Tim Christiaens–“Why Do People Fight For Their Exploitation As If It Was Liberation?” (Review of Jason Read’s The Double Shift)

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“Why Do People Fight For Their Exploitation As If It Was Liberation?”

Tim Christiaens

Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance.

– Stuart Hall (2019, 360)

Please Sign Here to Work Yourself to Death

A sense of dread befalls us when the topic of work enters the conversation. From nurses in overrun hospitals to adjunct academics between teaching gigs, many workers are seeing their workload grow while paychecks and job security shrink. Yet surprisingly, people still cling to their jobs and the capitalist work ethic in general as if it were their salvation. Hustle culture and structural overwork are rampant across the labor market. From gig workers operating on multiple platforms to Wall Street interns working around the clock, the capitalist work ethic has become what Karl Marx called a “religion of everyday life” (Marx 1992, 969). The rituals of time management and incessant self-branding dominate not only people’s labor-time but also their free time. Away from the office, many still zealously perform the liturgies of self-optimization and social networking to maximize their productivity.

When people genuinely need the income from their wages to survive, a harsh or opportunistic work ethic is understandable. Without a job, people are oftentimes reduced to the status of “homeless and empty-handed labor-powers” (Marx 2005, 509). With nothing but their labor-power to sell, they have little choice but to drag their bodies to work every morning. Yet historically, many institutions have fostered a work ethic built on higher motivations than mere fear. In early capitalism, the Protestant ethic of thrifty labor in the service of God justified newly emerging capitalist labor relations, and even without the ominous gnawing of hunger, large sections of the twentieth-century male working class in the Global North supported traditional employment relations. In the days of Fordism, even monotonous hard labor often gave access to a chance at a middle-class lifestyle and social recognition as a contributing member of society. ‘Having a job’ was a gateway to recognized public status and comfortable living standards. Thanks to a social compromise between capital and the white male working class, the latter received high wages and political representation in exchange for social peace and labor productivity. If people agreed to work hard in the factory and not vote communist, the company and the welfare state would guarantee a secure consumer lifestyle.

For a long time, this seemed like a good deal for all parties involved. Yet circumstances changed in the 1970s and ‘80s, when economic crises, popular protests, and capitalist investment strikes blew up the social compromise. Workers wanted more opportunities for authentic self-expression in their labor, populations previously excluded from the benefits of Fordism demanded emancipation (women, immigrants, the colonized), and capital experienced a profitability crisis for industrial activity in the Global North. Without cheap resources from colonial territories and free reproductive labor from working-class women, male workers’ high wages and political influence became too costly. Large corporations moved their factories to low-cost countries, while demanding states to cut their social security systems. The fear of gnawing hunger returned to put workers in their place. However, the decline in job security and income protection still constitutes an insufficient explanation for the persistence of the capitalist work ethic. The compulsion to work is not just an externally imposed burden today, but also an ethos and intimate desire. Hustle culture permeates everyday life across social classes and lifestyles.

When the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic subsided, public discourse reveled at the rise of ‘quiet quitting’. Suddenly workers restricted their efforts to the bare minimum job requirements. Employees would work just enough to avoid alarming the boss but refused to put in any extra effort. However, a few years later enthusiasm has returned for always-on work culture. In a cruel twist on Marx’s prophecies about life under communism, late capitalism has made it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt for bartender gigs in the morning, fish for online clickwork in the afternoon, curate a mass following on LinkedIn in the evening, and monetize my car on Uber after dinner, depending on whatever suits me at the time, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or taxi driver.

Hustle culture promises to render each moment of the day productive. People believe themselves to be entrepreneurs of their own lives and combine multiple jobs to chase after idealized representations of financial success and social prestige. While this attitude might have been born under the sign of economic necessity, what keeps such micro-entrepreneurs going demands further explanation. Constant busy-ness is not just begrudgingly tolerated but actively desired. And this time, there is no Protestant ethic or Fordist social compromise to explain it. Even when people can count on social safety nets, like unemployment benefits, many still strive for overachievement. A deeply rooted affective attachment to work animates late-capitalist culture. This might have made sense when jobs gave access to middle-class consumerist lifestyles, but today this promise often rings hollow. University students take out loans, swallow Ritalin and cram for exams to get a diploma that no longer guarantees steady employment. Journalists spend hours building an online reputation on social media in a desperate effort to avoid being replaced by AI. Aspiring academics publish numerous papers in the hopes that, against dwindling odds, they finally receive a chance at tenure.

