What makes workers work ?

Frédéric Lordon


What sets workers in motion? The question should be taken as literally as possible. Working is a matter of moving – waking up in the morning, going to the working place, doing there particular gestures. It is then a matter of bodies. The workers bodies have to move so as workers work.
This is typically the kind of local determinations a Marxian structuralism is not very comfortable with. Not that Marxism would have failed to address the issue of workforce mobilisation – it definitely did! But it did so in the theoretical setting of the capitalist macrostructures such as they shape the well-known characteristics of the wage relationship: the private property of production means, the juridical fiction of the free worker, the double separation. What has to be investigated further is how these macrostructures actually work, how they concretely produce their effects on individuals hence determined to act as workers.
Individual behavior is a matter of desire: here is what could be seen as the core of a spinozist social science. If a social science is a science of socially determined behaviors, it is a science of what makes bodies move in a certain way, and then a science of what has made them desiring to move this way. Contrary to a common place in social sciences, walking on the desire side is in no way doomed to fall back into a kind of psychologistic spiritualism. Individual desires are the effects of the structures – and there is no reason why the structuralist view should be oblivion of individuals’ desires, nor the other way round. If social structures determine individual behaviors and individual behaviors are desire-driven, isn’t it just because social structures positively shape individual desires? – and the two ends of the chain can be held together.
The social structures of capitalism definitely shape individuals’ desires – so as to determine them as workers and make their bodies move accordingly. When primitive accumulation has closed any possibility of autonomous material reproduction, the only solution left to survive is to get an access to money by selling one’s workforce to a capitalist. All the structures of capitalism then affect the agents in the most pressing way: by the stakes of raw survival. The sheer desire to physically survive gives its most basic illustration to the conatus defined as the striving to persevere in one’s being … It is then both trivial and deeply meaningful to say that individuals are affected by the “wage-earning situation” such as it is framed by the social structures of capitalism. These affects induce specific desires, which in turn result in bodies movements: waking-up in the morning, etc.
The social structure of capitalism is then expressed into a certain regime of affects and desire. And as the former is subject to historical transformations, the latter evolves accordingly. The fordian accumulation regime can be seen as an enrichment in the workers regime of affects and desire. Workers are no longer set in motion only by the sad affects which follows from the blackmail to raw survival: they are now offered some joyful affects linked to the extended access to mass consumption – as we know this enrichment has been of considerable help in the political stabilization of capitalism.
Neoliberal capitalism goes a step further. Joyful affects offered by the fordian regime remained extrinsic: they had nothing to do with the work itself and relied exclusively on external objects (consumption goods) it could give access to. Neoliberal management now aims at making work desirable for itself, thus extending its regime of affects and desire in the direction of intrinsic joyful affects. How better maximize workers mobilization than by convincing them that work is no longer a matter of exploitation, of enlistment under the master-desire of capital, but the matter of their own lives achievements? The paramount exploitation is the denied exploitation, compelling individuals that they live and move by their own desire only – capitalism as a perfect case for a structuralism of affects.

work - marx - Capitalism - Philosophy