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Fifty Shades of Capitalism: Pain and Bondage in the American Workplace

The symbol of capitalism was lately a vampire. Enter the CEO with nipple clamps.
 
 
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Editor's Note: When harmful beliefs plague a population, you can bet that the 1% is benefiting. This article is part of a new AlterNet series, "Capitalism Unmasked," edited by Lynn Parramore and produced in partnership with author Douglas Smith and Econ4 to expose the myths and lies of unbridled capitalism and show the way to a better future.

If the ghost of Ayn Rand were to suddenly manifest in your local bookstore, the Dominatrix of Capitalism would certainly get a thrill thumbing through the pages of E.L. James’ blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey.

Rand, whose own novels bristle with sadomasochist sexy-time and praise for the male hero’s pursuit of domination, would instantly approve of Christian Grey, the handsome young billionaire CEO who bends the universe to his will.

Ingénue Anastasia Steele stumbles into his world -- literally -- when she trips into his sleek Seattle office for an interview for the college paper. When she calls him a “control freak,” the god-like tycoon purrs as if he has received a compliment.

“’Oh, I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele,’ he says without a trace of humor in his smile. ‘I employ over forty thousand people…That gives me a certain responsibility – power, if you will.’”

She will. Quivering with trepidation, Anastasia decides to become Christian’s submissive sex partner. Reeled in by his fantastic wealth, panty-sopping charm, and less-than-convincing promise that the exchange will be to her ultimate benefit, she surrenders herself to his arbitrary rules on what to eat, what to wear, and above all, how to please him sexually. Which frequently involves getting handcuffed and spanked. “Discipline,” as Christian likes to say.

Quoting industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie, Christian justifies his proclivities like an acolyte of Randian Superman ideology: “A man who acquires the ability to take possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.” (Rand’s worship of the Superman obliged to nothing but his intellect is well-known and imbued with dark passions; she once expressed her admiration for a child murderer’s credo, "What is good for me is right," as "the best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard” in a 1928 diary.)

Christian Grey, our kinky CEO, started his literary life as a vampire when Erika Leonard, the woman behind the pseudonym “E.L. James,” published the first version of her novel episodically on a Twilight fan site, basing the story on the relationship between Stephenie Meyers’ love couple Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. The tale was later reworked and released in its current form. Gone was Edward the vampire, replaced by Christian the corporate slave-master.

Drunk on the intoxicants of wealth and power, Fifty Shades of Grey hints at a sinister cultural shift that is unfolding in its pages before our eyes. The innocent Anastasias will no longer merely have their lifeblood slowly drained by capitalist predators. They’re going to be whipped, humiliated and forced to wear a butt-plug. The vampire in the night has given way to the dominating overlord of a hierarchical, sadomasochistic world in which everybody without money is a helpless submissive.

Welcome to late-stage capitalism.

Invisible Handcuffs

This has been coming for some time. Ever since the Reagan era, from the factory to the office tower, the American workplace has been morphing for many into a tightly-managed torture chamber of exploitation and domination. Bosses strut about making stupid commands. Employees trapped by ridiculous bureaucratic procedures censor themselves for fear of getting a pink slip. Inefficiencies are everywhere. Bad management and draconian policies prop up the system of command and control where the boss is God and the workers are so many expendable units in the great capitalist machine. The iron handmaidens of high unemployment and economic inequality keep the show going.