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The Futility of Human Capital? Contradictions of “Neoliberal Ethics,” Heteronomy, and Automation

Anthony J. Knowles (University of Tennessee, USA)

Planetary Sociology

ISBN: 978-1-80043-509-4, eISBN: 978-1-80043-508-7

Publication date: 5 May 2023


This chapter argues that modern societies are changing in ways that disrupt the complementarity between social structure and character structure. One source of this divergence occurs because, on the one hand, there exists a “neoliberal” character structure that is oriented toward the accumulation of human capital and holds that such accumulation and hard work will allow one to achieve the “American Dream.” On the other hand, the deep embeddedness of this character structure may in fact deepen the possibility of structural crisis, as developments in automation and ongoing transformations of labor continuously shift the economic structure and many feel they are employed in meaningless “soul crushing” jobs. This diagnosis prompts the question: is the accumulation of human capital futile? In other words, can there exist an abundance of jobs that simultaneously pay enough to provide a middle-class lifestyle and be both socially respected by most members of society while also providing subjective meaning for the individual – without accruing high social costs? Through reflections upon my own biography growing up in East Tennessee, this chapter utilizes the framework of Planetary Sociology to encourage sociologists to rethink the category of “human capital” and recognize the divergence of social structure and character structure to be a serious problem with planetary implications. Only by critical examination of the sociohistoric context from a planetary perspective can these challenges be constructively evaluated and reckoned with.



Knowles, A.J. (2023), "The Futility of Human Capital? Contradictions of “Neoliberal Ethics,” Heteronomy, and Automation", Dahms, H.F. (Ed.) Planetary Sociology (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Vol. 40), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 91-115.



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