Excerpts from Michel Feher, 'Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital,' Public Culture 21:1, 2009. 21-41.
To envision human capital as a subjective form or formation implies that it must be compared to the figure of the free laborer, rather than to the notion of labor power. In other words, my claim is that the widespread use of the concept of human capital is less a symptom of the gradual “commodification” of the liberal subject than it is the expression of an emergent neoliberal condition, the novelty of which has been so far underestimated. But as I shall also argue, critics of neolib- eralism should not simply analyze and criticize the notion of human capital as the successor to the notion of the free laborer: instead, they ought to adopt the notion of human capital, or, to put it more bluntly, they ought to embrace the neoliberal condition, much as the workers’ movement adopted the figure of the free worker, and allow it to express aspirations and demands that its neoliberal promoters had neither intended nor foreseen. (25)
[A]n investor in his or her human capital is concerned less with maxi- mizing the returns on his or her investments—whether monetary or psychic— than with appreciating, that is, increasing the stock value of, the capital to which he or she is identified. In other words, insofar as our condition is that of human capital in a neoliberal environment, our main purpose is not so much to profit from our accumulated potential as to constantly value or appreciate ourselves — or at least prevent our own depreciation.
Such a change of purpose is ultimately what distinguishes the neoliberal condition from its liberal predecessor: while the utilitarian subjects still postulated by Becker and other rational choice theorists seek to maximize their satisfaction, and thus make their decisions accordingly, their neoliberal counterparts are primarily concerned with the impact of their conducts, and thus of the satisfaction they may draw from them, on the level of their self-appreciation or self-esteem. (27)
In short, all one knows of human capital is the following: (1) the subjects that it defines seek to appreciate and to value themselves, such that their life may be thought of as a strategy aimed at self-appreciation; (2) all of their behaviors and all the events affecting them (in any existential register) are liable to cause the subjects either to appreciate or to depreciate themselves; and (3) it is therefore possible to govern subjects seeking to increase the value of their human capital, or, more precisely, to act on the way they govern themselves, by inciting them to adopt conducts deemed valorizing and to follow models for self-valuation that modify their priorities and inflect their strategic choices. (28)
While neoliberal and radical critiques were both instrumental in breaking down the constitutive oppositions of the liberal condition—production versus reproduction, domestic versus public, personal versus political, and so on—in the past three decades, only the former has imposed its definition of what self- appreciation entails: for its part, the latter has been largely repudiated both by a “modern” Left in desperate search of an appealing light version of neoliberal- ism and by an “authentic” Left patiently waiting for its putative constituents to wake up and understand where their real interests are. By contrast, challenging the neoliberal condition from within, that is, embracing the idea that we are all investors in our human capital, in order to contest the alleged conditions under which we appreciate ourselves, would amount to rejoining the radical sensibility of the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of denouncing and lamenting the personalization of politics as the strategy through which neoliberalism causes people to lose sight of their collective interests, playing the human capital card could thus be a way of relaunching the politicization of the personal. (38)
In terms of discursive strategy, neoliberalism can boast two major successes: its promoters have made it legitimate to want to care for oneself while presenting themselves as the champions of personal responsibility (insofar as their policies identify self-appreciation with self-reliance). Their leftist opponents, by contrast, are accused of making people feel unduly guilty (by implying that the desire to value oneself is mere egoism) and, at the same time, of fostering complacency and irresponsibility (by allowing people to rely on social benefits rather than on personal effort and by making self-appreciating citizens pay for those who have squandered their human capital). Thus it may be that for the Left, challenging neoliberal modes of self-appreciation, rather than rejecting the framework of the neoliberal condition, is not only a sound tactical move. More decisively, it may also be a way of warding off its current melancholy by means of reentering the domain of the enviable and desirable — of raising, from its own perspective, the question of what constitutes an appreciable life. (41)Access Feher's essay here
And first 2 Goldsmith lectures from series of 6 by Michel Feher expanding the themes captured in the excerpts above, here.
Vimeo of first lecture 'The Neoliberal Condition and its predecessors: Redemption, Fulfilment, Appreciation.'