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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Capitalism and Work

In a previous post I spoke of the relation between selfishness and the social contract, as this was understood in Hobbes and then reconfigured within modern capitalism. The idea of the piece was to underscore that modern corporate, consumer capitalism is not just an economic system of ownership and property rights, production, distribution and wealth creation, but just as importantly an attempt to form and cultivate a peculiar type of social (or more accurately asocial) individual—first and foremost as a consumer oriented by selfishness and suspicion of others as competitors for scarce resources. This can be thought of in Hobbesian terms as a 'war of all against all'--and as precisely in opposition to something like a Hegelian social or community sense of the 'I' that is 'we' and the 'we' that is 'I'.

Capitalism forms and cultivates a particular kind of self through very specific institutional, legal and political arrangements that govern work, education, health, food systems and correctional facilities that together appear as necessary, normal and natural. Let's begin with the working world.

There are those in capitalist society who do achieve a sense of self-worth and contribute to the health and well-being of their community through the work they do. But the latter are the anomaly or exception, rather than the norm. The ideal worker in a capitalist system is dominated by owners and managers whose sole function is to ‘discipline’ and domesticate their workforce. They achieve this through rigid rules regarding dress, hours of work and time off; by close scrutiny of employee performance and levels of efficiency; and, by general surveillance of email and any other computer activity engaged in by employees. The expectation is that these disciplinary and domesticating measures will instill certain habits of thinking in employees, inuring them to a dehumanizing surveillance system while assuring them that they are one of the fortunate and should be thankful to have a job.

The goal is not so much to have employers and owners extol the virtues of the capitalist system, but, rather, to form and cultivate workers who unfailingly and uncritically accept their lot in life and the capitalist system they work under as both necessary and desirable. The problem is that there is nothing natural or normal about any of this—it is plainly and intentionally dehumanizing in every sense. This is shown in the fact that workers naturally and instinctively form friendships and care for fellow workers. However, it is clear that they do so over against a capitalist system that wishes to persuade them that they are much better off when they think only about their own interests.

The vast majority of the world's population live on anywhere from 2 to ten dollars a day. Even those making more struggle to make ends meet in a capitalist world where debt and the cost of living consigns them to perpetual poverty. The last thing Amazon, McDonalds, Wal-Mart or the thousands of clothing sweat shops and employers of migrant farm workers around the world want is for employees to form a union that might empower them to demand that employers treat them with respect, pay them living wages, or worst of all, encourage and cultivate an attitude of caring and solidarity towards each other.

In the ideal capitalist workplace, employees are not seen as free beings with dignity and a sense of self-worth, but as isolated workers who labour in order to live. They are driven not to see others as friends that they share a world with and can rely upon, but as potential competitors and hindrances to promotion and success. In this way, the capitalist workplace forms individuals that no longer see themselves as interdependent social and communal beings. It is not the creation of, but rather the destruction of community and solidarity that is neoliberal capitalism's prime directive.

Under this system workers do not see their work as something they freely and willingly engage in but as a necessity, for the sake of bare survival—their own or, at most, their immediate family. They do not see the product of their labour as something that bears their individual stamp. They don't see work as something that freely contributes to the well-being of society or community. Any sense of working towards the well-being of community, of realizing myself through another, or seeing the other as an ‘other like myself’, must be left behind and replaced by a sense of the other as a rival or competitor for scarce resources and employment.

In such a dehumanized world the individual is not a multi-dimensional, unique or irreplaceable person who exists in a web of reciprocal and caring familial, friendship and social relations, but, instead becomes an isolated, self-interested, undifferentiated and disposable worker and consumer. In a capitalist system the worst thing that could possibly happen would be full employment, precisely because capitalism thrives best when there are desperate and compliant job-seekers who are willing to work gig jobs for starvation wages with no benefits.

The archetypal ‘winners’ under such a system are a small minority of extremely wealthy individuals who make themselves out to be exemplars of self-sacrifice and ingenuity, but in reality, have gained their wealth and privilege through inheritance or by exploiting workers and the environment. It goes without saying that they will expend considerable effort and resources to absolutely resist paying any sort of income, inheritance or capital gains tax. Indeed, as the gap between rich and poor reaches new extremes the entire notion of trickle-down economics--that continuing tax exemptions for businesses and the wealthy will trickle down to the benefit of all--has been the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the 99% in world history.

I have looked so far at the sort of individual that capitalism forms in the optimal capitalist workplace. What I want to do in succeeding posts is to look more closely how the media, education, and health, food and correctional systems and institutions are constructed so as to perpetuate neoliberal corporate capitalism while at the same time forming and cultivating a distinctively asocial, selfish, lonely, consumption-oriented individual.

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