After decades of dismantling worker protections and welfare institutions, this attitude seems painfully masochistic. An epidemic of burnouts has consequently accompanied the rise of hustle culture. At one point, the incessant pressure to work must run out of steam. One cannot continuously push one’s body and mind beyond their limits without suffering the consequences sooner or later. Yet the work ethic is so ingrained in everyday life that many prefer to persist in overwork rather than allowing themselves some well-earned rest. Amazon installs vending machines dispensing painkillers to its warehouse workers, while life-coaches build careers out of helping people squeeze money out of every minute of their day. The Japanese even have a word for people dying from overwork: karoshi.

What explains this insistent attachment to the capitalist work ethic even at our own peril? This question forms the kernel of Jason Read’s reflections in his recent book The Double Shift: Spinoza and Marx on the Politics of Work (Verso, 2024). Read links it to the age-old question of voluntary servitude from the Dutch philosopher Benedictus Spinoza: “why do people fight for their servitude as if it were their salvation”? Why, in the age of the perpetual hustle, do so many workers voluntarily subject themselves to the exploitation of the neoliberal workplace and refuse to organize?

Beyond Traditional Ideology Theory

According to Read, the explanation for our passionate attachment to work lies in the inner workings of ideology. He eloquently defends an affective approach, claiming that the narratives and representations that justify contemporary work culture integrate workers’ affects into an ideological rationalization of the capitalist work ethos. He opens the book with a reference to Marx’s observation that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (Read 2024, 2). Through our material interactions with our surroundings, we develop ideas and representations of how the world operates and what our place in this environment is. Through the lens of Spinoza, Read interprets these interactions as always already animated by affect. The world responds to human sensibility in ways that either increase or decrease those humans’ capability to act in the world. The world of work can make us angry, joyful, desperate, hopeful, and these tonalities structure our capacities to act in the world. Affects form the basic timbre of our everyday worldly conduct.

However, ideology is not merely the immediate affective reflection of our material interaction with nature. An institutionally constructed regime of signs and representations filters these impressions through the dominant social culture. ‘Culture’ in a general sense is mediated by social institutions and the latter influence how we perceive the world and affect our surroundings. These institutions are chiefly in the hands of the ruling classes, so the interpretive lenses we acquire to put our lived experiences into words predominantly reflect the assumptions and aspirations of the ruling elites. Our felt sensibility of the world is our own, but the vocabulary with which we express and navigate these affects come from elsewhere. Ideology theory demonstrates how the ruling ideas of the ruling class sink so deeply into human subjectivity until they become the spontaneous ideology with which we articulate the world and our place in it. Ideology establishes what Stuart Hall has called “the regime of the taken for granted” (Hall 2016, 138), the narratives and the refrains that pre-consciously determine how our lived experiences are translated into the common vernacular of everyday life.

Read subsequently identifies a tension at the heart of ideology and our understanding of work. On the one hand, our conscious reflections on work derive from our lived experiences, our material interactions on the job. On the other, the meaning of these interactions is filtered through a system of representations and practices alien to work itself. The ruling ideological apparatuses influence how we affectively undergo our labor conditions. People often experience their job as grueling exploitation yet live it as their liberation. According to Read, the ideology of work has curiously succeeded in coopting and subsuming people’s everyday experiences of work in an ethos that promotes structural overwork as the key to happiness.

Work has become the answer to every problem, the solution to everything – not only for ensuring one’s economic status but also for defining relationships, one’s sense of self, and other fundamental elements of everyday life experience. In a society that increasingly eschews politics, or collective action, as a way of remedying or transforming life, work is that last remaining activity of transformation left to us. (Read 2024, 4)

Work is indeed experienced as exhausting toil and sorrowful exploitation, yet within the ideologically constructed social imaginary of contemporary capitalism, there is no way out of this conundrum but through overwork. The ideology of work gives meaning to our efforts and articulates our hopes and joys in such a way that we see our liberation in more work rather than less. Desire itself is articulated through an ideology that attributes inherent value to the occupations of always-on work culture. Political solutions are blotted out of the regime of the taken for granted, and the only viable option left is to hustle through life in pursuit of getting rich enough to leave the rat race behind. Of course, for most of us the rat race never ends.

