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The problem with ‘human capital’

Once synonymous with slavery, the ideology of ‘human capital’ turns the toil we do for our bosses into something we do for our future selves.

John Leary
1 April 2019
‘Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism’ published by Haymarket Books.

In a much-quoted commencement address at Stanford University in 2006, the late Apple executive Steve Jobs famously advised the graduating students to find passion in their post-college lives. “You’ve got to find what you love,” he advised the graduates. “And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.” An appealing sentiment, perhaps, but a misleading one: in an era of increasing inequality, wage stagnation, the Uber-fication of work, most people cannot expect to love their jobs.

Inequality, automation, and the drudgery of work are, of course, nothing new. But Jobs’ advice typifies the language of contemporary capitalism, which celebrates the autonomy and spiritual fulfillment we have long tended to locate outside the market—in church, in romance, in childhood. Think, for example, of the creativity that is linked as often to businessmen nowadays as it is to visual artists or poets; the entrepreneurs, the vanquishing heroes of the business section; or the thought leader, originally an honorific for religious figures and now affixed to more Linkedin bios that one could likely count.

The language of contemporary business is distinctive in another sense. In its artsy abstraction and fuzzy religiosity, the vernacular of contemporary capitalism is a language of evasion. These keywords are words we use when we really mean something else: what are most leaders, after all, but someone else’s “boss”?

There is no entry in this book for “labor.” This is because when people who speak the language of late capitalism want to refer to it, they say “human capital.” “Investing in human capital” is a tried-and-true phrase favored by financial institutions, policy-wonks in mainstream US politics, and the global elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The Forum issues an annual “Global Human Capital Report,” which in its most recent version was punctuated by pronouncements like “the world has developed only 62% of its human capital.” The phrase has even entered the vocabulary of organized labor: after voting to strike, one Las Vegas casino worker denounced automation by saying, “The company needs to invest in human capital and treat us with dignity.”

And yet “human capital” was once controversial, precisely because the term connoted the opposite of “dignity.” When the University of Chicago economist Theodore Schultz began developing his theory of human capital, it was haunted by the phrase’s evocation of slavery. In his 1961 article “Investment in Human Capital,” Schultz began by gingerly addressing the concept’s potentially “offensive” sound. “Our values and beliefs inhibit us from looking upon human beings as capital goods, except in slavery, and this we abhor,” he wrote. Any resemblance to human exploitation was purely coincidental, then, since human capital, far from reducing mankind to material, actually offered us the means of freedom.

In 1962, at the height of the Cold War’s ideological battle over the means to economic freedom, Schultz wrote that “by investing in themselves, people can enlarge the range of choice available to them. It is one way free men can enhance their welfare.” Workers do this, he argued, by becoming capitalists of themselves—not by acquiring property or stock, but by amassing knowledge and skills that have economic value. And their welfare, according to Schultz, could be enhanced by public policies geared towards improving their human capital. Schultz argued that a policy approach to human capital development would alleviate the social inequality of “many Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexican nationals, indigenous migratory farm workers, poor farm people and some of our older workers,” a consequence of “our failure to have invested in their health and education.” An appreciation of human capital was to be a way of righting the wrongs seeded by previous uses of humans as capital.

Gary Becker, Schultz’s University of Chicago colleague, refined the human capital concept a decade later as the investments one makes—or, in increasingly rare cases, which one’s employer or government makes—in individuals’ knowledge, skills, health, and habits, all of the characteristics that shape their value in the labor market. This is often how the term is now used in the positive sense of “talent”—as a kind of catchall term for labor, education, and health. For example, when the US Department of Education titles a section of its website “Improving Human Capital,” it refers to labor policies in public schools—class sizes, layoff policies, and teacher pay—as well as teachers’ education and pedagogical training. When Barack Obama spoke as president about supporting African entrepreneurs as a means of economic development on the continent, he used “human capital” to describe the education of an African workforce, but also to frame this project as African-led. The sense of a worker’s agency that accrues to human capital by those who use the term sincerely is a product of Schultz and Becker’s usage and their effort with it to reimagine labor apart from exploitation.

The ideology of human capital is one source of the moral content of so many of the keywords in this book (even though capitalist moralism, like bourgeois evasions of “labor,” go back a long way). When kindergarteners are chastened to master grit to enhance their college readiness, for example, this is the logic of human capital. Creativity, flexibility, nimbleness—these are personal, intangible “values” that can be said to enhance your “value” to your employer. The pressure to find passion at work is also an example of human capital’s language of values, passion being an example of what Becker calls “psychic income”—the non-remunerative satisfactions one gets from work, presumably to supplement an unsatisfying regular income. The appeal of the term—ironically, given the way it once awkwardly summoned slavery to many who heard it—is that it is so seemingly neutral.

When inequality is understood in the terms of human capital deficit, redressing those inequalities becomes not a matter of wealth redistribution, but human capital development (one can see examples of its influence in the popular prescription of “job training” as a salve for unemployment). Another advantage to employers of treating education or health care as human capital development is that risk in labor markets can be outsourced to employees. Why train someone on the job when they might just leave and take their knowledge elsewhere? Why spend time and money teaching skills that may prove obsolete sooner than you think? And why pay into the health insurance of workers who insist on eating too much junk food on the weekend? Instead, let employees pay for their own college credentials and pursue their own wellness plan. The ideology of human capital asks one to think of nearly every form of social existence in terms of an actuarial calculation.

Yet human capital is usually described by business writers in terms of compassion, recognition, and appreciation. The most valuable asset of any company, it is often said, is its human capital. In other words, its people. In yet other words, its workers. “While it’s completely obvious companies are built and run by humans,” says one investor in Forbes, “it’s not always obvious they are treated as valuable capital.” The sympathetic mien of “human capital” is one reason, perhaps, that it is so often applied to global development, especially in Africa, the source of much of the Anglo-American world’s current reserves of philanthropic sanctimony. For example, when the World Bank advertised a recent event on third-world development, “Building Human Capital: A Project for the World,” it promoted it under the hashtag #investinpeople. The program’s title evokes altruism, rather than profit.

“Human capital,” in our time, has therefore lost the ring of slavery that once worried Schultz. As Lester Spence observes, the human capital concept’s reliance on our freedom is the source of its current power—it makes exhausting, costly obligations into an independently taken choice. The ideology of human capital turns the toil we do for our bosses into something we do for our future selves, and the work we do for ourselves into something we do for our future bosses.

As for human capital as a concept, though? It’s mostly a specious synonym for “labor.” As the Marxist economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis concluded pithily in a 1975 critique of the then novel term, human capital doesn’t mean much on its own terms, but it does make “a good ideology for the defense of the status quo.”

This article is an extract from ‘Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism’ published by Haymarket Books. RRP £11.99 / $16.

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