The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism
THURSDAY, 15 SEPTEMBER 2011
BY ELAINE GRAHAM-LEIGH
Work in capitalist society is not only exploitative but crushes creativity and wastes intelligence, argues Michael Perelman. But is it possible for this to be changed without fundamental social transformation?
Michael Perelman, The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles The Economy By Stunting Workers (Monthly Review Press 2011), 360pp.
That capitalism is not a rewarding or healthy system for the vast majority of workers may not come as news to most of us, but as Perelman points out in this interesting book, such understanding has never been part of mainstream economics. Following Adam Smith, capitalist economics has concentrated on transactions – the operation of the market – to the exclusion of production, and therefore of the conditions under which production happens. The result, Perelman argues, is not just appalling conditions for workers but, in capitalist terms an even worse consequence, the diminution of profits.
Perelman characterises capitalist management of the workforce as ‘Procrustian’, after the mythological ancient Greek bandit Procrustes, who would torture travellers to death by strapping them to a bed and then either stretching them to fit, or lopping off any bits of limbs which overhung it. For Perelman, the metaphor captures not only the brutality of labour relations under capitalism, but the way in which workers are objectified into human capital. In this state, they are not expected to have ideas or creative input of their own, but to have to fit themselves into preconceived roles, regardless of any additional abilities they could apply if they were allowed to do so. The ‘we don’t pay you to think’ style of management, which Perelman’s students report to him is their usual experience in their jobs, is a particularly Procrustian one.
The results are not of course restricted to wasted talents, as Perelman makes clear by recounting the industrial accidents, mine disasters and air crashes which can be attributed to management’s dogged adherence to practices their workforce could have told them were likely to be disastrous. However, since Perelman’s case is that capitalism’s failure to make the most of its workers is a failure in its own terms, the focus falls on the wastefulness of Procrustian practices….
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