Work and Life Coaching: The Immaterial – Part 2

The Coming of the Self-Entrepreneur

Black Belts and other professionals with similar kinds of work – usually project based, involving a fluid mixture of the application of “immaterial” (that is to say, “knowledge worker”) skills — judging, influencing, writing, assessing, estimating – are at the vanguard of what Gorz terms the “self-entrepreneur.” Writes Gorz:

People must become enterprises for themselves; for themselves, as labour-powers, they must become a fixed capital demanding to be continually reproduced, modernized, expanded and valorized (pricing the value). No constraints must be imposed on them from the outside; they must be their own producers, their own employers and their own sales force, obliging themselves to impose the necessary constraints on themselves that will ensure the viability and competitiveness of the enterprise that they are. In short, salaried employment must be abolished.

This is what Bensel (Norbert Bensel, “Working Hours, Continuing Education, Time for Living, New Concepts, Berlin, May 2001) was saying in his conference paper, presenting the enterprise’s ‘employees’ as ‘entrepreneurs’. As entrepreneurs not just in management by objectives, but also – first and foremost – whatever their status, through the management of their own labour-power, now regarded as their fixed capital.

Salaried employment must be abolished, announced Charles Handy and William Bridges in the early 1990s, being among the first to do so. There must be only sole-trader enterprises providing individual services. Everyone must take responsibility for their health, mobility, ability to work variable hours and the updating of their knowledge. They must manage their human capital throughout their lives, investing in it continually in the form of training, and they must understand that the possibility of selling their labour-power depends on the unpaid, voluntary, unseen work they put in continually to reproduce it anew. (The Immaterial, pages 19-20)

On the one hand, one might see the above passage as a millennial updating of Marxist philosophy. But I found the book compelling in its entirety as presenting our current age as one dominated by knowledge and consequently the ‘worker,’ like Black Belts, whose work is about their individual ability to bring to bear in a given situation the unique mixture of experience, temperament and knowledge that is the essence of who they are. They are not selling in the traditional Marxian manner their time, but rather who they are as individuals, since it is virtually impossible to cleave-off one’s totality of life experiences that is applied to a situation ‘on the job’ from the person who ‘goes home in the evening.’ Hence the thesis that each of us is now fully ‘a business.’

Much of this is not new. Most every job counselor will urge us to think of ourselves as accountable for our development and careers. But I find the imagery in The Immaterial particularly compelling in that it forces each of us to literally think of ourselves as an individual economic entity that must sell their services and re-invest in themselves so as to maintain their competitiveness and prospects.

Put another way, if such an individual finds that their ‘job’ is increasingly at odds with who they are as a person, then they need to apply the logic of free-agency by seeking assignments that are more congruent with who they are as a professional/person. Gorz’ logic merely expands the idea that one should not limit oneself to the contracts available within a single entity, but to consider the entire economy as their marketplace.

There will still be need for traditional employees in companies. But their number, in this thesis, will continue to fall as more and more work is formally and informally converted over to the self-entrepreneurs. The remaining traditional employees will be adept at maintaining the institutional processes and beliefs of the organization they represent (literally, embracing the ‘company man’ ethic).

The advice for people whose work is, by any other name, knowledge work, literally assess yourself as an independent contractor, a self-entrepreneur, and ask what skills you can market, how you would communicate this to someone who does not know you, the nature of work you want to perform (and, perhaps more importantly, the kind of situations and work that you will not pursue) and how, where, with whom you would like to work.

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