“What if the greatest threat to capitalism…is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity?”

In a long excerpt from The Happiness Industry, William Davies explores a real threat to capitalism: a lack of happiness.

What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is just met with a yawn? From a political point of view, this would be somewhat disappointing. Yet it is no less of an obstacle for the longer-term viability of capitalism. Without a certain level of commitment on the part of employees, businesses run into some very tangible problems, which soon show up in their profits.

This fear has gripped the imaginations of managers and policymakers in recent years, and not without reason. Various studies of employee engagement have highlighted the economic costs of allowing workers to become mentally withdrawn from their jobs. Gallup conducts frequent and wide-ranging studies in this area and has found that only 13 per cent of the global workforce is properly “engaged,” while around 20 percent of employees in North America and Europe are “actively disengaged.” They estimate that active disengagement costs the U.S. economy as much as $550 billion a year. Disengagement is believed to manifest itself in absenteeism, sickness and—sometimes more problematic—presenteeism, in which employees come into the office purely to be physically present. A Canadian study suggests over a quarter of workplace absence is due to general burnout, rather than sickness.

Perhaps people should turn their attention away from the NSA and toward their employers:

Rather than the rise of alternative corporate forms, we are now witnessing the discreet return of the scientific management style, only now with even greater scientific scrutiny of bodies, movement, and performance. The front line in worker performance evaluation has shifted into bodily-monitoring devices, heart-rate monitoring, and sharing of real-time health data, for analysis of stress risks. Strange to say, the notion of what represents a good worker has gone full circle since the 1870s, from the origins of ergonomic fatigue studies, through psychology, psychosomatic medicine and back to the body once more. Perhaps the managerial cult of optimization just needs something tangible to cling onto.

Studying happiness (and related concepts like life satisfaction and well-being) is its own academic subfield – see earlier posts here and here. And governments are very interested in well-being as well with measures like Gross National Happiness from Bhutan and regular reports about the happiest countries on earth.

All of this reminds me of sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s research on “emotion work” in relationships to keep them going and “emotion labor” in jobs that require a consistent cheerfulness or happiness as part of the routine. This would include a lot of service and retail jobs where employees regularly interact with customers and need to present an upbeat image. This is not easy to do and can be quite draining.

And what might Marx say about this – capitalism goes out not with a revolution but rather with indifference and apathy?

Growth sector: catering to the wealthy

Here is one area for economic opportunity: providing goods and services for the wealthy.

Nathan Wilmers, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, looked at how the growing impact of wealthy consumers is reshaping the economy and wages. Others have termed this phenomenon “the plutonomy,” or an economy in which earnings and spending are dominated by those at the top.

Consumer spending by the top 5 percent of households has grown 5.2 percent a year since 1989, while spending by the bottom 95 percent has grown at 2.8 percent, Wilmers said. In the past, economists have estimated that the top 5 percent of consumers account for nearly 40 percent of consumption…

Wilmers said that “the increased influence of these consumers sets up big rewards for businesses that create and sell the sorts of products the affluent want.” Specifically, he looks at salaries for butlers, wine producers, Realtors, lawyers and bankers and found that those who are best at their professions and excel at skills valued by the wealthy have the highest wages.

Even within the same industry—say, law or household staff—people hired by wealthy patrons make more than those that serve the middle class or affluent. Companies favored by wealthy consumers also have higher margins (as anyone who’s looked at Hermes profits in Birkin bags can attest).

A few thoughts:

1. At what point does the market become saturated with people and businesses trying to sell to the wealthy?

2. Some historical context would be helpful here. How much does this differ from previous eras? It makes sense that the wealthy consume more but is this significantly different than a few decades ago?

3. Isn’t this a reasonable outcome for a capitalistic system? If you want to make money, you want to find consumers who can pay for your products. Having smaller profit margins may provide for a need or exhibit altruism but a purely profit-motivated firm would seek out the wealthy.

Are McMansions about maximizing exchange value?

