My recent response to Paul Graham’s article on economic inequality allowed me to express a few of my relatively mainstream economic ideas to a wider audience. I think that the discussion about inequality is worth fleshing out a bit more, but I’m not so interested in getting into the much-rehashed capitalism versus socialism theoretical debate. Instead, I think a practical article is due: how should people who make their livelihood by selling labor survive and thrive in our current era of soaring inequality and reduced labor-power? How should people avoid realizing downward social mobility? The short answer to these questions is that people must embrace identification and proper utilization of personal resources.
Before we continue addressing the title’s question, let’s define some terms that may not be common. First, “late capitalism” is a term which refers to a turbulent phase of the economic system of capitalism. I’m not going to define what capitalism itself is here, but late capitalism is characterized by matured globalization, soaring inequality and attendant opulence/poverty, reduced economic growth, weakened social safety net, mass consumption, and reduced boundaries between political and economic systems. Departing from the definition that Wikipedia offers, I do not believe that there is an overtly Marxist revolution in our near future which would bring a definitive conclusion to the economic system of capitalism. I do believe that workers must advocate for themselves in order to receive compensation for the resources which they expend at work. The term “late capitalism” is still fruitful because it is a convenient way of describing the broad strokes of an unstable period of time.
The confluence of these trends results in increasing poverty and a threat to individual standard of living. The purpose of this article is to shed new light on how an individual can navigate this period of time conscientiously rather than as shark bait– the unfortunate fate of the underclass. The underclass is filled with people who experienced downward social mobility, and who now have trouble surviving.
The next terms to define are “survive” and “worker”. To survive late capitalism means having sufficient personal resources to ensure that physical and emotional needs are met for an individual, as well as their dependents. Critically attendant to this is that survival in late capitalism constitutes the continued ability to rent personal resources in exchange for money. For our purposes here, having no money and no ability to get money is equal to death.
Money can be thought of as living inside all resources like an ore within rock. The resources in question are too many to list, but I’ll get into some of them, namely time/energy, physical health, skill set, disposition, fluid cash, and social network. Taken together, the sum of personal resources that an individual can bring to bear can be considered as “capital” which a corporation may rent in order to make a profit by utilizing the individual’s resources. A worker is a person who rents their personal resources as their primary way of gaining money. The most important step to surviving late capitalism is understanding what your personal resources are and ensuring that no single personal or social resource is depleted beyond renewal as a result of renting them out for money.
If a resource is depleted beyond renewal, opportunities to sell your labor which would tax that resource are now cut off. Resources depleted beyond renewal typically result in realized social mobility downward or abject poverty. For many people, there appear to be few choices but to continue depleting the few resources they have until they are barren. If resources are on track to be completely depleted with no way of renewal, we can call it a death spiral because it eventually results in economic death.
Why would renting personal resources out for money at a job result in these resources being rendered barren? Given the way that I have identified my terms, there is inherent tension between the concepts of surviving and being a worker. Working is renting out personal resources in exchange for money, and there are no guarantees that these resources are being rented out and expended at the correct rate or monetary return.
At a naive level, we can say that a worker who rents their physical health resource out too aggressively may end up sick or injured, and thus unable to work until they have recovered. If the worker’s physical health is completely depleted, they may become disabled or dead, precluding their use of renting that resource in the future– an economic deathblow resulting accidentally or from mismanagement. This may seem a bit flip, but it’s a real concern for manual laborers.
Physical health is a personal resource which is finite, but renewable. The same could be said for a worker’s mental energy resource. All workers rent out some of their physical health resources as part of the package that employers demand. Sitting at a desk hunched over a computer all day is detrimental to your health, as we all know– yet it’s part of many jobs.
“Working harder” by expending more physical effort may result in injury, but it’s seldom worth extra money directly. A dilemma occurs when the worker unwittingly or unwillingly expends more of a given resource than they intended given the terms of employment; it is rarely possible to go back and re-negotiate a new fee based off of personal resources expended, though a corporation is sure to do exactly that if they overrun their budget for a contract. So in many situations, workers cannot retroactively correct imbalances in resource use, assuming that the imbalances are noticed at all. I will state that this situation is the progenitor of many injustices, and there is little economic or political pressure to create a remedy.
