Johns Hopkins University Press
  • PrecarityThe Conditions of Labor and Employment
  • Translated by D. J. S. Cross and Tyler M. Williams

Building on the analyses of Marx and Arendt, this essay proposes a critique of precarity-inducing employment conditions. In particular, it argues that the intolerable forms of alienation generated by these practices may be attributed to their aggressive undermining not only of structures of social stability, but also of future-oriented existential projection.

Hannah Arendt, Karl Marx, alienation, precarity, employment

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For she who never asked to work in a bank.

Ideology, although it engages, conceptually grasps, and binds us, it seizes Man externally, as certain forces in the overall complex of forces. Forces as that which is necessary to use toward a certain social aim which is itself solely valuable and valid; so that everything else, not the least of which is the will and activity of the individual, gets its significance only from this aim.

Jan Patočka, "Ideology and Life in the Idea"

There are few questions that have as much trouble escaping from ideological shackles as that of labor.1 While some, in a moralizing tone, deplore labor's devaluation and call for a general mobilization to restore the value and meaning it has allegedly lost, others on the contrary challenge the predominance accorded to labor—recalling that it is always synonymous with suffering—and demand it be alleviated: lighter work weeks, guaranteed time off, a consistent retirement age. Not to mention, finally, those who have no other assessment criterion than an estimation of labor's cost and profitability, which is to say its competitiveness, turning labor into a variable affecting a business's prosperity and an organization's efficiency. Whatever discourses are pronounced in one direction or the other, one thing is certain: every discourse is susceptible to accusations from its adversaries of being a prisoner to its presuppositions. This amounts to saying that, from the beginning, every reflection on labor ventures into a minefield in the middle of a regimented battlefield. This is why, in the reflections that follow, I will attempt to escape these shackles by beginning with a question that should in principle precede every other consideration. The question concerns the existential dimension of labor. Yet, there again, a snare must be avoided. Indeed, it is not a matter of asking what it means "to labor" but, rather, of embarking in two other directions related to the economy of existence. The first consists in analyzing what it means—for a being that is constructed in the present by projecting itself into the future—to have (or not to have) work, to look for it unsuccessfully, or to lose it with no hope of finding it again. The second interrogates the conditions likely to turn labor against existence, introducing into the economy what will have been remembered as a major disturbance, drama, or disaster.

These two phenomena, the experience and consciousness of which should elicit the feeling of intolerability, will serve as my guiding thread. The first is not only the unemployment rate of our societies but also the precarity maintained by internships and contracts that, for new generations, indefinitely delay an active life secure enough to project itself into the future. The second phenomenon pertains to the way the will to minimize labor costs by any means affects employees, who are subjected to unbearable pressure and permanent insecurity in a climate of increased violence: the violence maintained by untenable objectives that result from reduced personnel and managerial methods that inspire fear in all its forms—fear of not living up to the task, of appearing incompetent, of proving ineffective, if not simply the permanent, obsessive fear (hantise) of being exposed day after day to the arbitrary moods of a hierarchy that is itself in dire straits. [End Page 81] As André Gorz showed twenty-five years ago in a prophetic work, we can hold forth on labor neither in a general way nor in purely economic terms, in abstraction from what is involved in all the questions it poses such as, first and foremost, nothing less than the possibility for a plurality of individuals to invent their own singularity in a given society.2 This invention is not inconsequential; it is the condition that allows for self-esteem and self-confidence: all over Europe today, it is the very condition that new generations, facing the wall between them and employment, struggle to acquire or preserve. Everything that compromises it must be perceived and understood as a form of violence.