In Capital Volume I, Marx predicted that two barriers would stop the infinite growth machine of capital accumulation: “the weak bodies and the strong wills of its human attendants” (Marx 1996, 406). Workers would organize and construct a collective will to counter the exploitative tactics of capital, or their bodies and mind would slowly falter under the pressure of factory-labor. Yet today, the workers’ collective will is rarely strong enough to obtain substantial gains. And their weak bodies burn out at excruciating speed with little effect. Ideology has neutralized the forces of resistance emanating from workplace domination to mobilize workers to act against their own interest.

The red thread throughout Read’s book is the attempt to update Marxism’s traditional ideology theory to explain why people’s strong wills and weak bodies have been coopted into entrepreneurial ideology and incessant hustling. In classical Marxism, the class struggle between workers and capitalists determines the evolution of the economic base. Classical Marxism presents the labor experience as a pure or originary moment in which two classes struggle for control over the means of production. The cultural and political superstructure responsible for the development and diffusion of ideology is subsequently built on top of this struggle. In the immediate material interaction with the world, workers experience their exploitation, but the ideologies of the superstructure are allegedly designed to obscure this basic fact. All it takes for the revolution is for Marxist critics to pluck the imaginary flowers from workers’ chains with the cold force of reason to reveal the ugly truth underneath. This picture, firstly, ignores how ideologies always already permeate the work experience itself. There is no pure moment of real consciousness of workplace exploitation that is only afterwards corrupted by ideology. The affective experience of work is always already articulated through the lens of social imaginaries.

Secondly, the classical Marxist approach is excessively rationalistic. It presumes that the mere act of informing workers of their real class interest, as opposed to their false consciousness, will make nefarious ideologies disappear, like spraying pesticides on imaginary flowers. However, as Spinoza commented, people often ‘see the better and do the worse’ (Read 2024, 166). They know the boss is a bully, the pay is unfair, and the system is rigged, yet they choose to adapt and rationalize that choice because they cannot imagine a way out. How individuals perceive and acquire knowledge about the world is immersed in an infrastructure of intimate desires that is impervious to reason. Ideology is not mere superficial veneer that can be scraped off through the power of reason. It affects human conduct so intimately that it becomes almost indistinguishable from life itself. Our most profound sense of self and our most personal choices are products of ideological work.

Read illustrates this point with the 2019 film The Assistant, a story about a day in the life of Jane, a junior assistant at a movie production company where sexual harassment is rampant yet kept under the lid. Jane aspires to become a movie producer herself one day, but for now she is stuck in an infinite string of menial secretarial tasks. She gradually learns more about the sexual misconducts of her boss, yet she also picks up on the quietism among her co-workers, who all seem to know yet do nothing. They see the better but do the worse. Jane optimistically goes to human resources to save her colleague from sexual harassment, yet the director makes it clear that nothing will come from her complaint. By the end of her day, Jane has accomplished nothing. She realizes that continuing her investigation equals career suicide. Her hopes and dreams of becoming a movie producer all depend on the monster everyone knows to be a sexual predator, so there is little to be gained from filing a complaint. The boss would probably remain firmly in his seat, while Jane would have to abandon her dreams of a career in film. When the credits roll, Read hypothesizes that Jane will probably return to work the next day and settle for the cynical consensus that animates the office.

The Assistant shows that ideological acceptance of workplace domination is not just a matter of fanciful illusions that could easily be dispelled by the cold force of reason. It has seeped into the affective lifeworld of the production company. Desperate resignation rules in the office corridors. Those who know better are emotionally blackmailed into doing the worse. Their career hopes and aspirations are coopted as leverage in a cynical play of voluntary servitude. According to Read’s Spinoza, those in power actively integrate parts of the lived experiences of the powerless to let ideological rationalizations of voluntary submission settle in. They must coopt sentiments circulating in the population and give them a specific political orientation that favors the status quo. This clarifies the tension between affective experience and ideological domination in Read’s analysis: our immediate lived experience of work do, in fact, disclose exploitation, but these experiences have been articulated within social imaginaries that coopt our deepest desires and block off any hopes for collective resistance. The only option left is to stay calm and carry on as if more exploitation were our only liberation.

