I wouldn’t usually crosspost something about Britney here, but her new song does seem to have tapped in to a current interest in the topic of work; this piece in the Guardian is typical, arguing that the song reflects a contemporary, “religious” commitment to the value of work. That’s not what the song sounds like to me; it’s not so much capitalist ideology as capitalist id. While the official capitalist ethic proposes the necessity of hard work as the ground of equality, the capitalist id glories in the reality that you have to work while (indeed, because), capital doesn’t. Hence Britney’s imperious “work, bitch!” with the subtext that, work as hard as we like, we’ll never be as good as her; and doubtless we’ve all come to terms in our own way with the fact that we’re not Britney and never will be. But, if we follow the insight of the Neue Marx Lektüre that capital is the historical subject of capitalism, we might find in the id of this historical subject some useful indications of the mutations happening to the role of work in contemporary capitalism, and thereby come up with a more dialectical anti-work politics.We need this dialectical approach because of work’s contradictory position within capitalism: official capitalist ideology extols the virtues of work, but capital hates work and wants to minimize the amount of wage labour it employs, while at the same time wage labour is the source of capital’s profits and so ineliminable. So capital is itself anti-work, but in a contradictory and destructive way. It seems to me that our response to this shouldn’t be the social-democratic one of attempting to re-valorise work (which just embeds us further within capital’s contradictory attitude to work), but instead to try and trace capital’s anti-work position out past capital.
Britney’s “Work Bitch!” is useful because it points us to something neglected by that Guardian article, the long history of exhortations to “work” in dance music. That article sees a recent ideological intensification in which we see even our recreation in terms of a capitalist ideology of work, but the longer history of dance/work resignification looks more like what Jameson calls “the weakness of revolutionaries for what is most exploitative and dehumanising in the working life of capitalism,” in which “what is currently negative can also be imagined as positive in that immense changing of the valences which is the utopian future” (Valences of the Dialectic). To describe dancing as work is also to reimagine work as dance, and this captures something important about the potential transcendence of work that is immanent within capitalism.
Dance is a repurposing of human motion that is also a de-purposing, in that it arranges bodily activities in a context where they don’t accomplish any specific end. Muñoz in Cruising Utopia has a great discussion of this in relation to Kevin Aviance (see the video above) and to Agamben’s discussion of gesture: “The gestural exists as an idealist manifestation and not as a monolithic act directed towards an ‘end’: ‘What characterizes gesture is that in it nothing is being produced or acted, but something is being endured and supported’” (the quote is from Agamben’s Means Without End). What makes this reinterpretation of work in terms of dance and gesture more than just a fantastic compensation for the pain of work, and a genuine utopian critique of capitalism, though, is that the becoming-gesture of work is also the logic that capital applies to work. In order to mechanise labour, capital breaks work down into not just individual tasks, but individual movements. As Marx writes:
The principle which it pursued, of resolving each process into its constituent movements, without any regard to their possible execution by the hand of man, created the new modern science of technology…. Technology also discovered the few main fundamental forms of motion, which, despite the diversity of the instruments used, are necessarily taken by every productive action of the human body; just as the science of mechanics sees in the most complicated machinery nothing but the continual repetition of the simple mechanical powers.
Capitalism transforms work to gesture in the worst possible way: it divides individual movements from the purposive activity of which they are a part, thereby making work repetitive and stultifying, and taking it out of the control of the worker; but at the same time, capital subordinates this purposeless activity of the worker to a larger purpose of its own: the continuous expansion of capital. In this, capital is like a nightmarish version of Aristotle’s God. According to Aristotle, happiness lies in acting according to virtue; but, precisely because God is perfectly happy already, he never has any need to act: “the circumstances of action would be found trivial and unworthy of gods.” Aristotle’s solution is contemplation: an action God is condemned to perform forever without accomplishing anything. Aristotle comes to this conclusion because of his ontology which, as Agamben argues (in “On Potentiality”), has no space for any potentiality which isn’t simply a lack of action. Agamben’s idea of a potentiality which isn’t immediately tied to some purposive activity can help us think about a completion of capital’s reduction of work to gesture, in which work would be completely freed from fixed purposes in a way that could be experienced as freedom, rather than as a further subordination to capital.
Indeed, this is the direction Marx explores in Capital when he interrupts the discussion of the misery caused by mechanisation with a rare discussion of what we might find after capitalism:
But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.
And in a footnote to this passage, Marx is even more explicitly utopian:
A French workman, on his return from San-Francisco, writes as follows: “I never could have believed, that I was capable of working at the various occupations I was employed on in California. I was firmly convinced that I was fit for nothing but letter-press printing…. Once in the midst of this world of adventurers, who change their occupation as often as they do their shirt, egad, I did as the others. As mining did not turn out remunerative enough, I left it for the town, where in succession I became typographer, slater, plumber, &c. In consequence of thus finding out that I am fit to any sort of work, I feel less of a mollusk and more of a man.”
This last sentence is a promise but also a caution: a promise of the awesome power of capital to reshape the body of the worker into a fully developed and fully free body; what Agamben calls a glorious or whatever body. The caution brings us back to the second word of Britney’s title: while the glorious body, apparently, is the body of a man, the command to work is addressed to a “bitch.” The problem here is that historically the bodies that suffer on the way to glorification have tended to be female. In the early years of industrialisation, work with machines was typically considered women’s work because of the subordination of the worker to the machine; modernist glorifications of the enmeshing of the body in technology almost always gaze on a woman’s body. In All that is Solid Melts into Air, Berman traces this gendering of the necessary sacrificial bodies of development back to Goethe’s Faust. The point, in any case, is that to be a body and particularly to be a suffering body is to be gendered female; for this bodily suffering to be glorified or accounted a necessary sacrifice, this gendering is even more necessary. This is not to say that we should reject the Marxist attempt to negate work through its full realisation; but it is important not to minimise the costs that might be involved in this or forget how these costs are likely to be distributed. One way to start doing this might be to re-read Marx starting from the realisation that the proletariat, apparently ungendered, thus implicitly understood as male, might better be understood as occupying a structural position that has historically been feminine.