This is why labor is more than the simple preservation of life. Labor no doubt presupposes that the preservation of life will be assured constantly and with dignity. And one can never stress enough that it is intolerable that developed societies can adapt to the increase, year after year, in the number of men and women no longer capable of providing for themselves with respect to food or housing. How can we still tolerate it? What strange mental construction authorizes us to accept this invasive state of affairs as inevitable? We nevertheless cannot ignore the absolute urgency of the precarity that results. Because the State is supposed to ensure protection against life's violence, this endemic precarity is the first for which we should relentlessly hold the State accountable. And yet, while it is true that the first condition of self-invention consists in escaping this form of slavery that chains life to the limits of exhaustion day after day, when each morning renews worry (souci) about finding food and shelter, self-invention also requires something else.3 It demands the flourishing that entails not only the capacity to avoid being chained to the present through the renewed uncertainty of tomorrow, but also the capacity to project oneself into the future by opening up horizons.

At stake, then, is nothing less than the temporality of existence. This is why, today more than ever, the question of labor must be radically displaced by interrogating anew the existential meaning of employment. Indeed, more than circumscribing the activity of labor according to the kind of distinctions like those proposed by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (distinctions between labor, work, and action or between manual and intellectual labor, productive and unproductive labor), analyzing the function of labor is what matters. It is thus necessary to start over with job security and the conditions of that security in light of their inventive inscription within an individual and collective history. This inscription is the first condition for the minimal recognition required to escape the feeling of not having one's place in society or, as those who suffer from a vain search or unsatisfactory conditions say with words we would be wrong to ignore silently, the obsessive fear of being "useless." It is essential to consider the different forms of deprivation that compromise this invention. The suffering related to employment conditions does not belong exclusively to the private sphere or to the domain reserved for [End Page 82] business or management; these conditions constitute harm that requires safeguards and, for this very reason, needs to be described in fitting terms. For the violence of this suffering is complex, and it extends over time. It does not belong only to this moment in life, when so many young people struggle with paid labor, going from poorly paid internships to precarious employment, nor to that moment when, along with workers of all generations, they experience the new pressures invoked above. This violence also pertains to the anxiety that stems from these deprivations: an anxiety all the more detrimental in that it does not wait for the time of the job search or the job itself, since it festers even during college years and its wonders. To designate the existential dimension of work that is difficult both to find and to retain as a source of individual flourishing, I will recall a word that has somewhat fallen into disuse: the concept of alienation.


Hunger, beggary, poverty! In this context, which haunts the opening pages of The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx gives the notion a scope that we should keep in mind. His reflections describe something terrible indeed: for workers, nothing short of an existence chained to their own subsistence, with wage conditions calculated down to the penny to prevent them from dying of hunger, in random, precarious, and always reversible ways. In times of crisis, he emphasizes, suffering is unequal. Whereas "the capitalist suffers in the profit on his dead mammon," the worker suffers in his existence.4 In truth, the worker bears the worst of it, regardless of societal circumstances. If society deteriorates, no category of the population pays the price of its decline as cruelly as the worker. For society to prosper, however, the idea that workers must be exploited even more will prevail in the eyes of those who possess the capital: a heavier workload, greater pressures, which amounts to saying increased wear and tear on bodies and minds. Even if in the end society reaches its ultimate level of wealth, the verdict is ultimately the same: "the competition for employment would necessarily be so great as to reduce the wages of labor to what was barely sufficient to keep up the number of laborers."5 In every scenario, the result thus comes down to the same: endemic poverty that dooms a portion of the population to beggary, malnutrition, and substandard housing. I will return in a moment to the limits of this analysis and to the way these limits should be overcome. It is true that the circumstances of labor have changed since we have entered into a postindustrial era and, even more so, into what Bernard Stiegler calls "automatic society."6 Yet, the phenomena that Marx described have not disappeared, even if it is difficult to perceive them in their full measure, that is to say, as relics of an inhuman condition. For these descriptions have lost none of their relevance. Despite the distance, they bring to light the existential situation that—with its harassment, deprivation, and suffering—is still experienced today by millions of men and women in France and elsewhere. Whatever one thinks of Marxism's bloody fate throughout the last century in socialist countries, Marx's thought remains bound to this demand: to make visible what we refused or were unable to see. Marx revealed workers' impoverished condition of existence for what it is: an intolerable violence that turns labor against itself. [End Page 83]

