Maurizio Lazzarato

On the Atypical and Precarious Forms of the Work of Freelance Artists
(Sur les formes de travail atypique et précaire à partir de l’expérience des intermittents du spectacle)

I would like to share with you some results of research undertaken by and for the Coordination des intermittents et précaires d’Ile de Frances between 2009 and 2011. It deals with the use of time, the proletarianization and the control exercised by the businesses and institutions that manage unemployment and the RSA (Revenu de Solidarité Active [social welfare]) which is “handed out” to those who are both unemployed and without unemployment benefits, those in the entertainment industry, the freelancers and the “artists” who are “living from” the RSA. It amounts to just over 400 euros a month. These intermittent workers reveal far more about the realities of work and contemporary employment than would any full-time worker.

Precariousness and the fragmentation of time
In that respect we don’t acknowledge any distinction between ordinary time and work time. Such distinctions are alien to us.[1]

Nowhere else had K. ever seen one’s official position and one’s life so intertwined as they were here, so intertwined that it sometimes seemed as though office and life had switched places.[2]

Neoliberal economic strategies and techniques of governing behavior converge toward the same goal: controlling of time. Discontinuous, or intermittent, work creates a precariousness of time, which results in time’s fragmentation. Individuals have no idea when they might work, when they may no longer be employed; for how long they have to rely on unemployment benefits or RSA income. It becomes difficult to differentiate downtime from active time. A complete disconnection from work and its imperatives becomes complicated. Life takes place in fragmented bits of time that are heterogeneous, incoherent, and stripped of meaning. Those with intermittent work live in a multiplicity of temporalities with broken rhythms and speeds. They go from one job to another, from work to waiting for work, from work to unemployment, from unemployment to training, from training to part time or temp work. This fragmentation of time requires a subjective ability of perpetual availability. If those with intermittent work don’t land a permanent, full-time job, they have to be available full time. The unemployed person should be available, flexible, adaptable to the temporalities and rhythms of the company, the job market, and the institutions that regulate the movements of the labor force.

In the words of our different workshop participants, work and availability “eat up time”; “there’s no more time”; “there’s simply no time.” This lack of time, or rather, this time invested in fragmented work and in the search for work, results in both economic impoverishment and a loss of subjectivity. The proper use of time is no longer an imperative to one’s working time. This exploitation of time invades every hour of an individual’s life, whether employed or not. The unemployed, the beneficiaries of the RSA, have lost control over their time, a right initially won through struggles – concomitant with the birth of the labor movement – for the reduction of working time. Compared to the disciplinary systems of Fordism, neoliberal politics have introduced very innovative measures for monitoring time. Fordism regulated life through the rhythmic repetition of tasks: eight hours of work, eight hours of life dedicated to other human activity, eight hours of sleep; a relentlessly repetitive succession of periods of work broken by weekly periods of rest, the year’s labor broken in turn by the expected return of summer vacation, Christmas, Easter. The symbol of this time devoted to regular work was Harold Lloyd, clinging to the hands of a giant clock.

Neoliberal politics have instead created discontinuous blocks of existence, modes that have abandoned all of the comforting and neurotic regularities of time and space. If time has become fragmented, then space itself is no longer uniform. Under Fordism, capital was relatively fixed within the nation, in its factories and banking systems. And then, just like the angels on high, capital divested itself from the constraints of materiality, forsook all borders and forced its movements, its accelerations and its rules on workers and society as a whole.

We might have hoped that the rupture of the cyclical and regular nature of time discipline would liberate it and make it into a space of possibility, of decisions, choices, and freedom. Instead, it is none of these things. Instead, we have come to realize that decisions, choices, and freedom are confined to a setting that actually offers no viable alternatives. Now, more than ever, time is money. It remains a reference for how we value capital. In the neoliberal economy, it is no longer a question of time spent working, but of “ordinary time,” as Kafka puts it, that is, a multiplicity of temporalities, of rhythms, of speeds that encroach into the “lives,” the “lifestyles,” of individuals.

