What’s going on here is a form of deskilling. But it’s a different from the one brilliantly described by Harry Braverman, who showed how workers were robbed by capitalists of their production skills. What we’re seeing here is the decline of consumption skills.
Which raises a question. How can capitalism have achieved this? After all, the capitalist might have control over production - and is thus well-placed to deprive workers of productive skills - but he doesn’t have control over what we do in our own homes. So what’s going on?
The standard answer is that people don’t have time to cook for themselves - or that the opportunity costs of time spent cooking have increased.
I’m not convinced. For one thing, cooking doesn’t take time: ever heard of stir frys? And for another, the biggest cliché in blues and country music is of people spending back-breaking days in the field and then playing their own music and organizing hoe-downs. Scarce time, then, needn’t displace consumption skills.
I suspect something else is going on. That something is the spread of purely instrumental rationality - the idea that utility maximization consists solely in maximizing consumption for minimal expenditure of time and money. Many of us take it for granted that it’s rational to spend as little time cooking as possible, and that music should only be a consumption good.
What this ignores is that many things are worth doing for their own sake. I’ll never play the guitar as well as Martin Simpson, or cook as well as Gordon Ramsey, or grow enough vegetables to be self-sufficient. But I play the guitar, cook and grow my own because these things are worth doing for their own sake.
Labour is not just a cost, to minimized. It is - or can be - a form of satisfaction in itself - a way of asserting who we are.
It is on this point, of course, that Marxism starkly confronts neoclassical economics. Marx’s gripe with capitalism was that it transformed work from a means of expressing one’s nature into a force for oppressing and demeaning people. So great has been capitalism’s triumph that many of us don’t even appreciate the possibility that Marx could have been right. It’s just taken for granted that work must be alienated drudgery.
Herein, though, lies a strange thing. Happiness research seems to vindicate Marx. Take three findings:
1. There’s a negative correlation between watching TV and happiness. Passive forms of consumption, it seems, make us unhappy.
2. Volunteer workers are happier than others. This suggests unalienated labour - not passive consumption - is good for us.
3. The self-employed are happier than employees (pdf). Having control over one’s own work - reducing alienation - is a source of happiness.
However, many fail to appreciate these facts. It’s a common finding in happiness research that people don’t foresee what will make them happy - which is why they watch too much TV, commute long distances or work long hours. As Bruno Frey put it in the best book on the subject: