For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The working self and the subject of freedom: Michel Foucault’s analytics of liberalism and the work ethic as a technique of liberal governmentality"

by Davis, George V (2005)


In this dissertation I explore how the work ethic plays an important role in the government of modern life, specifically, how we use it to govern ourselves and govern others. First, I consider how Foucault's concept of government as "conduct of conduct" can be useful in coming to terms with the ways in which liberalism (as an art of government that is always suspicious of governing too much) governs, even in those spaces usually considered "free from" government. Using Foucault's notion of government, and the related notion of governmentality reveals ways that we are governed "beyond the state," i.e., through various techniques of the self and techniques of domination. Second, this dissertation provides an overview of Foucault's "critical ontology" of liberalism; Foucault’s work on disciplinary power and bio-politics, I argue, provides a useful critique that reveals how the space of freedom is actually constituted by specific political practices and how the production of this space assumes a specific kind of liberal subject, which is the product of disciplinary and bio-political regimes. Assessing Foucault’s body of work though this "governmentality" lens reveals a more continuous line of thought concerned not only with power and subjectivity, but also government. Finally, I use this Foucault inspired approach to political theory to examine how the work ethic operates as a technique of liberal government in the contemporary United States. Specifically, I focus on how the work ethic has informed psychiatric definitions of normality and how our assumptions about normal subjectivity have led to an individualization of the causes of poverty and unemployment, further marginalizing the iv poor and unemployed. Ultimately we must rethink the nature of freedom with the knowledge that we are never truly "free from" government. By engaging in what Foucault calls a critical ontology of our limits, we might begin to grasp how things as seemingly benign as the work ethic govern us in specific ways and how we use them to force others to govern themselves accordingly.


Foucault, Freedom, Liberalism, Work Ethic, Government, Conduct


On Foucault, Foucault

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