Unemployment, learning, subjectivity and experience in times of neoliberal employment policy

Publikation: Bidrag til tidsskriftTidsskriftartikelForskningpeer review


The article raises and tries to answer the question of how developments in neoliberal employment policy can be traced on a subjective level through the life histories of long-term unemployed individuals. Specifically, the scope of the analysis is the ways in which neoliberal structural conditions are present as active (disturbing) dimensions in the subjectivity, learning processes and ‘self-appropriation’ of the long-term unemployed, who are required to participate in job activation and ‘work ability’ assessments through the municipal employment service system. So far, the critique Danish employment services have been grounded in a moral critique, ie. that the employment services’ treatment of the long-term unemployed is unjust or morally wrong. However, and although sympathetic in scope, this critique cannot seem to gain any traction, as it is founded on a moral philosophy, that is far from universally accepted in the public, cultural and political spheres of contemporary society. Therefore, it is too easily dismissed. The aim of this article is to contribute to an empirical development of what we might name a functionalist (or ‘pedagogical’) and ethical critique of the Danish employment services and policy inspired by the fruitful collaboration between Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi on modes of (capitalism) critique (Fraser & Jaeggi, 2018; Jaeggi, 2016b). In doing so, the analysis will be based on a psycho-societal approach, which carries with it the ambition of making visible the reciprocality of self and world through the subtle acts of subjective resistance as well as the subjective processes of appropriation, processing and interpretation of the social reality, in which one is situated and has to make a meaningful living for one self (Olesen, 2015; Salling Olesen, 2000, 2014). Oskar Negt’s concept of experience combined with Rahel Jaeggi’s concept of alienation as disturbed self-appropriation (or ‘restrained’ modes of experience) will serve as the theoretical point of departure, while the life-historical, embodied, societal and unconscious dimensions of experience and alienation will be analyzed drawing on the theory of Alfred Lorenzer, Thomas Leithäuser and Cristophe Dejours as well as theoretical developments within the ‘Life History Project’ of Roskilde University. The article will be featuring empirical material in the shape of two out of eight life-historical interviews, which have been conducted as part of the author’s ongoing doctoral thesis. The people participating in the interviews have both been unemployed for more than two years, have yet to achieve clarification in the employment service system and both express significant experiences of suffering related to their situation as unemployed. The preference of this sort of empirical material – in which the negative experiences of unemployment and participation in the employment service system are predominant – runs counter to the prevalent political as well as methodological tendency of the Danish employment service system to valorize a ‘resource-oriented’ approach with strong, albeit non-transparent, ties to positive psychology. This approach espouses a strong orientation towards the positively formulated resources of the unemployed and towards not allowing too much emphasis to be put on the challenges and experienced problems of the ‘welfare recipients’ (Herup Nielsen, 2019). The choice of the life-historical interview form and interview participants, who profess negative experiences of unemployment and employability-oriented initiatives, could be coined a patho-epistemological approach (Ljungdalh, 2011, 2015). It will be argued that the subjective experience of suffering related to unemployment can prove a source of methodological possibility by providing insights into the socio-cultural norms of work that serve as the very social condition for the experience of suffering. In the analysis of how unemployed individuals respond to, acts on, interpret and resist their own life conditions related to unemployment, rich subjective ideas of what work (and life) is and ought to be are revealed – ideas that are deeply intertwined with life-historical experience, the development of an everyday consciousness and identity. It is this dimension of the psychosocial research approach that allows for the tracing of utopian potentials, by recognizing, what Albert Camus beautifully reminded us of in The Rebel (1992), that in every “no”, in every small act of subjective resistance, lies simultaneously a “yes”: a “yes” that points forward to something alternative, something better, to other modes of being, living and learning – however silent, suppressed or unarticulated this yes might seem. The article will demonstrate how the current social organization of the Danish employment service system and several of its key features contributes to structural disturbances in the identity and learning processes of long-term unemployed individuals leading to profound experiences of alienation (drawing on Rahel Jaeggi’s (2016) conception) through objectification, reification, life historical disconnect, ‘homelessness’ of human needs and loss of control, aspirations and subjective meaning. It argues that the neoliberal Work First-policy and ideology of learning for the economy creates tremendous tensions in the everyday lives of the unemployed, who has to try to create a tolerable living for themselves, while being very aware that their status as unemployed requires them, first and foremost, to channel ‘surplus energy’ into the efforts of paid labor. This produces significant ambivalence and poses a challenge to their engagement in everyday life activities, including those activities that might actually provide them with joy, motivation and hope for a better life – and which might have served to enhance their possibilities for learning and recognition. The modern ‘mode of unemployment’ also interferes with the development of an everyday life consciousness that might have functioned as a defensive mechanism against the intolerableness of life as unemployed, because the continuous summoning to meetings and job activation is experienced as a disturbance of the chance to ‘settle’ (even if only temporary) in life without paid labor. Furthermore, it is analyzed how the neoliberal structural arrangements of the employment service system acts as a catalyst for individualization of the experience of unemployment, hereby proving a challenge to the development of solidarity and as well as to democratic forms of life amongst the unemployed.
TidsskriftJournal of Psycho-Social Studies
StatusUnder udarbejdelse - 1 feb. 2020

Citer dette