The destructive efficacy of domination – a review of “The Death of Homo Economicus” by Peter Fleming, Pluto, 2017.




Peter Fleming is professor of business studies at City University, London.  His 2017 book, The Death of Homo Economicus, is full of stories of people destroyed, hurt, or marginalised by the current ‘corporate hellscape’ of vulture capitalism and the ‘wreckage economics’ that he describes with the metaphor of the destructive backwash that followed inevitably from the devastation of the 2007-8 economic tsunami.    Homo Economicus is the mythical creature, the illegitimate offspring of Adam Smith, rationally making choices in a market that needs and tolerates little or no intervention from the state, a creature whose false foundations shattered when financial markets around the world had to rescued from impending collapse by state intervention.

Fleming illustrates the death-giving power of an already-dead extractive capitalism with the grim story of the suicide in 2013 of Aaron Schwarz.  Schwarz was a US computer genius hounded by the hybrid power of big business and the state – a hybrid that in itself contradicts the myth –  after he  attempted to liberate to academic readers the knowledge that they had been forced to surrender as writers to corporate publishers and which they could only then access again by paying huge fees.   This corporate extortion in collusion with the state betrays the promises that IT once made to liberate knowledge from the clutches of ownership, contrary to Paul Mason’s idea that technology can deliver freedom from work and production with zero marginal costs, and thus free us from domination by wealth.  Instead we have the ironically named ‘sharing economy’ in which extraction thrives on desperation, collective bargaining is fettered, student debt and housing debt engender a new peonage, and millionaires are made through owning online prostitution sites, where there is no regulation and the consumer is king.  Such sites are just one example of work extending into everyday life.  

Characteristic of this ‘new Dark Age’ are investor vandalism (Carillion), debt financing, state engineered profiteering through corrupt underpricing of public assets for sale, as with Royal Mail, and the feeding frenzy of tax avoidance summed up neatly by the fact that 80% of global trade consists of transfer pricing, that is, corporations trading with themselves via subsidiaries and shell companies in a different tax zone.   Innovation stumbles due to lack of investment in research and development, and workers focus on metrics rather than their tasks, as in the colonisation of universities by a business analogy; where, as in the NHS, the mythology of the customer is used to undermine public service, so that failings are blamed not on underfunding and excessive workload, but on individuals or understaffed institutions.  Public institutions, from transport systems, to housing, health care systems, schools and universities, have been systematically financialised, whilst the concept of public service has been vilified.

Fleming equates the death of the mythic Homo Economicus – a persona the 1% never identified with themselves – with real deaths – those who die shortly after the DWP has declared that they are fit for work, suicides attributable to overwhelming student debt, the murderous revenge of people made redundant.   Fleming mobilises Engel’s concept of social murder when the system of domination, the transformation of instrumental means, such as money, prices and the quantification of social behaviour, into ideological ends  leads to early and preventable deaths; he wrote the book before the Grenfell fire provided such a harrowing and clear example of mass social murder.  He cites David Graeber in condemning as inherently stupid the extra layers of bureaucracy required to police an increasingly unequal society, which stems from their deriving from state power that monopolises violence, a stupidity that can brazenly avoid interpretive labour in its dealings with the powerless and push that labour onto the victims; however, for Fleming, this does not go far enough in describing the institutionalised sadism that is being encouraged, taught, and measured – in the DWP for example – where the aim is not just to erase the subjectivity of the victim, but to occupy it.  

