and self-improvement from their employers, accumulating human capital while they pay for the opportunity to do so with the profits of their output. They fervently hope that the rate at which their human capital accumulates in the form of ‘transferable skills’ exceeds the rate of interest that their employers garner from taking the risk of employing them.

Neoliberal employment is, simply put, a mortgage on the self. The realisation of employees’ goals are deferred to a hypothetical and imagined future, while in the present they labour towards the goals of their employers. But because everyone is an entrepreneur with stores of human capital, it’s an even playing field. The choice to defer their goals and borrow opportunity from someone else is made by each worker individually. Nobody has any responsibility to make sure that a borrower can service a mortgage except the borrower.

The problem, of course, is that the house always wins. The rate of return for employers is considerably higher than the rate of accumulation for workers. That’s why despite productivity gains, real wages have not increased. If neoliberal work is not a simple sale of labour but a loan with compound interest, used to capitalise the self, this is a seriously overcapitalised market.

For me, the problem is clear. This way of conceptualising a worker totally fails to grasp the power dynamic between employers and their employees. The notion of an entrepreneurial subject borrowing to capitalise their enterprise places the worker on a different-but-equal footing with their creditor: the worker has potential and needs capital, the employer has capital but needs potential. This notion goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the invisible hand of the market is the best regulator. The result is a world where everyone thinks that if you don’t make out like a bandit on this lopsided deal, it’s somehow your own fault.

Header photo by Zachary Keimig on Unsplash

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