Reviewed by Christian Garland
More than 12 years since the 2008 Great Recession, which began a year earlier as the sub-prime crisis, near-instantaneously becoming a financial crisis then full-blown economic crisis, neoliberalism, the dominant orthodoxy for 40 years for the US, UK, EU and indeed the whole world, remains just that, the dominant and hegemonic orthodoxy. Whilst neoliberalism would appear to have survived, for now, it is clear that ‘much has changed’ in the intervening decade, which was of course one of unending austerity as states bailed out banks and sought to socialize private losses as public debt, making their populations pay. In the early 2020s, there are many material realities which did not exist in the late 2000s, only starting to appear over the 2010s: for example, the gig economy, platform workers, bogus self-employment and zero-hours contracts.
Similarly, the hyper-acceleration of digital technologies has further hollowed out any kind of stable employment, even if it had been temporary and short-term, and more often than not through a third-party agency. The problem of technology rendering human labour obsolete has existed since the Industrial Revolution swept all before it 200 years ago. Indeed, the reified social relations of the capitalist economy are embedded in the technologies it produces: what they are used for and in many cases, the singular purpose for which they are produced determines the only purpose for which they can be used. The paradigm example of how technology owned by those who profit from capitalism – corporations and their shareholders and management – could be said to be the production of drones for Amazon and other suppliers to monitor the habits and importantly, the speed of their warehouse staff in despatching orders. This is the societal reality that Peter Fleming’s The Death of Homo Economicus and Phoebe V. Moore’s The Quantified Self critically and unflinchingly examine.
Homo Economicus takes its title from the dismal science’s own no less dismal hypothetical ‘rational economic man’ who is an asocial monad continuously seeing himself and others only in rational economic terms of calculation. This homily of orthodox economics still believes its magical thinking to be a ‘science’, but it is not and it should be repeated, it is an ideology in which the hypothetical monad maximizes what can be gained from this same instrumental reason in which everything and everyone is an objectified means-to-an-end. Fleming’s book is not merely a critique of neoclassical economics – although it certainly doesn’t spare it – but an up-to-date diagnosis of its effects on society in the early twenty-first century. Early on, he also notes that from 2016, it has taken an authoritarian turn politically in many countries, and it could be argued that this is in large part a misguided attempt on the part of electorates to deal with the many social problems ‘wreckage economics’ creates and worsens, the biggest of these being inequality. In the hope of addressing inequality, populations elected populist demagogues, the loudest being the former president of the United States. These were or are in power in countries with democratic systems, because enough of the voting electorate thought a strongman would ‘shake things up’ and apparently ‘solve’ the problems of the country, even though across the world where these kinds of politicians and governments have held political power, they have done no such thing.
In this crisis-ridden world of division and uncertainty, Fleming describes ‘the degradation of everyday life’, on being über-screwed (30): that being a free-floating non-employee of the now-notorious platform or app in which those who work for it and create value, are told that they are self-employed independent contractors, despite remaining in every sense, hyper-exploited employees of a corporation valued in the billions. The degraded version of late capitalism in which we struggle to live is one which breaks life down into component parts, offering fragments of work so far as it is necessary, but where ‘the labouring economic subject’ (32) is always dependent on work, ‘in which it has become connected to everything else in life and one’s fortunes are entirely dependent on it.’ (30)
Fleming further develops his thesis by showing how neoliberalism in the 2020s likes to constantly speak of ‘flexibility’ (32), but in practice, all this means is the individualization of everything that was once understood in collective terms as the responsibility of society. Flexibility can also be understood as a post-political ideology in which there is a less celebrated obverse: precarity in which existence is made into a life and death tightrope walk of unconnected atomized economic subjects rendered objects in an each-against-all struggle for survival.
Mapping the coordinates for the book, Fleming uses the first half to conduct a wide survey of how the ‘uberization’ of precarious non-subjects was brought about. Again, the 40-year project of neoliberalism in which everything has a price had to first create the ‘corporate warscapes’ which it of course won (56). These warscapes were ones of privatization, de-regulation and finacialization, to get to the gig economy of desperate and terminally insecure platform workers and the bogus ‘record numbers in employment’ touted by politicians and counted by the Office of National Statistics (pre-pandemic) using bogus self-employment and zero-hours contracts to comprise such record numbers, saying nothing of the harsh material reality for many of those counted as ‘in employment’.
Covering a vast range of contemporary examples and linking these with the 40-year project of neoliberalism, Fleming uses a compelling version of immanent critique to show that late capitalism is far removed from what Adam Smith understood in the late 1700s as The Wealth of Nations. From the obsession with tendering and outsourcing to impose internal markets in public services, in which a few commercial interests are able to exploit a natural monopoly and a basic public good (water, public transport or utilities), to the horror stories of what was once called the ‘welfare state’, now re-purposed as a gruelling marathon of punishment and humiliation, none of it bears any similarity to Smith, or Keynes for that matter – or anything like free markets or a mixed economy. Indeed Homo Economicus, whilst itself being a non-doctrinaire, unorthodox kind of Marxism, shows also that in advanced economies like the US and UK, what late capitalism has arrived at in the early twenty-first century, are oligarchy and plutocracy.