An additional difficulty occurs when we consider exactly which personal resources are going to be expended for a given job. Every job will deplete a worker’s physical energy/health, mental energy, and time resources. Most jobs will also deplete some of a worker’s money indirectly in the form of transportation. It is very easy to lose track of our individual resources and how much we are taxing them, as we often realize when we look up from our work and see that it is 9:00 PM instead of the informally agreed upon stopping time hours earlier. Thankfully, our time resources are always renewable, though we may have plans to utilize them in certain ways on any given day.
In order to prevent personal resources from being depleted beyond renewal, explicit knowledge of the total quantity of each resource and the rate at which that resource is used must be understood in depth by the worker. Making a rational deal with an employer regarding use of personal resources is impossible without explicit knowledge of what those resources are and how much they will be expended, yet most people have only vague ideas of what is in their stable, and what is in their work contract. Furthermore, employers always have concrete knowledge of their company’s financial resources, but never have an itemized list of employees personal resource expenditures; this inequality favors the employers massively, as it means they cannot be held accountable for breaches of contract resulting from too many personal resources being used. Having this kind of knowledge explicitly stated will benefit employers massively as well, allowing them to understand inefficiencies of individual resource use and provide crutches as needed to make their workers happier.
Employers hide and thrive in the ambiguity of personal resource use; workers are eaten alive by uncalculated overages. Surviving late capitalism is possible by rectifying this inequality via the surgical application of knowledge directly where it is unwelcome. A vague plea for economic fairness falls on sewn-shut ears, but an itemized invoice for resources disbursed is undeniable. Though corporate culture is not yet receptive to such brazen empiricism, they will grudgingly adjust if the issue is forced by their employees– and it must be forced vigorously.
It is my assumption that the majority of worker resources including money (for housing near work, etc) are expended in large quantities by their work, with the remaining resources being expended at home or “wasted” by disuse. A wasted resource is a resource which isn’t utilized by the individual, whether to rent out for money or to be expended on other things. The most easily wasted resource is time, though physical energy and social resources are also typically not fully utilized. We will forget the topic of wasting the money resource, as it is a very large jar of snakes that has been discussed many other times.
For most people, expending the majority of their resources on work is a way of life that is accepted as necessary and virtuous. The difficulty with the “virtuous” component of this point of view is that it promotes a peculiar type of rounding-up fallacy where the worker believes that it is just for their employment to consume the majority of their resources, so a little bit more sacrifice in the name of employment is also just.
There is even a pejorative name for this tendency: the Protestant work ethic. The tendency to commit more resources to work than the minimum explicitly agreed upon in the employment contract is a form of wasting resources, as the resources are not expended for personal purposes nor do they directly result in more money for the individual. The defense of an individual against wasting resources as a result of work is to explicitly agree on the amount of resources that will be expended in the course of work with the employer.
As uncomfortable as it may be to force the issue of limits, not agreeing in writing to ironclad boundaries always leads to a worker’s personal resources being wasted. For some jobs, overtime is a form of agreement which offers compensation for resources which would otherwise be considered by the worker to be wasted. For most jobs, the there is no such agreement where in fact there should be. This norm is harmful, and must change.
When on average more workers commit more resources to work than the explicitly agreed upon amount, employers grow to expect that level of commitment. This is how a society eventually arrives at exploitation when starting from acceptable premises. More perversely, workers grow to expect their level of resource usage to be higher than the explicitly agreed upon amount even including the previous over-commitment, creating a death spiral of sorts. We as a society are currently in the midst of this death spiral, and only by simultaneous individual action can it be stopped.
How frequently do you spend more time at work than is required? How quickly does being at work physically tire you? Mentally? Does it cost a lot to get to and from work? What does that work out to weekly? Are you zombie-like after work, or still perky? Are your personal relationships being impeded by work? Is your skill set being bolstered at work, or is it decaying from disuse or overly narrow use?
Brutal honesty is necessary here. Work is not the only thing which taxes personal resources, though– family, recreation, religion, and friends count too. All activities that an individual performs consume their personal resources to some extent. Luckily, many activities are beneficial and can refill depleted resources.
As an exercise, write it all down in a table which details the resource, your estimated total capacity for this resource, current amount of this resource, whether the resource is renewable or not, and how roughly how much of each resource you use when you are doing activities required for work, home, or play. Are you being compensated for the totality of usage of these resources, or just a few? Is the current rate of resource usage and renewal going to result in this resource being rendered barren if given enough time? Which resources are being wasted at work? At home? Did you sign up for this, or something else? Aside from economic issues, this is a great way of finding out which activities of your life are beneficial and which aren’t great.
