Worth Beyond Capitalism: Let's Ditch the Phrase "Productive Member of Society"

by Abaki Beck

Last week, Kim Kardashian West was tied up and robbed in her Paris hotel room. This violence is terrifying for anyone to experience, but what is perhaps equally terrifying was the response to it. Many people online stated they “didn’t believe it,” saying it was just a ploy to get media attention. Others said that this wasn’t important news, no one should care, it’s just celebrity gossip (though in my book, discussing who wore what where is a little different than discussing a female celebrity being violently attacked). Some even said she “deserved it” for not being a productive member of society, critiquing her wealth and lifestyle.

The expression “productive member of society” is common. What do we mean by this? And why do we care? In strictly capitalist terms, Kardashian West is productive: she earns lots of money and spends lots of money. On more personal terms, she is a mother, sister, wife; she is an entertainer and has used her social capital to be an entrepreneur; she has stood up against erasure of the Armenian genocide. But these things should not matter. Individual worth should not be measured based on your ability to “be productive.” This capitalist ideology not only negatively impacts how Kardashian West’s attack was treated in the public eye, but has deeper, more material consequences as well. Our lives are worth more than what society deems as worthy and visible “production.”

This notion only accepts certain types of normative work as productive and worthy. Productivity is what we can see and measure, not what we can feel or how we touch others. It is a way to shame and vilify people who do not fit a certain capitalist narrative of what success is. In capitalism success is based on a visible productivity, of gaining money through wage labor and accumulating capital. The successful member of society produces something of monetary value, be it their own labor or material products they exchange. Dependent on the success of its members, the capitalist narrative equates success and productivity with individual worth and rights to safety and support. Single mothers who receive welfare benefits? Leeching off the system. People who may participate in an underground economy (like drug dealing or sex work) to make ends meet? Not contributing anything positive to society. People who are unemployed due to their health conditions? Not trying hard enough. In this way, the capitalist notion of productivity is also ableist. Millions of disabled people are unable to work because of their health conditions; morally speaking this does not make them less valuable as human beings. However from a young age, disabled individuals are shamed for their  perceived “slowness,” for their inability to fit the mold of capitalist “productivity”. What we visibly “do” and produce should not be a measure of our dignity and humanity.

These pervasive notions have material consequences. People who are viewed as unproductive members of society are often denied rights. For example, a number of states have tried to deny welfare benefits to those who do not pass a drug test, and felons are often denied access to public housing and employment. But we do not exist simply to be used in a capitalist sense. Framing human lives only in the context of work and productivity - what we visibly “contribute” to society in a normative sense - distances us from our humanity.  Not being productive should not validate violence. It should not validate exclusion from housing or employment.

This obsession with associating productivity with worth has impacts on the personal level as well. Something I often struggle with are days when I do not feel “productive.” Maybe I don’t go grocery shopping, make art instead of doing work, or spend too much time watching tv. And then I begin to feel guilty for not doing enough. I see this feelings of negativity or shame among my friends too, who feel like they should have a better job, or should be attending grad school, or just should be some “better” version of themselves. We feel shame for living with our parents or having an internship instead of a job or just not knowing what we want to do with our lives. But again, we should not measure our success by how much we “produce.” My life is worth more than what I was able to check off on a to-do list. How did I feel? Who did I say I love you to? What was I grateful for? This notion can be especially impactful on mental health and wellbeing. As The Body Princess Diaries notes on tumblr, self care is never included in ideas of “productivity.” Again, productivity becomes what we can see and measure, not what we can feel. Not whose lives we touch. Not the beauty and joy we bring into the world. Taking care of ourselves - through making art, writing poetry, doing yoga - is valuable work as well because it centers our health, wellbeing, and spiritual survival.

Let’s reframe “productivity” beyond capitalist terms. This doesn’t mean that work doesn’t matter. Work can be fulfilling, and most people depend on employment for income. This doesn’t mean what we do isn’t important or doesn’t have value. But what we do with our time, or how much we do it, does not determine our level of worth. We should not shame ourselves or vilify others if we don’t live up to capitalist expectations of “success” and “production.” Regardless of what someone may “contribute” to society, they love, and they are loved.  And they deserve to live healthy lives free of violence.

One of the goals of the We are Theorists blog is to celebrate the cultural production of people of color. To this end, we occasionally post personal essays or cultural critiques by young writers of color. Email poconlineclassroom@gmail.com if you are interested in contributing! 

Abaki Beck