An interview with Silvio Lorusso by Paul Walsh
Silvio Lorusso’s Entreprecariat demonstrates that precarity and entrepreneurialism are two sides of the same ideological coin. From the hippie populism of Stewart Brand (‘Stay Young, Stay Foolish’) to the folk theories of microcredit guru Muhammad Yunus (‘All human beings are entrepreneurs’) the way we speak and think has been colonized by the catchphrases and pseudo-positivity of a Silicon Valley startup; a world in which work never seems to stop, yet the search for work never ends. The book explains how this fringe worldview became common sense and calls on us to collectively resist the imposition of a lifeworld shadowed by individualized anxiety, fear and stress; a life lived in ‘permanent beta, with sometimes tragic implications’.
Silvio spoke to me via Skype from his home in Rotterdam, Holland. We talked about what his concept of Entreprecariat adds to the contemporary debate on work, and how we might exit precarity.
Why did you write Entreprecariat?
There were two different things happening when I started working on this. In Italy, Kickstarter was seen as something that unleashes creative potential. But I wanted to challenge the notion that crowdfunding will turn us all into entrepreneurs so I created ‘Kickended.com’, a Kickstarter clone in which only projects which raised zero dollars were listed. Through that I became interested in entrepreneurship but not on the level of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. I wanted to work on the popularization of entrepreneurship, what happens when that system of values is applied to citizens in general, to non-millionaires.
I was also finishing a PhD and was pretty scared about what would happen afterwards. There aren’t many opportunities in Italy to continue an academic career. I was facing the prospect of ‘reinventing myself’ and so I turned that process into a project. Not just to feel the anxiety but try to work with it, which of course is a strategy you see a lot now in the arts and which is also part of the entrepreneurial imperative: turning everything, even your anxieties and sleepless nights into a project as a way of capitalizing on your own stress.
This led to the book?
The book came very late. I started writing to reflect on these topics and then I started a blog in 2016 within the Institute for Networked Cultures. The Institute was the best place to do this because they had been like working on the myth of the ‘creative class’ for a while. After a year a small publishing house from Italy asked me if I wanted to collect these writings into a book. That’s how the book came to be in Italian [published in 2018 with Krisis Publishing] and then it was translated into English.
How does the concept of the Entreprecariat describe your life and the lives of people you know?
In my own life and practice I see the entrepreneurial mandate present in many subtle ways. The effect of this entrepreneurial mandate is to delegitimize or to depotentiate any claims, any doubts, any worries about precarity. For example, I teach in design schools, and many of them have created entrepreneurship courses. The interesting thing is if I ask people what is entrepreneurship? they struggle to answer because it’s a vague, fuzzy notion, a bit of a mystery. But what you see in these courses is a general ‘doom’ narrative that there is too much supply, you won’t find a long stable job, you will have to create your own job, you will have to invent your own profession. This is the starting point. And this narrative is presented as if it was a natural law, encouraging certain actions which are very individual, like to always ‘stand out from the crowd’. There are books which tell you how to succeed as a creative graduate – don’t get a job, make a job – and the solution is always entrepreneurial with the burden placed on the individual. So art and design students are trained to become enterprise units, and the possibility of going beyond ‘becoming your own entrepreneur’ is never raised. Things like co-operativism, working collectively, or solidarity, are only ever informally discussed.
Sure, it’s good that art and design schools are developing a material approach to the profession, but if you say there are no jobs and you have to participate in a kind of Hunger Games to make it, then I don’t know if this is useful.
What do you think the concept of entrepreneurialism has replaced?
It’s hard to reconstruct a proper historical evolution of the term because of the generational issue and the fact that I was born into this. I mean, if it’s true what people say about Italy in the 70s when there was an idea that work was not something to fight for but something to oppose – then work was obviously back then still an alienating force. But at a certain point the idea of realizing oneself within work became common sense; and as soon as that happens, the only way to realize yourself in work is to compete with others. To put it into a slogan I would say that the entrepreneurial mandate is what replaces a notion of ‘We’ – it is an ‘I’ that replaces the ‘We’. But it’s also important to say that it’s not that people are egotistic or selfish. It’s a way of surviving. It’s not that people want to do that but that they are forced.
You explore the process by which work became central to our lives, about how we take the office everywhere now. But why can’t people just stop working?
I’m reading André Gorz who wrote about how there was a narrative which said that automation was going to free up leisure time. Why didn’t this happen? Why are people working more than ever even when productivity is going up? Gorz claims that society is divided into two poles: a professional elite and a kind of serf class. So taking this polarization into account, it maps onto contemporary experience in the following way. The reason why people work more, much more than they need to survive, is because they have to colonize professional opportunities in order to stay within this pseudo-professional elite class and not fall back into the serf class of couriers, care workers, people washing dishes and cleaning houses. People take on jobs that are too much because they are afraid they won’t have work in the future. Even people who are recognized and successful are stuck in this cycle. It’s a paradox. A few people work a lot and a huge amount of people cannot find work.
Some on the left say that precarity is a distraction from the real class struggle and not a valid concept. What would you say to this?
Another drive to write the book was to understand myself what precarity means, and at least to try to give some pointers to the debate. I see the limits of the category, but the way I deal with it is quite functional. What I mean by this is that I think it is more useful to understand precarity in relation to entrepreneurialism, and in the book I develop a particular conceptualization of precarity with a focus on knowledge work in urban environments; an understanding aligned to that of Alex Foti who wrote General Theory of the Precariat. And I think precarity is a useful category because it resonates with people. It also depends on the country. In Italy it’s a common word not an academic term. Precarity is just the word we use to talk about labor, it’s not theory. You hear it on the news every day.
