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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versión On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versión impresa ISSN 0041-4751


OLIVIER, Bert. Knowledge workers and neoliberal governmentality - Benda Hofmeyr's Foucault and Governmentality: Living to Work in the Age of Control. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2023, vol.63, n.1, pp.122-138. ISSN 2224-7912.

Who would work all the time, if they have the opportunity to relax, or to spend time pleasantly and socially-constructively with their families or friends? Most people would probably shake their heads in disbelief when confronted with evidence that there is a group of individuals who actually do this ostensibly irrational thing. This distinct human assemblage comprises so-called "knowledge workers", who demonstrably work constantly, and compulsively, even under circumstances that are not conducive to the kind of work that requires high levels of attention. Why? How do we make sense of something that seems to border on masochism? This is the question that Benda Hofmeyr addresses in the book on which this is a review essay. She lists three reasons, namely the expectation that they be optimally productive, the technological means to work virtually anywhere, and most importantly, the fact that they desire to work constantly. Hofmeyr pays sustained attention to the work of Michel Foucault, reading his published lectures as "problematisations" - a critical practice he developed in his history of ancient Greek sexuality - and which Hofmeyr understands transcendentally insofar as they are said to reveal the "conditions of possibility" of the discursive justifications ofcratological practices. What particularly interests her is Foucault 'sproblematisation of "neoliberalgovernmentality" - which the French thinker regarded as being potentially inimical to human freedom; something I shall return to - and proposes to scrutinise the phenomenon of the knowledge worker through this lens. Hofmeyr's sustained focus on the knowledge worker in relation to the fact that "knowledge work" is the economic driver of the present era, exposes the link between what these workers do and the neoliberal imperative of the "greatest return", which requires the greatest efficiency on the part of workers. Knowledge workers are no exception, with the result that activities that may seem extraneous to their work, but actually contribute to their ability to work efficiently - such as sport and modes of relaxation - are justified as promoting productivity. Hofmeyr finds plenty of evidence, however, that what really motivates individuals who create and promote knowledge is their sense of achievement and recognition, together with the awareness of the quality of their work. It is interesting that one of Hofmeyr's sources confirming this dates back to 1959 (Drucker), and together with the fact that Maslow put personal achievement that promotes self-actualisation at the zenith of his famous motivational "hierarchy of needs" already in the early 1940s, this confirms my suspicion that neoliberal governmentality did not invent the phenomenon of the incessantly productive, achievement-motivated knowledge worker, but merely tapped into a motivational root that has been a part of human psychology, if not always, then for a long time. True to the philosophical reflex of zurückfragen, and drawing on the arch-apologist for neoliberalism, Francis Fukuyama, Hofmeyr unearths what may be regarded as the Urquell of knowledge workers 'desire to work continually, compulsively, namely thumos, which derives from ancient Greek insights into the nature of the human psyche (psuche). The most important of these is probably Plato's notion of thumos as one of the three characteristics of the soul, the other two being reason and desire. Importantly, Plato identifies "spiritedness" as belonging to thumos, and being at the basis of the capacity to get angry in the face of injustice. Hofmeyr pursues the motif of thumos in contemporary society, particularly regarding knowledge workers, who are ultimately seen by her - partly following Fukuyama, who regards this force as irrational - as exemplars of thumos-driven individuals in the context of neoliberal harnessing of thumos for its own productivity-optimising aims. To the question, whether neoliberal theory has discovered a way to hitch thumos to the profit motive, Hofmeyr turns to Foucault's understanding of economist Gary Becker's belief, on the one hand, that greater profits require a combination of workers ' self-optimisation and employers ' willingness to invest in employees to enhance their optimal efficiency and productivity, and, on the other hand, neoliberal "privatisation guru", Milton Friedman's view of economic activity, including labour, as voluntary investment or entrepreneurial activity predicated on future gain or return. The organisational logic corresponding to this entails the imperceptible control of knowledge workers' lives in their entirety - overt control has to be avoided at all costs, lest it undermine the experience of workers, that they are voluntarily engaged in optimalising their work performance. Needless to point out, there is a subtle form of deception operating in this situation, despite which - ifwe add the element of thumos, which is connected with the experience of self-actualisation - knowledge workers are likely to live up to neoliberal expectations. In short, neoliberal capitalism has devised a way to get the most out of these workers, and, judging by the sources adduced by Hofmeyr, it has been assisted in this by researchers who have conveniently shown the best, or most effective, way to achieve the optimal performance of workers - such as finding avenues of incentivisation that create the impression of spontaneity and initiative on the part of workers themselves, while in truth subtle forms of "management" are the source of such pseudo-spontaneity. One thing that neoliberalism cannot change, however, is the fact - elaborated on by Hofmeyr - that knowledge workers are generally their line managers' epistemic superiors in their respective research fields, which explains why they can afford to "shop around" for organisations which are compatible with their own sense of values, which includes respect for them and their work. Hofmeyr understandably references such writers as George Huber regarding the prognostication, that information would become crucial for post-industrial societies, and it is significant that she acknowledges the fact that, instead of the ostensibly "soft", humane mode of managing knowledge workers, what has emerged is a technological web of "complex control" - something that Shoshana Zuboff (2019) has uncovered in startling ways. It is also appropriate that Hofmeyr gives sustained attention to the thinker of the "network society", Manuel Castells (2010), who - perhaps more than any other - has painstakingly enumerated the characteristics of the era of the "space of flows" and "timeless time". In the light of Castells's findings no one can doubt where power resides today, namely in networks, and it stands to reason that those who can negotiate these networks in a creatively productive manner - and this includes knowledge workers - would be empowered far more than those who do not, or cannot because they lack the skills to do so. But Castells (as well as other researchers) is not blind to the fact that real power does not lie here, but with "the rules of the (network) game" and with those agencies (like multinationals and financial markets) whose complex interactions generate these rules - for example, in determining in an open-ended manner which areas of knowledge work are prioritised over others. One can easily imagine that a critical discipline like philosophy could be downgraded in relation to other, less critical ones that confirm the status quo. Hofmeyr deftly disabuses one of the notions that the digital platforms comprising the work environment of knowledge workers are "disintermediated"; despite claims to the contrary, they are not really, insofar as they are technically mediated by means of mechanisms such as algorithms, which manipulate the behaviour of internet users in subtle ways, as Shoshana Zuboff (2019) has demonstrated at length. This resonates with Foucault's contention -highlighted by Hofmeyr - that the neoliberal "free market" is not at all free, given the way in which it is constructed. In other words, the cognoscenti-denizens of the web are not "equal", or equally treated; depending on one's volitional behaviour on epistemically relevant platforms, you are either rewarded by means of rankings or awards, or penalised, based on one's choices. It turns out that behind the façade of equality the old scourge of social (and economic) hierarchy lurks. Hence the question, raised by Hofmeyr in the face of this unmasking of the covert workings of "complex power": to what degree is resistance to this cryptic functioning of asymmetrical power-relations in the age of putative spontaneous, voluntary, self-organising work possible? Finally, in addition to intermittent critical remarks on what is written in her text, the review-essay concludes with, first, internal-textual, and then (briefly) extrinsic-contextual critical perspectives on Hofmeyr's argument - that is, on what is not written there, which corresponds with the notion of the unconscious in psychoanalysis, and with the current, ongoing attempt at a global coup d'etat on the part of the so-called New World Order.

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