This theory of ideology enables Read to offer not only illuminating cultural readings of the despair that animates movies like The Assistant, but also to unmask the false alternatives offered in movies and tv-shows that are ostensibly more critical of late-capitalist work culture but fail to capture just how deep the ideological cooptation goes. In the first chapter, for example, Read impressively takes on two movies from 1999 that seem more critical of contemporary work culture than they actually are: Fight Club and Office Space. Both offer an explicit critique of the capitalist work ethos: Fight Club supposedly dispels the myths of “working jobs we hate so we can buy stuff we don’t need” (Read 2024, 63) and Office Space allegedly demonstrates the inanity of contemporary service and office jobs. But Read shows that these films confuse the critique of capitalist labor in general with the critique of specific forms of concrete labor in favor of other forms of (capitalist) concrete labor. Rather than attacking work culture as such, both films criticize two particular forms of work dominant in the 1990s: white-collar work in office culture and the rising trend of service work with high requirements of emotional labor. Yet neither film truly succeeds at imagining a post-capitalist, post-work future. Through the character of Peter, who ends up as a construction worker, Office Space offers a retreat to manual labor as the solution. Fight Club presents a more existentialist yet equally individualistic response. When Tyler Durden holds a convenience store cashier at gun point, he asks the man what job he truly wants to do. The cashier confesses he always dreamed of being a veterinarian but gave up too quickly. After this encounter with mortality, Durden lets the cashier live with the warning that, if he does not pursue his dream, Durden will come back to kill him. Both films do not question labor as such or the culture of overwork. They criticize the labor practices dominant in 1990s capitalism and replace them with manual or existentially authentic labor. They rearticulate the workers’ hatred of all labor into a critique of particular forms of labor and so leave the capitalist work ethic as such intact.

In sum, an exploration of the ideology of work and people’s steadfast attachment to work as a means of getting ahead must take the affective dimension of ideology into account. Ideological justifications of work must convincingly put into words how people feel about themselves, each other, and their jobs. Marx and his acolytes might have called work under capitalism exploitative and alienating, but if I consider my boss and supervisors as a chosen family, then trade-unionists will probably fail to organize us. Marx and his acolytes might preach about class struggle between workers and capitalists, but if I see a foul-mouthed business mogul on tv trolling Democrats who look and talk like the high-school teachers that I used to hate, I will probably cheer along. Getting people to fight for their exploitation as if it were their liberation is often a matter of putting into words the affects others have failed to convincingly articulate into a more emancipatory project.

The Affective Hellscape of Late Capitalism

If we study more closely how Read applies his affective theory of ideology to work culture, we find three explanations for why workers actively desire contemporary hustle culture. Despite all reflections on the subtleties of ideology, Read firstly affirms that many workers still hate their job with a passion and would gladly quit … but at the end of the month, rent is due. Not ideological cooptation of their hopes and desires, but fear motivates their attachment to overwork. These individuals do not have any strong affinity with the work ethic, but the mute compulsion of the market forces them to endure. When people fear for their livelihoods or fear losing the social recognition that comes with having a job, they will latch on to the capitalist work ethic despite all the humiliations they suffer at work.

Read’s second answer delves more deeply into his affective theory of ideology. He explains how mass media and popular myths about work coopt the feelings people have about their job and inflect these into passionate attachments to work for its own sake. The most obvious example is how Hollywood myths about self-made businessmen or ‘chosen ones’ inspire crowds of followers to think of themselves as entrepreneurs of their own lives. If books, movies, and tv-shows repeatedly put relatable underdogs in leading roles as chosen ones that beat all the odds to save the world, then audiences will undoubtedly start to imagine similar futures for themselves as well. A common joke about zombie movies illustrates this problem well. When watching zombie movies, people often imagine themselves in the role of the sole survivor who saves the world through impressive feats of heroism. While other people are mindless automatons, only the individual’s go-getter attitude assures survival. However, in the event of a real-life apocalypse, it is much more likely for any one of us to wander among the zombies. The film preys upon our main character syndrome to encourage narcissistic predispositions toward individualism. But any sober reflection on the apocalyptic scenario should show that egoistic survivalism is a sure route to oblivion. That emancipation more often comes from collective action rather than individual success is maneuvered beyond the frame.

