Commentary. For a while now, the crisis of work has been accompanied by calls to become entrepreneurs ourselves. The new imperative is to think about life as if we were all managers. Accordingly, the “I” becomes both employer and employed worker at the same time, and must play a dual role: the one who commands and the one who obeys.

When capital becomes second nature

Once one recognizes that the economy has taken over all spheres of action and of human thought, what does it mean to speak of labor force as “a faculty that belongs to individuals,” an expression of the freedom and self-determination of men and women, whether they are working or not working? As Roberto Ciccarelli writes in his Capitale Disumano (“Inhuman Capital,” manifestolibri, 2018), “the labor force becomes a commodity as a result of its sale. However, it is still a faculty belonging to the one who possesses it.” He adds that, as such, it is “universal and common.” It’s hard to miss the analogy with the Marxist definition of “human passion,” understood as the need for a “totality of manifestation of human life” on the part of every living human being.

An observation immediately follows: as long as labor force remains a power that is independent from the offerings of the market, one which resonates at the core of each person’s life in the form of a simple right to exist, distinct from its objectification in goods, it recalls both Rousseau’s “state of nature” as well as the concept of “women’s non-existence,” which lay at the origin of the feminism of the ‘70s: in both cases, it was deemed as an obvious necessity that the individual should regain the awareness that, beyond the restrictions and paradigms that one had been forced to submit to, one’s ability to exercise the various functions of the body, of reason and of imagination was still present and undiminished.

This is to say that, finally, some light has been shed in the analysis of labor, beginning to dispel the shadows of the “economism” that has characterized vulgar interpretations of Marxism, and which is still resisting the impact of the cultural and political revolution of the women’s movement, and, in more recent times, of the progressive feminization of labor. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this novel approach—when compared to a critique of economy that had been subordinated by its very object—is arising at a moment when the division has collapsed between productive work and life as a whole, i.e. that which has for a long time been reductively and improperly classed under “reproduction,” in the sense that Marx himself gave to the term, as the reproduction of labor force as a commodity. Absent from this analysis were women, and the materiality of the bodily and intellectual experiences considered to be “natural” to the female gender.

However, the collapse of the distinctions that had previously held that the “power of love” and the “coercion to work” (Freud) were separate and locked in conflict has been accompanied not only by the feminization of the public sphere—i.e. life to the extent that it produces economic, social, cognitive value, poorly-paid or unpaid caregiver work, an economy that is regaining the original Greek sense of oikonomia, household management—but also by a more ominous development: the perverse marriage of independent entrepreneurship and self-exploitation, which is manifesting, in an abstract form, in the concept of “human capital.” For a while now, the crisis of work has been accompanied by calls to become entrepreneurs ourselves. The new imperative is to think about life as if we were all managers.

Accordingly, the “I” becomes both employer and employed worker at the same time, and must play a dual role: the one who commands and the one who obeys. Free choice becomes yet another manifestation of a relationship of subordination.

With this latest change in the relationships that have always been present between what used to be divided and opposite spheres, both sides begin to devour themselves and each other: capital consumes the labor force, separating it from the living subject, while the living subject, in turn, incorporates capital and its laws, and makes oneself into both the object and perpetrator of one’s own alienation.

Feminism in the ‘70s focused on the issues pertaining to the body, and fought the dominant paradigm of economism as part of the extra-parliamentary left, with the guiding idea that one should search for the links between sexuality and politics and sexuality and economics. Today, on the other hand, the naturalization of the neoliberal capitalist system has advanced to such a point that it now resembles what used to be the tragic lot of women for so many centuries: the internalization, albeit a forced and unconscious one, of the male representation of the world—of which, as Sibilla Aleramo wrote, one becomes aware afterwards, “only by virtue of analysis.”

When power relations affect the intimacy of private life—intertwining with it, becoming confused with it, even crowding it out altogether—they inevitably enter into our psychological life. This is what happened to women, tied to dominant male figures who were also sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, lovers. For survival or for love, they were pushed to sacrifice themselves, to dedicate themselves to this other, and were forced to think of the ill effects of the colonization of their own sex as illness, guilt or inadequacy.

Today—despite some differences—the same process can affect those who are pushed, starting from their school years, to internalize the master-slave dialectic, to reinvent the subordination that is no longer found in society as a psychological fact. In turn, the demand that is being made of women is not very different, while they themselves are tempted to see it as a recognition and an opportunity to assert their “difference,” to invest their “resources” and their “talents” to revitalize an economy in crisis. They don’t become victims, but rather subjects who objectify their own bodies, as erotic bodies, maternal bodies and so on.

To fight against this “emancipation” that aims to make men and women the perpetrators of their own enslavement and holds them to account when they fail, we have to open up the path to continue that quest for autonomy and freedom on which both the non-authoritarian movement in the universities and feminism had set out. A guarantee of being able to rely on time that has been freed from the constraints of “corporatism” may come from what Non Una di Meno has called an “income of self-determination.” To escape from the shadow of an illusory omnipotence, part and parcel of capitalist exploitation, we still need new and more effective modes of political action.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!