Effectively previewing the second half of the book with an overview of the fatal early twenty-first century long term trend of ‘wellness’ and compulsory positivity, sub-headings like ‘Too ill’, ‘Too sad’ and ‘Too angry’ highlight exactly what is being critically incised. ‘Compulsory positivity’ draws heavily on behavioural economics and ‘nudging’ to ‘get people to do what you want without them realising’, and ‘wellness’ demanding fitter-happier-more productive (non)-subjects. The sadism and calculated cruelty of the DWP best embody what Fleming identifies in Sartre, noting that sadists aim to ‘erase the subjectivity of the victim’ (122), although ‘lean’ companies and institutions’ HR departments will be familiar with this too, even if they deny it and claim that their only purpose is to ensure the ‘wellness’ of employees, including of course when their posts are downsized and they leave the organization.
Chapter 4, ‘The Theatre of Loss … Work’, is a comprehensive critique of the ideology of work. The nature of work in societies with advanced economies like the UK, much more often than not amounts to what the late David Graeber correctly identified as ‘bullshit jobs’. This is of course at the same time as work becomes more precarious, uncertain and hard to come by. Late capitalism needing to preserve the social relation of wage labour even as this becomes obsolete, and capital owning the means of automation – these are used to both displace human beings and monitor them, as well as of course inventing needless and pointless ‘bullshit jobs’: ‘economic pointlessness and existential sacrifice’ (140). What can be described as the clockwork futility of 9-5, spending 15-20 hours a week commuting to an office to do what can be done remotely at home, has been highlighted by the pandemic and has become standard.
Over the course of the second half of Homo Economicus, Fleming draws out the assumptions of the seemingly nebulous ‘human capital’ movement and its consequences. Put bluntly, ‘human capital’ can be summed up as ‘Fakes Smiles and First Names’ and ‘Forced Informality, to better individualize every area of life, seeing human beings as so much capital: emotions and personalities drawn on and manipulated so that work can go far beyond eight hours a day for total existential affect. ‘Ultimately, this is how an impossible life is lived’ (129).
Moore’s The Quantified Self in Precarity builds on a five-year study of the subject and takes up many of the same themes and prescient issues as Homo Economicus. The Quantified Self is a detailed study, informed by Marxian and feminist critical theory and critical political economy. Importantly, in the era of ‘immaterial’ and ‘affective’ labour, when unfortunately, materialism is often neglected, if not ignored altogether in much of critical theory, the thesis of Moore’s book develops a formidable definition and critique of precarity with all that implies.
Beginning with a definition of the quantified self, Moore explains that the concept should be understood as an autonomic self: ‘where the mind, sentiment and body are less separable than mainstream Cartesian modernism dictates’. Incredibly, in some ways similar to the ‘human capital’ movement, there is also a ‘quantified self’ movement which aims to continuously push the autonomic self to become (self) tracking, (self) monitoring and (self) surveying to better compete against other quantified autonomic selves. This of course further alters employment relations, which were one-sided anyway, favouring the employer over the employee in what has always been an asymmetric power relation, but which becomes that much more so under conditions of precarity. As Moore notes in setting out her thesis: ‘The digitally quantified worker is precarious and the insecurity of quantified workplaces are symptoms of productivity capture in unstable times’ (2)
What could otherwise be dismissed as a lifestyle ‘self-improvement’ fad becomes far more insidious when it is made use of by employers. Many companies and institutions in the early 2020s are of course busy circumventing the employer-employee relation as far as possible, at least when it applies to them having to take on any sort of responsibility to employees, foremost among these being to deny that they are employees at all, but ‘self-employed’ and ‘independent contractors’.
Giving a comprehensive overview of critical political economy and autonomist literature, there are many ways in to a dense – in the best, intellectually demanding sense – of what can be a forbidding subject. Moore spends some time in the first chapter setting out the structure for the rest of the book, and it benefits from such close attention to detail and thought for the reader. The Quantified Self importantly draws the link between life and especially work under late capitalism becoming ever more insecure and precarious as ‘wellness’ under such conditions becomes of paramount importance to employers.
Chapter 2 outlines what can be broadly understood as the hi-tech neo-Taylorist approach of many employers, who prefer what could be called ‘micro (self) management’ for making sure their workers are agile and the organization lean. Technology is used in an instrumental and rationalized way to quantify and measure productivity, and ‘find the barriers’ that prevent workers from realising their agile selves: from tracking devices to workers mouthing self-help platitudes. As Moore says:
‘Management methods reﬂect assumptions about the mind, the body and the machine and their role within each historical period’s labour process and corresponding work design models. In each historical bloc, capital attempts […] to ensure class subordination or otherwise attempt to obscure class and to identify inventive ways to measure and then proﬁt from the surpluses in other forms of corporeal and affective, reproductive labour.’ (36)
The side of labour, individualized and atomized after 40 years of neoliberalism, cannot object to this except in an individualized and atomized way – individual resistance met by employers as a simple matter of replacing the employee without fuss for the organization. However, collective resistance and opposition is possible, as base unions and their many successes against Uber, Deliveroo and others seeking to circumvent legislation and employer obligations show.