Isabelle Stengers calls this lack of choices the infernal alternatives. “If you want to earn more, you have to work more”; “given the state’s debt, the choice is either access to fewer services or more installments to pay off the interests on debt,” and so on. The ability and freedom to make choices and decisions only applies to a limited range of alternatives that are not real alternatives but rather a pre-established set thereof. As neoliberal mythology would have it, “there are no alternatives” to the market, to employment, to finance. The world and its future are caught in an eternal present without depth.
All while enforcing a state of continuous movement and endless change, neoliberal society frees up no time and offers up no opportunity to create new possibilities. A general mobilization toward work, neverending adaptation to the markets, and consumption eat up any free time that might have been won from elsewhere. What is stolen is not work time, but the future, even the fate, of society.

Hope itself is usurped.

The increasing influence of corporations/businesses and institutions on the rhythms, the speeds, the halts, and resumptions of production, of employment, but also on the social life of individuals, paradoxically serves to standardize and homogenize individual subjectivity. This depreciation of subjectivity is above all a depreciation of time, a neutralization of time’s power as a source of change, of transformation, of the creation of new possibilities.

Time is the essential primary material required for creation: whether a theater piece, a film, a way of life, or a political action. We need to have a certain amount of control over our time, partly to be able to enjoy it, but also to be able to waste it. Empty time, a time of suspension and rupture, nonfinalized time, the time of hesitation – these are all required for any artistic, social, or political production. And these are exactly the kinds of time that neoliberal policies seek to neutralize. The only temporality known and recognized by this doxa is the time spent working or looking for work. And the struggle faced by intermittent workers is a perfect example of this principle at play.

In research carried out between 2004 and 2005 on the working conditions and employment and unemployment patterns of occasional, or intermittent workers, a musician told us that in his opinion, the struggle faced by occasional workers over unemployment insurance was in fact a struggle for time. To summarize: “Unemployment insurance doesn’t give us any benefits; it gives us time.” The time to do nothing, to rest, to read, to watch, to look, to amble. This man reverses Benjamin Franklin’s famous edict, “time is money”[3] into “money is time.” He also confirms Marcel Duchamp’s words: “My capital is time, not money.” The conflict is always over time, but this is not limited to “ working time.” It encroaches on personal time, the time for living.

The perception of time. The constraint of always being available and having free time – to work.

A photojournalist:
If they call you at 8 am and say they need you to be in Nantes within the hour, you jump out of bed, skip breakfast, and you’re off ! Out the door. And really, in those first years, that’s everything … availability … always being available.

In our research on intermittent workers, we came to understand that availability was one of their most important assets; freelancers were equally subject to its constraints. Availability is also what the Pôle Emploi (employment office) requires from the generally unemployed and what the CAF (Caisse d'allocations familiales, or Family Allocations Office) requires from beneficiaries of the RSA. They must be available at all times, either for a job or for a job search, a job interview, or a sudden summoning, for an internship or training. If one is not working full time, then all of one’s time can be mobilized for employment, or, for its kindred partner, the search for employment. It seemed important for us to revisit the meaning of mobilization and availability, these two military terms that have found their way into the vernacular of employment, by looking closely at some interviews with freelancers in the print and visual media.

If a freelance journalist experiences a strong disconnect between two commitments, the continuity of work is manifest above all in a sense of de facto obligation, even in the absence of any contractual one. For private time to be overwhelmed by work time, one does not necessarily have to be employed, but simply to be “available.” Availability – to mobilize at a moment’s notice, to fulfill any whim of any employer – is the added value of the freelancer or intermittent/temp worker. “Being available” – the expression connotes that the freelancer’s temporal horizon is always blocked by the looming possibility, the eventuality, of work. The life of intermittent workers is always subject to this eventuality.

A freelance journalist in print and visual media:

There’s one thing that drives me absolutely nuts in television: the issue of the weekend. They know they’ll need a contract worker – it’s invariable – and they let you know on Friday that they need you on Saturday. You ask yourself, why? Besides the fact that it fosters a sort of dependency, you have to say yes today for work tomorrow – but then you have to ask, for how many years are you going to accept or not accept to just delete your weekend? It’s always been something that drives me crazy.

The unforeseen call, the call that arrives at the last minute, is called “the fireman’s call” in freelancer jargon, because even if no one can predict the beginning of a fire, a five-alarm blaze is still possible at any time. Therefore, you have to be ready and prepared for it 24/7. But the only conceivable emergency of the sort in a neoliberal economy is that of work.

