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(Eloge de la Demotivation) 

Guillaume Paoli 
translated by Vincent Stone 

First U.S. edition published by Cruel Hospice 2013 
Cruel Hospice is a place where a terminally-ill society gets the 
nasty treatment it deserves. Anyone trying to resuscitate the 
near dead is a legitimate target for criticism. 

Printed by LBC Books 

Cover art by Tyler Spangler 
English translation by Vincent Stone 

Printed in Berkeley 

First printing, December 2013 

To Renate, for so many motives 

1 Why Do Something 

Rather than Nothing? 

16 Compulsory Markets 

44 The Company Wants 
What’s Best for You 
(Don’t Give It to Them) 

67 The Work Drug 

90 Metamorphoses of the Fetish 

1 22 Canceling the Project 

Why do something rather than nothing? 

Motivated, motivated, 

We must be motivated. 

— Neo-Trotskyist refrain 

To get a donkey to move forward, nothing is better than the 
proverbial carrot and stick. At least that’s how the story goes. 
Having known a few muleskinners myself, I never saw a single 
one resort to this technique. But whatever the reality may be, 
it’s a useful metaphor that, like many popular expressions, con- 
tains and condenses phenomena that are more complex than 
they seem. From the outset, let’s be clear that it is a question 
of the carrot and the stick, and not one or the other. There’s 
not an option, but rather a dialectical relation between the two 
terms. No carrot without the stick, and vice versa. The stick 
alone, physical punishment without the carrot, is not enough 
to encourage continuous and resolute forward progress in the 
animal. The beaten mule will snort, reluctantly take a few steps, 
but then stop moving at the first opportunity. To use managerial 
language: stick beatings are not efficient. In fact, the real effect of 
the stick is indirect — a permanent threat that can be unleashed 
at the least sign of diminished effort. It is enough that the don- 
key realizes that he can be hit, either because he has a painful 
memory of the experience or because he sees mules around 
him being hit. It gets him to move, not to reach a goal, but to 
avoid pain. Specialists describe this phenomenon as a “second- 


ary negative motivation.” In the ideal situation, it shouldn’t even 
be necessary to hit the animal, because he has completely inter- 
nalized the threat. His “interior stick” will seem like an improve- 
ment on the condition of mules. He will say: “We have nothing 
to complain about. Previously we were beaten cruelly. Now our 
life is nicer.”The philosopher Norbert Elias called this tendency 
the process of the civilization of manners. Nonetheless, all teachers 
are well aware that every punishment has to be paired with the 
promise of a reward. Coercion without reward won’t work for 
long. One isn’t motivated solely by avoiding something, but by 
that plus attaining gratification. 

Here’s where the carrot comes in, as somebody dangles 
it from a stick in front of the animal’s nose. If the psychological 
forces unleashed by the shaking of the stick are relatively crude, 
those that are unleashed by the carrot are more complex. First, 
the animal not only has to see the carrot, but must see only that; 
so it must be arranged that all other objects disappear from his 
sight. To achieve this effect trainers have, from time immemo- 
rial, used blinders. Depending on the sophistication of the donkey, 
there are various types. For example, some let in light from a 
specific direction, leaving everything else in shadow so as not to 
distract the donkey from his goal. Anything that is not the car- 
rot is either an ideology involving absolute evil or an impracti- 
cal utopia. Yet as effective as this approach is, it is still coercive. 
Sometimes a donkey will buck at this authoritarian restriction 
of his visual field. Keep in mind that the purpose of the carrot 
is precisely to promote free and voluntary progress. It is easy to 


see that the best way to focus the will of the animal on a single 
object is to take away everything else around him so that nothing 
can distract him from his desire. In the desert there is no need for 
blinders. So a desert must be made. 

Once you capture the donkey’s attention, the real work 
begins. There are two competing sets of interests: the donkey 
wants to eat the carrot; the donkey trainer wants the donkey 
to walk. How do we reconcile the two? The animal has to sub- 
stitute his internal motivation (hunger, desire) for the external 
one (the carrot, and the path to obtain it). This phase is called 
identification. Next, once he is hooked, he has to change his be- 
havior and do what is necessary to reach his goal. There is a 
greater chance of success if the subject is convinced that he 
is acting freely and without any outside influence. This is the 
phase known as adaptation. It spreads easily in mammals with 
a more social nature than with donkeys, which are more soli- 
tary — so let’s add a few colleagues. For at this stage a key phe- 
nomenon comes into play. Each individual colleague believes he 
has to take a step forward. Why? Because he is convinced that 
all the others will take a step as well. This is called emulation or 
free competition. Each believes because he has no choice but 
to beheve, since everyone else believes — “everyone else” being 
the sum of each person who believes, etc. It’s how a perception 
becomes an “incontrovertible reality.” 

The next phase in the process is called well-sublimated 
failure. For there is clearly no question of whether the goal can 
be achieved, otherwise he would stop walking and enjoy his 


success and the whole thing would have been in vain. Still, it 
is essential to keep the animal from thinking that all hope of 
success is impossible, which would equally compromise his for- 
ward motion. Satisfaction should appear as deferred but never 
unreachable. The unsuccessful attempt should be compensated, 
that is, converted into a growing effort. This is the most deli- 
cate moment. Here specialists in positive thinking encourage 
the donkeys with maxims like this one, coined by Churchill: 
“Success is the ability to move from one failure to another with 
no loss of enthusiasm.” 

Once this stage is reached, the worst is over. Going for- 
ward, one can count on another factor known as routine. The 
animal continues along on its path at a regular pace, no longer 
asking the question why. More precisely, the question is inverted 
for him. He will ask himself: what reason do I have to stop? 
What matters now is no longer the relevance of the motivation 
that got him going, but the absence of sufficiently powerful al- 
ternative motivations that would lead him to question the path 
he is on. Also, so long as an imperious reason doesn’t draw him 
away from his current behavior, he will continue working. 

Let’s admit it: the fact that donkeys are systematically 
fooled by such a simple approach doesn’t speak well for their 
powers of discernment. Nevertheless, in their favor, one should 
acknowledge that they don’t have a donkeys’ union, demanding: 
“more carrots, fewer sticks!” It is a well-known fact that, at the 
end of the trail, the most deserving donkey enjoys the juiciest 
carrot. That wasn’t so long ago. For the global context no longer 


permits that sort of generosity. Subject to brutal competition, 
the muleskinners are not likely to waste expensive carrots in 
this manner. In order to lower the cost of labor, they substitute 
colorful images of juicy carrots, or they hire communications 
specialists who try to persuade the donkeys that the pole from 
which nothing is hanging is itself a succulent dish. Or that the 
stick will transform itself into a carrot when one is beaten on 
the back enough. We have to admire their efforts. 

What I have outlined in broad strokes is nothing other 
than the theory of motivation as it is distilled in austere treatises 
of psychology and put into practice in expensive seminars. What 
is a motive? It is in the most basic sense that which leads to move- 
ment. By extension it is a reason to act. Motivation is, then, the 
creation and communication of motives to get people to move 
in a direction that is seen as useful, or (to speak the language of 
our times) to make them continuously more flexible and mobile. 

In all sectors of society today the battle over motivation is 
raging. The unemployed don’t earn the right to exist unless they 
present proof that they are constantly searching for nonexistent 
jobs. During the employment interview, it isn’t so much compe- 
tence that matters as the enthusiastic demonstration of flawless 
subservience. Those who still have work can only hope to keep 
their position by identifying heart and soul with the firm, letting 
themselves be led wherever this loyalty takes them, embracing 
its “cause” for better or (more often) for worse. And the reality 
of motivation doesn’t stop at the office door. It is also imposed 
on the consumer who is required to be attentive to all the lat- 


est products and to confirm his loyalty to the brands that have 
hooked him. And on the adolescent who must be formed — per- 
haps we should say be formatted — according to the demands of 
the market, no less than on the elderly who have to pay off their 
debt to a world that has had the generosity of keeping them alive. 
Regardless of age, the viewer has to make increasing amounts 
of brainpower available to receive the endless stream of media 
bits that constitute his reality. Once the television is off, there 
are still all of the artists who want to make him move, the activists 
who want to mobilize him, the time and relationships that he has 
to manage, and his own image that he is forced to make more dy- 
namic; in brief, there is not a moment that shouldn’t be under the 
regime of the useful, under the categorical imperative of move- 
ment. Nothing but carrots for such miserable donkeys! 

Motivation is a central question of our epoch and it is 
bound to become even more so. This is first of all because to- 
tal commodification demands it. Today everything is subject 
to commerce: every desire, every aspiration, and every impulse. 
The flagship products that dominate the market are not just any 
objects supposed to perform this or that function, but rather 
slices of prefabricated lifestyles. And the consumer must identify 
with them; he must make their motives his own. Each of us has 
within our beings what were once known as “the passions of the 
soul” as well as a heritage of previous traditions (at least what is 
left of them) . This entire inventory must be mobilized, remod- 
eled, packaged, labeled, made exchangeable with products of 
equal value. So as much at the beginning of the process, in what 


we still call work, as further down, in what can be called con- 
sumption (though these two moments are increasingly difficult 
to distinguish), it’s a matter of making it so that people’s minds 
are entirely occupied by this infinite task. 

The second reason motivation is more crucial than ever 
is that the real needs of individuals to which social institutions 
once claimed to respond (we could mention among others, the 
need for stability, the thirst for social encounters, the pleasure 
of mutual recognition, the hope for a better life) have been sys- 
tematically destroyed by market colonization. The ideals and the 
promises that in good and bad times were the cause of com- 
promise and renunciation are henceforward labeled as archa- 
isms that must be completely and quickly annihilated. If people 
need to be constantly motivated, it is because they are increas- 
ingly de-motivated. In the employment sector, all the indica- 
tors point to a decrease in “investment” on the part of workers 
in their jobs. This is not only the case among precarious and 
poorly paid workers, but also among middle management and 
top executives. In the consumer sector, the major markets are 
seeing a growing dissatisfaction among customers, to an increas- 
ing extent due to a saturation effect: the result of a decreasing 
interest in making purchases more than the fabled “decline in 
purchasing power.” In the media sector, the homogenization of 
information (in form as well as content) appears to be creat- 
ing a global crisis of confidence. As for the political sphere, the 
principle of communicating vessels between government and 
opposition, according to which the decline in popularity of one 


brought about an equal rise in that of the other, has generally 
ceased to apply in democratic nations. There is just one ideology 
left and it is met with unanimous disinterest. In a more general 
sense, “the imperative of growth,” to which everything else is 
subordinated, but whose purpose is more and more difficult to 
discern, is no longer enough to justify the sacrifices required. 

To sum it up, the more the markets need motivation from 
the people, the more they lack it. The more the system’s techno- 
logical devices appear irresistible, the weaker their ability to solicit 
voluntary cooperation. At the very moment when global capital 
seems to have removed all external obstacles that formerly slowed 
its development, an internal factor threatens it: the growing dis- 
satisfaction of its human resources, without which the system is 
nothing. This is the soft underbelly of the colossus. Contrary to 
what Marx believed, in the end the limit to World Trade, Inc . 1 
might not be objective, but subjective, namely: the tendency of 
the rate of motivation to fall. Of all the factors that contribute to 
this state of affairs, the traffic jam plays a special role. The story is 

1 Everyone has a vague idea of what capitalism is. But many would have a really 
hard time giving a definition. Of course there is one — there are many, even; 
nevertheless it is good to be wary of the falsities that the usage of a generic term 
ends up carrying, as it will tend to close the possibility of reexamination. The 
familiar is not necessarily the known. In his complete works, Marx did not write 
the word “capitalism” one single time; he had no need to. At the same time, it 
is difficult to not give a name to that which so clearly makes up a system. Here 
I will use the term World Trade, Inc., not because it is more precise, but on the 
contrary because it is a figure and not a concept, which keeps a certain allusive 
distance from what is signified. I could have just as easily said “the big thingy.” But 
World Trade, Inc. is a bit more explicit. It’s clearly something global, with a central 
activity that is commercial, and is also something that is incorporated, which is to 
say, embodied by corporations. 


well known. Everybody buys a car, promising individual freedom, 
speed and power, only to find himself stuck in traffic because 
other motorists, driven by the same motives, did the same thing. 
But it is too late to be able to do without a car. However, sud- 
denly a new product is released offering that special something, as 
well as freedom, to its owner. Everyone hurries to buy it, with, of 
course, the same result. In this situation it isn’t really accurate to 
say we are in a traffic jam; the bitter truth is that we are the traffic 
jam! To the extent that congestion extends from one end of the 
market to another, the life span of each supposed motive leading 
there decreases. The obvious approach is to rapidly create new 
motives, but the likely result is that they will end up creating their 
own motive -jam. It is not just that people overwhelmed with 
temptations won’t know where to turn their attention, but the 
traffic jam will likely result also in the other direction — brands 
trying to reach increasingly unavailable customers. 

And that is not all, because getting caught in traffic jams 
makes the workday longer and results in lower pay per hour. It 
is logical: the more people end up being included, the less the 
role of each person in creating wealth, and the more each is 
an interchangeable unit. There is always someone somewhere 
who will do what you do for less. And so the gap between the 
promised land as seen on TV and the real world widens. The era 
in which we were promised that Progress would bring not only 
more goods, but also less work, is over. From now on everyone 
subject to the market is constantly in a double bind: expect 
lower pay and consume more; be creative and admit that there is 


no alternative; be loyal and remember that you are replaceable at 
will; be a unique individual and submit to the needs of the team; 
be egotistical and be ashamed to defend your interests; orgasm 
and at the same time practice abstinence. If you obey one order, 
you will disobey the other. Now you go and be motivated under 
such conditions! 

Many people have pointed out the crisis of motiva- 
tion in order to condemn this crisis. I believe, rather, that we 
should welcome this situation as an opportunity. If you distrust 
the pace at which things are changing, better to slow down. If 
you’re unsure of your escape route ahead, it is advised you turn 
away from the carrots dangled in front of you. If capitalism has 
as an essential precondition the motivation of its agents, it is 
logical to conclude that for the opponents and victims of its 
development, demotivation is a necessary stage. 

When I told my circle that I planned to write this elegy, 
I noted a certain disapproval, or at least a manifest lack of com- 
prehension in my interlocutors. I get it: as if we weren’t demoti- 
vated enough as it is! As if our epoch doesn’t suffer from chronic 
anomie, from a dramatic absence of motives. Isn’t the problem 
rather that the ideals, the general objectives, the utopias, the rea- 
sons to act that animated previous generations have disappeared 
from the surface of the social field? And certainly a long list of 
today’s motives would look more like a cemetery of uniforms 
and liveries, as Duchamp put it. 

As for the Left, what happened to the strategies of rup- 
ture, self-management, the power of the soviets, the tomorrows 


when anything is possible? There has been a clear defeat of those 
who thought that socialism actually existed in some part of the 
world. But also the denial, based on experience, that the scien- 
tific method could guarantee social change. More important still, 
the loss of the lovely assurance that history has a “meaning” that, 
even if in roundabout ways, will lead humanity to a glorious 
future. And finally, the nagging doubt that all these prescriptive 
utopias may not be practical or even desirable. And the activists 
who try to revive them, without themselves really believing in 
them, are chasing after wind. 

But look at the right too: what has happened to the tra- 
ditional institutions and values that only a few decades ago were 
seen as the indispensable pillars of order and civilization? The 
nation, patriotism, the apostolic and Catholic Church, military 
service, bourgeois culture, patriarchy , 2 Sunday lamb dinner with 
the family? They have melted like icebergs exposed to global 
warming and it is clearly not our thumbing our noses at them, 
as we felt compelled to do as adolescents, that is making things 
worse. These notions were already moribund then; in fact, today 
they are among those species considered “extinct in the wild.” 
Now you have to go to the zoo to see them. 

As for the center, what is left of “the greatest happiness 
for the greatest number” with its social security, guaranteed 

2 There are still people valiantly fighting patriarchy, but I ask you this: where are 
the patriarchs? If Freud’s theory, according to which the authoritarian father is to 
the individual what institutions are to the social order, were true, then anarchy 
would have reigned for some time now! But, as one might note, the evaporation 
of the severe Father has not made way for fraternity, far from it. There are those 
calling for his return so that he may finally be killed. 

employment, increasing free time, democratic involvement, 
improved education and public health services, and retirement 
and funeral expenses guaranteed? All the elements of this luke- 
warm but certain comfort which were thought to be the norm, 
are now being swept away like empty champagne bottles after 
the all night party that was the golden years from 1945 to 1975. 
The gently sloping stairs that one gracefully ascended one after 
the other now opens into a huge hole. Some fall, some hang on. 
It’s the nasty reality of competition. 

Finally we look up into the air and find the intellectu- 
als: “there are simulacra everywhere!” — post-modernism, post- 
history, post-humanism, post-critique, anything so long as it is 
“post” and now even post-post. Of course, this form of elegant 
resignation makes us smile (“we have nothing left to hope for 
but a university post”) but it points to a widely held state of 
mind, the sense that nothing is moving forward, that all the 
hands have been played, the future is past, and struggle is impos- 
sible. If it weren’t the extreme right, the Islamists, the homo- 
phobes and the smokers — that is to say, all those who pretend 
to embody the past — one wonders what could still provoke 
public rage today. Such an absence of hope is not so much de- 
spair since there is an energy in despair; nor is it inertia: on the 
contrary, everything must “move” faster and faster. It is manic- 
depressive nihilism. 

The difference between ancient society, modernism, and 
post-modernism is this: the ancients knew that they believed, 
the modernists believed that they knew, and the post-modernists 


believe that they don’t believe in anything anymore. It is 
precisely this latter belief that we have to destroy. What we need 
to criticize in the disabused pose of those who have walked away 
from everything without having been anywhere is not their 
giving up of illusions, but that all the illusions they encourage 
about the world they describe as rational are in fact filled with 
spells, magical rituals and sacred carrots. For if the ancient idols 
have been thrown to the bonfire of the vanities, it is in the name 
of a monotheism so much more voracious that it remains the 
only social force. If it is not seen, it is because it is everywhere, 
and so it presents itself as the only truth, naked and undeniable. 
Everything has been deconstructed, demystified, demolished, 
discredited, superseded, decomposed, cut in slices, digested, 
defecated. Everything? No. Nobody touches the market. It’s 
taboo. It proliferates like algae that take over all the space around 
it, eliminating other species. It is the religion of World Trade, Inc. 
Yet just as Christianity did not completely eliminate the pagan 
gods, but integrated them into its universe in the bastardized 
forms of the Virgin Mary and the saints, the monotheism of 
the market has not completely destroyed the human motives 
that were once outside of it. It has monopolized them — in 
denaturing them, in reforming them so that they conform to its 
ends — to the point of making them unrecognizable. To believe 
that motivation is lacking in this world is to misunderstand the 
mutant forms through which it expresses itself. 

Is it necessary to clarify that it is not a question here 
of making a cynical apology for a social system in which the 


norm is a pathetic and feeble vegetative state? The absence of a 
taste for life, the smothering of passions, is only the flipside of 
the total mobilization required by World Trade, Inc., and is its 
symptom. You don’t treat bulimia with anorexia! No, the ob- 
jective of practicing demotivation, and this treatise is a modest 
step in that direction, would be rather to divest oneself from the 
apparatuses used to lead all of us donkeys to the market, to me- 
thodically dismantle the mechanisms that ensure that, despite 
everything, it works. 

Some might say: that’s not enough, you have to give peo- 
ple reasons to fight, motivate them to seek a better world, offer 
them visions of well-being, of beauty, of justice. Not really. I do 
not hold the view that this is the role of critique. Self-limitation 
is required. If one opposes the way our energies are captured by 
the exterior force of the market, it is not in order to prescribe in 
turn behaviors and goals intended to be more desirable. We have 
already seen plenty of these utopias that ridicule the current 
carrots only in order to replace them with even more tyrannical 
ones. In a certain sense they all resemble the reigning direc- 
tive in Thomas More’s Utopia: “Everyone goes to bed at eight 
o’clock and sleeps for eight hours!” 

Besides, the history of the 20 th century has thoroughly 
demonstrated that the attempts to oppose World Trade, Inc. with 
models of behavior aimed to subvert it have in the end provided 
it with its best weapons. Today the managers want nothing less 
than to make every employee a situationist, enjoining them to 
be spontaneous, creative, autonomous, freewheeling, unattached, 


and greeting the precariousness of their lives with open arms. 
Trying to outdo this would be absurd. On the other hand, limit- 
ing the critique to the domain of the negative, without prescrib- 
ing a specific goal, is to show great optimism stemming from the 
hypotheses (obviously unproven) that most people have with- 
in them all the energy necessary for their autonomy without 
there being the need to add any. In his time Lichtenberg wrote, 
“Nothing is more unfathomable than the system of motivation 
behind our actions.” One can hope that this impenetrability can 
definitively restore its rights. 


Compulsory Markets 

Far from the market and from fame 
happens everything that is great 

— Nietzsche 

Today a more or less lively notion remains of what, for centu- 
ries and with surprising similarity from one society to another, 
constitutes what one would call a market. The word immedi- 
ately evokes an abundance of sensual images. The market was. . . 
smells, shouting, colors, in short an eminently sensory experi- 
ence. It was clearly defined in space, by a square, as well as in 
time, by set days and hours. It was certainly a crucial event (most 
towns were built around it), but nevertheless particular, neither 
spilling over into the rest of existence nor following the rules 
and values in place outside of it. The market was also limited 
by the number of transactions that could take place there. The 
market farmer couldn’t sell more vegetables than he could grow; 
the regular shopper didn’t buy more than his family could eat. 
So the system was in equilibrium. It would have been absurd 
to think that a market could expand or grow indefinitely. Inex- 
tricably linked to a locality, its boundaries were clear. But this 
is not to say that this was a harmless affair. In many cultures, ta- 
boo hedged in and often interrupted its operations. Among the 
Chaga, a single drop of blood immediately stopped commerce 
until all the merchandise was cleaned and a goat (or a cow in 
extreme cases) was sacrificed. As Karl Polanyi remarked, “rules 


such as these did not make the spreading of markets easier.” In 
preindustrial Europe, for all the independence towns enjoyed, 
they strongly regulated their markets in order to protect local 
products from the incursions of long-distance traders. Even if it 
might have been technically possible, it would still have been in- 
conceivable in that era, where rationality had not yet completely 
taken over, to sell Dutch tomatoes in Provence or Egyptian po- 
tatoes in Germany. Though it has grown from an immemorial 
tradition, the market’s organization was not spontaneous, but 
based on imperative limitations. It is as if men have always un- 
derstood that the power that underlies these exchanges must be 
strictly contained at the risk of seeing it hypertrophy, become 
autonomous, and turn against them. 

Of course, both dirty tricks and falsification are as old 
as commerce, and the chronicles of the Middle Ages are filled 
with arguments over wine cut with water and bread made with 
sawdust that frequently ended with people at daggers drawn. 
But that’s simply because the buyer-seller relation took place 
face to face. It was possible to unite the crowd against an insen- 
sitive street vendor and to challenge his reputation. It was also 
possible to bargain — more often than not it was the rule. Prices 
were not determined by some objective and unquestionable 
truth, but were an uncertain result of verbal jousting that did 
not go beyond the limits of practical calculation, but was rather 
a source of amusement. The souk merchant despised the buyer 
who refused to bargain. The refusal to discuss price was an insult 
to his humanity and a clear sign of barbarism. 


Once the purchases were completed, the townspeople 
met to socialize over a glass of wine. Buying and selling were 
opportunities for exchange in the former (and dated, unfortu- 
nately) sense of this word: to be friendly and to trade ideas. This 
was the moment when city life was debated, when politics took 
center position. The agora and the forum were marketplaces. 
In sum, the circulation of commodities and money overlapped 
with the circulation of decisions and information. Incidentally, 
traveling salesmen were often the communicators of new ideas 
and heresies. And naturally it was on market day when street 
protests and riots* broke out since that was where both towns- 
people and farmers could air their grievances. 

In the preceding description I have deliberately used the 
past tense, because anyone can see that markets have become 
scarce in the market economy. All things considered, it is actually 
more accurate to talk of todays “hypermarket economy” with 
all the imposed choices, outsourcing, anonymity, and somnam- 
bulism it entails. The spontaneity and freedom of commerce 
that we are always hearing about are not available to everyone. 
Go ahead and try to sell something outside of regulated mar- 
kets: you will quickly be suspected of black marketing, if not 
fraud and breaking European norms. Let it be said in passing, 
this aspect is rarely mentioned by those who pontificate on the 
“problem of exclusion.” When he needs money, what does a 
poor person do in a country where “the freedom of commerce” 
is not actually practiced? He could, for example, buy some shish 
* emotion is an old word for emeute, riot 


kebabs, grill them, and sell them on a street corner. If an un- 
employed person set up this kind of business here, there would 
immediately be thirty helmeted cops on his back. Deregulation 
does not include him. 

