Precarity is the condition of having to endure despite the toll. Exhaustion and endurance are the temporal dimensions of precarity. They are also corporeal.
To avoid abstraction, lets begin with where I am. I am sittting at the Bagel shop I deliever for, typing this as I wait for another order. I had three hours of sleep, obligations and applications robbing my hours from me. But, to not wake up, to not go to work is not a choice - to do so would be to threaten the conditions of existence. My endurance, and exhuastion, is also bodily, my head feels sluggish and heavy despite the coffee and there is a new pain in my neck. And yet, as a bike delivery boy, I must endure and use this tired aching body.
It is easy to criticize myself- this exhaustion being the failure not of a system that demands work of my body to survive but the result of my own managment of my time and my body. I should have been more productive, I shouldn't have left those applications to the last minute, I should be doing physical therap more regularly for my neck.
I think about a piece my friend is writing on self-care, the way in which my body is being treated as a machine- something to be optimized and oiled up, exhaustion to be treated with a pill. My relation is one of alienation- my body confronts me as something other than myself. Yet this relation is not one of total estrangement, its is more akin to the relation a collector has to a valuable object- something precious to be cared for.
Self-care introduces a split in the subject- the manner in which the carer and the caree are seperate. Lawrence Cohen talks about this relational aspect of care, about how care is premised on a recognition of the object of care a recognition that is recieved. He also speaks of the cunning of this recognition, the manner in which the relation of care is premised on a politics of recognition- what bodies are recognizable as deserving of care , what vulnerability is legible and entails ethical obligations.
Thinking of the binds of this recogniton, I am drawn to reflect on the relation to self under an exhausting neoliberal regime of precarity. The bodily faults and physical injury, in the form of exhaustion and vulnerability, are read not as a failure of a larger regime but of a personal failure to manage the self. Here, our own precarity, our own manner in which we fail to ever be the productive, well managed machines we are demanded to be is figured as a lack. Yet it is the recognition of this lack which makes the self legible as an object of care, the motor which drives the engine of neoliberal self-care .I want to "hack" my productivity and get my body "into shape". The very terms of self-recogntion upon which the care is premised introduce the operational categories and bodily politics of the neoliberal subject.
Self-care as self-discipline.
This contrortion of my body to machanic rhythms and physical technics is structured by my own concern forendurance. I want to survive and therefore I mus work and because I must work I must manage my body in such a way that it works and make of myself a working body.
Parenthetically, I wonder if this sort of relation to the self as a working body which I here am figuring as a sort of auto-entreprenueral self-disciplining reallly is fundementally novel to neoliberalism. Bodies had to be integrated into the machinary of production at the onset of capitalism. Focualt reminds us of this in the History of Sexuality as he tries to make sense of biopolitics.
Yet, in so far as this integration functions not through dispossession and state violence but through the sort of self-discipline that transforms the body into a productive, laboring machine, this is thought of thought of as distinctly "neoliberal". Perhaps this is a problem with Focault's account of the birth of biopolitics, where, as a historian, he periodizes what is actaully a structuring logic of capital. Or perhaps it is our own fault as readers,, who are so tempted to see a rejection and new path away from Marx that we overlook continuity..
There are of course values in attending to what marks the currrent phase of self-discipline as contemporary, the particularities of neoliberal self-discipline and care. We can think firstly of the restructuring of labor under neo-liberalism as it moves from waged labor to increasingly on-demand payment for particular tasks. This logic certainly infuses my job for which I am "working" right now , where my schedule changes week to week, coordinating my body and time with the changing demands of the New York Food delievery logistics through an algorithm. It also is the case with large tech companies, most notably the emoloyment methods o netflix, where people have unlimited vacation time and are hired to complete tasks not work for specific hours. Here, just as bike delivery, labor increasingly becomes entirely task based- not linked to hours worked but tips for delieveries - careers once immune from this logic become broken up into a series of tasks.
The particular issue of self-disciplining here is the manner in which this new compensation becomes entirely based on ones own self-disciplining. So while capitalism fundementally relies on the creation of scacity and the use of hunger to force people to sell their labor, the terms under which labor is sold shift in this neoliberal moment- to discrete on-demand tasks.
The factory is thus no longer the site of labor discipline, one only needs to look at the free planning and working at home opportunities afforded to tech workers to see that the disciplining no longer comes from on high in the space of work but is entirely mediated through self-discipline. That is to say, there is no seperation between the workplace and the home, no moment in which you should not be thinking of your body as a productive machine.
The novelty of this is not the alienated relation to the self, which marx noted charactarizing the conditions of labor, but the manner in which this alienation has entirely become asssumed. No longer needed are the pedagogical and disciplinary techniques of the supervisor or manager. We must govern ourselves according to this own logic. Welcome to the soical factory.
