By Peter Fleming
- Sugar Daddy Capitalism; The Dark Side of the New Economy (2018)
- The Death of Homo Economicus; Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation (2017)
For neoclassical economists, Homo economicus, or economic human, represents the ideal employee: an energetic worker bee that is a rational yet competitive decision-maker. Alternatively, one could view the concept as a cold and selfish workaholic endlessly seeking the accumulation of money and advancement—a chilling representation of capitalism. Or perhaps, as Peter Fleming argues, Homo economicus does not actually exist at all.
In The Death of Homo Economicus, Fleming presents this controversial claim with the same fierce logic and perception that launched his Guardian column into popularity. Fleming argues that as an invented model of a human being, Homo economicus is, in reality, a tool used by economists and capitalists to manage our social world through the state, business, and even family. As workers, we are barraged with constant reminders that we should always strive toward this ideal persona. It’s implied—and sometimes directly stated—that if we don’t then we are failures. Ironically, the people most often encouraged to emulate this model are those most predisposed to fail due to their socioeconomic circumstances: the poor, the unemployed, students, and prisoners.
Fleming illuminates why a peculiar proactive negativity now marks everyday life in capitalist societies, and he explores how this warped, unattainable model for workers would cause chaos if enacted to the letter. Timely and revelatory, The Death of Homo Economicus offers a sharp, scathing critique of who we are supposed to be in the workplace and beyond.
Ozan Nadir Alakavuklar on Organization wrote:
"Our entire lives, he argues, have been economified. The ruling narratives of work and commerce hypnotise us into thinking of our very selves as micro-businesses, so that it becomes ever harder to imagine life outside the paradigm of capital investment, productivity and profit. [...] Fleming offers an excellent historical analysis of the associated idea of 'human capital', according to which each employee really is a little entrepreneur, investing in his or her skills. This amounts, Fleming thinks, to a deliberate atomisation of the workforce and a hollowing-out of education itself. [...] What, then, is to be done? Fleming doesn’t buy the Paul Mason fantasy that voluntary cooperation on the model of Wikipedia or open-source software will somehow scale up to rebuilding society along more equitable lines. He also disapproves of the death drive he perceives in 'accelerationism' (full speed ahead with rampant wreckage capitalism so as to hasten its inevitable implosion), and the misanthropic eco-fanatic’s desire to dismantle civilisation for the sake of the worms and the mosquitoes. Instead he favours a 'radical de-privatisation of the public sphere', some version of universal basic income and a fellowship of the precarious to demand universal workers’ rights [...] the nicest thing about his book is its avoidance of despair: it is often hilariously angry, but the stylish expression of outrage can itself be a positive and optimistic act."
"In this book, Peter Fleming introduces us to the ways in which homo economicus as a construction of the neoclassical economic project has fallen apart today. [...] Fleming claims that ‘extreme capitalism is primarily for those without capital, while the political and financial elite enjoy a softer socialistic existence in which homo economicus would seem out of place and unwelcome’ (p. 99). As examples of being unwelcome or incapable to survive in the new dark ages, each chapter presents stories of homo economicus dying from loss of social connection, suicide as a way of escape, or overwork. In some other cases, we are told about homo economicus going nuts at work, or protesting, or even killing out of anger. Although they may seem marginal, when brought together, these cases in fact demonstrate that there is a pattern related to neoliberalism’s ‘worst excesses rolling back through’ (p. 3) our societies, and the book successfully addresses how such excesses become normalised in the Zeitgeist of post 2008. [...] he presents a wide repertoire of issues and public debates to engage with including, but not limited to, techno-optimists, commercialisation of informal economy, high and unfair executive pay, creation of oligarchs through privatisation, responsibilisation and individualisation process of gig economies, work becoming simply a ceremony, fantasies of escape and institutionalisation of instrumental rationality. The writing feels deceptively light in its touch, jumping from analysis of one topic to another in each chapter, which risks some repetition. Nevertheless, as Fleming uncovers the false promises behind glossy concepts, such as Mason’s postcapitalism, behavioural economics, sharing economy and human capital theory, overall, the book emerges as a forceful critique of the current phase of neoliberal capitalism which is killing us through work. [...] While it is not written in the form of an academic text, Fleming often draws arguments or concepts from critical scholars such as Derrida, Foucault, Agamben, Hardt, Negri and others. Cognisant readers will easily note the underlying powerful analysis of political economy"
- "Is Homo Economicus Dead?", blog by Peter Fleming on the site Economic Sociology and Political Economy, 7 December 2017
- "What is human capital?", article by Peter Fleming on the site of digital magazine Aeon, 10 May 2017
Table of Contents of The Death of Homo Economicus
- Introduction: Welcome to the New Dark Ages
- 1 Cash Psychosis
- 2 Wreckage Economics
- 3 Why Homo Economicus had to Die … Over and Over Again
- 4 The Theatre of Loss … Work
- 5 Microeconomics (really is) for Dummies
- 6 The Quiet Earth
- Conclusion: A Marginal Model of Nothingness
About Peter Fleming
Peter Fleming is professor of business and society at the Cass Business School, City, University of London. Before joining Cass, Peter Fleming held positions at Cambridge University and Queen Mary College, University of London. Fleming's research focuses on the changing relationship between business and society, with special emphasis on new patterns of conflict in the workplace, the evolution of management ideologies and the rise (and fall) of Corporate Social Responsibility. He has also extensively studied the causes of organisational corruption in the private and public sectors. Peter regularly writes for The Guardian and the BBC among other media outlets.