Alastair Hemmens, Cardiff University

22 October 2019 (Workshop 23 October, the Critique of work in modern French thought)

A plethora of works have been published over the course of the past decades or so since the 2008 financial crisis that purport to offer a ‘critical’ stance towards work. These texts include Peter Fleming’s The Mythology of work, Frayne’s The Refusal of Work, and Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work. The appearance of these more critical approaches to labour speaks to a sense that all is not right with the world of work. Nevertheless, this paper will speak to the limitations of these ‘critiques of work’, which, like previous examples in intellectual and political history, in reality generally limit themselves to a critique of this or that empirical phenomena associated with labour, rather than advance a critique of work as such. Drawing on the critical theory of the late Wertkritiktheorist Robert Kurz, this paper will explore what a genuinely radical critique of work should consist in today, that is, a categorical critique of work as an historically specific, destructive and irrational abstract social form that has progressively and brutally imposed itself on human activity over the course of the past five centuries.


Alastair Hemmens’ research focuses on critical theory and French intellectual and cultural history. He has particular expertise in the field of the ‘critique of work’ and the study of the post-war artistic avant-garde. His most recent book, The Critique of Work in Modern French Thought, from Charles Fourier to Guy Debord (2019), puts forward a critical negative theory of labour as a destructive social form historically specific to capitalism in order to analyse critically the intellectual history of anti-work discourse among radical French artists and intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

His research is therefore concerned both with the elaboration of a critical theory of modern society, both in the abstract and in its many concrete manifestations, and the critical analysis of the history of intellectual engagement with these same issues. His critical perspective is primarily based on an engagement with the critique of value and critique of value-dissociation frameworks advanced in the work of such authors as Moishe Postone, Robert Kurz, Roswitha Scholz and Anselm Jappe. The critique of value provides a radical Marxian critical theory of capitalism as a form of abstract and impersonal domination, rather than, as in ‘traditional Marxism’, an analysis that assumes the critique of modern society is primarily a matter of personal domination in the form of private property and class relations.

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