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.