A freelance print journalist:

That’s right, “the fireman’s call.” I’ve moonlighted for lots of rags and it’s the same thing every time. I pitch something, they say no, then they call me at 2 pm. to ask, “Hey, are you free at 4 pm. to do such and such.” So either they’re testing how reactive you are or they’re throwing you some horrible bone that no one else will touch. It’s like some kind of hazing ritual. After they stick you with these crappy things, then there’s actual progress. But this doesn’t mean you stop getting the fireman’s calls – being able to do things last minute, that’s our added value as freelancers.

The matter of availability, of always being connected to the network, of never turning off, is motivated by the fear of being forgotten, the fear of other, more available freelancers coming to take one’s place, freelancers who are readier to jump at the requirements of mobilization for employment.

A photojournalist:
You’re always afraid of not finding anything else, of losing your contacts. That’s really what’s behind it, the phone that’s never turned off, the camera I’m ready to toss aside the minute my phone rings. You always have that thought in your mind, if I stop, they’ll forget me. If I take a week off, won’t there be some intern ready to step into my shoes? Or another freelancer ready to flex his muscles and outshine me. It’s obvious, the sense of subjugation is just that: you feel obliged to be available all the time.

The fear of being forgotten, the anxiety over losing contacts is compounded by the guilt of not doing everything possible to remain available. Fear and guilt are the two strategic passions of the neoliberal government of behavior. And they operate equally at both the micro and macro political levels.

A freelance print journalist:
What’s hardest about being a freelancer is that in your head, you’re never “off.” You feel guilty when you’re not at the computer.

In this case, availability is undoubtedly a form of constraint. But it is a constraint that is as much internal as it is external. The categorical imperative of the economy doubles as a personal imperative that freelancers impose on themselves – on their engagements, their projects. The methods of subjugation and control have changed radically. These days, subjectivity is molded, summoned, and mobilized in order to support the economic and existential costs of precarious and discontinuous employment.
We could say that calling for personal responsibility in a situation where there is no actual choice because there are no other alternatives negatively impacts subjectivity. And it is among those with discontinuous employment who are most acutely affected by the injunction to be a responsible subject, in command of the self, that we can most clearly see the deceptions and disappointments engendered by the failure of this program of dishonest emancipation.

The organization of intermittent work, the conditions of precariousness, the lifestyle it requires, all relentlessly demand the investment of personal subjectivity. Individuals must negotiate incessantly with themselves. They must continuously arbitrate between ego and economic superego (“Am I working or am I on vacation? Do I plug in the telephone and make myself available to any and all requests or do I turn it off and make myself unavailable? Do I respond to the summons from the Pôle Employment office or not? And at my next follow-up appointment, do I tell the truth or should I lie?”). The individual is alone, facing down an employment organization that seems to embody the power of a natural fact, and placed into competition not just with others (“You’re a replacement, so you’re always hoping – it’s pretty evil – you’re hoping that the others are already a little ill and, right then, you come in with a nice strong flu and you spread it”), but also in competition with the self.

The decision, the choice, the autonomy that each person is supposed to possess actually results in an individual totally cut off from all social organization, feeling terrified and guilty.

This permanent negotiation with the self is a method of control specific to neoliberal societies. Just as in Fordism, the standards are imposed from without, produced by the socioeconomic apparatus, but they manifest themselves as if the individual were the source, as if produced by the person from within.

As a director at the RSA, cited in the text on individual follow-up, put it, the order and the directive must come from within: “it is you who is in command”; since “it is you who is your own boss!” The injunction to be a subject, to give oneself orders, to negotiate permanently with the self produces what Alain Ehrenberg calls “the fatigue of being oneself.”[4]

The autonomy that was seemingly promised by the disruption of regular, cyclical time has not held up. It has instead doubled back into its opposite, as a freelance print journalist would have put it:

The freedom of hybridity – there’s a sort of contradiction in this way of seeing autonomy. At the same time, autonomy is broken. We are not allowed the full advantage of this freedom.

Economic impoverishment is but one facet of precariousness; the other is the impoverishment of subjectivity. The organization and structuring of time creates a misery and fragility of subjectivity from the minute it submits, voluntarily or not, to new management techniques.

