Jul 29th 2022

Sleep No More: Capitalism and Insomnia

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is an assistant adjunct professor of philosophy at City University of New York, College of Technology.

In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological.

Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master.

Neoliberalism wants to convince us that life itself is simply reducible to working life and that work will provide life with “its best opportunities for joy.” What we are witnessing then is capitalism’s gradual colonization of every last corner of our lives – so that we are either working or consuming during all of our waking hours. The only time we are free from this dual injunction to be constantly either working or consuming is when we are sleeping – but even this last refuge from the demands of neoliberalism is under assault: it is not without reason that sleep has been called the last frontier of capitalism.

People are certainly sleeping less in many countries, including the US. In 2004, researchers noticed a slight decrease in sleep time; and by 2017, nearly 33 percent, a full one-third of American working adults reported sleeping six or fewer hours per night – that is up from less than 28.5 percent in 2008-2009. According to the Sleep Foundation, nearly “half of Americans say they feel sleepy during the day between three and seven days per week.” Over 35 percent of all adults in the United States now report sleeping on average less than seven hours per night.

Insomnia is also on the rise, according to the American Journal of Managed Care, which reports that, “[t]he incidence of insomnia appears to be increasing in the United States. Based on National Health Interview Survey data, the unadjusted prevalence of insomnia or trouble sleeping increased by 8% over a decade, from 17.5% (37.5 million adults) in 2002 to 19.2% (46.2 million adults) in 2012.”

This phenomenon is typically blamed on technology, especially smartphones and other screen-based technologies. But what we are witnessing is as much, or indeed more, a function of neoliberalism rather than simply technology – it is a function of capitalism’s capture, colonization and conditioning of our inner lives; and ultimately the erasure of any form of interiority which presents an obstacle to the imperatives of neoliberalism; what the late Mark Fisher refers to as our “inability to construct a coherent self anymore in the face of this constant input, instantaneity, the kind of schizoid subjectivity… which has no halo of private protection anymore.”

At the same time, employers still rely on the traditional methods of increasing pressure on employees to improve performance and increase production. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” Mark Zuckerberg recently said at a weekly employee Q&A session. In becoming more hostile towards employees, Zuckerberg is ‘turning up the heat” on performance management to identify and remove staffers who are ‘negative’ for the company and unable to meet more aggressive targets.

One kind of critical response to Zuckerberg’s hardline, ‘shape up or ship out,’ approach recently appeared in an article entitled, “Mark Zuckerberg Just Made a Huge Mistake. It Could Destroy Meta and Facebook.” The author, Justin Bariso, takes Meta’s CEO to task for disregarding research which has demonstrated conclusively that “employees thrive in an environment that promotes psychological safety, where people feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.” Zuckerberg is also wrong, the author claims, for taking a ruthless approach to prioritization, while at the same time hardening management and increasing the surveillance of employees.

We might agree that the condemnation of Zuckerberg’s actions is fully justified, while disagreeing about what precisely makes his actions contemptible. For Bariso, Zuckerberg is guilty of a miscalculation: the hardboiled, toughened approach is not the optimal way to improve employee performance; undermining the confidence and morale of employees is in fact counterproductive and ultimately bad for business, and therefore bad for the bottom line. It is worth noting that if it happened to turn out that treating workers harshly actually improved profitability, then Bariso’s critique of Zuckerberg would lose all force.

One might easily assume that under Zuckerberg’s model of boss-employee relations, the boss’ feeling of dominating and the employee’s feeling of being dominated will be greater than under the conditions Bariso advocates – and that, therefore, under Bariso’s model, domination will indeed be less. If we drew this conclusion however, we would risk overlooking the crucial fact that keeping the dominated happy so that they no longer recognize their domination is “one of the oldest and most effective ruses of the art of ruling,” as Lordon observes.

Zuckerberg’s approach simply serves to underscore the brutality and ‘symbolic violence’ that is endemic to the boss-employee relationship in capitalist (and therefore hierarchically organized) firms. As Lordon observes: “[t]he constant threats of relocation… and, ultimately loss of employment merely exploit the primal affect of the employment relation… fear of losing the conditions necessary for the reproduction of material life.” What Zuckerberg has done is raise this affect (fear) to a higher level of intensity, which enables him to “extract from employees – through fear – a supplement of subjection and productive mobilization…”

There is nothing unusual about what Zuckerberg is doing; indeed, it is typical of companies under conditions of neoliberalism, and continuous with the violation of workers’ rights which has reached record highs, according to the International Trade Union Confederation’s 2022 Global Rights Index. As Fisher remarked: “We are required to hustle and market ourselves even when we have ostensibly permanent jobs. This forms the background condition of our lives under neoliberalism.”

