The economics of existential dilemmas

Image: Tim Board


The satanic mill oppresses and dehumanizes individuals, transforming them into mere instruments for the production and consumption of goods.


The economy has a direct and absolute impact on our existential dilemmas. The search for meaning and purpose in our lives often conflicts with the economic pressures we face (need to work, need to belong, financial success, status, support ourselves and our families, etc.). So that the relationship between economy and (social) being, given the temporal brevity of life (with all its implications on the relationship between the individual and the collective), the terrifying “unbearable lightness” of the uncertainty principle, as well as our inherent bounded rationality, seems to pose a primordial existential dilemma.


The emergence and expansion of capitalism, between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, brought with it a series of existential dilemmas that profoundly affected society at the time and afterwards. Work, for example, came to be seen as a commodity like any other. This vision generated a society in which work was valued above all other activities (but only as a producer of goods through capital), and where free time and leisure came to be seen as a waste of time or even as a sin. So that the dehumanization of work constituted an existential dilemma of enormous social significance and theoretical concern.

Work ceased to be an artisanal activity and began to be carried out on a large scale (craftsmanship, factory, large mechanized industry), in precarious and inhumane conditions. This dehumanization of work has generated a sense of alienation and purposelessness in life without historical precedent. As Marx explains in Book 1 of The capital, in capitalism “[…] it is not the worker who employs the working conditions, but, on the contrary, it is the latter that employ the worker; however, only with machinery does this inversion acquire a technically tangible reality”.

A second existential dilemma generated by capitalism is related to economic and social inequality. The idea that individual success is the result of effort and individual merit generated a highly competitive and unequal society, where few accumulated wealth and power, to the detriment of the vast majority of the population. This inequality has historically generated conflicts (class struggles), dissatisfaction and questions about the legitimacy of the capitalist system, as well as reforms to make it less perverse and/or revolutions with a view to overcoming it.

The term “satanic mill” seems to have been coined especially to refer to this process of dehumanization, which “crushed men into a mass”, as explained by its author, the Hungarian economist, anthropologist and sociologist Karl Polanyi, in his monumental constructions The Great Transformation: The Origins of Our Time. As Karl Polanyi describes “[…] the 'satanic mills' discarded all human needs, except one: inexorably, they began grinding society itself into its atoms”. For him, the satanic mill is a metaphor that represents the machinery of capitalism that crushes and grinds individuals in search of profit and power.

The satanic mill oppresses and dehumanizes individuals, transforming them into mere instruments for the production and consumption of goods. Finally, the “satanic mill” represented at the time the darkest and most destructive face of capitalism; that's right “before the process had gone far enough . country people dehumanized themselves into slum dwellers; the family was on the way to perdition and large areas of the country were rapidly disappearing under heaps of the slag and refuse spewed out by the 'satanic mills'”; that is, by the factories of the Industrial Revolution. Imagine what he would say about contemporary capitalism in its “digital-financial-warfare-quantum-surveillance” version.

In any case, this metaphor of the “satanic mill” can also be understood as a critique of the consumerist and materialistic way of life that capitalism fosters. Based on an incessant quest for profit and the accumulation of wealth that leads individuals to increasingly value money and material things to the detriment of more human and spiritual values, such as solidarity, fraternity and compassion. Nietzsche, for example, was critical of this quest for wealth and power, which he saw as an attempt to fill the void left by the death of God. According to him, this ideal would be contrary to the idea of ​​overcoming and transcendence, which he defended as the only way to face the nihilism and find meaning in life.

In general, the Industrial Revolution, at the end of the XNUMXth century and its consequences in the XNUMXth century, promoted a set of social and economic impacts, which, according to Eric Hobsbawm, in his work From the English Industrial Revolution to Imperialism, represented the great watershed in history, separating the old world from modernity, marked by the following characteristics: “[...] a new economic relationship between men, a new production system, a new rhythm of life, a new society, a new new historical era”. This process also brought with it another great modern dilemma: slavery. Eric Hobsbawm, still, in the same work, informs about the growth of this “most odious of traffics”: “in the century. In the XNUMXth century, less than a million black slaves had been taken from Africa to the Americas”, whereas, in the XNUMXth century, “the slave trade reached around seven million”.

