Capitalism and human flourishing?
The strange story of the bias to activity and the downgrading of work
ISS Working Paper Series / General Series , Volume 469 p. 1- 30
What interpretation of human flourishing, what ideas of value does capitalism in practice embody and promote? To address this question the paper clarifies first that "capitalism" must be understood as more than merely a system of private property and markets. It contains "the prerogative of capital", in which surplus remains with the owners of capital, and "the perspective of capital", in which hired work is defined as a cost. The question must also be distinguished from more conventional ones (Does capitalism promote human flourishing? Is capitalism desirable? Is capitalism better than the alternatives?). Capitalism may not fit very well any of the standard conceptions of well-being, as pleasure or satisfaction or fulfilment of substantive needs. Its unending drives for expansion of the supply of commodities, and for their recurrent replacement, seem to fit more closely with an activist conception of well-being. The preoccupation with levels of monetized activity arises as an effect of capitalist categories of social accounting, fanned by competition, and how they can channel deeper human motives and pre-capitalist forces. However, while capitalism overemphasises activity (as monetized throughput), it undervalues work (as human self-expression) despite its centrality for felt well-being and physical and mental health and capability. The typical conception of work under capitalism is as a cost, for the capitalist must pay for it. The activist strand in capitalist practice and in corners of capitalist theory compensates to some extent for the automatic presumption that work is a cost, but in distorted, accidental and incomplete fashion. The paper concludes by asking how alternative conceptualizations of work might contribute to a more adequate treatment of human flourishing, and how we might draw implications from the well-being literature for reconceptualisation of work, reform of categories of societal accounting, and deepening of the research on "human development".