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The New Way of the World, Part II: The Performance/Pleasure Apparatus

The new subject is regarded as the possessor of a “human capital”—a capital to be accumulated through enlightened choices that are the fruit of responsible calculation of costs and benefits. The results achieved in life are the result of a series of decisions and efforts that come down exclusively to the individual and require no special compensation in the event of failure, other than that provided for by voluntary private insurance contracts. The distribution of economic resources and social positions is exclusively regarded as the consequence of trajectories, successful or otherwise, of personal realization. The entrepreneurial subject is exposed in all areas of life to vital risks from which she or he cannot extricate herself or himself, their management being a matter of strictly private decisions. To be a personal enterprise assumes living entirely in risk. Aubrey establishes a close relationship between the two: “Risk forms part of the notion of personal enterprise”; “personal enterprise is reactivity and creativity in a world where one does not know what tomorrow will bring.”

This dimension is not new. Market logic has long been associated with the dangers of slump, loss, and bankruptcy. The problematic of risk is inseparable from “market risks,” which have had to be protected against by resort to insurance techniques since the end of the Middle Ages. The novelty attaches to the universalization of a style of economic existence hitherto reserved for entrepreneurs. In the eighteenth century, the financier and physiocrat Richard Cantillon established as an “anthropological” principle that a distinction was to be made between those “on fixed wages” and those “on unfixed wages”—that is, entrepreneurs:

By all these inductions, and an infinity of others that could be made to extend this matter to the entire population of the state, it may be established that, except for the prince and the property owners, all the inhabitants of a state are dependent. They can be divided into two classes, entrepreneurs and hired workers. The entrepreneurs are on unfixed wages while the others are on fixed wages while there is work, although their functions and ranks may be very unequal. The general who has his pay, the courtier his pension and the domestic servant who has wages, all fall into this last class. All the others are entrepreneurs, whether they are set up with capital to conduct their enterprise, or are entrepreneurs of their own labor without capital, and they may be regarded as living under uncertainty; even the beggars and robbers are entrepreneurs of this class.

Henceforth every individual should be on “unfixed wages,” “beggars and robbers” included. This is precisely the content of the political strategies actively encouraged by employers. The contrast between two sorts of human beings—the “risk-loving,” who are courageous and dominant, and the “risk-averse,” who are timid and dominated—was consecrated by two theoreticians connected to French employers, François Ewald and Denis Kessler. They maintained that any “social reformation” presupposed the transformation of the maximum number of individuals into “risk-lovers.” In his turn, a few years later, Laurence Parisot, the French employers’ leader, would put it more directly: “Life, health, and love are precarious; why should work escape this law?” By this we are to understand that legislation should conform to the new “natural law” of precariousness. In this discourse, risk is projected as an ontological dimension that is the twin of the desire driving everyone. To follow one’s desires is to run risks.], 74). On the other hand, he is certainly right to emphasize the current stress on this obsession with “risk” as danger or consciousness of danger. But is it thereby necessary to relate it, as he does, to major changes in the technical domination of nature, now integrated into society (p. 81)? Should it not also, and perhaps above all, be related to the new norm of generalized competition? Indeed, that is precisely what the second part of his book tends to highlight.]

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