A commentator takes a look at a new, oversized condominium building and discusses use value versus exchange value:

The house on this lot was rebuilt into two large condominiums.  Each is about 3,000 s.f. and priced at $849,000.  It’s a way to maximize the return for the property owner.  I can’t say the building is very attractive, but it is one block from the forthcoming Monroe and Market Street development adjacent to the Brookland Metro Station, and is two blocks from the Metro.

It’s too bad buildings such as this are oversized for the lot in a manner that degrades the visual qualities of the rest of the block.  Use values, including aesthetics, are subsidiary to the exchange value of place (maximizing financial return) in this instance.

To complete the circle about use value, one could also look at the experience of the homebuyers. Are these large housing units worth the money? Even if these big homes don’t quite fit in the neighborhood, they could be nice places to live. As noted above, they are spacious, located near desirable mass transit stops, and are probably have some nice interior features (surely granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and hardwood floors!). Even the New Urbanists that wrote Suburban Nation admit that Americans have superior private realms in our homes. (Of course, there are others, like Sarah Susanka and Winifred Gallagher who suggest these spacious, comfortable homes may not be good fits after all.)

Lurking behind this analysis is Marx’s discussion of use value, exchange value, and capitalism. In a capitalistic system, much can be commodified: Twitter followers, positive online reviews, and houses. Particularly during the 20th century, American homes became more than just shelters: they were expected to increase in value and become investment vehicles. (One could look at some data to see if these oversized housing units are flipped more quickly than other kinds of housing as owners look to make money.) Builders and developers can make even bigger money on houses. One very influential idea in urban sociology in the last few decades is the growth machine model, the idea that boosters, business leaders, politicians, and developers work together to make profits by transforming open land into valuable land. From the early days of the American suburbs when streetcar operators built their lines into the countryside and then offered free rides to the end of the line to show people lots and potential to McMansions today, much development, aesthetically pleasing or not (actually, aesthetics may indeed just help increase the value!), is about making money. Commodifying the home can move the discussion away from other important aspects f purchasing and owning a home like community life, environmental responsibility, and providing affordable housing.

Quick Review: ASA 2011 Las Vegas

The 2011 American Sociological Association meetings are still going on in Las Vegas. While I was only out there for the first half of the meetings, here are a few thoughts on the annual convention:

1. Las Vegas presents a series of contradictions and this irony should not be lost on sociologists.

1a. When you fly in and out, you really see how the city rises right out of the desert.

1b. I stayed a little bit off of The Strip and this daily walk was interesting in that the landscape several blocks away was really empty, desert lots and more rundown facilities. The airport backs right up to the south end of The Strip.

1c. The opening plenary session on Friday night included discussions of different sociological traditions including feminism and Marxism. The reception afterwards included a greeting from a Las Vegas girl in a feathery costume and a Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator providing entertainment. Can one easily go from discussing inequality and oppression to enjoying the fruits of capitalistic success? The answer appeared to be yes.

2. Some of the main themes I heard at the sessions I attended: an interest in explaining the Tea Party; some nervousness (?) about the reelection prospects of President Obama; explanations that Democrats won the recent recall elections in Wisconsin (despite media reports to the contrary).

3. The conference is being held at Caesar’s Palace, just a gargantuan facility. The main conference hall must have been at least 1,500 feet long. Two downsides to the conference setting: a lack of nearby coffee shops (the closest one had ridiculous lines on both Saturday and Sunday mornings) and it was difficult to walk to other nearby attractions. One thing I noticed: while typical ASA meetings tend to tie up the facilities in one or perhaps even two big city hotels, we were just a drop in the bucket of Caesar’s Palace.

4. The Strip has to be one of the most fascinating streetscapes in the world. The combination of heat, casinos, people drinking while walking, families, the homeless, and more is a sight to behold. Of course, it is more interesting because it is all inauthentic: this isn’t a neighborhood where people live but it is an endless stream of visitors.

5. I know the country is experiencing economic difficulties but I don’t think you could tell this by simply looking at The Strip. There were plenty of people of all ages and backgrounds walking around and spending money. If you wanted to find a place to study consumption and/or tourism, this would be it.

