Friday, June 21, 2013

Michel Feher, Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital (2009)

Michel Feher, Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital (2009)

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MUST-READAs early as the second half of the nineteenth century, socialist movements largely adopted the Marxist critique of the notion of the free laborer, according to which free laborers are alienated in two senses: they are alienated insofar as they do not have control over their life (i.e., they are denied the ability to choose their activity, while both the means of production and the outcome of their labor belong to others), but they are also alienated insofar as liberal law and ideology rob them of the consciousness of their exploitation (since they are invited to consider themselves as owners of their labor power and thus as subjects endowed with a freedom that is equivalent to that of their employer). However, as mentioned above, socialists did not merely recognize and expose the fictitious and ideological character of the freedom granted to the free worker: they also seized on this construct, both in an effort to bolster the price of labor power (through the work of labor unions) and to criticize working conditions (for violating the essential distinction between man and commodity, between the laborer in his or her inalienable dignity and the labor power that he or she owns and rents out).

This dual way of appropriating the figure of the free worker has allowed the labor movement to achieve considerable victories, compounded in the advent and development of the welfare state in its various dimensions. However, in the past three decades, claims based on class interests (e.g., demands for better wages and better job security) or humanist appeals (e.g., “we are not commodities”) have become less and less successful. Though this evolution, which is distinctive of the neoliberal era, can be read in terms of the crisis of the Fordist socioeconomic compact and its impact on the bargaining power of labor vis-à-vis capital, my contention is that it also reflects the decline of the type of free laborer and its gradual replacement by a new form of subjectivity: human capital. Indeed, as I shall argue, the rise of human capital as a dominant subjective form is a defining feature of neoliberalism.

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