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Capitalists Want You To Be Happy: Self-Improvement and Exploitation

Capitalists Want You To Be Happy: Self-Improvement and Exploitation

Since we’re looking at Stolen Lands, Stolen Culture, Stolen Time this month at Turning Wheel, it’s worthwhile to examine capitalism. What is the fundamental mechanism that allows capitalists to accumulate wealth?

It seems like every week we hear another outrageous story of skyrocketing corporate profits while many of the rest of us struggle or worry about basic needs. While some of these newsworthy profits are due to outright deception and consequent lack of prosecution, how is it that many of us are working harder than ever to achieve the same quality of life or less?

How does profit get extracted from our work? The best illustration of this problem is of a worker who gets paid based on how many hours she works, yet the full value of what she produces in those hours is greater. For example, she may be hired for an hour’s work and be paid $10. The capitalist has her use a machine to make meditation cushions, and she is able to make a $50 cushion every 15 minutes. At the end of an hour, the capitalist gains $200 of work for paying the worker only $10, capturing $190 in gross revenue. After deducting operating costs for the cushion’s raw materials and depreciation of the machine, the capitalist is left with, say, $140. Since the worker doesn’t own the machine or the products she makes with it, the capitalist has been able to extract a significant surplus value (profit) from her one hour’s work. From a Marxian point of view, as long as the worker is not being compensated for the actual amount of work done, she is being exploited.

For those of us who might work for a salary, the principle is similar. Take a full-time, exempt staff person working at a community non-profit organization for a salary of $25,000 a year, which comes out to about $12 an hour. Those of us who have been part of such hard-working organizations are probably familiar with the culture of working endless hours beyond the usual 40 hours a week, in the name of a good cause. If this staff person works more than 40 hours a week in order to accomplish what is necessary, they are not being compensated for the overtime. The organization is able to extract surplus from this person’s work, which is in many ways less visible than the previous example—the non-profit professional often does not produce a measurable product that can be said to have X dollar value. While it may pain non-profit professionals to say so, this is still exploitation.

Another important example of exploitation, pointed out by feminists, is the unpaid labor of women at home. Care of others, whether physically or emotionally, is traditionally allocated to women. Domestic chores are performed without compensation and on top of any paid work women might do outside of the home. Women also often perform unpaid emotional labor within nuclear families, caring for the suffering of family members. Such labor helps the family reproduce and nurture new laborers, and has enormous economic value that the larger system of capitalism benefits from without having to pay for it.

In the United States, mindfulness and yoga practices have become part of the culture of many major corporations—using the rhetoric of care and self-care to improve the health of its employees—which would seem to be a good thing. The call for self-improvement through these practices is often in the name of a more productive, innovative workforce—which facilitates better surplus extraction. Happier, calmer, loyal, and more focused employees working harmoniously together is a good thing for corporations because they believe it will benefit their bottom line.

This brings up questions of “right livelihood,” since working for, say, the oil industry is certainly different from working for a community non-profit in terms of whether your work causes or reduces harm in the world. Being happier, calmer, and more productive in the name of peace and justice is not such a bad thing, though your organization may still be extracting surplus value from your work. We live in an economy that is based on such extraction, and not participating in it is almost impossible. We still have to purchase products made under such conditions.

We need to remember that Buddhism is in many ways not about happiness. It is about ending suffering. If we focus only on achieving happiness, then we can actually accept all kinds of injustices. We might be happy while our bosses extract hundreds of dollars from our one hour of work, or happy working for a harmful corporation because it encourages our self-improvement, or happy constantly performing unpaid emotional labor at home for miserable men, or happy while purchasing products made in sweatshop conditions or by slave labor. If we remember to focus on ending suffering for everyone, then none of these situations will make us happy. Sometimes we might have no choice but to be in these situations, in which case we can work on developing our equanimity or compassion. But ultimately, the extraction of surplus value is not an economic method that facilitates the end of suffering for all.

Comments (10)

  • Richard Modiano

    Strictly speaking, the theory of surplus value is more properly a socialist view although most fully developed and articulated by Marx. A small point.

    Concerning non-profits, since going to work for one three years ago I’ve gone to seminars on non-profit management, fund raising, etc. and learned the expression “sweat equity.” It refers to all those uncompensated work hours that employees are forced to work if they want to keep the institution running. Where I work, we have a degree of workers’ control and are only answerable to the board of trustees through our elected representative.

