Capitalism and Human Flourishing? The strange story of the bias to activity and the downgrading of work

Research output: Working paperAcademic

1 Downloads (Pure)


What interpretation of human flourishing, what ideas of value, does capitalism
in practice embody and promote? To address this question the paper clarifies
first that ‘capitalism’ must be understood as more than merely a system of
private property and markets. It contains ‘the prerogative of capital’, in which
surplus remains with the owners of capital, and ‘the perspective of capital’, in
which hired work is defined as a cost. The question must also be distinguished
from more conventional ones (Does capitalism promote human flourishing? Is
capitalism desirable? Is capitalism better than the alternatives?). Capitalism may
not fit very well any of the standard conceptions of well-being, as pleasure or
satisfaction or fulfilment of substantive needs. Its unending drives for
expansion of the supply of commodities, and for their recurrent replacement,
seem to fit more closely with an activist conception of well-being. The
preoccupation with levels of monetized activity arises as an effect of capitalist
categories of social accounting, fanned by competition, and how they can
channel deeper human motives and pre-capitalist forces. However, while
capitalism overemphasises activity (as monetized throughput), it undervalues
work (as human self-expression) despite its centrality for felt well-being and
physical and mental health and capability. The typical conception of work
under capitalism is as a cost, for the capitalist must pay for it. The activist
strand in capitalist practice and in corners of capitalist theory compensates to
some extent for the automatic presumption that work is a cost, but in
distorted, accidental and incomplete fashion. The paper concludes by asking
how alternative conceptualizations of work might contribute to a more
adequate treatment of human flourishing, and how we might draw implications
from the well-being literature for reconceptualisation of work, reform of
categories of societal accounting, and deepening of the research on ‘human
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationDen Haag
PublisherInternational Institute of Social Studies (ISS)
Number of pages30
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2009

Publication series

SeriesISS working papers. General series


  • ISS Working Paper-General Series


Dive into the research topics of 'Capitalism and Human Flourishing? The strange story of the bias to activity and the downgrading of work'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this