The introduction of the steam engine generated an increase in the production of goods and altered social and economic dynamics. Some workers were required to work in factories from childhood, which affected their education and future opportunities. The workers' living conditions were generally precarious, with cramped housing, poor sanitary conditions and a lack of basic services such as drinking water and garbage collection.

Unhealthy working conditions in factories often led to illness and injury among workers, who had no access to medical care. Workers also faced pressure to produce more and more, often leading to fatal accidents, accidental deaths, and the exploitation of child labor, among other social ills. The workers' struggle for social justice resulted in the emergence of labor and social movements throughout the XNUMXth century, which sought to improve working conditions and implement legislation to defend their rights (labor and social).

In the 1960th century, the discussion about gender identity and sexuality began to gain space in social and political discussions. In the 1968s, the Sexual Revolution, which had its landmark in 1960, further boosted the debate on sexual rights and freedom. Also, from the XNUMXs onwards, the struggle for civil rights gained more strength and space. In the United States, for example, movements led by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The fight for civil rights was not limited to the United States. In several countries, movements have emerged to combat discrimination and oppression of ethnic, religious, sexual, and other minorities. In South Africa, for example, the apartheid, which segregated the country's black population, generated strong resistance and mobilization in search of change, with Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) as its main exponent.

In the first quarter of the XNUMXst century, civil rights movements gained even more space and scope, also reaching issues related to diversity and inclusion, the search for gender equality, and the fight against violence and the oppression of women, for example . Thus, in this historical period, a process of growing and amplified criticism of capital and capitalism is configured, also present in several contemporary social movements, such as environmentalism, feminism and the movement of resistance to the impacts of neoliberal globalization. These movements denounce the perverse effects of capitalism on the environment, people's health and quality of life, as well as its responsibility for generating social and economic inequalities. But, it is necessary to go further!


The existential dilemmas of the XNUMXth century were influenced by traumatic historical events, such as the world wars, the great depression, totalitarian regimes and genocides, and threats to global security, such as the Cold War, the arms race and the climate-environmental crisis. These events had a profound impact on the Psyche humanity, generating trauma, distrust and insecurities, which affected people's perception of the world and themselves.

Although economics does not deal directly with existential issues, it can contribute to minimizing some of the dilemmas that individuals face in the contemporary world. Economic inequality is one of the main problems faced in the world today, and has direct repercussions on a series of existential dilemmas, whether due to the lack or lack of access to educational opportunities, work, health care and adequate housing, for example.

Economic science can help to understand the conditions that promote economic growth and create public policies and incentives that help reduce inequality and improve access to basic resources (beyond capitalism). In turn, economic growth, increasingly problematic under capitalism, even if exclusionary, can create jobs and opportunities, which can provide individuals with a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.

On the other hand, recurrent economic crises, derived from this same growth, can lead to high unemployment rates, loss of income and financial uncertainty, which accentuate the negative consequences of a series of existential dilemmas. In general, it is believed that economic science can be of great value in managing these crises and developing policies that minimize their negative effects, even if under capitalism this implies great human, material and environmental losses.

Economic science can also help to understand the conditions that promote well-being, such as mental health, job satisfaction and general happiness. In order to reduce anxiety-generating conditions and uncertainty that often accompany existential dilemmas. However, it must be emphasized that questions related to purpose, meaning and human existence are too complex to be resolved through pure economic analysis.

Thus, although economic growth can potentially bring benefits and improve people's quality of life, it is not necessarily a solution to all existential dilemmas, mainly due to its contradictory and excluding nature under the command of capital. Given that this same economic growth can (and does) historically result in increased economic inequality, social exclusion, lack of opportunities, financial instability and loss of self-esteem.

Capitalist economic growth can lead to more job opportunities and higher incomes, but it also leads to higher levels of stress and anxiety. Pressures to maintain a high standard of living and compete for positions in the job market increase anxiety and pressure on individuals. It also contributes to environmental degradation and climate change in an overwhelming way, which triggers a series of existential dilemmas related to security, such as, for example, the loss of habitat and the threat to life on our planet.

Economic growth cannot be sustainable if it is not accompanied by environmentally responsible policies and practices, and in capitalism such policies and practices are transformed into profitable activities for capital (with the exception of small movements and specific initiatives contrary to the practices of capital and capitalism ).

