Relations within the system

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Capitalism tends to promote what psychologist Ellen Langer has termed ‘outcome-orientation’; “When children start a new activity with an outcome orientation, questions of “Can I?” or “What if I can’t do it?” are likely to predominate, creating an anxious preoccupation with success or failure rather than drawing on the child’s natural, exuberant desire to explore. Instead of enjoying the colour of the crayon, the designs on the paper, and a variety of possible shapes along the way, the child sets about writing a “correct” letter A.”28

Outcome orientation can be seen as a symptom of the kind of wide-scale instrumentalism that is promoted by the system. Just as our actions are frequently determined by their potential for success, and our talents transformed into tools of advancement, our relationships are also often defined by utility.

We can see an illustration of this in popular entertainment programmes like The Apprentice, in which contestants define their relationships to each other purely through the rules of the game, one that necessitates the ruthless relations of market-oriented instrumentality. To each other, the contestants are first and foremost competitors, a fact that is reflected in their frequent lack of compassion towards one another. To their superiors they are subordinated, at the arse-end of an inherently unbalanced power relationship. The underlying justification for these relationships - relations that, in another context, may appear decidedly dysfunctional - is the dictum ‘Its only business’. We are, then, under no illusions; these are business relationships, dictated by the rules of the marketplace: compassion needn’t come into it.

Whilst The Apprentice may simply be an exaggerated pantomime, or a cynical fiction, its relationships help illustrate a widespread truth; that often, instrumentality is our primary bond to each other. The instrumental relationship transforms us into ‘things’, there to be manipulated for various ends. We see the effects of instrumental relations in the workplace, where the relationship between employer and employee is often, as Fromm suggests, permeated by a “spirit of indifference […] It is not a relationship of two human beings who have any interest in the other outside of this mutual usefulness.”29 Our relationship to our work, the thing that we may spend most of our time engaged with, is often just as devoid of love and imagination, existing purely as a means to an end; a way to make money. Again, the system defines the limits of our meanings, encouraging unimaginative bare-bones relationships that speak a language of cold necessity.

As with competitiveness, it may be that instrumentality is an unavoidable outcome of human relations. If this is so, then we must question the sanity of a system that seeks to emphasize this idea rather than minimize it.


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