At times of high unemployment like the present, workers who complain about their working conditions are encouraged to be grateful that they have a job. This is the sentiment expressed both in everyday conversations and by the media. Michael Perelman, in The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism, points out why this may be asking for a lot, given the increasingly demanding and demeaning conditions under which we labor. Despite several years of high unemployment rates, worker dissatisfaction is at an all time high. A 2010 poll by the Conference Board found that only 45% of workers were satisfied with their jobs, which is the lowest level since they began their poll in 1987.1 In fact, they have found a steady downward trend over the last two decades, during both economic booms and busts.
Perelman argues that the needs of workers are ignored by economists, policy makers and businesses. While economists and the political leaders who listen to them posit a world in which natural, or even godly laws of the market dictate social life, Perelman suggests that “a different theology” guides our economy. He recounts the Greek legend of Procrustes, also known as “the stretcher,” who sadistically murdered unwary travelers by putting them in an iron bed and making them fit by cutting off body parts that stretched past the confines of the bed, or stretching bodies that were too short for the bed. Perelman draws a parallel between Procrustes’ cruelty and that of a system which requires humans it conform to it rather than having a system that conforms to human need. Perelman’s book is a Marxist theory-based corrective to the Procrustean ideology, which he finds to be absurd and inhuman.
The bourgeois press, from the Financial Times to the Wall Street Journal, has lately embraced aspects of Marxist thought, seeking to explain the dismal state of the economy, but of course rejecting Marx’s conclusions regarding capitalism. The Business Insider went so far as to say that “Marx is Hot.”2 Perelman notes this same trend throughout history whenever real world conditions blatantly refute the Procrustean ideology. However, once economic crises subside, the dominant theories of mainstream economists always re-emerge and the worker and working conditions are pushed out of the picture. In fact, the worker is typically only present in the world of economists in the role of consumer. As consumers, workers are imbued by economists with extraordinary powers over production. Yet these powers are expressed only in the form of individual preferences in the market, and never as emanating from a class of people with shared interests. Perelman wryly states that economists have transformed “potentially revolutionary Marxists into Neiman Marxists.”
This book is richly detailed with historical and contemporary examples of the Procrustean economy and worker resistance to it. From struggles over the length of the workday to debates over child labor, economists have consistently used Procrustean logic to promote the interests of Capital. If work is viewed as an individual preference for consumption over leisure time, any conditions of labor faced by workers are seen as acceptable. Beyond just being acceptable, they are hailed as expressions of liberty – of which economists see themselves as the ultimate defenders.
Procrustean ideology extends to international relations as well. International Procrusteanism, also known as globalization, is a far more efficient means of controlling the world’s resources for the dominant nations than was colonialism. As long as governments act in the interests of the dominant nations by controlling the workers within their borders, they reap some material benefits and avoid military assaults.
Perelman traces the origins of mainstream economic ideology to the work of Adam Smith, the original Procrustean economist. Smith originated the concept of the invisible hand of the market, which Perelman’s book-title evokes. Smith’s writings focus on exchange, rather than labor and production, as the key process driving the economy. This is done as a conscious effort to obscure questions of class and class conflict. His theories painted a picture of a world created by individualism and meritocracy. However, Smith was obsessed with the disciplining of workers. He spoke of the self-discipline that would emerge among workers under capitalism, yet at other times he suggests that the poor should be trained by the state in the “martial spirit” and that workers’ virtue be tested and licensed by the state. This reflects his tacit awareness of the threat of class conflict according to Perelman.
The measure of economic progress and success for bourgeois economists reflects the legacy of Smith and the Procrustean ideology. The GDP is the way that modern economists “keep score” because the measure manages to ignore work, workers and working conditions that other measures reflect. Some economists have proposed alternative measures of economic wellbeing that incorporate the level of human development and happiness in a society, but these are rejected by mainstream economists. Alternative measures would focus attention on policies to change working conditions, while the GDP keeps the focus on Procrustean-based policy.
Perelman includes a thorough chapter detailing the destructive impact of Procrusteanism. Because the workplace is not a cooperative endeavor with everyone sharing from improvements in productivity, workers are seen as the enemy who must be controlled. Workers are controlled through automation, bureaucracy, and corporate allegiance to stockholders, all of which thwart worker creativity and satisfaction. This arrangement not only hurts workers but also damages the capitalist’s long-term prospects. The cost of controlling the workers is substantial, requiring considerable resources to be spent on management, guards, prisons and armies.
Perelman highlights the barriers that keep us locked in these social arrangements, pointing to the Procrustean influence on our language, beliefs and values. While giving credit to the few economists who broke out of this mold, such as Keynes who acknowledged the need to look at the lives of laborers, Perelman critiques the limits to their proposed reforms of the market. What Perelman proposes is a society in which the workplace is not hierarchical and labor is not alienated.
The Procrusteans have worked hard to make it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an alternative way of life. This is their greatest weapon. Perelman wants us to begin to question the dominant ideology and start to imagine what a society would look like that includes human dignity as a factor of production. He posits that societies that make work conform to the needs of workers would result in true freedom, creativity, and huge increases in productivity. He also acknowledges that any attempt to create this type of society will be met with considerable resistance.
Perelman has offered up a unique framework for understanding the world we live in and how it came to be. He also makes clear why it must change.
Department of Sociology
Sacramento State University, Sacramento, California