Capitalism makes pay conditional on what it finds valuable. As a function of authoritarian civilization, it is a value reflective of authoritarianism. That is to say what is primary are the conditions as coercive in themselves.
A social formation will need to define value for itself but a natural starting point is clearly that life and the reproduction of life has value.
Yet under conditions of capitalist modernity, alienation is the violent separation from this natural imperative, into what also might be called a secondary imperative of coercion. This is an overriding of the primary imperative to life by coercive conditions as primary.
The coercive condition is one in which life is made impossible without selling one’s self. By selling one’s self what is meant is clearly the working class condition.
To take a long view, the struggle for life when institutionalized, can be understood as progress. There is a clear correlation with that and increased technological capacity. However, it is a fallacy to see technology and progress as necessarily the same item, and especially to ascribe to these linear necessity. Such that while being alive in an era of the highest technological forms should be correlated with the highest degree of human emancipation, as it is not, an explanation must be provided for this.
We posit that it is the underlying coercive structure of authoritarian civilization in capitalist modernity that creates the contradictory situation of the highest form of technological capacity with woeful degrees of freedom and equality.
In reality all technology is a tool and must be directed. This direction must obviously be bound up in the problem stated previously that social formations must define values for themselves. Authoritarian civilization it goes without saying values its command structure, its existence as a class society. The class society is not easily done away with because it is deeply ingrained in its subjects through processes of indoctrination and reinforcement by propaganda.
We argue that one such critical form of indoctrination and reinforcement by propaganda in our historical era is consumerism.
The contradiction of high technological capacity with high degrees of human servitude is explained through the ideology and material practice of consumerism. It becomes proof of coercive conditions being primary under capitalism. Consumerism can be understood as the way that capitalism maintains its coercive structure even under potentially emancipatory conditions. The potentially emancipatory conditions are increased technological capacity, though this is subverted in favor of greater ruling class control.
Consumerism is on the one hand the exploitation of the working class whose labor power is worth more than the wage earned to purchase a living, and the false consciousness which arises out of being indoctrinated into an ideology dictating such conditions are “free.” As David Graeber put it relating an anecdote discussing capitalist modernity in Rojava.
I was very struck by the way [Agir Merdîn, co-director of a rehabilitation clinic for wounded YPG/J fighters in Amude] put it, he said we call this “modern slavery.” He said, since, in the past, slavery was imposed by swords; but in the contemporary world the situation is in a way more primitive, because at least in the past those sheared of all social connections by capture and sale as slaves knew that they were slaves; nowadays, they think this situation of isolation actually is freedom.
This quote also comes out of the context of a discussion on the conditions of capitalist modernity causing detrimental effects on human health. Indeed the social formations of capitalist modernity, be they referred to as conditions of alienation, or as here simply isolation, have real physiological effects on the human organism; in the most basic way as generating excessive stress that makes the body more vulnerable to disease. Furthermore, it is not a natural condition, but cultural, societal, in short a directedness of what the coercive society values, as Graeber paraphrases Merdîn saying “loneliness, social isolation, is engineered in modern society as a mode of social control.”
It is plainly impossible to orient a human being to a society of coercion and domination without extensive conditioning. I would argue further that consumer society is this conditioning; no less than a conditioning to coercive and exploitative political and economic relationships as if it was the height of liberty. It is also an assault on science and history insofar as it frames such conditions as one and the same with a reality principle. In this way, it is the making primary of the imposed conditions of authoritarianism at the expense of a normally primary imperative to simple self-preservation, and a thriving in life which is the same as a pursuit of happiness.
Rather than being the best possible conditions towards realizing human flourishing, capitalism is a most enduring condition of coercive society as both an overt and covert form of authoritarianism. It is in practice a phenomenal way that a tiny minority can continue to exert disproportionate ruling force over a vast majority which is the structure of class hierarchy.