By Matt Phull and Will Stronge
By Matt Phull and Will Stronge
The “crisis of work” emerging due to the rise of automation processes – including job polarisation and precarious platform labour – has led many commentators to announce the final nail in the coffin of the “‘full employment’ dreams of the post-war settlement. At its core however, neoliberalism as an ideological project has long since replaced the full employment dream with its own, alternative vision of “full employability”: placing responsibility on all individuals to work on themselves in order to become employable. This ‘employability agenda’ can be seen to be at work within neoliberalism’s labour, education, and welfare models.
Today we are witnessing a crisis of neoliberal employability with far reaching implications. We here aim to shed light on this crisis by explicating the underlying logic governing the practices and apparatuses of employability itself. By drawing upon the work of Wolfgang Haug, we demonstrate how a promissory logic governs exchange relations within a neoliberal labour market and this gives rise to the growth of employability practices that are increasingly incapable of delivering what they promise (a breakdown that we will address in a later post).
Employability became an increasingly prevalent term within British, European and American policy making in the late 90s. Such was its increasing strategic importance that the British Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) commissioned a report in order to arrive at the following definition:
“In simple terms, employability is about being capable of getting and keeping fulfilling work. More comprehensively, employability is the capability to move self-sufficiently within the labour market to realise potential through sustainable employment. For the individual, employability depends on the knowledge, skills and attitudes they possess, the way they use those assets and present them to employers and the context (e.g. personal circumstances and labour market environment) within which they seek work.”
McQaid and Lindsay offer their own survey of the term, looking at a range of institutional definitions (including HM Treasury and the CBI). They set out how the contextual side of the above definition was marginalised in favour of a conception based around individual skills. “The concept has been “hollowed out” [and] the interactivity that was supposed to be at the heart of the concept has been replaced by a singular focus on the individual and what might be termed their “employability skills”. However, in arguing for a more balanced concept they overlook how this individual focus is in fact intrinsic to the employability agenda.
It is within the work of Moore and Cremin respectively that we receive a critical account of ‘employability’. Moore’s work focuses very much on the state-led “employability” agenda in UK, South Korea, and Singapore. She looks at “the ways in which the policies related to employment, education, and training programmes, and workplace expectations are placing pressures upon workers to manage their subjectivities and equip themselves to remain employable in preparation for the post-industrial world”. She identifies this as part of the neoliberalisation of labour markets; instead of enforcing workers rights, “governments are busily increasing the personal and reflexive responsibilities of workers”. This is most evident in national skills agendas that place responsibility on the worker to upskill and reskill to fit the changing demands of capital and mitigate labour market insecurity in the absence of any substantial industrial strategy.
Cremin’s critical account of employability shares similar assumptions but instead draws upon a different genre of critical theory. She understands ‘employability’ less as a policy agenda than as a form of ideology; as something which structures how we imagine the world and our place within it. In doing so Cremin emphasises how our very sense of self has been moulded by employability with certain consequences:
“We are never employable enough. Employability [is] the thing always wanted and never obtained, onto which, like a comfort blanket promising security, we accumulate the detritus of skills and attributes employers seem to want.”
Cremin describes this process of accumulating skills and attributes as “reflexive exploitation” in which we are involved in an “ongoing reflection of the self as an object of exchange”. It has elsewhere been theorised within the context of “self-branding” practices. This individual work on the self takes place when we are both in and out of employment, as a way of securing ourselves against an increasingly precarious labour market. Becoming employable emerged as the main way in which we think it is possible to improve our lot in life rather than through collective action or workplace organising.
Our paper will build upon the above research by seeking to set out the underlying logic governing employability in order to better explicate its material foundations. In doing so we can begin to shed some light on why what we call the ‘promissory logic’ of employability is currently in crisis (to be pursued in another article).
To do this, we return to a theory of advertising first published in 1971: Wolgang Haug’s Critique of Commodity Aesthetics. By detouring via Haug’s critique of advertising, we can produce a theory of employability grounded in the exchange relations pertaining to that specific commodity that makes all others; what Karl Marx called ‘labour power’ and we will here refer to as ‘labour capacity’.
Wolfgang Haug’s largely forgotten work on ‘commodity aesthetics’ offers a convincing theoretical account of the origin of the advertising industry that has unexplored implications for work and employment when re-visited today.
Haug’s central claim is that the whole set of practices that attach imaginary desires to products through advertising, design, and display – practices which he names ‘commodity aesthetics’ – was conditioned by a very simple feature of commodity exchange. This is the fact that the use or consumption of a commodity takes place after its purchase. As Haug notes, “[p]urchase and use are normally separated in both space and time. As a rule, use takes place after sale”. That is to say, the very thing that we might expect to compel someone to buy something – the use of the product – only takes place after the product is brought.
