Global judgements and ideas.

Agility for Anxiety Capitalism

The opening scroll for the film Bladerunner introduces the Nexus 6 replicants as being ‘superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence’. Robots are perceived to be agile, but what does this word mean? In 2001, 17 software developers, disillusioned with bureaucracy and obstacles to technological development, decided to put this word into action and wrote the Agility Manifesto (The Agile Movement, 2008):

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

box-agile3After its birth in 2001, companies in many industries began to adopt an agile system where workers and management should both have the ‘ability over time to respond quickly and effectively to rapid change and high uncertainty’ (Joroff et al, 2003: 294). Agile is a ‘co-evolution of workplace and work’; an adaptation of kaizen, or ‘continuous improvement’ (Danford et al, 2008); ‘neither top-down nor bottom-up: it is outside-in’ (Denning, 2015), relying on the conscious co-evolution and improvement of work which happens through ‘experimentation, integration and disseminated learning’ (Joroff et al, 2003: 294). ‘Agile’ has been appropriated into mainstream management terminology and job descriptions, even though it is unpopular with workers precisely because it breeds uncertainty, which the Chartered Institute for Personnel (CIPD) indicates in Getting Smart About Agile Working (2014).

While this set of management practices is heralded as a highly normative, horizontal system, its initiators made several assumptions and overlooked specific features of its operations that have implications for workers. The Agility Manifesto inverts the hierarchy between humans and machines, where humans must be continuously transformative, because technology is apparently continuously transforming. In the agile method, humans are expected not only to become subject to rapid technological change and to self-manage these processes through affective labour but to, in fact, emulate machines, which are expected to continuously develop and change; and to embrace constant subjective transformations. Meanwhile, workers are subject to increasingly intimate tracking and monitoring and their every move surveilled. Agile workers are prepared for constant change, happy to make personal changes, always on the move, always trackable.

Agility pushes calculation practices into the affective realm through the quantification and measure of people’s abilities to withstand incessant transformation of work/life as dictated by machinic transformation. Personal investments in self-managing agility requires constant social reproduction of a company’s image by aligning oneself with identities and preferences (Land and Taylor, 2010). Workers cannot log out or switch off (Gregg, 2011) and ‘struggle to be left alone rather than to be included, a type of refusal that would have looked strange to their Fordist predecessors’ (Fleming, 2015: 83).

Affective and emotional labour are part of the social reproductive labour that facilities the processes of agile, where unseen work serves to allow the continuation of capitalist labour relations and the reproduction of capitalist subjectivities (Dalla Costa and James, 1972; Fortunati and Fleming, 1995; Jarrett, 2015; Kofman, 2012; Haider and Mohandesi, 2015; Kofman and Raghuram, 2015; Dowling, 2016; Weeks, 2011; Hoskyns and Rai, 2007); forms of labour that become a ‘moral’ obligation imposed by corporate power; where subjectivities are required to be resilient to instability and where subjects take responsibility for personal wellness rather than associate stress and illness with poor working conditions. This puts worker resilience into the realm of a ‘necessary part of social and ecological assemblages, which passes through the unconscious field’ (Firth, 2016: 131).

Pinning to the corporeal, agile labourers do not engage in creative production using their own affective and emotional capacities. They are engaged in a type of repression by which the required subordinate performances corrode their own psychosomatic and bodily wellbeing and to self-manage the impacts of seemingly inevitable change through affective labour. Management attempts to externally regulate and modulate all areas of labour and to externalise any costs that are part of this process. Workers may become conscious of their own affective and emotional labour in the context of corporate merger and a move toward agile systems. While affect is, by definition, innumerable, and outputs are potentially only seen as ‘disembodied exhaust’ (Smith, 2016) or contrived data proxies, it has historically been invisibilised and all socially reproductive labour excluded from payment systems. However, the pursuit of including affective labour into management systems now is not being carried out in order to pay for it, but because worker disengagement, resistance or collapse could reduce the company’s ‘bottom line’.

Through agile systems, capital attempts to turn the use-value in affective labour into an exchange, thus both commodifying affect and attempting to circumvent resistance. The process whereby affective and emotional labour are quantified involves attempts to capture ‘invisible labour’ which in feminist literature refers to work that goes unrecognised and overlooked (Crain et al, 2016). Affective labour however, is not invisible without intention. Invisibility has the potential for revelation, but regulations for its viewing are already authored within specific parameters, dictating what is permissible, what can be seen or indeed, what is ‘seen’ and thus what is measured, which is a basic premise for the the theory of working time (Hayes and Moore, 2016).

However, what is not counted in workplaces is as important as, if not more important than, what is counted (Cherry, 2016). Processes to monitor and track work using more intimate tracking methods may bring working time to the fore, may render it ‘seen’, but may not result in remuneration. Heidegger’s point that ‘calculation refuses to let anything appear except what is countable’ (1998: 235) is relevant here, where indeed, work may be revealed, but only for limited purpose. Instead, the hitherto externally invisible aspects of labour are revealed, but increasingly under the microscope of responsibilisation and potentially in a context of ‘digital nihilism’ (Gregg, 2015). In cases of ‘gig work’ for example, individual workers become accountable for reputations that are recounted by algorithm (Gandini et al, 2016); leaving little room for qualitative depiction of selfhood or non-competitive communities.

The agility system is a new frontier for prescribing externalised quantification of labour and prescribing (under)value to affective labour, depleting possibilities for subjects to pursue what Deleuze and Guattari call becoming-minoritarian in the sense of a universal figure of consciousness, leading to real ‘autonomy’ (1987: 106). However, humans do not possess ‘authentic’ selves existing outside of, and penetrable by, capitalism along the lines Hochschild considered. Rather, the sheer possibility of there being an ‘authentic’ self is at a high risk of being commodified in the current context of anxiety capitalism.

Arruzza notes that the ‘the social management of affects is not an invention of capitalism’, whereby, in capitalism, emotions are intentionally ‘detached from us and constructed as interchangeable and measurable things that can be exchanged on the market or as skills that add to our labour power’ (2014: np).

Management practices surrounding agile management systems complement a range of neoliberal norms in working life which serve to subsume all aspects of everyday life to capital. Some radical studies of the laws of value postulate that there is an ‘outside’ of capital that cannot be quantified (Negri and Hardt 1999: 86). Federici argues there is no longer a conceivable ‘outside’ whilst we live in a capitalist hegemony (2004). Along these lines, new technologies are instrumental for subsumption, where monitoring technologies quantify the qualitative and reveal previously unmeasured aspects of the labour process, like mood, fatigue, psychological wellbeing, subjective self-awareness, sensitivity to privacy, stress ultimately, affective and emotional labour, as capitalism continues, as Marx indicated, to ‘settle everywhere’.

Please email me if you are interested in citing this, as some of the text has been extracted from a paper I have written for Body & Society that has not been published yet. pvm.doc at THANKS 


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This entry was posted on January 29, 2018 by .
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