Contradictorily, growth may provide opportunities to work and earn money, but it may not provide a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. It can also lead to improvements in quality of life in some aspects, such as access to health and education, but in an unequal and discriminatory way. Contradictorily, it can also lead to a series of existential dilemmas, such as lack of time for meaningful activities outside of work, loss of community connections and lack of time for personal relationships.

In summary, although capitalist economic growth can bring many benefits to people's lives, it is not a solution either for existential dilemmas, nor for the organization of a society with justice, equality and solidarity. It is necessary and urgent to consider a holistic approach that takes into account the social, environmental, political and individual dimensions of human life, beyond capitalism.


The technical-scientific-informational revolution (last quarter of the XNUMXth century), and its aftermath, in full effervescence (in the first quarter of the XNUMXst century), raised the antisocial character (violation of social norms, often violently) and asocial ( lack of motivation to participate in social interactions, as well as a preference for solitary activities), economic freedom, at the level of a social pathology of a chronic condition.

As we have already referred to the problem of inequalities (even if superficially), in this item we highlight two contemporary phenomena of great impact: (i) the replacement of the workforce by robots, no longer by machines and equipment as in the past (leaving behind not an “industrial reserve army”, but a growing population made totally unnecessary to the economy); and (ii) directly derived from the above, the subjection of this unnecessary workforce, worldwide, to brutal forms of exploitation, including conditions analogous to slavery and servitude.

For the great joker Elon Musk, “many jobs will become optional”. Although he justifies his statement with the idea that “working on the factory floor, washing dishes”, for example, are “boring” activities. However, we believe that a future where work is an “option”, goes against the idea of ​​work as the ontological foundation of the social being. In this sense, against the very constitution of civilization as we know it (excerpts from the newspaper The country, of 18/07/2022: Elon Musk: “Artificial intelligence threatens the existence of our civilization”, by Félix Palazuelos).

Work is considered the ontological foundation of social being because it is through it that human beings build their existence and transform nature (and themselves), creating the material conditions for their own survival and development. Work is a fundamental dimension of human life, not just as an economic activity, but as an activity that gives meaning and significance to existence. A fundamental reference on this subject is in For an ontology of social being, by György Lukács.

Work is the activity that allows human beings to create objects and transform the world, making it more “adequate” to their needs (we would add, primarily their particular needs, and, in view of these and to their advantage, given the opportunism generated by finitude of life and the chronic feeling of uncertainty/bounded rationality, the collective needs). Through work, human beings develop their ability to think and act, establish social relationships and create values ​​that sustain their culture and their way of life (so far, for a few individuals, very successful; but, for all the rest, just a bunch of social needs and existential dilemmas, impossible to solve over their brief existences).

How would the relationship between work and subsistence, for example, be in this world of Elon Musk? What new purpose, different from work (although in capitalism it is only related to worker exploitation), would give meaning to human existence? Spend the day watching streams? Producing content for youtube or tiktok? To pay with what money? And don't tell me that the rich would pay for the “unemployment” of this part of the population. Or, as Thomas Piketty suggests, that increasing taxation on income and wealth could resolve the ever-changing economic inequalities of capitalism.

The new technologies of the XNUMXst century are revolutionizing the way we produce and consume goods and services. The advancement of technology has led to increasing automation in many industries, which means that many jobs that were previously performed by humans are being replaced by robots. However, it is no longer a matter of replacing work along the lines of the English Industrial Revolution, Fordism or Toyotism. It means that a significant and ever-increasing part of contemporary economic activity is already being carried out by robots, that is, that such activity completely dispenses with human work.

According to a report from McKinsey Global Institute, from 2017, about 50% of all activities performed by workers worldwide have the potential to be automated through existing technologies. In turn, the 2018 World Economic Forum report estimated that by 2025, around 75 million jobs could be lost due to automation. However, the report also estimated the creation of 133 million new jobs, mainly in areas such as technology, healthcare and renewable energy.

However, in 2022, the technology sector itself has been massively laying off workers worldwide. Amazon, Meta and Salesforce led the list of companies with the most layoffs, followed by Microsoft, Google, Tesla and Nvidia. Twitter, for example, laid off 50% of its employees in 2022.

