As we all know, capitalist accumulation is guided by the “invisible hand,” which ensures that the selfish and short-sighted choices of individual capitalists fit together into a beneficial whole that promotes long-term wealth-creation for all. What’s less well known is that for workers, the situation is reversed: their self-interested decisions add up to create a situation that is more and more disadvantageous for workers as a whole. Examples abound. On the individual level, taking an unpaid internship can give one a leg up on the competition — on the whole, it creates a situation where more and more work is being done on an unpaid basis, so that there are fewer slots available for paid workers. On the individual level, increased social mobility through education can help one to escape from a poverty and deprivation — on the whole, it waters down the competitive advantage of education while creating ever-greater competition for the handful of positions near the top of the heap. On the individual level, prudential advice about self-presentation and interviewing technique can increase one’s odds of getting a job — on the whole, such advice only increases the legibility of the applicant pool, while doing nothing about the underlying ratio of applicants to jobs. Etc., etc., etc.
Globally, workers are caught up in a perpetual arms race. They must work harder and harder, they must come pre-trained, they must be flexible and ready to nimbly switch careers as market forces dictate — and never ask why, never ask who’s actually benefiting from this regime of work that is making everyone anxious and miserable. Similarly, these habits of thought allow us to build social policy on an individualistic basis, as though the real crime in social inequality is that the most talented members of the underclass might go to waste. No one asks, meanwhile, why less prestigious jobs, which are presumably just as socially necessary, should “naturally” carry with them a lower quality of life, nor why the social ladder upon which we must all be allowed the “equal opportunity” to climb should be structured in just the way it is.