Insomnia | Essays

Labour and Death

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant

This essay was originally published as part of Jean Baudrillard's "L'échange symbolique et la mort" (1976), translated into English in 1993 as "Symbolic Exchange and Death".


Other societies have known multiple stakes: over birth and kinship, the soul and the body, the true and the false, reality and appearance. Political economy has reduced them to just one: production. But then the stakes were large, the violence extreme and hopes too high. Today this is over. The system has rid production of all real stakes. A more radical truth is dawning, however, and the system's victory allows us to glimpse this fundamental stake. It is even retrospectively becoming possible to analyse the whole of political economy as having nothing to do with production, as having stakes of life and death. A symbolic stake.

Every stake is symbolic. There have only ever been symbolic stakes. This dimension is etched everywhere into the structural law of value, everywhere immanent in the code.

Labour power is instituted on death. A man must die to become labour power. He converts this death into a wage. But the economic violence capital inflicted on him in the equivalence of the wage and labour power is nothing next to the symbolic violence inflicted on him by his definition as a productive force. Faking this equivalence is nothing next to the equivalence, qua signs, of wages and death.

The very possibility of quantitative equivalence presupposes death. The equivalence of wages and labour power presupposes the death of the worker, while that of any commodity and any other presupposes the symbolic extermination of objects. Death makes the calculation of equivalence, and regulation by indifference, possible in general. This death is not violent and physical, it is the indifferent consumption of life and death, the mutual neutralisation of life and death in sur-vival, or death deferred.

Labour is slow death. This is generally understood in the sense of physical exhaustion. But it must be understood in another sense. Labour is not opposed, like a sort of death, to the "fulfilment of life", which is the idealist view; labour is opposed as a slow death to a violent death. That is the symbolic reality. Labour is opposed as deferred death to the immediate death of sacrifice. Against every pious and "revolutionary" view of the "labour (or culture) is the opposite of life" type, we must maintain that the only alternative to labour is not free time, or non-labour, it is sacrifice.

All this becomes clear in the genealogy of the slave. First, the prisoner of war is purely and simply put to death (one does him honour in this way). Then he is "spared" [épargné] and conserved [conservé] (=servus), under the category of spoils of war and a prestige good: he becomes a slave and passes into sumptuary domesticity. It is only later that he passes into servile labour. However, he is no longer a "labourer", since labour only appears in the phase of the serf or the emancipated slave, finally relieved of the mortgage of being put to death. Why is he freed? Precisely in order to work.

Labour therefore everywhere draws its inspiration from deferred death. It comes from deferred death. Slow or violent, immediate or deferred, the scansion of death is decisive: it is what radically distinguishes two types of organisation, the economic and the sacrificial. We live irreversibly in the first of these, which has inexorably taken root in the différance of death.

The scenario has never changed. Whoever works has not been put to death, he is refused this honour. And labour is first of all the sign of being judged worthy only of life. Does capital exploit the workers to death? Paradoxically, the worst it inflicts on them is refusing them death. It is by deferring their death that they are made into slaves and condemned to the indefinite abjection of a life of labour.

The substance of labour and exploitation is indifferent in this symbolic relation. The power of the master always primarily derives from this suspension of death. Power is therefore never, contrary to what we might imagine, the power of putting to death, but exactly the opposite, that of allowing to live -- a life that the slave lacks the power to give. The master confiscates the death of the other while retaining the right to risk his own. The slave is refused this, and is condemned to a life without return, and therefore without possible expiation.

By removing death, the master removes the slave from the circulation of symbolic goods. This is the violence the master does to the slave, condemning him to labour power. There lies the secret of power (in the dialectic of the master and the slave, Hegel also derives the domination of the master from the deferred threat of death hanging over the slave). Labour, production and exploitation would only be one of the possible avatars of this power structure, which is a structure of death.

