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Book Review: Peter Fleming, The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself

Book Review: Peter Fleming, The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself

Peter Fleming The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself LondonPluto Press2015£17.99 pbk (ISBN: 9780745334868), 224 pp.
  1. Peter Somerville
  1. University of Lincoln, UK
I very much enjoyed reading this book. It draws upon a wide range of critical theory, especially Marx, Nietzsche, Adorno, Foucault, Negri, Certeau, and Deleuze and Guattari, in order to achieve a powerful critique of capitalist work. Fleming is perhaps at his best in dissecting current management practices and demythologising managerial ideology. It would be impossible in a short review to do justice to all his arguments, so I will comment only on what I consider to be his main points.
The key argument of the book is that what is called ‘work’ today is a system of oppression. Fleming exposes in graphic detail what Marx called the ‘real subsumption’ of labour power in a capitalist society. He describes a capitalist colonisation of non-work time (known as 24/7 capitalism), how workers are increasingly monitored and regulated both within and outside their workplaces, how the world is becoming increasingly commodified and marketised, and how workers, if not actively resistant to management dictats, are mostly indifferent to them. He argues that capitalist organisations have a primarily instrumental (and often capricious and arbitrary) relationship with their workforces, and increasingly have no compunction about abandoning them when they have no further use for them. Neoliberal ideology, which managers now largely expound, expects workers to be responsible for themselves as far as possible – indeed, the managerial attitude is that workers should be grateful to employers for offering them jobs in the first place. Managerialism is seen as involving a detached ‘spreadsheet mentality’ (p. 91), a commercial approach, protection of capitalist elites, re-bureaucratisation, securitisation of everyday life, anti-democratic (and even fascistic) norms, and conflict-seeking behaviour (because of distrust of workers or to justify managers’ existence or to gather valuable information or to justify abandoning employees at a possible future date). There is more than a whole chapter on corporate spin or ‘talking trash’, a critique of corporate social responsibility (especially on Big Tobacco – pp. 147–153) that is a tour de force – and, incidentally, helps to explain why techniques such as myth-busting don’t work (for more on the nihilism of managerialism see Currie et al., 2012).
Fleming doesn’t always understand capitalism correctly. For example, he is right to say that we cannot escape capitalism today but this does not mean that capitalism has no outside; capitalism has totalising tendencies, yes, but it is not (yet?) a totalitarian system. He also seems to assume that capitalism is about increasing productivity when really it is about increasing profitability, which is not quite the same thing. He misconstrues real subsumption as ideological when actually mystification is inherent in the capital–labour relation (Burawoy, 2012), and I think this is what leads him later on to exaggerate the impact of the neoliberal spin spouted by employers, which he earlier recognised cut little ice with most workers. I would suggest that processes of destabilisation, demobilisation and divestment of workforces are better understood as embodied in the labour process as part of class-based strategies of domination rather than as ‘an ideological form’ (p. 89). I think Fleming also tends to individualise modes of resistance, as he cites desertion, suicide, sleep and illness as examples (albeit that desertion is presented as a collective act). I also think he goes too far in his critique of capitalist work in that he tends to downplay the use-value of such work (a worker earns a wage in a sense in which a landlord does not earn a rent and a lender does not earn an interest) – from capital’s point of view all work is ‘bullshit’ (p. 197) but the workers do not have to accept such nihilism and on the whole they do not.
It could also be argued, however, that Fleming does not go far enough in his critique. There is a suggestion of a critique of labour as capital in Chapter 6 but it remains undeveloped. In contrast, Weeks (2011), for example, has questioned the whole validity of a concept of work and called for a radical revaluation of social reproduction. Similarly, Green theorists such as Scott-Cato (2002) have long argued, largely on environmental grounds, for an abolition of capitalist work as we know it. The book ends with an interesting mini-manifesto (pp. 194–199) but this is difficult to assess because it emerges more or less out of the blue and lacks the detailed contextualisation found in Weeks’ book, for example.

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