The freelancer is blackmailed, and the ability to say no is very limited. If one does not rise up to meet the demand, if one is unavailable, the punishment is swift and immediate.

If you’re sick or if you say no because you have a wedding or whatever, you’ll find yourself demoted in the scheme of things. Being demoted means your phone rings less often, the effects are immediate. You have to always be in a position to say yes! To be available tonight for tomorrow. In the end, that’s why I was practically living at France 3, and it’s the same at France Info. It’s pretty much that – tonight is for tomorrow.

Even if you’re sick, you work. You hope that the woman across from you, who’s already got two rugrats, gets started right away on the third – haha! [laughs] Because we’re just replacements for those on maternity or sick leave. Those are the main things, and after that. Vacations, honestly … when you really want them, it can be fun. But this almost never happens.

Being available doesn’t only mean being able to mobilize, but also being available to do those things that full-time workers object to doing or outright refuse to do.

It changes when you’re a temp, everything that’s too hot to touch, that’s too tough, that’s too politically sensitive, everything that the full-timers don’t want to go near – and with good reason! – that’s for us to do. I’ll give you an example. Last week there was one day where I had to do four reports in the same day. That's not too good. It’s actually illegal, but it’s not that serious either. I was the video journalist on three stories and editor on the fourth, because one region needed a story on what was happening there. Logically, I shouldn’t have accepted, because there’s a statutory number of working hours in a day, I think it’s twelve hours maximum … Oh well! I did fifteen or sixteen that day. The next day, we were on the scene at 8 am. That’s life for a temp. As a video journalist, you’re carrying ten kilos on your shoulder over three, four hours. This was still an exceptional case, doing four stories in one day, but that means three or four hours each with a camera on your shoulder … I don’t even know what it is anymore to be sick. Honestly, it’s the call that counts.

Freelancers, just like all employees with discontinuous or intermittent work, try to organize a temporality elsewhere that is continuously being deconstructed by the act of trying to organize work of a precarious nature. The construction of these fragmented, unpredictable, heterogeneous temporalities becomes a surplus of subjective investment that burdens the individual.

You can’t keep working after 8 pm, it’s a physical thing, I can’t anymore. Weekends become difficult. And then you make these individual, personal rules for yourself. But there’s always this idea that we’re never on holiday; it’s never the weekend. If you can manage it well, it’s fine. Yes, there’s an advantage to [being a freelancer]; otherwise it would be horrible.

Precarious work presents us with a privileged point of view from which we can critique the so-called society of free time. In fact, neoliberal society offers no free time: time itself is colonized and the hours are fully occupied. If not with work, then with consumption – of material, of media and cultural products. The liberation of time is a battle yet to be won. It is a process, a result, a goal to reach. The hindrance consists primarily, as we have seen, in the impossibility of turning down offers for work. And yet it is still possible for the freelancer to find some free time to work on personal projects. Unfortunately, as working time would dictate, these stolen hours are fragmented, chipped away from time set aside for employment or the availability it requires.

A little sour note, if I may. One of the challenges we face is finding a day – this so-called free time – we can have together. The big difficulty is that we don’t actually have any choice about our free time. That’s it. It’s dictated by the editorial board.

As evidenced by an intermittent worker in our research, the tides of free time are divided up within the period of a single day. They no longer come or go at foreseen intervals, with the cyclical regularity of Fordist rhythms. The fragmentation of time takes place within each day in a way both changeable and unpredictable. Intermittent employees, such as freelancers, try to use these hours, these days, or these vacations away from work for personal projects.

Me, well, I try, and personally, I’m thrilled with what I’m doing, and E. has helped so much. I’m putting together a whole feature-length film that’s two hours and fifteen minutes long, that I financed myself, that I shot myself and that I edited pretty much singlehandedly with E. The advantage is that when you’re a freelancer, you know you’re going to have some free time to move forward with other projects, and maybe one day, with this film. Maybe also one day, it will allow you, if it’s sold ... .

