As Britain starts to consider possible paths out of the current lock-down and ‘furlough’ scheme, the class divisions are becoming ever clearer. The new advice from the government this week is that those who are unable to work from home, and can avoid public transport, should return to work. The Prime Minister gave the examples of construction and manufacturing work.

Despite the fact that people are prevented from meeting up with family members and friends indoors, the new advice also encourages domestic cleaners, childcare professionals, builders and craftsmen to return to working in people’s homes, creating the strange situation in which a parent can pay someone to care for their child but not ask their sibling or neighbour as a favour. This new advice has coincided with the publication of new analysis by the office for National Statistics, showing that low-skilled men face the highest risk of dying from Covid-19, of any group in the working age population. The idea of ‘tapering‘ the furlough scheme (now rejected by the Chancellor until the autumn) would heighten the fear that people were being forced back into unsafe working environments.

These divisions have become visceral and public, highlighting forms of stratification that often go unnoticed or unreported. Writing for the Goldsmiths Press blog, Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings have observed how the Covid crisis entrenches existing divisions enacted by the asset economy, where differing relations to assets in general and real estate in particular are resulting in different levels of safety and security. As I wrote here, the identification of ‘essential’ workers has positive political potential, if it can be recognised in a future economic model, but it also circumscribes those workers who are expected to put themselves at risk.

There has now been ample reflection on what kind of work can and can’t be done from home, and how caring responsibilities delimit home-working further. The lessons being learnt will no doubt influence the design of offices and even cities for many years to come. But here I want to reflect on a more fundamental division: of whether human beings are treated as ‘capital’ or as ‘labour’, and how the former potentially retain privileges that the latter can’t.

Humans as capital

In his now famous lectures on neoliberalism, Michel Foucault argues that a fundamental problem for the ‘American neoliberals’ (by which he means the Chicago School) was of what to do with the category of ‘labour’. In common with the German neoliberals (or ordoliberals), the liberal fear of treating human beings as ‘labour’ was of a form of proletarianisation and collectivism, which renounced individual responsibility, in both an economic and a moral sense. A pessimistic 1930s vision of ‘mass society’ was carried over into post-War neoliberal thought, which looked to the market to come up with a version of democracy which was constitutionally and psychologically anchored in  property-owning individualism.

The great breakthrough in American neoliberal thought, Foucault argued, was made by Gary Becker who abandoned the category of ‘labour’ altogether, and replaced it with that of ‘human capital’: a type of asset that could be leveraged (debt), invested in (education), managed (self-control) and exploited for profit (employment). Conceived as human capital, every individual has the opportunity to refashion themselves, accrue (or lose) value in the eyes of the market, and live off themselves like an entrepreneur. The linking of higher education to life-long debt is justified on precisely this basis, that tuition is an investment, that will pay a return over decades. This is a vision which brings a disciplining, potentially crippling, norm of individual responsibility with it, which spawns a cottage industry of positive psychology, mindfulness and coaching services to help individuals cope.

The work of Michel Feher builds on this analysis, to consider what are the ethical and political implications for a society made up of human capitals. Feher points out [pdf] that, unlike the relation of liberal subject and labour, there is no alienation involved in the marketing of human capital. As human capital, we must identify wholly with our work, both paid and unpaid. We must demonstrate passion for what we do, as a means of marketing it and achieving income for it. An entrepreneur may have no income, but they are never unemployed.

As Feher explores in Rated Agency, (reviewed by Nils Peters) like all capital, human capital depends on being credit-worthy, both in the conventional financial sense (of being able to repay loans) and in a broader reputational sense of having a credible, optimistic vision of oneself and the future (as with a brand). Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this logic is the Instagram or Youtube star, who lives their entire life around a logic of human capital appreciation via cultural credibility and authenticity. Just like a stock price, the value of human capital is heavily reputational in nature: it depends partly on a collective leap of faith, that it is deserved, and this confidence can be self-perpetuating over the medium term, until a bubble bursts. (I’ve often thought that the fateful story of the Fyre Festival, told in the extraordinary Netflix documentary, is the perfect morality tale of neoliberalism.)

Therefore, human capital, unlike labour, must be worked on over time to build up its value, either through education, social networking, self-marketing or other forms of cultural signalling. Save for where someone suffers a dramatic loss of reputation, in the form of a scandal, it is also likely to depreciate relatively slowly too. By contrast, the liberal ideal of labour is of a relatively homogeneous commodity that is sold on the market for whatever price the market sets. While various forms of protection prevent this (from trades unions to minimum wages), the abstract ideal of a labour market sees wages as set by forces of supply and demand, and a sudden spike in unemployment is simply dealt with via an equally sudden fall in wages.


Back to work?

Within the American neoliberal imaginary described by Foucault, all human beings can be understood as ‘human capital’. A construction worker, a taxi driver or a factory worker could all acquire skills, change their ‘brand’ or seek a new niche, where ‘profits’ can be made. But sociological reality falls short of this. Austrian neoliberals always believed that entrepreneurship was a rare quality, and that most people were unable to endure such a solitary and burdensome existence (the mental health trajectory of neoliberal America suggests they may have had a point). Meanwhile, Feher argues that actually existing neoliberalism tends to rely on all-encompassing surveillance infrastructures with which to ‘rate’ us, as an alternative to relying on personal flexibility and disruption.

