Capitalism and the labor market in its current form as a source of pain—and ultimately violence

After mulling this over for many weeks, my belief in the hypothesis I am describing below has become so strong, I would be willing to bet on it being at least to a substantial degree the explanation for why, mechanistically, so many people in our country are currently experiencing a lot of pain, making them willing to engage in violent thought and behavior towards others.

The belief that you, as a person, and what you think you could reasonably contribute to society and the world doesn’t matter–or at best only insofar as that you can do a job that needs to be done, no matter whether you like it or not–is a significant source of pain that many people who are “just doing their job” are carrying with them. And even if your profession does matter to you, ever increasing “competition” (money and income as a limited resource) due to market pressure increases the experience of economic insecurity. My contention is that the collective (primary or root) pain stemming from these experiences has dramatically increased in the past half century.

I would attribute the increase in primary pain to quite some degree to the following mechanistic chain of events: accelerated automation and shifting job profiles led to a loss of meaning for many professions, because machines are shown to be better than humans by now in many areas. And a squeeze of additional human resources into many other areas of work in turn led to suppression of incomes due to increased competition, specifically for all “jobs” that are conceivably trainable–by an education system that creates financial dependency on a high enough income to repay the debt that individuals incurred to get the training in the first place.

Eventually, people are doing jobs that they either don’t like, and that simply haven’t been replaced by machines yet, or, even if their jobs might inherently be satisfying, like working in academia, the hyper-competitive environment in which they occur drastically increases the economic insecurity, again making it painful. And like with every pain people experience, our human brains need, and if necessary construct or appropriate, an explanation for this pain, either as a reason for it (my pain means something), or as a culprit (someone is responsible and to blame for my pain).

In the current climate the culprits depend on one’s ideological and party affiliation: people on the right have chosen immigrants–that is xenophobic explanations for suffering–and others who do not believe as much in the power-for-good of markets (fear of leftist ideas) as the people to blame. People on the left have chosen lack of empathy and other character flaws, leading to a moral superiority over people on the right, as culprits. In both cases, it allows people to think violently about these “others” and ultimately to act in ways that create even more, secondary pain.

Not convinced? Let me try to unpack at least a bit…

How does competition lead to a reduction in meaning? Imagine that you really like an activity so much that you want to make it your profession. It’s a situation I would consider as having the experience that this work activity gives your life meaning, which could be doing scientific research just as much as baking, dancing, or healing or protecting people… And suddenly there comes someone who tells you that “you’re not good enough at the job” to do that, and that you have to find something else.

If that kind of image stirs in you a sense of “well, that’s socialism” it is certainly true that a socialist society in which some central intelligence attempts to decide how many people and who ought to work in what profession, because it is best for everyone, would absolutely have that effect! And you may now think, “So, what does that have to do with capitalism and the labor market?”

I will get back to that question in just a second. For now, take a moment and focus on the experience of realizing that for whatever reason–either a person or system or a market telling me that I’m not good enough at what I would like to do with my life–no-one else seems to care (enough) about what gives your life meaning. So there is something you would really want to do to contribute to society, something you believe you’re good at, and then for some other reason you’re being told, “no don’t do that, because…” either it was decided elsewhere (central-intelligence socialist model) or because it pays so little it’s not worth it (capitalist market model).

And I admit: it is true that in a society like the US, no one person is (or could be) “telling you” what to do (instead of your desired activity), but the labor market does signal for people to what extent the activity that gives their lives meaning is something they can afford doing, given the economic risk (lack of safety and certainty). On top of that, a market may not be a central intelligence, but it certainly is a way of making decisions through reward signals, and that means the produced biases towards choices are not in the hands of the individuals who are making the choices, but are instead determined by “the invisible hand.”

Unfortunately, humans are really bad at correctly judging the source of their emotional pain, and it takes a lot of consciousness and time and effort to understand that, for instance, in a situation in which the value of your work output is questioned a lot of unconscious processes are going on, likely leading to an experience of pain or threat. And it is then so easy to attribute your boss as being the source of that threat. But if you had a different boss whose job it was to evaluate your work (according to some impersonal criteria), the experience would be just the same. So, the source is a system in which my value is determined by rules that are more and more obscure. And at some point it becomes just much easier to say, “oh it’s the immigrants” or whatever else people might be telling themselves.

And this experience of a fight can then, in turn, give human lives meaning. So what can we do? We need an alternative source of meaning for people that does not depend on markets and pressures that, for the purpose of progress and technological advancement, are necessary. And as long as we cannot find positive, non-violent meaning in this world, we will always find ourselves in a bind that, ultimately, makes violence appealing.