Honestly, when I was still studying, I was both a supervisor and educator for specialized sports. I made almost 2,000 euros a month, which I don’t make any more as a freelancer …. Well, in the end, I mostly do it for love; there is a love of the field. Free time is something else, because I want more than anything to get this film out there. It’s been two years, and except for six days spent abroad, with my family, I haven’t had a single weekend, not even one morning sleep-in. Ah! To have a social life. In terms of numbers of friends, it’s a lot less. But that never stopped me from doing my “chores” (food writing).

For example, planning vacations is extremely complicated, because you have to predict a date when you’ll be done with all the things that are currently in progress. And even if you manage to take two weeks off, when you come back, the next day, you don’t really have any control over what happens. So it’s really hard to manage. You always have to be able to cover for those times that you don’t have proper control over, barreling down on projects to be able to sell them.

Deproletarianization and neoproletarianization

The instigators and architects of the social market economy in postwar Germany – the so-called Ordoliberals – advocated an economic and social policy of which the main objective was the “deproletarianization” of the population. This policy resulted in the formation of small entities of production, the facilitation of home ownership through housing subsidies, public shareholding, et cetera. Deproletarianization was conceived as a way of mitigating the possible political threat from huge industrial concentrations, where the proletariat might organize and become an independent political force, as happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The welfare state and cooperative management with the big reformist trade unions allowed for the transfer of real wealth into the hands of the workers, which in turn involved them in the management of capitalist society. And so despite a “growing wage economy,” we can also add the fact that “a capitalist employee is no longer part of the proletariat.”
Deproletarianization consisted of a policy of individualization, of building individual interests and placing them in competition with one another. Its goal was to weaken, whenever possible, any collective expression of the working classes, who were presumed dangerous.

Today, while neoliberal policies subscribe to both a different vocabulary and a different program than those of the Ordoliberals, they hold both individualization and competition in the same high regard, combining and concentrating their potency in the figure of the independent entrepreneur, whom they have introduced into the social imagination.

How is the neoliberal government able to intrude into the social sphere? By turning the social into a function of business. By acting to encourage, incite, solicit and oblige each individual to become a marketer of the self, to become one’s own human capital.
According to Foucault, neoliberalism is a way of government that consumes freedom. To do so, it must first produce and organize it. For neoliberals, freedom is not a natural value that predates government action and something it must work to guarantee (as in classical liberalism) but is rather a requirement for the market to function properly.
The big difference between modern neoliberalism and Keynesian liberalism is that the freedom produced and organized by the former is above all for the sake of enterprise and entrepreneurs. It can therefore be said that liberals openly enact a sort of social policy, since, just as in Keynesianism, society is the ultimate target of continuous governmental intervention. The difference is in the latter’s objectives and endgame – to turn society into a collection of enterprises and to turn the employee into an independent, individual enterprise. Neoliberal policies involve as many governmental interventions as Keynesian ones, however, the former’s policies are designed to shore up supply rather than demand. Competition and inequality (in the form of income, status, and training differentials) have the power to agitate the passive consumer of welfare benefits, of RSA, of minimum social benefits, goading one into agency over one’s own life, into becoming the manager of one’s own most precious asset: oneself.
Competition and inequality must contribute to converting the simple worker into human capital, who is called upon to secure not only an endless training for the self, but also to cultivate the growth, accumulation, improvement, and promotion of the self. To become one’s own capital, one must grow oneself through managing contacts and address books, one’s agenda, and one’s life, conducted according to the relational logic between costs, investments, and debt; and subordinate to the laws of supply and demand. And thus the self becomes a sort of permanent, multipurpose enterprise. What is asked of the individual, then, is not only to be productive at work, but also to be able to organize the return of capital, the one constituted by the self. The individual must consider the self as a fragment of capital, a molecular fraction of capital. The employee, the worker, is no longer a simple factor of production, the individual is no longer, strictly speaking, a labor force, but a “skills capital,” a “skills machine,” who arrives hand-in-hand with what a nineteenth century worker’s booklet called “a morality,” and which Foucault described, at the end of the twentieth century, as a “lifestyle, a way of life,” a “form of relationship the individual has to one’s own self, one’s present time, one’s entourage, to the future, the group and the family.”
This transformation cannot be administered through wage increase and welfare state spending. Wages stagnate and social expenditures are reduced and preferably funneled toward aid for businesses and tax breaks for the richest segment of the population.
A system like that of the welfare state levels out inequalities, even at the margins; it corrects for “irrationalities” and regulates the “excesses” of the market. It is, according to neoliberal logic, an anticompetitive system. For liberals, a system that shares risks serves to distort competition by introducing the concept of social justice, that is, a noneconomic logic that hinders the proper functioning of the market, while they perceive the market as the only system capable of a rational and efficient distribution of resources.

