“The New Spirit of Work”

By Laleh Khalili

Throughout its post-Independence history, Lebanon has acted as a prototype of the kind of practices we associate with the most strident aspects of late capitalism or neoliberalism: minimal regulatory apparatuses; state practices orientated entirely to facilitating commercial activities; cursory limits on capital movements and investments; and extraordinary exploitation of unprotected and precarious migrant labour. The shape its capital investment on the one hand, and labour force composition on the other hand, has taken is also a microcosm of larger global and regional transformations and a beneficiary of the geopolitical re-alignments and conflicts that have shaped the states in the Middle East.

Investment and capital movements in Lebanon have always been far more international than depictions of a national capital would reflect.  The movement of capital not only from a Lebanese merchant diaspora overseas, but also from Palestine after 1948, and between the increasingly affluent merchant and ruling classes of the Gulf from the 1940s onwards, and especially after the 1970s has meant that the ownership of assets, commercial interests, banks, and infrastructures have always transcended a strictly national belonging, in ways that have criss-crossed sectarian boundaries for example (with sectarian connections cross-cutting the national boundaries).  It is fascinating to see, for example, the predominance of Palestinian capital in banking in Beirut which was an outcome of the flight of bourgeoisie from Palestine from 1947 onwards, and especially after 1948.  Or the extent to which the collapse of Intra Bank in 1966 heralded a shift in the location and sources of capital in Beirut.  When viewing the landscape of investment, construction, and urban development today, it is impossible to speak of a national capital, since sub-national forms of ownership and investment (i.e. sectarian ones) are inevitably tied in to transnational networks and flows, particularly from the Gulf.  The hinges and pivots which indicate the shift between different eras of investment are often geopolitical: 1948; 1973; 1982; 1991 and now 2011.  These are all moments with specific historical imports which have also been crucial in the topography of capital in Lebanon.

In their wonderful analysis of The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello dissect the particular ways in which a supple, flexible and inventive capitalism has appropriated, coopted, and domesticated forms of artistic and social critique advanced against capitalism in 1968, adopting and absorbing these critiques and transforming in response to them in ways that reinforces its power.  In particular, what they show is the production of flexibility in work and employment, the valorisation of entrepreneurship, the capitalisation of the “creative self” and the making of innovation and creativity and flexibility central to the management of capital and of workers.

But the spirit of work in Lebanon is influenced not only by the processes delineated by Boltanski and Chiapello but also by the specificities of local, regional, and international politics of Lebanon.  Not only is precarity and flexibility the order of the day in Lebanon, but many of the same historic pivots and hinges that have influenced capital have also been significant in the production of a labour force that can be disciplined, exploited, and made docile. Where sectarianism has only assisted the advance of capital (even despite rivalries), sectarianism has been a successful disciplining mechanism, with sectoral exploitation of workers belonging to different sects, unions affiliated with different sectarian institutions, and inter-sectarian competition to monopolise certain labour markets.  The institution of divide-and-rule has been assisted through most of the history of Lebanon (and until very recently) with the absence of restrictions on Syrian labour coming in to Lebanon (this has changed of course recently), and with the steady flow of refugees from Palestine, Jordan (after 1970), Iraq, and Syria as a kind of reserve army of the unemployed.  In addition, the deployment of a set of formal and informal rules around labour (such as confiscation of passports; limitation of movement of workers especially if they are domestic workers; and limitation of their access to welfare, health or consular services) has guaranteed the importation of workers, and particularly female domestic workers from various labour exporting countries.

What has been interesting is the effects of these movements of capital and labour, and of political transformations in the region on the Lebanese art scene. There is a substantial shift from the spheres of production and consumption of artistic production in the last few decades.  As Hanan Toukan has shown in her extraordinary research on the art world in Lebanon, artistic production in the 1970s was orientated around concepts of political liberation and Third Worldism predicated on the support artistic production received from, inter alia, the PLO. Her trenchantly critical reading of the material underpinnings of the art scene in Lebanon traces two major shifts in the post-Civil War era.  First, 

in the 1990s contemporary artists and their supporting networks and organizations reacted in their work to a very particular post-civil war scenario … through an introspective turn which entailed a move away from what they saw as their predecessors’ tendency to “write back to the empire”. 

A second change came about with both the emergence of Gulf countries as consumers and purchasers of arts, and as the emergence of European collectors, foremost among them Charles Saatchi, but also various museums and galleries in Europe and North America, who looked for particular forms of artistic outputs that could be bought, sold or displayed.  As Toukan’s writes, in the 2000s two primary influences shaped the Lebanese art scene:

by the early 2000s the scene was growing in parallel with international funding organizations operating within the rubrics of Washington’s broad and far-reaching “civil society and democratization” framework in the region. This reality, which in part enabled (particularly from 2000 onwards) the internationalization of that same scene, through the direct support of the transnational processes of production and consumption, and theory and critique which it became entrenched in, raises questions regarding what “counter-cultural”, “subversive” or “alternative” production in such a context entails.

How are we to read back these transformations in the world of work in the art world in Lebanon?  And how do we incorporate gender into our reading?

In part, we need to think about the world of artistic production not only in that moment where a creative object comes into being through some alchemy of talent, training, practice, and inspiration.  But we have to also think about the brick and mortar institutions and spaces in which art is conceived, produced, displayed, and sold.  And we have to think of the work that goes into maintaining these spaces.  

