How Capitalist Society Ruined the Concept of Work

Life can be hard these days. If you happened to be unemployed, you can't say that there is no work. There actually is. In fact, there is more work to be done. What we don't always have is jobs.

There are two things you have to keep in mind in our unique capitalist society - meaningless jobs and unemployed masses. These defined the way our capitalist economy shapes our relationship to work.

When it comes to work, it's all about finding meaningful and useful work. It is a uniquely modern problem as our economy is structured so that there will be countless people without meaningful jobs while a majority don't have the most basic human needs met.

This modern society has failed to organize things in a way that would benefit everyone. People are both starving and homeless, and yet, the system disincentivizes efforts to address these issues. Communities, cities, and countries all have things that need to be done, problems that need solving, and issues that need resolving. However, as individuals, we have limited time and energy. We have jobs that are devoid of meaning and purpose, yet we cannot spend our time in more meaningful ways as we need a steady wage to survive.

Finding a decent job has become increasingly difficult, with the decline of industrial jobs and the wavering security of a college education as more graduates are going into low-wage or unpaid entry-level jobs. It seems impossible to escape the trap of the system. The pandemic has exacerbated the already dire situation, with employment lagging far behind expected levels.

The root of the problem lies in three different elements of capitalist society: (1) the profit motive, (2) the misallocation of labor, and (3) the crises that are built into the system. The pursuit of profit has led to a situation where jobs that are deemed profitable are prioritized, while jobs that are necessary for the betterment of society are undervalued and underpaid. The misallocation of labor has resulted in an oversupply of certain jobs, while other jobs that are in high demand go unfilled. Lastly, the system's inherent crises, such as recessions and economic downturns, further worsen the situation, leading to mass layoffs and job losses.

The Profit Motive

The central issue of our current crisis lies in the failure of the profit motive, a key element of capitalism that is often touted for its efficiency. Capitalists argue that the pursuit of profits through providing goods or services that fulfil people's needs can lead to a natural transformation of self-interest into the common good. However, the reality is quite different. In numerous sectors of the economy, profit is generated through speculative means that do not benefit anyone. The profit motive often perverts the common good, rather than enhancing it. Companies, in their pursuit of higher profits, engage in destructive practices, such as destroying brand-new products, intentionally building flaws into their products to make them obsolete faster, or wasting perfectly good food. These actions not only harm the environment but also fail to properly address human needs.

The profit motive has resulted in the alarming pollution of our planet and the increasing wastefulness of our lifestyles. However, it's not just in the market of goods where capitalism's incentives are not in our favor. The same issue arises in the realm of work. The relentless pursuit of profits leads those at the top of society to accumulate more wealth than they could ever need or use, while at the bottom, there is a wide gap of crushing poverty. This issue starts at the hiring stage, where the profit motive drives the managerial class to offer potential employees lower wages, inferior benefits, longer hours, and more hazardous working conditions in order to gain the slightest edge over their competitors.

Workers encounter a comparable predicament, where they accept the lowest possible wage if it implies securing a job over another individual. Due to the profit motive, companies have an interest in hiring the fewest employees, providing them with the smallest salary, and maximizing their working hours to extract every last penny the competition isn't capturing. However, the profit motive also prompts companies to provide jobs that are progressively meaningless but highly lucrative for shareholders.


Let's examine the other side of the coin: unemployment. While the profit motive is a factor, the capitalist economy has another feature that explains our lack of jobs. For a capitalist system to function, it's essential for some people to be unemployed. This is called the natural rate of unemployment and it's a foundational element of 21st-century capitalism. Companies consistently push wages down in a capitalist economy to increase their profits, stay competitive, and retain complete control over labor.

Two things must be guaranteed: there must be an available pool of workers to pull from, and there needs to be a segment of people experiencing not only unemployment but also dire need so that an otherwise unappealing job gets filled. This is why capitalists are so staunchly against sensible welfare provisions. As long as people are desperate enough, capitalists can cycle them in and out of jobs that barely allow them to maintain an acceptable standard of living.

Firing workers must be as easy as possible, which includes knocking down the barriers put up by unionized labor and government regulations. This way, the threat of unemployment becomes more tangible. If this weren't the case, profits would not be maximized for the capitalist class, and they would slowly be pushed out of the market in favor of their more ruthless competitors. Therefore, the quest to maximize profit naturally pushes people into unemployment and artificially creates a scarcity of jobs.

In other words, for the system to work properly, there must always be a reserve army of labor - a section of the population that is unemployed and actively worse off. Economists estimate this to be around five percent of the workforce - a percentage of people who are unemployed but only for a short time. In reality, unemployment is maintained at a much higher rate and includes far more people in both longer-term and more dire unemployment. Otherwise, hiring stops being as flexible and profitable for the owner class.


Capitalism has been criticized for relying on underpaid workers and the constant flow of desperately unemployed individuals who face homelessness. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The profit motive and the overall organization of our economy pervert the notion of jobs entirely. Useless jobs become lucrative, while specifically useful jobs are made unrewarding. David Graeber, an anthropologist best known for his book "Bullshit Jobs" (2018), observed that some jobs exist solely to make the rich more money and keep people working, contrary to the promise of technology's automation easing our work week to fewer hours, allowing us to enjoy our lives more.

Unfortunately, our capitalist society has tightened its grip on exploitation for exploitation's sake. Instead of phasing out human labor as more jobs become obsolete, creating an advanced economy where humans do not need to perform all essential labor, the quest for profit has created new jobs that serve only to boost numbers on a computer screen, accumulate the wealth and power of a greedy few, and keep the masses locked into jobs that alienate and exhaust them too much to fight for meaningful change.