Yet the power of myth goes deeper in our working lives. Especially in careers that facilitate the joys of creative self-expression or meaningful human contact, these momentary flashes of happiness are often abused as excuses for worsening pay and working conditions. Jane, The Assistant’s protagonist, finds genuine joy in the world of movies she suddenly inhabits. But her happiness is quickly used against her. The same leveraging of joy in exchange for pain is rampant in contemporary work culture. Should unpaid interns at a fashion company really complain about grueling working hours if they get to work with genius designers? Is art not their passion? Should adjunct academics really demand a proper wage if they get to teach the theories they love to eager students? Is academia not a vocation? Should nurses really form a union and go on strike if they can meaningfully contribute to patients’ lives? Is the latter’s gratitude not payment enough?

Read’s third and most harrowing answer is the phenomenon of negative solidarity. Sometimes workers see the suffering they have endured as a badge of honor. They allegedly deserve social recognition because they have dragged themselves to work every day and now demand compensatory respect for their pain. This is the middle manager who, because they were bullied into submission their first day on the job, must make new colleagues suffer just as much. Or the person who refuses to join a union “because we did not have collective bargaining back when I was just barely getting by”. Or the university professor who ignores rumors about a colleague’s sexual misconduct, “because we all have stories like that from when I was a grad student”. Or the exploited workers who refuse to express solidarity with striking teachers “because they get time off during the summer while we still have to work”. Negative solidarity is the living embodiment of the sunk cost fallacy. By now, people have invested so much in a losing game that they obstinately refuse to withdraw and keep on suffering more losses. Any other people with a chance at improving their lives must be violently struck down again. If I cannot have nice things, no one can. In that way, solidarity in misery is perpetuated.

Under the aegis of negative solidarity, people give up the struggle for a better future, choose to adapt to desperate circumstances and force others to do the same. The best they can hope for is to become entirely self-reliant and cut off all ties to others. If you do not need help from anyone, then no one can ever disappoint you. In Coming Up Short, Jennifer Silva (2015) documents how millennials struck by the Great Recession rarely reacted with public outrage or political action. Apart from a few highly localized outbursts of collective action around the Occupy Wall Street movement, most millennials did not politically organize at all. They interpreted their fate as the outcome of personal trauma and singular misfortunes in their individual biographies. They deeply mistrusted social movements or collective institutions and hoped to become completely independent to pursue individual success. An excruciatingly demanding work ethic and the endurance of endless hustles were the safest route to such independence.

Sorry to Bother You With Some Rebellion

After approximately 200 pages, one closes The Double Shift with a feeling of despair reminiscent of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the capitalist work ethic. That may come as a surprise since Read himself regularly writes that resistance is possible and that workers can always fight back against their exploitation. He even ends his book’s conclusion with a discussion of Sorry to Bother You, a film that allegedly exemplifies successful resistance against the all-pervasive ideology of work. In this film, Cassius Green, a.k.a. Cash, a black low-level employee at a telemarketing company, finds sudden success when he learns how to use his ‘white voice’ to sell products. While his co-workers are striking for better working conditions, Cash increasingly focuses on his own social climbing. Even when his girlfriend and co-worker Detroit confronts him about selling slave labor over the phone, Cash rationalizes the problem away in an impressive feat of negative solidarity: “What the fuck isn’t slave labor?” (Read 2024, 200). But all ends well, in Read’s interpretation. Ultimately, Cash is confronted with the surreal abuse of his company breeding literal workhorses from human/animal hybrids. He snaps out of the ideological dream of self-centered careerism and joins the protests. According to Read, this shows that the power of imagination and surrealist revelations of exploitation still possess the potential to wake people up from their ideological slumber.

And yet the dread remains. The last ten pages of the book do not make up for 190 pages of doom and gloom. Read’s approach suffers from a feature common in contemporary critical theory: final page redemptionism. It also affects the writings of, among others, Theodor Adorno, Giorgio Agamben, or Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. They first delineate in excruciating detail how instrumental rationality dominates contemporary culture, the state of exception has become the rule, or neuro-totalitarian fascism has killed off human sensibility. But then, at the very end of the book, a glimmer of hope appears. Where the danger is, also grows the saving power. A message in a bottle, tossed out at sea, can bring back reason from its hibernation. A real state of exception can render us all ungovernable. Chaosmic spasms of exhaustion will give birth to new rhythms of life. These redemption arcs are, however, usually cut short too soon. While the oppressive reality of the status quo is disclosed in its minutest details, the answers presented are mere concluding gestures.