In Marx's language, the name for this turn is alienation. To bring it to light, Marx adopts a formidable method: he ventriloquizes the voice of the adversary that Marx calls "the national economist"—the very one who tolerates the conditions just mentioned—in order to confront him with his own contradictions. The first contradiction involves the product of labor. Conceptually, the entirety should go to the worker. But, in reality, only a small share returns to the worker. As a result, the greater the amount of labor required and the greater the pressure, the greater the disparity between what benefits those with capital and what benefits the workers. Even if we took the expression "work more to earn more" at face value, it is rare that workers come out ahead. The second contradiction concerns profit: everything that labor enables one to buy or acquire and the enrichment that it promises. On the one hand, in his care to praise and promote the value of labor, the "national economist" holds that capital is simply accumulated labor; the accumulation of labor allows workers to continue to sell their labor as a commodity, as long as their activity remains a source of profit. The product of workers' labor rarely allows them to escape the bonds that chain their lives to their cares about subsistence. Inversely, the proceeds from land rent and capital allow those who possess them to live large, guaranteeing them existential security and comfort marked by their widespread access to leisure and consumer goods inaccessible to others. There remains one last contradiction that undoubtedly constitutes the most solid base upon which the ideology of the unconditional value of labor draws. It is based on the idea that what benefits society in general also benefits workers and vice versa. The more workers contribute to the enrichment of society, at the expense of exacted efforts and renewed sacrifices, the more everyone gets their share. The optimization of profits, through the division of labor and the organization of its profitability, would therefore be good for all of society. Marx has no problem showing that this is not at all the case and, indeed, that the contrary occurs most often. For what typically occurs—or, rather, what occurred in the industrial era—is that this division and organization turned against the workers and, as a result, were the linchpin of the workers' alienation.

While the division of labor increases the productive power of labor and the wealth and refinement of society, it impoverishes the worker and reduces him to a machine. While labor gives rise to the accumulation of capital and so brings about the growing prosperity of society, it makes the worker increasingly dependent on the capitalist, exposes him to greater competition and drives him into the frenzied world of overproduction, with its subsequent slump.7

Even if the financialization of the economy has changed the situation, it would be a mistake to shelve Marx's analyses in a storehouse of useless accessories and let them fall into the oblivion of history, as if the division and organization of labor had therefore stopped turning against part of the population. To brush them aside with a wave of the hand, indeed, one must wish to see nothing of the precarity that results. Once and for all, one must have decided—with indifference or resignation—to put up with the severe poverty that this distribution helps sustain. Is it acceptable that this distribution often no longer allows workers to maintain their lives with certainty and that, after a life of labor, men and women who have reached retirement age are reduced to indebtedness [End Page 84] and begging? If there is a common denominator to the contradictions that Marx points out in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts from 1844, it is the fact that they reduce consideration for laborers to the quantity and profitability of the labor that they will (or will not) be required to provide, over the course of their lives, at the best price for the businesses and administrations that will employ them. What then disappears is nothing short of the care for existence that should in principle precede any calculation of strength. This is intolerable! That the supplement of existence that ought to be the reason for employment is granted no or so few rights. Labor, indeed, cannot be reduced to considerations of its cost and profitability. No ideology, no more than any policy, should assume authorization to do so. And when despite everything, with the best excuses and alibis in the world, they allow themselves to think this way, it takes blind complacency to refuse to recognize the violence that results when it translates into the absence or loss of employment for hundreds of thousands of workers (10.2 percent of the [French] labor force in 2016). It must have been decided, with a diminishment of faculties (sensibility, understanding, and imagination) that will never cease to amaze, to carry on and avoid the disenfranchised places that all across the landscape register as proof of the poverty, if not the widespread precarity, that results from this blindness. For the division of labor and the labor itself—I can't stress this enough—take on value not so much from what they produce but, rather, by the type of existence that having a job makes possible.

