Boredom and Capitalism (According to Wikipedia)

Mark Jayson Aranda, CC BY-SA 3.0, Office Cubicles in Gulf Worldwide Sales & Marketing Team

By Sarrita Hunn


Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 3.0, A Souvenir Seller Appears Bored As She Waits for Customers

In conventional usage, boredom is an emotional or psychological state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, is not interested in his or her surroundings, or feels that a day or period is dull or tedious. It is also understood by scholars as a modern phenomenon that has a cultural dimension. “There is no universally accepted definition of boredom. But whatever it is, researchers argue, it is not simply another name for depression or apathy. It seems to be a specific mental state that people find unpleasant—a lack of stimulation that leaves them craving relief, with a host of behavioral, medical and social consequences.”[1]  In Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity, Elizabeth Goodstein traces the modern discourse on boredom through literary, philosophical, and sociological texts to find that “boredom is […] not just a response to the modern world but also a historically constituted strategy for coping with its discontents.”[2] In both conceptions, boredom has to do fundamentally with an experience of time and problems of meaning.


Erich Fromm and other thinkers of critical theory speak of boredom as a common psychological response to industrial society, where people are required to engage in alienated labor. According to Fromm, boredom is “perhaps the most important source of aggression and destructiveness today.” For Fromm, the search for thrills and novelty that characterizes consumer culture are not solutions to boredom, but mere distractions from boredom which, he argues, continues unconsciously.[3]


Karl Marx’s theory of alienation describes the estrangement (Ger. Entfremdung) of people from aspects of their Gattungswesen (“species-essence”) as a consequence of living in a society of stratified social classes. The alienation from the self is a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class, the condition of which estranges a person from their humanity. The theoretic basis of alienation, within the capitalist mode of production, is that the worker invariably loses the ability to determine life and destiny when deprived of the right to think of themselves as the director of their own actions; to determine the character of said actions; to define relationships with other people; and to own those items of value from goods and services, produced by their own labor. Although the worker is an autonomous, self-realized human being, as an economic entity, this worker is directed to goals and diverted to activities that are dictated by the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, in order to extract from the worker the maximum amount of surplus value in the course of business competition among industrialists. Critics of capitalism argue that it establishes power in the hands of a minority capitalist class that exists through the exploitation of the majority working class; prioritizes profit over social good, natural resources and the environment; and is an engine of inequality and economic instabilities.


The capitalist mode of production proper, based on wage-labor and private ownership of the means of production, began to grow rapidly in Western Europe from the Industrial Revolution, later extending to most of the world. Advanced capitalism is the situation that pertains to a society in which the capitalist model has been integrated and developed deeply and extensively for a prolonged period. Various writers identify Antonio Gramsci as an influential early theorist of advanced capitalism, even if he did not use the term himself. In his writings, Gramsci sought to explain how capitalism had adapted to avoid the revolutionary overthrow that had seemed inevitable in the 19th century. At the heart of his explanation was the decline of raw coercion as a tool of class power, replaced by use of civil society institutions to manipulate public ideology in the capitalists’ favor.


Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony that describes how the state and ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view develops a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. The capitalist economy’s arrangement of the relations of production provokes social conflict by pitting worker against worker, in a competition for “higher wages”, thereby alienating them from their mutual economic interests; the effect is a false consciousness, which is a form of ideological control exercised by the capitalist bourgeoisie through its cultural hegemony. Such a belief (or something like it) is said to be required in economics with its presumption of rational agency; otherwise wage laborers would not be the conscious supporters of social relations antithetical to their own interests.[4]

Public domain, Strikers confronted by soldiers during the 1912 textile factory strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, U.S.A., called when owners reduced wages, after a state law reduced the work week from 56 to 54 hours

Furthermore, in the capitalist mode of production, the philosophic collusion of religion in justifying the relations of production facilitates the realization, and then worsens, the alienation of the worker from their humanity; it is a socio-economic role independent of religion being “the opiate of the masses”. Religion has become, in many Western countries, less common and less accepted since Marx wrote this now-famous line. Some writers speculate on what the modern “opium of the people” would be, such as sports fandom, celebrities, the distractions of television, internet, and other entertainment. In the opening of Das Kapital, Marx makes the observation that within the capitalist mode of production we evaluate materials not by what purpose they serve or what they’re actually useful for, but we instead recognize them based on their value in the market.[5] In capitalist society, virtually identical products often have vastly different values simply because one has a more recognizable or prestigious brand name. The value of a commodity is abstract and not tied to its actual characteristics. Much in the same way capitalism commodifies the material world, advanced capitalism commodifies experience and perception.[6]


As early as 1958, in the Situationist Manifesto, Guy Debord described official culture as a “rigged game”, where conservative powers forbid subversive ideas to have direct access to the public discourse.[7] Such ideas get first trivialized and sterilized, and then they are safely incorporated back within mainstream society, where they can be exploited to add new flavors to old dominant ideas. This technique is sometimes called recuperation.[8] The Society of the Spectacle is a 1967 work of philosophy and Marxist critical theory by Debord, in which the author develops and presents the concept of the Spectacle. Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation. Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having and having into merely appearing.” This condition, according to Debord, is the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord writes, “rather, it is a social relation among people, mediated by images.”