Identify potential death spirals, and use your resources to stop them as quickly as possible. Economic death spirals can literally kill you if you’re relying heavily on your physical health as a resource. Which resources are being tapped to capacity and are in danger of being burned out? Is there a certain changeable life situation which you can see is going to lead you to ruin? Why are your resources being drawn on so hard? Would it be possible to trade expenditure of one resource for expenditure of another for a time being in order to let a heavily taxed resource recover a bit? For mental energy, people might consider a vacation as a way of vaccinating themselves against burnout by expending money and time. If your skill resources are stagnating from not being used, you can use time, mental energy, and money resources to take a class and stay sharp.
Frequently, social resources have to be called on in order to stop death spirals– don’t be shy, and ask for help well before it’s too late. Family and friends can frequently spare some of their resources in order to give a little slack. Social resources include government and state programs; make use of public resources as much as possible in order to free up your own resources. Aside from using public resources, use friends and coworkers as advocates; if everyone systematically quantifies their resource use and demands compensation and a reduction of wasted resources, there will be change.
Remember: economic gravity means that it’s much easier to fall than to rise. The fewer spare resources an individual has, the more likely they are to slip down the economic ladder, and the less likely they are to rise. If an individual is constantly heavily drawing on all of their resources in order to trade them for money, we can say that the individual is a wage slave, and is likely on the cusp of downward social mobility, though they have already likely experienced some in order to arrive at that point.
So, how should a person protect and increase the amount of resources they have, given that having personal resources is so critical to survival? A great boon is to have a job which increases your skill resources and social resources via learning new things and meeting new people. As skill resources and social resources grow, an individual’s value becomes more clear to potential employers, even if they haven’t fully tabulated all of the resources they’ll be using in the job.
There will be few people that suggest skill building and networking are not economically useful for an individual. Skill building should be a priority for anyone interested in surviving late capitalism; as employers demand more, you must have more to actually provide. Being in a habit of constantly building skills is being in a habit of constantly providing for your future. This habit will likely tax certain resources heavily until they compensate, so remember not to tap them out completely.
Just skill building isn’t enough to confer survival, though, as not all skills are economically equal. I would suggest a meta-thought here: an important skill is the ability to differentiate economically lucrative skills from merely economically sustaining skills. This isn’t as obvious as it sounds, and many people jump at what is easy to learn rather than what is profitable to learn. Learning how to operate an espresso machine provides a skill that may offer some financial sustenance, but it is not lucrative. Learning how to perform surgery is lucrative. A measurement of economic demand is frequently a good place to get started.
To summarize: a surviving individual’s response to the extreme economic pressure of late capitalism is to increase resource expenditure in themselves in order to to make par, frequently by building financially rewarding skills and social resources. Explicitly knowing what personal resources are and the rate at which they are expended during work is critical, as is a realistic work contract which recognizes the above. In the event of an inaccurate contract or set of circumstances which taxes a person’s resources too heavily, care must be taken to avoid death spirals.
I hope this article shed some fresh light on my personal strategy for surviving late capitalism. Given the bold points that I have bulleted, I worry that I have been a bit longwinded. Unfortunately, I already know that the ideas I put forth here aren’t going to help people who are trapped in the underclass, but maybe it’ll prevent some middle classed people from slipping down to there. I do not yet have a real solution for the general problem of “most people don’t have enough personal resources to flourish”. I’m not an authority on this topic by any means, and “the struggle” is far from over. I feel as though I will have a lot more to add on various aspects of this piece, so expect me to revisit it relatively soon.
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2 thoughts on “How to Survive Late Capitalism As a Worker”
Tying back into the Paul Graham thing is instructive. SV survives in its current state because of a culture that depends upon people not understanding precisely the principles you are describing. A startup is, essentially, a bunch of people renting out their labor to an idealized version of their future selves to the point at which their resources are entirely depleted, with on average zero return; a culture that encourages startups must either hide the fact that most startups make no money and ruin the lives of everyone involved to the point at which they can essentially no longer function, or introduce some ideological element that suggests that burning yourself out is a noble sacrifice. I feel like the culture that Graham and his friends are attempting to construct is the latter (combined with a heaping dose of secularized prosperity gospel).