It remains the case that Marx considered this violence in terms of essence rather than existence. And this is what the concept of alienation suggests. Because a return to the concept of alienation is not necessarily a given, it is important to dwell a while on its genesis. It stems from the difference between two types of activity: one that depends exclusively on oneself (auto-activity) and, conversely, one that depends entirely on someone else for its activation and without whom there would be no means or reason for it to be activated. As expected, it is the second type that characterizes alienation. All activity will be called alienated if it does not allow the fulfillment of those exercising it, actuating themselves for and by themselves, because it depends on interests and profits that are not theirs. There is no greater evidence that this dispossession exists, that under these conditions work itself turns against the worker who has only known subjugation, than the feeling of passivity and powerlessness that it brings. Once everything is "subjected" to it, such an activity no longer allows those performing repetitive tasks the possibility of autonomously expressing their singularity.8 In so doing, the activity becomes an inextinguishable cause of suffering. Under these conditions, it would be wrong to limit the circle [End Page 85] of workers at risk to just the proletariat. Today, the list of affected jobs would be long: the service sector, retail chains and distributors, hotels, restaurants, and even startups, not to mention large parts of management. Nevertheless, if alienation means no longer being the master of one's own actuation (sa propre activation), then we should be able to analyze all the conditions that exacerbate this non-mastery to the point of making it unbearable, all the structures that somewhat further dehumanize by another or for the benefit of another, all the management theories and practices that make alienation a principle.

This is why Marx considers alienation a loss for those who suffer it. In any case, this is the sense that, in the following analyses, I would like to retain and privilege by tightening and displacing it a bit. Indeed, for workers, alienation is not so much the loss of the product of their labor or its possible appropriation as the loss of the expression and self-realization that enable each of them to recognize themselves and to be recognized by others; today these are tied to conditions of access to (and exercise of) employment. When this double recognition is absent, the result leaves no doubt, and it is important to state these results with full transparency: low self-esteem, the permanent feeling of being one own's impostor, of being nothing, or of counting for nothing. It is useless to point out the extent to which this feeling is dramatically increased when plant closures, the restructuring of services, staff cuts, and outsourcing bear down on these conditions like the sword of Damocles. Overnight, the men and women who gave everything to the company where they worked are thanked with no other consideration than the profit increase for an abstract group weighing all the more blindly on their individual fates in that everything about their existence will have always remained alien to it. And this is how the world of their labor slips away from under their feet and the reality of their alienation appears to them a posteriori with almost unbearable violence: no less than the commodification of their own existence in the age of globalization.9 At the precise moment when, under these circumstances, one loses a job that was lived as a means of subsistence, everyone can indeed experience what they have always secretly known to have lost: self-expression, since they counted for nothing other than the gain produced by their activity. It is necessary to insist on this loss of expression that so many men and women know without knowing (connaissent sans connaître) and to which they stop themselves from paying too much attention until the day it becomes unbearable for them. Marx describes this loss in riveting pages that, even if intended for the proletariat, can easily be transposed to other professional categories today:

What constitutes the alienation of labor? Firstly, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e. does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is therefore not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. . . . Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification.10 [End Page 86]


