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“Illegality” and entrepreneurialism: constructing subjects at the intersection of techniques of power and of the self

Personal autonomy is not the antithesis of political power, but a key term in its exercise, the more so because most individuals are not merely the subjects of power but play a part in its operations.

(Rose & Miller, 1992, p. 174)

Beatriz, Gilda, Carolina and Eva manifest a variety of positions with respect to their relationship with capital through their productive and reproductive labor. While the women’s labor and migration trajectories demonstrate the ways in which flexibility, precarity and disposability traverse their working lives on both sides of the border, they also show how they have moved through different class positions with respect to the wage relationship. Carolina, whose in-home childcare was devalued by other immigrants who claimed that they had never seen her work, represents a crucial element in the reproduction not only of the future workforce, but also of the current workforce because her labor “liberated” other immigrant women for work in New York’s service economy. Carolina’s flexibility to care for her own family and other women’s children permitted the adaptation of various workers to precarious, low-waged work. Gilda, Eva and Beatriz were liberated from unpaid reproductive labor because family members in Zapotitlan assumed care of their dependent children. However, Gilda and Eva took on remunerated reproductive work in New York to “rest” from toiling in sweatshops and restaurant kitchens.

Extending the hard-working immigrant discourse, migrants extolled the virtues of their abilities to work autonomously. Migrant women were proud of their work, took initiatives to perform at high levels over extended periods and talked about how they staked out some autonomy in what were extremely difficult working conditions. They sought to cultivate their supervisors’ satisfaction by working fast, taking on additional tasks and being always available through high and low seasons. They “did men’s work” and managed others to ensure that restaurants, movie theaters, and convenience stores were clean, food was prepared and other peoples’ children content. The desire for autonomy forms part of the construction of a neoliberal, flexible worker who has internalized the idea that she is not deserving of citizenship or social protections. This subject is deserving of (a meager) salary and nothing more.

Through a Foucauldian lens, the hard-working Mexican immigrant discourse is a truth claim that produces subjects, like Gilda and Beatriz, who conform to expectations of normative behavior (Foucault, 1978). From an analysis of how subjects were produced through regulation and control, Foucault turned his attention to how neoliberal subjects play an active role in their own formation as “entrepreneurs of the self’ (Dilts, 2011; Foucault, 2008). In Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, Byung-Chul Han suggests that this subjectivity corresponds to the post-industrial, immaterial and networked forms of production common under finance capital (Chan, 2017). According to Chan, disciplinary society corresponded to the rise of industrial capitalism. Institutions such as the family, schools, prisons, hospitals, military barracks and factories disciplined workers through experts’ discourses constructing the norms of acceptable behavior. Chan argues that the restricted movements of workers through these confining institutions and policed discourses imposed limits on productivity.

With the rise of finance capitalism, the post-industrial, immaterial and networked forms of production required the constant breaking down of barriers. The subject was subjugated less through external discipline than a being constantly working on itself, optimizing its performance. Chan (2017) argues that the subject under finance capitalism is more like a project, constantly being sculpted into better and better form. The self-exploited being is “free” to improve, attempting to reach an always-receding finish line. This represents a more efficient form of subjectivation and subjugation, because the class struggle turns inward. The subject struggles against her/himself. Collective class struggle is abandoned and replaced by a repressive individualism in which problems are internalized and can only be resolved by the individual working on him or herself.16

Although IT workers, traders, and other professionals associated with finance and technology are the paradigmatic workers in the new economy, the evidence from undocumented Mexican migrants who work preparing food, cleaning houses and stocking shelves points to the fact that they, too, have succumbed to an internal self-exploitation regime. They constantly push themselves to do more and to do it better and faster. Gilda’s fast hands that did the work of two people, and Beatriz, who, even though she did not know how to do the work, said “yes,” and aimed to please, represent how psychopolitics have become a dominant force even among the workers occupying the lowest, most vulnerable, precarious, disposable and deportable spaces of the social hierarchy.

At the same time, we would be remiss to suggest that psychopolitics is the only force shaping the subjectivity of undocumented workers. Immigration policies, both the surveillance of the border and interior enforcement, constnict the “illegal” subject limiting immigrants’ mobility and wellbeing in the United States (De Genova, 2005). These policies, conceived during the Fordist, industrial capital era to restrict the movement of both legal and illegal labor, weigh like a nightmare on the neoliberal, mobile subjects discussed in this book. The border walls, drones, detention centers, etc.—brought into being during the flexible accumulation phase of capitalism—are instruments of Foucauldian disciplinary power. Migrants discuss the terror of disciplinary control they encounter at the border, forcing them to walk through the desert for days, without food and water, in an attempt to evade detection and detention. At the same time, the militarization of the border created the conditions for risky, expensive human smuggling operations and the diversification of criminal groups who prey on migrants.17

The disciplinary control regime at the border has spawned numerous academic and popular critiques. However, what has received less critical attention is the self-exploiting, migrant-entrepreneur who, although undocumented with miserable wages, is available, indeed is disposed, to throw herself into her work, always doing more, always optimizing what she is doing for the good of the enterprise. The neoliberal, undocumented entrepreneur's subjectivity—the hardworking immigrant—shores up her moral right to belong in US society through her hard-earned contributions to productive and reproductive labor. Here the technology of the self—the self-exploiting, entrepreneur service worker—is integrated into the technologies of domination and power—i.e., the construction of the “illegal” subject through punitive immigration policy. For Eva, Gilda, Beatriz and Carolina, these technologies infiltrate the body. The illegal self is redeemed—for an uncertain period of time—by and through the evermore laboring, optimizing neoliberal self.

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