On the Atypical and Precarious Forms of the Work of Freelance Artists

I would like to share with you some results of research undertaken by and for the Coordination des intermittents et précaires d’Ile de Frances between 2009 and 2011. It deals with the use of time, the proletarianization and the control exercised by the businesses and institutions that manage unemployment and the RSA (Revenu de Solidarité Active [social welfare]) which is »handed out« to those who are both unemployed and without unemployment benefits, those in the entertainment industry, the freelancers and the »artists« who are »living from« the RSA. It amounts to just over 400 euros a month. These intermittent workers reveal far more about the realities of work and contemporary employment than would any full-time worker.

Precariousness and the fragmentation of time

In that respect we don’t acknowledge any distinction between ordinary time and work time. Such distinctions are alien to us. [1]

Nowhere else had K. ever seen one’s official position and one’s life so intertwined as they were here, so intertwined that it sometimes seemed as though office and life had switched places. [2]

Neoliberal economic strategies and techniques of governing behavior converge toward the same goal: controlling of time. Discontinuous, or intermittent, work creates a precariousness of time, which results in time’s fragmentation. Individuals have no idea when they might work, when they may no longer be employed; for how long they have to rely on unemployment benefits or RSA income. It becomes difficult to differentiate downtime from active time. A complete disconnection from work and its imperatives becomes complicated. Life takes place in fragmented bits of time that are heterogeneous, incoherent, and stripped of meaning. Those with intermittent work live in a multiplicity of temporalities with broken rhythms and speeds. They go from one job to another, from work to waiting for work, from work to unemployment, from unemployment to training, from training to part time or temp work. This fragmentation of time requires a subjective ability of perpetual availability. If those with intermittent work don’t land a permanent, full-time job, they have to be available full time. The unemployed person should be available, flexible, adaptable to the temporalities and rhythms of the company, the job market, and the institutions that regulate the movements of the labor force.

In the words of our different workshop participants, work and availability »eat up time«; »there’s no more time«; »there’s simply no time.« This lack of time, or rather, this time invested in fragmented work and in the search for work, results in both economic impoverishment and a loss of subjectivity. The proper use of time is no longer an imperative to one’s working time. This exploitation of time invades every hour of an individual’s life, whether employed or not. The unemployed, the beneficiaries of the RSA, have lost control over their time, a right initially won through struggles – concomitant with the birth of the labor movement – for the reduction of working time. Compared to the disciplinary systems of Fordism, neoliberal politics have introduced very innovative measures for monitoring time. Fordism regulated life through the rhythmic repetition of tasks: eight hours of work, eight hours of life dedicated to other human activity, eight hours of sleep; a relentlessly repetitive succession of periods of work broken by weekly periods of rest, the year’s labor broken in turn by the expected return of summer vacation, Christmas, Easter. The symbol of this time devoted to regular work was Harold Lloyd, clinging to the hands of a giant clock.

Neoliberal politics have instead created discontinuous blocks of existence, modes that have abandoned all of the comforting and neurotic regularities of time and space. If time has become fragmented, then space itself is no longer uniform. Under Fordism, capital was relatively fixed within the nation, in its factories and banking systems. And then, just like the angels on high, capital divested itself from the constraints of materiality, forsook all borders and forced its movements, its accelerations and its rules on workers and society as a whole.

We might have hoped that the rupture of the cyclical and regular nature of time discipline would liberate it and make it into a space of possibility, of decisions, choices, and freedom. Instead, it is none of these things. Instead, we have come to realize that decisions, choices, and freedom are confined to a setting that actually offers no viable alternatives. Now, more than ever, time is money. It remains a reference for how we value capital. In the neoliberal economy, it is no longer a question of time spent working, but of »ordinary time,« as Kafka puts it, that is, a multiplicity of temporalities, of rhythms, of speeds that encroach into the »lives,« the »lifestyles,« of individuals.

Isabelle Stengers calls this lack of choices the infernal alternatives. »If you want to earn more, you have to work more«; »given the state’s debt, the choice is either access to fewer services or more installments to pay off the interests on debt,« and so on. The ability and freedom to make choices and decisions only applies to a limited range of alternatives that are not real alternatives but rather a pre-established set thereof. As neoliberal mythology would have it, »there are no alternatives« to the market, to employment, to finance. The world and its future are caught in an eternal present without depth.
All while enforcing a state of continuous movement and endless change, neoliberal society frees up no time and offers up no opportunity to create new possibilities. A general mobilization toward work, neverending adaptation to the markets, and consumption eat up any free time that might have been won from elsewhere. What is stolen is not work time, but the future, even the fate, of society.

Hope itself is usurped.

The increasing influence of corporations/businesses and institutions on the rhythms, the speeds, the halts, and resumptions of production, of employment, but also on the social life of individuals, paradoxically serves to standardize and homogenize individual subjectivity. This depreciation of subjectivity is above all a depreciation of time, a neutralization of time’s power as a source of change, of transformation, of the creation of new possibilities.

Time is the essential primary material required for creation: whether a theater piece, a film, a way of life, or a political action. We need to have a certain amount of control over our time, partly to be able to enjoy it, but also to be able to waste it. Empty time, a time of suspension and rupture, nonfinalized time, the time of hesitation – these are all required for any artistic, social, or political production. And these are exactly the kinds of time that neoliberal policies seek to neutralize. The only temporality known and recognized by this doxa is the time spent working or looking for work. And the struggle faced by intermittent workers is a perfect example of this principle at play.

In research carried out between 2004 and 2005 on the working conditions and employment and unemployment patterns of occasional, or intermittent workers, a musician told us that in his opinion, the struggle faced by occasional workers over unemployment insurance was in fact a struggle for time. To summarize: »Unemployment insurance doesn’t give us any benefits; it gives us time.« The time to do nothing, to rest, to read, to watch, to look, to amble. This man reverses Benjamin Franklin’s famous edict, »time is money« [3] )] into »money is time.« He also confirms Marcel Duchamp’s words: »My capital is time, not money.« The conflict is always over time, but this is not limited to »working time.« It encroaches on personal time, the time for living.

Read more in the publication Chronicles of Work.

  1. Jump Up Franz Kafka: The Castle: A New Translation, Based on the Restored Text. Translated and with a preface by Mark Harman. New York 1998, chapter XXIII
  2. Jump Up Ibid. chapter V
  3. Jump Up Benjamin Franklin: Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One (07/21/1748