Work is a cultural and ideological artefact, pushed to an individualistic limit where employed or unemployed are made to see themselves as a ‘Company of One’ (Carrie Lane, 2011) subscribing wholeheartedly to the system that has crushed them, seeking an alibi in pointless and demeaning work that in itself signifies waste, facilitated by state-sponsored over-employment.  Fleming evokes the Auschwitz gate slogan Albeit Macht Frei for this militarised workforce in which Weber’s Protestant aim of divine redemption through work has been replaced by a huge absence, by a victimhood that both the dominators and the dominated can see as manufactured, that is, by sadism.  Neoliberal economics, for Fleming, is a fascism of money, that he describes as ‘the unreal reality that emerges when economic theology tries to make its madness real’, when labour is considered simultaneously as essential and as superfluous, so that the capitalist aim is always to get something for nothing, to be independent of labour but to have it always on tap, with zero reproductive costs.  Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct warehouse regime in Bolsover is one such  (EU-funded) death camp.  He reminds us that work does not exist in subsistence economies, it emerges as the state emerges, needing the latter to make people produce a surplus.  To work is already to overwork.

Underpinning the individualisation of work is Human Capital Theory, the idea that a person is the carrier and developer of skills, knowledge, education and attributes that are their property from which they cannot be separated – the neoliberal argument for people investing in their own education and training, leading on to lifelong insecure self-employment, even if it then has to be subsidised by the state.  This regime is in fact a form of divestment, with severe diminutions in the supply of talent, no career development paths, boredom and a new authoritarianism and gender-based workforce abuse, as laid bare at Shirebrook or in Amazon warehouses, but characteristic increasingly of workplaces everywhere.

Steven Slater in 2010 was an airline cabin crew member who exploded with rage when hit by luggage let fall by impatient and argumentative passengers, activated the emergency chute system and fled the scene.  This story Fleming uses to typify the effects of an inclusive form of capitalism in which the economy is both more than us and part of our personalities and relationships, leading to self-harming behaviours and often a violent and drastic snapping.  The depression and quietude that comes from being trapped by an all-encompassing ideology is interrupted because the current system insists on workers being aware of their own futility, making an empty ‘outside’ part of the totalisation, inculcating exit fantasies (moving to France is cited as one such, which I myself indulged in) that may involve doing something really desperate.  As in the battered spouse syndrome, people become more and more dependent on, and even attracted to, institutions that inflict pain.  As Deleuze observed, domination alienates people from their potential to act and do beautiful things, negative power separating us from our potential;  Agamben sees further that it can also separate us from what we can not do, from our capacity to refuse, and this constitutes a further pressure to seek a means of escape.  In the absence of collective strength, this escape turns us into a hunted quarry, the totally individualised subject of surveillance by the state and the police.  Providing sanctuary for such escapees is the basis for a political community to emerge.  Fleming makes an important parallel of such resistance with the recessional resistance, the withdrawal, of the natural world all around us…we experience in our minds and bodies qualities that can be identified in dying ecosystems. ‘Isn’t mimesis the basic code of life?’ Fleming asks, echoing my own conclusions about the relationship between people’s self-damaging health behaviours and their experiences of domination after three decades of working as an inner-city GP.

For Fleming the means/ends inversion that has always been a feature of capitalism is now deeply institutionalised.  He writes that his own academic specialty – ‘economics’ – has the same vacuity at its heart.  Fleming espouses a deep pessimism, but attempts to find the basis for a countervailing “optimism of the will” so that the book ends on a note of exhortation. ‘The growing winter of a wasted world, a vapid monoculture of nothingness, is encircling us as we speak, and it’s time to leave.  That ticket isn’t going to be served on a paper plate.  For the future to begin again and history to be made, one has to be correctly poised.  Be ready.  And therein lies the most important question: will we ever be worthy of that history, still yet to come, but certainly demanding a response from us very soon.’

After so many examples of victimisation, of the damage to more or less all of us, inflicted in the name of domination and the supposed necessity of accumulation this call to be worthy, which pointed by Fleming in the direction of solidarity and of providing sanctuary to our fellow victims, signals a cruel contradiction.  How can we be ready or be worthy, be healthy or collectively strong, when we have already been so cruelly and damagingly subtracted from?  When self-damaging behaviours and escape fantasies are so ingrained? Isn’t mimesis the basic code of life?  

