Religion and the "Value-Added" Life
One of the most egregious (and frankly ugly) cliches of the managerial class is the language of labor that adds value, or “value-added” activity that builds on (and builds up) the entrepreneurial self.
The human subject conceived in this way engages constantly in acts of strategic self-improvement, looking forward to the future with a speculative eye and a combative demeanor, openly seeking struggle against others to strive for success. As Dardot and Laval argue in their recent book The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (Verso 2013), this is a kind of work ethic, but one that departs radically from the Weberian attitude we’re familiar with. The aim of the entrepreneurial subject becomes constant movement-in-improvement, continual adaptation, and an emphasis on representing all human activities in terms of an imperative of production and commodification. The pursuit of fitness “adds value” to the physical body therefore making it a more desirable erotic commodity. The pursuit of a degree “adds value” to one’s educational portfolio, making one a more desirable occupational commodity. The pursuit of certain kinds of expertise “adds value” to one’s work portfolio, making one more professionally attractive, and so on. Body and soul become the object of potentially endless projects of self-improvement.
It seems to me that religion might be (should be?) useful right here, to combat the language of the “value-added” life. In the first place, the managerial/administrative understanding seems to imply that there are forms of life without the constant movement, without the accretions, without the projects of self-improvement. Are we to call this life without value? Before value? Religion in our time has to face this quandary, and it has to do so acknowledging that market forces and their ideological expression in neoliberal/libertarian thought are responsible for making the question necessary in the first instance.
It also seems to me that the affirmation of life has to rely on what Charles Taylor has called the dimension “beyond life.” It has to address and include those kinds of activities that aren’t captured in the gross mesh of market processes or easily measured and assayed in processes of quantification and commodification. This means turning in the direction of positive experiences like love, but it also necessitates a meditation on vulnerability and weakness. Both love and death laugh in the face of self-improvement. They remind us that the meaning of every project escapes the intention of its author. Religion has the potential to reflect on this remainder/reminder. It has the potential to show that the fantasy of endless self-improvement is a delusion that mimics the market’s delusional faith in endless growth. If it doesn’t engage in this practical work of critique and counterdiscourse, it risks becoming complicit in the construction of what Augustine called the City of Man.
About the Author
Robert Geroux is a political theorist.