Frédéric Lordon's Willing Slaves of Capital: A Review


The following review, by Abhijeet Paul, was originally published in Critical Inquiry.

In the three chapters—more like three theses—Lordon explores the reasons for our general desire to be enslaved by modern work and the workplace. This justifies the title of the book: we are willing slaves of capital—it would not be otherwise. Further, Lordon emphasizes, there is no voluntary, but only passionate, servitude.

What does this possibly mean? Lordon explores a mundane, yet unusual moment in modern work: the moment of employment. This moment, which often produces a lifetime of enslavement to impersonal spaces and practices, brings us in the crosshairs of Spinozist “anthropology of passions” and the Marxist master theory of labor, wages, and value. To justify the rather strange desire to work for others in neoliberal capitalism requires something more than the objective framework of an office or an economy. It is necessary to understand the instruments at work: alignment, enlistment, surveillance, love, domination, and liberation—all working within the orbit of desire. In the first chapter, Lordon discusses the founding logic of this process: Spinoza’s “conatus”, or the striving to act, associated with desire and the functioning of life itself. Thus, we enter into the social game of work and organization with full disclosure and knowledge that we shall remain enslaved—joyfully or sadly. In the second chapter, Lordon explores how the goal of cultivating employees as joyful “auto-mobiles,” who would keep alive the master-desire of capitalism internally, remains essentially outside the Marxian logic of alienation. It is instead based on the notion of “colinearisation” of master-desire, which is the production of suitable desires. In the present example, it is money itself as all other desires can be fulfilled by it. But are we destined to remain enslaved by neoliberal master-desires without any hope of liberation?

The last chapter explores the condition of that possibility in the idea of “recommune” or res communa, which is actualized in the small, the numerically narrow, and the “local”. Lordon seems to suggest that, while the local is not outside the scope of work (and alienation) and therefore the material production of life, it certainly has the power to counter master-desire and the phenomenon of colinearization. Perhaps, what remains to be truly desired in Lordon’s book is a greater exploration of the actual politics of possibility of the local that can be better accessed through the ethnographic form.

[Gabriel Ash’s translation of Lordon’s complex text is engaging and deserves mention.]

- Visit Critical Inquiry to read the review in full. Buy Willing Slaves of Capital here and see more from Lordon here.