It is tempting to think that there could be little in common between my work as an anthropologist in the South African bush and as a customer service agent in a corporate call centre. Yet, during this unusual cross-over of experiences there was one behaviour I observed to be frequent in both fields: displacement aggression. When I studied vervet monkeys in South Africa, almost daily I would see a middle-ranking monkey do something seemingly innocuous that somehow angered a high-ranking monkey who wasted no time in violently punishing the wrongdoer. The victim – wounded, grieving – looked around and spotted an even lower-ranking monkey who sat, unsuspecting, at the edge of the scene. Perfect. The first victim swiftly dished out his or her own beating to this poor soul, who had done nothing wrong but exist.
Why do this? Well, Robert Sapolsky, in his indispensable Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, draws from his own extensive research on baboons (and other research on rats) to show that the spike in stress hormones following a beatdown can be seriously diminished if you then inflict the pain on someone even less fortunate. In his words: 'giving ulcers can help avoid getting them.' The bad news is, and this probably will not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has been on the receiving end of bullying, that the same effect is observed in humans. Nothing new here. But what if this effect has become normalised – institutionalised, even – in a very specific way due to the way capitalism structures society? I will show that this way serves the corporate elite perfectly by helping to further demolish class solidarity, and by perpetuating cycles of interpersonal violence and hierarchy.
It is no secret that in our consumer capitalist society, success, satisfaction, and happiness have, to a large extent, been anchored to consumption. The Situationist philosopher Guy Debord claimed that 'we no longer express ourselves through our production, but through our consumption.' There is relentless buying, scrolling, liking, sharing, streaming, bingeing, whatever. This notion is such a cliché, in fact, that it is now fashionable to realise this and either try to consume 'ethically' or to disavow consumerism entirely. The former is restricted to the affluent – (really) ethical production is rarely cheap under capitalism and so neither are the products. And the latter is, well, an additional cliché.
Slavoj Žižek maintains that it is this very disavowal, this 'ironic distance' we take from the machinations of consumer capital (i.e., I know it is bad and because I know it my continued [ironic] participation in the whole thing is 'not to be taken seriously') which capitalism thrives on. The late Mark Fisher drew on this, arguing that the role of capitalism is, in a sense, 'to launder our libidos, to obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they had nothing to do with us.' Through disavowal, we proclaim our clean slate. But our continued participation blurs the imagined line between irony and complicity – the slate never really comes clean. As Fisher said, 'what is [really] being disavowed…is our own complicity in planetary networks of oppression.'
A problem for consumer capitalism is that it requires constant growth, expansion. This means accelerating rates of production and consumption. Why should consumers keep pace? Recall Debord above for a partial answer. In a brilliant essay, Jonah Peretti (founder of Buzzfeed, intriguingly…) explores this in more depth. To oversimplify and perhaps slightly mutilate: quickening production and consumption mean that consumers, to fulfil the consumption part, need to keep pace. This is generally done because, by fusing consumption to identity (and thus social status), it becomes – for us highly social beings – pertinent to stay up to date. For the present discussion, however, another effect is more important. The quickening pulse of consumer capital requires quick, cheap production, cheap exploitative labour, planned obsolescence (why buy again when all your things last forever?), just-in-time production lines, and rapid deliveries carried out by overdrawn gig-economy drivers.
The result? Things inevitably go wrong. Things break or are faulty. Sometimes they even arrive broken when a delivery driver, desperate to meet their quasi-unattainable quota, launches the fragile parcel over the garden fence in a bid to get away quickly (actually very common). Working in call centres, I quickly learned that these blips in the chain of consumption can provoke very intense emotions in people. Of course, reactions can never be observed in a vacuum – undoubtedly one’s personal circumstances can be the difference between calling in with a calm disposition or a blown fuse (although you could easily make the case that many stressors – bullshit jobs, debt, poverty, bad health – can be linked to the way capitalism structures and stratifies society). Regardless, the true source of a consumer’s ire is consumer capital itself. If production was organised sustainably and fairly, with durability and quality in mind rather than profit, and if chains of distribution were also organised safely and equitably, then the vast majority of these issues would not occur. So first, capital fosters our addiction, then – like any enterprising drug dealer – it makes cuts to maximise profit. Of course, there needs to be a way to safely manage consumer dissatisfaction. Corporations therefore created a defensive buffer zone, populated mainly by working-class people, struggling students and, increasingly, people in far-off nations which offer cheaper labour: the customer service sector.
