Neoliberal precarity and ‘affective resistance’


“I can easily imagine someone always doubting before he opened his front door whether an abyss did not yawn behind it, and making sure about it before he went through the door (and he might on some occasion be proved right) – but that does not make me doubt in the same case…” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, published 1977.

The term precarity, or precariousness, is increasingly entering our consciousness, as the neoliberal assault on our working conditions and welfare state continues. Moreover, the idea of governing through insecurity – the cycle of media panic, knee-jerk policy development, social media addiction, wild consumption, the threat of marginalisation and exclusion – has similarly received traction. The problem is, both ideas seem like a closed loop in which a fantastical golden age of past security, based on social security and state collectivism, is held up as an ideal. An ideal, against which the present is bounded by loss in a downward spiral of fear, anxiety, fragmentation and a piratical market.

The trouble with all this is that it borders on a kind of depressed thinking which doesn’t offer up the possibility of resilience in the midst of a crisis. Nor how reflexively in engaging with fear, anxiety and insecurity, can be productive of change. All important political movements, or moments of revelatory thinking, have emerged from rupture and the anxiety brought about by change. It is said that Wittgenstein, quoted above, discovered renewed purpose in the trenches of the First World War, writing Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. So what’s holding us back?

With that in mind, I just wanted to offer up two perspectives on precarity, which seem to get to why a rejection of collectivism and security is so compelling, and resist the idea of a closed narrative of loss. The first is by Rob Horning, on Precarity and ‘affective resistance’, which explains why precariousness may not be experienced as an all-encompassing bad. So he says:

“Precarity applies to a specific subjectivity, the lived experience of ambient insecurity. Though the word precarity is only necessary because of the political urgency of describing this widespread insecurity, the experience of precarity is not inherently or completely negative. The “positive” components of precarity — the sense that it provides for the freedom of flexibility, rewards certain kinds of creativity and opportunism, promotes a kind of absolute individualism that can be taken for dignity, and accommodates or even requires a degree of social and geographic mobility — are part of what has allowed for neoliberalism’s implementation. Precarity is another way of describing why many Americans seem to instinctively reject the idea of labor unions even as the decline of unionism has given bosses more power.”

What he is saying here is that people will trade security for freedom, individuality, flexibility and mobility, even if not everyone will experience the full potentials of those ideals. Neoliberalism has its compensations, and people are not necessarily subjugated by its machinations.

The second, put forward by Isabel Lorey in the conclusion of her book, State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, is this:

“…the new form of labour force based on communication, knowledge, creativity and affect is by no means exclusively productive for a new phase of capitalist reproduction. The economization of the social, the coincidence of work and life, the demand for the whole person to be involved in performative-cognitive, affective labour, in other words, the capitalization of modes of subjectivation – these processes are not all total, all-encompassing, or wholly determined…in dealing with contingency, the possibility arises at the same time of being able to leave and start something new: the potentiality of exodus and constituting…a one-sided emphasis on danger and threat fails to recognise the immanent potentiality of the empowering, resistive, reversal or flight.”

Lorey’s point is that in precarity there can be resistance, and governance has overplayed its hand if it believes that people can be entirely controlled by a totalitarianism of fear. All our current realities are more contested, and contestable, than we think. The individualism and freedom of neoliberal precarity has two faces.

In other words, the potential for the future exists through an engaged distance and resilience in the war that is the present, not rushing like children into the arms of our fantasies.

Next installment…why we need to unhook ourselves from ‘the matrix’.

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