What is so redundantly called the “the market” today is 
completely different from what was, for centuries, understood 
by this term. It is a derivative meaning (and not just for the 
actual “derivatives markets”); we use the word by extension, as 
the dictionary says, but we must be wary of this kind of exten- 
sion of the letter that hides a rupture in meaning. It would be 
more accurate to say that todays use of the term is an usurpa- 
tion in the sense that it refers to something radically different 
from its primary meaning. Historically speaking, moreover, it is 
wrong to believe that local markets expanded to become na- 
tional, then global ones. How could they have done this? Quite 
the contrary, local markets were eliminated by long-distance 
commerce, the latter achieving success as the State, for its own 
ends, destroyed the political autonomy of cities. Built on the 
demolition of local barriers, the national market is the nega- 
tion of the traditional market, for the same reasons that the 
Segolene/Sarkozy 3 version of politics is the negation of bind- 
ing debate as it was practiced in the agora. In both cases the 
very meaning of one word obscures the rupture of truth. As for 
the globalized market, it is the result of a later deception: the 
takeover of commerce by capital (and it is enough to read Marx 

3 [Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy ran against each other in the French 
presidential elections in 2007. -Tr.] 


to learn that this takeover was already well advanced in his 
time). Once the national framework became an obstacle to the 
expansion of World Trade, Inc., the political State found itself 
stripped of its powers in much the same way as the city-state of 
the Middle Ages once did; today it exists only to pay for dam- 
ages and to ensure that order reigns. State and market happened 
together and are in league with one another to a high degree 
in the abstraction, delocalization, incapacitation, and control of 
their subjects. 

What is the market today, whether it is the market of ex- 
change, work, furniture, sex, or cons? Those who use this word 
haphazardly (that is, everybody) would be hard pressed to pro- 
vide a satisfying and precise definition, and with good reason: 
there isn’t one. Specialized dictionaries offer responses that are 
at best evasive: it is “the meeting place, more or less materialized, 
of supply and demand”, or “a system of economic exchange” or 
“the ensemble of commercial relations concerning a category 
of goods.” While the CEO of a company tends to see a number, 
the potential customers for his junk, the economist talks about 
a mechanism for setting prices, which is something else all to- 
gether. In fact, the easiest thing is to give a negative definition. 
What we call a market today is, in every way, the opposite of 
a traditional market. It is not contained in a particular place, 
limited in time nor in the volume of products sold, it tends 
toward perpetual growth and excludes all other forms of social 
relations. And let’s not forget that it evades direct control (and 
sensual pleasure), gossip, and controversy, because direct rela- 


tions are eliminated in favor of a system of abstract rules that, 
we are told, are subject to intangible laws. 

An economist will reply that these laws have always ex- 
isted in the implicit forms I spoke of earlier. Simply put, the 
expansion of the market to the national and then global level has 
eliminated the incidental forms that it could have taken on up 
until then, now keeping only the rough form. In the end, it’s still 
a matter of buying and selling. To this unfortunately so widely 
held notion that the thing is not transformed by the suppression 
of its concrete determinations, a Moroccan, Nai'ma Benabdelali, 
replies in wonder, 

The Western method of reasoning proceeds by elimina- 
tion, by pruning; it is an autumnal method of analysis, it 
disembodies and removes the decoration, the foliage, to 
get to the essential structure, believing that it has found 
the spirit of a people in the stripped branches, when, 
perhaps it is the foliage that gives meaning to the tree . 4 
Today, markets are these stripped trees in the barren winter of 
social relations. 

For this is, first and foremost, a matter of analytical meth- 
od. As soon as a process can no longer be understood by direct 
experience, it is only possible to grasp its meaning with the aid 
of modeling. If you can’t see it, you have to think it, formu- 
late a hypothesis about it. Even though, obviously, you can see 
that commodities are bought and sold everywhere all the time, 

4 NaTma Benabdelali, Le don et I’anti-economique dans la soc/ete arabo-musulmane, 
EDDIF, Casablanca, 1999. 


it is only possible to have access to the totality of these acts 
through an interpretive model, and the market cannot be anything 
but this. It is probably useful to insist on this point, since the 
media confers the qualities of a living being on the market, a 
pseudo-divinity: the market “doesn’t allow this,” “demands,” the 
markets “are nervous,” etc. The question is whether this model 
of interpretation is adequate. Without spending too much time 
on the subject, I want to demonstrate why it is not. 

Since a market is described as a set or a system, it should 
be possible to rigorously define the elements that comprise it 
and those which are excluded. Is this really the case? When the 
papers announce, “there is an upward trend in the auto market” 
what they are really saying is that more cars were sold than last 
month. What is communicated is a simple index. But we learn 
nothing about the causes of the increase. And yet these causes 
can be as multiple as they are diverse. Sales can be stimulated by 
the effective marketing of new models, but it could have also 
been the result of drivers worried about their finances who 
have held onto their cars for as long as possible (which previ- 
ously caused a decrease in sales) finally having no choice but to 
buy one. Government regulation might have played a role: the 
DMV might have forced old cars off the road. An infrastructure 
change such as an elimination of a regional train route might 
have also contributed to the increase in car sales. Or, forced by 
their respective employers to be more flexible, families may no 
longer have been able to get by with one car. Not to mention 
constant factors like job-related relocation, the fantasy of au- 


tonomy that the car is supposed to fulfill, the dominance of the 
oil lobby that (still) prevents the use of other sources of energy, 
etc. All of these forces assail from all sides the closed system 
known as “the car market,” expansive as its definition might 
be. Not only is there no barrier between this market and other 
markets, but forces are at play that are excluded by definition 
from a market role, such as the changing subjectivity of the 
buyers or (horror of horrors!) State intervention. Even with a 
phenomenon as simple in appearance as the manufacturing and 
sale of cars, a number of external factors intervene, be they psy- 
chological, political, professional, or something else. To reduce 
this indefinite mass of decisions, desires, and constraints to a 
mechanism by which a “supply” and a “demand” encounter each 
other to set a price, is to formulate a metaphysical proposition. 

A second limit of this interpretive model is that it 
throws unrelated phenomena into the same bag. At least in the 
auto market one thing is clear: x number of cars are put up for 
sale and in the optimal case they will all be sold. It can be x-y, 
but never x+y. Nobody counts on cars having offspring. The 
financial markets are completely different because when you 
sell money you get it back with profits (if all goes according 
to plan). What we call the “financial markets” are no longer 
simple systems of circulation, for if a car loses value as it circu- 
lates, money gains it as it circulates. In this case, the metaphor 
of the small town market is way off, but it is not used naively. It 
is used because it suggests that what has taken place is but one 
among many variations of exchange. And yet, as we all know, 


this is not at all the case: the movements of capital take place 
above other activities; it is what controls and extracts energy 
from them. Using the same term for both kinds of markets 
deceptively conceals the pyramidal order of World Trade, Inc. 
Lets note for that matter that the so-called financial markets 
lend themselves least of all to a basic science with parameters 
that could be analyzed rationally and with operations, subject 
to constant laws, that would be predictable. It is the domain 
par excellence of rumors, impulses, and panics, where even 
false reports can become true, meaning they are self-fulfilling 
as a result of the credibility granted to them, and are then 
converted into financial gains. George Soros knows a thing or 
two about this. What is the difference between a hen that lays 
golden eggs and a soap bubble? Faith in the hen. Here the 
appropriate interpretive model actually comes from mass psy- 
chology, particularly the analysis of collective hysteria. 

Which reminds me of an anecdote, something that hap- 
pened one famous Friday in October of 1987. That morning 
the media announced that, following a mere sound bite from 
Alan Greenspan, the head of the Fed at that time, the worst stock 
market crash in the previous six decades had just begun. Little by 
little thousands of people from all over New York converged on 
Wall Street. Without quite understanding why, the police noticed 
that this crowd had raised their eyes to the sky. Until it became 
clear: everyone was waiting for the first desperate stockbrokers 
to throw themselves out of the windows. The images from 1929 
were in everyone’s memories, and nobody wanted to miss the 


events live. The crises of some provide the entertainment of oth- 
ers. Of course a financial crisis wouldn’t do anything to help 
the fate of the little people, but at least they didn’t want to miss 
the consoling spectacle of the cursed yuppies crashing into the 
sidewalk. The crowd waited a long time and nothing happened. 
Gradually a rumor spread. Nothing was going to happen. No- 
body was going to jump out of a window. Since the advent of air 
conditioning, it is no longer possible to open a single window on 
Wall Street. Disappointed, the masses went home. They probably 
thought: shit, even life’s simplest pleasures are spoiled by modern 
technology. All this to show to what point outside influences 
can affect the spread of stock market panic. 

To return to the manipulative terminology created by 
the dominant interpretive model: the most patent example is 
in the labor market. There is no clearer sign of the effectiveness 
of the brainwashing of economists’ minds than the fact that so 
many can use this term without shuddering, no longer ques- 
tioning its reductionist duplicity. Let’s begin with the question: 
who is selling and who is buying in the labor market? And also: 
what commodity is the object of the transaction? How is the 
price determined? Finally, where is the freedom of contract, 
which always implies the freedom not to enter into a contract? 
Let those who see an equal exchange here go ahead and try to 
fire their employer! Again, more obviously than anywhere else, 
we are dealing with a fiction. 

That having been said, we have to immediately make 
clear that to label the definition of the market as an interpretive 


model in no way means that it would be possible to provide 
an alternative, more appropriate interpretation of what is really 
going on. Moreover, to say that this model is based on a fiction 
does not mean that here and now there is an alternative reality 
that would be protected from it. We are all well aware that the 
market is not just an idea and that we are not free to choose to 
or choose not to participate in it. It is an institutional, dominant 
reality. But this does not contradict our position. The Catholic 
Church is also an institutional reality that has dominated for 
centuries, and it relies just as much on an entirely interpretive 
model that we have the right to consider fictional. In both cases, 
the freedom to reject these models is completely relative: to 
withdraw from the Catholic Church was to risk the stake; to 
withdraw from the market is to risk starving to death. Unlike a 
bacterium that has no need to be known in order to do its thing, 
an institutional reality exists only to the extent that we believe 
in it. But unlike the belief in UFOs or in the integrity of this 
or that cabinet minister, the existence of this reality is objective: 
we can’t withdraw from it as long as everyone believes in it, and 
among the believers there are those with all the means of im- 
posing this belief. 

For this reason, it is appropriate to distinguish between 
the market and the ideology of the market as it has taken shape 
from Adam Smith to the neoliberals, which is the one we are 
offered everyday through electronic and print media. Every- 
body knows that the latter consists of affirming that the market 
has an existence independent of our subjective perspectives to- 


ward it, shaped as we all are by the omnipotent “invisible hand.” 
Nobody is forced to adopt this ideology and it has even been 
criticized by talented and convincing opponents (the critique 
of the market has become a growing market in itself) . But quite 
obviously, the markets themselves are not in the least affected 
by critical theory. The interpretive model is not simply a false 
idea tacked onto the social reality. As an institution it pen- 
etrates the social reality, transforms it, remodels it for the obvi- 
ous reason that what is referred to as “social reality” is only the 
sum of beliefs, habits, and institutions. An institution can only 
be displaced by another institution. That is, incidentally, what 
in the past few hundred years various socialist, mutualist, and 
cooperative movements have attempted. Unfortunately, as Han- 
nah Arendt has observed, false ideas can become reality as well 
as truthful ones. She was obviously alluding to Nazism, whose 
racial theories, delirious as they were, were diabolically effective 
so long as the Nuremberg laws stood, with the very real conse- 
quences we all know. As revolting and false as the differentiation 
between Jews and Aryans might have appeared at the time, there 
was no choice but to conform to them (in public at least) — to 
do otherwise risked deadly consequences. 5 1 haven’t chosen this 
example to create a pointless mash-up but to underline the dif- 
ference between truth and effectiveness. 

5 Traces of this institutional reality survive even after its invalidation: to say 
that the Nazis killed six million Jews is to paradoxically validate the Nuremberg 
Laws criteria. These six million were only Jews according to the definition of these 
laws (it was enough to have had a Jewish grandparent). Many did not consider 
themselves as such beforehand. 


If the market model is effective, it is because it has been 
instituted by acts of force that are of an institutional nature. This is 
true when a company patents an ancient technique (the use of 
a medicinal plant, for example), stockpiling this type of public 
knowledge particularly when the originators of this technique 
have no way to defend their rights. It is also the case when 
a natural resource is privatized with the specious pretext that 
access to that resource became possible through private means. 
Until recently, discovering a new planet using a telescope did 
not confer any ownership of the planet in question. This is not 
the case in the gene pool, the ownership of which has been 
claimed in all legality by the private tyrannies. Not long ago, 
the classic economic works taught that certain resources were 
not commodities insofar as, not being rare, they make up our 
shared heritage. Water was an invariably cited example. Today, 
in the film We Feed The World 6 , the likeable CEO of Nestle calls 
this an “extremist” point of view. Water, because of its indisput- 
able value, he says, naturally has a price. Moreover, only this 
price is capable of determining who has access to drinking wa- 
ter, which fortunately for him, has in fact become scarce. Here, 
as elsewhere, a market exists because a social group does not 
have the resources to resist the dictates of the profiteers. 

And yet, the market is the domain of reflexivity par ex- 
cellence. I can announce that a resource is my property, which 
will do me little good if nobody else acknowledges it as such. I 
can put the moon up for sale, but if there are no interested buy- 

6 A film by Erwin Wagenhofer, 2007. 


ers, no market will exist. If I approach a woman on the street and 
ask her what she will charge to spend the night with me, there’s 
a good chance that she will slug me in response. By doing so she 
is unequivocally stating that she is not interested in submitting 
to the laws of supply and demand. For a market to exist people 
must think of themselves as, and behave like, contracting parties. 
Why do the majority of people not feel like they are most of 
the time living under the strict authority of illegitimate misers? 
Because the abstraction of the model of the market allows it to 
spread, to integrate itself into the collective mentality, to enter 
into domains where such forces had not previously existed; in a 
word, it becomes natural. It is no longer perceived as a force im- 
posed from the exterior but as a field of reality. Better: it is this 
field, insofar as everyone believes that it is. 

Just forty years ago, only managers and the government 
preoccupied themselves with the market. I don’t remember 
hearing the term used much when I was a child. Society has 
clearly not become what Adam Smith said it was, a “nation 
of buyers and sellers,” until the so-called “post-industrial era” 
through the dominance of the service sector. Today in Germany, 
3% of the working population works in agriculture, 22% in in- 
dustry and the remaining three quarters in service. Now, for 
such a sector to exist, the service providers must consider it 
legitimate to sell a service rather than offer it freely. Of course the 
necessity of earning a living leaves them no choice. 7 But nobody 
acts freely if they are threatened with the stick of necessity. Be- 

7 Let’s emphasize this: money is never a motive, but always an imperative. 


lieving that their work fits into the natural order of supply and 
demand legitimizes it in their eyes. This legitimacy is recon- 
firmed by clients who readily call on service vendors to, as they 
see it, simplify their lives, provide a shortcut. But in order to pay 
for this shortcut they usually have to have a service to sell them- 
selves. By reinforcing each other in this way, habits based on an 
interpretation of human relations acquire a relative stability and 
appear to those who convey them as an exterior and immutable 
reality. Clearly this appearance of objectivity is amplified by the 
media’s dissemination of the market model. Being a form of 
thought, this model is inseparable from a language, and it is not 
for nothing that with the generalization of commodity services, 
barbaric expressions like “managing” one’s time or relationships 
have spread like wildfire. 

All relations involving at least two individuals can be 
seen in terms of service, can be based on a contractual relation- 
ship, can be negotiated with one another as equals and thus 
can have a price. From that point on, there is no limit to the 
extension of this model. In the past it would never have oc- 
curred to anyone that all the aspects of human existence could 
be turned into markets in which each person is in competition 
with everyone else to create consistent demand. But as soon as 
a sufficient number of “actors” understand their relations as be- 
ing determined by this unavoidable model, all others effectively 
are as well. Let’s take an example that remains outside of the 
grips of the market: something ordinary, a circle of friends who 
invite one another over for drinks, a meal or a party. Obviously 


it would never occur to anyone to make one’s guests pay for the 
cost of drinks and food consumed, with the added “costs” of 
space, the time spent preparing, the opportunity for people to 
meet one another, etc. The mind reviles at the very notion that 
one could act in such a way (at least I can hope so). Such an 
approach lacks the most basic principles of hospitality and gen- 
erosity. And even if one put oneself in a perverse self-centered 
perspective in a context where such things “are not done,” the 
host who insisted on compensation would be acting against 
his own interests because he would be instantly seen as an ill- 
mannered scrooge, that is, he would be sacrificing his reputa- 
tion for an insignificant financial gain. 

However, it is easy to show that making your guests pay 
is completely understandable from an accounting perspective. 
Costs are incurred, time is invested, and they have to be recov- 
ered. I worked hard for my money and so throwing it away is 
out of the question. Of course you can respond that inviting 
someone over results in an invitation from them, so that it is a 
zero sum game: each guest eventually playing the host role (in 
which case each guest benefits in turn). Doing this, you’re only 
making matters worse, as I would say that this proves that this 
so-called generosity is nothing but hypocrisy. In fact, everyone 
is always acting according to his or her own egoistic logic, each 
expects compensation from the others, so it’s better if things are 
clear, stripped of the myth of altruism and other antiquated mo- 
ralities. Besides, how can you tell that an invitation will actually 
be forthcoming and that the reciprocal evening will be on the 


same level as what you offered? To guarantee reciprocity, pay at 
the end of the evening. 

I have taken on the perspective of the host. But I could 
also look at things from the point of view of the guest. For ex- 
ample, I might wonder: can I be sure that this invitation is truly 
disinterested? Does my host have hidden motives for inviting me, 
sexual, professional, or something else? Once suspicion is raised, 
the air has to be cleared. It’s simple: by paying him I am free 
of all further obligations. The invitation is a contract of limited 
duration and I conserve my independence. Beginning to despair 
that you can lead me back to reason, you shout, “But in the end, 
there are things you do with strangers, but not with friends!”This 
argument can easily be rebutted. Inviting only friends is not free- 
ing but limiting. Having people pay to eat at my home, I can have 
people I don’t know participate, increasing the range of possible 
encounters, and in return I might not hesitate to invite myself 
over to a multitude of places where I don’t know anybody, even 
in cities where I have no acquaintances; in short, I increase my 
freedom of choice. Better: the generalization of this approach pro- 
motes imitation and competition, each host trying to distinguish 
himself by hosting exceptional dinners. In this way everyone ben- 
efits from a general improvement of dinner parties. “In that case, 
it’s no different from going to a restaurant or a club!” you finally 
scream. But no: spending an evening in someone’s home address- 
es other needs, more personalized, more intimate, more authentic. 

It makes perfect sense then that you should open up 
your wallet as soon as you are invited to dinner. If this practice 


is not (yet) commonplace, it is because it clashes with customs 
and mores that forbid it. This is an important point. One is too 
easily imposed upon by the “logic” of a shift. If D occurs, it is 
a result of the A, B, and C leading up to it; thus, D is inevitable. 
But this type of observation is only possible in retrospect, when 
D has already happened. This is really only a tautology. What 
has happened has happened. And yet there are always chains 
of causality that are possible, plausible and logical things that 
will not happen, that will remain virtual, because they come up 
against resistances. The Chinese invented paper money long be- 
fore the Europeans, but the Emperor put a stop to its use, which 
prevented capitalist logic from taking hold in China. To return 
to our example, it is not inconceivable to imagine that in the 
near future the norm of paying to be a guest at a dinner party 
will have taken hold (there are already people who are paid to 
help with dinner parties!). Then people will say: it couldn’t have 
turned out otherwise; it is the logic of things. But it is also pos- 
sible, and I hope it is so, that the laws of hospitality will hold up 
against the laws of the market. 

Now, imagine landing in a country where the custom is 
to pay to attend dinner parties. What can you do? There are in 
fact only three solutions. You can continue to invite people over 
without charging them, but you will quickly start to feel like a 
sucker who is exploited without compensation, not thanked by 
your guests, (gratitude being inseparable from reciprocity), and 
you will come to see your guests only as parasites, which will 
make this approach seriously unappeahng. Or you can refuse to 


play the game and not have any dinner parties. In this case, your 
sense of dignity will be intact but you will suffer from social 
isolation, which is difficult to sustain. Finally, heartsick, you give 
in and play the game: you participate in the great dinner-party 
market. In all three cases the norm is the winner. 

The naturalization of the market is inseparable from a 
denaturing of individual motives. This is most clear in a mar- 
ket niche that is growing rapidly: coaching, which is “guiding 
a person in the mobilization of their resources.” Professional 
advancement is most often the reason for this mobilization, but 
the “private” sphere might also be its object insofar as it might 
also be interpreted in terms of supply and demand. With the 
growing number of the underprivileged, the precarious, and 
all of those who don’t know what their place is in this world 
and where to go, the demand for guidance is exploding, and 
so is the number of guides: those who can’t find a job can help 
other people find one! In principle, everyone could become a 
coach after having gone through workshops taught by the other 
ex-unemployed. There are several schools. Transactional analy- 
sis, for example, begins with the principle that “the coached is 
capable of changing the beliefs about himself, the world, and 
others who prevent him from growing,” the method consists in 
establishing “relational contracts.” NLP (neuro-linguistic pro- 
gramming), on the other hand, states that the subject can “re- 
program his brain” to reach the desired state of excellence. The 
primary techniques of intervention are to visualize the desired 
state and the question of “how to get there.” What is not al- 


lowed is to spend time “wondering why.” 8 I couldn’t have said 
it better. 

It is not by chance that the series of operations by which 
this reprogramming of the brain is accomplished corresponds 
point for point with what Boltanski and Chiapello call “the com- 
modification of the authentic ,” 9 Everything begins with the search 
for “veins of authenticity:” offer up the whole list of your needs, 
aptitudes, values, tastes, desires, and ambitions, and together we 
will sort it out, then divide it into as many groups as the per- 
tinent traits dictate. According to what criteria? It’s simple: if 
you want to be “self-realized,” turn your resources towards real- 
ity, meaning — don’t get your hopes up — the market. Submit your 
confused beliefs to the rigors of demand and eliminate those 
that are not successful — who do you think you are ? So you have to 
encode your aspirations in order to turn them into a supply. But 
be careful: you are not expected to define a precise objective 
(become an Air France pilot, or hit on a redhead with a 40 inch 
bust). On the contrary: the goal is to reach a state where you are 
flexible and employable in the random conditions of competi- 
tion and precariousness that are our common fate. As a general 
rule, the choice morsels of your personality will not be enough 
to create a credible profile, so it will be necessary to combine 
them with external factors. (To acquire them you might have 
to take a training course.) What Boltanski and Chiapello say 

8 Found on Wikipedia. 

g L. Boltanski, E. Chiapello, Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Paris, Gallimard, 1999. 
[English edition: The New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso, 2007.] 


about “authentic” commodities also applies to individuals who 
are properly prepared for the market: they are not standardized 
but codified, the piece-by-piece codification allowing them “to 
play with combinations and to introduce variations so as to get 
products that are different but part of the same style.” This is 
how one acquires a reconstituted personality (the same way we 
think of “reconstituted meat”); it retains enough of the original 
to not seem overly artificial but still fits into the requirements of 
the market. Put plainly: if you think you have a knack for poetry, 
find a job in publicity, and if you like nothing better than com- 
municating with your peers, sell insurance over the phone. 

An allegory will accurately represent the aim of the mar- 
ket as it expands into the whole of existence: I’m referring to 
reality TV, in particular those of the model referred to as “the 
rat cage.”We all know, in TV shows like Big Brother and The Loft, 
individuals isolated from the rest of the world live together and 
are eliminated by one by one by their peers or, even better, by 
the viewers. Their environment, stripped to the essentials, al- 
lows no escape from confrontations with the other contestants. 
Each will be judged according to his capacity to adapt to the 
collective while avoiding elimination and forcing the others out. 
Despite the laments of the sophisticated sectors at the success of 
this genre of programming, one has to acknowledge a notable 
educational quality, provided that it is seen for what it is: a pre- 
sentation of living commodities in the sense that Klossowski speaks 
of “living money.” Undeniably, participation in this sort of or- 
deal is a kind of work. In Argentina the hit show Recursos Huma- 


nos creates a competition among the unemployed, who must at 
once move the viewers with the tales of their tribulations and 
demonstrate their positive outlook and their employability: the 
winner receives an employment contract live on the show. Even 
in those programs where the issue of work is not so crudely 
evident, the winner receives cash and all the contestants count 
on momentary celebrity to catapult their careers to a new level. 
So it makes sense to see these rat cages as a way to look for work. 