This changes every revolutionary perspective on the abolition of power. If power is death deferred, it will not be removed insofar as the suspension of this death will not be removed. And if power, of which this is always and everywhere the definition, resides in the act of giving without being given, it is clear that the power the master has to unilaterally grant life will only be abolished if this life can be given to him -- in a non-deferred death. There is no other alternative; you will never abolish this power by staying alive, since there will have been no reversal of what has been given. Only the surrender of this life, retaliating against a deferred death with an immediate death, constitutes a radical response, and the only possibility of abolishing power. No revolutionary strategy can begin without the slave putting his own death back at stake, since this is what the master puts off in the différance from which he profits by securing his power. Refuse to be put to death, refuse to live in the mortal reprieve of power, refuse the duty of this life and never be quits with living, in effect be under obligation to settle this long-term credit through the slow death of labour, since this slow death does not alter the future of this abject dimension, in the fatality of power. Violent death changes everything, slow death changes nothing, for there is a rhythm, a scansion necessary to symbolic exchange: something has to be given in the same movement and following the same rhythm, otherwise there is no reciprocity and it is quite simply not given. The strategy of the system of power is to displace the time of the exchange, substituting continuity and mortal linearity for the immediate retaliation of death. It is thus futile for the slave (the worker) to give little by little, in infinitesimal doses, to the rope of labour on which he is hung to death, to give his life to the master or to capital, for this "sacrifice" in small doses is no longer a sacrifice -- it doesn't touch the most important thing, the différance of death, and merely distils a process whose structure remains the same.

We could in fact advance the hypothesis that in labour the exploited renders his life to the exploiter and thereby regains, by means of this very exploitation, a power of symbolic response. There was counter-power in the labour process as the exploited put their own (slow) death at stake. Here we agree with Lyotard's hypothesis on the level of the libidinal economics: the intensity of the exploited's enjoyment [jouissance] in their very abjection. And Lyotard is right. Libidinal intensity, the charge of desire and the surrendering of death are always there in the exploited, but no longer on the properly symbolic rhythm of the immediate retaliation, and therefore total resolution. The enjoyment of powerlessness (on sole condition that this is not a phantasy aimed at reinstating the triumph of desire at the level of the proletariat) will never abolish power.

The very modality of the response to the slow death of labour leaves the master the possibility of, once again, repeatedly, giving the slave life through labour. The accounts are never settled, it always profits power, the dialectic of power which plays on the splitting of the poles of death, the poles of exchange. The slave remains the prisoner of the master's dialectic, while his death, or his distilled life, serves the indefinite repetition of domination.

This domination increases as the system is charged with neutralising the symbolic retaliation by buying it back through wages. If, through labour, the exploited attempts to give his life to the exploiter, the latter wards off this restitution by means of wages. Here again we must take a symbolic radiograph. Contrary to all appearances and experience (capital buys its labour power from the worker and extorts surplus labour), capital gives labour to the worker (and the worker himself gives capital to the capitalist). In German this is Arbeitgeber: the entrepreneur is a "provider of labour"; and Arbeitnehmer: it is the capitalist who gives, who has the initiative of the gift, which secures him, as in every social order, a preeminence and a power far beyond the economic. The refusal of labour, in its radical form, is the refusal of this symbolic domination and the humiliation of being bestowed upon. The gift and the taking of labour function directly as the code of the dominant social relation, as the code of discrimination. Wages are the mark of this poisonous gift, the sign which epitomises the whole code. They sanction this unilateral gift of labour, or rather wages symbolically buy back the domination exercised by capital through the gift of labour. At the same time, they furnish capital with the possibility of confining the operation to a contractual dimension, thus stabilising confrontation on economic grounds. Furthermore, wages turn the wage-earner into a "consumer of goods", reiterating his status as a "consumer of labour" and reinforcing his symbolic deficit. To refuse labour, to dispute wages is thus to put the process of the gift, expiation and economic compensation back into question, and therefore to expose the fundamental symbolic process.

Wages are no longer "grabbed" today. You too are given a wage, not in exchange for labour, but so that you spend it, which is itself another kind of labour. In the consumption or use of objects, the wage-consumer finds himself reproducing exactly the same symbolic relation of slow death as he undergoes in labour. The user experiences exactly the same deferred death in the object (he does not sacrifice it, he "uses" it and "uses" it functionally) as the worker does in capital. And just as wages buy back this unilateral gift of labour, the price paid for the object is only the user buying back the object's deferred death. The proof of this lies in the symbolic rule which states that what falls to you without charge (lotteries, presents, gambling, wins) must not be devoted to use, but spent as pure loss.