This leads to a circular problem: I will only buy something because it has a use for me, but I have to buy that thing before it can have a use for me. For Haug, this problem is resolved through the seemingly simple observation that a commodity is never bought directly for its use but for the promise of its use. This is what Haug calls the “use-value promise” of a commodity: the way in which the potential use of the object enters into the exchange as a factor in the decision to purchase the object or not.
On this account the ‘use-value’ of an object only enters into the exchange in the form of a promise: as a potentiality rather than an actuality. No one ever buys a ‘use-value’ directly but rather a use-value promise, and this promise may or may not be realised in the actual use of the object, following a certain temporal gap. This gap between actuality and potentiality, between use-value and use-value promise creates a space which for Haug came to be filled by the apparatuses of the advertising industry (see Figure 1).
The gap of the promise makes the commodity an ideal screen onto which a whole set of ‘appearances’ (images and fantasies) can be projected. Indeed, on Haug’s account all objects produced for sale necessarily also entail the production of promises. These may differ in degrees of sophistication. For Haug, as capitalism developed, the competitive drive to produce commodities for sale necessitated more complex and sophisticated forms of promise-making. This led to the growing influence of what he calls commodity aesthetics – advertising in its broadest sense, including the design of objects – which we might think of as the production of use-value promises.
Haug’s account is compelling for the sheer analytical power that emerges from a simple observation about a circular problem within commodity exchange: the whole set of practices and apparatuses of commodity aesthetics can be shown to be conditioned by the temporal gap between the sale and use of commodity. However, his analysis of commodity exchange remains remarkably incomplete. Most notably, he does not extend his analysis to that special commodity that is needed to make all others: labour-capacity.
That Haug does not extend his categories of commodity aesthetics and the use-value promise to the sale and purchase of ‘labour-capacity’ is all the more remarkable for the fact that Haug places the “antagonistic” nature of exchange relationships at the centre of his analysis.
“The relation of exchange, however, is an antagonistic one. In the literal sense of the Greek antagonizomai, exchange action is always opposed action, insofar as those who exchange represent opposite interests.”
That is to say the interests of the seller and buyer are opposed to each other: the one wants to gain profit through the commodity, the other wants to meet their needs and desires through the commodity; the profit gained by the seller comes at the cost of the buyer. For Haug, it is this antagonistic quality inherent to commodity exchange that gives rise to what he calls “antagonistic aestheticization” wherein the seller presents the commodity deceptively to compel purchase from the buyer. As Haug puts it; “[for the seller] the other person is meant to take appearance for being and to fall for the ruse”. Here Haug is thinking in particular of the use of advertising to manipulate consumer desire. However can a similar logic not be seen to be at work within the sale and purchase of labour capacity? There is perhaps no more antagonistic an exchange relationship than that between labour and capital; can we not expect this relation to throw up its own form of ‘antagonistic aestheticisation’?
For Haug, the fact that the “appearance” of the commodity is what compels its purchase gives rise to the production and manipulation of commodity appearances as a “special object of work” or “purposeful activity”. As we have shown, for most commodities this takes the form of advertising as the creation of “use-value promises”. However, in the case of the sale of labour-power, the commodity is inseparable from the person of the seller themselves. Unlike the tech company that sells smartphones or the arms dealer who sells weapons, the worker’s commodity is at one and the same time their self. Accordingly, ‘special work’ must be done on the self-as-labour-capacity in order to nurture the appearance of this commodity to potential buyers.
That is to say, the potential worker – the seller of the commodity that is its labour capacity – is compelled by economic necessity to present themselves in ways which provoke potential employers to want to purchase them. This gives rise to a different kind of antagonistic aestheticization and related “purposeful activity” in which the worker is compelled to work on themselves so as to become employable (i.e. appealing for their purchasers, employers). This has been captured in the idea of self-branding and conceptions of the self-promoting “neoliberal subject” or ‘entrepreneurial self’ etc.
For us, these model of subjectivity can be shown to be conditioned by the promissory logic of capitalist exchange relations; the fact that the employer never chooses to buy our labour but rather the promise of our labour. Neoliberal policies which leave workers devoid of the protections of the trade unions and the welfare state work to expose them to the logic of exchange relations, and the pressures of promising their labour capacity, in isolation.
If advertising, display, and product design are examples of the use-value promise of most other commodities, what then concretely constitutes the promise of our labour capacity as a commodity bought and sold on the labour market? It is possible to outline a number of technologies and practices that are fundamental in shaping the “special work” of cultivating one’s use-value promise.