In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that the quality of life is impoverished, with such a lack of authenticity that human perceptions are affected, and an attendant degradation of knowledge, which in turn hinders critical thought. Debord analyzes the use of knowledge to assuage reality: the spectacle obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never-ending present; in this way the spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history, one that can be overturned through revolution. To survive, the spectacle must maintain social control and effectively handle all threats to the social order. Recuperation is the process by which the spectacle intercepts socially and politically radical ideas and images, commodifies them, and safely incorporates them back within mainstream society.[9] More broadly, it may refer to the appropriation or co-opting of any subversive works or ideas by mainstream media.


According to Debord, the integrated spectacle goes by the label of liberal democracy. This spectacle introduces a state of permanent general secrecy, where experts and specialists dictate the morality, statistics, and opinions of the spectacle. Terrorism is the invented enemy of the spectacle, which specialists compare with their “liberal democracy”, pointing out the superiority of the latter one. Debord argues that without terrorism, the integrated spectacle wouldn’t survive, for it needs to be compared to something in order to show its “obvious” perfection and superiority.


Debord’s aim and proposal is “to wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images…through radical action in the form of the construction of situations…situations that bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art”. Debord encouraged the use of détournement, in which conventional ideas and images are reorganized and re-contextualized with radical intentions. It has been defined elsewhere as “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself”[10]—as when slogans and logos are turned against their advertisers or the political status quo.[11]


The concept of détournement has had a popular influence amongst contemporary radicals, and the technique can be seen in action in the present day when looking at the work of Culture Jammers including the Cacophony Society, Billboard Liberation Front, Occupy Movements and Adbusters, whose ‘subvertisements’ ‘detourn’ Nike adverts, for example. In this case, the original advertisement’s imagery is altered in order to draw attention to said company’s policy of shifting their production base to cheap-labour third-world ‘free trade zones’. However, the line between ‘recuperation’ and ‘détournement’ can become thin (or at least very fuzzy) at times, as Naomi Klein points out in her book No Logo. Here she details how corporations such as Nike, Pepsi or Diesel have approached Culture Jammers and Adbusters and offered them lucrative contracts in return for partaking in ‘ironic’ promotional campaigns. She points out further irony by drawing attention to merchandising produced in order to promote Adbusters’ Buy Nothing Day, an example of the recuperation of détournement if ever there was one.[12]

Mark Jayson Aranda, CC BY-SA 3.0, Office Cubicles in Gulf Worldwide Sales & Marketing Team

Debord discusses the close link between revolution and culture and everyday life, and the reason why conservative powers are interested in forbidding them “any direct access to the rigged game of official culture.” Debord recalls that worldwide revolutionary movements that emerged during the 1920s were followed by “an ebbing of the movements that had tried to advance a liberatory new attitude in culture and everyday life,” and that such movements were brought to a “complete social isolation.”


Boreout is a management theory that posits that lack of work, boredom, and consequent lack of satisfaction are a common malaise affecting individuals working in modern organizations, especially in office-based white collar jobs. This theory was first expounded in 2007 in Diagnose Boreout, a book by Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin, two Swiss business consultants. They claim the absence of meaningful tasks, rather than the presence of stress, is many workers’ chief problem. A “banishment room” (also known as a “chasing-out-room” and a “boredom room”) is a modern employee exit management strategy whereby employees are transferred to a department where they are assigned meaningless work until they become disheartened enough to quit.[13][14]


Without stimulus or focus, the individual is confronted with nothingness, the meaninglessness of existence, and experiences existential anxiety. In a consumer society, social life is not about living, but about having; the spectacle uses the image to convey what people need and must have. The spectacle is the unified, ever-increasing mass of image-objects and commodified experience detached from every aspect of life, fused in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.


Sarrita Hunn is an artist and co-founder of Temporary Art Review.



[2] Goodstein, Elizabeth S. 2005. Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[3] Erich Fromm, “Theory of Aggression” Archived May 13, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. 7

[4] This phenomenon is most accentuated in the United States and has given rise to what some European Marxists refer to as “class transference.”

[5] Karl Marx (1867) Volume I, Section 4. The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof. Das Kapital (1867)

[6] Guy Debord (1967) Society of the Spectacle. (Paris, June 1967). Chapter I: Separation Perfected

[7] Guy Debord (1960) “Situationist Manifesto,” Internationale Situationniste #4

[8] Robert Chasse, Bruce Elwell, Jonathon Horelick, Tony Verlaan. (1969) Faces of Recuperation. In the American section of the Situationist International, Issue #1 (New York, June 1969)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Douglas B. Holt: Cultural Strategy Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands, Oxford University Press 2010, 252

[11] Martin Kaste Exploring Occupy Wall Street’s ‘Adbuster’ Origins, NPR, October 20, 2011

[12] Naomi Klein (1999), No Logo, Knopf Canada, Picador

[13] TABUCHI, HIROKO (August 16, 2013). “Layoffs Taboo, Japan Workers Are Sent to the Boredom Room”. The New York Times. Retrieved 23 August 2013

[14] Since the resignation is voluntary, the employee would not be eligible for certain benefits. The legality and ethics of the practice is questionable and may be construed as constructive dismissal by the courts in some regions.