While despair is tempting and imagining alternative futures is hard, it is a task worth pursuing. Not only for our own sanity, but also out of responsibility for those who suffer from the injustices depicted in critical theory. Structural overwork and the epidemics of burnout, loneliness, and despair make new victims every day. Meticulously explaining how this disaster has come about and can persist, amounts to philosophical defeatism. It surrenders the social imaginary of emancipation to the status quo of capitalist realism. Theory fails to fathom an escape from current practices of domination. However, theory will take you only so far. In opposition to theoretical defeatism, Albert Camus pleads for a praxis of incessant rebellion: “Rebellion is born of the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition. […] It insists that the outrage be brought to an end” (Camus 1991, 10). The spectacle of irrationality in always-on work culture can trigger two kinds of responses: theoretical melancholy that incisively describes how our suffering was inevitable due to ideological cooptation, or practical outrage that struggles to make it stop. Rather than theorizing about how resistance is futile and only a god can save us, rebellion emanates from a practical attitude that insists on injustice to end. In The Plague, when the epidemic has overcome the city and the protagonists fail to construct an effective response, doctor Rieux and the other inhabitants continue to develop new tactics to combat the disease. Through incessant experimenting and strategizing, they hope to find a solution. Camus writes that

many fledgeling [sic] moralists in those days were going about our town proclaiming there was nothing to be done about it and we should bow to the inevitable. And Tarrou, Rieux, and their friends might give one answer or another, but its conclusion was always the same, their certitude that a fight must be put up, in this way or that, and there must be no bowing down. The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague. (Camus 2010, 128–29)

In The Plague, the infection eventually just disappears. The collective action of doctor Rieux and his comrades had little to do with the outcome. But my argument for rebellion against quietism is not just a matter of desperately wishful thinking. Through the practical insistence of rebellion against workplace domination, alternatives can still appear where critical theory might not have expected them.

Already in the 1960s, the Italian Marxist Romano Alquati stressed how Marxist theory tends to be excessively pessimistic about the capacities of working-class self-organization, because it fails to register the forms of ‘invisible organization’ among factory workers (Alquati 2013). This idea has recently gained new traction to explain the spontaneous protests of, for instance, Deliveroo couriers and Amazon warehouse workers (Cant 2020, 130; Delfanti 2021, 148). The answers that fail to emerge on the pages of philosophical texts, often arise unexpectedly in material practices. Resistance to the capitalist work ethic is taking place in the workspace almost all the time, though it often stays just under the radar as a weapon of the weak. Workers go more often to the bathroom than their bladders can justify, they steal office equipment at an alarming pace, they hold secret meetings on the job about the Israel/Palestine conflict, and union activism in the United States is at an all-time high. I am not saying that global emancipation is just around the corner, but a complete theory of ideology should be able to explain the successes of the oppressed just as convincingly as their defeats.

New emancipatory tactics are constantly being invented. Oftentimes, the protest movements that seem to have failed or that did not deliver the revolutionary salvation hoped for, become the incubation hubs for novel experimental initiatives. After the 2015 Nuits Debout protests in Paris, for example, IT specialists wanted to directly combat the exploitative practices of food-delivery platforms like Deliveroo and Uber Eats. They developed software for a cooperative food-delivery platform and have since founded CoopCycle, an international federation of food-delivery couriers across the globe. While Deliveroo and others pressure couriers toward overwork via surreptitious and opaque algorithmic management, CoopCycle’s app opts for human dispatching so that a human manager determines whether or not tasks are doable for couriers. After the Occupy Wall Street protests, Michelle Miller, Jess Kutch and others developed the online tool Coworker.org, with which workers can propose and discuss issues for collective action at work. Coworker.org has, for instance, been instrumental in mobilizing Starbucks workers, first for relatively small-scale actions, like demanding updates on dress code policy. But meanwhile, these small-scale successes have paved the way for large-scale collective action at Starbucks. Every struggle, even those that ostensibly fail, build up a reservoir of invisible organizational power that can be reignited in novel forms at a later date.

Do You Hear the People Sing?