Marx's analyses maintain that the labor conditions generated by capitalism have the effect of making humans strangers to themselves. They assume that, if labor defines the essence of the human, then alienation must be understood as the loss of this essence. This is the intolerability that Marx denounces! For Marx and for so many artists and thinkers who were inspired by his theses, this is what needed to be brought to light so that political action could finally supplant the desire to cease tolerating the organization of labor that prevents workers, under the yoke of these conditions, from being themselves. From this perspective, it is understandable that during her American exile Hannah Arendt, eager to produce an analysis of the human condition that would counter Marxism, endeavored to marginalize labor in the hierarchy of human activities.11 In order to exonerate capitalism of alienation, she merely had to show that the vita activa was not concentrated in the activity of labor, whose function was limited to the material maintenance of life, but that it was also deployed in work (œuvre) and in action. It was also necessary to show that the laborer's suffering—the same suffering Marx describes—falls within the private domain and is not part of the public sphere. This calls for two essential points. First, Arendt's objections still remain caught, if not locked, within a questionable determination of the essence of human activity. She chooses to diversify this Essence (with a capital E) in order to dissociate it from the gravity of labor. If human beings fulfill their being not in labor or even in work (œuvre) but, rather, primarily in action, as Arendt always insists, then it cannot be presumed—this is the point of her critique—that human beings deprived of the product of their labor and defrauded by the system that exploits them become strangers to themselves. It would be up to them to express and fulfill themselves elsewhere.

The second point is more circumstantial and dismisses both the author of Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts from 1844 and the author of The Human Condition. The common point of their reflections is that, even though Marx and Arendt may be separated by more than a century, they both belong to a time that was not plagued by mass unemployment. If not a time of full employment, it was at least a time when obtaining and keeping a long-term job did not yet appear as an Eldorado, blocked by an impassable wall: the very wall that "newcomers" now confront. Not to mention that seniors, who are not spared these harsh conditions, now also face the loss of their employment. It is curious, moreover, that this reality overwhelming the course of existence does not attract the attention of philosophers. It nevertheless cannot be denied that the notion of human resources "management"—an expression that contains the seeds of its own brutality—gives us much to think about. When one interrogates these ideologies that reduce human labor to the profitability of a determined quantum of forces within a generalized system of forces—and the simplifications of both liberalism and Stakhanovism in totalitarian regimes come down to the same here—the care to optimize this "management," indeed, constitutes the linchpin of its violence. For this management is manifest not only as the will to impose as a given the idea that there is not work for everyone—and even that there is less and less work—but [End Page 87] even more so as the fact that its calculated interest is at once to offer as little work as possible by replacing it with automation and to pay a lower wage to the remaining few.12

This is the origin of alienation today. Among all the phenomena that should be analyzed to account for it, I will give a precise priority to one: the professional integration of young people, the access of new generations ("newcomers," as Arendt says) to the job market. Labor, as I have pointed out several times, should no longer be thought of as a characteristic belonging to the "essence" or "nature" of human beings, but should rather be studied from the point of view of the possibilities of existence that come from getting and keeping a job. It must be judged according to how these conditions permit or compromise the capacity to project the invention of one's own singularity into the future. Assuming that we make care for the birth of "newcomers" the common denominator of all forms of activity that, according to Arendt, define human activity (labor, work, and action), it must also be remembered that, as far as "newcomers" are concerned, the resulting responsibility is redoubled. No doubt, the responsibility is at first to ensure the economic, social, and political conditions necessary for sustaining life for those who do not yet have the strength or means to do so autonomously. There is also the imperative responsibility to give them the capacity to free themselves from this dependence. For that matter, this is the only reason we make education and study a priority.

Nevertheless, this responsibility cannot be limited to educational tasks that do not (or no longer) suffice to guarantee independence. The last step of this responsibility consists in prioritizing the encouragement of the final condition for autonomy, namely, integration into professional life. Obtaining a job, which enables one's projection into the future with the minimum confidence required to imagine and invent one's future existence beyond the anxiety-inspiring short term, is indeed the final form of the care, concern, and attention that one generation has (and should have at all costs) for the generation that succeeds it. And it is true that this is generally shared—earlier and earlier—with parents. Indeed, the reality of the modern world is that traditional forms of job transmission are no longer the rule. Whereas in the past, even if it did not take the quasi-natural form of an inheritance (a commission or a bequest, a business, a property), children's labor repeated that of their parents (in fields, mines, factories, and many other sectors). Today a new constraint has arisen: to help those who come after oneself to make their own way in life by finding the path that suits them, in a word, to allow them to invent a singularity that does not necessarily take the path of reproduction. [End Page 88]

