Is an intense fixation on present conditions of labor simply the best means of making slavery disappear?
One morning, as the sky was already growing light, I woke from a very deep dream to find that the images which had come to me in my dream remained before my eyes as vividly as if the things had been true—especially the image of a certain black, scabby Brazilian whom I had never seen before. For the most part this image disappeared when, to divert myself with something else, I fixed my eyes on a book or some other object. But as soon as I turned my eyes back away from such an object without fixing my eyes attentively on anything, the same image of the same Black man appeared to me with the same vividness, alternately, until it gradually disappeared from my visual field.
Slavery’s ordinariness shows up here as what early modern Europeans think about when they’re not thinking of anything in particular. Spinoza manages his uncanny encounter with Europe’s politico-economic unconscious through a careful, calibrated winnowing of attention to the stuff of his existential present: a book, perhaps a nightstand, perhaps even his own body. By sticking to the particularity of his European ordinary, Spinoza hopes to flee from this cognitive netherlands.
But it doesn’t quite work. The moment Spinoza’s attention is unfixed from the world immediately before him, the Brazilian reappears. Scabby with leprosy, his presence disrupts the ontological order into which he intrudes. The catch is that he cannot not intrude, for slavery sticks to the European world like its shadow. And so Spinoza’s confident assertion that the Brazilian “gradually disappeared from my visual field” is just a bit rich. Writing in the clear light of an early morning, one in which subjects and objects have re-achieved their clarity and distinctness, he can insist that the man has disappeared—it was just an “image,” one leaving his European ordinary untouched. But the return in his letter to this scene of psychic undoing suggests that the encounter impressed Spinoza more than he is willing to admit. One lapse of attention to his everyday world and the scabby Brazilian might reappear, disjointing Spinoza’s present from itself.
For a book as concerned as Lordon’s is with Spinoza and with human servitude, it’s funny that the philosopher’s famous sighting of an enslaved person should go uncited. Funny, but not without a kind of logic. Lordon’s rigorous attempt to mobilize Spinoza in order to work through the present neoliberal composition of work assumes first and foremost that the present to which it refers is unique. What the original French title refers to as neoliberal “servitude” is posed as qualitatively distinct from the forms of work and domination that precede it. And yet the history of slavery that Lordon wants to bracket off as he fixes his attention on our present symptomatically erupts into his text with a surprising regularity, casting the ontological order he describes under the shadowy presence of slavery’s past.
This symptomatic eruption begins on the very title page of the translation, in which the gentler Capitalisme, désir et servitude becomes the blunt (and more marketable, perhaps) Willing Slaves of Capital. This translation does no small measure of conceptual harm to Lordon’s argument; he rigorously distinguishes between desire and will, denouncing the liberal metaphysics of the former. But this moment of (mis)translation is a kind of interpretation of the original’s unconscious. Where Capitalisme, désir et servitude imagines that it is beginning after slavery, the translation’s insistence on the signifier “slave” thrusts the Brazilian back before our eyes. And as Lordon’s text wants to but can’t let itself show, the term’s stickiness is less an accident than an index, a material sign marking the persistent structural effects of plantation slavery on the composition of work in our present, a persistence that shatters any assurance that we dwell in a novel present—or that we dwell in the present at all.
Nothing seems further than plantation slavery from the question Lordon poses: Why do people today work, and willingly, and even joyfully, for other people? Why do we willingly serve capital? Indeed, the very figure of the “willing slave” seems to erect a partition between different historical regimes of servitude. But Lordon’s aims are less historical than conceptual. In thinking through the possibility of a desirable servitude, Lordon’s aim is to shift the philosophical apparatus that organizes liberal, and then Marxist, understandings of servitude and enslavement, mastery and domination. For Lordon, liberal and left approaches to servitude have been “built around the idea of free will as sovereign self-control.” The primacy of the will in such accounts poses human servitude as either a relation of involuntary domination or one of voluntary consent. But such recourse to the will leaves untroubled what requires explaining: You might willingly work for Facebook, and even give it your all—but why would you want to?