The customer service sector created, in a stroke of genius, what Robert Sapolsky calls an Us/Them dynamic – consumer/servant. The word 'service' is, of course, from the Latin word for slavery (servitium). Sapolsky compiles extensive neuroscience to show how easy it is, under the right circumstances, for humans to come to mistreat even the most arbitrary of outgroup ('Them') categories (the violence between football fans being a classic example). The effect is compounded when framed in terms of dominant and subordinate parties – when the logic of hierarchy takes root in the mind. Indeed, anyone who has worked in customer service knows that often people treat you as if you are not quite human. Instead, you are the physical manifestation of the corporation, a smile-tinged digi-voice with no emotions, no life beyond the helpline, no day to be ruined. If anything, the corporation is perversely ascribed more feeling than you ('I’ll take my money somewhere else next time!' a consumer hisses, trying to hit the corporation where it hurts via its dispensable embodiment). Ultimately, then, you are not really the 'representative' of the corporation, as that would imply some measure of authority, of power. Service workers have no real power.
I therefore cannot help but think of all the examples of debt peonage explored by the late David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years. Most people do not want to work in customer service; they sell a portion of their waking hours to a corporation (often very) cheaply to make ends meet. Thus, capital builds its servant army. When you buy from a corporation and they fail to deliver (or deliver poorly), the corporation is essentially left with a minor debt to you. To repay the debt, the corporation temporarily offers you a servant to resolve your crisis and assuage your dissatisfaction (replacements, refunds, tracking down lost parcels). The servant is thus at the consumer-king’s disposal until the debt is suitably repaid. A modern, capitalist, atomised (admittedly slightly dramatised) version of the debtor of antiquity who, to repay his (and it was usually 'his') debt, sells a dependent into service to a lord for an allotted time. Of course, in reality the power balance is reversed – the all-powerful corporation dwarfs the lowly consumer. This pretence underpins consumer capitalism: that the consumer is king (immortalised by the stale industry maxim, 'the customer is always right').
In this way, capital sets up its safety valve. It instils the logic of hierarchy in all of us as if it were natural and immutable, and then – when we suffer from it – our basest neurobiology guides us. Like the middle-ranking monkey, consumers can take out their anger by pummelling downwards at the hapless service worker who is duty-bound to stay on the line (except in extreme cases where the abuse is so vicious, and the caller so unmanageable, that you can, in fact, advise them you won’t hear any more of it – but this really has to be a special case). The problem is that, as Fisher notes, 'anger can only be a matter of venting; it is aggression in a vacuum, directed at someone who is a fellow victim of the system but with whom there is no possibility of communality. Just as the anger has no proper object, it will have no effect.' Fisher continues: 'in this experience of a system that is unresponsive, impersonal, centreless, abstract and fragmentary, you are as close as you can be to confronting the artificial stupidity of Capital in itself.' But this stupidity is really its genius.
Woven into the fabric of consumer capitalism is a system which obscures the relationship between its exploitative modes of production and one’s negative daily experiences, which ingrains in each of us beliefs in our status as consumer-kings, with authority stemming from our purchases. It normalises hierarchy and reconstitutes master-servant relationships. The ultimate inefficacy of our individualised, consumerist resistance against corporate transgressions also encourages new forms of displacement aggression which drain all steam, all energy, safely away from the corporate elite towards the fellow oppressed.