But these rat cages are also something else completely. 
For what is offered here are not professional skills, nor is it some 
kind of talent. The subject of reality TV is the most trivial and 
mundane part of existence. This is precisely where the living 
commodity distinguishes herself from the worker who “sells” 
eight hours of labor force each day, and, formally at least, keeps 
the rest for herself: the living commodity is on the market twen- 
ty-four hours a day. In effect, what she offers is charm, energy, 
and availability, all traits that can be nothing but a persons con- 
stant state. She isn’t expected to perform exceptional feats but to 
optimize her behavior in banal situations. Already in this regard, 
the norms that determine reality TV are not different from those 
that govern job interviews. Just as the promise of the packaging 
is more important than its content, it’s been ages since real skills 
have been more highly valued than seduction and enthusiasm; 
what’s more, today these are the required skills. 

Like inert commodities, the living commodity must 
demonstrate that she is rebellious and adapted, sociable and indi- 
vidualistic, that she knows how to stand out while remaining cool, 


that despite being a risk-taker she still adheres to safety standards, 
and above all that she is positive. In a word, that she conforms to 
the double standard of being both authentic and seductive. She 
must seduce by simulating authenticity, which means making 
transparent only what she thinks the consumer expects. The cov- 
er letter, which is a rite of passage in getting any kind of work, is 
another example of these principles in operation. 10 The applicant 
knows that the employer knows that his cover letter presents a 
fictional image of himself (he would otherwise be eliminated 
by other applicants with better appearances). But this ability to 
fake is exactly what is required in a successful employee who is 
being hired based on his ability to seduce the customer. How 
can you sell something if you can’t sell yourself? Acknowledging 
lacks and deficiencies is totally unacceptable in business. In this 
sense we are truly living in the society of the spectacle and it is 
perfectly accurate to say that the market is made up of economic 
actors ! However this is a tenuous equilibrium because all the ap- 
plicants strive to fit the same stereotype. That’s the funny thing 
about manuals and classes teaching how to write a cover letter — 
they logically lead to standardized submissions between which 
a hiring manager will not be able to distinguish. Here, reconsti- 
tuted motivation as I discussed it above, the synthesis of encoded 
personal attributes and external elements, becomes all-important. 
This is what creates the little difference within the same style, thanks 
to which the candidate is selected, with the secondary effect of, 

10 As a counter-example, see the excellent Lettres de non-motivation by Julien 
Previeux, Paris, Zones, 2007. 


having reprogrammed his subjectivity, the economic actor will 
no longer be able to differentiate moments of deliberate simula- 
tion from other moments. Life is the same on and off stage. 

Two coordinates determine the behavior of the living 
commodity: the competitors and the clients (in the reality show: 
the other contestants and the viewers). For the competitors, they 
form a team and are judged according to their ability to evolve 
internally, to anticipate conflicts, to find solutions. If you are not 
a “team player” you get a red card immediately. But behind this 
sociability each participant is looking for an angle to screw the 
others, knowing that the others are trying to do the same thing. 
It is possible to form a temporary alliance against a third party, 
but, once successful, the war of all against all returns, any collec- 
tive strategy being excluded by definition. 

“Who will win? You decide.” The customer is always 
right. Taken individually, each viewer and each contestant 
knows he is insignificant. But thanks to the ingenious interac- 
tive mechanism, he can imagine himself as a little fingertip of 
the great invisible hand that decides which commodity lives and 
which commodity dies. He has freedom of choice. Of course 
his choice won’t win unless the majority validates it, so he will 
decide based on the norms that he imagines are shared among 
his peers. These changing norms are the obsessions of living 
commodity. She knows that with the first blemish, the first lack, 
she will be eliminated. Her fate does not depend on the caprice 
of a master, but on those of the viewers. If things go badly, she 
can’t beg for forgiveness, she can only blame her own failure 


to seduce. In the horizontal system of servitude, Big Brother is 
other people. But he is also yourself, depending on the situation. 
Because, let’s not forget, there is no ontological split between 
commodity and customer. Since each plays both roles in turn, 
he can find compensation for the torment of the sale in the pur- 
chase. So the system is in equilibrium. Incidentally, each has his 
feverish role, each participant having forgotten that the rule of 
the game has been defined by others, that the actual conditions 
leave no room for maneuvering and that the final result is of no 
importance: the result is nothing, the process is everything. The 
important thing is to participate. In any case others will enjoy 
the real benefits. 

Nothing more accurately characterizes the living com- 
modity than the relation she maintains with her own language 
and body . 11 The words exchanged on reality TV shows don’t mean 
anything in both senses of the phrase . 12 Small talk is part of the 
packaging and functions to duplicate and prove conformity to 
social norms. Of course it will be politically correct, allowing 
itself a few well-calculated deviations so as to appear different 
without actually breaking with the dominant code. What lan- 
guage is to sound, the body is to the image. Living commodities 
must seem very fresh; nothing stresses them out more than their 
sell-by date, and it is not so much health as the appearance of 

11 The idea has been amusingly discussed by Tiqqun, Theorie de la jeune-fllle, 

Paris, Mille et une nuits, 2001. [English edition: Preliminary Materials for a Theory 
of the Young-Cirl. Semiotext(e): 2012.] 

12 [Vouloir dire means to mean and to want to mean or express. — Tr.] 


vitality and enthusiasm that they strive for in a fusion of sports, 
pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. That imperfect collection of or- 
gans, the body, to respond to need, should be customized by the 
use of spare parts. In the US a reality TV show airs live plastic 
surgery operations, at the end of which the public decides which 
remodeled creature is the biggest success. Ultimately, the value of 
the living commodity’s body will be determined by the seduction- 
operation to which sexual exchange is reduced. Sexual consum- 
mation properly speaking is little more than an optional postlude. 

Ultimately, reality TV is a perfect illustration of the great 
universal market, in that everything unfolds under the watchful 
eye of the cameras. The opposition to the “invasions of privacy” 
embodied in these programs are antediluvian. As has been re- 
cently stated by the German head of the office of personal data 
protection: “It is difficult to protect something that has been so 
willingly abandoned by those concerned.” Reality TV is at work 
in the streets, offices, and shops. Smile, you’re on camera. At the 
risk of being suspected of faking, the living commodity must 
make clear that she has nothing to hide. Her traceability is at the 
public’s disposal. Transparency, so dear to her, is that of the shop 
window. Moreover, video surveillance responds to her pressing 
need for security. She truly wants to offer zero defects, but on 
condition of having zero risk, and with zero tolerance for any- 
one seeking to abuse her rather than use her. In the scripted re- 
ality of the market, every negative act is recorded and punished, 
the greater social harmony being guaranteed by the deterrence 
provided by the means of control. 


In Hegelian-inspired philosophy, self-consciousness is 
inseparable from the struggle for recognition. Initially, inequali- 
ty and otherness dominate, and gradually equality and reciproc- 
ity are established among individuals as they become conscious 
of each other and thus of themselves. For living commodities, 
precisely the opposite takes place. In the beginning, they are 
all equal. Equal opportunity allows them to offer themselves 
on the supermarket shelves without regard to sex, national- 
ity, or background. After that, it’s everyone for themselves. As 
soon as the customers enter, the merciless battle for difference 
begins. The living commodity is ready to do anything to attract 
attention, for her to be identified, purchased, and consumed as 
opposed to the others. For if all are called, few are chosen. At 
the end of the competitive struggle, inequality reigns. It is the 
dialectic of the winner and the loser. But identification is not 
recognition; the chosen commodity has a premonition that its 
celebrity will be fleeting and disappointing. Quickly she falls 
back into the undifferentiated mass of fifteen-minute stars and 
everything starts over again. Here is why behind her smile a 
deep sadness is concealed. There are no happy commodities. 

Of course, reality TV is but an allegory representing the 
abstract ideal of the market. But for all that, it’s not a fiction 
that can be distinguished from lived reality because its goal is 
to dissolve the difference between fiction and reality. Moreover, 
the reality of the market is the victory march of a fiction. If 
ultimately the living commodity is an impossibility, everything 
is organized so that the simulation of this impossibility rules the 


behavior of the actors in the market. What is really lived in this 
drama is the new form of suffering that it produces: the infe- 
riority complex created by competition, the guilt of not being 
able to sell yourself, the shame at not being free of faults, the 
anxiety of not meeting demands. So that what was inherent in 
motivation is inverted into a lack. 


m THE Company Wants 
What’s Best for You 
(Don’t give it to them) 

Brian: You're all individuals! 

The crowd: We’re all individuals! 

Brian: You’re all different! 

The crowd: Yes, we're all different! 

One lonely voice: I’m not. 

— Monty Python 

When we think about motivation today, everyone immedi- 
ately thinks of the world of work, of the motivation of the 
workforce. This is a relatively new phenomenon. One need 
only consult the published works on the topic to learn that not 
long ago, research focused on troubled children, competitive 
sports, and soldiers in combat. It is certainly not surprising that 
the techniques developed there have been transferred to busi- 
ness, because motivation has taken on a pedagogic function 
(teaching the limits of the entrepreneurial project to big kids 
who are more or less retarded), since it is a competitive arena 
(workers against each other and against other companies), and 
since it is structured as a war of conquest (thus the obsession 
with “mobilization” and “strategy”). But how did we get here, 
to the point where motivation has suddenly become the ques- 
tion upon which the future ofWorld Trade, Inc. rests? 


To be able to respond to this question we need to exam- 
ine the previous phase of industrial development, which is gen- 
erally referred to as Taylorism. It was to explicitly mitigate the 
lack of motivation that Frederick Winslow Taylor created the 
system that bears his name. To the question of whether he could 
count on the love of his workers to do a good job, Taylor and 
every economist along with him responded with a categorical 
no. He writes, 

The natural laziness of men is serious, but by far the 
greatest evil from which both workmen and employers 
are suffering is the systematic soldiering which is almost 
universal under all of the ordinary schemes of manage- 
ment and which results from a careful study on the part 
of the workmen of what will promote their best interests. 
The entire so-called scientific organization of labor (which so 
pleased Lenin) begins with this postulate.You have to force peo- 
ple to work despite themselves. Thus you have to make it so that 
the productive process is rendered independent from the sub- 
jective engagement of its operators. How? By externalizing their 
thought with technology and organization. The “rationalization” 
of tasks is the expropriation of the initiative of the workers (re- 
call in psychoanalysis “rationalization” is the justification of an 
action for which the real ends are unstated). In the Taylorist 
factory the machines are rational and the individuals mecha- 
nized. They are only there to complete the tasks they have been 
assigned by the plan and to meet the production standards. The 
employment contract is an abdication of individual will through 


which the employee fully surrenders to the organization. The 
results are the conditions immortalized in Chaplin’s film Modem 
Times. In this pyramidal organization enormous amounts of en- 
ergy are devoted to controlling the workers. It must be ensured 
that the workers do the job assigned to them, but it is also cru- 
cial to see to it that they do not seize the slightest initiative, because 
this would upset the standards set by the planners. As much as 
the mechanization of roles, it is these surveillance functions that 
characterize Taylorism, the omnipresence of little bosses behind 
your back, “supervisors” as they are called, the sense of this word 
referring more to maniacal mastery than mastery of an art. 13 

A trick of rationalizing reason caused this system to mal- 
function. Born of (founded on, no doubt) the supposed indif- 
ference of the worker toward his task, Taylorism aims to increase 
this indifference to a tremendous extent. The labor power the 
worker provides to his boss as established in the employment 
contract is the mechanical repetition of a certain number of 
movements and nothing more. The reason that he consents to 
this servitude is purely instrumental: to get his monthly pay- 
check. Wages and salary are not “just compensation” for the 
value and quality of the work performed, but more like dam- 
ages paid for the time lost at the factory. In this way the worker 
comes to maintain the same purely amoral relationship to his 
work as the capitalist himself! For each of them, work is only 

13 [Agents de maitrise, literally “mastery agent” is the French name for a low-level 
supervisor; Paoli uses the double meaning of “mastery” to subvert the common 
sense of the term. -Tr.] 


a means, unimportant in itself, whose end is money. However, 
this state of affairs has had a double consequence that the Tay- 
lorists did not predict. On the one hand, there was no reason 
until then to bother with finding ways to get around captive 
time. But absenteeism, slow-downs, theft, and sabotage multi- 
plied, resulting in substantial losses to industry. On the other 
hand, from the moment that wage demands were considered 
as a compensation for one’s spoilt life, they departed from 
the realism of management and turned a deaf ear to their argu- 
ments. The only thing taken into account to determine salary 
increases was the current dynamic of power. For this reason the 
unions, which continued to negotiate the division of wealth 
from management’s point of view, found themselves regularly 
rejected by their base, which was unconcerned with this sort of 
calculation. This is how, in the 1970s, the equilibrium between 
the bosses and the unions, which was at the core of Taylorist 
organization, ceased to function. 

This history is relatively well known. But there is an- 
other less obvious and more important aspect that became 
clear at this moment: Taylorism has never been anything but a 
capitalist utopia, a rationalizing fantasy. One has to remember 
the context in which this system was introduced, the first third 
of the 20 th century, when the dominant notion was that the 
blind and savage masses needed to be directed and ordered 
around by omniscient guides. The scientific organization of 
work is the twin sister of political dictatorship. The two were 
then seen as indispensable if one was to avoid having the estab- 


lished order overturned by the masses. Incidentally, they share 
this vision, “the engineering of souls,” with their adversaries. 
Long has the far left fantasized that capitalism necessarily leads 
to fascism; longer still has it seen Taylorism as the ultimate 
stage of exploitation. 

But this theory is false. It is false for this reason: because 
a bureaucratic organization, no matter how scientific, has never 
been able to substitute itself for the participation of its employ- 
ees. The man-machine is just a rationalist myth, quite simply 
because work can’t be programmed like a computer. Even in 
the most mechanical and routine production process there are 
breakdowns and unknowns that require initiative and decision- 
making. And even in a modestly-sized firm, management can- 
not have the omniscience and the speed necessary to react to 
even the smallest surprise. What worker disobedience negatively 
and in spite of itself made the employers understand was that 
the health of a company doesn’t only depend on the big ideas 
and strategies from the highest level, but more subtly on many 
small changes and improvements made daily by the whole work 
force at all levels of the company. If these are lacking, everything 
falls apart. In passing, we should add that the workers undertake 
these micro-initiatives not because they love a job well done, 
but because they want to simplify their work. Even Adam Smith 
tells that in the time of the first steam-powered machines, a 
child laborer hired to open and close a valve figured out that in 
attaching it to another part of the machine, it would function 
on its own, allowing him time to play with his friends. 


Then industry critiqued its own methods and declared, 
as it were, “war on Taylor.” What resulted was “the new spirit 
of capitalism” which has been brilliantly analyzed by Boltan- 
ski and Chiapello. Another trick of reason made this possible. 
Since the workers were required to check their minds at the 
door, logically they looked for ways to use their minds outside 
of the working day. This is how “free time” became a central 
focus of their existence (the term itself signifies that work is 
radically opposed to freedom). Logically the skills that were 
not used during “captive time” sought an outlet in recreation, 
culture, sports, or tourism. Of course, these sectors were first 
and foremost new markets. The free time consumed by some is 
the work of others. But you can’t reduce it to this aspect alone. 
For what the workers brought to light through the consump- 
tion of commodities (and in other ways) is a multiplicity of de- 
sires, areas of interest, the will to engagement, the spirit of ini- 
tiative, in short an entire field of motivation that couldn’t help 
but attract the attention of the managers. So these animated 
objects do have a soul! Having become visible and identifiable, 
this field was thus exploitable. It’s a bit like the phenomenon of 
artists squatting in a vacant factory that nobody wants, creating 
value there that is then taken by investors. All of these personal 
resources whose practical application (or at least the desire for 
it) is outside work must be recaptured. On the one hand this 
assumes the abandonment of Taylorism, reorganizing the en- 
tire system, and on the other, reforming the workers’ mentality 
in order to create an open border between work and free time. 


This transformation is even more necessary to companies since 
other concurrent elements have disrupted this order. 

It is common knowledge that the progress of robotics 
and digitization have made superfluous those workers whose 
jobs are purely mechanical. In his time Henry Ford was fond of 
saying that to make a Model T you needed “949 able-bodied 
men, the rest could be done by 670 legless men, 2637 one- 
legged men, 715 one-armed men, 2 armless men and 10 blind 
men.” From then on, robots could effectively be substituted for 
the arms and legs of the humans. Robots are more reliable, faster, 
cheaper, and never go on strike. Since men had been reduced to 
the state of men-machines, it was logical to replace them as soon 
as it became possible by actual machines. And in the process of 
demotivation, one should not fail to recognize the role played 
by the a posteriori revelation of this humiliating condition. I am 
not talking about the assembly line where it was obvious, but 
jobs where the workers are a bit less dispossessed of their mind. 
The day an ATM replaces five bank employees, they have to face 
the facts: they were nothing more than distributors of cash five 
times less efficient than an ATM. 

One could deduce from this that industry is trending 
towards a system in which work will be fully automated, indefi- 
nitely delivering so-called goods and services without human 
intervention and thus having definitively resolved the question 
of motivation. Of course, two small problems would remain. 
The first is ethical and so doesn’t concern entrepreneurs. What 
should happen to the surplus of humanity who are unemployed 


and deprived of resources? Though they claim to be neoliber- 
als, employers hastily pass this baby off to the state, while inci- 
dentally benefiting from tax incentives that promise to create 
jobs. Evidently this promise is empty, as their function is really 
to make money and not create employment opportunities. The 
second problem concerns employers more. As Henry Ford (him 
again) said, cars don’t buy cars. Nor do robots. The money that 
one takes out of the pockets of ex-workers is the same money 
that they use to buy products. This is always the weak link in the 
infinite chain of the multiplication of capital: at any given mo- 
ment it is essential that a sufficient number of people are making 
purchases, requiring them to be solvent. But this question, as 
crucial as it is, is not my focus here. 

What is important here is that in fact, the notion that 
profit can be created through entirely automated production is 
false, even if there are enough solvent consumers (for example by the 
introduction of the “guaranteed income” called for by some left- 
ists and even by the neoliberal Milton Friedman). In the Mani- 
festo of the Happy Unemployed, we cite Aristotle (“if each tool 
could execute its proper function, the factory owner wouldn’t 
need assistants nor the master slaves”) and we added: 

Automation has always been a dream of humanity. To- 
day the dream has become a reality, but it has taken 
shape as a nightmare for everyone because social rela- 
tions have not evolved as quickly as technology . 14 
This formulation was, on our part, deliberately naive. We only 

14 Manifeste des chomeurs heureux, Le chien rouge, Marseille, 2006. 


intended to cast doubt on the motives behind rationalization. 
With the fantastic technological advances of the last decades, as 
a result of which not only do robots execute increasingly com- 
plex tasks but also build other robots, the old utopia of the land 
of plenty would seem close at hand. But it remains a utopia as 
least so long as World Trade, Inc. continues to exist . 15 It is impor- 
tant to understand why. 

Machines can endlessly produce (they can also destroy) 
but they cannot conceive, elaborate, make corrections, inte- 
grate discoveries, react to changes, in a word: innovate. Nor can 
they negotiate, seduce, convince, or he: in other words, sell. As a 
result automation can only maintain a fixed level of reproduction. 
A little like traditional agriculture, industry would always de- 
liver the same products in a quantity based on demand (there- 
fore there would no longer be a need to seduce to sell). Of 
course this would assume that what constitutes “the satisfaction 
of needs” could have been determined by a consensus and that 
a corresponding set of products could thereby be defined. But 
even assuming that this obstacle were removed, the industrial 
system would then have to be static, in a state of equilibrium, 
and not continuing to develop. And this would be instant death 
for World Trade, Inc. 

It goes without saying that the goal of what we call, for 
lack of a better term, the economic system, is not the satisfaction of 
needs. What needs, for that matter? The name of the game is the 

15 Whether it is really desirable to be permanently surrounded by robots, and 
thus be dependent on them, is another question... 


infinite growth of capital: out of money more money is made. 
A director of General Motors once proclaimed in that straight- 
forward manner we love about US-americans, “Our business is 
not to make cars, our business is to make money” Any other 
factors are only means subordinated to this goal to which the 
process is subject, not to “laws” but to necessary conditions. If 
capital doesn’t grow, it shrinks. Stability is its enemy. How does a 
company that is making a profit make a larger one? One option 
would be to use a portion of its profit to reduce prices, since this 
will increase purchases and overall revenue. But if it does this, 
it challenges the competitors to match its prices or even offer 
lower ones. The approach of relative advantage leads each com- 
petitor to “slash prices” in turn, which produces the opposite of 
the intended effect. Rather than growing, profits will progres- 
sively disappear. This was the downward trend of World Trade, 
Inc. that led Karl Marx to predict a slow but certain death for 
it. However, not being suicidal by nature, capitalists discovered 
a different route a long time ago: it is not by lowering prices 
on existing products but by launching new ones that profits 
grow rapidly. The first company to introduce a new product 
gains a clear advantage over its competitors and its profits will 
follow. But of course this is short-lived: quickly the competi- 
tion imitates the innovation, competitive advantage is lost and 
along with it, profits. You have to once again launch a new new 
product. As Orson Welles said in Con fidential Report, “It is not so 
difficult to make money, just don’t think about anything else!” 
As a result, continuous innovation is a necessary condition for 


the growth of capital. This is what Schumpeter called “creative 
destruction.” Certain products and even entire industrial sec- 
tors have to be eliminated so that others can appear. Only this 
ongoing upheaval allows the growth of capital. Habits must be 
constantly destroyed. 

As it happens, the spiral of obsolescence and innova- 
tion has accelerated substantially over the last two decades. In 
addition to the dynamic inherent to the expansion of money 
there are two other reasons. The first, notoriously, is globaliza- 
tion: competition has become fully international, and capital can 
desert a sluggish industry in an instant to go to the other side 
of the world for more promising opportunities. To maintain this 
restless energy, it always needs new projects to take on. 

The second is the decline of new markets. The Taylorist 
mode of organization suited the era of mass production, when 
the same car was made for millions of motorists. Today the pos- 
sibilities for expansion are not unlimited. Entrepreneurs are 
forced to find the “little difference” that separates them from the 
competition, to create ranges of “personalized” products, target- 
ing small segments of buyers and finding new ones each season. 
This means that with regards to work, the focus is no longer on 
reproduction but on the frantic search for innovation. 

Adding to this, the formula determining the price of a 
product has undergone a kind of inversion of polarity. In the 
past the price of a commodity was the result of the sum of the 
costs of production and distribution (increased by the profit 
margin, of course) . Today it’s the opposite: you determine the 


price you need to sell at to be competitive, and then shape 
the costs to reach this goal. This is the meaning of the phrase 
“the market dictates its rule.” If “the Koreans” sell a product for 
50 Euros, “we” have to sell it for no more than 49.99 Euros. 
“We” have to reduce our costs to make sure we do not exceed 
this strict limit. Now, the reduction of labor costs very much 
implies reducing salaries, but also “cutting back” positions not 
directly involved with production, and flattening the hierarchi- 
cal pyramid. This implies that the workers, even though their 
salaries are being reduced, have to take over the jobs once as- 
signed to supervisors, and, for example, assess their own work. 

Let’s return to the myth of complete automation. I 
mention it because it reveals a contrario what is at stake in the 
new organization of work. It goes without saying that the 
“rationalization” of business has as its goal to create economies 
of scale, and not to relieve workers from monotonous work. 
It is also a matter of reducing costs to get an upper hand on 
international competition. But this goal also requires that new 
markets be opened, new products constantly be developed, and 
so many new campaigns be undertaken. Much more than in 
traditional industry, this approach, centered on permanent in- 
novation, depends on a wide range of initiatives taken by entire 
firms. And that is why it is wrong to believe that work is on its 
way out. What is trending downward is mechanical tasks, but 
this is in order to clear the way for tasks of active participation. 
In other words, the more reproduction is automated, the more 
the remaining human labor has a prominent role in the global 


process, a role that is not quantitative, of course, but qualitative. 
Far fewer workers are employed, but for those who are, working 
means total mobilization. 

