Optimal Subjects of Millennial Capitalism

Curator's Note

If one takes seriously Fredric Jameson’s assertion that Marxism is the “science of capitalism,” unmatched in its capacity to describe both “the historical originality” of that political-economic system and the “fundamental structural contradictions [which] endow it with its political and prophetic vocation,” defining a specifically millennial Marxism requires an inquiry into the features specific to millennial capitalism. What does capitalism look like today? From a certain perspective it is easy to locate distinctions that appear to answer this question: for an image of technology, replace the steam engine with the computer; for an image of labor, replace the Ford production line with the Googleplex or the ‘Starbucks office’; for an image of circulation, replace the railway timetable or the shipping chart with the distributed network diagram or the Supply Chain Management system.

While a focus on technology and infrastructure is important and necessary, a slightly different set of questions allows one to address the dynamics of subjectification, exclusion and dispossession that undergird global capitalism in the so-called information age in a more fundamental way. What do we look like to capitalism today? Or, to call attention to the dynamics of exploitation and exclusion: what constitutes the optimal subject from the point of view of a system of valorization that extends beyond the nominal workplace to subsume sociality in general?

The attached video, in which the pitchman/sales training ‘guru’ Joel Bauer demonstrates his suitcase packing methodology, represents the reductio ad absurdum of this optimal subject. Here one finds a literalization of Gary Becker’s formulation of the generic social actor as a “decision unit” whose existence is nothing more that a series of rational investments in their human capital. One finds an exemplification of Maurizio Lazzarato’s immaterial labor and Bernard Stiegler’s proletarianization of the life of the mind. Beyond these markers of a new kind of ideal political subject, though, one also finds the distinctive markers of privilege serving as reminders that access to the frictionless world of plenty the knowledge economy promises is never only a matter of how far one is willing to submit oneself to the abstractions of immaterial labor, human capital, or what have you. By looking beyond particular devices or working practices and apprehending the ideal citizen of late capitalism in this way it becomes possible to inquire into the epistemic conditions, some new and some very old, that govern inclusion and exclusion today.


Hi Seb, Thanks for such an insightful post. Watching this video I was struck by the absurdity of Bauer's presentation that seemed to be equal parts confidence and desperation. Bauer seems both fully in control of every (possible) situation, and yet also in need of having all of his decisions validated. What your post has me thinking here is what kind of life and conditions of labor would grant Bauer such a substantial following (as he is quick to remind us over and over)? About 12-minues into the video Bauer states that his tips will save people "not only a lot of time and money, but a lot of anxiety too." If millennial Capitalism is defined by a battle over controlling one's time, money, and emotional state, Bauer's resolution seems oddly (and absurdly) reassuring: all our contemporary troubles can be solved through the properly packed suitcase containing the appropriate consumer goods. What is striking to me about this is not only the question of "flexible labor" but the promise each one of these products makes to the consumer to maintain that flexible capacity with all intrusions/disruptions/contingencies taken into account.

I would also add that the video is permeated by a rhetoric of "preparedness" that seems to locate this ideal subject of capitalism in the discourse of "crisis management." In other words, the social actor is not only "a “decision unit” whose existence is nothing more that a series of rational investments in their human capital," but also a subject who makes these rational decisions against the background of a perpetual crisis. (Who knows? There might be a fire in the hotel that I am staying at; so the rational decision is to invest in a room with an easy access to all exits.) Of course, here capitalism is not seen as itself being a perpetual catastrophe but the only rational remedy against the risks of life.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.