Those of us who are relatively undamaged have a heavy responsibility, which must be a political movement, a Mont Pelerin Society pushing in an entirely opposite direction, away from the market, away from commodities, away from production and exchange, and towards the cultural elevation of nurture, of basic social reproduction of our species and the environment of which it is a part – here mimesis of our childhood nurture, with the exception of the victims of child abuse (and the victims of so-called Public schools) makes us not into Homo Economicus but into carers.  Whilst accepting the myriad forms of individuals’ experiences of abuse, and the many modes of domination that its victims experience, whether raw present or recent violence, or the traces of history that generate social class and other domination hierarchies – of nationality, citizenship, race, gender, and sexuality, we can strive to grasp the essential unity of negative power and its effects on the health of individuals, of communities, and of the environment, its negative effects on our own ecosystem.  This involves articulating the mimetic potentiality of domination, that creates the link between the personal and the political – the relation of rape to gender, for example; articulating  its clear distinction from positive modes of power,  nurture and education, caring for the damaged and disabled, the culture of ourselves and of our environment – that is, attempts that aim for a positive effect upon the capacity of other beings and things to exist and to develop freely. 

We make judgements all the time about our own behaviour but if we remain well enough we can condemn certain actions, regret them and avoid them without condemning ourselves,  and our judgements about others should show the same tolerance, even of the 1% who are addicted to the crazy accumulation which has to be stopped if our societies are to survive.   “Justice for Grenfell” does not mean locking up the perpetrators, as some of the marchers at the anniversary of the fire were demanding, but it means ending the control of housing provision by negative power.  The  habit of stigmatisation of victims must mutate into stigmatising the activities of the perpetrators; this means identifying, vilifying and suppressing (insofar as it is possible) all modes of domination; it means creating a society in which the positive power of nurture and community exemplified by the solidarity in adversity and loss displayed after that mass social murder in the Grenfell fire is generalised and multiplied.  This involves placing social reproduction, on which capitalism and the market have always been parasites, on an ideological and practical footing  above the production and exchange of commodities, that is, the end of survival – (Spinosa’s conatus) above the means of money and accumulation.  We need an internationalism not of workers alone, but of all the nurturing, the educating, and the caring,  and their advocacy for the stigmatised, the disabled, and the weak.  We have to try to celebrate as resistance all resistances even when they are self-harming, show solidarity, provide sanctuary, and bring those resistances back into the fold of a collective and more effective resistance.  

We cannot hope for a society free from violence, but we must before it is too late try to make one in which violence and bullying – negative power in all its forms –  are identified and stigmatised, which means, amongst many challenges in the many fields of entrenched injustices, finding ways to make wealth worthless and borders meaningless.   In terms of the ‘housing crisis’ this does not mean necessarily that we need to confiscate land and property, we just need to make the rights of occupiers and users of property greater than the rights of owners, then the owners would no longer want their surplus property that could no longer be used for extraction;  for economic capital some parallel process could make funds available for all projects that were creating a public service and demonstrably not exploiting people – both at home and abroad; a global period of massive hyperinflation might result and shrink all those piles of accumulated claims upon future society, that hopefully the owners would no longer really want, down to a manageable size.  A project of reparation for Africa and for all the other zones of abjection that we have created around the world, at the same time as we turn to really caring for and helping the sick and the disabled and the homeless, as well as cosseting the environment back into a stable sustainable state would certainly provide plenty of real work for the foreseeable future however much technology is brought to bear.

 A healthy society is a materially equal society, in which having no power to control other people is positively celebrated and jealously guarded.  For such a pre-Neolithic, pre-surplus  social structure to work in complex and crowded societies we do need to embrace technology and we need to acknowledge that it, and the knowledge that it represents and bears, belongs to everybody.  If all of us have a little property, we cannot be allowed to use it for purposes of domination without risking stigmatisation and sanction.  This requires clarity, mass agreement and enforcement through the power of collective strength, not about what is morally right or wrong, not about our own or others rights, but broadly about what contributes to human and environmental flourishing and what, on the other hand, constrains and destroys it.