How then to ensure the resources necessary to transform the employee and individual into an entrepreneur, without pay raises or free “handouts”? Why, with access to credit! Access to income is replaced with access to credit – mortgage, consumer, and insurance credit. The United States subprime policy promised the rise of an “ownership society,” as then-president George W. Bush called it. And of course its success was made manifest in 2008, when it bore fruit in the form of the biggest financial, economic, and social crisis the world had seen since 1929.

With the neoliberals, deproletarianization made a leap forward in the public discourse, but was in actuality transformed into an economic and existential insecurity that is simply the new name for an old reality: proletarianization. This new proletarianization affects important segments of the middle classes and workers in the new trades (freelance entertainment workers, for example), what was called, before its collapse, the new economy. The image of the entrepreneur of the self took a major hit, becoming considerably less bright and flamboyant than it was during its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. By advocating wage deflation and drastically reducing social spending, the neoliberals produced an entrepreneur of the self, who was more or less poor, more or less indebted, but always insecure and forced to manage its employability, its human capital, its debts and economic and social hardships, in short, its misery, as if it were managing a business.

It is neither necessary nor required to start up one’s own business to become an entrepreneur of the self. It is enough to simply behave as if one were one’s own boss, to embrace the logic of the employer, to espouse entrepreneurial attitudes, and to adopt the ways of relating to the world, the self and others of a corporate leader in the rational exploitation of the self. The training courses offered by those institutions that support the unemployed, RSA beneficiaries, and welfare recipients, all contribute in a fairly credible way to the production of a subject fit for enterprise, or at least, an individual who happily subscribes to its semiotics and values.

Precariousness/proletarianization does not only connote economic impoverishment, but subjective desiccation. Because the one who suffers its consequences loses control over time, knowledge and expertise. This phenomenon was particularly noticeable in the most industrialized sectors that our research touched upon, media and broadcasting.

Governing the poor through pastoral power
There are various measures that operate and assorted power relationships that exert themselves on the labor market. Beside those “universal” laws voted for by Parliament, that define, for example, statutory working time and those rules and standards negotiated by social partners – employers’ organizations and trade unions – that have to do with companywide agreements such as the regulation of financing terms and unemployment benefits, we have also identified an arrangement of power relations that is neither comprehensive or general, but local, molecular, singular.

For example, and in no particular order, individual follow-up carried out on the unemployed, placement techniques used by the RSA, business management, “coaching” the unemployed, ongoing vocational training, credit access and debt repayment measures, et cetera, are all processes of subjugation that have nothing to do with compliance with a law, a contract, or a regulation.

These techniques of differentiation, of individualization, of subjugation, hinted at or foreseen by what Michel Foucault called “pastoral power,” were inflected, modified, enriched, and expanded first by the “safeguards” of national interest (the almighty Raison d’État) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and then by the welfare state at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.

They therefore transformed the technique of the “government of souls” into the techniques of the “political government of men.” This briefly summarized genealogy allows us to specify the discreet, important, daily, “molecular” – to borrow one of Deleuze’s terms – nature of neoliberal government. It also allows us to examine how life is governed beyond the separation of the public and private spheres.