We may also point out the “fantasy of liquidity” implicit in Zuckerberg’s ultimatum to employees that they can either ramp-up performance or face demotion (humiliation) and dismissal. This fantasy is nothing other than the neoliberal desire for the liquefaction of labor: let the workforce be made into “something fluid, reversible, and as easily adjustable as the components of a portfolio of financial assets, with the inevitable effect of creating a world of extreme uncertainty for enlistees.” Flexible labor and the erosion of employment conditions incentivized by neoliberalism has had a deleterious effect on workers’ mental health. Unsurprisingly, numerous studies have shown that employment precarity is correlated with troubled sleep and insomnia, increasing the odds of sleep disturbance by as much as 47 percent, according to a 2018 study.

In his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2014), the philosopher Jonathan Crary observes that, “[t]he huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism… it confounds any strategies to exploit or reshape it. The stunning, inconceivable reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it.” We need to remember that sleep is not simply necessary for us to resume work and maintain our sanity: it is one of the crucial and last remaining bastions against capitalism’s unchecked hegemony. Indeed, perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that we are gradually and fatally losing the ability to dream of any alternative to the nightmare of neoliberalism.

Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "This study suggests that around 10% of people diagnosed with dementia may instead have underlying silent liver disease with HE causing or contributing to the symptoms – an important diagnosis to make as HE is treatable."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "Health disparity is a powerful weapon in the savage class warfare otherwise known as neoliberalism. (In 2020, the RAND Corporation did a study of the transfer of wealth over the last several decades from the working-class and the middle-class to the top one percent. Their estimate is a staggering $47 trillion – that is how much the “upward redistribution of income” cost American workers between 1975 and 2018.) Neoliberalism is a brutal form of labor suppression, which uses health as a means of maintaining and reproducing a condition in which wealth is constantly being redistributed upwards, and the middle-class is kept in a constant state of fear of sinking into the ranks of the poor. Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcies in America – and that’s according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. The ballooning costs of healthcare serve to maintain a system marked by morally unacceptable health inequity and injustice."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT. "But living longer has also come at a price. We’re now seeing higher rates of chronic and degenerative diseases – with heart disease consistently topping the list. So while we’re fascinated by what may help us live longer, maybe we should be more interested in being healthier for longer. Improving our “healthy life expectancy” remains a global challenge. Interestingly, certain locations around the world have been discovered where there are a high proportion of centenarians who display remarkable physical and mental health. The AKEA study of Sardinia, Italy, as example, identified a “blue zone” (named because it was marked with blue pen),....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACT: ""Tresors en Noir et Blanc" presents 180 prints from the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, also known as the Petit Palais.  The basis of the museum's print collection is 20,000 engravings amassed by a 19th-century collector, Eugene Dutuit, " ----- "This wonderful exhibition, the tip of a great iceberg, serves to emphasize how unfortunate it is that the tens of thousands of prints owned by the Petit Palais are almost never seen by more than a handful of scholars who visit them by appointment.  Nor is the Petit Palais the only offender in this regard,....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "And that is the clue to Manet’s work. He paints painting, regardless of his subject: he paints the medium itself, it as if he is constantly reminding us that this is a painting," ..........."This is a new conception of painterly truth at play here, a new fidelity to truth. Manet is the Kant of painting because he initiates a similar kind of “Copernican revolution” – we do not see the world as it is but as we are. " -------- " Among the most remarkable but unfamiliar of Manet’s work on display are those depicting the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871.There is no question regarding Manet’s condemnation of the Versailles government’s actions following the defeat of the Commune, when some 25,000 Parisians were gunned down, including women and children."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Think of our brain like a map. When we’re young, we explore all corners of this map, sending out connections in every direction to make sense of our environment. Before long, we figure out basic truths – such as how to secure food, or where we live – and the neurological paths that make up these connections strengthen. Over time, a network emerges that reflects our unique experiences. Regions we re-visit often will develop established paths, whereas under-used connections will fade away. ---- Conditions such as addiction, chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are characterised by processes such as repetitive negative thinking or rumination, where patients focus on negative thoughts in a counterproductive way. Unfortunately, these strengthen brain connections that perpetuate the unfavourable mental state."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "While no one was looking, France has become a melting pot of European peoples. Its neighbors have traditionally been welcomed, and France progressively turned them into French boys and girls in the next generation."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACTS: "Being rich is essentially about having more stuff in general, including bigger houses." "..... if SUVs had not become widely adopted largely as a status symbol for the global middle classes, emissions from transport would have fallen by 30% over the past ten years. For the largest class of SUVs, six of the ten areas of the UK registering the most sales were affluent London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "By using these “biomarkers”, researchers have discovered that when a person’s biological age surpasses their chronological age, it often signifies accelerated cell ageing and a higher susceptibility to age-related diseases." ----- "Imagine two 60-year-olds enrolled in our study. One had a biological age of 65, the other 60. The one with the more accelerated biological age had a 20% higher risk of dementia and a 40% higher risk of stroke."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACT: "We are working on a completely new approach to 'machine intelligence'. Instead of using ..... software, we have developed .... hardware that operates much more efficiently."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "When people think of foods related to type 2 diabetes, they often think of sugar (even though the evidence for that is still not clear). Now, a new study from the US points the finger at salt." ...... ".... this type of study, called an observational study, cannot prove that one thing causes another, only that one thing is related to another. (There could be other factors at play.) So it is not appropriate to say removing the saltshaker 'can help prevent'." ..... "Normal salt intake in countries like the UK is about 8g or two teaspoons a day. But about three-quarters of this comes from processed foods. Most of the rest is added during cooking with very little added at the table."
Oct 26th 2023