As opposed to the Taylorist system, which exempted 
workers from needing to use their brain, the corporation no 
longer needs muscles (for which it has robots) but has a vital 
need for brains. Even the operators of call centers, these spe- 
cialized workers of digital society, must be committed to their 
jobs, which means knowing how to simulate active engagement. 
Incidentally, the call center clearly illustrates the residual core 
of human participation necessary once everything has been au- 
tomated and the user finds himself completely overwhelmed 
by the array of technology he is supposed to master. In a ter- 
rific scene from the film Attention danger travail, you see a minor 
functionary — I mean a coordinator — continually instructing his 
subordinates — sorry, his colleagues — to “smile into the phone!” 
They are paid to smile — not to please the boss, but to “satisfy 
the customer.” Here is another consequence of the previously 
discussed inversion of polarity: the worker is no longer sup- 
posed to submit to the commands of the hierarchy, but to the 
needs of the customer. Naturally, this customer is not you or I, 
but the abstract figure of general competition. When “the mar- 
ket” imposes its law, there is less need for individual coercion. 

All this, according to sociologist Christoph Deutschmann, 
finally means that Marx was right — despite himself. Marx was 
wrong to believe that the amount of necessary labor time was 
the substance of value. That is metaphysics. But he was right to 


assume that work is the only source of profit to the extent that 
it is labor and not the “means of production” that is the source 
of innovation. Deutschmann writes, 

It is precisely because the valorization of capital is de- 
pendent on the creativity of work as a whole that it 
doesn’t follow a law of value that can be measured by a 
scientific observer . 16 

The entrepreneur’s great idea is nothing if it is not picked up 
and developed by the set of smaller ideas coming out of those 
who work for him. Without this, mechanical routine would 
choke profit. Now, this set is neither quantifiable nor observ- 
able, and even less can it be planned. The result is that business 
strategies focus their attention on intangible phenomena like 
atmosphere or communication. Bosses know how to play this 
tune when they praise their “colleagues” for having contributed 
to the success of the “innovative company,” but they systemati- 
cally forget them when it comes time to distribute the financial 
benefits of the innovation. That’s when the board of directors 
grants itself bonuses and stock options for its good ideas. Here, 
the critique holds true, that the employee’s wages at base do not 
compensate her for work, but obedience. Except this obedience 
is anything but passive. 

So it is easy to see why motivation has become the Holy 
Grail of management. Henceforward, management’s image of 
the worker is the opposite of the Taylorist prejudices of the past. 

16 Christoph Deutschmann, Die Verheifiung des absoluten Reichtums, Campus 
Verlag, Frankfurt, 1999. 


This image even shows a resolutely optimistic conception of 
human nature. Motivation, according to the technical literature, 
is a 

source of energy that each individual carries within. No- 
body works just to eat. One expects more from one’s 
personal life, for example the possibility of realizing a 
personal project, or having influence or power . 17 
One will immediately note that specific motives are carefully 
chosen here. Here the intrinsic desires for solidarity or tranquil- 
ity that almost everyone has within them (at least one might 
presume) aren’t taken into account. They don’t generate profit. 
And management’s precise mission is to transform the poten- 
tial energy of motivation into kinetic energy that benefits the 

Here is where the problem starts. Because somewhere 
along the way this energy is lost. And the worst thing about it is 
that it dissipates not among the bad workers but the good ones. 
The bad employees, having already started out as non-motivated, 
cannot be demotivated. In order to be disappointed, you need 
to have had hope beforehand. The demotivated are those who 
want to use their talent but are unable to. For example, a worker 
who is so committed to quality that he works too slowly to 
produce the quantity expected of him. Or those who were loyal 
to the ’’spirit of the company” so long as it offered security 
and stability. Now that these old-fashioned motives have been 
replaced by risk and mobility, they feel deceived and no longer 

17 This is an excerpt from a German pamphlet on motivation consulting. 


have their hearts in it. According to a behavior specialist, when 
demotivation hits a company, “the best go first”, because they 
have an easier time finding a job elsewhere. As a result only the 
sub-par employees stay behind. And an industrial psychologist 
suggests, “When workers put on the brakes, their job requires 
twice as much energy.” Ultimately, the specialists warn, demoti- 
vation can lead to “underground or even open revolt.” 

Let’s take a moment here to pay homage to those who 
have gone missing. Nobody will deny that in many professional 
arenas the level of quality and competence has declined in re- 
cent years. In general, people hold the education system or the 
loss of values responsible. But we can suggest another hypoth- 
esis. Let’s look at a sector where this degeneration is common 
knowledge: politics. An objective measure is even possible: it 
will suffice to compare the debates between politicians from 
a century, fifty, and thirty years ago to one from 2007 for ex- 
ample, between the Mother-of-four-children and the Real- 
man-who’s-successful-and-gets-things-done to analyze not 
their content but their form: how many adjectives, how many 
verbs were used, what verb tenses, what figures of speech? The 
impoverishment of language of these professional orators who 
graduated from the best schools of the Republique is mathemati- 
cally demonstrable and clearly indicates the poverty of their 
thought as well. The reason is not so mysterious. Not only is 
the disrepute typical to the exercise of their duties multiplied 
thanks to rating systems and public relations teams, but their real 
power is gradually being reduced to almost nothing. As soon as 


a decision becomes important, it is externalized, delegated to 
technocrats and lobbyists, and the elected puppet’s only charge 
is to communicate it on TV. Under these circumstances it is 
clear that someone who is gifted in debate, moved by a cause, or 
even striving for real power will scrupulously avoid a political 
career, leaving those positions to those who can do nothing else, 
or worse, to those who have it out for the world. 

Certainly it is a waste of time to make fun of political 
pedantry. But it is no different elsewhere, in the press for ex- 
ample. A journalist looking to do detailed interviews, write in- 
depth articles, have independent ideas and a unique style has no 
place in the current landscape of journalism. Refusing to aban- 
don his beliefs, he quits the game, leaving the task of keeping us 
disinformed to the third-rate ninnies. He tries to find himself 
another source of income and makes use of his talent, for exam- 
ple by publishing his investigations on an independent website. 
One can easily find many examples where the practice of a pro- 
fession contradicts the true calling. There are well known greats 
who have disappeared like Alexander Grothendieck, the Rim- 
baud of mathematics, who completely broke with the scientific 
community because he did not support their collusion with the 
state and industry, and instead has meditated in isolation for the 
past thirty years. But there are many others, anonymous and 
unknown. A brilliant genetics researcher whose personal ethics 
don’t allow him to participate in the narrow market approach 
of his colleagues now writes novels. A kid from a prestigious 
university who had a shining future made a tactical retreat into 


unemployment. A promising trader puts himself on the sidelines, 
happy to publish his analyses for other bankers. When I asked 
him why he did it, he said: “the stock market is a semi-criminal 
activity, it’s for my own safety that I have distanced myself, but 
it’s also a voluntary exit — my life is no longer dictated by the 
interests of the company.” 

My thesis is that the cream of the crop is spontaneously 
skimming itself, leaving the whey to rise to the top of orga- 
nizations. As Yeats (a visionary poet) predicted in 1921: “The 
best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate 
intensity.” Having discovered that the sub-systems in which they 
operate are no longer reformable, those who are destined to oc- 
cupy positions of power act according to this principle: . If you 
can’t overturn it, drop it. Of course these new conscientious 
objectors have not become dropouts, begging for a living on the 
road. They simply find socio-professional niches for themselves 
that allow them to be comfortable without having to expose 
their real talents. At one time I had the idea of making public 
this invisible conspiracy by taking account, with the approval of 
the individuals involved, of the resources withheld from World 
Trade, Inc. and by describing their reasons for doing so. Respect 
for the silence most of them had chosen dissuaded me from 
doing so. You have to see here that it’s not an articulated move- 
ment but a multitude of decisions made for purely personal rea- 
sons. I assert, however, that this has had a remarkable impact on 
the self-destructive evolution of the system — for the mediocre 
careerists who remain are making more and more erratic de- 


cisions. Moreover, this phenomenon is reinforced by another 
factor: those who find themselves at the bottom levels of an or- 
ganization (because they don’t have the means to do otherwise) 
experience a lack of emulation brought on by the absence of 
exemplary people who might help them. This is what psycholo- 
gists call a “situational motivation deficit.” 

Antidotes are needed. It is surprising to observe how 
quickly and easily the self-proclaimed management consultants 
managed to come on the scene: in other words how they con- 
vinced an otherwise prudent management to squander money 
on their services. It is a clear sign of the deep disarray that 
reigns here, and also of how vitally necessary it is to win the 
battle of motivation. 

We remember how, in the 90s, droves of charlatans took 
modernist bosses for large sums in the form of ostentatious 
spending, gifts, and entertainment with the aim of making 
their “colleagues” loyal to the company. For example a software 
company where a friend of mine worked took its workers on 
a surprise getaway. Though she was ready for anything, she 
was surprised to see the plane land on an ice floe in the Arctic 
Circle where a candlelit dinner was waiting for them, served 
on tables carved from ice. But the golden age of bacchanalian 
spending has long passed. Such compromises on the economy 
of scale produced no tangible results. What they learned was 
that little gifts do nothing to change the company culture on 
the daily level. They can even be interpreted as an awkward 


When this did not work, other consultants endeavored 
to work directly on the psychology of the employees. This was 
the era of meditation, autogenic training, role-playing, and oth- 
er interactive mumbo jumbo. One consultant proclaimed “You 
take a step forward when you look at the situation positively” 
(this forward step reminds us of the donkey in the prologue. . .). 
The staff was swamped with precepts like: Don’t say: “I don’t 
understand”; say: “I don’t have enough information.” In fact, all 
of these techniques are more or less copied directly from the 
tired old approach of the chemist Emile Coue which consisted 
of repeating twenty times before he went to bed the phrase, “I 
am getter better and better every day in every way.” Contrary 
to popular opinion, one should not underestimate the power of 
self-suggestion. This approach makes perfect sense for a boxer 
who gets in the ring, saying, “I am invincible, I will pulverize 
my opponent, he can do nothing to hurt me.” If he doesn’t be- 
lieve this, he will be afraid and make himself more vulnerable to 
his opponent. But administered by others and for a goal that is 
foreign to the individual, these methods are more reminiscent 
of reeducation as it was practiced in Mao’s China. One would 
seriously doubt that these techniques would have any effect on 
a normal person. In fact, it might be the reverse: psychologists 
have discovered what they call an “overjustification effect ” 18 in 
which too much externally provided motivation kills motiva- 
tion. A person realizes that he is being rewarded for performing 
a task he once did willingly. He then revises his judgment of 

18 [effet de corruption in French — Tr.] 


its value in thinking: if I have to be rewarded, it’s probably not 
a pleasant thing to do. Which is yet more evidence, as doctors 
categorically affirm: positive thinking makes you sick! 

So they had to face the facts: you can’t motivate some- 
one against their will. Or, as one of my professors once said 
about me, you can lead a donkey to water, but you can’t make 
it drink. In desperation, the managers have turned toward a 
new wave of consultants who propose that the obstacles to 
motivation lie in the structure of the company itself and that 
these obstacles must be eliminated. It is not the worker that is 
the issue but the impersonal atmosphere, the forms of com- 
munication, the attitude of management. Everything has to 
be more humane, more sexy. But this cool new look quickly 
butts heads with the nasty “exterior constraints” of the market, 
whose “inescapability” was precisely the source of demotiva- 
tion. Every strategy that begins with circumstantial issues fix- 
able with smart management tactics is doomed to fail. First 
of all because they make the exterior pressures into an ab- 
straction: a “more human” company has no future in an inhu- 
man system. For one of them to make true reforms, everyone 
else would have to do the same thing, and all over the world. 
Next, because demotivation is not an accident. It is a system- 
atic phenomenon produced by the double constraint to which 
all workers are subject. If, as they are encouraged to do, they 
act according to their own ideas, they quickly violate the rules 
of the current world order. If they submit to this order, they 
betray their creative capacities. 


The result is reported by a recent Gallup poll about 
German workers: 18% say they have no emotional tie to their 
employer, 70% say they limit this tie to the absolute minimum, 
88% state they feel no obligation to their boss, 46% admit that 
privately they have given up. I don’t have the figures for France 
but every indication suggests that they are similar. As we all 
know, the MEDEF (Movement of the Enterprises of France) 
claims to be frequently misunderstood by public opinion, and 
for good reason.You have to understand the employer’s point of 
view. Of course, to understand doesn’t mean to justify their per- 
spective or to sympathize with them. When he swears that he 
doesn’t want to compel unemployed workers who lack qualifi- 
cations and motivation to labor, he is being honest. This is what 
the state wants. Every entrepreneur is looking for competent, 
dynamic and motivated workers, because the market, his God, 
demands it through the intercession of the shareholders. The 
forcing of the overall job market into precariousness, temporary 
employment contracts (CDD in France), and the obsessive fear 
of layoffs are only means to reach this end, but they are not suffi- 
cient in themselves. Far from encouraging motivation, the tenu- 
ous job market can provoke a reaction of massive refusal. Once 
again the old adage proves to be true: you can make people 
work, but not work well. 

Added to this is the escalation in managerial hot air 
about “excellence” and “zero tolerance for error” that can only 
engender an increase in fraud and deception. If the goal is unat- 
tainable, act like you have already reached it. From the top to the 


bottom of the organization, it’s faking at every level. And obvi- 
ously, even motivation is faked. This state of affairs has deadly 
consequences for the longevity of the system: in the absence 
of reliable information offered in good faith, no strategy is pos- 
sible. The little Clausewitzes of industry are now working on 
new elixirs, new organizational myths that they dream can make 
us, finally, love exploitation. We wager that they won’t find any. 


The Work Drug 

I don ’t want to do what I want. 

It would be more than enough to want 
what I do! 

— Thomas Kapielski 

The ‘love of work” that Paul Lafargue denounces in his Right 
To Be Lazy, this “moribund passion for work that pushes one’s 
vital forces and those of his children to the breaking point” — 
today this “strange madness” is a scientifically established fact. 
Experts agree: a work addiction exists that in its form, symptoms, 
progression, and effects is the same as drug or alcohol depen- 
dence. A growing number of employees “get wasted” on the 
job and burn their vital energy to the point of becoming sick 
or even dying — the most striking example being karoshi (death 
by work), which claims twenty thousand victims a year in Japan. 

I have to make a preliminary remark here that in this 
arena, like in so many others, there is a French exception. In 
Anglo-Saxon countries “workaholism” is treated as a serious 
problem that has been researched and analyzed in detail. This is 
also true in Germany, where it is called Arbeitssucht. This is not 
the case in France, where the phenomenon is trivialized, not 
only by health and safety officers but more generally by the 
collective consciousness. In general the French look mockingly 
and condescendingly at those unfortunate countries where the 
cult of work reigns; they are proud of their culture which, in 


so many of its films and songs, glorifies laziness and living the 
good life. If one knows somebody hooked on “the work drug” 
it will be seen as an atypical case, the exception that confirms 
the rule. But if one considers the real conditions that reign 
within companies, and the way in which employees invest 
themselves in them, there really isn’t much difference between 
France, third in the world in the rate of hourly production, and 
other industrialized countries. What is expressed on the sym- 
bolic level, in folklore, does not match up with reality. So it is 
important to be skeptical about how people understand their 
own relationship to work. There are notorious slackers who 
swear they are overloaded with work, and beasts of burden who 
claim that the less they do, the better they feel. You could say 
that the former are more common in the northern latitudes 
and latter in the Latin countries. But this is beside the point. 
The dependence on work doesn’t come from national or indi- 
vidual character; it stems from a pathological phenomenon that 
is a socially produced sickness. Now, since the social conditions 
in France are the same as everywhere else, there is every reason 
to believe that they produce similar effects on the individu- 
als who live there. It is even likely that the affirmation of the 
“value of laziness” has as its purpose to repress reality and, as a 
result, to reinforce it. In every town in America and Germany 
“Workaholics Anonymous” groups meet to find a way, together, 
to detoxify themselves from work. This does not exist in France, 
to my knowledge. On the other hand, everyone knows that 
the French are the biggest consumers of tranquilizers and anti- 


depressants, which may explain this phenomenon. One depen- 
dency supports another. 

One consequence of all this is that the French language 
has no word to characterize the thing. Dependence has a sense 
of abstract causality that could be misconstrued. The Anglicism 
workaholic indicates that the harm is a foreign import. Scien- 
tists talk about ergomanie but rarely. The Quebecois, always more 
inventive, call it boulomanie, a word that conveniently evokes 
bulimia, but the expression has not crossed the Atlantic. 19 Ad- 
diction is also used. Until now I have avoided using yet another 
Anglicism, but the etymology of the word has convinced me to 
adopt it. In fact, in the Middle Ages, addiction was a decree de- 
clared by a tribunal, obliging the insolvent debtor to reimburse 
his lender by his work. Beginning in the 14 th century, in the 
English language the word meant the contractual obligation of 
an apprentice to his master. It was only gradually that addiction 
evolved into its current meaning; mania, the indulging in moral- 
ly reprehensible passions. Thus the word conserves the memory 
of a primordial act of constraint, which has since been internal- 
ized in a process by which suffering is made tolerable by making it 
worse. Moreover, as opposed to dependency, which is always de- 
pendency on something, addiction is a generic term, a structural 
matrix shared by diverse expressions that include toxicological 
dependency, compulsive consumption, bulimia, etc. 

19 [Ergomanie is a French euphemism for workaholism that is nearly as ambiguous 
as dependence, dependency, while the Canadian boulomanie stems from the 
widely-used slang for work, bou/ot. -Tr.] 


It goes without saying that the recognition of addiction 
to work would pose many problems. Beginning with the fact 
that while a doctor can tell an alcoholic to stop drinking alto- 
gether, it’s more difficult to tell a boulomaniac to stop working 
altogether! For that matter, if this addiction is recognized as an 
occupational disorder, businesses would have to indemnify the 
victims, something they would refuse with their every last bit of 
energy. So chronic overexertion is listed, like alcoholism, in the 
category of “personal problems” not implicating the employer. 
Yet it is obvious that the rapid increase in sickness resulting from 
overwork is directly correlated to the ever-increasing pressure 
placed on employees within the company. If the number of sick 
days taken is in free fall, it is not because the workers are healthier, 
but rather that even when they are sick they opt not to, out of 
fear of dismissal, recover at home in bed. Consequently, mental 
disorders are skyrocketing. And to speak only to professionally 
recognized disorders, the most prevalent among them today are 
“musculo-skeletal.” Symptoms include chronic joint pain, particu- 
larly back pain, often combined with depression or stress. Though 
women and people who work all day on the computer are the 
most affected, no professional category escapes these symptoms. 
And currently there is no known effective treatment. As a result 
the German office of occupational health counsels doctors to in- 
form their patients of the normality of their ailments, the priority 
of treatment being to “to reduce recourse to sick pay insurance 
claims and to favor the return to work.” In a word: An employee 
who knows s/he is under stress must learn to suffer in silence. 


Research papers all agree that these health problems are 
induced by psychosocial factors stemming from work, as for 
example “the subjective reception of orders and supervision.” In 
France, the Agency for the Improvement of Working Condi- 
tions (ANACT) makes the point even more clearly: joint pain 
appears “when the meaning of certain movements is no longer 
felt” by the operator. Musculo-skeletal pain is, and this is still 
according to ANACT, a malady that stems from meaningless gestures. 
In this way the senselessness of work, something that some still 
have their doubts about, is presently established by these figures: 
this problem is growing at a rate of 20% per year overall and as 
much as 50% in the service sector. Taking preventive measures 
would involve not only calling the organization of work into 
question, but first questioning its very meaning, something the 
relevant authorities will obviously be unwilling to do. Instead of 
this, they are currently working on finding an appropriate drug 
that allows workers to withstand the pressures of their environ- 
ment. Here as elsewhere the reigning principle is: when the 
environment becomes harmful to people, don’t transform the 
environment; make people adapt to it. 

Obviously, the issues caused by over-working aren’t just 
personal problems, but are caused by the social environment. 
But, one might ask, why talk about addiction when it is out- 
side pressure that is the cause? Holger Heide, a socioeconomist 
who has researched overwork in Germany and Korea for twenty 
years, responds: external constraint doesn’t explain everything. 20 

20 Holger Heide, Massenphanomen Arbeitssucht, Atlantik, Bremen, 2002. 


It is always accompanied by an internal constraint that is expe- 
rienced as irresistible — and everything lies in the ambivalence of 
that word: irresistible is that which one cannot resist by force, 
that which one is attracted to and seduced by. Here we redis- 
cover the old question of voluntary servitude in new terms: the 
intersection of social and psychological factors. For ages this 
has been the subject of a debate made pointless by specialists’ 
blinders. One will reproach psychological interpretations for 
eluding the social question, while the other suspects the social 
interpretation is but a resistance to psychological questions. But 
this absolute split between an exterior and an interior is only a 
narrow view of the mind, one of the dualisms in which Western 
thought gets trapped. There is no doubt that exterior pressure, 
in order to be endured by the individual, has to be internalized. 
This internalization, according to Heide, is not static, but a dy- 
namic process, a spiral of habituation and raising of the stakes, 
and it has major psychosomatic consequences. Paul Lafargue 
was right. Remember that the scandal provoked by his book 
The Right To Be Lazy 21 didn’t only result from his questioning of 
the work dogma. What angered everyone, including the Marx- 
ists, was that he didn’t simply portray the proletariat as victims of 
capitalism, but claimed that their “extravagant enthusiasm” also 
played a role in their poverty. 

The drama of addiction has a trivial beginning. The em- 
ployee wants to prove that he is at the top of his game, that he 

21 Engels wanted to prevent its publication in German, arguing: “that’s going too 
far, even for the French,” and Kautsky falsified the translation. 


is like the guy described in his resume, efficient, tough, taking 
great initiative. He is recognized for this, which makes him do 
more. The results give him a “high” which goes to his head. 
But over time these endorphin rushes become less frequent and 
shorter. Tasks pile up while his energy wanes. He begins to re- 
press his fear of not being at the top of his game and starts mak- 
ing excuses. At the same time his family and friends complain 
that he is not available to them, which he experiences as an ad- 
ditional pressure, and which reinforces the feeling that the world 
is conspiring to prevent him from fulfilling his mission. He be- 
comes increasingly irritated, especially with the other employ- 
ees who he sees as obstacles to his success (hell is other workers) . 
To escape the idea that he is being squeezed like a lemon, he 
presses his colleagues, and even harasses them. Soon, the first 
physical symptoms appear: hypertension, tinnitus, stomach pain. 
But his doctor treats them as so many accidents having nothing 
to do with his lifestyle. So he goes on, even increasing his effort 
to prove that he is not slowing down, that he is irreplaceable 
in his position, that he can step up his game. There is plenty of 
fresher human material out there, watching for the slightest sign 
of weakness and ready to push him out the door. Now he takes 
drugs: stimulants in the morning, sedatives in the evening. His 
private life is a total disaster. All he has left is the office, where he 
can apply himself with increasing aggressiveness. As for the end 
of his career, it could be a heart attack or suicide. 

Addiction to work is widespread in middle and upper 
management. There is nothing surprising about this: like all 


drugs, work hooks all the better when it provokes strong sen- 
sations. The success of a public takeover bid or a risky invest- 
ment stimulates more adrenaline than selling plane tickets or 
drawing up an accounting report. But the more powerful the 
sensation, the more relentless the spiral of addiction and need. 
This explains why many people who seem to be, according to 
the prevailing criteria, “successful in their lives” are permanently 
frustrated, embittered, exhausted. And they even exhibit jeal- 
ousy toward those who are at the bottom of the social ladder, 
the unemployed who don’t do a damn thing all day. Lafargue’s 
era, in which the bourgeoisie, if we are to believe it, engaged 
“in frantic orgies filled with gluttony and syphilitic debauchery” 
is over. Only Hollywood stars indulge themselves in this way 
anymore, perhaps along with a few Russian magnates or an emir 
from Qatar. The rest of them shoot up abstractions. And it is 
precisely this abstract character of their wealth that makes junkies 
out of the economic elite. A moment comes when one has had 
enough of top models, caviar, and mega yachts, those floating 
castles for billionaires, but one can never have too many stock 
options and hedge funds. 

You shouldn’t think, however, that this phenomenon 
only concerns the upper class. If it is currently undergoing a 
rapid expansion, it is because it has reached the employees who 
are under the new organization of work referred to in the pre- 
ceding chapter: the innovators, the creative types, the flex-timers, 
those who are not subject to the authority of a boss but to the 
pressure of a team and whose work time is not strictly scheduled. 