The concept of “voluntary servitude” (a phrase he draws from La Boétie) doesn’t cut it for Lordon: It wants to preserve the sovereignty of the willful, intending subject even while it accounts for most subjects’ actual non-sovereignty. The figure of the willing slave is an impasse in the philosophical constitution of liberal modernity, but it also, for Lordon, offers a chance to switch philosophical gears. If Hobbes and Locke could only think of the figure of the slave to think its impossibility,
In moving from a metaphysics of the will to an anthropology of the passions, Lordon reframes what makes work work in our neoliberal, post-Fordist present. For Lordon, employers today rely less on the threat of starvation (a form of discipline he attributes to the epoch of industrial capitalism, that of Marx’s Britain) or on the shaping of desire through consumer goods (a form of subject formation he attributes to the epoch of Fordism) than they do on reconstructing work itself as a “source of immediate joy.” Lordon describes this process as “co-linearization.” Co-linearization aims to reduce the uncertainties that dog scenes of employment: The meeting of employer and employee is a meeting of two desires, each going their own way. The desire of the employee continually threatens to drift from the desire of the boss; the neoliberal workplace accordingly attempts to reduce this drift to zero, to get the employees’ desires to align to that of the firm’s.
In this alignment, capitalism moves beyond the “intrinsically sad” affects of industrial capitalism and the “extrinsically joyful” affects of Fordist consumerism; “the sting of the idea that ‘real life is elsewhere’” has been removed from the well-aligned worker. Joyful life is life spent working at the call center, at the Google campus, and so on. Capital today profits on humans’ capacities for affective survival, on our abilities to convert the bleakness of any situation into conditions for a different kind of flourishing. The desire to work becomes the last achievable desire available for those who have to work all the time anyhow; we desire it so we can keep desiring.
As Nietzsche might put it, we love neoliberal life not because we are used to living, but because we are used to loving, and sometimes the boss is the only game in town. If you’ve got to dance with the one who brung ya, you might as well dance hard and enjoy yourself; you might wind up falling in love. And so we do. We identify with our employer’s brand, we take so much pride in our professions that we adopt them as our names, we modestly repair our alienated relation to our neoliberal world. Firms seize on this reparative labor as a chance to refashion laborers, following a “delirious vision of the total possession of individuals,” one “so complete, that it is no longer satisfied by external enslavement—obtaining the desirable behavior—but demands the complete surrender of ‘interiority.’”
Affective relations are now primary to the maintenance of employment relations; passions shape the materiality of the world we inhabit today. This is the present that Lordon thinks we can finally describe as the elaboration of Marx through Spinoza, as if human history’s movement through early industrialism, through Fordism, and into post-Fordism has finally aligned with the human ontology Spinoza projected. Other Spinozian Marxists, such as Antonio Negri, tend to narrate this eschatological movement as the real subsumption of the social into capital, a real subsumption that is always really happening, now, really.
But what if our present has no singularity, no novelty, nothing new or neo- about it? Even as Lordon attempts to fixate on the specificity of our Spinozian epoch, distinguishing contemporary modes of servitude from those which preceded them, the Brazilian can occasionally be seen cutting into the privileged present. Lordon himself remarks upon the tenuousness of the distinctions he draws: “The distinction between the successful endeavour of reconfiguring the desire of employees and the pure and simple enslavement of reconditioning is at times extremely tenuous.” Neoliberal modes of producing desire can’t be so rigorously distinguished from prior modes of repressing workers’ desires for something else.
What Lordon here poses as an empirically-induced hesitation over analytic categories—a moment at which he cannot attend to the object presently before him—might be better read as a the problem of establishing a distinction between then and now, between past and present. Such moments pose a radical question: Are contemporary organizations of labor really so novel, or have we simply learned, with Spinoza, that an intense fixation on the present is the best means of making the slave disappear? What if Lordon took his metaphorics of servitude and slavery more seriously, more radically, and attempted to read the composition of neoliberal work from the perspective of Spinoza’s Brazilian?