In 1904, Emile Bernard visited Paul Cezanne in Aix.  He wrote of a conversation at dinner:

Sep 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Many people have dipped their toe into the lazy gardener’s life through “no mow May” – a national campaign to encourage people not to mow their lawns until the end of May. But you could opt to extend this practice until much later in the summer for even greater benefits. Allowing your grass to grow longer, and interspersing it with pollen-rich flowers, can benefit many insects – especially bees. Research finds that reducing mowing in urban and suburban environments has a positive effect on the amount and diversity of insects. Your untamed lawn won’t only benefit insects. It will also encourage more birds, such as goldfinches, to use your garden to feed on the seeds of common wildflower species such as dandelions."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Eliot remarked that Shakespeare's greatness not only grew as the writer aged, but that his development became more apparent to the reader as he himself aged: 'No reader of Shakespeare... can fail to recognize, increasingly as he himself grows up, the gradual ripening of Shakespeare's mind.' "
Aug 25th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I moved here 15 years ago from London because it was so safe. Bordeaux was then known as La Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty). It's the wine capital of France and the site of beautiful 18th century architecture arrayed along the Garonne river." ---- "What’s new is that today lawlessness is spreading into the more comfortable neighborhoods. The favorite technique is to defraud elderly retirees by dressing up as policemen, waterworks inspectors or gas meter readers. False badges including a photo ID are easy to fabricate on a computer printer. Once inside, they scoop up most anything shiny as they tip-toe through the house."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACT: "The 1953 coup d'etat in Iran ushered in a period of exploitation and oppression that has continued – despite a subsequent revolution that led to huge changes – for 70 years. Each year on August 19, the anniversary of the coup, millions of Iranians ask themselves what would have happened if the US and UK had not conspired all those years ago to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected leader."
Aug 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "Edmundo Bacci: Energy and Light, curated by Chiara Bertola, and currently on view at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, is the first retrospective of the artist in several decades. Bacci was a native of Venice, a city with a long and illustrious history of painting, going back to Giorgione and Titian, Veronese and Tiepolo. As a painter, he was thoroughly immersed in this great past – as an artist he was determined to transform and remake that tradition in the face of modernity and its vicissitudes, what he called “the expressive crisis of our time.” That he has slipped into obscurity affords us, at the very least, an opportunity to see Bacci’s work essentially for the first time, without the burden of over-determined interpretations or categories."
Aug 12th 2023
EXTRACT: "Is Oppenheimer a movie for our time, reminding us of the tensions, dangers and conflicts of the old Cold War while a new one threatens to break out? The film certainly chimes with today’s big power conflicts (the US and China), renewed concern about nuclear weapons (Russia’s threats over Ukraine), and current ideological tensions between democratic and autocratic systems. But the Cold War did not just rest on the threat of the bomb. Behind the scientists and generals were many other players, among them the economists, who clashed just as vigorously in their views about how to run postwar economies."
Aug 5th 2023
EXTRACT: "I have a modest claim to make: we need Bruno today more than ever. This is because he represents an intellectual antidote to the prevailing ideology of today which tells us that we are doomed to finitude, which comes down politically to the assertion that there is no alternative to the reign of global capitalism. Of course, Bruno did not know about capitalism, globalization or neoliberalism. What he did know however is that humanity is infinite. That we are limited only by our own narrowness of vision."
Jul 26th 2023
EXTRACT: "We studied 55,000 people’s dietary data and linked what they ate or drank to five key measures: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution and biodiversity loss. Our results are now published in Nature Food. We found that vegans have just 30% of the dietary environmental impact of high-meat eaters. The dietary data came from a major study into cancer and nutrition that has been tracking the same people (about 57,000 in total across the UK) for more than two decades."