A layoff rate of workers due to new technologies would be an indicator that is perhaps impossible to measure globally. However, it is possible to present some general trends in comparison with world population growth. Between 2010 and 2020, the world's population grew by about 12%, from around 6,9 billion in 2010 to around 7,8 billion in 2020, according to World Bank data. During the same period, there was a significant advance in the development of new technologies in areas such as automation, artificial intelligence, robotics and others. These new technologies have made some occupations obsolete as well as reducing the need for human labor in some sectors.

Some estimates suggest that automation and other new technologies have had a significant impact on the labor market, in some sectors and countries, during the period 2010 to 2020. For example, a 2019 OECD study estimated that around 14% of jobs in its member countries are highly automatable. In some sectors, such as the manufacturing industry, automation has been responsible for a significant reduction in the need for human labor. Artificial intelligence has shown great potential to replace human work in areas such as health, education, among other general care services. It is important to highlight that the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to having a significant impact on the job market around the world, also contributed a lot to accelerate this trend.

The report McKinsey Global Institute, from 2017, already mentioned above, estimated that up to a third of the global workforce may need to change jobs or acquire new skills, by 2030, due to automation and other new technologies.

With regard to slavery, although it has been officially abolished in almost all countries, many forms of forced labor, exploitation and abuse still persist and/or are being expanded (either by new technologies or by their consequences in the world of work). ).

Work analogous to slavery occurs when people are forced to work without adequate pay, in precarious conditions, and are subjected to physical and psychological abuse. These people are often vulnerable, including migrant workers, children, women and indigenous peoples. Slavery-like work is also linked to other human rights violations such as human trafficking, sexual exploitation and child labour.

According to the 2010 Global Slavery Index published by the organization Walk Free Foundation, it is estimated that around 28,4 million people worldwide (162 countries surveyed) were living in slavery-like conditions in that year. Which reveals to us that the problem of modern slavery is worrying all over the world.

According to the same document, now in the year 2020, it is estimated that about 40,3 million people worldwide (167 countries) lived in conditions similar to slavery. Already, in 2021, 49,6 million people were living in conditions of modern slavery. It is important to emphasize that these data are only estimates and that the real number of individuals living in conditions similar to slavery could be much higher.

Between 2010 and 2020, the world's population grew by about 12% (from about 6,9 billion to about 7,8 billion), as previously stated. The growth rate of people living in slavery-like conditions is more difficult to estimate. But, from the estimates presented above, one can infer a rate of growth of work in conditions of slavery that is more than proportional, in relation to the rate of growth of the world population.

Finally, we present two necessary illustrations of this last aspect. In 2020, the Spanish newspaper The country presented an article entitled “The thousand slaves of orange”, drawing attention to the discovery of slave labor in the harvesting of orange crops, in the Castellon region, near Madrid, by immigrant workers from Romania (about 1.000 workers). The headline reads: “A Ruman marriage captured and exploited 1.000 people in four years to collect fruit. 25 were released into a house in Castellón where they lived in infra-human conditions".

In terms of Brazil, a very illustrative case was reported by the newspapers and the media in general, in early 2023. These are three large wineries (Aurora, Cooperativa Garibaldi and Salton) in the city of Bento Gonçalves, Rio Grande do Sul, who were involved in a slave labor scandal carried out by outsourced companies (207 workers were initially rescued). As the case involves outsourced companies to hire workers, the wineries involved were able to state in a note that they were not aware of the situation reported by the workers. And, furthermore, that “the misdeeds of a few” cannot be generalized to an entire region.

The most appalling thing about this case and the notes published by the aforementioned business groups is that the condition of slavery “may”, as long as it is carried out by a third-party company, and/or until it is discovered (four years in the case of orange workers, for example). So the feeling that remains for us is that the condemnation of slavery only appears as a very secondary element of this inhuman practice; which, in general, still continues to feed, in an important way, albeit in the shadows, the “satanic mill” of capitalism.

*José Micaelson Lacerda Morais is a professor in the Department of Economics at URCA. Author, among other books, of On the validity of class struggle as a category of economic analysis (Independently Published).

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