And again, the reason we do so is fundementally related to thematics of endurance in the face of precarity. We do not want to sell our labor so we look for the flexibility offered by the on-demand gig economy. But then, as over-worked uber drivers and exhausted bike delievery people like myself can tell you, we become aware that we must sell our labor to survive. And so, we sign up for more hours, clock into to the app that governs our work, let the algorithms know that our bodies are available to be part of the machinary of production.
Yet, I want to think of Moten and Harney here. That life hasn't become fully disciplined cause hey, we got this body politics surround. Cutting through, within and beyond the rhythms of neoliberal on-demand labor is the undercommons, that fugitive fostering of life that allows a certain autonomy- autonomy not from dependence in general but autonomy from the need to sell our bodies and labor to survive.
Right now, I can write this because in the bagel shop I work for, there are very few orders during the weekdays. Here,, in my repurposing of time,, we see an older form of worker insubordination- stealing time from the boss. Yet, in a post-wage gig economy,, this is no longer a possibility for time management is not the problem of the boss but of the self. So, the undercommons, the fugtive fostering of the posssibility of life and endurance becomes the only means of resisting capital's hold on the body.
As I leave the bagel shop, the baker gestures to me: here, take this bag of bagels.. It is a gift, part of an ongoing and unpayable social debt, a form of material support. The bagels, once private are transformed into something outside the commodity-form, a gift given, a token of friendship.. I bring the bagels home and they join the coffee and books my friends have stolen or been "gifted" from their work.
THe free bagels and cofffee, the near endless supply of books, these are free and given to the commons because in our labor we are necessarily given access to the condtions of existence and it is a possibility to divert these materials to the common. Not paying as much for food and coffee, reading books taken and not paid for, my condtions of existence are mediated less by my sellng of my body but throuh the mutual social debt of the undercommons. The material support-- the bagels and coffee-- mean that I buy less and work less.
This, I think, is what the poet Manuel Arturo Abreu means when they speak of "precarity devorced from austerity" and the precarity of abundance. Our own precarity forces us to expose ourselves to others and through this exposure we make gifts that never intend to be returned. THe mutualiziing tendancy that exists among precarious workers is not a given, but one possibility.
Just as likely as the freely given gift is the sort of narcisstic project of self improvement that leads to a hording of resources rather than putting them in common. I think here off some of the precarious bike delievery workers who work long hours in order to serve the materialism of a hip bike aesthetic: the chrome bag, the hexagonal bluetooth speaker,the addias sports wear and the track bike that doesn''t come cheap.
It is not the desire for these luxuries that I am crititiquing but the means by which they can only be aquired through the selling of labor which leads to this disciplining of the self.
Blog posts are supposed to be short and yet this one is longer than I can expect most readers to endure. So I will end on this one last reflection on materialism.
The danger of materialism is the manner in which it has in making us think that our desires can be filled through our alientated labor. We want something nice, so we work a little harder, take on more hours, work more gigs, discipline the self, endure exhaustion in service of aquiring that thing. ANd in doing so we transform ourselves into laboring machines. Classist arguements always decry the materialism of the precariat from the position that luxury is not something that the precarious deserve until they secure the more basic conditions of their existence.
This is not my point.. The desire for certain clothing, for fancy electronic equiptment is the material basis of a culture, a culture in which people recognize each other and have community. The question is not the materialism itself but the means of aquireing the materiaIs. I will end with this short annecdote in praise of looting::
Everytime "looting" breaks out there is an undeniably racialized aspect to its portrayal:: white people are gettting food and mediciine, surviving and invoking the state of emergency that tempororily suspends the rules of property in service of the endurance and survival of whiteness. On the otherhand black people are shown walking away with "luxury" or "inessential"" goods, liquor and electronics equiptment. Yet, I think that we must praise looting, highlighting how these two acts against the regime of property serve to put things in common that had previously been enclosed in the commodity form.
In the 70s there was a huge blackout in NY. it was the beginning of hiphop but the majority of young black and latino artists didn't have acccess to the electronic equiptment required for this form of expression. But when the blackout hit, there was a massive looting of electronic stores and millions of dollars of luxury electronic equiptment was stolen.
This equiptment became the material basis in the coming months and years for the dramatic growth of hip-hop.. So, we see in this looting not crass materialism but a sort of radical re-imagining of the distribution of resources. Of course, this rise of hiphop has fundementally stayed true to this fugitive origin story, becoming a global form whose beats quicken the hearts of the undercommons.. so, loot, put things in commons, create the possibilities of an existence outside the exhaustion of machanic bodies.
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