Andrea Struebe


Working on the self. Subjectivation between refused employment and obstinate joblessness


“We used to think that the underclass's forms of living were the result of their poverty. The opposite is correct: Poverty is the result of their form of living, a result of underclass culture.”

(Renate Kuenast, quot. after Tsianos 2013: 23)

The debates about the so-called “new underclass” staged in the media, generate a homogenous picture of benefit recipients that is studded with ascriptions and degradations. This picture has been solidified since the introduction of the “Hartz IV Legislation” in 2005 and the connected modifications of social state's institutions following “neoliberal” (Butterwege 2012) or “neosocial” (Lessenich 2008) paradigms; within this process, the proverbial 'lazy unemployed', who nestles up in the 'social hammock', has been established (Lessenich 2012). Unemployed people, particularly permanently unemployed, are predominantly made responsible for their situation, as they allegedly receive social benefits in a “lazy, impertinent, brash” manner, without any service in return (Baron/Steinwachs 2012). The lazy, effort-loathing, probably uneducated, alcohol-addicted, scruffy unemployed has become manifested as a medial ambassador of a marginalised underclass.

These representations serve a demarcation and evaluation of certain, constructed groups of people and, at the same time, legitimise a retreat from the social state: “The readjustment of the social state and the cutback on social benefits are enforced by the assertion that aid money does not solve social problems, but that they produce them in the first place” (Friedrich 2012: 100). Accordingly, people on which a genetic disposition (Haller/Niggeschmidt 2012) and/or individual failure (Kessl/Reutlinger/Ziegler 2007) are imputed, could, allegedly, only be motivated to a more active behaviour on the job market through reductions, sanctions and a tightening of rules of reasonability. As long as these people are not willing to make an effort, social inequality, in a converse argument, is legitimate. At the bottom of these demands, there is the assumption that social welfare, if not programmatically focused on the activation of unemployed, downright parents the underclass's laziness. The debates about the “new underclass” are, hence, about its education (Chassé 2010: 39-48). In this way, the job market reforms of the Schroeder/Fischer government from 2002 ultimately aimed at the unemployed orientation on gainful employment. (Doerre et al. 2013: 30).

Doerre (2013) have demonstrated in their extensive study “Tests of Mettle for the Underclass?” that delegitimising unemployment and downgrading those, who depend on social benefits, are not only social stigma of a minority position, but also – in combination with job-market- and unemployment-policies – produce a regime of activation for unemployed people. Through very strict rules of reasonability, recipients of unemployment benefits are exposed to a system of permanent evaluations and assessments as well as pushed into precarious circumstances. Overall, the job-market's regime aims at an activation of a will for gainful employment of, allegedly, unwilling unemployed people. However, one clearly cannot speak of an alleged “mentality of the underclass”. On the basis of reconstructions of subjective orientations on gainful employment, Doerre have shown that the interviewees “adhere to the norm of gainful employment regardless of the adverse circumstances with great persistency and independent of the strict rules of reasonability” (ibid.: 202). These findings correlate with other studies, e.g. that of the Institute for Job-Market- and Occupation-Research” (IAB), a research institution of the German Federal Labour Market Authority. In 2010, their study found out that recipients of unemployment benefits under the Hartz-IV-regime ascribe a high significance to labour and are “more keen to make concessions, in order to find a job, than other unemployed” (Beste et al. 2010: 7).

A Change of Perspective

The approaches to permanently unemployed people share a perspective, in which the unemployed become objects of a struggle, a group of contested opinions. One side construes a group as a problem area (laziness and refusal to work), against which political agitation is required. The other side negates the problem, without challenging the premises. For example: at this position, the interlocutors point at the small number of “work deniers”, which are a marginal group amongst the larger group of unemployed people and could not prove a trend of milieu-specific refusal of work. The attempts at academic-discursive discussion, hence, often result in refuting the thesis of copious refusals to work. Such discussions, however, employ the hegemonic discourse's premises, too: Unemployed people are passive rather than active subjects. Thus, they are a discourse's logic manoeuvre-material, which pervades through the discursive threads – be it affirmative or critical.

Such conceptions limit possibilities to investigate socially constitutive processes. Unemployed are – like all subjects – not just recipients of social incitements and politics. They contribute to a constitution of reality – albeit from a less powerful position. Unemployed are “neither passive victims nor clients, hungry for service” (Booth et al. 2012: 353). There are real processes of negotiation between controllers (job-centre-employees) and controlled, since “a substantial part of controlling occurs informally” (ibid.), i.e. there is room for negotiation. Thus, recipients of social benefits participate in the job-market regime's formats of control and contribute to social structuring – admittedly alongside asymmetric axes. For that matter, the project operates with the concept of stubbornness: “Stubbornness means that strict rules of reasonability meet recipients of benefits, who have their own concepts of justice and who develop individual scales, according to which they judge tests of mettle and the formats of testing” (Doerre et al. 2013: 212). Stubborn practices stand for the competence to wrest scopes of action from the job-market-regime.

Research Question

My project intends to grasp the thread laid out by Doerre et al., i.e. to investigate the unemployeds' stubborn activities and to re-direct the focus: away from the aforementioned discourses about a 'lazy' and 'labour-avoiding' underclass and towards an investigation of practices, job-relationships and relationships to the self of explicitly intentionally unemployed people. Following Andrea Buehrmann (2012), I will re-direct the perspective from subject-formation towards the ways of subjectivation. Subject-formation, in this concept, relates to ways “people are supposed to learn through particular practices or programmes, to apprehend and construe themselves and others” (Buehrmann 2012: 146). Ways of subjectivation, in contrast, refers “to the way, how people apprehend, experience and construed themselves and others on an empirical, factual level” (Buehrmann 2007: 642).

Hence, my central research questions are: What are the technologies (of the self) and practices, through which intentionally unemployed people subjectivate themselves? How do they deal with the discourses about unemployed? What are the strategies and forms of organisation they develop, to deal with their intentional unemployment in an allegedly precarious situation?

This study does not intend to negate refusal of work as an 'underclass phenomenon', since Doerre et al. have sufficiently proven that this is the case. Refusal of work is not a mass-phenomenon, but a valid variable. Social demarcation, sanctioning and incitements to activation culminate in the refusal of work as part of the unemployment-dispositif with its subjective realm of experience and explicit practices of subversion. Stubborn practices of those, who attempt to disagree with these demands in as many respects as possible, provide insights into the social state's techniques and attempts of fitting as well as into the possibilities to refuse them and to create a counter-discourse through stubborn practices. Focusing on unemployed people in general would induce a different line of investigation, since an intentional denial to the norm of gainful employment can only rarely be found here. In addition to that, I am particularly interested in practices targeted at the preservation of the status as an unemployed person, i.e. practices that do not comply with the majority of unemployed, who are orientated towards gainful employment.


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(Changed: 19 Dec 2022)