6. One thing I just cannot understand: why is there not public transportation from the airport to The Strip? While there is a monorail that runs behind the hotels on the northern end of The Strip, one has to take a shuttle or a taxi from the airport. I don’t know if these private firms have a lot of political clout but it seems like the city would want to help people get from the airport to The Strip as quickly and cheaply as possible.

7. People say the heat is a “dry heat” – I do think it makes a difference. While it was roughly 103 degrees during the days I was there and it was still 94 degrees at 10 PM one night when I was out walking, I definitely felt the humidity in Chicago on Sunday night.

Big cities promote new ideas

Big cities are generally thought of centers of innovation for both business and culture. This article suggests this effect is particularly pronounced in developing Asian countries:

“Cities are the first to embrace many concepts that are a taboo in towns and villages,” says Sandhya Patnaik, a sociology professor at Delhi University, referring to pre-marital sex, live-in relationships or divorces.

“Anything new or modern touches cities first. Trends percolate to smaller towns at a very slow pace.”

Occasionally in India, the battle between village tradition and liberal city culture can have deadly consequences, such as the “honour killings” seen in Delhi’s migrant areas…

But experts say cities across the world generally serve as a positive melting pot, where different cultures intermingle, encouraging tolerance and the interchange of ideas.

“The freedom in a big city comes from diversity,” Jirapa Worasiangsuk, a sociologist at Thammasat University in Bangkok, told AFP. “It’s the choices and the opportunity to choose that make Bangkok or other big cities a better place.

“People have more choices to choose how to live, to choose their career, to do whatever they want.”…

Sociologists say the freedom of cities often stems from a feeling of anonymity — but this can often tip over into loneliness.

This article seems to suggest that modern, Western ideas are found in the city. I assume most Westerners would look at news like this and think that these changes are long overdue but the article suggests these new ideas are not always met favorably. Such changes are not easy (and some places could argue whether they are desired) as the early sociologists recognized when looking at the changes urbanization was bringing to Western Europe in the 1800s.

It would be interesting to read diffusion studies from these countries that track how new cultural and social ideas leak out of cities and come to dominate social interaction.

Thinking more about this, are there major cities in modern times that have been business centers but also that remained culturally conservative? Or does being open to business tend to correlate with more liberal ideas? This would be interesting as neoliberalism is often thought of as being conservative since it is capitalistic.

When religious faith and unions come together

Even though unions represent a relatively small percent of today’s American workers, they tend to draw a lot of attention. A story from the Chicago Tribune adds another dimension to the discussion: what happens when unions and faith mix?

Faith and work are inextricably linked for most of the working class, said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“For a lot of these folks, if a business doesn’t provide health care, it could be characterized as not taking care of the stranger on the road. It’s a sin,” said Bruno, who interviewed hundreds of low-wage workers in Chicago for his 2008 book, “Justified by Work: Identity and the Meaning of Faith in Chicago’s Working-Class Churches.”

About 91 percent of union members believe in God, and 25 percent pray several times a day, Bruno found in a survey of union members he conducted from 2005 to 2006. Eighty percent believe God performs miracles in the world today…

Organizations like Interfaith Worker Justice work to close the gap between low-wage workers, who tend to have a more emotional connection to their faith, and corporate executives, who, he said, have been found to see religion more intellectually.

“They try to bring the argument to the modern-day pharaohs,” he said. “‘Hey, you claim to be Christian, you claim to be a Jew, you claim to be Muslim, why are you treating your people this way? You can’t hide behind your glass office.'”

This immediately brings several questions to mind:

1. What percentage of union actions or labor strikes are motivated by religious values? In other words, how often are unions motivated by religion versus other motivations?

2. What happens when a union makes a religious argument to corporate executives? Do the corporations just ignore this part of the argument? What happens when the executive or the company is also religious – does this lead to a different corporate response?

3. How would a typical evangelical, one that lives in the suburbs, works in a non-blue collar job, and is conservative, respond to these arguments? Can corporations sin? Should or can unions be making these arguments?