Motivation being an essential part of their job description, there 
is a tendency, when they end up falling behind, to make up for 
it somehow. Of course this sector is in the minority (just like 
the “labor aristocracy” in the era of Taylorism) and will prob- 
ably remain so for some time. But this is the dynamic core of the 
workforce, pulling everyone else along. 

Another high-risk group is made up of the rapidly ex- 
panding contingent of “independent” workers (for example, in 
the software, design, and cultural sectors), who are dependent 
on short-term assignments, paid in fees, and always having to be 
rehired. No contract protects them from the threatening com- 
petition of their peers and so they do not have the leisure to 
relax. And being “their own bosses,” they have to check their 
own work; and should they then have to punish themselves, 
they wind up with a permanent bad conscience. Their superego 
is not a father-boss figure, but something much more merciless: 
the market. Equally affected are the employees for whom work 
evokes constant fear. Fear of the boss’s demands, of bullying by 
their co-workers (druggies are the most asocial people there 
are), fear of performing inadequately, of being laid off; in the 
end, and above all, fear of being afraid. And they try to escape 
this unbearable reality by working more. They too, Heide writes, 
“burn their vital energy.” 

The more monotonous and passive it is, the less likely 
the work is to become a “drug.” But in that case it offers less 
social recognition, and, more importantly, is not as well paid as 
addictive work. The latter has a power of attraction. Of course it 


is tempting to think: “I should quit this lousy job, do something 
interesting and make a good living instead,” misunderstanding or 
ignoring the price that is to be paid for this choice. Moreover, 
those individuals who, since they’ve been in school, have been 
formatted to fulfill the demands of the market, trained to partici- 
pate, to take the initiative, to sell themselves, and who still find 
themselves under-employed in jobs that provide no real satisfac- 
tion, are often prepared to sacrifice anything to be recognized for 
their abilities. They too can be affected by addiction, this time, in 
the form of a lack. We all know a new species is proliferating in 
the corporate world: the intern. Overworked, he has to do what 
the salaried workers refuse to do, and do it passionately, paid only 
with the promise that at the end of his internship there may a job 
for him. Even if he is disappointed in the end (which happens 
often) he tells himself that at least his worth was acknowledged 
for a short moment and that he had gained professional experi- 
ence. And then he rushes toward a new internship. 

The withdrawal symptoms are particularly manifest in a 
specific group: the unemployed who have lost a job to which 
they were addicted. Suddenly they fall into an abyss. They don’t 
know what to do anymore. They feel unwanted. The time that 
they now have to do what they like fills them with ennui. In 
the course of discussions led by the Happy Unemployed 22 we 
have been able to determine that the suffering caused by the 
lack of work is not proportionate with unemployment benefits. 

22 [Also Gliicklichen Arbeitslosen: informal German organization for the 
unemployed, launched in 1996 — Tr.] 


Those for whom these are small certainly suffer from a lack of 
money. But often the job they have lost (or to which they were 
headed) was not satisfying enough that they feel any nostalgia. 
It is different for those who, despite receiving better compen- 
sation, cannot get over their loss of social status. They experi- 
ence unemployment as going cold turkey. Beyond the market, 
their families, their friends, and the media never stop talking 
about their disenfranchisement or, worse, stigmatize them. Yes, 
they lack work, but like a junkie lacks junk! And yet, nobody is 
going to demonstrate in the streets to demand “heroin for ev- 
eryone.” We often hear that half the population works itself to 
death, the other half is bored to death. There is another way to 
express it: half the world has gotten used to an increasing dose 
of the work drug, the other half suffers from withdrawal. These 
are two sides of the same coin. And we will get nowhere if we 
demand the same dose, equitably shared by all, accompanied by 
a civic replacement therapy program. 

You are likely going to say that I am exaggerating, that 
I am extrapolating from a few extreme examples. How many 
work junkies are out there, exactly? There is no possible re- 
sponse to this question, and this is the essential point. There 
cannot be one because so long as the boulomaniacs are still able 
to work, their habituation is not recognized as a dysfunction. 
From a medical perspective, an addiction is not established un- 
less it impairs the ability to work. In other words, the problem 
isn’t that one might work oneself to death but that one might 
lose the ability to do one’s job. Using this logic, shooting her- 


oin doesn’t qualify you as an addict — you have to overdose! So 
long as the employee sacrifices his private life to the company, 
overburdens his own workload, never grumbles about transfers, 
accepts “external constraints” that weigh on him, gives up his 
’’privileges” for fear of being fired, maximizes his performance, 
and rationalizes it all with his sense of responsibility, his career 
plans, and his enthusiasm, his case is not the least bit pathological. 
He is doing exactly what is expected of him. The deviants are 
the non-addicts or occasional users who wind up being called 
“allergic to work,” saboteurs of growth, parasites, and agitators 
who disrupt the flow. In a screening offered by Workaholics 
Anonymous, the following appear among ten questions: 

Do you value your work more than your family or any- 
thing else in life? Do you feel entirely responsible for 
the results of your work? Do you think about work 
when you are driving, going to sleep, or when other 
people are talking to you? 

Answering yes to these three questions, which would be praised 
by any employer as a sign of a promising career, is supposed to 
be sufficient to establish a diagnosis of addiction. 

We must conclude that company normalcy is pathogenic. 
What is the reason for this? Heide again: 

Not only does the capitalist system promote addiction, 
but it lives off of this addiction; it is intrinsically a system 
of addiction. Capital produces and reproduces need, and 
does so exponentially, because the absence of limits is 
what constitutes its essence. 


Once more we rediscover the imperative of the multiplica- 
tion of money that draws everything, people and things, into 
its ascendant spiral. Addiction is but the manifestation, on the 
psychosomatic level, of the collision of the infinity of an abstract 
movement and the natural limits of the living. 

To these remarks, one could respond: work can be a 
drug, so what? This genre of denunciation comes from a con- 
servative or hygienic perspective, right? Isn’t it, after all, a ra- 
tional choice made by an individual to favor seeking immedi- 
ate pleasure at the cost of his health? To this there are several 
responses: first of all, everyone knows that a drug is a drug. 
On the other hand, it is not so common to think about work 
from the perspective of addiction. Independent of all moral 
judgment, it is helpful to see to what extent our hypothesis 
advances the understanding of the social phenomenon. Next, 
it is one thing to voluntarily decide to take drugs; it’s another 
to be drugged without knowing it. And yet to the extent that 
the addiction to work is not understood as such, we cannot say 
that those who fall prey to it made a choice while conscious 
of the risks. Besides it is not so much a question here of the 
freedom of individual choice but of the social consequences 
of those choices. Those who have been around junkies will 
know what I’m talking about. The problem isn’t that they self- 
destruct but that they often drag down their friends, that they 
destroy all their relations to feed their habit. This is especially 
true, in the case we are dealing with here, in which the addic- 
tion is supported by the current norm. But above all, we must 


express the most serious reservations with regards to the “free 
choice” of individuals. 

To attempt to understand the internal process that leads 
to work addiction, Heide makes use of a concept that was de- 
veloped in 1932 by the psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi. Though 
in passing, Ferenczi was the first to identify a “Sunday neurosis” 
among some of his patients, sometime aggravated by a “vaca- 
tion neurosis,” characterized by “a certain boredom filled with 
a tension, that in itself was tiring to the point that it prevents 
the patient either from working or from enjoying himself.” But 
it is another one of his concepts that is relevant to us here: that 
of the identification with the aggressor. Ferenczi observed that child 
victims of mistreatment or of sexual abuse are so overwhelmed 
by the power of the adult that it is impossible for them to protest, 
even if only in their own thoughts. They react in this way: “If I 
submit to his will to the point of no longer having my own, if 
I don’t oppose him, perhaps he will spare my life.” It is a reflex 
that seeks protection from suffering, from the fear of feelings, by 
hiding in a sense of false security, in an illusory world. But the 
cost is on-going self destruction: because repression of anxiety 
itself generates anxiety that must in turn be repressed. If the ag- 
gressions continue, identification becomes a chronic state, nor- 
mal behavior. A phenomenon can be seen in adult victims of 
repeated traumatic shocks in warfare that is almost identical but 
with an additional complication: the aggressor is not a specific 
individual but an anonymous force with motives that are not 
apparent. The victim doesn’t identify with a person but an insti- 


tution. She gains the illusion of experiencing the omnipotence 
of this institution but at the price of the dissolution of her own 
identity. When, as in the case of a war, an entire generation en- 
dures the same trauma, the phenomenon becomes a social one. 
Particularly since the behavioral norms of this generation will 
not end when the generation does, for they can be transferred 
to offspring. We all know that influences in early childhood play 
a key role in an individual’s later socialization. 

So identification with the aggressor is the result of 
trauma, and Heide reminds us that work as we know it also 
began with a collective trauma: the one resulting from what is 
commonly called the industrial revolution, the moment when 
World Trade, Inc., after having taken control of artisan and peas- 
ant labor, put them directly under its domination in enclosed 
spaces subject to its autonomous logic and iron discipline. This 
implementation of forced labor took place under conditions 
of extraordinary violence. It is enough to read the horrific ac- 
counts of the period. But if todays humanistic conscience only 
sees unjustified cruelty there, it is essential to remember that 
this violence was in no way arbitrary. Without it, men (and 
women) would never have allowed themselves to conform to 
the demands of the heinous conditions of the factory. They 
never would have spontaneously left a way of life that, despite 
its poverty, guaranteed a margin of communal freedom. This 
is why in every country, no matter what the time or specific 
conditions, industrialization has had addiction as an essential 
precondition, in the original sense of the word, a traumatic co- 


ercive act. As for the pitiless exploitation of children, which al- 
ways engenders indignation, its express purpose was to create a 
generation cut off from traditions that created “unusable” adults, 
to use the terminology of an industrialist of that era. Once this 
was accomplished, they stopped forcing children to work. At 
this point, their training could be left up to the school system. 

That’s going a bit far back in history, someone will say, to 
explain a contemporary phenomenon. But if Heide mentions 
this inaugural violence, it’s mainly because a part of his work 
deals with Southeast Asia, where industrialization is much more 
recent. Contrary to the vaguely racist preconceptions on this 
topic, no atavism predisposes the Japanese to work themselves to 
death. In the Edo period (1603-1868), artisans and peasants were 
known for their art of the break, and their daily lives were fre- 
quently interrupted by community celebrations. At the begin- 
ning of the 20 th century a German industrialist complained: “the 
Japanese worker is reluctant to conform to military discipline 
which, according to our norms, must rule the modern factory.” 
Three decades later the Japanese industrialists made the same 
critique of the Korean workers... The extreme forms that work 
addiction takes in these countries, often leading to madness or 
death, are simply the result of the fact that a process that un- 
folded over two centuries in Europe took place in Japan in just a 
few generations. There was no time for individuals to absorb the 
accelerated series of traumatic shocks. 

There is a more fundamental reason to return to the 
primordial crime of Capital: because to date, nothing has come 


along to fix it. In general, people reassure themselves, conditions 
of life for the working population have improved thanks to the 
combined actions of the workers movement, the welfare state, 
and the evolution of social mores. It’s true: it’s not the same 
anymore. But no one’s really recovered from it either. For the 
primordial wrong has never been put right. At the beginning of 
the 20 th century, Japanese workers responded to a questionnaire 
by saying that the most painful loss brought about by their go- 
ing to work was the loss of community. European workers in 
the 19 th century would most certainly have said the same. This 
loss has not been mitigated by the increase in buying power or 
the reduction of the work week. Certainly their common fate 
and above all the struggles against this loss have given birth to 
workers communities. The British miners waged the last great 
struggle of the 20 th century with the explicit goal of saving their 
communities. But this struggle, like all the others at that time, 
resulted in defeat: confronted with dislocation, many sunk into 
depression, alcohol, or suicide. With each great leap forward (to- 
wards the abyss) World Trade, Inc. makes, the communities that 
block the way are destroyed, and thereby the primal scene is 
reactivated. This is how labor is being made “flexible” now, a 
process that has eliminated the last remaining barriers protect- 
ing the individual from the market. 

It is important to recall a fact that the sycophants of 
social progress like to forget: rarely have men (and especially 
women) worked as much as they do today. In the Middle Ages, 
between religious, local and professional holidays, and fairs, a 


Parisian artisan had a minimum of one hundred fifty days a 
year of free time. The workday of a peasant was not measurable 
because it was constantly interrupted, and at the end of sum- 
mer the harvest festival celebrated the end of the work year. If 
some Mephisto had come along and proposed to the poor of 
the time the following deal: I will offer you central heating, a 
washing machine, and social security, but on condition that you 
double your work time and give up community celebrations, 
there is little chance they would have accepted. The Rule of 
Saint Benedict, which is generally taken as the founding act 
of the work ethic, only established a 36-hour work week, and 
this despite the fact that the monks were self-sufficient and 
had rudimentary methods of production. And we can cite the 
extreme example of the Old Believers, isolated from the rest of 
the world deep in Siberia, who sustain themselves in the most 
extreme conditions and who still manage to devote six hours a 
day to free time, in this case to prayer. 23 Still today, Western tour- 
ists cannot contain their nostalgia when they see tribes who, 
living in utter destitution, “take the time to live.” The consider- 
able gains of industrial society have not made up this time to 
us. Obviously this doesn’t mean that the poverty of past epochs 
creates a lust for life, but certainly that modern work destroys it. 

In the same way the improvement of living conditions 
doesn’t signify the end of the primordial constraint but its in- 
ternalization. They will say: “that’s how it is.” One way of life 

23 Vassili Peskov, Ermites dans la taiga, Actes Sud, Arles, 1995. [English edition: 
Lost in the Taiga. Doubleday: 1994.] 


replaces another, one gets used to it, and anyway the new one 
offers clear advantages. Today it is fashionable to question any 
position that brings in a distinct “human nature”, which can 
only ever be a social construction. However, individuals have a 
real biological rhythm, based on tension and release, fatigue and 
sleep. There is a limit to how much pressure the autonomic ner- 
vous system can endure. At the same time all of us have a need 
for community, quite simply because without community there 
could be no individuality either. In this sense the conditions 
to which most people in the world today are subject cannot 
be “second nature.” They have had to adapt to these conditions, 
of course, but this adaptation is not the same as a mutation of 
the species. Which is why there is no need, in order to criticize, 
to fall into romantic nostalgia for old times. It is enough to al- 
low yourself the time to reflect and find in your heart of hearts 
what remains definitively inassimilable in the roles and rhythms 
prescribed by the aggressor. But most often these very rhythms 
make any reflection impossible — and that’s when the body re- 
acts, for the body is not easily fooled. 

As I write these lines, I see an inherent risk in my ar- 
gument: that of discussing a pathological phenomenon in the 
name of “health” or “healthy living” or even the “normal,” in 
other words, of talking like an old fogey. It is always well advised 
to mistrust dogmas that offer explanations of the meaning of 
life and a way of following it as if they were intangible givens. 
As obvious as the evils of addiction are, a normative response is 
no less problematic. It is not unusual that the cures for addiction 


are an underhanded means to tie individuals weakened by with- 
drawal to sects, schools, or disreputable institutions. And even 
if directed without manipulative intent, these rehab programs 
can hook the addict, who for the rest of their lives cannot miss 
their visit to the therapist. For identification with the aggressor 
he substitutes identification with the therapist, creating a simple 
transfer of dependency. So we have to be wary of defining what 
is a normal amount of work, a healthy level of the satisfaction of 
desires, etc. But in the same way, though it is quite impossible to 
prove that a proposition is true, it is easy to prove that a proposi- 
tion is false, and with no need for recourse to universal norms to 
state that certain behaviors are pathological and self-destructive. 

I opened the Psychology of Motivation by Paul Diel and 
discovered a striking analogy between the phenomena I am 
trying to understand and one of the forms of intrapsychic work 
depicted in this book: what Diel calls banalization. In the banal- 
ized individual, the personality dissolves in an “obsessive activ- 
ity focused on the satisfaction of multiple desires,” desires for 
which “each satisfaction, because of its inherent insufficiency, 
becomes the basis for a new fantasy, with an increasing loss 
of intensity.” Banalization is not so much an inhibition as an 
exhibition. Incapable of sublimation, the banalized person loses 
his sense of the sublime. He is eaten up by parasitic needs, by 
the “titillation of the banal vanity resulting from being more 
successful than others.” I could cite everything that Diel expos- 
es in such evocative terms: the “misinterpretation of life”, the 
“triumphant resignation in failure.” Except that in this book 


(written in 1947) he is still positing a marginal, misguided form 
of motivation that he opposes to a norm comprised of mental 
health and joie de vivre. 24 The relevance of this perspective, even 
when Diel wrote this, is doubtful; in any case it’s certainly ob- 
solete today, when the norm is banalization.We can easily picture 
the fruitless dialogues between Diel and a connectionist/de- 
constructionist contemporary. The latter, hearing him invoke 
a “true” motivation, would get up onto one of his high post- 
modern horses, call it bourgeois rigidity, the simulacrum, and 
stubbornly defend his right to differance. The aged psychologist, 
for his part, would diagnose his opponent as a desperate case of 
banal debasement, willful narcissism, and the death of the soul. 
Here we reach a characteristic point where the past and the 
present cannot communicate, the old guardrails appearing to 
our era as so many arbitrary obstacles. 

Denying the existence of addiction on the grounds that 
all behavioral norms are illusory would be, in any case, a very 
weak argument. To label someone an alcoholic, you don’t need 
to be a teetotaler or, like a cop, to define what an acceptable 
quantity of alcohol is. Symptoms are what lead to the observa- 
tion. Addiction manifests itself first as insatiability. To get the 
same effect you have to constantly increase the dose. And yet 
the symptoms of mass failure to satisfy desires are far too obvi- 
ous everywhere around us (and also in us) for the reality of the 

24 However, Diel does consider the banalized person as difficult to cure, since 
his perversion comes to appear normal to the subject. He appeals to a “change 
of public imagination on the meaning of life” which leads the banalized, always 
in line with public opinion, to adopt, despite himself, a more sensible way of life. 


phenomenon to remain an open question. What the society of 
work really produces is lack. 

Without a doubt, addiction is much more visible and 
identified in the sphere of consumption. Everyone knows the 
drugs of television, the Internet, the cell phone, the supermarket, 
etc. It’s become commonplace to say it: consumers are hooked 
on a constant flow of new products, their bulimia being the 
necessary precondition for the health of the market. Particu- 
larly in this domain, it would be mistaken to want to define a 
fixed level of satisfaction. If I have chosen, however, to exam- 
ine the subject from the perspective of work, it is because for 
me, you inhibit understanding by restricting your approach to 
the sphere of compulsive shopping. Advertising, an epiphenom- 
enon, would then be seen as the cause (this will be the sub- 
ject of the next chapter). Hyper- work and hyper-consumption 
are two complimentary forms of addiction. There is a circu- 
larity here that is wonderfully illustrated by an example that I 
came upon during one of my investigations into demotivation: 
a high-level executive at a major finance institution explained 
that she owned two thoroughbred horses whose upkeep was 
very expensive and that she never had time to ride, arguing: 
“Since I make money I really should do something meaningful 
with it. ’’Immediately following this, to the question of whether 
she would like to work less so that she had more time, even if 
it meant reducing her income, she responded, “But there’s no 
way, I have two horses to support!” One isn’t hooked for just a 
certain number of hours a day or in certain places. Addiction is a 


lifestyle and has implications for the individual as a whole. Which 
is why it is so difficult to kick. 

But the preceding commentary also demonstrates that 
the phenomenon of addiction cannot be reduced to an “at- 
risk population.” Nobody can completely avoid participating; 
nobody can claim to be fully immune. At the most one can 
differentiate forms of neurotic compensation and degrees of 
dependency. Which is why it would be rather presumptuous 
to prescribe a single method of detoxification that would be 
effective for everyone. Simply put, considering World Trade, Inc. 
in all of its lived dimensions as a fundamentally addictive system, 
and seeing the banal motivations as so many bad pretexts for 
reckless abandon, can contribute to the reinforcement of the 
mind’s immune response. This is not such a bad place to start. 


Metamorphoses of the Fetish 

He combined pure water with the gifts of Bacchus, 
and it became molten gold flowing into his mouth. 
Fearing this strange evil, 

(poor and rich at the same time) 
he tried to rid himself of this toxic wealth, 
and what he previously desired, he now hates. 

— Ovid 

In the 16 th century, when Portuguese sailors and missionaries 
who had landed on the coast ofWest Africa wanted to describe 
the various religious objects of the indigenous people they dis- 
covered, they spoke of feiflos. The word is derived from the 
Latin factitius, which has a double meaning of “artificially fab- 
ricated” and “false.” That is how the ambivalence of the fetish, 
from the very start, arose. Otherness, fabrication, and falseness 
were inextricably mixed, and they still are today. As for “fetish- 
ism,” this term was invented in 1760 by Charles de Brasses, 
who was president of Parliament and a religious historian in his 
spare time. Under the term “fetish,” he lumped together amu- 
lets, statuettes, bones, and other magical objects worshipped by 
so-called primitive peoples in a conceptual sleight of hand that 
landed a double punch: on the one hand he flippantly mixed 
phenomena that were only alike in their foreignness to Euro- 
pean culture, and on the other he underlined the superiority of 
that European culture, emancipated as it was from obscurantism 


and superstitions thanks to the Enlightenment and science. The 
fetishists were the others, the savages. 

This reassuring vision of reality was contested by Karl 
Marx in his well-known passage on the “fetish-character of the 
commodity.” He was greatly struck by a statement made by 
President de Brasses, that in the eyes of the native Cubans, gold 
was “the fetish of the Spaniards.” Tit for tat: here magic returns, 
erupting in the heart of the industrial world. It has been around 
ever since. No one needs to have read Das Kapital to have a 
vague notion of commodity fetishism. Everyone can attest to 
the fact that the motivations of a purchase are not rational and 
what it is convenient to call “consumption” surpasses the ex- 
planations of economists in every way. It is easy to imagine that 
all an extraterrestrial ethnologist landing on our planet would 
find is imperious cults, captivating icons, sudden bursts of en- 
thusiasm, and incomprehensible rituals. It is easy to imagine, for 
we become this extraterrestrial as soon as we try to figure out 
what it is we have gotten ourselves into. That is quite a mystery. 

The mystery, according to Marx, is that in commod- 
ity exchange a social relation takes on “the fantastic form of 
a relation between things.” This relationship is called value. It 
is interesting to observe how, beginning with this point, Marx 
comes to speak of fetishism. Like any relationship, value cannot 
be understood simply through an empirical description. You 
need to resort to images and symbols, and Marx went looking 
for them “in the obscure regions of the religious world.” So in 
the beginning it was simply an analogy. The table that “stands 


on its wooden head in front of the other commodities and 
produces a fantasy more bizarre than if it were to dance” is 
quite clearly a metaphor. And yet, as they are used, metaphors 
tend to acquire an existence of their own. Like the ambigu- 
ity of phrases that begin with “it all happens as if...” Do they 
mean, “it actually happens that way?” Isn’t it really only a way 
to talk about something that is indefinable? Or is it a pretense? 
In fact, as soon as it convinces the reader or interlocutor, the 
image will become effective, at least as a figure of speech. One 
will get used to speaking of fetishism as if it really existed to 
the point of believing in it . 25 Incidentally, it is amusing to note 
that todays detractors of “the society of the image” who turn 
to the Marxist theory of fetishism to criticize it don’t see that 
this text itself is made up of images. This is a frequent outcome 
of theory fetishism. 

The function of the fetishist metaphor is multi-faceted. 
First of all it confers a specific mission on the critique that 
makes use of it. Marx writes that commodities are like “hiero- 
glyphs” that we must decipher. The deceived gaze only sees 
signs, but these signs have a hidden meaning whose unveiling 
is tantamount to a desecration, a step on the path to the practi- 
cal profanation of the world. If that doesn’t eliminate the rule 
of value, it at least gives it a name. Humanity can now under- 
stand that what they are doing in commodity exchange, “they 

25 Who knows if religion didn’t actually begin by the phrase: “everything happens 
as if a supernatural being has created this” and only little by little, out of laziness, 
the first part of the sentence was abandoned... 


do unwittingly.” In this way, the theory of fetishism provides a 
response to the old question of voluntary servitude. If human- 
ity is alienated, why don’t they throw off their yokes? Because 
they are subjugated by their products, which they see as inde- 
pendent beings with lives of their own; they are deceived by an 
illusion, a phantasmagoria. But above all, defining fetishism is 
at the same time defining what is exterior to it, drawing a line 
between the rational and the irrational. Real social life, accord- 
ing to Marx, is defined by “material production and its cor- 
responding relationships,” and these are exempt from all magic. 
Except that they are hidden by a “mystical cloud that veils their 
appearance.” The theory of fetishism has as its goal, then, to free 
up a rationality hidden behind supernatural appearances. It cre- 
ates a being that contains the totality of the world’s metaphysics, 
thereby purifying the rest of the world. In other words, Marx 
is the de Brasses of economy. For de Brasses the cult of fetish- 
istic gods contains a rational core that, in the Europe of the 
Enlightenment, freed itself from its veneer of superstition. For 
Marx the cloud of fetishism will dissipate when freely associat- 
ing humans become the conscious masters of their own actions. 
Then, the fabricated will no longer be false. Social relations are 
already rational; they need to become transparent, disenchanted. 
To speak his language, Marx wants to abolish the magic of the 
commodity without realizing it. He is, as it were, a fetishist of 
rational mastery. An echo of this dualist conception — and this is 
why I have taken this detour — can be found among those who 
criticize the cruelty of finance capital in the name of honest 


business, or the treachery of advertising in the name of authen- 
tic needs. I will revisit this point. 