He would at least have good reason to do so. The robust account that Lordon offers of post-Fordist, neoliberal capitalism maps neatly onto sociological descriptions of plantation capitalism. For Lordon, the post-Fordist moment is constituted in part by the declining purchase of the value-form: “the lack of an objective, substantial reference in which to ground the measure of surplus power obliges us to detach the idea of exploitation from the calculation of value…” We thus need a “political theory of capture more than an economic theory of value”—a theory, that is, of how value is bossed out of subjects without using the normative or technocratic idioms of economic calculability.
For West Indian economic historians grouped around the Plantation School (such as Lloyd Best, Kari Polanyi Levitt, George Beckford, and Douglas Hall), this is precisely how the plantation functioned, and, indeed, still functions. The plantation’s relationship to export markets meant that labor time and economic value were only loosely tied together. The measured and measurable value form of liberal capitalism did not, and could not, regulate the time or intensity of work—no matter how much improving planters tried (as so many neo-Weberian accounts have lately stressed) to rationalize production. The capitalist plantation was animated by the incalculability of the value it produced. Monetizable value was only a transcription of prior political “capture,” as Lordon might put it.
To think the structural sameness between now and then isn’t to claim that the experiences are identical. Nor is it simply to claim, in the true but inadequate formulation, that slavery sits at the origins of the capitalist world-system. It is, rather, to think of plantation slavery as opening a deep-structural continuum in which time doesn’t pass or move forward but accumulates, as Ian Baucom might put it. If plantation slavery resides at the origins of capitalism, this is because the plantation-form insistently presides over those moments in which capitalism re-originates itself, moments in which new epochs of exploitation and accumulation emerge—early industrialism, Fordism, post-Fordism. Every form of capitalist labor process bears a homology to the plantation, because the plantation is all there is.
Or, put less dramatically, the slave plantation names an accumulated repertoire of forms for creating and controlling work, and the components of this repertoire are continually re-composed and re-combined in the discontinuous, unruly unfolding of human history. It’s no accident that CLR James and his various groups would theorize Fordist work regimes alongside their historical explorations of plantation slavery; that the European autonomists in whose tradition Lordon writes would draw deeply upon James’ groups’ work and the metaphorics of slavery to track the emergence of post-Fordism; or that Plantation School economists and historians would offer some of the first scholarship on the institutional forms of neoliberal globalization through their studies of multinational corporations. Wittingly or not, these thinkers didn’t so much or only think about slavery as they thought through it. Indeed, to track the history of capitalist work is to track the diffusion, ramification, and intensification of the plantation. It’s to track, in other words, the insistent presence of Spinoza’s scabby Brazilian.
But to think all history as history of plantation struggles isn’t to lament the plantation’s inescapability. Just the opposite — and this is where Lordon both supplements and requires supplementation by the history of slavery that his book can’t not, even if it doesn’t want to, bear traces of. If neoliberal employment works by aligning the desires of the worker with the boss, Lordon argues that the practice of liberation will entail becoming orthogonal or perpendicular to the boss’s line of desire. “Orthogonality,” he writes, “is a perfect disalignment, which may be a prelude to another realignment, this time negative, namely, open and antagonistic, on the same axis but in the opposite direction.” It is, in other words, a flight from reconstituted plantations to somewhere else, a refusal of work and work’s culture whose negative movement opens space for something new.
Lordon wants this movement to be the effect of an accumulation of “indignation” that finally reaches the “last straw.” But, as he also remarks, affective life consists of the insistent process of refusing to recognize life’s bareness. Subjects all possess a “capacity for autosuggestion and re-enchantment” that allows them to “avoid acknowledging being bludgeoned into submission.” In other words, practices of affective survival inhibit the eruption of a revolutionary state of emergency. Given the antinomy here—affect conditions subjects to stay in place; affect conditions subjects to move—how can we explain this indignant but free “step into a life determined in another way”?