But humanity is not a troupe of monkeys. Among billions, there is no bottom ranker. The worker, pummelled all day over the phone, has other battles to fight too. Fisher noted how 'to function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or ‘precarity’.' The service worker embodies this condition in its totality. The stress of reacting to the unforeseen, ever-ready to don the plastic rictus of the friendly helper, when each next call could be 'the one' – the one that will shatter your day – melds with the pitiless turmoil of casualised employment, of fixed-term, temp, or zero-hours contracts.
This is a condition of precarity – emotionally, mentally, materially. The effect, to put it mildly, is one of high stress. And what is an easy, reliable way to lower stress? Recalling Sapolsky: to displace your aggression on someone else, someone who will not – or perhaps cannot – really fight back. It is an ancient cliché, the downtrodden worker who comes home and takes out their emotions on a partner, a child, or a pet. Sapolsky summarises on a stark note: 'when inequality fuels violence, it is mostly the poor preying on the poor.' The additional implications for gender-based violence here are clear.
When we critique consumerism, then, we need to remember that it is not just shallow, destructive, and wasteful, but that it can also help perpetuate and normalise interpersonal violence and hierarchy. It allows capital to pit victim against victim, and thus creates still more victims. In this way solidarity is destroyed, as a swathe of your fellow oppressed becomes a subordinate 'Them' (bonus points for call centres placed, like so many are, in countries like India, which further encourages racism). This continues the destruction of international community, of class solidarity, which capitalism has carried out so successfully – all in the name of consumption. I return to Fisher one last time: 'to reclaim a real political agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital… What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation.' This is the ultimate truth, and so it is pointless to disavow consumerism without also disavowing its anti-social, dehumanising logics.
We are often taught that humans are naturally hierarchical, that we always seek to dominate one another. Indeed, the capacity for this behaviour in us is more than clear, and the biology that underpins interpersonal violence is ancient. But it is not immutable. The reality is that capitalism works as a regressive force on human psychology. It brings out our most primitive instincts, conserved – as these things often are – for when they may be needed. Capitalism structures society in such a way where dominance in the hierarchy is rewarded, almost as a matter of survival. And naturally this brings behaviours which aid success in hierarchies to the fore. In a different society, an equitable one based on communist principles, the stressors which induce us to fall back on base instinct would fall away. But for us to realise such a society, it is vital to keep our capacity for hierarchy and violence always in mind, and to act accordingly.
In this, we can learn from egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands, many of whom remain constantly vigilant for those who would seek to place themselves above others and who take great care to regulate their behaviour, as well as their own. On the other hand, we must also avoid losing ourselves in the dominant narratives of humans as hopelessly hierarchical, merely held together in society by the guiding hand of the state. The human capacity for solidarity, care, and co-operation is unmatched in the animal kingdom. That is what makes us human. In the words of Mikhail Bakunin: 'no individual can recognise [their] own humanity, and consequently realise it in [their] lifetime, if not by recognising it in others and co-operating in its realisation for others.'
It is imperative, then, for us to resist the weaponization of hierarchy. A tool which not only safely diverts crucial energy away from resisting our oppressor, but also recycles it into atomising aggression amongst ourselves. Considering this dynamic in relation to the customer service industry is one very small piece of the puzzle. But given that many of us in our consumer society share the experience of being either on one side of the phone (or computer screen, cash register, etc…) or the other, it is still important to consider how this system shapes our thinking and our actions.
With this in mind, for all of us inveterate consumers: should we learn to individuate among 'Them', to re-discover solidarity with our fellow oppressed, at home or across borders, should we realise the shared root of our anger and our sorrows, then maybe, next time that blip in the chain of our consumption shakes us from our reverie, we might stop a moment and think about what it really means. We might then resist draining some of our precious energy and anger away through capitalism’s safety valve. And maybe, one day, we might sever that chain completely, and together form new bonds of community based in justice, equality, solidarity, and freedom.
Image from Busan Metropolitan City.
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