But for the moment we return to the adventures of fe- 
tishism. As the ethnologists and religious historians refined their 
observations, they definitively banished this term as decidedly 
too crude to usefully describe anything. But in the meantime 
it found itself a new career. Four years after the death of Marx, 
Alfred Binet published Fetishism in Love, which introduced the 
concept into psychopathology. Given the anti-pagan origins of 
the word, it is funny to note that for Binet, fetishism is mono- 
theistic. While the “normal” lover delights in a multiplicity of 
stimulations, the fetishist is a pervert insofar as his libido fixates 
on one object, whether that be hair, feet, or womens underwear, 
excluding all other sources of stimulation. This would seem to 
take us away from the critique of the commodity, but we will 
get back to it quickly. For, Binet asserts, it only appears that the 
fetishist adores a concrete object. An object is only concrete in 
its singularity, meaning, on the one hand, that through which it 
distinguishes itself from other objects of the same type (this pair 
of shoes compared to all other shoes), and on the other hand 
by what ties it to its environment (these shoes worn by a spe- 
cific person in a specific situation). On the contrary “the lover 
of Italian dresses is not infatuated by a specific design worn by 
a specific person, what he loves is not a particular object, but 
the genre.” Fetishism would then be a process of abstraction on 
two levels: on the one hand singularity vanishes for the sake of 
the genre, of the “class of objects” as Binet put it; on the other 


hand, the object is no longer an attribute of the being desired, 
but on the contrary this being is only the courier, contingent 
in itself, of the object. For the fetishist “no matter if the woman 
is ugly, so long as the cult object is beautiful.” Individuals are as 
indifferent as particular objects, and by this very fact, they are 
interchangeable. These characteristics, one will admit, are similar 
to those that characterize commodity value. Since it is always 
classes of objects that are made and sold, the libidinal invest- 
ment leading to their purchase can be interpreted in terms of 
perverse fetishism. 

Psychopathology offers other possible analogies. Ac- 
cording to Freud, fetishism is the consequence of relational 
angst. The adored object is objectified 26 communication, which 
evokes the currently popular idea that wearing a popular fash- 
ion item is a substitute for personal recognition. The sexologist 
Magnus Hirschfeld pointed out that store windows with their 
displays of shoes and lingerie are a constant incitement to fetish- 
ism. Of course, he is only referring to objects that are specifi- 
cally intended to excite sexual perverts as his discipline defines 
them, but it is tempting to understand this observation in terms 
of all classes of objects that the market offers its lusting regu- 
lars. Moreover, other psychologists will define kleptomania as a 
form of fetishism, and by kleptomania they don’t only mean the 
sneaky theft of dresses hanging on the neighbor’s laundry line, 

26 I prefer “objectification” to "reification,” which is generally the translation 
for the German Verdinglichung. [“Thingification” and “objectification” are both 
English alternatives to “reification.” — Tr.] 


but absolutely all forms of shoplifting. From this strange point of 
view, what would be abnormal is not the fixation on the object, 
but the way the need is satisfied, perversion only commencing 
with the desecration of exchange value. Granoff sees in theft an 
“excitation of a sexual nature,” but then what are the motives 
behind the act of purchase? It is difficult not to detect a related 
symptom in hyper-consumption. 

During the 60s, commodity fetishism made a dramatic 
return to social critique. We can assume that if the notion was so 
galvanized then it is less in the sense given to it in Marx’s Capital 
than as a result of the libidinal and perverse connotation that 
has been superimposed on it since then. It’s well known: the fe- 
tishist is the person who “alienates himself” by buying designer 
brands. Recall that for Marx the commodity relation is essen- 
tially fetishistic, meaning that a shipment of scrub brushes is as 
much a fetish as an Armani suit. It may seem odd that a long- 
abandoned notion that ethnologists used to describe ancient 
societies continues to be used in the critique of contemporary 
society. The interpretation that modern ethnology offers is the 
symbolic, which was incidentally an approach that semiologists 
and other structuralists of that time picked up. Indeed, since the 
50s it has become difficult to limit oneself to the classic catego- 
ries of “material needs” and “use value” to explain the flood of 
gadgets. So we will discover another value. If there is a demand 
for these products, it is not primarily because they are useful, but 
because they are symbols, signs of recognition. This is definitely 
an improvement over the vulgar economic interpretation, but 


it doesn’t take us very far. What is it then, what is it based on, 
this purchased sign recognition? On this subject theory up until 
now has had nothing to say. 

Be that as it may, the theory of symbolic value was too 
neutral, too descriptive to have been able to serve as a denuncia- 
tion of existing conditions, while the fetish maintained a strong 
disparaging tone. It is still the sham, the deception. So it’s this 
notion that would be revisited around 1968 to “contest con- 
sumer society,” as it was called then, and this renewal brought 
yet another mutation. The rediscovery of commodity fetishism 
was the result of the reprinting of History and Class Conscious- 
ness by Lukacs. But in this book, written in 1922, it’s no longer 
a matter of an analogy as in Marx; here the fetish indeed ex- 
ists and it is haloed in an aura of religiosity that would never 
leave it. Like many Jewish intellectuals from Mitteleuropa, 27 the 
young Lukacs was filled with millenarian militancy. Just a few 
years earlier he witnessed World War I as the triumph of Evil 
announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah in the form 
of the revolution. Having newly joined communism, he tried 
with History and Class Consciousness to integrate this messianic 
vision into Bolshevik practice (he failed: having been criticized 
by Lenin, he quickly renounced his book). Is it any wonder 
then that in his quest for an entry point, the texts in which 
Marx described value in religious terms offered an unexpected 

27 For more on this, see: Michael Lowy, Redemption et utopie, Paris, PUF 1988. 
[English edition: Redemption and Utopia: Libertarian Judaism in Central Europe. 
Stanford University Press: 1992.] 


opportunity? As materialist as his theory might seem, the un- 
derlying story is strictly mythical. It is the field of battle be- 
tween two absolutely irreconcilable principles. In the world of 
illusions generated by capital, all the “processes” are congealed 
into “objects” and the individuals find themselves in a relation 
of pure contemplation. With the imminent revolution, fetishes 
will dissolve, subjects and objects will fuse, and the category of 
the totality arrives. 

Far be it from me to make fun here: I actually have 
a weakness for Manichean visions. But it’s on condition that 
they pass themselves off as visions, and not rigorous theories. 
We can’t forget that the “category of totality” is only a part of 
the whole. Moreover, Lukacs, now an old communist uneasy 
about the late success of his work, wrote a postscript in 1967 in 
order to warn his readers against the errors of his youth. In par- 
ticular he regretted that in his book, the analysis of a specific 
social state slid towards that of the “eternal human condition.” 
But this auto-critique would be received as a confirmation of 
his Stalinism. That same year Society of the Spectacle by Debord 
appeared, which took Lukacs’ vision even further. “The no- 
tion of commodity fetishism,” it reads, and you have to closely 
read each word here, “is absolutely achieved in the spectacle, 
where the tangible world finds itself replaced by a selection of 
images that exist above it. ’’The fetishized category is thus no 
longer “the commodity,” but really “the world.” Let’s remem- 
ber that the spectacle in question not only includes manu- 
factured products, or what is shown in the mass media, but 


more fundamentally the ensemble of representations (Debord 
plays on the polysemy of this word — a representation can be 
theatrical, political, pictorial, union, etc.), which, if they are not 
already commodities, are destined to become them. Men are 
absolutely dominated by an “effectively real illusion,” and only 
an absolute of non-representation can be opposed to this one. 
But to recognize the illusion, one must be able to speak from a 
place that is protected from it. In the allegory of Plato’s cave, an 
escaped prisoner sees the light and understands that his com- 
panions only perceive a theater of shadows. What is — in the 
allegory of the spectacle (for despite what one really wants to 
think about it, this is most certainly an allegory) — the light that 
allows one to consider the fetishistic world with a disillusioned 
eye? They are, in the situationist text, figures like “directly lived 
life,” “poetry without poems,” “de-alienated relations,” “direct 
communication,” and other epiphanies that must remain im- 
precise; since every attempt to make them real makes them fall 
fatally back into the spectacular. 

To denounce “the image” or “representation,” in the 
name of “directly lived” life is, like it or not, to return to an 
ancestral religious tradition. Gunther Anders, whose critique of 
the “world as phantom and as matrix” precedes the Society of the 
Spectacle on many points, was aware of this. Though an atheist, 
Anders wrote 

If something attracted me to Judaism at an early age it 
was the commandment that prohibits the making and wor- 
shipping of idols. Despite the fact that during my youth I 


painted from morning to night, and during the 20s I was, 
for a while, a guide at the Louvre, for me the prohibition 
against images (Bildverbot) was always in effect. 28 
The modern spectacle that Anders discovered in television dur- 
ing his 1948 exile in America was, according to him, the phe- 
nomenon. But his critique was founded on an ontological critique 
of the image. For him there were no good images, every image 
was idolatry; it was not a reflection of reality but a substitute for 
it. In fact, Anders applied a timeless precept to the interpretation 
of the present, and he did it based on an a priori metaphysics ac- 
knowledged as such. At least it remained his personal religion; he 
said “for me,” he did not proselytize, he was content to offer his 
vision of the world to the public. 

On the other hand, whoever wants to attack fetishism 
in the real world must be an iconoclast. I should be clear about 
this word, as it has been banalized in our times, where any art- 
ist who comes along is described approvingly by the media as 
an iconoclast. It is expected they will get this label even when 
they don’t break anything! The world is full of iconoclasts who 
receive government grants. On the other hand, we remember 
the scandal when the Taliban blew up the giant Buddhas of 
Bamiyan. 29 For the iconoclasts, whether Jewish, Christian, or 

28 “Mein Judentum” cited in Gunther Anders sur Einfurhung, Junius, Hamburg, 
1988. Anders’ emphasis. “The world as a phantom and as matrix” is a chapter from 
L’obso lescence de I’homme (1956), Ivrea, Paris 2001 for [French] translation of the 
first volume. 

29 The protests obviously weren’t defending Buddhism, but “cultural heritage.” 
Post-religious indifference only accords statues with aesthetic value. It is 


Muslim, all representation is an impediment to direct experi- 
ence. To represent nature and all living beings is to assume the 
power of divine creation. Any image of God (or a caricature of 
the Prophet!) is an usurping idol and so must be destroyed. But 
it happens that with an unfortunate regrettable historical con- 
sistency, the majority of people demonstrate pointed idolatrous 
tendencies. So a community blessed with the divine message 
would have to oppose the majority. Doing this, it does not at- 
tempt to understand the reasons for this idolatry, nor change 
them. The evil is not to be understood, but eradicated. It must 
be banned. As amusing as it was to watch the Bolsheviks trans- 
form churches into “museums of superstition” or potato ware- 
houses, the inanity was clearly demonstrated by what followed. 
As soon as the ban was lifted, the churches filled right back up. 
Above all, the authoritarian suppression of religious icons (and 
commoditiy icons as well) only led to the unleashing of the 
idolatry of the state, which had plenty of its own icons. The 
motivation of iconoclasts is more often than not the elimination 
of competition. Which means that it is not a departure from the 
religious relationship. Whether he shuns the fetishes’ seductions 
or breaks them, the iconoclast is no less under their spell. He 
believes in them. Only the religious are iconoclasts. Agnosticism 
means you are completely indifferent to the presence of the 
Buddha, a Benneton ad, or even a crucifix. 

All these detours lead us to the following point: before 

scandalized when they are treated as fetishes, which is to say the religious objects 
that they are. For that matter, had the Buddhas been blown up to make way for a 
hydro-electric dam project, nobody would have peeped. 


critiquing the commodity system, it is the “critique of con- 
sumer society” that must be critiqued, for it has gone on like a 
broken record for the last forty years with no other result than 
the incessant renewal of the system it claims to oppose. It is my 
opinion that it is fundamentally imprisoned within the original 
limits of the notion of the fetish. Just as the savages were suppos- 
edly the victims of the hocus pocus of sorcerers, ordinary people 
are at the mercy of advertising. The false gods of the primi- 
tives prevent them from accepting true divinity, just as the false 
needs created by marketing keep people from recognizing their 
authentic needs. In both cases the critique is mistaken because 
it pretends to originate from a disabused perspective. Not only 
does it prevent us from understanding the real forces at work, it 
serves as one of their precious allies. 

On the site of an anti-consumption group called Casseurs 
de pub 30 a manifesto calling on everyone to “destroy the system of 
images wherever it strikes, demystifying the system of seduction 
in order to stop the process of integration.” Here they see the 
“duty of an iconoclast.” Duty, obviously. If you have to destroy the 
golden calves it is in order to replace it with the Ten Command- 
ments. This is one of the reasons most people still prefer golden 
calves. Among the ten anti-fetishist commandments: 

Be wary of the temptation of gift-giving (with its at- 
tractive wrapping) around the holidays: because though 
one might think one is being selfless in giving, one is 
really feeding shameless over-consumption. 

30 [Adbusters in France. — Tr.] 


Reject made-up promotions and sham sales. The temp- 
tation of each commodity contributes to the overall 
trappings of the system. 

Beyond the naivete of believing that the “system” would 
be the least bit concerned by the destruction of a few bill- 
boards, beyond the contempt for all those who need to chase 
after sale items in order to survive, this moralistic renunciation 
with its fear of seduction, its anathematizing of gifts, its guiding 
of consciences, is a Puritanism that’s even more certain to scare 
people away than the worst ads. And like all Puritanism, it is 
all the more perfectly hypocritical, because obviously none of 
us can avoid consuming commodities for very long, whether 
they are on sale or not. He who wants to play the angel will 
act like a beast. 

Beginning with the principle that the image is substi- 
tuted for reality, the iconoclast concludes: eliminate the image 
and reality will regain its rights. The international spokesperson 
for anti-consumption, Naomi Klein, bemoans that fact that to- 
day it is no longer products, but brands that are purchased. For 
example Nike doesn’t sell tennis shoes but rather its swoosh logo, 
a symbol of young, sporty, and hedonistic culture. The shoes are 
secondary, only a surface upon which the logo is imprinted. A 
pair of Nikes is a symbol of belonging; through it, adolescents 
recognize each other as part of the same tribe. In the temple of 
Niketown, Michael Jordan’s shoes are displayed on an altar. The 
product is an icon that represents ethereal values. And it really 
seems like it is the ethereal values that most scandalize the anti- 


fetishists. They want shoes without prestige that serve simply 
to fit on our feet. Without advertising, they add, they could be 
produced by well-paid workers. It is the myth of a real economy 
finally concerned with satisfying “the material needs” of hu- 
manity, while the false economy only creates artificial needs and 
useless spending. 

It may be useful to remember that State socialism did 
this very thing for sixty years — with little success, as everyone 
knows. Scarcity, in the Eastern Bloc, also consisted of moun- 
tains of shoes that nobody wanted. Though they wore as well 
(or not so well) as other shoes, they weren’t expensive, there was 
no advertising decorating them with false seductions. What was 
the problem? Quite simply, the monotonous products available 
in state shops also represented something ethereal: a denial of 
uniqueness, the requirement to conform to an ideological image 
of social needs as created by the state. In a word: humiliation. 31 
Chase off the ethereal; it will return at full speed. For people in 
the East it was impossible to know the commodity. They gazed 
upon its promises from afar without being able to directly ex- 
perience its repeated disappointments. The anti-fetishism of the 
State deprived them of this disappointment. Which is why the 
arrival of products from World Trade, Inc. in 1989 was greeted 
with greater enthusiasm than the introduction of parliamentary 
democracy. I remember packs of Marlboros and porn videos dis— 

31 Since the Wall came down, these same products have become “cult,” because 
now they are loaded with other symbolic values. It is chic to drive around in a 
Trabant, since now it is out of choice. 


played in pyramids like so many trophies in the streets and shop 
windows of East Berlin. Punks and intellectuals could easily rage 
against this infantile behavior of the masses, but that didn’t slow 
their mad dashes to find records and books that they had coveted 
for so long and that were finally available. But this enthusiasm 
is inseparable from its opposite. The first time one of my East 
German friends entered a supermarket in the West, she was lit- 
erally so taken by nausea that she threw up her breakfast on an 
underwear display. 

To only see shoes as fulfilling the need to wear them is to 
think in a perfectly utilitarian manner and to ignore the paradox 
that Georges Bataille so eloquently described: the superfluous is 
necessary. From its beginning, World Trade, Inc. has been based 
on a thirst for the useless: luxury. Global commerce prospered 
thanks to spices, silk, rugs, perfume, precious jewelry, tea, coffee, 
tobacco — all things for which it is difficult to find a preexisting 
need . 32 Commodity seduction cannot be explained as the path- 
ological drifting from a rational norm; it doesn’t address need, 
but desire, which has never ever recognized law. Far be it from 
me to suggest, of course, that we compare Chinese silk from the 
Ming Dynasty to a crude pair of Nikes. It goes without saying 
that in terms of sensual enjoyment the two are at opposite ends 
of the spectrum. The difference is that one is a unique, artisanal 
object for which only the best materials are used, and the other 

32 Rather, its really the State that took to harnessing needs to fill its coffers. If 
the poor had the Salt Tax imposed on them in those bitter times, it is because 
salt is the only vital element that cannot be found easily everywhere, and whose 
acquisition fulfills a real need. 


is mass-produced at the lowest possible cost. By definition, there 
is no mass produced luxury good. But what is similar is the 
social dimension of desire the object comes to represent. If a 
prince of the old world was prepared to go into debt to buy 
everything the merchants offer him, it was not only to please his 
senses, but because this ownership played an integral role in the 
game of rivalry and power with his peers. 

“Use value,” so imprecise and simplistic a term, covers 
up the fact that the use of the object is, first of all, social. This 
is what the critics of fetishism misunderstand. If, today, icons 
representing prestige, rivalry, and recognition have such power, 
it is because to all appearances, prestige, rivalry, and recogni- 
tion are universal social “needs,” even if individuals demonstrate 
them to a high degree of variability (those who only see them 
as “false needs” created by the system are probably themselves 
fairly deprived of them). It is not advertising that has invented 
them. In the case of mass-produced products like pairs ofNikes, 
their ethereal value becomes more prominent as their material 
reality is impoverished. The yearning for luxury is exiled in it. 
As regrettable as this may be, all there is today are crude shoes 
(or similar products) that are the stuff of rivalry and recognition. 

Here, the motivation for a purchase is radically different 
from fetishism in Binet’s sense. In both cases there is a libidinal 
investment in a class of objects. But the pervert is alone with 
his object of desire; his attachment is purely narcissistic because 
he makes the person whose nice glutes or shoes he covets into 
a complete abstraction. It matters little to him whether others 


share his solitary pleasure. He alone decides what is important 
to him. On the other hand, in the article he covets, the consum- 
er is not only looking for his narcissistic reflection: by owning it 
he wants to be distinguished and distinguish himself, that is, to 
measure himself against others. It is precisely this social dimen- 
sion of desire that distinguishes him from the fetishistic pervert. 
The consumer will never be satisfied. 

In reaction to their hippie parents who knit their own 
sweaters, many of their children went headlong into the frenzy 
of consumerism. They wanted to be “hedonists” and “individu- 
alists,” to understand how to play with the codes and subvert the 
symbols, in short to pretend they could move through the world 
of the commodity like fish in the sea. This tendency fizzled long 
ago and the popular manifestos of the consommiste party that 
blossomed just ten years ago are not taken seriously by any one 
today. It’s because they committed an error diametrically op- 
posed to the mistakes of the generation of ‘68. While the latter 
did not grasp the moment of fascination, the former did not 
understand a moment equally significant: that of disappoint- 
ment. 33 For clearly the consumer’s expectations can only be dis- 
appointed. It is impossible to stand out owning a class of objects 
to which everyone has access. It is that ever-comic image of the 
woman who sees that the woman sitting next to her is wear- 
ing the same dress she bought to focus attention. Nor can any 
product guarantee a sense of belonging. A given brand promises 

33 The theory of “false needs” cannot understand disappointment any more 
clearly, since it does not recognize what exactly it is that is disappointed. 


membership in an exclusive club, but when this product attains 
“cult” status, the number of buyers quickly grows, until they all 
feel overrun by the masses and take refuge in another marginal 
brand. The game begins again, and this time the stakes are higher. 

In sum, if the demand for uniqueness, rivalry, and rec- 
ognition existed before the commodity, the purchase leaves it 
unsatisfied. Once again it is important to note that this dissatis- 
faction is not a perverse effect of the process; it is its condition 
sine qua non. Once again, let’s recall our donkey in the prologue: 
if he gets the carrot, he stops moving. Disappointment is built 
in to motivation. As the continuous development of new prod- 
ucts is crucial to the infinite expansion of World Trade, Inc., it 
would be fatal if a product permanently satisfied the consumer. 
Capital can only prosper in the constant destruction of purchas- 
ing habits. What is new today is that the creation-destruction 
cycles have shortened considerably and disappointment now 
plays a larger role than expectation. A given product has not had 
enough time to deeply penetrate the market when it is ousted 
by another one. This commodity gangbang doesn’t give desire 
any room to unfurl; it only allows the individual to experience 
a series of increasingly weak and fleeting stimuli. Here as in the 
sphere of work the choices are few: addiction or detachment. 

Such an hypothesis (it isn’t intended to be anything else) 
differs from the routine critique of commodity fetishism on a 
fundamental point. Sooner or later, the latter will have to pro- 
vide an answer to this question: if the needs created by World 
Trade, Inc. are false, artificial, how do you explain their grip? 


The response that most readily comes to mind is (if you believe 
Beigbeder) the motto of I don’t know what advertising agency: 
“You shouldn’t take people for idiots, but never forget that they 
are.” Except that in this case “people” will only get what they 
deserve. So it would be hopeless to complain or to hope to 
achieve some change. As appealing as this explanation is, it is 
politically useless. All one can do is keep it to oneself, saving 
it for conversations among the liberated. The explanation that 
has some merit while leaving the possibility for change open — 
therefore qualifying it as the most reasonable — is that of the 
great conditioning. Behind the fetishes lurks a dark force, an all- 
powerful Beelzebub that frightens us: advertising. 

For fifty years now, bestselling books, sensationalist films, 
and mainstream TV shows have presented us with a rather dis- 
turbing fact: hidden behind closed doors, sinister individuals 
have figured out how to enter our minds, they have gotten in 
and managed to manipulate the codes so that now we are con- 
trolled by them, directed to the supermarket aisles where we fill 
our carts, following their subliminal instructions. If we let our- 
selves be seduced by the constantly changing fetishes ofWorld 
Trade, Inc., it is simply because the advertisers’ hands are pulling 
the strings of our desires. At least we have been warned; “the 
hidden persuaders ” 34 are not as hidden as they seem. Since the 
time it was introduced, this technique has been so thoroughly 
exploited and discussed, one wonders why brands still feel the 

34 Title of the book by Vance Packard (1958 for the French edition), which is a 
classic of this genre. 


need to even use marketing. It should be sufficient for them to 
push a button and presto! we move toward the desired prod- 
uct. Even more so because the generation of children entirely 
conditioned by advertising, as yesterday’s critics lamented, are 
today’s adult consumers. As unpleasant as the idea of a strange 
power occupying the recesses of our brains is, people like this 
popular explanation because it makes them afraid and, at the 
same time, reassures them. Because this way, we finally become 
pure victims, and the problem of our motivation is no longer 
posed. We have been freed from the demands of making up our 
own minds. Advertising is to blame. 