The book packs an impressive amount of different ‘labour theories’ into its 225 pages, dialectically using and synthesizing works such as Marx’s Grundrisse, early works like the 1844 Manuscripts, EP Thompson, Bertell Ollman as well as the neglected work of Harry Bravermann. Moore correctly notes that the side of capital, whether it be in the nineteenth, twentieth or twenty-first centuries, seeks always to de-skill and render obsolete whatever strengthens labour.
Of course, over the second half of the twentieth-century, advanced economies became ‘post-industrial’, meaning a shift from heavy and extractive industry to service-based ‘white collar’ work in which ‘affective’ and ‘emotional’ labour are key. In keeping with this process, ‘mental’ or cognitive labour amounts to merely being allotted instrumental tasks to carry out, with what these are or why they must be carried out never in question. Considering how routine and mechanized work has become, especially in the service or ‘white collar’ sectors, it is nonetheless a scenario where employees are expected to constantly hone their ‘soft skills’ – an instrumental utilization of people’s subjectivity and humanity against which The Quantified Self builds its formidable critique.
Chapter 3, ‘Precarity 4.0: A Political Economy of New Materialism and the Quantified Worker’, opens in Marxian and feminist terms and sets out the realities of alienation and continuous insecurity of precarity, providing an historical overview of late capitalism’s 40-year project, and why financialization, de-regulation and off-shoring its restructuring of labour processes are ‘symptomatic’ (79) of precarity.
Tracing a definite pattern with the upsurge in precarity over the past 20 years, Moore uses a materialist critical political economy to advance the book’s thesis: neoliberalism and precarity not only go together, but as this version of capitalism continues, so will precarity. Not only will precarious employment increase – as it is doing in the US and UK – but many of those roles not previously exposed to such harsh realities will also face them: something that is also happening in both countries and indeed across the global economy.
Utilizing early autonomist critiques of Fordism, defining ‘work’ in the mid-late twentieth century as still being based in factories and heavy industry, The Quantified Self rightly notes that for the side of labour in its early autonomist conceptual and militant practical forms, the reduction of work and time spent at work was bound up with 1970s Italy and Operaismo’s refusal of work. This was rapidly taken up by the side of capital however – across all advanced economies – with ‘a job for life’ and attempts to secure any sort of employment, as work became service-based and informalized, flexible, contingent and chronically insecure.
The book’s materialism is of some significance both for its own welcome unorthodox version of Marxism and for its feminism – also not easily categorized. ‘New materialism, ontologically, from the feminist angle, is not only an idea or a philosophical treatise, but is lived, practiced, and agential.’ (99) The Quantified Self goes into some depth in its critical survey of contemporary theories of precarity but sticks to Marxian and feminist critical theory, not wasting time with fashionable academic tautology, and it is that much stronger for it. It is impossible to summarize the full richness of this survey in a review essay, but a quote can effectively show what is under discussion in terms of ‘affective’, ‘emotional’ labour and the body and just what is demanded under ‘Precarity 4.0’: ‘On a bodily level, affective labourers are not engaging in creative production using our own affective capacities; we are engaged in a type of affective repression in which required subordinate performances corrode our own psychosomatic and bodily wellbeing.’ (113)
Toward the end of ‘Precarity 4.0’, Moore gives convincing evidence for hope that the nascent ‘precariat’ is beginning to not only gain consciousness of its own location in society, but of its agency. Under the section ‘Affective Subjectivities and Spaces of Resistance’, Moore lists some of the forms resistance takes,
‘Active resistance includes workers’ hacking or appropriation of apps, surveillance where people ‘watch the watcher’ using their own methods to gain access to information they do not normally have, culture jamming, using anonymity networks and personal devices at work, situational leveraging where people may ‘steal’ breaks and masking them as work, and feet dragging when asked to complete tasks that exceed agreed working hours.’ (121)
Chapters 4 and 5 include the book’s empirical sections, the former taking in ‘unseen labour and all-of-life surveillance’ – something largely denied by employers even as they make extensive and cynical use of it. The latter chapter involves extensive interviews with precarious workers and are strongly recommended. They should be read in detail and will provide notable examples to build on for anyone undertaking their own study of the subject.
The book’s concluding chapter, ‘Robot Army of Redressers?’, assesses the seeming ‘rule’ of algorithms, the ultimate in instrumental technological separation of mind and body – and indeed the exclusion of human agency; that is, its complete removal besides those programming algorithms according to their own instrumental criteria. The Quantified Self offers much toward the bigger project of understanding and countering precarity, thus concluding, ‘[r]esearchers must look closely at the ways in which workers have begun to explicitly resist the quantification of our work.’ (223)
27 June 2021