Yet, this care cannot be restricted to the familial sphere, which has a lesser and lesser capacity to create or to procure jobs or to provide them as an inheritance, even if the privilege that some still have of doing so will always remain a major source of inequality and injustice. The concern to give newcomers their autonomy supposes the emergence of a collective responsibility, a shared conscience; in other words, it supposes that in question here is an unconditional priority that should never, under any pretext, be compromised. It would be an understatement to say that this priority, in practice if not in intent, is far from an object of a unanimous consensus, willingness, or even mobilization. We must go even further and recognize that within the conditions of youth employment today there lurks a kind of tolerated violence, with respect to which we must push back the threshold of acceptability, which presents the following paradox. On the one hand, everyone experiences in their private sphere the care for their own children's future as a prioritized commitment (today the anxiety of this even festers in the years prior to formal schooling, determining the choice of elementary, middle, high schools, etc.). On the other hand, we resign ourselves collectively to the proliferation of entrepreneurial practices, mechanisms that embezzle employment aid, the common denominator of which amounts to moving this paramount care into the background. As a result, a common demand turns back onto individual strategies that are profoundly unequal: the culture of privileges, networks, and relations, the politics of the Rolodex.

What are these practices? First of all, they respond to a very simple objective that can be summed up as follows: pay for labor at the lowest cost. As a result, a whole series of calculations keep an entire generation in a state of precarity and require as a response a thought-experiment that makes visible the invisible: to make the intolerable appear for what it is so that, independently of any partisan ideology and at least by the majority of citizens, it will no longer be tolerated. In this precise instance, such a thought could draw upon a survey of young people who represent an entire generation, with all levels of education, to learn at least three things: first, the difficulty and fragility of their access to employment; next, the way they are so often "treated," mistreated, underemployed, or overexploited in these futureless jobs; finally, how these conditions affect their ability to imagine and construct their lives, which is to say, to project possibilities of existence into the future with the minimum confidence required. The invisible that would be brought to light from this perspective, the intolerability that we must recognize, is at once political, economic, and legal. It concerns the contracts they are offered and the strategic use of their misappropriation: everything that allows employers not to recognize or value the skills of these young laborers for what they are worth, not to pay them decently, and—for all these reasons—not to lead them to a stable job that provides a future with the minimum security they need to imagine their lives.

Let's venture into this jungle of papers before returning in fine to the vital question of the recognition, esteem, and respect that constitute what every generation should above all else wholeheartedly establish as an unconditional principle in its relation to the generation that follows! For a long time, the "sacrificial" aspect that threatened this [End Page 89] relationship was limited to war. The armed conflicts decreed by fathers were accompanied by the sacrifice they demanded of their children.13 One generation sends the other to be killed, as shown in the terrible example of the First World War. The nature of the sacrifice has changed today: children are sacrificed on the altar of labor for the lowest cost. Take, for example, the multiple subsidized contracts—for adaptation, apprenticeship, future employment, professionalization, qualification, and orientation—that governments create to promote the training and integration of young people into the work world.14 The aim is laudable; it is even a top priority. But what exactly is the status of these different subsidies? Do they fulfill their purpose? It is unclear. For it is essentially businesses that benefit from them. They procure at a low price an infinitely renewable workforce driven, as Valérie Segond writes, "by an ironclad motivation," nothing short of "the mad hope of one day landing a work contract in due form."15 Shops, local services, hotels, restaurants, mass retail, automotive and aeronautical industries—every business sector has access to this type of employment. Unfortunately, this nevertheless does not mean that the young people thus supported are offered a permanent job at the end of their contracts. For businesses, this would mean no longer profiting from work subsidized by the State, local governments, training organizations, or employment centers. Hopes are often dashed, and the "grind" continues. Many companies "rotate their interns on a purely functional basis," without leading to a real job that would allow them to project themselves into the future.