Every domination must be bought back, redeemed. This was formerly done through sacrificial death (the ritual of the death of the king or the leader), or even by ritual inversion (feasts and other social rites: but these are still forms of sacrifice). This social game of reversal comes to an end with the dialectic of the master and the slave, where the reversibility of power cedes its place to a dialectic of the reproduction of power. The redemption of power must always, however, be simulated, and this is done by the apparatus of power where formal redemption takes place throughout the immense machine of labour, wages and consumption. Economics is the sphere of redemption par excellence, where the domination of capital manages to redeem itself without ever really putting itself at stake. On the contrary, it diverts the process of redemption into it own infinite reproduction. This is perhaps where we find the necessity of economics and its historical appearance, at the level of societies so much more vast and mobile than primitive groups, where the urgency of a system of redemption which could be measured, controlled and infinitely extended (which rituals cannot be) all at the same time, and which above all would not put the exercise and heredity of power back into question. Production and consumption are an original and unprecedented solution to this problem. By simulating redemption in this new form, the slide from the symbolic into the economic allows the definitive hegemony of political force over society to be secured.

Economics miraculously succeeds in masking the real structure of power by reversing the terms of its definition. While power consists in unilateral giving (of life in particular, see above), a contrary interpretation has been successfully imposed: power would consist in a unilateral taking and appropriation. Under cover of this ingenious retraction, real symbolic domination can continue to do as it will, since all the efforts of those under this domination will rush into the trap of taking back from power what it has taken from them, even "taking power" themselves, thus blindly pushing on along the lines of their domination.

In fact, labour, wages, power and revolution must all be read against the grain:

- labour is not exploitation, it is given by capital;
- wages are not grabbed, capital gives them too -- it does not buy a labour power, it buys back the power of capital;
- the slow death of labour is not endured, it is a desperate attempt, a challenge to capital's unilateral gift of labour;
- the only effective reply to power is to give it back what it gives you, and this is only symbolically possible by means of death.

However, if, as we have seen, the system itself deposes economics, removes its substance and credibility, then, in this perspective, doesn't it put its own symbolic domination back into question? No, since the system brings about the overall reign of its power strategy, the gift without counter-gift, which becomes fused with deferred death. The same social relations are set up in the media and in consumption, where we have seen ("Requiem pour les Media", [Utopie, 4, 1971]) that there is no possible response or counter-gift to the unilateral delivery of messages. We were able to interpret (CERFI's project concerning automobile accidents) auto-slaugher as

the price that the collective pays to its institutions...: the State's gifts inscribe a "debt" in the collective accounts book. Gratuitous death is then merely an attempt to absorb this deficit. The blood on the roads is a desperate form of compensation for the State's tarmac gifts. The accident thus takes its place in the space that institutes a symbolic debt towards the State. It is likely that the more this debt grows, the more marked will be the tendency towards the accident. Every "rational" strategy for curbing this phenomenon (prevention, speed limits, rescue services, repression) is effectively negligible. They simulate the possibility of integrating the accident into a rational system, and are therefore incapable of grasping the root of the problem: balancing a symbolic debt which founds, legitimates and reinforces the collective dependency on the State. On the contrary, these "rational" strategies accentuate the phenomenon. In order to avert the effects of accidents, they propose to institute more mechanisms, more state institutions, supplementary "gifts", which are simply means of aggravating the symbolic debt.

In this way the struggle is everywhere opposed to a political authority (cf. Pierre Clastres, Society against the State [tr. R. Hurley and A. Stein, New York: Zone Books, 1990]), which sets all the power it can draw from its showers of gifts -- the survival it maintains and the death it withdraws -- above the struggle in order to stockpile and then distil it for its own ends. Nobody really accepts this bonus forever, you give what you can, but power always gives more so as to serve better, and an entire society or a few individuals can go to great lengths, even their own destruction, to put an end to it. This is the only absolute weapon, and the mere collective threat of it can make power collapse. Power, faced with this symbolic "blackmail" (the barricades of '68, hostage-taking), loses its footing: since it thrives on my slow death, I will oppose it with my violent death. And it is because we are living with slow death that we dream of a violent death. Even this dream is unbearable to power.