Intrusive modes of control over the unemployed and insecure
Here are some short excerpts from interviews conducted with RSA beneficiaries. The topic of discussion was the “individual follow-up” they must undergo once a month.
The relationship that develops over these monthly meetings between the administration and the beneficiary can best be described as the action of the agent on the action of the beneficiary, and seeks to structure the latter’s possibilities for agency. It can therefore be qualified as a “strategic” relationship between two subjects, in the sense that, while it remains asymmetrical, both the agent and the beneficiary are “free,” as Foucault would have put it, that is, they have a choice to act differently. The meetings serve to guide the behavior of the beneficiaries, to control their conduct, to stimulate and motivate them and push them to participate in “projects” and to subscribe to a pre-established identity. The techniques used in these individual follow-ups impact life, privacy, those things that are most personal to the beneficiaries. They push the beneficiary; help it to question itself, its lifestyle, projects and validity. They impel it to undertake what is called “work on the self.” Through these techniques, the state and its institutions continually breach the borders between public and private space, public and private life. The state and its institutions invade the personal space of individuals, influencing their subjectivities, harnessing their most personal aptitudes, guiding their behaviors through interventions – in fact, controls – that cross the threshold of the home, entering into the private sphere and establishing a sort of everlasting trial.
These first excerpts are taken from a workshop carried out with beneficiaries of the RMI (revenu minimum d'insertion). The workshop took place before July 1, 2009, so before the implementation of the reforms at the RMI and the creation of the RSA.

A 25-year-old beneficiary of the RSA for three years:
They offer you these skills assessments, for example, all the time, and you may very well know what they are, they always have a part that touches on your private life. I know people who’ve undergone the in-depth skills assessments and despite the fact that the questions are supposed to be employment oriented, there’s also a side to them that’s not comfortable for everyone, an exercise that not everyone is used to doing, a sort of assessment of your life where you ask yourself these questions, reflect on yourself, like a sort of intrusion in the shape of this disgusting vocabulary that forces you into self-reflection.

A 32-year old woman, who moves regularly between temp work and the RSA:
Because I seem a little young, and I used to be, the relationship that develops often takes the shape of one between an adult and a teenager – and here, also, my officer was a woman. I want to find my path. She’s there to give me advice, and for the time being it’s not such a big deal that I still don’t have a permanent job. Sometimes it’s easier to play a game, to give people what they want to hear, than be really honest. In the “individual follow-up” you have to be accountable. Once a month, the beneficiaries have to tell (or reenact) what they’ve done with their life, to account for their time.

A musician who chose to be at the RSA:
I was always anxious about the end of the month. Are they going to strike me off the list? How am I going to pay my rent this month? Several times, I asked myself: really, is this even worth it? Wouldn’t I be better off finding a small part-time job that’ll give me the same income but where I won’t have 36,000 people on my tail asking me to take account? You don’t know what kind of people these are, these CAF people. Every time you come here you’re a little kid again, coming to school, like, “have you behaved well?” and “have you done what was asked of you?” And you’re there and you’re like: “For fuck’s sake, all this so they can throw me a bloody 400 euros?”

But there are also tactics, indeed, strategies of resistance that are deployed during the individual follow-ups, ways of defying the institutional invasion into the lives of the beneficiaries. Using these defense strategies, the RSA beneficiaries try to avoid having their life governed for them, in order to be able to – as much as possible – govern themselves, to keep some control over their own life. The production line of what economists call “human capital,” that is, an individual assumed to be “independent” and “responsible for its own employability,” an individual who produces results and has plans for finding a job, passes through the realm of the individual’s desires, passions, opinions and choices. Neoliberal rhetoric would like to reassure us that desire, opinion, and choice belong firmly to the private sphere, where the individual reigns supreme and can act freely. In fact, they are more and more the targets of increasingly public action as unemployment rises and establishes itself as a structural reality within society.

A 25-year-old beneficiary:
Once, she was asking me questions about my interests and what I wanted to do with my life and why I chose to do what I do and I returned the question: “What about you, why do you work here?” Because I felt it had gone too far, I didn’t want to be telling her my whole life […].  I think that her insistence was linked to the idea she had of me, how she saw the situation: that I was someone who had not yet found their calling, their path, and that she had to help me understand what was happening, because I had some skills, I just had to find out where to apply them. I couldn’t stand that kind of relationship where I had to keep justifying myself, where I had to tell my life story. I told her nothing. I’m sure she thought I was some kind of freak.

A director who has been at the RSA for years:
The officer asked me to describe how I spend my day. And so, I told her: I ask myself questions about fidelity, that’s part of my work. She said: I don’t see the link. But from my perspective, you can’t really answer this question, what do you do with your day? Because the minute you start answering, you’re justifying yourself, you’re taking account. I shouldn’t be forced to have to justify these 400 euros.

