Capitalism And The Productivity Trap

I’m writing this a day after finally finishing my 4-year long degree! *Cue applause*

It’s been a long four years, in which I’ve learnt, grown, and hopefully learnt a breadth of transferable skills to add to my LinkedIn profile. A weight has definitely been lifted off of my shoulders, and I’m taking this time for some much needed ‘r&r’ before plunging myself into the world of post-graduate unemployment. And it’s a strange concept. it’s the first time in a long time when I’ve had nothing to do and no compulsion to be ‘productive’.

Throughout the entirety of my degree at quite an intense institution I’ve felt an overwhelming pressure to not only be productive, but to prove my worth by doing so. I’ve spent hours upon hours in the campus library, done my fair share of late nights and early mornings and now I just await my results. But there have also been dips and lulls. Times where getting out of bed seems like a struggle and it feels as if all motivation has been lost. I’ve been caught between procrastination and a hard place, and it’s really easy to feel down on yourself when it feels as if you aren’t doing enough and everyone, including yourself expects you to work harder.

“Productivity” is usually spoken about in economic terms and deemed as being at the heart of capitalism. However, it is something that reaches into all aspects of life. It’s likely that many people reading this can relate to feeling “lazy” or “useless” at some point, or having those terms used against you. When you’re not doing what’s expected of you, not working hard enough to reach your deadlines, or perhaps not working at all. And even when you are ticking off all of the things on your “to-do” list it often feels as if you could be doing more. This is one of capitalism’s many traps! “Productivity” is a limitless concept. You could always be doing more, earning more, applying to more jobs and go your whole life exhausting yourself, never satisfied and then – death.

This is also a feminist issue. Whilst the workplace has historically been constructed as a “masculine” arena, the age-old division of labour has relegated women to the domestic sphere. Many women are still expected to come home and continue being productive well beyond the hours of 9-5. Mother, lover, worker – all of these roles demand productivity in different ways. And many people of colour will be used to the rhetoric which instructs us to work “twice as hard,” than our white counterparts, and for the women in these groups, society bestows yet an extra burden. But, identity politics briefly aside, capitalism as an ideology needs us all to be productive. It is a system based on exchange and profit and, if things are as meritocratic as they say, those who work the hardest should reap the largest rewards.

But viewing our human value as being based on how much work we do can have disastrous effects. If our lives are spent believing that those who do the most “work” are the most worthy it becomes way too easy to put too much pressure on ourselves, and others, and hold too many people to the same impossibly high standards that our society sometimes imposes (which doesn’t account for disability, mental ill-health, and other structural and inhibiting factors). It’s important that we view time as a social relationship, an opportunity to relax, love, learn, instead of a “commodity”.      

As part of looking after ourselves, and others, it’s important to realise that, as humans, we are valuable, we are worthy and we are useful in different ways. That can’t be quantified! Productivity is a trap! The amount of hours you spend doing, or not doing, something makes you no less of a person and no less deserving of rest and compassion.


Written by Rochelle Smith 

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