Ask anyone today if they really have the feeling that 
they are being directed by an outside force; they will answer no. 
Whether they detest or delight in ads, they will respond that in 
the end they play only a marginal role in determining the rea- 
sons they buy products. They may believe in the existence of the 
great conditioning but not that it affects them. The fetishists are 
always the others, “people.” Even better, ask a critic of consum- 
erism what it is that makes him own a cellular telephone (they 
always have one), and among all the justifications he will offer, 
none of them will include that he was influenced by advertising. 
If you mention this, he will probably respond that it is because 
the others are conditioned that he has to join them! Even at the 
level of empirical observation it is already permitted to doubt 
the influence that the dictatorship of advertising has on the un- 
conscious. I already know the chorus of protests that will arise: 
how can you deny the evidence? Isn’t the global advertising 


budget second only to the military one? Isn’t it obvious that we 
are, against our wills, assaulted night and day by ads that target 
not our reason but our impulses? Yes of course, but this doesn’t 
mean that this assault is truly effective, let alone has the effec- 
tiveness it is said to have. 35 

It is quite appropriate to compare the immense sums 
invested in advertising with the weapons budgets of States be- 
cause in both instances it is first of all a spending competition. It 
is enough to see their advertisements to note that their primary 
objective is not to launch new products. A brand that markets 
a truly new product can dispense with advertising as long as it 
is the only company to offer it. The function of advertising expen- 
ditures is to improve the company’s position in relation to the 
competition, who themselves constantly try to outspend them. 
It is the typical spiral with weapons spending as well: the exist- 
ing arsenal is already enough to destroy the planet ten times 
over; nevertheless, so long as the adversary continues to arm 
himself, the only choice is to stockpile. But the more excessive 
these expenses are, the more ridiculous their proportional ef- 
fect becomes. An example: a thirty-second spot during the latest 
World Cup costs 250,000 Euros. Le Monde Diplomatique was of- 
fended, but without noting the real irony: hardly anybody saw 
the ad for the good reason that the moment they appeared on 

35 According to an industry study, 55% of those interviewed said they neither 
loved nor hated advertisements, but something even worse: they were neutral! 
For 67% of those polled, advertisements are a “cause for annoyance,” 73% 
considered them “invasive.” The president of Publicis commented: “Politicians 
give us credit for a capacity for influence that we wish we had” (“Les Fram;ais 
prennent leur distances avec la publicity, ” Le Monde, 18 November 2004). 


the screen, tens of millions of viewers took that opportunity to 
leave their armchairs and urinate, as is typical at half time! In- 
deed, advertisers could certainly reduce their expenses but only 
on condition that everyone do it. And so Advertising is not a 
central unified command, but a multitude of competing entities 
that individually do not have the power to really do anything. 

Incidentally, it is noteworthy that the concept of the 
great conditioning is one that detractors of advertising took 
from their adversaries. For proof of this conspiracy, the same 
sources are always cited (often dating to the middle of the last 
century) in which specialists claim to be able to sell anything 
to anyone. Don’t forget though, what these people have to sell, 
before anything else, is themselves. So it is natural that they boast 
about fantastic talents to persuade advertisers to hire them. It is 
funny that those leading the crusade against advertising are tak- 
en in by this self-promotion that they have every reason to as- 
sume is a scam. Quite recently neuro-marketing and brain scan- 
ning experiments are reviving the fantasy. But for the moment 
the only success these scientific manipulators have achieved are 
the profits they have extorted from their clients . 36 

Around the middle of the last century, business attempt- 
ed to apply the techniques of mass manipulation, previously 
reserved to politics, to the conditioning of consumers. A well- 
known pioneer in the field was Edward L. Bernays, none other 
than the nephew of Freud. Bernays recommended the creation 

36 In On achete bien les cerveaux (Paris, 2007) Marie Benilde does not succeed in 
making the peril she so denounces very believable. 


of an elite who “would pull the strings of public opinion, mas- 
ter the primordial forces, and open up new paths to redefine 
and direct the world.” The proposed approach was borrowed 
from his uncle Sigmund: the manipulation of unconscious 
libidinal symbols. Where the Id was, there the brand shall be. 
However, considering what Bernays actually did, you would 
have to note that his ambitions were somewhat exaggerated. 
The campaign that made him famous was one he undertook 
for Lucky Strike cigarettes in the late 20s. The brand was trying 
to expand its market among women, but there was a prob- 
lem: a woman smoking in public was universally assumed to be 
a prostitute. To solve the problem Bernays would rely on the 
feminist movement, which at the same moment had emerged 
in a state of confusion, and would organize a major demon- 
stration of women in New York displaying their emancipation 
by marching with cigarettes in their mouths. The campaign 
“torches of freedom” was a great success; none of the women 
ever suspected they were indeed marching on behalf of Lucky 
Strike. It was certainly a clever and innovative move, but can 
one really talk about it in terms of unconscious control? In fact, 
Bernays understood that the opening of a market presupposed 
the breaking of a taboo, and that a social group existed who for 
their own reasons sought that break. Besides, he said it himself: 
“public relations is a two-way street; the client has to understand 
the public, but the public also has to understand the client.” He 
had to channel the aspiration for emancipation in a commercial 
direction. Blatant recuperation! one might cry; sure, but didn’t 


he simply accentuate a tendency that was already heading in 
this direction? Without the preexisting feminist motivation, 
Bernays couldn’t have made the women want to smoke. On the 
other hand, there is every reason to believe that this same femi- 
nist motivation would have led women to smoke like men and 
some of them would have smoked Lucky Strikes. 37 Since then 
we have seen many pride days and many parades exude, without 
external influence, their own commercialization. 

To return to Casseurs de pub, a Liberation journalist slyly 
commented on their actions: “Since too much advertising kills 
advertising, controversy can’t hurt. Especially if it helps revital- 
ize the medium.” You don’t even have to wait for the devious 
manipulators to come and “recuperate” the movement to be 
convinced of the accuracy of this notion. Currently on the Ad- 
busters site (the Canadian Casseurs de pub) you can buy a pair 
of “no-logo” shoes made from vegetarian leather produced by 
unionized workers for only $95! Your purchase helps fight the 
tyranny of the brand, they explain. After hippie beads and grun- 
ge jeans, natural cosmetics and organic vegetables, subversive 
DVDs and rebel CDs, anti TV TV-shows and fair trade coffee, here 
comes the new anti-system commodity: no-logo shoes (clearly 
the anti-fetishists seem to have a shoe fixation!). It is all too 
easy to see that this is yet another ad, which is simply using a 

37 Another of Bernays’ innovations was to publish “independent expert’’ 
declarations, bribes that affirmed cigarettes to be harmless anti-anxiety and anti- 
obesity remedies. This odious behavior is still used and effective today, however it 
does not seek to manipulate the libido, but aims at the destruction of the capacity 
for judgment, which is completely different. 


different means, which just happens to be an anti-advertising 
web site. This way, it reaches a market segment that doubtless 
cannot be reached any other way, spurring an expansion of the 
market. Similarly, it is obvious that just as much as Nike, no-logo 
shoes are icons symbolizing an ethereal value: adherence to a 
politically-correct and socially-conscious community. It is the 
anti-fetish fetish. In its noble goal of expanding the war against 
the tyranny of brands, Adbusters will try to sell as many pairs 
of shoes as possible at $95. Social margins will become profit 
margins. Incidentally the militant distribution of the product 
corresponds to the currently popular sales technique “viral mar- 
keting,” which is nothing more than the commodity version 
of word of mouth. The iconoclasts of today are the leaders of 
opinion tomorrow. If this dynamic succeeds, the no-logo brand 
will supplant the Nike brand, until a new generation rebels and 
launches a product that, this time, they promise, will be irrecu- 
perable by the system. 

The growth of World Trade, Inc., being based on the 
continuous creation of new products, demands that it draw on 
pockets of authenticity that are outside of it, meaning it pros- 
pects not only for products but for non-commodity values and 
aspirations, with the goal of transforming them into products. 
In this process, it is clear that the contestation of existing brands 
and norms provides a useful service, in that it upsets established 
market relationships and opens new areas of expansion. “Cul- 
tural interference” with its subversive intentions, is an integral 
part of the general movement of creative destruction. On the 


other hand, the advertising dictatorship fantasized about by the 
anti-fetishists, far from perfecting the expansion of the com- 
modity would be actually blocking its growth. Let’s suppose that 
a hundred or so global brands were to succeed in conditioning 
all consumers to always buy their products: there would be no 
possible renewing, no elimination of outdated sectors, no new 
players on the scene. Bill Gates would not have stood a chance 
against the typewriter. It is not by chance that the idea of the 
great conditioning appeared at the same time as Taylorism: it 
was its complement. In both cases the engineers of the soul in- 
tended to create an alternative for the motivation of the masses. 
It shares the same illusion of control and the same underestima- 
tion of subjective choice. Bernays drew false conclusions from 
his uncle: the unconscious is no more a controllable device than 
the worker is a programmable robot. World Trade, Inc. long ago 
abandoned this myth of mastery. It’s time its adversaries realize it. 

Consult all the specialized web sites and trade journals 
you like: you will not find a single trace of the supposed totalitar- 
ian control that advertising exercises over consumers. Quite the 
contrary, they are constantly running after them, seeking to un- 
lock the meaning of the circulating symbols, trying to capture 
tendencies in flight, though they change from month to month. 
The appropriate metaphor isn’t a puppeteer pulling the strings 
but a cat chasing after a mouse. Of course he almost always ends 
up catching him but not without effort, and it is the mice who 
determine the tempo of the game. Specialists bemoan the fact 
that the classic criteria of market segmentation (age, sex, income, 


family status) and even more sophisticated markers (milieu stud- 
ies) no longer allow them to foresee how buyers will act. The 
CEO of an ad agency states: 

The current problem is that everyone in advertising is act- 
ing like the hyper-consumer is the ideal consumer when 
in fact he only represents about 11% of the population. 

So nine-tenths escape manipulation. As a result ad agencies no 
longer try to define target groups but to capture existing net- 
works and milieus. Another specialist complains: “these groups 
are innumerable and it is not always easy to gain access to them.” 
A specific but revealing example is the pharmaceutical 
industry. Here are the facts: never before have so many medica- 
tions with such weak therapeutic benefits become available than 
today. At the same time, public health care is in dechne, leaving 
patients more and more to pay for their drugs and therefore to 
make a choice in which cost plays a determinant role. Finally, 
doubts about the medical system have become widespread, and 
those who are ill now want to have a say in their own treatment. 
With the help of the Internet, there are forums and discussion 
groups for every disease; and these groups are increasingly be- 
ing sponsored by the generosity of the pharmaceutical industry. 
This way, publicity is taken care of by the patients themselves. 
It’s worth it to them to exchange experiences, fears and offer 
encouragement. As for buying medication, all you have to do 
is click the button at the edge of the screen. Of course this is 
optional, though in this specific context, if someone wants to 
care for themselves, they are forced to resort to a product, and 


would have no choice but to go to another site sponsored by 
a competitor if they want an alternative. But this tactic is not 
restricted to the drug industry: blogs have become a favored 
marketing terrain, and far from titillating the libido, they appeal 
to one’s “consumer competence.” 

Recently the director of one of the largest German 
pharmaceutical firms stated straight up: “90% of existing drugs 
don’t do anything.” The reason for this sudden burst of frank- 
ness was explained by the rest of his statement. Any given reme- 
dy, he said, is on average only suited to 10% of patients; because 
the way an illness manifests itself varies among individuals, a 
single treatment cannot be uniformly beneficial for everyone. 
The sole purpose of making the statement was to encourage 
what marketing calls optionalization. For each illness, the drug 
industry will now propose a line of different products, each 
corresponding to a profile type. The message to the consumer 
is this: we take you seriously; we are addressing your unique- 
ness.You no longer have the same lung cancer as everyone else, 
now you are part of a peer group with a customized treatment 
plan for your disease. In this way you can communicate to 
members in your group and find out which product line suits 
you best. So it means sticking as closely as possible to the suf- 
fering, while transmuting it into a positive value. 

In all of the industrialized countries, more and more 
people are suffering from depression. In fact, this illness is so 
widespread that it is practically normal, at least, that is the mes- 
sage of one targeted campaign. One almost feels guilty not be- 


ing depressed. It just so happens that marketing has discovered 
the dream customer in the hypomaniac (formerly known as the 
manic-depressive). In his manic phase he is filled with enthusi- 
asm for a new product, even creating new uses for it, but for a 
very brief period, after which he pounces on the next product. 
Better still, he demonstrates the irresistible need to communicate 
his enthusiasm to others, making himself into an “opinion leader.” 
A slogan from L’Oreal, for example, is aimed at this narcissistic 
identification: “Because I am worth it.” The depressive phase 
follows, and then, unable to choose, he seeks refuge in the brands 
he is familiar with and that will bring him a sense of security. 
This hybrid behavior of the hypomaniac is the perfect answer 
to the contradictory double imperative of the market: addiction 
to new products and loyalty to old ones. Whether or not World 
Trade, Inc. is itself a deeply hypomaniacal system, it is enough 
to look at the stock market where sudden depressions follow 
periods of unchecked market speculation with an unpredictable 
rhythm that is characteristic of collective mania. So it is logical 
that the manic-depressive segment of the population responds 
best to its expectations. Franz Liebl goes so far as to assert that for 
marketing, hypomania is not a demand but a supply ! 38 

And what about the libido in all this? Pessimistic diagno- 
ses abound. The sexologist Gunther Schmidt testifies: 

Thirty years ago patients consulted with us because of 
their overactive sex drives and didn’t know what to do 

38 In Kapitalismus und Depression III (multi-authored book), Alexander Verlag, 
Berlin 2001. 


with their impulses. Today they come to us complain- 
ing about their lack of desire, their sexual boredom. 
When desire only exists to absorb supply, it can only lack, and 
this lack often feels like a personal failure. It seems that a critical 
stage has been reached in which the body, once the source of 
drives, has become a receptor of stimulation. And it is petrified 
at the idea of failure, at not being able to perform as expected. 
Henceforth, desire only desires desire, which the advertising in- 
dustry has noted, as evidenced by the slogan of a German beer, 
“What I would give to be thirsty!” or that of Parly 2, “ I don’t 
need anything unless you make me long for it.” 

Obviously, this decline of libidinal energy doesn’t repre- 
sent the triumph of advertising, but its failure. It’s running out of 
raw material. It has passed peak desire. In the end, all it can do is 
clutter brains the way it clutters mailboxes, bore us with the end- 
less exhibition of contrived exciting motifs, and banalize images 
and symbols to the point that we no longer pay the slightest at- 
tention. However, it is too reductionist to incriminate only adver- 
tising images, TV sex, or virtual reality as so many critics suggest. 
More fundamentally, the cause of the asphyxiation of desire is the 
dispossession of time, which is the necessary condition of its ful- 
fillment.You who wished to “live without dead time” and abolish 
boredom — you got it! Today, work as much as consumption de- 
mands our continual and active participation, our unbridled cre- 
ativity, and tangible evidence of our positive engagement. Here 
we are, prevented from experiencing our own boredom. Which 
is why we must not only rise up against the depressive tendency 


of World Trade, Inc., but also against its maniacal tendency. The 
sexologist Schmidt takes the withdrawal of his patients as the last 
resort left for individual autonomy confronted with pre-satisfied 
desires: wanting not to want. 

As for wanting to “damage the system,” perhaps the best 
thing would still be to stubbornly buy the same products, un- 
dermining the cycles of new models. Which is of course why 
everything is done to make this impossible. The single-edged ra- 
zor blades you liked are going to be quickly replaced by double, 
triple, and then quadruple blades for which you have little use. 
Nevertheless, in recent years large-scale distributors have been 
getting worried; a consistent decline in sales across the board in- 
dicates that a quarter of the consumers are in the early stages of 
revolt . 39 They are not responding to the appeals of the militant 
anti-fetishists, but acting in accord with this principle: If you 
cannot but buy things that don’t satisfy you, better pay less at 
the discount store. “There is clearly a rupture,” claims the direc- 
tor of a major marketing firm. And a psycho-sociologist goes 
even further: the race for innovation “has not been perceived by 
consumers as having any real value. The result was the opposite 
of what was intended, making the brand less desirable.” It seems 
that in this manner demotivation translates as a purchasing desire 
strike. Like all strikes, its chances of victory are uncertain, which 
is in no way a reason to break it. 

39 “La distribution est desemparee face aux alterconsommateurs” Le Monde, 
July 14th, 2004. 


Canceling the Project 

Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, 
if you do not provide them yourselves? 

How can he have so many arms to beat you with, 
if he does not borrow them from you? 

The feet that trample down your cities, 
where does he get them 
if they are not your own? 

How does he have any power over you except through 

How would he dare assail you 
if he had no cooperation from you? 

What could he do to you 

if you yourselves did not connive with the thief who plun- 
ders you, 

if you were not accomplices of the murderer who kills you, 
if you were not traitors to yourselves? 

— La Boetie 

A relentless and pointless struggle — Perhaps the concept of asymme- 
try is still the most appropriate to describe the current moment. 
Everyone knows what it means in the military context. When 
an imperial power has attained supremacy of arms, logistics, and 
finance, it can attack where and when it wants to defeat any op- 
posing force. Consequently, classical Western strategy, based on 
the head-on collision of two more or less equal forces, is no 
longer operative. In our era it is one force that fights alone, easily 
taking one place after another, and promptly ending up occu- 
pying the entire territory. But for the invader, this is where the 
trouble begins. We will always remember the triumphant “mis- 
sion accomplished!” of Bush celebrating, on May 1 st , 2003, the 


“end” of hostilities in Iraq, and everything that followed. Once 
you destroy the institutions and infrastructure of a State, you bet- 
ter reconstruct them quickly because a population is not won 
over as easily as a territory. The humiliation of a defeat without 
a fight is not the ideal beginning for the conquest of hearts and 
minds. From time to time hostilities take the form of terrorist 
violence, i.e., inframilitary tactics. But more broadly, passive re- 
sistance — the inertia of the populace — thwarts the plans of the 
invading power. And that means stalemate. As time passes, the oc- 
cupiers themselves become demoralized, the noble motives that 
mobilized them prove to be so many delusions. Once again the 
old adage is confirmed: superiority of arms does not make up for 
the morale of the troops. Not that we should be pleased about 
all this: it is quite possible that from the resulting chaos, everyone 
involved will come out losing in the end. But it is this situation 
that prevails and it is from here that we must begin. 

The changes in the way the war is waged always reflect 
deeper transformations within societies. The French Revolu- 
tion, industrialization, or anti-colonial wars upset the prevail- 
ing strategic models of their times. So it is not surprising that 
the guiding principles of asymmetric warfare turn up in other 
arenas today. The same goes for what was once known as class 
struggle. For a long time the dynamic of a society was under- 
stood as being the ad hoc result of a constant relation of forces, 
the opposition between the army of Work and that of Capi- 
tal. In this trench war, punctuated by major social movements, 
each so-called advance is the result of a major struggle and can 


be the target of an opposing counter-offensive. Until the final 
battle, apparently. But this military model has not had purely 
positive effects; with its institutionalization, the “general staff” 
of unions have ended up looking more like their opponents 
than like their rank and file. But still, it structured the conflict, 
in the heart of every nation state, between two more or less 
equally powerful forces. 

Today, on the other hand, the global upper class is wag- 
ing a unilateral war. One after the other the defense systems 
(whether they are legal, political, or customary) that once 
protected citizens of every country from the invasion of the 
commodity are swept away. Here as well, the aggressors arm 
themselves with means that are overwhelming compared to 
the capacities of their opponents to counter attack. Addition- 
ally, they have moved out of range of counter attack by freeing 
themselves of national limitations. You can take this analogy: the 
traditional role of global finance capital in asymmetrical combat 
vs. that of aerial bombing in modern warfare. The stranglehold 
of finance on World Trade, Inc. is comparable to that of the air 
force on the military command. In both cases the high altitude 
and the zero-risk of losses to their own forces allow the military 
command to take the offensive without risking consequences 
on the ground. The logic of a technological system has become 
separate from realities on the ground. The map of operations as 
it exists in the minds of the strategists has nothing to do with 
the actual territory, which is dotted with pitfalls and archaisms 
that are to be leveled forthwith. One has to redefine the terri- 


tory so that it finally coincides with the map. In a word: outsourc- 
ing. Meaning. . . bomb first and check it out after. The same goes 
for the cosmetic euphemisms employed to describe operations 
(here the “surgical strike”, there “neutralizing”) while the actual 
results are accounted for as the losses and benefits of “collateral 
damage.” And since the human and social costs aren’t ever mea- 
surable, the balance sheet can come out positive. And everyone 
knows there will be no peace, no balance point that will con- 
clude hostilities. It is a spiral of chaos and “adjustments” that still 
continues to grow. 

But if everyone’s occupied, many don’t participate with 
the required enthusiasm. It must be understood that throughout 
the new Europe, multiple channels of unified propaganda berate 
its citizens, accusing them of shoring up their own privileges 
and moldy values instead of taking up the cause of the new or- 
der. When all the significant decisions are made over their heads 
and against their interests, the democratic facade can no longer 
mask the asymmetric structure of the system. This is why the 
essential function of the rump states subservient to World Trade, 
Inc. is to infuse the spirit of collaboration into their subjects. 

Tragicomic interlude 

I learned that the criminal court of Paris fined some poor guy 
750 Euros for having compared Sarkozy to Petain. He wasn't 
the first to notice this resemblance, however. Badiou wrote 
the same thing. And yes, it is clear, Sarkozyism is Petainism, 
but— it has to adapt to the current situation— it's Petainism 


wearing a thong, with rhinestones and peacock feathers 
on its ass. How can anyone be surprised? Once again we 
are participating in a grand show of public re-motivation, 
reconciliation with the occupier, identification with the ag- 
gressor, with a difference that can only ever be a citation, a 
remake, a B-movie version. 

You could almost call it historic, when Lagarde, from 
the height of her podium, famously responded to the motto 
'France, the country that thinks" with "enough thought for 
now, let's roll up our sleeves!" 40 Never have they sunk so low 
in a parliament that has seen many lows. You have to go 
back to Vichy find the equivalent of this elegy to "the value 
of work", because it was obviously taken from a speech by 
Petain on the May 1, 1941 . Same plan, same development. 
Petain began by saying: work is "the most dignified and 
noble means we have to become the masters of our fate." 
Lagarde echoes this sentiment: work is "a natural thing, es- 
sential for humanity to lead a life in equilibrium." But if work 
is so natural, why the devil is it necessary to defend and 
rehabilitate it? Is it not, by chance, to gloss over the impos- 
sibility of "becoming the master of your fate" under the Nazi 
boot? Or to "lead a balanced life" while the invisible hand 
has got you by the throat? Work is to blame for all humilia- 
tion, all resignation. 

But enough already, we don't have any choice: it's 
exterior constraint, here world war, there globalization, mak- 
ing us roll up our sleeves. The enemy at our door is no longer 

40 Speech by the minister of the economy on July 10, 2007 to the National 
Assembly introducing the draft bill in favor of work, jobs, and buying power. 


the hordes of judeo-bolsheviks, but the "men and women 
of India and China" who "confront us armed with all the 
weight of their certitudes while we continue drifting along in 
our fantasies." Competition is forced on us; we must agree 
to make sacrifices. But consent is not enough. We still have 
to do penance, affirming that our plight is just punishment for 
our mistakes. Because we have followed "bad shepherds," 
or as the impeccably democratic Lagarde (twelfth most 
powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes) stated, 
ordinary people hold "aristocratic prejudices" against work, 
which might as well be against commerce, because in her 
mind the two amount to the same thing. The Right To Be 
Lazy, the Popular Front, paid vacations. May 1968, Flenri 
Salvador and the 35-hour work week, these were stages on 
the path of decline. "It was wrong," quavered Le Marechal 
(Petain), "to have lured you with the image of a future city 
where there would only be time for leisure and pleasure." 
And his lieutenant adds: 

The last avatar of the right to be lazy was, during the 
90s, the post-industrial myth of the end of work: that 
man could, according to this ultimate illusion, be de- 
finitively replaced by machines and computers. 