But even in the cases where the beneficiaries resist this intrusion, this assault on their person and subjectivity, they are no less bothered by this “work on the self” that the institution obliges. The officer’s questions cannot but reach their subjectivity, no matter their desire and capacity for resistance.

A 25-year-old beneficiary:
I play around, even if sometimes I end up right on the border of the things that actually worry me, like, for example, having to talk about what projects are conceivable for you and which might be feasible in this context. It comes awfully close to asking, “So what’s the reason you get out of bed in the morning, the reason you do anything at all?” This sort of monitoring also forces you to ask yourself about the kinds of “projects” that you’d like to do but that you still haven’t done – that you may never do – because you don't know why, because it’s hard and because it makes you ask all these questions about what you’re really doing with your life and what “projects” – because this word is ever-present – you’re working on. But they don’t understand it that way at all, they don’t get where it hits me. They just use these words. It’s like we’re talking about completely different things, but using the same words.

A director, who alternates between periods of being entitled to unemployment insurance under the Annexe 8 provision and periods where he is supported by the RSA, gave us some revealing insight on the nature of the new techniques for managing RSA beneficiaries. His experience was that of a form of control that is no longer managed hierarchically, but personally, by the individual. The orders don’t come from a superior, from an institution, but from within; from one’s own conscience, one’s own sense of responsibility.

It’s fairly obvious in my dealings with social institutions that control (external and internal) is more up to me rather than to any proper hierarchy. It would be hard for me to say that my RMI counselor actually gives me any orders. It’s more about my convincing her that I am able to give them to myself.

This order is maintained less by hierarchy and more by a way of life, of projects, a behavioral framework that the individual is supposed to adopt. The insistence on, first, the conception of projects and then, carrying them out, is a function of this new form of “soft power.” In fact, the projects are carried out by the individual, they are its being, its life itself. It is the subject that issues the orders; it is the boss. The proof: it must answer only to its own projects! The only problem is that while the subject may very well act as if it is the one in control, the truth is that it is merely adapting to a socioeconomic arrangement, adopting its accepted, and therefore hardly questionable, standards of living, that can all be boiled down to one phrase: “You have your own projects – that’s great!”

Since liberalism is a system of government of souls and bodies that operates through the construction of an environment that obliges people to control themselves, how is resistance possible? How can it be escaped? And so, in parallel with the analyses carried out on the mechanisms of subjugation, we can open an inquiry on the collective attempts to undo them.

Our interviewees have pointed out how these new techniques do not apply solely to controlling those deemed “incompetent” in some way, but also to those who are supposed to be firing on all capacities, including within that most “desirable” category – employability. And so these techniques of control follow a person around through periods of both work and unemployment.

When I’m working, I’m also bound by a form of subjugation, in the sense that the connections that are made are not all linked to or determined by my work contract, or to explicit “orders” given by my boss. There’s also a whole set of behaviors (usually internalized) that also come into play (a zeal for seeking gratification, for example). Subordination and subjugation are closely linked. These mechanisms are further exacerbated given that subordination is now less restrictive for both employee and employer. It’s much easier to mess up, to slow down production, to actually sabotage it (I’m intentionally giving an extreme example) when you’re on an open-ended contract (CDI) than to endlessly be searching for permanent work (CDD)! And, I guess it’s the same for an employer, who’d rather have an employee who is zealous about doing everything alone and doing it well in a context of “light” subordination rather than having to sign them on permanently, in the context of classic employee subordination, where you have to always be giving orders, ensure they’re being followed, intervene to make sure they’re respected, et cetera. It would be interesting to see whether when employee subordination becomes less significant, subjugation comes to take up the space (and apparent freedom) it has left behind […] one must also question the different kinds of attachments that are made over the course of work; subjective, emotional, et cetera. And it’s also the fact that all these attachments are beholden to capitalism that makes it so hard to destroy. In any case, subjugation continues to work at full capacity.

[1] Franz Kafka: The Castle: A New Translation, Based on the Restored Text. Translated and with a preface by Mark Harman. New York 1998, chapter XXIII.

[2] Ibid., chapter V.

[3] Benjamin Franklin: Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One (07/21/1748).

[4] Alain Ehrenberg: The Fatigue of Being Oneself. Depression and Society. Paris 1998.

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