The profit that companies draw from these subventions is certainly not negligible, but is it acceptable? How can one deny the violence that such a system maintains? Regardless of their level of education, a growing number of young people permanently endure not only an endemic insecurity but also doubt concerning their own ability to see their value recognized in a world whose closure fosters hostility. Every birth calls for responsibility that must acknowledge the "welcome" into the world of labor as its logical and imperative endpoint. However, this responsibility remains entirely theoretical. It is not unconditional; it is subject to another law, one that is willfully unaware of the suffering and hopelessness that it produces: unconcerned with any ethical consideration, it is a law that reduces the influence of labor at all costs. How should it be understood? Is it not the epitome of an intolerable collapse of the concern, help, and attention that prior generations owe to the those that succeed them? If there is meaning in the idea of economic war, it may well be that its most ruthless manifestations are the multiple apparatuses that, instead of supporting the last to arrive, turn against them, blocking their path toward a stable job that would encourage and "value" them; it may well be then that this war is first and foremost a war between generations. This is how the world of work and employment engages a threshold of tolerance. Because the law of the lowest cost has powerful arguments on its behalf, it cannot be questioned unless, with a little imagination, the sacrifices it imposes finally appear for what they are for its victims: alienation is less the deprivation of their essence than the very forfeiture of their existence. [End Page 90]


Everything hinges perhaps on the following question: what would a felicitous (heureux) work time be? Is it utopian to imagine a felicitous work time as not only possible but as the rule in general? If so, it must be recognized that this utopia is necessary and that at stake today is breaking free not so much from the burden of labor as from its misery (malheur). Indeed, to pose the problem in these terms is to refuse from the outset to accept mental suffering—everything that makes labor miserable (malheureux) and fuels the desire to quit—as inevitable in employment. It is even, more radically still, to demand that happiness (bonheur) be made a concern (souci) that falls under this reflection on the collective organization of employment. I have emphasized from the beginning of these remarks that alienation should not be understood as an apparatus that estranges the alienated from their own essence; rather, we should more readily understand it as the dispossession of the means that should allow all existence to project itself into the future. From this perspective, it is important to understand that happiness is not a stable state, nor is it reducible to the moment; rather, it is a renewed confidence through the newness that each day can bring, away from the overwhelming time (duration) spent under the weight of grueling tasks. This is the shift in representation that matters here. To understand that the alienation of time leads to misery, and that it is vital to oppose it with a fair division of labor. Again, it calls for a new order of priorities that will always conform to the same principle: to refrain from reducing laborers to their quantum of forces, physical or mental (the nature of the labor matters little), in order to maximize profit by pushing the laborers to exhaustion. This is the urgency of the matter. Reducing the cost of labor cannot come at the expense of the suffering it can no longer ignore. It is nevertheless clear, it is known, that laborers are suffering in many sectors of employment! But it is also true that, on the contrary, everything contributes to masking this ill-being and this miserable form of life (ce mal être et ce mal-vivre), starting with the silence forced upon these men and these women who, in dreadful loneliness and near collapse, constantly strive to conceal from those around them—at work and at home—the painful feeling of having lost their footing. How can we ignore misery (malheur) when it is established in a workplace, depriving those attempting to survive it of all contentment and all of life's joys? Unless one consents to it, chooses it, in full awareness—this is intolerability—because all worn-out beings, broken by their feelings of imposture, by the certitude of not being in their place, by low self-esteem, are indefinitely replaceable. [End Page 91]

Marc Crépon

Marc Crépon is the chair of philosophy at l'École Normale Supérieure and director of research at the CNRS (Archives Husserl). He is the author of seventeen books, three of which are available in English: The Thought of Death and the Memory of War (2013), The Vocation of Writing (2018), and Murderous Consent (2019).
Email: marc.cré


1. "Labor" and "work" both translate the French travail throughout this essay, except on the rare occasion when Crépon uses œuvre, which in the specifically Arendtian sense means "work" in distinction from "labor." For clarity, we have provided a gloss each time "work" translates œuvre. The same is the case with l'emploi, which we translate sometimes as "job" and sometimes as "employment."—Trans.

