Flexibility I - Bourdieu and Flexploitation

I want to flesh out certain descriptive and normative, theoretical and practical, ontological and ethical aporetics in the concept of flexibility in financial discourse through the work of Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu begins his intervention “Job Insecurity is Everywhere Now” by asking what the final outcome, the ‘point’ of the intellectual discussions at the Rencontres européennes contre la précarité, a conference attended by civil servants, politicians, trade unionists and economists, both employed and unemployed. Economists in particular bear the brunt of his critique in their lack of concern with social reality, “or indeed with reality at all.” (Bourdieu 1999: 81) Bourdieu rejects the Walrasian myth of a ‘pure theory’ (the idea that all economics can be understood by way of mathematics) as underlying the stubbornness by which economists are able to present neoliberalism as an inevitability (1998). Academics, including economists, have great responsibilities, particularly when, “by their silence or their complicity, they contribute to the maintenance of the symbolic order which is the condition of the functioning of the economic order.” (Bourdieu 1999: 82)

Bourdieu’s key argument here is that job insecurity robs people not only of a future, but of a belief in the future that can impel one to change it, of a capacity to “project themselves into the future.” Evoking Marx’s 11th thesis here, “to conceive a revolutionary project, in other words a reasoned ambition to transform the present by reference to a projected future.” (ibid.: 83) Neoliberalism works precisely by making people feel insecure about their future, and presenting even exploitative work as a privilege and a commodity, flexploitation thus forces workers into accepting neoliberalism through this constant threat of insecurity, of losing their jobs.

So insecurity acts directly on those it touches (and whom it renders incapable of mobilizing themselves) and indirectly on all the others, through the fear it arouses, which is methodologically exploited by all the insecurity-inducing strategies, such as the introduction of the notorious ‘flexibility,’ – which, it will have become clear, is inspired as much by political as economic reasons. One thus begins to suspect that insecurity is the product not of an economic inevitability, identified with the much-heralded ‘globalization,’ but of a political will (ibid.: 84).

In another piece, Bourdieu poses otherwise the alleged inevitability of the contemporary economic world and its ‘flexible’ labour market. “What if it were in reality, only the implementation of a utopia, neo-liberalism, thus converted into a political programme, but a utopia which, with the aid of the economic theory to which it subscribes, manages to see itself as the scientific description of reality?” (ibid.: 94) Neoliberalism is not, he writes, a desocialized and dehistoricized ‘theory,’ but is capable of “making itself true.” (ibid.: 95)

An essential point may be held in anticipation here; if neoliberalism simply were an economic inevitability, as the economists Bourdieu criticizes seem to suggest, then perhaps all that one could do is observe, interpret and describe its mechanisms, as a classical scientist describes gravity with little concern of changing or critiquing its laws. The reason this is insufficient is that the job insecurity made possible by discourses of flexibility itself resists a simple compartmentalization between theory and practice, the descriptive and the normative; it is animated by a political will that, as I showed with Harvey in a previous blog post, works to keep the rich rich at whatever cost to others, the environment, indeed really the economy itself. As Bourdieu writes, “it seems to me that what is presented as an economic system governed by the iron laws of a kind of social nature is in reality a political system that can only be set up with the active or passive complicity of the official political powers.” (ibid.: 86) This notion of passive and active complicity highlights what I’m talking about here; complicity is not only passive or theoretical, it crosses over into activity and the practical: practice can just as much serve to reinforce a dominant discourse as it can to critique it, it is not universally revolutionary. (This is, I’d suggest, one of the points of a total coherence between a dialectics of neoliberalism and the dialectical materialism hinted at in the 11th thesis.)

Bourdieu seems to agree; along with many other features it shares with Marxism, neoliberalism is grounded in a belief in the utopia, this time that of an ‘absolute reign of flexibility,’ a ‘free trade faith’ that allows it to justify the dissolution of all forms of collective solidarity (the nation-state, work groups, unions, societies and cooperatives, the family) in the interest of a (false) Darwinian struggle for existence between individuals, one that justifies an “extraordinary mass of suffering.” (ibid.: 102) But there is a possible resistance against this ‘liberalism.’ Bourdieu warns against reading any thought of ‘conservation’ as ‘conservative’ or ‘reactionary’; conservation can amount to resistance, “so long as we know how to conduct the symbolic struggle against the incessant work of the neo-liberal ‘thinkers’ aimed at discrediting and disqualifying the heritage of words, traditions and representations associated with the historical conquests of the social movements of the past and the present.” (ibid.: 103)