Although farming and industry jobs have declined, we produce enough to cover far more basic needs and general goods than we could ever require. So where did the jobs go? According to Graeber, jobs became meaningless. In a 2015 YouGov survey of the British workforce, 50% of jobs were deemed to be pointless. Paradoxically, these are often white-collar, highly valued, and most lucrative jobs that fall into this unfulfilling dead end. These are not the essential workers spotlighted by the pandemic who we all saw are foundational to our survival. Instead, a capitalist system that pursues growth for growth's sake and drags us along, forcing countless workers into aimless employment with the threat of starvation, creates a landscape of pointless labor that serves only to keep the machine running smoothly for the benefit of those at the controls.

The masses work not for the common good but to accrue financial capital for the disproportionately small ruling minority. If we were to eliminate our attachment to the profit motive, the delusion of infinite growth, and the ridiculous idea that we all need to put more than half our waking hours into a job regardless of its necessity, our entire system would come undone. Homelessness, the 40-hour work week, minimum wage jobs - none of it would be justifiable if we eliminated these pointless jobs.

Currently, there is a labor shortage in the minimum wage, particularly in restaurant jobs. However, this is not due to any real shortage of people looking for a job, the existence of too strong a social safety net, or a sudden lack of need for restaurants. People are realizing that when corporate lawyers make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year protecting multi-billion dollar companies from the repercussions of their harmful cost-cutting, offering the bare minimum poverty wage of $7.25 an hour, not providing benefits or flexibility for an appropriate work-life balance, or even a safe work environment for a necessary job, is not going to get people lining up to work for them.

The combination of a job market that actively pushes people into unemployment or meaningless jobs, kicks wages down to the lowest possible rung and makes it unprofitable to provide for the needy, despite our ability and desire to do so, creates an infinite cycle of worsening conditions. A more thinly stretched economy justifies austerity measures for out-of-touch governments. It continues to concentrate wealth at the top and makes it even easier for a greater degree of exploitation to be forced upon the working masses.


We have now come to the final piece of the puzzle - the regular destabilization of capitalism. Every few years in recent decades, the entire economy crashes, and we experience a recession or depression. This phenomenon, which happens on average every five to ten years, is a structural feature of a capitalist economy. These crises, like the inaccurate rating of subprime mortgages in 2008 or the start of the pandemic in 2020, are not the unexpected product of random happenings across the world. Rather, they are the natural tendency of capitalism to fall into crises due to the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, creating monopolies and a falling rate of profit.

Non-capitalist economists anticipated the fragility of capitalism over a hundred years ago, as Karl Marx observed, and this has been proven right time and time again as economic crises occur and continue to multiply. This problem balloons until investing money is less and less useful, stagnating an economy that needs to grow endlessly to survive, inevitably crashing it and dragging countless millions of human beings into precarity. Long-term sustainability is sacrificed at the cost of a fragile but functioning economy, which is liable to collapse at any moment. When it does, it is labor, not capital, that suffers, and regular people end up without a job and without a safety net.

However, the solution to this problem is not to create more jobs as every leader has promised since the beginning. More jobs don't always make things better if those jobs are pointless, alienating, dangerous, or demeaning. Instead, we need to recognize the role jobs are meant to play and make them reflect that role more accurately. Jobs should not just be a way to make money for ourselves or for executives. Work, whether it's within the framework of a job or not, should be conducted with the express purpose of improving the human condition at both the individual and societal levels.

Wage-based labor does not accomplish this goal. Imagine how many different things we could achieve if we committed our labor to our needs. We could improve our infrastructure in long-sighted and sustainable ways, build up our green energy capacity, increase the amount of available housing, and focus on our local agriculture, among many other things. These projects are rarely profitable, and that's why we don't see them today. Despite wage labor being at the center of a capitalist economy, it is neither natural nor eternal, and as we've seen, it makes people infinitely exploitable.

As socialists, we have arrived at the conclusion that it is the unfair exchange, the contradiction between those who hire and those who sell their labor, that is at the core of our biggest societal challenges. Work is not simply an economic practice; it is a political act. As people who want a better future, whether you consider yourself socialist yet or not, our goal should be to politicize work in a more just way, whether that's through co-ops, unionization, or direct democratic control. Countless theories on work, compensation, and political economy have been devised by socialist thinkers over the years, and it is up to us to apply them to our current reality.

Final Say

Work is an essential part of life, but it should not consume our entire existence. Human life is about much more than endless toil, it is a diverse and complex experience that includes art, food, relationships, personal growth, and more. Work should facilitate these experiences, but under our current system, it does not. Instead, work is solely a means of generating profit, with no limit to how much is required.

However, we can achieve the necessary and even luxurious outcomes of work with far fewer hours, better conditions, and a shorter span of our lives. The only reason we don't is that our profit-based economy functions on a different logic. It is a system that has made us endlessly toil for the benefit of the few, people we will never meet and whose names we do not even know.

In order to build the future that we deserve, we must dismantle the system that abuses work, the most fundamental of human endeavors. We need to transform work from a means of generating profit to a means of improving the human condition. This requires a new approach to work, one that recognizes the dignity and value of every person's labor and that prioritizes the needs of society over the needs of the few. This is not an easy task, but it is one that we must undertake if we hope to create a more just and equitable world.

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