A few weeks ago I blogged here about how we should live, and to what extent working according to the rules of a corrupting system would be an unacceptable surrender of our dignity, and a cowardly shirking of our duty towards ourselves and our fellow citizens. I didn't reach any conclusions, as I needed first to clarify what was it that made the current system so unacceptable. I started that clarification in this subsequent post, but it ended up being just a description, from which little could be deduced.
In order to refine that line of thought, I intend to review the undesirable features of the system described there, so I can better see to what extent they are essential (so their elimination or amelioration would require the complete overhaul of the social structure) or accessory (so they can be worked around without such a drastic change).
The main thrust of my objection to the digital capitalism we live in is its lack of "humaneness". Instead of being conductive to the fostering and development of the highest potential we have as rational beings, it seems to incentivize the basest, most stupid, most primitive impulses, and to reserve its biggest bounties for those that can single mindedly pursue those impulses (in the end, too many times it seems to pay to be selfish, rude, insensitive, downright violent, lying, duplicitous, jingoistic, self-aggrandizing and philistine). Now that tirade reads more as a denunciation of the worst aspects of human nature, irrespective of the social system in which it develops, so at first sight may seem of little help. Let's dig a bit deeper on how the peculiar features of our kind of capitalism may foster or hinder those traits.
Let's start then with the first, and probably most essential feature of capitalism tout court: the fact that it forces everybody to work crazily towards greater and greater capital accumulation, or the accumulation of money or other marketable amterial goods (which starts, of course, selling one's own labour power if he is not endowed with some initial capital, and trading the commodities he can get hold of for profit once he has). Before we pass judgment on this, we have to better understand what is the nature of that compulsion, and to what extent working for capital accumulation is compatible with a worthy life. As it turns out, both questions are tightly intertwined.
To ascertain the way society forces us to work we have to distinguish between two life situations: we have those people (the vast majority of the population) who start out in life with no assets of their own, and those that from their very first day have a sizable amount of property they can draw from. For the frst group, the sale of their labour-power is not optional, as they need some income to satisfy their most basic needs. It could be argued that we are not in Marx's time any more, that the salaried worker does not need to sell all of his labour-power for the capitalist to appropriate it (paying only its exchange-value, which is always a much smaller amount, and the real origin of all the capital's profits), that now he or she could sell just a portion, enough to satisfy his basic needs, and enjoy the rest of the day as leisure time. Well, just writing that imaginary argument made me giggle, as anybody that maintains such choice is actually possible, specially for the collective we are talking about, shows either bad faith or an astounding lack of knowledge of how the labour market works in advanced industrial societies. Any young worker who does not show a willingness to "give it all", to put the interest of his employer before his own or to extend his working hours if needs be would last very little in most (if not all) of today's hypercompetitive firms. There may be some cosseted niches were this is not so (university professors that just got tenure come to mind, and may be some highly unionized jobs in tightly regulated sectors, like air controllers), but I'd guess there are so few of those niches as to consider their overall effect negligible.
So we can confidently assert that one unavoidable consequence of the first defining trait of our social system is that it forces the vast majority of the population to work incessantly towards material wealth accumulation, as those who do not show interest in such incessant toil (or would rather direct it to other ends) are forced either entirely out of the productive system or relegated to their lower rungs (and treated with scorn by all the sources of "legitimate" opinion, which devotes much of its symbolic production to sing the praises of the "winners", thus by contrast denigrating the "losers"). Before we consider how that dreadful consequence could be avoided, for completeness sake let's review the downsides if any) of the rest of capitalism' features, which will rquire yet another post