Neoliberal subjectivity and precarious work

Image: Aleksandar Pasaric


The fight against neoliberalism and forms of precarious work will not only require the repeal of the labor reform and other legislation

“Inside the bird there is a grid, \ An eternal confinement of a cage \ When the doors open, \ I will finally be \ My only jailer” (Mia Couto, Prisoner's Verses).

Precarious work has become commonplace in neoliberal society, imposing excessive workloads in jobs without rights, without stability and with reduced remuneration. The spread of precariousness has reached such a point that we can see it not only in positions that require low qualifications, but also in occupations typically classified as middle class, which in theory require some level of professional qualification.

It is not uncommon to see lawyers with an intermittent employment contract, working in three offices to earn, at the end of the month, what they would receive working in a single office. Teachers hired as PJ, without the right to paid vacation, 13th or social security. Psychologists attracting clients on digital platforms or assisting in partnerships with agreements to earn derisory values ​​for each consultation. Paulo Galo, leader of the anti-fascist couriers, has already said something about this issue: “if you think that uberization is a problem for couriers, you are wrong, uberization will advance for everyone. If it hasn’t already arrived, it will.”

The precariousness of working conditions becomes more palatable in environments of structural unemployment, as the expansion of the reserve army also increases the bargaining power of the employer. “It is better to work with fewer rights than not to work at all.” However, the expansion of these precarious conditions is not accompanied only by the need for subsistence, but also by the constitution of subjectivities that adapt to these new work expectations.

In other words, the crystallization of new work relationships needs not only legal norms that guarantee their legitimacy and legality, but also an ideological cement that can mold new forms of work to the life horizon of individuals. As Margaret Thatcher once said: “Economics is the method. The goal is to change the heart and soul.”

Antonio Gramsci demonstrates in his classic text, Americanism and Fordism, how the creation of Fordism as a form of work organization was accompanied by the construction of a new way of life for the Fordist worker. In the words of the Italian author: “the new working methods are inseparable from a certain way of living and thinking”.[1] Thus, betting that neoliberal subjectivity is spread among the different social classes in Brazilian society, we can ask ourselves which ways of living and thinking are disseminated by this rationality.

This reflection helps us to think about the reasons why some app drivers do not want a signed license.[2] Neoliberalism managed not only to implement legal reforms that made labor relations more flexible, but also to establish an image that labor rights are harmful to workers, as they reduce their freedom of choice. Thus, precariousness became synonymous with modernization and the social protection network established in the 1988 Constitution was painted as something old and retrograde, to be overcome by the modern world of technology.

Entrepreneurship and the capture of desire

Neoliberalism was able to capture the desire of male and female workers. The boring stability of the Fordist world, in which the individual spent 30 years in the same job, was replaced by the supposed freedom given to the enterprising individual, who will be able to choose the destination of his business, relying on emotion and unpredictability. Employment card, unemployment insurance, retirement are elements of an old world that needs to be modernized.

According to Mark Fisher, “in many ways, the left never recovered from the trick that capital gave it by mobilizing and metabolizing the desire for emancipation in the face of the Fordist routine”[1]. To use an image as an example, the Fordist world is represented by the individual who keeps a small amount in savings every month, without any risk or unpredictability. The neoliberal society would be the traders, who buys shares on the stock exchange to sell them on the same day, according to market fluctuations, in a dynamic of risk and emotion.

The capture of desire is fundamental for the formation of what is called neoliberal subjectivity, so it is worth understanding the relationship of this subjectivity with entrepreneurship and intrapersonal competition. One of the constituent mechanisms of this process is the logic of competition. Individuals must resemble companies and be in permanent competition with each other, even when they are not in the professional environment.

Competition intensifies to the point where it is not limited to the inter-individual level, but becomes a dispute with oneself, in which the subject must at all times overcome himself. “Be the best version of yourself”. This logic becomes fundamental for the multiplication of psychic illnesses, such as burnout, anxiety and depression. This does not mean that there is no resistance on the part of workers and that all individuals react passively to neoliberalism, however the diffusion of this ideology on different fronts, such as the media, church, family, politics, companies and schools, increases the pressure of these ideas on women. individual consciences.

Another premise of neoliberal society is individual responsibility for social risks. Thus, there is no room for a welfare state, responsible for correcting historically inherited inequalities through the implementation of public policies and construction of social protection networks. Problems related to unemployment, health, housing and retirement are placed as the sole responsibility of the individual.[3] At most, the social protection network is “privatized”, shifting responsibility from the State to the family.

The logic of the market must fill every pore of civil society, being used not only in the economic sphere, but in the personal and affective sphere. The self-entrepreneur is a kind of company subject, who must have productivity and performance of excellence, working for a third party as if it were for himself. However, if the neoliberal ideology is present in the air we breathe, it does not arise spontaneously in the minds of individuals, but has privileged places of dissemination and diffusion.

It is possible to identify some think tanks in Brazil that were responsible for the circulation and propagation of neoliberal ideas. The Atlantic Institute, founded in the 1990s, aimed not only to influence politicians and bureaucrats in the formulation of public policies, but also to propagate free market ideas for workers. The Institute reached an agreement with Força Sindical – an important union center in the country – and throughout the 1990s, more than 1 million booklets were distributed to male and female workers, addressing topics such as privatization of social security and popular capitalism.[4]

Others think tanks, such as Instituto Liberal (IL) and Instituto de Estudos Empresariais (IEE) were responsible for the translation and publication of unpublished works in Brazil, authored by canons of neoliberal thought, training of pro-market leaders, re-edition of out-of-print books, organization of events, that is, the creation of a network of academics, businessmen, jurists, journalists and economists aligned with neoliberal ideology. The Millenium Institute, created in 2006, has well-known names among its founding members, such as Paulo Guedes and Rodrigo Constantino and was funded by large business groups and media conglomerates, such as Grupo Abril, Grupo Gerdau, Organizações Globo, among others.

The fight against neoliberalism and forms of precarious work will not only require the repeal of the labor reform and other legislation, but also the dispute of the workers' imaginary. The fetish of entrepreneurship must be dismantled on several fronts, starting with demonstrating that working 14 hours a day, 6 days a week is not synonymous with freedom of choice. Explaining that the current working hours have hijacked the time spent with our family and friends and multiplied psychic illnesses can be a first step towards rebuilding our desires and creating other horizons of sociability.

*Matheus Silveira de Souza is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Unicamp.


[1] GRAMSCI, Antonio. prison notebooks, volume 4. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 2001.

[2] UOL. Uber and Ifood with CLT? Why drivers and apps fear Lula's proposals. Available in:

[3] FISHER, Mark. Capitalist realism. São Paulo: Literary Autonomy, 2020.

[4] BROWN, Wendy. In the ruins of neoliberalism: the rise of anti-democratic politics in the West. São Paulo: Politeia, 2019.

[5] ROCHA, Camilla. Less Marx, more Mises: liberalism and the new right in Brazil. São Paulo: However, 2021

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