The paradigmatic technology of employability is the CV; as Cremin notes “The process of becoming employable involves a gathering up of signifiers – accredited skills, traits and experiences”. The CV is the paradigmatic device with which we are required to perform this promise, alongside similar technologies (the job application form, LinkedIn profiles) and indeed apparently distinct practices such as our self-presentation via social media profiles.
In Haug’s terms, these technologies can be said to facilitate the cultivation of the use-value promise of our labour much in the same way as advertising does for other commodities. And who – other than those who have no need to sell their labour power- can avoid using such technologies? What we might call the CV function – now taken on by other forms – which gathers your activity into a constructed “promise” even stretches to things outside of work. As Cremin notes “the CV retroactively instrumentalises activities that were not at the time interpreted as having any instrumental value”. She adds pithily: “The puritan took comfort in the Bible, the industrial worker in the Manifesto, the individuated subject of our time in the CV”.
Another paradigmatic practice of employability is the interview: everyone, on either side of the interview table, knows that an interview amounts to a performance in which you present an edited version of yourself. It is in many ways the frontline in the antagonistic aestheticization involved in the sale and purchase of labour-power. The employer trying to decipher ruse from reality, the worker trying to present reality as rosy. The interview – like the CV – is increasingly subject to a special form of work that is aimed at the construction of the promise; the careers advice industry that reminds us how to present ourselves; to smile, be confident and provide that killer answer to the question on how we are able to work by ourselves and also in a team etc. The interview function – present in how we present ourselves in a whole manner of work-related and even non-work-related settings – is this cultivated performance of the self that the other wants to buy. This process is based on what you imagine the employer – or what Cremin calls the ‘Big Boss’, that imaginary employer of our dreams/ nightmares – wants from you. It is not hard to see how, undergoing this process routinely might make us anxious or unsure of our selves.
What if we are no longer able to separate ruse from reality? For Haug the actual material reality of commodities becomes transformed to develop characteristics that will encourage purchase and stimulate the desires of consumers. The seductive “smart” features on designer objects embody the use-value promise of the object. Translated to the commodity labour-power and its promise of employability, we are confronted with the troubling thought: the reality of ourselves has been shaped by the promissory logic of the commodity. Our lives are lived in the knowledge that we may need to present ourselves to a future employer; it is not enough to cultivate our promise – we must embody it.
 E.g. Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat. London: Bloomsbury. For job polarisation and the link to automation, see, for example, Frey, C, Berger, T & Chen, C. (2018) ‘Political machinery: did robots swing the 2016 presidential election?’. Oxford Review of Economic Policy 34 (3), pp418- 442.
 Jones, P. (2019)
 That this dual department existed at one stage is symptomatic of the institutionalised proximity of education to employability in the UK.
 Hillage J, Pollard E (1998) Research Report RR85, Department for Education and Employment, October. Available at: https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/report-summaries/report-summary-employability-developing-framework-policy-analysis
 McQuaid, R. and Lindsay, C. (2005) ‘The Concept of Employability’.
 Moore, P. (2010), p. 2.
 Ibid., p 5.
 Cremin, C. (2011), p. 43.
 Ibid., p. 45.
 Jones, P. (2019). See also Phil Jones’ four-part blog on this topic here: https://autonomy.work/portfolio/employability-in-the-new-economy-brand-you/
 Cremin (2015), p. 87.
 Haug (2006), p. 18.
 ‘Use-value’ denotes the value a particular thing has for someone insofar as it is desired for its material or otherwise specific qualities, that meet a certain need. In contrast, something’s ‘exchange value’ is its value only insofar as it can be exchanged for something else, e.g. money.
 Ibid., p.19.
 Cremin (2015), p. 82.
 Ibid., p. 86.
 Ibid, p. 87.
Cremin, C.(2011) Capitalism’s New Clothes. London: Pluto Press.
Cremin, C. (2015) Totalled. London: Pluto Press.
Frey, C, Berger, T & Chen, C. (2018) ‘Political machinery: did robots swing the 2016 presidential election?’. Oxford Review of Economic Policy 34 (3), pp418- 442.
Haug (1986 ). Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Haug W (2006). ‘Commodity Aesthetics Revisited’. Radical Philosophy 135, January/February. Available at: https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/commodity-aesthetics-revisited
Hillage J, Pollard E (1998) Research Report RR85, Department for Education and Employment, October. Available at: https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/report-summaries/report-summary-employability-developing-framework-policy-analysis
Jones, P. (2019) ‘Working to Labour: self-branding in an uncertain economy’, Autonomy.
McQuaid, R. and Lindsay, C. (2005) ‘The Concept of Employability’, Urban Studies, vol. 42 (2), pp. 197-219.
Moore, P. (2010) The International Political Economy of Work and Employability. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Read, Jason. (2009). A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity. Foucault Studies
Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat. London: Bloomsbury.