Opening Jun and Smith’s Deleuze and Ethics, I’m confronted with Jeffrey Bell’s article “Whistle While You Work: Deleuze and the Spirit of Capitalism”. Bell nails it right in his opening paragraphs:
In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx pointedly argues that within the capitalist system “the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object. As Marx contends, and as is well known, it is precisely the power of labor that has become “congealed in an object,” that is, in a commodity (or service) that exists independently and “becomes a power on its own confronting him.” In short, the life which the power of labor has conferred on “the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.” Our work has become a foe, a test and trial we must endure before we can begin to do what we really want to do. Work or play, as Deleuze and Guattari note, has become one of the great molar segments that divides us, an exclusive disjunction that pervades daily life. There is the melancholy of the Monday morning blues; there is the hope that emerges as Wednesday, hump day, draws to a close and there is less of the drudgery of work before us than behind us; and finally how many times have we heard our colleagues at work express joy at the fact that it is Friday. We can even spend our hard-earned cash at T.G.I. Friday’s, for now it is time to play.
Here comes the good part. Jeff continues:
Despite the alienation Marx speaks of, we nonetheless continue to show up for work. The reason we do so is simple: necessity. As Marx puts it, labor has become “merely a means to satisfy needs external to it”– namely, it allows us to put food on the table. It was for this reason that Marx argues that the worker “no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions,” for as this point is clarified a few pages later, animals such as bees, beavers, and ants produce “only under the dominion of immediate physical need, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.” It is this latter point that will be the primary focus of the following paper. What does it mean to produce in freedom from physical need? [my italics]
Bell nails it, and in a way I’ve never quite heard it put before. This is what autonomy is. Autonomy is not the untenable idea that reason is a free and fully self-present self-direction wherein there is no heteronomy in the form of pre-discursive neurological and affective processes, where the implements we use play no interactive role in determining that of which we are capable and what our goals are, where we are little gods that have complete mastery over ourselves and over the world about us. Again and again (Freud, Nietzsche, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, Marx) the unreasonableness of such a conception of reason has been demonstrated, yet still the armchair warriors insist that this is what autonomy is. They even go so far as to engage in circular arguments, saying ‘but, but, but if we didn’t have this sort of reason we wouldn’t be able to do x”; as if wishing pigs could fly and claiming that it is necessary that pigs be able to fly were sufficient to establish that something is true and to dismiss wide swaths of empirical evidence that it is categorically untrue.
No, autonomy, freedom, if it could come to exist, would be that state of affairs in which we could produce without doing so under the necessity of producing. Autonomy would be a form of existence where we aren’t slaves to necessity or needs precisely because necessity and needs have been taken care of. Note how differently this situates the question. When posed in this way we aren’t directed to idealist incantations about transcendental and self-determining subjects. No, here we’re directed to questions about the materiality of the world, the materiality of our body, the materiality of existing social relations, and our entanglement with the entire ecosystem characterizing these three materialities.