Mythbusting Capitalism: The Free Market Spreads Boredom, Not InnovationJune 12, 2011
A frequent myth about free markets and market economies is that competition between firms spurs innovation. The idea here is that individuals motivated by profit will invent new products or innovate old ones to get the edge on their competitors and gain a greater share of the market. There are numerous examples cited: Ford and the automobile, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, Daniel Plainview and oil (or milkshakes) or whatever. And while all this might sound reasonable in theory, it just doesn’t work out that way in real life. While the profit motive and markets may create this one incentive for innovation, all the other ways that markets prevent or actually crush innovation and creativity are left out of the equation.
The Political Economy of Boredom
High unemployment, widespread poverty, the homogenization of thought and culture, and the general misdirection of resources away from institutions that genuinely spur innovation (like education and the arts) are all products of a system which requires firms in an economy to streamline production, keep the costs to investors low and maximize profit. A society that keeps millions in poverty or burdens them with monotonous toil and conformity is not a society that encourages creativity and innovation, but crushes it.
For instance, if markets are adept at innovating anything it’s methods of production, like the development of the assembly line, robotics, or high-speed communication, for example. However, as political economists have pointed out for centuries, with each step taken in streamlining production–making it faster, simpler and more “efficient”–so too is the boredom, tediousness and monotony of work advanced as well. The German philosopher and political economist Karl Marx colorfully illustrated this in Capital in 1867,
[W]ithin the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital.
In other words, in order to maximize profit and expand production, work has to be streamlined and thus the boredom, repetition and monotony of work is increased (degrading the worker “an appendage of a machine”). In a market economy it’s not an option for a firm to not innovate production and find cheaper, simpler ways of producing goods and services. Maximizing profit is the only way to ensure that businesses keep their doors open or prevent themselves from being taken over by a larger firm (no matter how “socially conscious” a business or owner may be). And so long as the overwhelming majority of the population is doomed to spend a chunk of their days slaving away doing monotonous, mind numbing labor, that society will be stifling to creative thought and innovation, not advancing it.
Mainstream education almost invariably and necessarily mimics the monotony of labor. This is not only necessitated by the misdirection of resources away from education to give tax breaks to corporations and fund warfare, but also because education needs working-class children to conform to the obedience and boredom of their life as a worker. The typical school day of most schools is a mirror image of life at the workplace: sit down, perform boring repetitive tasks for about eight hours under the supervision of some authority figure and do what you’re told, or else.
The purpose of mainstream schooling is not to teach people to think creatively or critically, but to anesthetize young people into conforming to the obedience of capitalism. Political leaders are quite clear about this, in fact, as they frequently justify increasing standardization and regulation of education by citing the need to “reform” education to prepare children for the labor force and competition in the “global marketplace.” The New Left inspired educator Jerry Farber aptly described the creativity crushing nature of mainstream education when he wrote in “A Young Person’s Guide to the Grading System” in 1969,
History is so engrossing. Literature is so beautiful. And school is likely to make them dull or even ugly. Can you imagine what would happen if they graded you on sex? The human race would die out.
While innovations such as robotic production could be used to give workers more leisure time–perhaps for going to school, creating art and culture, reading or writing, or just hanging out and having fun–they’re used instead to lay workers off, placing the excess labor on the remaining workers, almost without exception. This phenomenon is just one of the causes of the urban crisis beginning in the 1960s which led to massive poverty density in urban centers like Detroit, Oakland, the Bronx, South Chicago and so on. As technological developments in manufacturing allowed for faster and more automated assembly, workers, especially black workers, were laid off in droves, dooming millions to poverty in the name of profit. This leaves us today with all the problems characteristic of inner city poverty such as high levels of violent crime, failing schools, high drop out rates and worse. Tell me again how widespread poverty is supposed to encourage creative thinking and innovation?
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould sums all of this up quite well, saying that he was “somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Millions of people who have had all the talent and brilliance necessary to be great musicians, writers, inventors, scientists, painters, doctors or whatever they liked, have instead been doomed to lives of poverty, monotonous toil, lonesome domestic labor, prison (since poverty necessitates finding illicit work in the underground economy) and so forth.
