On social media, I have recently come across an 'anti-capitalist love note', reassuring its readers that they are much more than their productivity. This criticism of economic output as a measure of human worth will strike a chord with many people. Material production influences the kind of person you are, but it does not justify or invalidate your existence. No capitalist accounting can do justice to being human. You need no reason or apology for living life in freedom, and productivity is not your friend.
The cult of productivity has led to extensive damage and misery, as those who enthusiastically embrace wrong ends – placing profits before people – wreak havoc upon the world, and subject fellow humans to oppression and abuse. Their hard work brings bitter fruit.
In his essay 'Productivity is dangerous', Vincent Bevins suggests that the obsession with productivity contributed to Germany's imperial aggression and state violence in the 20th century. In his lecture 'Judenplatz 1010', Timothy Snyder reminds us that the concept of productivity was used by the Nazis to dehumanise Jews who 'were sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to be murdered when it was judged that the calories they consumed were worth more than the work they produced'. Productivity is wielded as a bludgeon against humanity: 'This is an artefact of the industrial world: humans who are denied humanity are judged as objects who carry out physical work.'
Under capitalism, most of us are not our productivity because it is appropriated by the capitalist class. Our actions, which are human at heart, serve the capitalist purpose of fuelling economic growth that perpetuates subjugation and precipitates ecological ruin.
Productivity is hypocritically worshipped and weaponised by the rich because they reap the benefits of mass exploitation. In this unfair and unsustainable system, people are alienated from the results of their labour, and their own worth is lost in the process.
Productivity is monetised and domesticated in the capitalist economy. Creative endeavours are harnessed by capitalism and serve its nefarious goals when the worker plays by its rules, which promote fierce competition and protect those in power – the rich subjugate and discipline the poor. Authoritarianism and other social distortions lead to a warped view of humanity with regard to its productive potential and actual output.
Equating productivity with humanity and self-worth is a kind of vulgar behaviourism that benefits the privileged. Actions do shape human nature, and behaviourism is not evil or misguided per se. The problem arises when we define people only through those aspects of their life that can be quantified and integrated into a broken economic mechanism that is destroying not only the environment, but also social relationships. Human behaviour that does not bring profit loses recognition and visibility, whereas toxic productivity comes to the fore.
According to behaviourists, humanity predominantly depends on what people do or do not do. In this view, productivity defines humanity. While it does matter what people do, it should not detract from or augment their humanity. Behaviour might be what makes us human in some complex and multifaceted sense, but it is crucial to acknowledge humanity without relying only on productivity. Humanity should be an all-encompassing option that includes all humans in a society.
All living beings have meaning and significance that cannot be reduced to their service to economy. Once humans overcome this exploitative vision of society and environment, being human will cease to be an exclusive privilege. People need to learn how to live in harmony with each other and nature. Human rights should not entail the devastation of life on Earth to indulge the superiority fantasies of the few affluent individuals who reserve justice and freedom for themselves.
Planting trees and cutting them down can both be seen as productivity. The modern economy introduces a perverse asymmetry to this equation as deforestation is deemed much more profitable than reforestation. There is a way to judge the consequences of productivity as positive in one value system (profit), and negative in another (the environment).
When it comes to the environmental crisis, both conservation and innovation require a different kind of productivity. Growing forests and building green power plants are not neutral options. In the current model, they are not valued for their environmental impact.
A proper judgement should be made of those who extract and burn fossil fuels, and run the economy based on unsustainable growth. Economic productivity measures not only affluence, but also responsibility for the extent of global destruction, from carbon footprint to nuclear waste.
Productivity can be the reverse side of consumption. Being productive could foster consumption. Some business models rely on generating demand for their products. Whether production and consumption are enriching or destructive activities depends on the relationship between human beings and the environment. In an exploitative and extractive economy, productivity and consumption mean both exploitation of other humans and the decimation of nature.
What is rewarded is not always what benefits us and the environment the most. From cultural heritage to investment bankers, our culture and economy erase humanity and nature in favour of wealth and tyranny.
In his book Bullshit Jobs (2018), David Graeber argues there are many jobs that make no sense. Instead of decrying their existence, we could question the economic system that created them by demonstrating that it disrupts the natural relationship between humanity and productivity. If people notice the profound gulf between human and economic worth, they will see that every job is bullshit.
The relentless focus on productivity inevitably motivates the wrong kind of action. When people are free to do what they please, they will not inflict self-defeating damage. Forced to produce the right amount of stuff in an exploitative economy, many people actively undermine the good work of others because of their ineptitude or perverse motivation. If everyone is compelled to work regardless of their preferences, those who want to do something else or wish to sit idly by might cause chaos and devastation. Their forced contribution will not only cancel out the efforts of others, but far exceed them since disruption can be easier to achieve than constructive change. This involuntary destruction is not an aberration, but the very essence of capitalist production.
The understanding that human worth does not equal productivity and that the latter can have catastrophic ramifications should not lead us to believe that we are always better off doing nothing. On the contrary, these insights should motivate people to organise in order to topple the current system of ruthless exploitation and to establish a more harmonious relationship among human beings, and between humanity and the environment.■
Pavlo Shopin is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in the English Department at the University of Freiburg. He comes from Luhansk, Ukraine.