The inequalities that have become visible due to Covid-19 suggest a different way of thinking about this. It’s not simply that some work can happen at home, while other forms of work can’t; it’s that some people retain the liberal status of ‘labour’, and others have the neoliberal status of ‘human capital’, even if they are not in risky or entrepreneurial positions. To be a labourer, one gets paid in exchange for units of time (hours, weeks, months). To be human capital, one can continue to draw income by virtue of those who continue to believe in you and wish to sustain a relationship with you. This includes banks (as Lazzarato stresses, the neoliberal subject is an indebted subject), but it is also clients and other partners. The former is a cruder market relation, whereas the latter is a more moral and financial logic, that potentially produces more enduring bonds of obligation and duty.

The furlough scheme disguises the difference, but one of the divisions at work here is between those whose market value is measurable as orthodox productivity (cleaning, driving, cooking etc), and those whose market value is a more complex form of socio-economic reputation, that they can retain even while doing very little. The likely truth is that there are all manner of people in the latter category, who are unfurloughed, ‘working from home’ but doing very little work because of caring responsibilities, anxiety or because there simply isn’t work to do. And yet their employers continue to pay them, because their relation is not one of supply and demand, but of mutual belief between capitals.

The issue of childcare becomes relevant here. As Melinda Cooper and Feher have both argued, neoliberalism dissolves the distinction between market and family life. Responsible personhood is both enterprising and caring, both financially creditable and morally dutiful. Entrepreneurship and parenthood are synthesised into a single ethos of flexibility and optimism. While this is undoubtedly very stressful, it is more practically compatible with the current Covid-created situation, in which a balance must be struck between paid and unpaid work, that is responsive to demands. For the white collar ‘human capital’ parent, it is reasonable to explain that they will be working at less than the usual rate due to childcare, and expect full pay. For the parent who is paid to labour, there is no justification (or no currently dominant justification) for continuing to pay them for more hours than they put in.

It is commonly assumed that neoliberalism equates to ubiquitous flexibility and precarity, but this ignores the privileged sections of society – consultants and managers – which are investees of social and financial credit. While they are not immune to the fluctuations of the market, they locked into flows of money and trust that out-live medium-term upheavals. They may be a partner in a firm that is draining money, but retains the support of its investors and lenders, and therefore has a future.

There is, of course, a more genuinely risk-taking and precarious form of human capital (arguably truer to the original neoliberal vision of heroic disruptors, than the actually existing reality that Feher describes), embodied by artists and innovators, who may live outside a conventional labour market, but without the capacity to leverage their capital either. They relish autonomy and flexibility, but rely on the market being there for them when they need it. This is the figure with which capitalism has long had a love-hate relationship with, eager to suck out the creativity and invention, but then just as eager to routinise and sedate. The Covid crisis does not threaten such individuals’ health in the same way it threatens carers or drivers, but it certainly threatens the viability of this lifestyle, absent inherited wealth.

This, it seems to me, is how the politics is playing out. If a person has the status of an asset, they are embedded in a much longer-term flow of investment and return, that is knitted together via a combination of balance sheets, mutual trust and duty. As Cooper stresses, the neoliberal subject is never simply a calculator, but also the maker and recipient of promises and pledges over the long-term. It’s not simply that such a person ‘works from home’ (it’s possible that they don’t), while others ‘go to work’; it’s that human capital is valued via an element of faith which can endure, and not a simple transaction.

The reason the Prime Minister wants others to be ‘encouraged’ back to work is because they are only valued and valuable while they are working. They don’t exist within a logic of investment and return, but one of exchange. Even if these people could do their work from home (imagine, say, a telesales assistant), they would not enjoy the same ability to integrate their work with childcare; there wouldn’t be the same levels of sympathy and humour when children disrupt their work; they are not being employed as an integrated moral-financial asset with a private life, but for the labour that they can expend in an alienating fashion.

This is not to say that ‘human capital’ is not depreciating right now while sitting idle, either furloughed or not. The ‘bullshit jobs’ thesis is that much of the well-remunerated ‘creative’ and ‘knowledge’ work in our economy is unnecessary and based on hot air. In Feher’s terms, it is the result of a kind of collective cultural bubble, which succeeds in valorising certain types of occupation via a virtuous circle of social esteem and high pay. It is perfectly feasible that, as time elapses and the furlough scheme is eventually unwound, that this bubble will be found to have burst. As the Fyre Festival demonstrated succinctly, the ability to live indefinitely on the basis of social credit is as precarious as the ability to live on the basis of financial credit.

The orthodox liberal labour market had been failing for decades prior to the Covid crisis, inasmuch as millions of people earn less than they need to live, and therefore rely on income supplements from the government and punitive forms of credit such as payday loans. This failure coincided with the rise of the ‘asset condition’ that Adkins, Cooper and Konings write about, which led more people to seek income from property, rather than relying on labour. Should the air of credibility now leak out of both housing assets and human capital, then the labour market will become the concern of everyone, and demand rethinking in ways that integrate the form of moral obligations and care that are currently channelled via a logic of human capital. In the meantime, the original fear of the neoliberals – that proletarianization results in mass movements, manifest in organisation and industrial conflict – could  potentially be realised all over again.