Mundane Dissent /Andrew Cole

Mundane Dissent

Andrew Cole, Department of English, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

Marx once explained “alienation” this way: “The worker…only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home” (Marx, 1978, 74). Is it not the case today, however, that the worker feels at home when at work because she is at home less and less working more and more, if not two or more jobs? Don’t more and more people take home their work to finish the job off the clock? And aren’t more people asked to be “on call” for their jobs, either virtually or actually? I ask these questions because “dissent,” which acts against alienation as Marx originally understood it, now more than ever raises questions of place, scale, and intensity in capitalism.

Accordingly, then, it seems to me that “dissent” indicates something smaller than revolution, armed rebellion, guerilla action, social protest and labor strikes, all of which are scaled differently, for historical as much as organizational and political reasons. But “dissent” is larger than devious thoughts and isolated utterances. “Dissent,” I think, is a middle scale event that transpires in those spaces juxtaposed by Marx, at home, on the job, and life in the spaces between. The suggestion intends to recover some of Sartre’s insights. In the first volume of his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre, frustrated with the vulgar Marxist binary of “individual/collective” by which praxis was traditionally conceived, tried instead to think in a more granulated way about the various daily life activities that can add up, somehow, to a larger group action that can be rightly called praxis. By his litany of examples, all very situational, many funny and awkward, Sartre shows — though never says as much — that dissent is grounded in the mundane, begins there, and returns there (as the “practio-inert”).

Mundane dissent is both the refusal to be fully at work when at work — not unlike the older “refusal to work” craze — and the habit of working for yourself while on company time. The first kind of mundane dissent activates itself within uneven economies of value: when more and more is expected of you for less and less, you do less and less more and more as a way of generating value for yourself. The second kind of mundane dissent partakes of practices like those evidenced at least since the Middle Ages, when peasants understood that goldbricking is not as enjoyable or effective as daily forms of counter expropriation, whereby time allotted on the mill for the lord’s corn is instead devoted to grinding their own. The medieval struggles involving banalités — by which labor is met with counter labor — are potentially instructive today as one thinks about the practices and behaviors within modern corporations and institutions, and the kinds of activities that go noticed by the boss or, as in the case with mundane dissent, unnoticed. Such invisibility seems to be a crucial strategy in an age when an increasing number of corporations manage labor not in the manner of the old Foucauldian surveillance and so-called disciplinary regimes but real-time tracking. That Wal-Mart knows how many employees participate in a walkout, before the organizers themselves know, points to just one of the many anti-dissent capabilities fostered by the Information Age.

Mundane dissent is not about manifestos and public protestation, which is why it is different from the “refusal to work.” Berardi, at any rate, already described the lessons of that previous program: the right to laziness, manifestoed and manifested, was answered with the regulatory laxness we now loathe as deregulation. From my point of view the lesson learned is a dialectical one: a good dissenting idea will likely be turned into its opposite, a bad idea — bad for dissent and good for capital. Which is itself an argument for mundane dissent, for doing what needs to be done under the radar.

If mundane dissent isn’t meant to be visible, it certainly isn’t designed to be fashionable. But the flâneur, who is often celebrated as a model “outsider” and resister extraordinaire — that’s reason enough to reject him — won’t take this idea lying down, or give up on the style of dissent. But behold him: as this perambulating cool cat looks in from the outside, he is also “being seen” looking in as the outsider — which seems to be unfortunate feature of some models of dissent today, often academically derived, in which dissent equates to outsiderism predicated on visibility duly stylized on Instagram. Capital loves dissent of this kind, just as the flâneur loves malls, because style is always subject to taste, then appropriation, then pathological politics — not affective politics but visceral unthinking ones. All that’s shown on TV, for example, are the sundry styles of Occupiers in public and private parks, as if to meet the viewers’ desire to be disgusted or shocked, but the real dissent of the Occupy groups lies in what’s invisible and often undocumented — their efforts to address homelessness, the lack of available health care, and the scarcity of food by actually supplying homes, medicine, and food for free. Occupy groups operate on a scale of Doing that is larger, more creative, and more time-consuming than what’s described by the phrase “mundane dissent,” but they nonetheless exemplify the kinds of efficacy possible, even on the most ordinary level, when style, visibility, documentation, and manifestation are viewed as beside the point.


Berardi, F. 2009. The Soul At Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, trans. F. Cadel and G. Mecchia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Marx, K. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. R. C. Tucker. 2nd ed. New York:Norton.

Sartre, J. 1982. Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1, trans. A. Sheridan-Smith. Ed. J. Rée. London: Verso.