“Every Person for Themselves” Economy

Justin Fox, who doesn’t blog enough anymore, wrote a good post about this Democracy article by Andrei Cherny, about the “Individual Age.” That’s Cherny’s phrase for what used to be called “the new capitalism” and what left-leaning types (like me) tend to describe as “precarity” or “post-Fordist labor conditions.” The security that once came from long-term employment with large firms and the safety net supplied jointly by employers and the state (and secured through labor union activism) were discarded with the rise of neoliberalism, which preached deregulation, outsourcing, globalization and total worker flexibility (remember Who Moved My Cheese the 1990s ode to employee servility?). Neoliberal (or post-Fordist or postindustrial) relations of production dispensed with employer-employee loyalty and made most workers free agents, drifting from job to job, perpetually insecure, perpetually having to sell one’s usefulness anew to employers always looking for reasons to get rid of you. Fox cites this 1997 Fast Company article, “Free Agent Nation” by Dan Pink, as an early reflection of these changes; Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism and The Corrosion of Character are all about these developments as well, and more recently Tina Brown termed it “the gig economy.”

Here’s how Cherny explains this change:

The differences between the economy of the 19th century and that of the 21st are too many to list, but today, as in Jefferson’s time of independent farmers and shopkeepers, it is individuals, not large conglomerations, that propel the economy. The number of Americans working for themselves is growing rapidly and most Americans no longer work full-time for someone else. Yet it is not just the self-employed or entrepreneurs who are part of this new world. Every worker is grappling with the Individual Age. Lifetime employment with a single company is largely a thing of the past and the dependable health, retirement, and training benefits such a relationship held are fast disappearing. Americans born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of 11 jobs between the ages of 18 and 44. That trend is accelerating and is much more pronounced among those born in later decades. Untethered from large institutions, bouncing from one job to the next, today each individual is ultimately responsible for guiding their own career and economic future. Today, everyone is an entrepreneur; everyone is their own small business.

The way Cherny tells it, this “trend” is just sort of happening and no one is driving it or can do anything about it; it’s just the world historical process playing itself out. This elides the actual concerted effort (ideological, political, economic, etc.) that has gone into making the neoliberal condition a reality, allowing for the needs of capital to dictate the living conditions of more and more people, subsuming more and more of everyday life.

Cherny hopes that government will change policy to support personal entrepreneurhood: “Health-care and retirement benefits should be made more personalized, portable, affordable, and universal.” But as Fox points out, the emergence of the entrepreneurial self undermines the sort of solidarity necessary to lobby the government for this change to be implemented and for fairer tax treatment and the like. “To get us laws that reflect the new workplace reality, Free Agent Nation, by its very nature dispersed and allergic to large organizations, needs to develop a unified voice. Can it?” Fox asks. I’m pretty skeptical that it can; the destruction of such solidarity is almost explicitly the purpose of neoliberal reform, as the attack on public-sector unions’ bargaining rights suggests. The goal is to get every person thinking and acting for themselves, which makes them most desperate and vulnerable — oh, wait, I’m sorry, I meant free and flexible.

Pink, in the Fast Company article, paints a picture of precarity as knowledge workers making a savvy career choice to be independent, outside the corporate box and therefore “authentic.” Various interviewees in the article gloat about their blissful work lives, like this serial small-time entrepreneur:

“I used to think that what I needed to do was balance my life, keep my personal and professional lives separate,” she says. “But I discovered that the real secret is integration. I integrate my work into my life. I don’t see my work as separate from my identity.” The mask is gone. For this free agent, work is who she is.

As Pink stresses, in the neoliberal world, “work is personal” and there are no boundaries separating work and nonwork. This fits with the tendency for our consumption to increasingly serve a productive function in the economy as “immaterial” or “affective” labor, contributing to marketing innovations and enhancing brands’ equity and devising new uses for goods, new consumer wants, new ways to get pleasure from spending. As more of our self-presentation can be captured digitally and tracked and amalgamated, particularly through social media and mobile communications, our identities themselves become productive factories of economic value.

Pink assert this sort of thing makes work inseparable from fun. And maybe in a noncapitalist society the disappearance of work-life separation would mean freedom from alienation, pure harmonious praxis, meaningful and recognized work for one’s livelihood. But under capitalism, this lack of boundaries yields limitless insecurity, and it leads us to entrepreneurialize ourselves, see ourselves as little firms and work hard to augment our personal brand (which seems to me synonymous with neoliberal subjectivity). Rather than work becoming fun, fun becomes work, and hipsterism in it current guise is born. Our identity work becomes anxious, calculating, inescapably reflexive, the opposite of spontaneous. We become conscious that every little gesture must ideally be turned to account somehow to help us get ahead and protect our standard of living.

I think the rise of social media — beyond merely mobilizing immaterial labor — has had a lot to do with structuring, promulgating, and naturalizing the entrepreneurial subjectivity necessary for neoliberalism to function smoothly. They support the concept ideologically and institutionally where government doesn’t, giving us a sense that we are capitalizing on ourselves and compensating for the collectivity and security we’ve lost. So the personal brand supplants the personality or the lifestyle — terms that horrified earlier generations of social critics worried about commercialized identity. Now we network and self-promote and see this as the extent and purpose of social life. Of course! How else could it be? Why wouldn’t we capitalize on our friend quotient, our “social graph” — why shouldn’t we measure ourselves in terms of what we can sell about ourselves? That’s now how we discover what is “authentic” about us. It seems that we are approaching a point that only what we can sell or hype about ourselves seems real to ourselves — only what is retweeted or liked on Facebook speaks to who we really are.