Press "Enter" to skip to content

The growing resistance to capitalist work

Here in Thessaloniki, Greece, where the international ISTP (International Society for Theoretical Psychology) Conference has just ended, delegates seemed strangely reluctant to abandon the discussions that have occupied them for a week. And not surprisingly, given the quality of the papers, a case in point being the keynote address by Professor Silvia Federici from New York.

By appearance she may not be the most prepossessing person, but as soon as she started speaking, this fact faded into insignificance. She is impressive in her erudition, and especially the incisiveness of her analysis. Her topic here was the way that philosophy and capitalism have “transformed human bodies into labour power”.

She cast 17th century thought in a novel light by arguing that its war on magic paved the way for the transformation of human bodies into “machines for capitalist labour”. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, can therefore be seen as having performed the requisite philosophical work for for the economic mechanisation of human bodies by depicting the body as a machine in space, while what is essentially human is supposedly restricted to thinking. Hence his formula: “I think, therefore I am”, which undoubtedly proved to be small consolation for factory workers who later experienced the dehumanising effect of factory labour (elaborated on by Marx) first-hand.

Federici’s paper was an extension of her marvellous book, Caliban and the Witch, and focused further on mainstream psychology’s complicity with normalizing capitalist strategies in the present era, for instance its contribution to what she calls “the development of industrial discipline”. Think of so-called “industrial/organizational psychology” and its systematic development of what may be termed a “psychology of conformity” to promote optimal discipline and productivity on the part of labouring subjects in the context of capitalist production.

Hand in hand with the development or cultivation of compliant labour-productivity, Federici pointed out, there has been the “pathologisation of revolt against assigned sexual roles”, to which one might add, if not the pathologisation of the resistance to productive labour a few centuries ago, alluded to by Foucault in his History of Madness, then at least its stigmatisation, both of which served the ends of capitalism. In fact, one can see Federici’s work as complementing Foucault’s in Discipline and Punish, where attention to capitalism’s collusion with disciplinary techniques, aimed at turning modern subjects into “docile bodies”, is noticeably absent, although implied by Foucault’s observation, that such discipline did, indeed, promote economic productivity, albeit at a price: (docile) economic productivity has promoted political passivity.

As an aside, the sexual differentiation of labour is apparent from the fact that women have been found to be more compliant and submissive than men in so-called sweatshops, which is admittedly an extreme example, although it would be interesting to research the extent to which this is generally the case.

Federici’s paper culminated in important, and to my mind far-reaching insights. There are widespread signs, today, she claimed, of a kind of saturation point that has been — or is in the process of being — reached as far as willing conformity to capitalist work is concerned. I deliberately use the term, “work”, instead of the usual “labour”, to distinguish it from the latter, because not only (proletarian) labourers in the classical Marxist sense seem to be involved here, but everyone across a wide spectrum, from ordinary workers to business executives.

She framed the relevant social developments in terms of what she described as “the deep crisis bodies and subjectivities are experiencing in our time — from the massification of “depression” to the epidemic of eating disorders — as an effect of a growing estrangement from the capitalist discipline of work and associated sexual division of labour”. Other manifestations of the increasing alienation from capitalist work include the formation of communes across the US, where economic and social interdependence is the norm, instead of the social isolation of individuals (or the breaking-up of communities, that is, clusters of social interconnectedness), which capitalism thrives on in so far as this “constructs” individuals as consumers unconstrained by community-expectations.

Some may find it surprising that Federici even interprets the “massification of male impotence” (with its accompanying proliferation of male potency drugs) as a symptom of rebellion against work, and refers to what she has encountered in her research as an intensifying “work is a pain” — attitude which is gaining ground among people from various social strata.

Does this sound familiar? When she talked about the “work is a pain” — attitude, it certainly rang some bells on my part — just the other day I met an erstwhile engineering company executive in his early forties who has opted out of what Federici aptly terms “the capitalist spatial and temporal regimentation of our lives”, and is now happily pursuing his love of painting in a picturesque little Karoo town (minus his comparatively large income as a business executive, but plus an infinitely better quality of life).

Similarly, my partner’s best friend is a woman who decided to say farewell to a high-powered IT programming job and started making her own variety of essential oils in the tranquillity of a beautiful little town surrounded by mountains near Cape Town, unconstrained by the regimentation of her time by capitalist imperatives. Gone is the stress that accompanied her previous job — she still works, but only as much as she wants or needs to, under circumstances where her love of what she is doing (a kind of craft) negates its work-character to a large degree. These changes in the socioeconomic landscape, as described by Silvia Federici, is a welcome reminder that, perhaps, a more human — and humane — future may be in store for humanity beyond the inhumanity of capitalism.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.