And this is part of the problem. All of the emancipatory potential of the term that was originally there – the protests under the flag of precarity – this in Italy has been completely lost. Nobody would be able to present themselves as precarious, exactly because of the entrepreneurial imperative to present yourself as a successful individual. It is simply not strategically valid to present yourself as precarious.
You write: ‘The ambivalent status of the precariat makes it the perfect sacrifice, since it is a victim forced to deny being one.’ How does this ambivalent status affect people?
I think it’s an honest condition of euphoria mixed with moments of doubt. It’s true that you might have hints of what we would call success; one day you might be proud of your life and then have a complete shift a couple of days later. For example, you can say ‘I have some positive feedback so I’m considered a professional’ but then at the same time I might not be able to pay my rent. It’s a fight of narratives that happens within the self.
One positive thing I see more and more is that people are saying ‘fuck it’ with the whole narrative of selling the self. I see people presenting themselves as precarious, bringing forward the precarity that characterizes their lives. There’s an artist called Alina Lupu. She studied at an art school here in the Netherlands and after she finished she was asked to speak to the students about how her career was going. At the time she was working for Deliveroo and therefore she decided to speak about her art practice with no twists other than she was dressed as a bike courier with the big square bag on her back, and without saying anything just bringing that kind of reality and embodying it in a certain way.
How did the art students react?
Apparently they were tweeting: ‘The only graduate speaking here is wearing a Deliveroo jacket. Great.’ But precarity is real. It’s there.
In the book you mention Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s attempt to reclaim the concept of entrepreneurship with their ‘entrepreneurship of the multitude’. What are your feelings on this?
Part of what I wanted to do was to acknowledge that people on the left are dealing with this notion of entrepreneurship, so this means that the concept is somehow hegemonic. Because one valid critique of my book is that we have been speaking about entrepreneurship critically ever since The New Spirit of Capitalism. However, my argument is that entrepreneurship has radicalized itself even further because now it is crystallizing into interfaces; the third chapter of my book shows the sheer scope of entrepreneurialism as it condenses into the digital services we use every day. And so the legacy, the heritage of entrepreneurship is not easy to get rid of.
But I don’t think that in order to fight entrepreneurialism we should reappropriate the term because that has been done already: social entrepreneurship, ethical entrepreneurship, and so on.
Do you have any suggestions for better concepts that might challenge the hegemony of entrepreneurship?
This is the problematic part, because the genius, the subtlety of entrepreneurship is that it has this capacity to digest different attempts to attack it. For example, in the book I connect entrepreneurship to time management and productivity and therefore to certain degrees of workaholism or working all the time. But the opposite can also happen, in the sense that certain entrepreneurs now realize you need to sleep at night, this epiphany that sleeping is maybe not such a bad idea – so now they tell us to relax! Entrepreneurship has this capacity to subsume contrary ideas so it’s very hard to pinpoint a specific strategy that cannot be taken into the entrepreneurial approach of basically turning things into human capital, because that’s what it does.
In the final section of the book you write about collective solutions to the problems of precarity. I was surprised that you ended with the idea of impotence. Could you say something about that?
It’s a bit of a strange ending, I realize that. I chose to speak about impotence because I think that one crucial feature of entrepreneurialism is that of capitalizing on potential. So there’s this endless untapped potential – humans are thought of as vessels full of potential – and to speak about impotence or powerlessness is a way to use a term that no one could critically use. What leftist would use the term powerlessness? But I want to specify that when I say impotence or powerlessness I don’t mean inactivity or passivity. I mean to look at the fact that when someone declares themselves powerless they acknowledge the need for a network of support, the need for interdependence and not independence of the kind that entrepreneurship requires and praises. It’s not an original idea. Judith Butler reminded us that life itself is precarious, people get sick, people die, so we have to accept that. But this doesn’t mean we have to accept shitty work conditions. It means that we have to create structures of mutual support and so reinforce interdependence. The simple and radical fact is that we need each other.
So my strategic use of that term powerlessness is a way to go against the idea of infinite potential and on the other side, to strengthen the idea of mutual interdependence.
We’ve spoken a lot about the conceptual work you’ve done around precarity. Do you have any practical ideas about how to disrupt precarity?
Frankly, the constructive part is the most difficult. One critical notion is time, and specifically how to use time in a non-weaponized way, and when I say weaponized I mean against other people: to save time, to accumulate time, to compete. My idea is for a time that is not competitive and that is not an asset derives from a construction of space. So I think at the root of it all there is the construction of spaces which you go into and you don’t have the time restrictions you find in commercial spaces like Starbucks. I mean Starbucks is a place of precarity, a place of work, it’s the office.
We have to build spaces that produce a time that doesn’t work in combination with entrepreneurship. Spaces in which you can waste time. Public libraries are a great example of this. I mean we have here in Rotterdam this wonderful public library, six floors, each floor completely different. And it’s not just books. You can go there with your kids and play. There are elderly people reading newspapers. Just to be in contact with people who are not doing material work gives you the idea that you can spend your time differently. It’s a space in which you can encounter different ways of living your life, different types of humanity, different people.
At the start of Entreprecariat you write of being ‘outed’ as precarious. What’s your situation now – are you still precarious?
Yes and no. I’m more privileged than other people. I have a certain confidence – maybe not fully rational confidence – that even if I drop one working opportunity another will pop up; this is a luxury I only experienced in the last few years. And this is important because I think precarity, or more precisely a sense of critical precarity, involves being able as a worker to say no, this is not what I want to do. Labor shouldn’t be blackmail. It shouldn’t be a situation where you don’t have any other choice. This is what I hope for in the future, that other people will be able to negotiate better working opportunities and not just accept whatever comes because there’s no other choice or out of fear. Work shouldn’t happen out of fear.
Entreprecariat is published by Onomatopee and you can order it from their website.