Where has rationality gotten us?

Book Review–Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation

In the world of Peter Fleming’s book The Death of Homo Economicus, we drown in debt and are crushed by work. Everyone has student loans, credit card debt, or payday lenders on their heels. Trapped by these obligations, most of us have no choice but to work until we die at our desks, or snap, and go on the lam. The latter is what happened to Steve Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who, while taxiing, yelled expletives at passengers over the intercom, deployed the water escape slide, and took to the apron.

For Fleming, the workplace is a theater of brutality. An article in Forbes expresses the zeitgeist by suggesting that maybe fear is a legitimate management tactic. Employees of a British news organization arrive at their work stations, one day, to find heat-tracking devices that they are supposed to wear. Their bosses want to ensure they are at their desks. Londoners now spend 18 months of their lives commuting. A survey of 9,000 workers suggests that most don’t believe they can do their jobs in a 40-hour week, they’ve experienced an increase in hours in the last five years, and that their work-life balance is, well, unbalanced. An apocryphal story circulates on the internet of a tax inspector who dies at his desk and isn’t noticed for five days. It’s not true, but Fleming suggests its believability, that someone might be working around the clock, constantly at their desk, is telling.

Even worse than the workplace is the gig economy. The gig economy is the sector of the workforce made up of people who work temporary jobs, and are considered their own bosses. They are freelancers and temps. These workers are often exploited, Fleming explains, “It was recently revealed that couriers at Parcel Force–a British delivery firm–could be penalized £250 a day if they called in sick. This was to cover the cost of finding a replacement driver.” Gig workers are often free to work when and where they want. However, they must cover all of their own costs, including healthcare, training, and equipment. And they are often only paid for the time they spend working; Uber drivers only get paid when they take rides. Fleming suggests this is like a bartender who only gets paid when they pour drinks.

Many gig workers can’t afford to pay for their own healthcare, and are on public assistance. This has, effectively, transferred the burden of providing healthcare from private companies to the state. For Fleming, the “ultra-responsible autonomy” of the gig economy has turned deadly and absurd. The rash of cab driver suicides speaks most profoundly to this, as does the story of the Uber driver who, after her water broke, squeezed in one more ride before she drove herself to the hospital.

The author could be accused of cherry-picking the most shocking examples of the trials individuals face today. But this isn’t the important aspect of the book. His most interesting and lapidary chapter is an exploration of how we arrived at the gig economy, the profusion of temporary employees; a world where, even if you are an employee, the entire burden of debt and work is placed on the individual. It all comes from the notion behind “homo economicus.”

John Stuart Mill, the British political theorist, expressed in 1836 his desire to study “a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end.” In other words: a person who wants to do the least amount of work to gain the most amount of wealth. Underneath this idea lies the assumption of a cold, rational person, who is primarily interested in themselves. It’s a reductive, mythical figure. C.S. Devas gave it a name in 1883 when he noted that “Mill has only examined homo oeconomicus, or the dollar-hunting animal.”

This figure–homo economicus, economic man, the dollar-hunting animal–never existed, but it made theorizing about how people might act possible. It was a convenient way to make mathematical models about economics. And it is not a remininent of the 19th century; it is still used today. Progressive economist Paul Krugman admits that “most economists–myself included– find an economic man useful.”

While the idea of homo economicus has waxed and waned in popularity for the last two hundred years, it experienced a resurgence as the foundation for neoliberal economics in the 1960s. Economist Milton Friedman successfully used the assumptions behind homo economicus to unearth concrete evidence about spending and saving. It was a realm that many believed was impossible to study by scientists, an area reserved for psychological speculation. The model of the “rational actor” (Friedman’s name from homo economicus) also allowed him to predict the stagflation of the 1970s (a rise in inflation coupled with a rise in unemployment, an event many thought impossible). It was a miraculous achievement. So miraculous that homo economicus and the “rational expectations” that underlay her seemed powerful, justified, and untouchable. Scholars and theorists began to apply the idea to everything. (None of this history is covered by Fleming, which is a shame because it is crucial to understand the book.)

Most importantly for Fleming, was the application of rational expectations to a theory developed by Friedman’s colleagues at the University of Chicago: the theory of “human capital.” It was the invention of economists Gary Becker and Theodore Schultz. They believed that humans, because they were rational and predictable, should be treated like an investment, just like a factory, a plot of land, or a patent might be. People possess skills, education, and ideas that are of value. One way to look at this is that people are like little mini-corporations or “mini-enterprises.” They are always looking to gain more skills at the lowest possible costs, and then use those skills to increases their salaries.

The theory of human capital was devised, by Becker and Schultz, during a period when most employees stayed at one job for most of their working life. At the time, the theory encouraged businesses to spend money on developing their workforce through training, paying off their student loans, etc. But today, employees may work for many different employers, and if you are a gig worker, tens or even hundreds of employers in your lifetime. Nowadays, there is no incentive for business to spend money on their employees, because they’ll just leave for another job. Or better yet: they’re autonomous! Independent! Let them do it themselves! The human capital theory has now come to justify workers shouldering all the costs for not only their equipment (like an Uber driver’s car), but their training, certification, education, and healthcare. Fleming points out that “based on an extreme version of self-interested individualism, job autonomy was bastardized.” Job autonomy, sold to most of us as freedom from the corporate grind, has been exploited to saddle us with a different, possibly worse grind: debt. Students’ rising debts are the burden of the “ultra-responsible autonomous worker,” not the responsibility of the businesses or even society.

And Fleming sees the logic of self-interest, of homo economicus, not just infecting our work life. We have “social capital” (“your net worth is your network”), “cultural capital” and “intellectual capital.” We have the politics of the self, each voter vociferously advocating for their own micro-demographic (themselves). Tinder turns dating into a marketplace. Fleming points out that “love (which implies family and this is against the idea of mini-enterprises) was replaced by one-night stands. Especially as the ideals of economic self-reliance and independence supplanted expectations of a long-term relationship with an employer.” It’s tough out there.

The world of “rational actors” is a bleak place where inequality is rampant, and humans struggle to find meaning. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once commented that this world causes suffering because it denies people the ability to make something beautiful. But Fleming brings up theorist Giorgio Agamben’s negative take of the same idea: it’s not that we can’t make something beautiful but that that we are denied the ability to not do anything. We can’t turn down work, go unemployed, or quit a job just because we don’t care much about the work.  Gig workers know this is true. They often can’t turn down a gig for fear that there might not be any jobs tomorrow. They don’t have any confidence in when the next paycheck is coming.

Fleming’s book is a forced march through a hellscape. From the very first page he dumps a dizzying number of examples and references on the reader. His writing moves fast. The sheer number of horrifying tales don’t always coincide with readers’ lived reality. It can feel like he might have overstated how damaged our world is. Even a sympathetic reader wants a little counterbalance. The gig economy sounds terrible, but what proportion of people are impacted by it’s depredations?

But the book begs important questions: has the aspiration to rationality, to liberation and individualism, to radical autonomy served us well? How can we think about our economic life in a way that binds us together?

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