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Coronavirus and Divesting from the Neoliberal Subject

I was supposed to have one of the busiest semester’s of my academic life on the conference circuit this semester. Three invited panels, one Paris workshop, one interdisciplinary conference, one Italy workshop, one development workshop. Two panels happened before coronovirus hit. The international travel has been canceled and I’m waiting on word that the last remaining events will be a no-go. If you told me at the beginning of the semester that these events would be canceled, I would have thought that the news when it came would be devastating. I’m surprised to learn that I’m relieved. In the age of neoliberalism, the freedom of the collective expectation that you will not and cannot be “investing in” the human capital that you are and that no one else can be either reminds me that the burden of the expectation is a constant weight.

The subject of neoliberalism, by which I mean, the one who has been subjectivized — made into a subject by– and legible to — neoliberalism, is the subject who sees herself as human capital who needs to invest in herself in order to show herself to be a good investment. In the effort to privatize and responsibilize risk onto the individual, neoliberalism makes one responsible for her own failure, like a venture project that fails. No longer the worker whose labor produces wealth for the capitalist, the worker becomes her own capital, whom she must invest in so that others take her to be worth investing in. The capitalist class no longer need feel responsible for the worker because the worker is no longer viewed as a worker but as a capitalist herself, but her only capital is herself.

The neoliberal academic does more service, more conferences, more of her own development, more publishing so that she can be seen as good human capital, continuously investing in herself so that she is viewed as capital worth developing. The drive to be better capital is the main driver in many academics’ difficulty in saying no and in taking on projects when they are already overwhelmed.

Enter COVID-19. Conferences are canceled. Events on campus are canceled or severely limited. Classes go online. Expectations for what can be accomplished in class have been checked. People are ok with this. I’m not happy conferences or events are canceled. I appreciate the work that people organizing them put into them, and I am genuinely sad that I won’t be able to present talks that I’ve been working on for some time. But I feel unburdened. I literally cannot be good human capital right now. And dammit: it feels good.

This feeling of freedom and relief has me wondering what it might look like to resist the drive to invest in oneself as a good neoliberal subject when (if) things return to normal. I’m not saying you shouldn’t write things or do the important work you care about. But what if you only did work because you cared about it and not because it made you a better subject? What if you stopped doing work you didn’t care about? What if you didn’t just go to conferences to show up as good human capital? What if we tanked the human capital market of ourselves for our own happiness? That might feel good too.

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