Like any antinomy, this one can’t be resolved conceptually; its resolution can only be a matter of practice. So Lordon opens his chapter on domination and liberation by gesturing to the empirical fact that liberation happens, sometimes: “Yet, despite all that”—all that co-linearization, all that submission, all that bossing—“every now and then they can harbour other thoughts.” These other thoughts, these free thoughts of freedom, are unthinkable. They are impossible to conceive the conception of—and yet they happen, now and then. Lordon here situates the reader before the fundamental mystery of the history of Atlantic slavery, which is also the history of Atlantic freedom: How do people who don’t have a direct experience of freedom, who might not even know how to desire it, come nonetheless to desire freedom? The way that Lordon marks the contingent causality of freedom’s coming—“now and then”—itself gestures back to this history, this history that doesn’t pass but accumulates and intensifies. He points us back, from our “now” that cannot be named without this “then,” not to an inescapable history of work’s plantation, but to an exemplary history of fugitivity and flight. A repertoire of freedom anti-capitalists need to think with, because without it, freedom might be unthinkable.
Marx thought so, too. The contemporary celebration of Marxism’s antiwork tradition has tended to disavow the fact, in the name of the same presentism fueling Lordon’s analysis, that this tradition developed through an engagement with Atlantic practices of freedom. But in one of the few moments where Marx offers a description of antiwork politics, he significantly turns to post-emancipation Jamaica. Pardon this long citation from the Grundrisse, but it is too important to chop up:
The Times of November 1857 contains an utterly delightful cry of outrage on the part of a West-Indian plantation owner. This advocate analyses with great moral indignation—as a plea for the re-introduction of Negro slavery—how the Quashees (the free blacks of Jamaica) content themselves with producing only what is strictly necessary for their own consumption, and, alongside this ‘use value’, regard loafing (indulgence and idleness) as the real luxury good; how they do not care a damn for the sugar and the fixed capital invested in the plantations, but rather observe the planters’ impending bankruptcy with an ironic grin of malicious pleasure, and even exploit their acquired Christianity as an embellishment for this mood of malicious glee and indolence. They have ceased to be slaves, but not in order to become wage labourers, but, instead, self-sustaining peasants working for their own consumption. As far as they are concerned, capital does not exist as capital, because autonomous wealth as such can exist only either on the basis of direct forced labour, slavery, or indirect forced labour, wage labour. Wealth confronts direct forced labour not as capital, but rather as relation of domination; thus, the relation of domination is the only thing which is reproduced on this basis, for which wealth itself has value only as gratification, not as wealth itself, and which can therefore never create general industriousness.
One could draw a line from this passage to the work of Marx’s son-in-law, the mixed-race creole Paul Lafargue, who would convert these ex-slaves’ flight from the plantation into a right to be lazy. But we might also draw a line from this passage to our present. What these Jamaicans refuse is “general industriousness,” a culture of work that planters and colonial administrators hoped to foster to counteract the decline of plantations in the local condition of emancipation and the global condition of liberalized, post-mercantilist trade. What they are refusing, in other words, is the kind of cultural and affective co-linearization through which capitalists hoped to manage a crisis in production and accumulation. And they move into this orthogonal fugitivity, as Lordon suggests they must, with a smile, with a laugh, with a “malicious grin.”
To keep this archive of emancipation open in the present, to feel the now as an intensification of then, is to allow these Jamaicans’ grinning laughter to resonate, to participate in their feeling of joy at finding another kind of life, so that we too might follow them into freedom’s fugitive future. It would mean, also, keeping the Brazilian within our visual and theoretical field. After all, hanging out in the head of a dreamy philosopher was the last place this man was supposed to be. He was supposed to be cutting cane, plucking coffee—not turning Baruch’s brain into a quilombo. To read our present as an intensification of all of this past is to take note of the well-worn tracks to freedom that have already been laid down.