In short, as the other says: the spirit of pleasure has de- 
stroyed what the spirit of sacrifice has built, despite the fact 
that this phrase seems odd coming out of the mouth of the 
sybarite parvenu of the Elysee (French presidential man- 
sion). But in any case, unhappiness is good, because out 
of defeat comes a "rupture" and national recovery. Finally 
we arrive at the goal of all this bragging: to reheat the ran- 


cid gruel of class collaboration. And among the phrases 
that follow, only the shrewdest could decipher which come 
from Petain and which from the Minister of Commerce: 

It is around the idea of work that the French people 
must reconcile. Let's stop opposing the rich and the 
poor as if society is irreparably divided into two classes. 
Indeed, common sense suggests, when it is not blinded 
by passion or illusion, that the basic interest of bosses, 
technicians and workers is in the success of their trade. 
In work relations, the strongest impart strength to the 
weakest. Everywhere where men of good faith, even 
those coming from very different social milieus, gather 
to discover a reasonable solution, misunderstandings 
dissipate and are replaced by understanding, then by 
esteem, then by friendship. Some people, of course, 
come together better than others. But, and this is the 
essential, nobody will lose. Flenceforth, across social 
hierarchies, tightly knit teams will play together, in or- 
der to succeed together. And France will rediscover its 
equilibrium and harmony, which will allow it to recover 
more quickly. 

Problem is, (responded a well-known 68er) property, 
management, and corporate profits in the capitalist 
system belong solely to capital. So those who do not 
have any find themselves in a state of alienation with- 
in the very work to which they contribute. No, from a 
human perspective, capitalism does not offer man a 
satisfactory solution. 

It should be understood that this critique is partially 


determined by circumstances: it's an excerpt from a tele- 
vised address delivered by De Gaulle on June 7, 1968. Still, it 
makes you wonder, given the insipid mush served forty years 
later by his successors' policies. Today's veritable "rupture" 
should be measured by this yardstick. The collaborationist 
Kessler, who wants to "methodically defeat the program of 
the National Council of the Resistance" also bluntly admits 
that that which must be eliminated is not only May 1 968, but 
its "founding fathers," sixty years of history, history itself, and 
with it the most basic ability to judge and to resist. 

Since I'm citing these things and since Mrs. Lagarde 
claims to have read and even understood the "timeless 
work" Democracy in America that she evokes frequently 
in her apologue, let's remember the terms in which Toc- 
queville judged the liberal-democratic system that she 
wants us to love: 

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and 
guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they 
are constantly restrained from acting: such a power 
does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not 
tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, 
and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to 
be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious 
animals, of which the government is the shepherd. 

Enough thought. We are there. 

Pesky reflexivity — Like all analogies, the one just made between 
asymmetrical conflict and the current state of the social ques- 


tion clearly has its limits. For it isn’t possible, at least among the 
citizens of the G8, to clearly distinguish between the occupied 
and the occupiers. It is useless to rail against “foreign influ- 
ence” or “Americanization,” a dynamic that is internal to all 
countries in global society. And it would be just as puerile to 
see a conspiracy of the Masters of the world in which the im- 
mense majority have no power. The days when the majority of 
workers were culturally, politically, and financially cut off from 
bourgeois activity are long gone. Today, there are thousands of 
ties that connect them. The average Joe can rage against specu- 
lation in the stock exchange; that’s where his health insurance, 
his education, and his old age are financed (and it is he, small 
time investor, who will get fleeced with the first gust of wind) . 
He rails against globalization, but flocks to big sales on stuff 
made by Asian slaves. He is a bit worried about the future of the 
planet but is even more so by the rising price of gas. And if by 
chance, he demonstrates, it is not to defend dignity or solidarity, 
but his purchasing power. All in all, living in a democracy with 
such a high rate of participation, don’t the people have the gov- 
ernment (and the opposition!) that they deserve? This is how 
each person is also occupying him/herself, of course as lowly 
foot soldiers, only obeying orders and destined for war, but an 
occupier all the same, against whom it is time to resist. 

It is here that a well-known little treatise written more 
than five centuries ago reasserts its relevance today. I am refer- 
ring to the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, written by Etienne 
de la Boetie at the age of eighteen. There are those who claim 


that this book was written by Montaigne, that to protect his 
identity he ascribed the authorship to his deceased friend, but 
no matter. The problem that Discourse poses is that of the reflexiv- 
ity of all power relations. It can be put very simply: 

A man isn’t a king only because other men behave as sub- 
jects in his presence. But because these men believe, on 
the contrary, that they are subjects because he is king . 41 
La Boetie wonders “what misfortune” made it that so many 
have bowed to the yoke without having been constrained to 
by force of arms. In response to this striking enigma, he did not 
have a definitive response (which is to his great credit) but of- 
fered some points of explanation. 

“The first reason for voluntary servitude is habit.” As ba- 
nal as it may seem, this statement is far from it. For nothing is 
more underestimated in current theories than the role of hab- 
its. Think about the old dualism of reason and instinct. To the 
question “why do we do something,” one will generally answer: 
either we do it deliberately or instinctively. This leaves out the 
enormous range of everything that is done out of routine auto- 
matic reflexes that were certainly learned at some point but to 
which no further thought is given. And it is the same with so- 
cial reproduction. How does a society achieve a relatively stable 
state? Some say: because it is governed by mechanical laws. Oth- 
ers say: because each person makes rational choices. There again, 
they ignore that what is largely and continuously reproduced is 

41 In truth, this quote comes from a footnote in Capital. Alas, Marx will simply 
neglect this crucial point in his analysis of social reproduction. 


blind routine. When a dictatorship takes over it provokes resis- 
tance precisely because it runs roughshod over habits. But once 
victorious, it becomes a fait accompli. A fait is not accompli until 
everyone thinks that it is irrevocable. An example? All of these 
security measures, surveillance, and identity checks, to which 
every individual is submitted (and submits to) in a single day 
without even noticing. Just a few years ago, they would been 
have regarded as inadmissible attacks on an individuals free will. 

The second reason given by La Boetie is the mind- 
numbing distractions and amusements that any self-respecting 
tyrant generously offers to his people. As soon as they have 
games, the subjects serve their master, “as inanely as, but not 
as well as, little children learn to read with colorful images.” 
This theme of the infantilization of subjects by power recurs 
up to today. De Tocqueville said of the democratic state that “it 
would resemble paternal power if, like it, its goal were to pre- 
pare men for adulthood. But it doesn’t intend to do that, on 
the contrary, it wants to keep them irrevocably stuck in child- 
hood; it wants its citizens to be pleased, provided that that they 
think only of this pleasure.” Adorno and Horkheimer said as 
much about the culture industry. One could object that this 
is an insult to children, who, provided that they are not “in- 
fantilized” by the inanities doled out to them, know how to 
play with much more discernment and inventiveness. In any 
case, this phenomenon is certainly intensified by the simultane- 
ous collapse of popular and bourgeois cultures, which, without 
wanting to idealize them in themselves, still offered potential 


points of resistance to this astounding tyranny of leisure that 
swallows up mental free time. 

Next we come to the ideology of the common good and 
the use of warm feelings. “Before committing the worst crimes/’ 
writes La Boetie, [today’s despots] “always begin with a few nice 
discourses on public welfare, the common good, and relief for 
the poor.” It is superfluous to cite recent examples to prove this 
since this method has lost none of its relevance today. Much to 
the contrary: it is fed by the supplanting of political reason and 
critical judgment that it still allows (celebrated as “the end of 
ideologies”) . What do you say to the flood of humanitarianism, 
the tricklings of compassion, and the crocodile tears? But what 
has notably changed is that this approach no longer needs to be 
believed to be effective. The era of mass media has perfected the 
perverse displacement of the question of the dishonest vs. the 
truthful nature of a discourse to that of its more or less successful 
“communication.” Today’s voluntary slave delights in “decoding 
information, ’’judging how the lies are dressed up, weighing their 
chance of success. He imagines he is taking part in a well-in- 
formed discussion. On this La Boetie remarked: “We know well 
the formulations they use possess a subtle skill, but can one speak 
of finesse where there is such impudence?” 

Last but not least we take into account the delegation 
of power. La Boetie affirms: only five or six people will di- 
rectly enjoy privileges with the tyrant. But these six have six 
hundred who profit as a result of this relationship, and in turn 
these six hundred offer advantages and favors to six thousand, 


etc. This is what, in politics, we would call a crony network 
and in commerce a profit-sharing scheme. At all levels of the 
pyramid (except at the top and the very bottom) every indi- 
vidual sits on an intermediate echelon, and if he has to obey the 
echelon above him, this does not stop him from commanding 
the one below him, one compensating other. This is certainly 
the most original point in the Discourse that illuminates an 
objective interest in obedience. It is of little importance that you 
love a tyrant or hate him if you get certain advantages, a posi- 
tion. In addition, it permits the slave to satisfy his domination 
drive in complete security because he is covered by the hier- 
archy. The more you descend the pyramid, the more modest 
the gains, and, as a result, the greater the temptation to take 
out your resentment on those below you. Milgram has shown 
that, placed in a situation of authority that relieves them of re- 
sponsibility, two thirds of the subjects in a study readily became 
torturers, a result that every war demonstrates is accurate. In 
a more banal context, nobody is much interested in learning 
what crimes and injustices their investments or business deals 
aid in some far away country. 

But if tyranny benefits so many, what reason is there to 
criticize tyranny? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to try to bring 
in those who are still excluded? First of all, it is because, accord- 
ing to La Boetie, this form of organization destroys all virtue 
and therefore undermines all of society. 

Among the wicked, when they get together, it is no 
companionship but conspiracy. They don’t love each 


other, they fear each other. They are not friends but 

There again, great progress has been made since the Renais- 
sance; egoism has been raised to the level of a universal system 
ever since. From then on the very idea of equality has become 
a synonym for totalitarianism and only the “jealous” and the 
“wards of the state” have the nerve to call for solidarity. But 
that is not all. Because, the Discourse continues, one’s interest in 
participating in the mechanisms of power are paid for by acute 
existential suffering. Where no society is possible, there is no 
individuality either. 

What trouble, what martyrdom, good God! [. . .] Always 
having to be on the lookout, keeping your ear to the 
ground, to discern from where danger might come, to 
be on guard for pitfalls, to search for dangers among 
one’s rivals, to find the traitor. Smile at each person 
and mistrust everyone, have no open enemies nor sure 
friends, always offer a laugh when your heart is cold 
with fear; not to be able to be joyful, nor dare to be sad! 
This portrait, one will admit, is not without its similarities to 
familiar characters today. 

The elements presented to explain voluntary servitude 
are thus of a somewhat different nature. The first, habit, happens 
spontaneously, as it were. The gravity of the fait accompli makes it 
appear irreversible and even necessary. Beyond a certain thresh- 
old it is the very mass of voluntary slaves (supposing that there is 
such a thing, since there is no real way of knowing if this number 


is actually very small) that will push others to adapt. The two 
phenomena that follow, festivalization and the ideology of the 
common Good, are themselves deliberately provoked. It should 
be noted that they would not be effective unless they responded 
to a predisposition (to have fun, to believe in good intentions) 
that is widely prevalent. A latent tendency is aroused. Finally, the 
last element is structural. Here it is the hierarchical organization 
itself that grants its co-opted participants an interest in their own 
enslavement. It is clear, however, that these factors are united, 
that they are interacting. For example, the pleasant creator of a 
mind-numbing video game acts out of habit (it is established), 
from ideology (you have to meet the demand) and also to main- 
tain his position in the social hierarchy. We have to insist on this 
point: The Discourse Of Voluntary Servitude does not elude the 
existence of constraints, it even presupposes it, since of course, 
nobody voluntarily enters this game. And these constraints are 
omnipresent as threats, because confronting the system is not 
without danger, even if it is only the risk of falling from one’s 
position on the ladder. As a result servitude is not “voluntary” in 
that it does not result from each individual’s free choice. But it 
is also not simply the result of coercion alone. It is to La Boetie’s 
merit to have exposed this ambivalent middle course. It’s not 
enough to account for authority, but it illuminates the reasons 
for its perpetuation. 

Here, two objections may be expected. A liberal would 
reject the existence of slavery in a democracy, and a leftist would 
deny that it is voluntary. The two would agree that it is ahistori- 


cal to judge the present using a text from the Renaissance: the 
first would say we are no longer subject to the personal power 
of a tyrant, the second because such a dated text could not take 
into account the specific form of capitalist domination. The 
first objection concludes that current social relations are exempt 
from arbitrariness or usurpation. This requires faith in the old 
fable of the social contract and the invisible handshake that will 
always come to reinstate it. But who can still believe this? It is 
very doubtful that anyone would actually choose of their own 
will to live in their current conditions if these conditions were 
presented as one option among many. Anyway, we’ve heard it 
again and again; the market has its constraints. So the problem 
remains intact. Even if today tyranny is impersonal (even the 
great bad guy Bush had to quit at the end of his term), this only 
accentuates the element of reflexivity and makes even more 
enigmatic the obedience it engenders. 

To the second objection, we can respond that World 
Trade, Inc. did not appear one fine day out of nowhere like 
a UFO. A long process of evolution created it, mutations al- 
lowed its growth, which was already gestating in the sixteenth 
century. In their general applicability, La Boetie’s observations 
are still as relevant as the political maxims of Machiavelli (to 
which they are in some way the counterpoint). This does not 
prevent us from examining the specific drives through which 
the reflexivity of domination takes place today, quite the con- 
trary; which is what I have attempted to lay out in the previous 
chapters. But the anti- capitalists have always had a problem 


with voluntary servitude, suspecting those who assert it want 
to drown the concrete guilt of the exploiters in the psycho- 
logical generality that “everyone is guilty.” Assuredly as imper- 
sonal as power is, it rules through the caprice of the deciders 
in business, politics, and media, and it is essential that we, as 
much as possible, not let them get away with their plundering, 
extortion, and depravity. Necessary but not enough. Because 
everyone knows that as soon as one tyrant is ousted, his clone 
has already taken his place. One is guillotined, ten more show 
up. Above all, in shrugging off this troublesome issue, protest 
movements are fatally ensnared by a double paradox. First, see- 
ing servitude purely from the standpoint of coercion is to grant 
the latter fantastic powers that it doesn’t possess — it being well 
understood that if the majority of humanity were ultimately 
to believe that the Masters of the world had superpowers, then 
these Masters would enjoy yet one more power: that of mak- 
ing use of this very belief. We saw this earlier with “the market” 
and “advertising”: critics of the system have an unfortunate 
tendency to take these discourses at face value. Not only does 
this make it impossible for them to understand what is really 
happening, but above all they reinforce the impotence they 
purportedly seek to attack. 

The other element of the paradox is this: when more 
or less ill-intentioned individuals insist that we do not act but 
are acted upon, driven by economic constraints, social origins, 
mass manipulation, personal makeup, the unconscious or ge- 
netic background (delete what does not apply) what are they 


really trying to pull? If we are total victims or pawns of a deter- 
minism against which we can do nothing, the issue of our free 
will doesn’t even need to be raised. Let’s take it a little further: 
to deny the existence of voluntary servitude is to deny the pos- 
sibility of freedom. 

Disengagement — The appropriate method for waging an asym- 
metrical war has been known and successfully used for a long 
time. It was presented twenty- five centuries ago by Sun Tzu 
in The Art of War. Contrary to the Western understanding, the 
classic Chinese strategy seeks to avoid head-on clashes at all 
costs, the goal being to win without ever having engaged in 
combat. It is a method that favors sidestepping, circumvention, 
ruse, attentive passivity. The art is all in the neutralizing of your 
adversary’s forces before he can even get them into the fray. 
You make him lose his composure, you drive him crazy, you 
push him to make mistakes so that he will already be beaten, 
collapsing internally at the moment he has to act. Once this 
invisible work of sapping his strength is complete, it will take 
almost nothing to make him lose his balance and to neutralize 
him for good, the ultimate goal being not to destroy him, but 
to dismantle his structures in order to seize his resources. 

It would be of interest to imagine the potential appli- 
cations of this strategy to asymmetrical class war. For example 
instead of exhausting ourselves gaining support, reconstituting 
a bloc, why not attempt to achieve an economy of maximal 
means, creating as it were groups that follow the path of least re- 
sistance! 1 In a world where one lone guy can make 4.9 billion 


Euros vanish in an instant, the sky’s the limit. But it would be 
mistaken to conceive of such a struggle in the heroic form of 
an intensive guerilla strategy that, lacking a hammer, opts for 
pinpricks. The latter can certainly have a considerable psycho- 
logical impact, but that’s not the point. The Chinese method 
(adapted to contemporary conditions) relies primarily on two 
eminently discrete principles: make oneself opaque 42 and let the 
formidable machinery of World Trade, Inc. inexorably mire it- 
self into the sands of demotivation. When confrontation is not 
possible, sidestep. 

To succeed in dominating the adversary’s troops’ position 
without taking a position would represent an oblique re- 
lationship. In other words, through the absence of posi- 
tioning, I control the positioning of the enemy . 43 

Chinese and Japanese martial arts are founded on the 
same principle. In Aikido, for example, only the kinetic energy 
of the attacker is called upon and turned against him. This has 
led me to advocate the development of a kind of mental aikido, 
instead of trying to create yet another theoretical arsenal or a 
dogmatic fortress, one limits oneself in this discipline to master- 
ing the minimal holds needed to turn ideological power back 
onto itself. Or, according to the playful words of Marx, “to make 
petrified relations dance by playing them their own tune.” 

42 [The French reads: se rendre soi-meme insondable. — Tr.] 

43 Francois Jullien, Le Detour et I’acces, Paris, Grasset, 1995. [English edition: 
Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece. New York: Zone 
Books, 2000.] 


All these self-defense techniques are applications of a 
key concept of Chinese philosophy, Taoist in particular: wei wu 
wei, action without action. Let’s limit ourselves to banal, if not 
simplistic formulations: abstention, the suspension of action, 
and non-engagement are also ways of acting. In place of doing 
something at all costs, of scrambling, of rushing about in every 
direction, in certain situations it is quite preferable to pose the 
question: why do something rather than nothing? It is not sim- 
ply a matter of making a virtue out of necessity in an unfavor- 
able array of forces but in reversing an asymmetrical situation 
by occupying a completely different plane. This would be the 
possible philosophical meaning of de-motivation. 

These comments shouldn’t be seen as some sort of eso- 
teric withdrawal from the questions raised earlier. They respond 
to a very real necessity of denouncing the new dominant model 
of activity; by this I mean the project. There is nothing more re- 
vealing of how our epoch relates to time than the excessive use 
of this word. To project is to cast out ahead of yourself. To multi- 
ply projects is to endlessly continue casting the fulfillment of the 
original intent out further in front of you. Once one burden is 
thrown off, another arrives to pay off, support, and begin again, 
the activity being reduced to challenging attempts, rough drafts, 
which are not necessarily great ideas, whose realization is always 
deferred. This permanent projection of activity into the future 
confers, onto the lived present, the dimension of a real virtuality 
of which “virtual reality” is only an epiphenomenon. 

Chiapello and Boltanski named the “projective city” as 


the generic social form of our epoch, a vision of the world 
and a normative system at the same time. In the new version 
of World Trade, Inc., they write, society only exists in the form 
of a series of networks. And over every network a constraint 
rules, a norm: the project. It is this that determines when a 
network should begin and end, dictates the terms of member- 
ship and the acceptable forms of relationships within it, and 
of course the terms and conditions of what goes on there. If 
the project appears to be neutral, it is because it is a grammar of 
activity. “Anything can attain the status of a project, including 
ventures hostile to capitalism.” But this neutrality is illusory 
because, as the sociologists warn, conceiving one’s own activ- 
ity in these terms is already adapting a series of constraints and 
norms inherent to World Trade, Inc., into which it has all the 
room to slip in . 44 Be wary of grammar. In the terrific account 
she draws from her experience as a leading programmer, the 
Californian Ellen Ullman showed how her leftist past became 
the ideal point of entry for her digital slavery. It was in political 
groups that she learned to analyze the system, to define a project, 
to write a program, and above all to sacrifice her personal life to 
the organization , 45 And so one is tempted to shout to the mul- 
titude of activists of every kind: leave the network, cancel the 
project, become passivists ! 46 

44 The New Spirit of Capitalism, op. cit. 

45 Ellen Ullmann, Close to the Machine, San Francisco, 1997. 

46 [Passiv/stes as opposed to pacifistes. — Tr.] 


In 1958 Andre Breton and his friends, in one of their 
typical manifestos, attacked the “accredited butchers” of science. 
The object of their anger at the time was not only the nuclear 
bomb, but also the waste that “pollutes atmospheric and biolog- 
ical conditioning of the species in an unpredictable way.” 47 The 
surrealists were visionaries. Also regarding this, they wrote that 
Revolutionary thought sees the essential terrain of 
its activity reduced to the margins to the point that 
it must return to its origins of revolt, and short of 48 a 
world that can only feed its own cancer, rediscover the 
unknown sources of passion. 

What seems remarkable here to me is the formulation “short 
of a world.” It calls for nothing less than a complete reversal in 
the direction of revolutionary energies. For too long they have 
been exhausted in a race with the techno-industrial system to 
be the first to get above the existing social conditions. This race 
was over a long time ago. More precisely, it has always been de- 
ceptive, the social utopias having been the fuel of development 
that has taken us to where we are today, in the midst of the real- 
ized utopia of World Trade, Inc., this universal non-place. Today, 
faced with the occlusion of the future, the will to resist fate 
can only aim for the deceleration that Walter Benjamin had the 

47 “Demasquez les physiciens, videz les laboratoires!,” a tract distributed 
(along with some punches) at the Sorbonne during a lecture given by Robert 

48 [en d eqa de means on this side of as in a street or a border, but also short of 
or below as in this theory falls short of reality. This appears to be a very nuanced 
usage. — Tr.] 


prescience to point out. Struck by the attacks of the Parisian 
insurgents on the public clocks in 1830, he wrote: 

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world 
history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revo- 
lutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train — 
namely, the human race — to activate the emergency 

This perfect gesture doesn’t have to be called “revolutionary” in 
order to make it happen. Haunted by the growing possibility 
of an irreversible catastrophe, most of our contemporaries, if 
they were asked, would agree that it is high time to pull the 
brakes. For that matter, this very urgency complacently spreads 
throughout the media. But there is a great distance between 
thought and deed. There are a lot of constraints and addictions 
standing between the two, not to mention a lagging fear of lack. 

Georges Bataille reminds us in The Accursed Share: if the 
Aztecs immolated sacrificial victims, it was not out of cruelty, 
but because they had the firm conviction that these murders 
were necessary to keep the sun shining. If they stopped the sac- 
rifices, they would be plunged into darkness; they were forced 
to go through with it whether or not the perpetrators found 
the act repugnant. Bataille suggests: “They were no less preoc- 
cupied with sacrifice than we are with work.” And yet if in the 
eyes of the Aztecs the society of immolation had its undeniable 
objective constraints, it is because the ritual worked, that it was 
effective, and the proof was: the sun comes up every morning. 
Is it really any different for us today? What does the thousand- 


mouthed whore tell us if not that? The markets insist that you 
immolate your vital energies. Without this sacrifice, all social 
life would be impossible, and the proof is... every morning, it 
all starts anew. 

Except, in contrast to the Aztec myth, this circularity is 
not static; it always demands more from individuals, who find 
themselves overextended, overwhelmed by the increase of de- 
mands to which they have to respond. More and more unsolv- 
able conflicts appear over the course of existence. A way to 
escape them is to flee into addiction, cynicism, simulation, or 
self-destructive derealization. This decline is not fatal, and we 
can happily add that many are striving to avoid these behaviors 
more or less consciously, not with some heroic stance, but by 
subtle gestures of reappropriating their time. In a way, demotiva- 
tion is the application of a law of physics that the donkey in our 
prologue has known for a long time: inertia is also a force. 

Of course, given the rapid velocity of the World Trade, 
Inc. train, ever increasing with the help of new locomotives, it 
is unlikely that a smooth, voluntary, emergency stop is going 
to happen in the foreseeable future. In this regard, as Francois 
Fourquet stated “The moral precepts of self-restraint and joyful 
sobriety at first glance appear to be magical incantations .” 49 But 
as we have seen, demotivation can be found in the very heart 
of this self-devouring system. So we can rely on its exemplary 
virtue, as long as it becomes aware of itself. And since it is indeed 
a wager, we call on Blaise Pascal to the rescue: 

49 “L’ideal historique de decroissance” Revue du MAUSS, August 2007. 


When everything is moving together, nothing seems to 
be moving, like on a ship. When everything is coming 
undone, nothing seems to be. The one who stops makes 
the behaviors of others known, acting as a fixed point 
of reference. 

Searching out this fixed point is still the healthiest task the mind 
can undertake. 


Today the managers want nothing less 
than to make every employee a situationist, 
enjoining them to be spontaneous, creative, 
autonomous, freewheeling, unattached, 
and greeting the precariousness of their 
lives with open arms. Trying to outdo this 
would be absurd.