2. See Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason.

3. Throughout the essay, we have standardized souci as "care" and soin as "concern." Not only does souci retain the existential dimension of "care" in the Heideggerian vein, it also applies to a wide range of ontic issues that Crépon discusses. We depart from this standardization twice. First, we here translate souci as "worry" to capture the sentence's sense of desperation. Then, in the essay's last paragraph, we translate souci as "concern" and provide a gloss to avoid it being confused for soin.—Trans.

4. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts from 1844, 284.

5. Marx, 286. Although Crépon does not say so directly, Marx is quoting from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations here.—Trans.

6. See Stiegler, Automatic Society, vol. 1.

7. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts from 1844, 287.

8. Crépon puts subir in quotation marks to emphasize the double meaning of the term, which is more prominent in French than in English. On the one hand, subir literally means "to be subjected to," which is how we have rendered it. On the other hand, subir also means "to suffer" something, which is how Crépon uses the term in the next paragraph. This double sense remains implicit in English, insofar as "subjected" can mean something undergone in general or the endurance of a hardship specifically.—Trans.

9. On this point, see Mireille Delmas-Marty's remarkably lucid analyses in Le travail à l'heure de la mondialisation (Labor in the age of globalization): "Going public enables the momentum of investments, but in return it entails a preponderance of the financial system and an overproduction of shareholder interests. The shareholders are investors, but they are also often speculators whose short-term interests take precedence over the interests of the company as a collective and sustainable entity. This is how the cult of performance is instituted, the disastrous consequences of which we have begun to discover" (35).

10. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts from 1844, 326.

11. On this point, see Milner, Relire la Révolution (Rereading the revolution).

12. See, e.g., Stiegler, Automatic Society, vol. 1. On the systematic reduction in pay, see the compelling work of Valérie Segond who, in her recent book Va-t-on payer pour travailler? (Will they pay for work?), shows all the strategies put in place for businesses to pay as little as possible for labor. The following analyses owe much to the detailed information contained in her work, which is useful for anyone trying to orient themselves within the jungle of subsidized contracts and internships—the whole organization and division of labor that, under the guise of promoting professional integration, finds its purpose misappropriated and ends up indefinitely delaying the secure time of permanent employment.

13. On this point, see Crépon, L'épreuve de la haine (The trial of hatred).

14. Contrats d'adaptation, d'apprentissage, d'avenir, de professionalization, de qualification, and d'orientation are, each in their own way, opportunities subsidized by the French government for young people—typically between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five—to build credentialed work experience.—Trans.

15. Segond, Va-t-on payer pour travailler?, 73–74.

Works Cited

Crépon, Marc. L'épreuve de la haine: Essai sur le refus de la violence. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2016.
Delmas-Marty, Mireille. Le travail à l'heure de la mondialisation. Paris: Bayard, 2013.
Gorz, André. Critique of Economic Reason. Translated by Gillian Handyside and Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1989.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts from 1844. In Early Writings, translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, 279–400. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
Milner, Jean-Claude. Relire la Révolution. Lagrasse, France: Éditions Verdier, 2016.
Patočka, Jan. "Ideology and Life in the Idea." Translated by Eric Manton. Studia Phænomenologica, 7 (2007): 89–96.
Segond, Valérie. Va-t-on payer pour travailler? Paris: Éditions Stock, 2016.
Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society, Volume 1: The Future of Work. Translated by Daniel Ross. Malden, MA: Polity, 2016.
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Mike Nelson


Installation view, Tate Britain, 2019

Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery, New York; Galleria Franco Noero, Turin; Matt's Gallery, London; and neugerriemschneider, Berlin.

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