Beirut now has several museums, art spaces, and commercial art galleries and seems to be on the way to establishing more and more of these types of institutions.  The construction of such spaces is profoundly raced and gendered, as the work of sociologist Ray Jureidini has shown: with male migrant workers from Syria (but also from Egypt, south Asian countries, and East African countries) dominating this field.  Once the spaces are constructed the art world’s workers are dominated by women in some of the most visible positions (if the capital flowing more invisibly is still overwhelmingly gendered male).  Here, the class composition of these visible workers matters a great deal – and gender will simply not suffice as a mode of analysis.  Many of the independent art galleries in Lebanon are owned and managed by upper class women with access to capital, real estate, and the kind of resources (ability to secure permit, networks of clients, customers, and artists from whom work can be commissioned etc) which are necessary for establishing such commercial ventures.  Many of these women are attached via filial or marital bonds to major commercial and capitalist families of Lebanon. They are the models of innovative and creative capital delineated by Bolatsnki and Chiapello par excellence.  They are crucially located in the transactional node between commercial and financial reproduction of capital and its artistic critique, and in the very act of commissioning or funding artistic critique they absorb it and domesticate it. 

The ordinary workers of most of these galleries are overwhelmingly women from professional classes; many have educations in art history or the like, and have been able to afford such educations because of familiar support and can work in a field which notoriously underpays and exploits the labour of the workers precisely because there are familiar forms of financial support available.

The artists whose work is displayed similarly enjoy a certain degree of familiar support.  Here, although I don’t want to speak about the content of their work, I think it is really important to go back to Boltanski and Chiapello’s discussion of forms of artistic critique and its absorption.  The New Spirit of Capitalism lucidly lays out (p. 424) the well-known centrality of a discourse of liberation to capitalism. This discourse sees capitalism as a means of escape from repressive familial and “traditional” strictures on morés, beliefs, behaviours, sexuality, and forms of gender performance.  Within this capitalist set of practices, an artist can choose her own mode of social affiliation; and within the system of commodification and capitalisation, the “complex circuits of gits and return gifts” or reciprocity and extra-monetary forms of exchange diminish.   As feminists and queer theorists have pointed out, the emergence of gendered and sexual autonomies and heterodoxies is also tied to the development of capitalism, the emergence of “free wage labour” and the fact that the family is no longer a unit of production.  While the family may diminish in the sphere of production, and its hold on gender discipline loosens (though the emergence of love marriages; or of independent daughters and sons who live away from home), nevertheless, as for example John D’Emilio has shown, the family becomes far more important as a source of affective relations, intimacies, and love (and new forms of discipline that comes with these affective attachments).

What these might mean for the material conditions of artistic production in Lebanon is complex. On the one hand, artists can find spaces via which they escape forms of gender disciplining.  Queering of gender and sexuality can happen more easily.  Production and reproduction of rebellion can also happen within the parameters and constraints demanded by the hybrid and complex admixture of capitalist production and stubbornly surviving familial and filial attachments. Within the tension and push-and-pull of a capitalist liberation and familial affections, the work of artists producing rebellious, or critical or revolutionary work can be precarious, but it is also really important to recognise that their kind of precarity is incomparable with the precarity of work done by –for example- the cleaners who clean the galleries, or carry the works of art from one place to the other; or who are responsible for the maintenance of the spaces.

I again refer to the work of Ray Jureidini who has enumerated the repressive mechanisms in place against the women domestic workers in Lebanon, many of whom are also the menial labourers keeping up the appearances of the artistic spaces.  Jureidini lists restrictive and unjust contractual provisions (in those instances where even such contracts exist) and the inability of the domestic workers to enforce the terms of the contracts; the growth of informality which only endangers the conditions of labour of these workers; the restrictions on their movement not only within the cities but also abroad through the normatively approved confiscation of their passports; their lack of access to legal protection; their restricted (and often times non-existent leisure time); highly uneven remuneration scales that are heavily racialized and gendered; long hours of work; and on and on and on.

Within this schema of exploitation, the precarity of artistic producers is relatively mitigated by the very gender regime that also acts as a mechanism of disciplining and control.  Familial connections so frequently used to enforce repressive gender and sexual norms can also be activated to act as a safety net in the last instance for many artistic producers (though not all).  

This notion of precarity mitigated by familial connections means that a layered, hybrid and complex form of capitalist relations dictate the shape of artistic production in Lebanon. On the one hand, the work produced is bought by wealthy European or Gulfie collectors.  The European collectors often look for works they consider edgy or transgressive, and upturning of gender and sexual norms and performances tend to figure prominently in their definition of edginess.  Gulfie collectors may not necessarily privilege such gender transgressions, but their modes of acquisition of arts reinforces the fundamental parameters of capitalist production and reproduction in that world, the capitalisation of creativity, and the commodification of the creative self as an investment vehicle.

In this hothouse of artistic production, the work of women who sell their labours in much more menial, routine, and ordinary ways, as cleaners, clerks, and officer workers recedes to the background, while specifically gendered access to capital by gallery owners and managers sets the stage for the commercial intercourse in the arts.


A talk presented by Laleh Khalili in a forum organised by 98weeks: "Labour. Capital. Institutions: A Forum on Feminisms" in 2,3,4 of July 2015. This paper was translated to the arabic by Elia El Khazen and published in Permanent Revolution magazine issue n.7 (February, 2017)