In the first essay of this reader, Françoise Vergès writes of the invisible workers tasked every day with “opening the city.” Now, even as our cities are closed under lockdown, sanitation, transportation, and care workers continue to labor in public, under even more precarious conditions. Food delivery and call center customer service work are both designated “essential,” alongside crucial medical and public safety work, even as the latter structures are privatized and grossly underfunded, paid partially with cheers and claps. The adjudication of essentiality follows mandates to maximally protect economic growth and accumulation, rather than lives. Meanwhile, those who can work from home are obliged to keep production, immaterial or otherwise, on track. Think pieces and corporate memorandums wax normalcy as weekends and holidays blur away due to the destabilization of Post-Fordist time. The legitimizing demands of the work ethic loom large on either side of shuttered doors. Lastly, cultural workers, freelancers, those without contracts, who were already designated flexible, precarious, or expendable, are confined without financial protections or guarantees of medical care or shelter. Taken together, paradigms of labor and parliamentary sovereignty face new legitimacy crises. Simultaneously, an opening has also emerged for some: the possibility for work and projects to become self-determined, to become work that keeps us interested and emerges from our interests. It will take active imagining and collective purposefulness to liberate this autonomously managed work and creation from today’s crisis economics and insert it into new collective horizons. Thus, today’s attempts to organize mutual aid and imagine novel forms of virtual solidarity instigated by physical isolation present a crucial opportunity for studying the contours of being together outside the dimensions of work, at least work that we haven’t chosen ourselves.

The following essays from the e-flux journal archives may be a good place to begin.

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In this symbolic and material economy, black and brown women’s lives are made precarious and vulnerable, but their fabricated superfluity goes hand in hand with their necessary existence and presence. They are allowed into private homes and workplaces. But other members of superfluous communities—such as the families and neighbors of these workers—must stay behind the gates, unless they are willing to risk being killed by state police violence and other forms of the militarization of green and public spaces for the sake of the wealthy. For these workers, the special permit to enter is based both on the need for their work and on their invisibility. Women of color enter the gates of the city, of its controlled buildings, but they must do it as phantoms. Racialized women may circulate in the city, but only as an erased presence.

1. Basic Provisions for the Theory of Immaterial Labor In his programmatic work A Grammar of the Multitude , Paolo Virno describes a number of signs of post-Fordist capitalism that mark radical changes in the First-World production system’s relation to labor over the past forty years. Most importantly, he states that post-Fordism has annulled or complicated the traditional Marxist correlation between the worker’s labor time and the degree of his or her exploitation. 1 As labor is…
Debt and Study
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney
Debt and Credit They say we have too much debt. We need better credit, more credit, less spending. They offer us credit repair, credit counseling, microcredit, personal financial planning. They promise to match credit and debt again, debt and credit. But our debts stay bad. We keep buying another song, another round. It is not credit that we seek, nor even debt, but bad debt—which is to say real debt, the debt that cannot be repaid, the debt at a distance, the debt without creditor, the…
Necro-Economy Are we heading into the Third World War? Yes and no: war has been with us for the past fifteen years, it promises to be with us for a long time, and it threatens to destroy the last remnants of modern civilization. The exacerbation of xenophobia across the West and the rise of nationalism in countries like France are causes and effects of a looming war whose sources lie in the past two hundred years of colonial impoverishment and humiliation of the majority of the world…
Irene ist Viele! 1 An extensive 2004 study undertaken by the Swiss Federal Office of Statistics (BFS) found that, in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, of nearly fifteen billion annual work hours, eight billion went unpaid. Two-thirds of that free labor was performed by women, while women in the wage-labor sector were paid on average 18 percent less than men. 2 The study shows that the “invisible hand of the market,” with its celebrated promise of economic equality, fails…
A discussion of the struggles, exoduses, and reappropria­tions of cognitive labor, especially in the field of visual art, and especially when taken as the leading edge of the “creative class,” while critically important, is trumped by the widespread, even worldwide, public demon­strations and occupations of the past year, this year, and maybe the next. I would like to revisit the creative-class thesis I have explored here in a recent series of essays in order to frame my remarks in light of…
Watching Themselves Live 1 When psychiatrists refer to déjà vu, they do not mean a known event of the past playing out again, accompanied by either euphoric amazement or bored condescension. Rather, here we have an only apparent repetition, one that is entirely illusory. We believe that we have already experienced (or seen, heard, done, etc.) something that is, in fact, happening for the first time at this very moment. We mistake the current experience for the very faithful copy of an…

Imagine experts in the world of art admitting that the entire project of artistic salvation to which they pledged allegiance is insane and that it could not have existed without exercising various forms of violence, attributing spectacular prices to pieces that should not have been acquired in the first place. Imagine that all those experts recognize that the knowledge and skills to create objects the museum violently rendered rare and valuable are not extinct. For these objects to preserve their market value, those people who inherited the knowledge and skills to continue to create them had to be denied the time and conditions to engage in building their world. Imagine museum directors and chief curators taken by a belated awakening—similar to the one that is sometimes experienced by soldiers—on the meaning of the violence they exercise under the guise of the benign and admitting the extent to which their profession is constitutive of differential violence.


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