Wednesday, January 18, 2012


“The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism – How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers,” by Michael Perelman, 2011.

I imagine you are not a fan of bondage or S&M. They say that rich people like it. Since most working class people exist in some kind of handcuffs all the time, they don’t relish putting on real ones. The only time that happens is when they are arrested by Officer Friendly. Perelman understands this. His play on Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the market is … logical. After all, invisible hands create invisible handcuffs too.

Perelman is a professor of political economy at Chico, California, and proves that there actually are a few professors in the U.S. that do not smile kindly on capital. This book is a calm, somewhat detailed look at capitalism’s sorrier ideological aspects. Perelman takes an in-depth look at, among other things: Adam Smith’s real theory and history; the creation of the modern economics profession; how bourgeois economic theology makes work and the working class invisible; how control over workers is more important than unleashing the creative potential of human beings; the massive fraud that is the “GDP” statistic; how the Federal Reserve enables the capitalists; and the enormous waste embedded in the ‘rational’ corporate market system.

Controlling the working class is key to Perelman’s book. He frames it around the Greek legend of Procrustes. Procrustes was a bandit in Attica, who waylaid travelers and made them spend the night on his iron bed. There he stretched short men to fit the bed, or cut off the legs of tall men, so that all men eventually fit the bed – and died of it. His sadism made the surrounding countryside desolate. Eventually Theseus, who became King of Athens, subjected Procrustes to his own treatment. Perelman thinks that capitalism is like this Procrustean iron bed. As Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founder of Taylorism said, “The system must be first.” Even Margaret Thatcher, much beloved feminist, said of the market: “There is no alternative.” And, like all classically trained political economists, Perleman poses an alternative - Michelanglo’s “Bearded Slave” – partially encased in rock, yet attempting to free himself from the restraints of the stone.

Enough classicism. I actually do not think the ‘invisible handcuffs’ of ideology would be as strong if it were not for the real handcuffs that underlie them. Perelman has a good section on the ‘guard economy’ – the millions of economically useless jobs now invested in security guards, prison guards, border guards, CIA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, NIA employees and contractors, military contractors, home security consultants and systems, the military, the National Guard, police, judges, attorneys, ad nauseum. Quite clearly, if these people stopped doing their jobs as enforcers of the myriad political rules against working class people, the invisible handcuffs of belief would slowly disappear. After all, the 'rational' market, the “American Dream” the made-up ‘middle class” and the magical ‘invisible hand’ are all comforting things we tell ourselves at night - because to believe otherwise is to face our own comeuppance. It is precisely the inability to successfully act against the capitalist state and corporations that fuels belief in imaginary things. This is why successful strikes and a successful populist labor party movement are the most feared things in the U.S. They have the possibility of cutting through both kinds of handcuffs. But, as Zizek points out, the class war does not just exist on the real battlefield – it is also an intellectual war, which is why Perelman wrote this book.

I won’t go into each aspect of this book, but one thing struck me. Perelman discusses how the only agency a working person in a capitalist society gets, according to bourgeois theory, is through being a consumer. Work and its costs are kept hidden behind a dark, unspeakable curtain. Odd for an economy based on making ‘commodities’ eh? Like black people, working people are invisible too - until they enter a store to buy something. Then they are rational, valued ‘guests.’ But at work they are expected to sleep in the Procrustean bed, for the most part, with no health care, low wages, little respect and bad hours, just like that Target worker who dresses in red shirts and beige pants.

And I bought it at Mayday books!
Now buy it, Dammit, Gumby.

Red Frog, January 18, 2012


Anonymous said...

Another great Review, Red Frog!

Perelman's glog is good to look at occasionally. It's at "Unsettling Economics":

Red Frog said...

Thanks, I'll check it out. I was excited to find that there actually was still a kind of Marxist economics professor in the U.S. like Perelman! There are few factual sites - the Left Business Observer being one that I know of.