A good theory of ideology should not only explain how dominant institutions coopt popular desires and integrate them into the reproduction of the status quo. It should also highlight the invisible organizations that silently subvert or retool ruling discourses to further oppositional interests. Ideology is not just a matter of unilateral cooptation or neutralization, but also of struggle and negotiation. The ideology of work is not just an expression of one-way workplace domination, but is also a stake in a struggle over who controls the labor process. Stuart Hall once called these tactics of ideological resistance ‘cultures of survival’ (Hall 2016, 187). Even in their darkest days, the oppressed are never entirely defeated or coopted into a dominant ideology. They rather continuously negotiate with dominant ideologies to expand their interstitial freedoms. In the cracks of the system, the oppressed struggle for room to breathe.

Hall’s prime example was the Afro-American black slaves’ reinvention of Christianity as a subversive ideology. One could dismiss religion as yet another ideological state apparatus geared toward the cooptation of people’s lived experiences. Slave-owners had originally preached Christianity among the slaves to encourage obedient submission, but the slaves themselves negotiated for another interpretation. They took the Christian religion of their oppressors to give voice to their suffering and hope of liberation. While the slave-owners’ religion attempted to articulate slaves’ affective experiences into an ethic of voluntary obedience, slaves’ counter-articulation of these affects gave birth to a more combative ethos. Instead of Matthew’s “Blessed are the meek” or Saint-Paul’s exhortation for slaves to consider themselves free in the Lord, the black slaves turned to Moses and his call for liberation from bondage. It gave birth to a rich musical tradition of Afro-American gospel and blues, in which the sorrows, anger, and hope of slaves’ lived experience were put into words in opposition to the status quo. As Hall perceived, “suddenly, you could hear this traditional religious music and language – a part of the dominant culture – being subverted rhythmically from underneath” (Hall 2016, 198).

In The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy takes up Hall’s suggestion for a more elaborate study of the history of black music. Popular music has been famously criticized as a culture industry that neutralizes resistant affects among the people with soothing bedtime songs of comfort. But Gilroy notes, among others, the development of call-and-response motifs in black music as a formal weapon of the weak to democratically take back control over the discourses narrating their lives:

There is a democratic, communitarian moment enshrined in the practice of antiphony, which symbolizes and anticipates (but does not guarantee) new, non-dominating social relationships. Lines between self and other are blurred and special forms of pleasure are created as a result of the meetings and conversations that are established between one fractured, incomplete, and unfinished racial self and others. Antiphony is the structure that hosts these essential encounters. (Gilroy 2022, 79)

Ideological cooptation emerges from the ruling class’s ideological narratives translating the affective, lived experience of oppression into subjectivities that support the status quo. Yet counter-hegemonic tactics, like the antiphonies of black music, facilitate a democratic remaking of these ideological subjectivities. The oppressed learn to experience the joy and pleasures of a culture built on communitarian solidarity through the singing of the black diaspora.

One still recognizes this practice in songs like Kendrik Lamar’s “Alright,” the unofficial anthem of the US Black Lives Matter movement. With Lamar’s verses rapping about anti-black discrimination and police brutality, Pharell Williams’s chorus sounds like a vox populi evangelizing “We gon’ be alright”. The song reached mainstream international acclaim in 2015, when Lamar performed it at the BET Awards on top of a graffitied police car. Protesters in Cleveland had also sung the chorus to celebrate their successful struggle to prevent the police illicitly arresting a 14-year-old black boy. The video of this incident went viral online, further solidifying the song’s status as articulation of Afro-American lived experience of police violence. We could dismiss this as just another cooptation of popular desires into the business strategy of a culture industry avid to make money from the lived experience of the poor and oppressed. However, such reductionism does little justice to what the song has actually meant to BLM protestors. In the verses, Lamar reflects on how fame and money are luring him into a deal with the devil that can only end in depression and “going cray”. These temptations are, however, just the new “forty acres and a mule” promised to black people to coopt their desires into complacency with a social system that routinely brutalizes and kills black men and can easily destroy even powerful individuals like Lamar himself. These apocalyptic contemplations are interspersed with an uplifting chorus that asserts confidence in the future (“We gon’ be alright”). While such confidence can easily be mistaken for naïve optimism, a more truthful reading offers it as a battle cry. A politically articulated ‘We’ senses itself strong enough to make sure that everything is going to be alright. This song does not articulate yet another “Blessed are the meek”, but an oppositional “Let my people go”.