    Because we all believe in our non-profit’s mission we work even harder then for a typical capitalist enterprise, and this is also true of worker-owned businesses as well. as long as we’re forced to work in the larger capitalist economy this is going to remain an unanswerable dilemma.

  • Per

    This is such an important topic, thank you. I’ve often thought about making an inner harmony is not the same as being happy and complacent. Please continue this conversation!

  • Lauren Brown

    I have long felt alone when people involved in personal growth work, even meditation centers, don’t acknowledge these systemic issues, so seeing them addressed here brings a sense of companionship and relief. Krishnamurti is often quoted as having said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” This article elaborates the structural issues involved; having long sensed them, I appreciate their being articulated by someone more informed. Would also like to learn more – including what to do about them! All that said, I’d still like to think a degree of contentment can be cultivated through mindfulness and finding ways to share our gifts with the world.

  • Kenji

    Richard: I think a worker-owned business or co-op is a wonderful way to subvert some aspects of exploitation. Since one of the key problems in capitalist production is that workers do not own the means of production (machines, equipment, materials, etc), a worker-owned business changes that dynamic. I would be curious to see how the numbers work out, as in, does a co-op model of business significantly change the amount or nature of surplus value extraction?

  • Kenji

    Lauren: That Krishnamurti quote is one of my favorites, and I think that being “well-adjusted” to our society is certainly not an aspiration I have. On one hand, it is probably important to be able to function somewhat in our society, otherwise our marginalization will be extreme. On the other hand, complete assimilation into dominant economic values is not such a great situation either if we care about ending suffering.

    I agree that a certain degree of contentment is possible despite all of these issues. While injustices are many and great, I don’t think it helps to be miserable about it all the time—this is where our practices of equanimity and compassion can come in to ease the way. The great gift of dhamma practice is that we can be aware of many contradictions and try to navigate them more or less skillfully, feeling out when it’s necessary to act, and in what way.

  • Kenji

    Per: I think you are very right, that inner harmony is not the same as being happy and complacent. If a person is happy and complacent, I would say that person is lacking a bit in compassion, since feelings of compassion naturally draw us closer to the world and help us empathize with suffering. In the US, extreme alienation and isolation are commonplace due to many reasons, so I would imagine that this is an issue that arises fairly often.

  • Richard Modiano

    Perhaps some people may have heard of Mondragon Co-operatives based in the Basque region in Spain. There are financial, industrial, retail and educational co-ops that are federated and employee around 80,000 workers. There are wage differentials among the workers with the executive layer receiving the highest wage. Last year the United Steel Workers signed an agreement with Mondragon to form worker owned co-ops in the US. It remains to be seen if the co-ops are worker controlled as well as worker owned.

    Still, as long as co-ops have to operate in a capitalist economy there will be some degree of exploitation involved. In response to a question about Mondragon Noam Chomsky observed, “If you’re in a system where you must make profit in order to survive, you’re compelled to ignore negative externalities fixed on others.”

  • Jeff

    Much truth and goodwill in this dialog! I am inspired by attempts to establish worker-owned businesses here and internationally (e.g., Venezuela). However, it’s a very uphill battle in a capitalist economy. Not that we shouldn’t keep trying. Definitely need to change the System, as you say.

    As we do these thought experiments, I’m particularly interested in active, feet-on-the-ground movements that are challenging exploitation. It’s great to read about active struggles in these pages! (my thing is universal health care).

  • Juliana Essen

    Like Jeff, I’m always excited to hear about real efforts to challenge the hegemony of global capitalism. The good news is that there is actually an enormous amount of economic activity that goes on outside the capitalist system. Feminist geographers JK Gibson-Graham (communityeconomies.org) say that what we think of as the capitalist economy (i.e., wage labor in a capitalist firm) is really just the tip of the iceberg–all of our other economic activities that we engage in throughout the day (like bartering, volunteering, co-ops, gifting, reciprocity, etc), are the part of the iceberg we cannot see below the surface of the water. So perhaps we can sharpen our powers of observation…and the more we see, the more we can support these activities. All the better for strenthening our communities.

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