There’s no more confused issue in France than that of Work. And no people has a more twisted relationship with Work than the French do. Go to Andalusia, to Algeria, to Naples. There people scorn work, fundamentally. Go to Germany, the USA, to Japan. There people revere work. Things change, it’s true. There are indeed otakus in Japan, frohe Arbeitslose in Germany, and there are workaholics in Andalusia. But for the time being these are just curiosities. In France we get down on our hands and knees to climb the hierarchies, but we flatter ourselves in private that we don’t really give a damn about any of them. When we’re swamped we’ll stay at work until 10 pm, but we never have misgivings about stealing some office materials here and there, or snatching a few loose items out of the company stocks that could be sold second-hand. We hate bosses, but we want at all costs to be employed. To have a job is an honor, and to work is a mark of servility. It’s the perfect clinical picture of hysteria. We love by detesting, and detest by loving. And everyone knows the kind of stupor and disarray strikes the hysterical person when he loses his victim, the master. Most often he never recovers.
In the fundamentally political country we call France, industrial power has always been subject to state power. Economic activity has never ceased being suspiciously flanked by a nit-picking administration. The big bosses that aren’t the products of State nobility in the style of the ENA-Polytechnique are the pariahs of the business world, where behind the scenes everyone admits a little pity for them. Bernard Tapie is their tragic hero: adored one day, imprisoned the next, but always untouchable. It’s no surprise what’s been happening with him lately. Contemplating him as one contemplates a monster, the French public holds him at a distance, and by the spectacle of such fascinating infamy, preserves itself from direct contact with him. In spite of the great bluff of the 80s, the cult of private enterprise has never really taken hold in France. Whoever writes a book lambasting Tapie is guaranteeing himself a bestseller. In spite of the managers, their morals, and their literature appearing in public, there’s still a kind of safety ribbon of derisive sniggering around them, an ocean of scorn, a sea of sarcasm. The businessman isn’t really part of the family. All in all, in the hierarchy of detestation, even a cop is preferable to him. To be a bureaucrat is still the commonly understood definition of good work, in spite of wind and flood, in spite of golden boys and privatizations. Though those who aren’t may envy their wealth, they certainly don’t envy them their jobs.
On the basis of this neurosis, the successive governments can still declare war on unemployment, and pretend to wage “the employment battle,” while ex-executives camp with their portable phones in Medecins du Monde’s tents on the banks of the Seine. While in spite of all statistical special effects the ANPE’s massive radiation fails to make the number of the unemployed drop below two million. While the RMI and the biz are the only real guarantee, even in the opinion of the Renseignements Generaux , against a social explosion, possible at any moment. It’s the psychic economy of the French as much as the political stability of the country that’s at stake in the maintenance of the workerist fictions.
May we be permitted not to give a fuck.
We belong to a generation that is living quite well without all that fiction. A generation that never expected to get anything out of our rights according to workplace law, and even less out of the right to work. A generation that’s not even “precarious” as the most advanced fractions of leftist militancy like to theorize, because to be precarious is still to define yourself according to the sphere of work, in sum: according to its decomposition. We admit the necessity of getting money, regardless of the means, because it’s impossible right now to do without it, but we don’t admit the necessity of working. Anyway, we don’t work anymore, we just go jobbing. A particular business enterprise isn’t a place one exists in, but a place one passes through. We aren’t cynical, we are just hesitant to be taken advantage of. All the discourses on motivation , quality, and personal investment, just slide off our backs, to the great dismay of all the human resources managers. They say that we’re disappointed with the business world, thwarted in our efforts; they say that it hasn’t done honor to our parents’ loyalty, that they were fired too unhesitatingly. Lies. To be disappointed you’d have to have hoped that the day would come. And we never hoped for anything from it: we see it for what it is and has always been: a dupes’ game, with adjustable comfort levels. As for our parents we just regret that they fell for it, at least those among them who believed in it.
The confusion of emotions around the issue of work can be explained – the notion of work has always contained two contradictory dimensions: a dimension of exploitation and one of participation. Exploitation of individual and collective labor force by the private or social appropriation of surplus-value; participation in a common project through the links woven between those cooperating in the heart of the universe of production. These two dimensions are viciously mixed up in the idea of work, which is what explains the indifference of the workers, in the end, to Marxist rhetoric, which denies the participatory dimension, and to the managerial rhetoric, which denies the exploitative dimension. It’s also the source of the ambivalence of their relationship to work, which is honored at the same time as it makes us foreign to what we’re doing, and adored at the same time as it is a piece of ourselves that we stake on it. The prerequisite here is a great disaster: that of the destruction of everything that’s had to be destroyed; that of the uprooting of everyone that’s had to be uprooted, so that working could end up appearing as the only way of existing. The horror of work is less a part of work itself than of the methodical devastation, over centuries, of everything that is not it: familiarities in neighborhoods, professions, villages, struggles, blood relations; attachment to places, beings, seasons, ways of speaking and of doing things.
Therein lies the present paradox: work has triumphed over all the other ways of existing, at the same time as workers have become superfluous. The gains made in productivity, relocation, mechanization, automation, and the digitization of production have gone so far that they have reduced the amount of living labor necessary for the creation of each commodity to almost nothing. We’re living out the paradox of a society full of workers with no work, where distractions, consumption, and leisure are only ever just a further indictment of the insufficiency that they must distract us from. The Carmaux mine, which made itself famous with a whole century of violent strikes, has now been made into Cap Decouverte leisure center. It’s a “multi-leisure complex” you can skateboard or bike through which stands out for its “Mine Museum,” where they simulate firedamp explosions for the vacationers.