If we listen for similar statements among anti-work anthems, we could cross the ocean of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic and focus on Belgian artist Stromae’s break-out song Alors on danse. When asked about why he wrote this song about nightclubs, he responded, “for me [the most melancholic places] are nightclubs, because arguably they entertain a kind of false euphoria. One says one goes to a nightclub to have a good time. […] Because if you did not have a good time, it was not a successful night-out. […] These are people who live otherwise normal lives and I would hence argue that wherever there is extreme joy, there must also be extreme sadness” (Burnett 2017, 81 my translation). The clubbers’ manic oscillation between exhilaration and depression takes shape in the dialogue between the song’s verses and chorus. The verses document the drudgeries of everyday working life:

Qui dit proches te dit deuils

Car les problèmes ne viennent pas seuls

Qui dit crise te dit monde

Dit famine, dit tiers-monde

Et qui dit fatigue dit réveil

Encore sourd de la veille

Alors on sort pour oublier tous les problèmes.

With this call for escapism in response to mourning, crisis, famine, and exhaustion, the upbeat chorus commences “Alors on danse” (“So one dances”). It’s interesting to note Stromae’s choice for the impersonal pronoun ‘on’ (one) instead of the more personal ‘nous’ (we). He does not sing that “we dance” on the weekend to forget our troubles but that “one dances” to deal with one’s issues. Even the joy of dancing is no longer a lived experience we could call our own. In contrast to Lamar’s articulate We, Stromae documents the alienation of a fragmented One. Dancing at the club is just another motion one goes through as “mere living accessory of [capital’s] machinery” (Marx 2005, 693). The impersonal pronoun articulates the alienation of an existence lived on repeat, a cynical struggle to make it until the weekend so one can binge-drink as self-administered therapy. At least then, one can party one’s misery away until Monday morning, when the ordeal starts all over again and the drunken memory of past joys has receded into oblivion. Stromae articulates the despair of an unsustainable culture built on exploitative work, yet he attacks any notion that work and exploitation would constitute our liberation. Rather than articulating and coopting our dreams and desires into an ideological narrative that identifies empowerment with more work, Alors on danse explicitly dispels any myths about our dream careers. Work is nothing but five days of drudgery so one can pay rent and drink alcohol to forget. Stromae takes up the reality of always-on work culture and presents it in its grimmest grayest colors. Rather than massaging our lived experience into compliance with the status quo, the back-and-forth rhythm between verses and chorus highlights the stark contrast between our lived experience and the meagre coping mechanisms society offers. By laying bare the contradictions of the capitalist work ethic, the music might one day stop.

What distinguishes the approach to ideology inspired by Hall and Gilroy from Read’s is that the latter mostly focuses on how ideologies coopt the perspective of the oppressed to subsequently make it serve the oppressors’ interests. Gilroy and Hall are certainly no strangers to this analysis, but their focus is on culture and ideology as matters of struggle. The oppressed frequently corrupt the ideological refrains of their oppressors and use it against their masters. In music, for example, the oppressed articulate weapons of the weak that expose the drudgeries of work and the injustices of social domination. The music industry, in that regard, is not just an ideological state apparatus to functionally reproduce the status quo. It is an arena of negotiation, where marginalized cultures struggle to articulate their lived experiences. The affective hellscape of contemporary capitalism hits hardest in the contradictory call-and-response dynamics of Alright or Alors on danse. It is by renegotiating the dominant ideologies’ attempts at cooptation that the oppressed increase their interstitial freedoms. As Hall concludes, “the conditions within which people are able to construct subjective possibilities and new political subjectivities for themselves are not simply given in the dominant system. They are won in the practices of articulation which produce them” (Hall 2016, 206).

Tim Christiaens is assistant professor of economic ethics and philosophy at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. His research focuses on critical theory and the digitalization of work, neoliberalism, and the power of financial markets. He is the author of Digital Working Livespublished with Rowman & Littlefield in 2022, and has published papers in Theory, Culture & Society, European Journal of Social Theoryand Big Data & Society.

References

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Burnett, Joanne. 2017. ‘Why Stromae Matters: Dance Music as a Master Class for the Social Issues of Our Time’. The French Review 91 (1): 79–92.

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Silva, Jennifer. 2015. Coming up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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