Locking up Innovations and Throwing Away the Keys
But what happens when when innovative ideas actually manage to break through? Then they must tackle the veritable fortress of copyright, patenting and regulatory laws that are used by corporate regimes to crush ideas that challenge their hold on power. So, when a new medicine or energy source is created or discovered, big pharmaceutical and energy companies will use these laws to crush or prevent further research and development in order to prevent a new competitor in the market. When new innovations still manage to jump over these hurdles, they are typically bought out by the business dynasties, patented and then locked in a vault somewhere on Wall Street. Want a cure to cancer? Look in the basement of Pfizer’s headquarters, you’ll probably find one or two. There’s so much more money to be made in treating the symptoms! Who would want to cure it?
For one more elaborate example: Consider male birth control. A new method of non-hormonal male contraception called RISUG (“Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance”) has been developed by Indian researchers. RISUG is an injection based contraceptive treatment that has been proven in study after study to be 100% effective for up to ten years and completely reversible, with absolutely no side effects at all. It’s simple (one painless 15 minute operation, and it’s just as simple to reverse the procedure) and extremely low cost. Female hormone based contraception is so expensive and so loaded with disastrous side effects that, were this procedure to be available to the public, there would be an absolute rush at the clinics for it. But it’s not available to the public, and won’t be for a very long time. Wired Magazine explains,
[Researchers] looked around for a corporate partner but found no takers. Unlike birth control pills, which must be used daily, sometimes for years, RISUG is a long-lasting, low-cost treatment (the syringe could end up costing more than the material it injects).
“Pharmaceutical companies are not interested in one-offs,” [researchers said]. “They’re interested in things they can sell repeatedly, like the birth control pill or Viagra.” Reluctantly, [researchers] gave up on plans to commercialize the procedure in North America.
A useful, inexpensive form of male contraception is not available to Americans because corporations are blocking it from being made available precisely because it’s so inexpensive that it would put them out of business. Go figure. Unfortunately this sort of thing happens all the time under capitalism, from food, to fuel, to pharmaceuticals and beyond.
A Proposal for the Future: The Economics of Equitable Cooperation
Far from spreading creativity, the competition and greed necessitated by market economies directly stifles and inhibits it. Imagine the potential if all the trillions of dollars of resources hoarded by corporations were used cooperatively for research, discovery and innovation, instead of being used competitively in the hopes of putting one another out of business. Luckily for us this potential for an equitable and cooperative future does exist.
The alternative can only be realized with the replacement of private ownership of production with social ownership, and replacing free-market competition with a system based on decentralized, democratic planning, where production is no longer out of self-interest and private gain, but for the benefit of society (and the environment). In this system of economic planning, all production, distribution and consumption would be planned democratically by workers and community members. Workers and community members would decide in small councils what should be produced, and estimate how much of each good and service is needed for a certain period of time (based on previous consumption patterns). This wouldn’t actually have to be any more complicated than filing taxes. The prices and costs of goods and services could then be either raised or lowered to reflect real social and ecological benefits or costs (e.g., today it’s much more expensive to drive low-pollution hybrid vehicles than gas guzzlers even though low emission vehicles are obviously better for society and the planet, and should therefore be less expensive to own and drive).
Since, in this arrangement, economic firms would necessarily act out of the interest of social and ecological benefit, massive levels of economic resources would no longer have to be misdirected to the conquest of foreign resources (like oil, for example) or to the interests of maximizing private profit, but could instead be directed toward education, arts and other things that genuinely spur innovative and creative thinking. Furthermore, time- and labor-saving innovations in production (like robotics and high-speed communication) could be applied to shortening the working day for each employee, instead of shoving off thousands to collect unemployment. Since productivity always increases with each new innovation, there is more than enough for everybody to enjoy and still work. Finally, even the structure of the workplace could be rearranged so that employees could split their working day evenly between (the necessary) boring labor, and creative and empowering labor, so that our jobs no longer have to be boring but could actually be fun and thoughtful.
This may sound like a pipedream to the cynics but there’s no reason this isn’t a possibility for humanity’s future. These sorts of cooperative and democratic economic, political and social arrangements have been tried and have even worked in the past (or are even succeeding in some form or fashion today). In the immediate future we should fight to win shorter working days, higher wages and benefits and more resources for education and public endowments for art, science and creative work. But in the long term we need to solve the whole problem. What we need in order to seize this future is a powerful, militant movement of people who are willing struggle for their own liberation. Join us!