In business, work is divided ever more visibly into highly qualified research, design, administration, coordination, and communication jobs, tied to putting in play the knowledge required for the new cybernetic production processes, and the unqualified maintenance and surveillance jobs for those processes. The first are few, highly paid, and thus so coveted that the minority that can get one would never think of letting even the slightest crumb slip away. Their work and their selves are one, locked together in a death grip. Managers, scientists, lobbyists, researchers, programmers, developers, consultants, or engineers literally never stop working. Even their one-night stands increase their productivity. “The most creative enterprises are also those wherein intimate relations are the most numerous,” theorizes one Human Resources department philosopher. “The enterprise’s collaborators,” confirms the one from Daimler-Benz, “are part of its capital... Their motivation, their manner, their capacity for innovation and their concern for the clients’ desires, constitute the raw material of innovative service... Their behavior, their social and emotional competence, have a growing weight in their work evaluation. They will no longer be evaluated by the number of hours they have been present, but on the basis of the goals they have attained and the quality of their results. They are businessmen.”
All the tasks that haven’t been able to be delegated to automation form a cloud of jobs that can’t be done by machines, but could be done by any human at all – warehousemen, storekeepers, assembly line workers, seasonal workers, etc. This flexible, undifferentiated labor force, going from one task to the next and never stopping too long at any one company, can no longer gather itself into a force, since it is never at the center of the production process, but instead pulverized into a multitude of cracks, where they patch up the holes in whatever hasn’t been mechanized. The temp is the perfect picture of a worker that’s not a worker anymore, that has no more profession but competencies saleable as jobs come along, and for whom having to remain available is another job still.
Out from the margins of this core of effective workers, necessary for the proper operation of the machine, spreads a vast, supernumerary majority, which is useful for the proper flow of production but hardly any more, and which presses upon the machine the risk that in all their idleness they might begin to sabotage it. The threat of a general demobilization is the specter haunting the present system of production. To the question, “then why work?” not everyone responds like the one-time welfare recipient at Liberation magazine who wrote “For my well-being. I’ve got to look out for myself.” There’s a serious risk that we will end up finding a use for our idleness. This floating population needs to be either occupied, or held in place. And to this day no better disciplinary method than the wage system has been found. So they’ll have to work to dismantle the various “social gains,” so that they can bring the most rebellious ones back to the wage system’s teat; the ones who don’t surrender in the face of having to choose between dying of hunger and rotting in jail. The explosion of the “personal services” slave sector must go on; cleaning ladies, waitresses, massage girls, house maids, prostitutes, personal nurses, tutors, therapeutic leisure, psychological aides, etc. And all of it accompanied by a continual increase in norms, for safety, hygiene, good behavior and culture, accelerating at the speed of fashions -- which are the basis for the necessity of such services. In Rouen, “human parking meters” have replaced ticket machines; some guy stands there bored in the street and gives you a ticket so you can park, and sometimes, if needs be, he might lend you a raincoat in bad weather.
The order of work made the order of our whole world. Its collapse is so obvious that just thinking about everything that’s to come gives everyone lockjaw. To work today is less about the economic need of producing commodities than about the political need to produce producers and consumers, to save the order of work by any means necessary. Producing oneself is about to become the dominant occupation in a society where production has become aimless: like a carpenter who’s been kicked out of his workshop and who out of desperation starts to plane himself down. That’s where we get the spectacle of all these young people training themselves to smile for their employment interviews, who whiten their teeth to make a better impression, who go out to nightclubs to stimulate their team spirit, who learn English to boost their careers, who get divorced or married to bounce back again, who go take theater classes to become leaders or “personal development” classes to “manage conflicts” better – the most intimate “personal development,” claims some guru or another, “will lead you to better emotional stability, a more well directed intellectual acuity, and so to better economic performance.” The croaking of all these little people waiting impatiently to be selected by training themselves to be ‘natural’ is part of an attempt to save the order of work by a ethic of motivation. To be ‘motivated’ means to report for work not as if it were an activity, but as if it were a whole realm of possibility. If the unemployed take out their piercings, get haircuts and start making ‘plans,’ work hard on their ‘employability’ as they say, they’re proving how motivated they are. Motivation means that kind of a slight detachment from yourself, that minimal tearing ourselves away from what constitutes us, that condition of foreignness, with which it becomes possible for you to sell yourself, not just your labor power, and to be paid not for what you do, but for what you are. It’s the new norm for socialization. Motivation is what fuses together the two opposing poles of Work: here you participate in your own exploitation, and all participation is exploited. Ideally, every one person gets to be a little business enterprise, your own boss and your own product. And whether you’re working or not, you have to accumulate contacts, skills, and a “network:” what one might call “human capital.” The planet-wide injunction to get mobilized and motivated on the slightest pretext – about cancer, “terrorism,” an earthquake, the homeless – sums up the determination of the ruling powers to maintain the reign of work even beyond its physical disappearance.
The present machinery of production is therefore on the one hand a gigantic mental and physical mobilization-machine, sucking up the energy of those who have become “excess” humans, and on the other it is a sorting machine that allows conformed subjectivities to survive and lets drop any and all “risk individuals,” those who incarnate a different use of life, and in that sense resist it. On the one hand they give life to ghosts, and on the other they let the living die. Such is the specifically political function of the present machinery of production.
To organize beyond and against work, to collectively desert the regime of motivation, and manifest the existence of a vitality and discipline in demobilization itself, is a crime that a civilization in desperate straits will never forgive us; it’s in fact the only way to survive it.