Soylent, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Life Hacking

Karl Marx famously argued that alienation of labour (our most basic activity) meant that we felt human only during ‘animal functions’ such as eating and drinking.

Of course, Marx had never met Rob Rhinehart, the entrepreneur recently featured in a Lizzie Widdicombe New Yorker piece for his efforts to replace food with a grey slurry he calls ‘Soylent’.

Rhinehart’s Eureka moment came while he struggled to launch a tech start-up. Funds dwindling, he resented the expensive inefficiency of eating – and engineered a solution.

‘You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,’ he explained, ‘You need carbohydrates, not bread.’

Having calculated the various nutrients the entrepreneurial body might require, he ordered them online. Into a blender went his powders and potions – and, voila, Soylent.

After three months on this food-free regime, Rhinehart realised he’d found the stuff from which fortunes were made. With backing from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, he’s now manufacturing commercial-grade Soylent throughout the US.

Meal substitutes (Erasure, Slim Fast, etc) are nothing new. But Soylent’s success, Widdicombe suggests, reflects the rise of ‘life hacking’, the conviction that one’s daily routine can and should be optimized, much as savvy computer users download apps and tweaks his settings to optimise their machine. The always-zeitgesty Gawker empire features a site called Lifehacker, which helps you, it says, ‘to work harder and save time’ – pretty much the spiel with which Rhinehart touts his slush.

But to save time for what?

Widdicome describes lifehacking as ‘freeing yourself up for whatever you’d rather be doing’. But Soylent actually exemplifies how, in most life hacks, leisure (the putative goal) remains an asymptotic horizon, while productivity becomes a good in and of itself. When Rinehart describes non-Soylent meals as ‘recreational food’, he’s implicitly acknowledging that his product doesn’t foster recreation so much as displace the traditional pastime we call ‘eating’.

Soylent’s deliberately unflavoured because it’s a utility rather than a snack, a system rather than a supplement. The terminology recalls the historical relationship Nikil Saval identifies between Silicon Valley-style lifehacking and the ‘scientific’ management craze of the early industrial period. Where Frederick Winslow Taylor, the most famous
industrial systemiser, specialised in harassing assembly line workers with his stopwatch, science-minded managers applied a similar methodology in white-collar workplaces, obsessing as to whether their clerks opened letters or filed papers quite as fast as they might.

In the 1920s ‘scientific efficiency’ was, by and large, imposed by employers upon an unwilling workforce. Taylor hacked other people’s lives – and they hated him for it. As he wrote of his initial experiments, ‘anyone who has been through such a fight knows and dreads the meanness of it and the bitterness of it.’

But, though today’s lifehackers might (like Rinehart) have entrepreneurial aspirations, they are not, by and large, bosses themselves. Soylent’s not purchased by the Mark Zuckerbergs or the Larry Pages or the other tech aristocrats (whom, one imagines, prefer haute cuisine to Rinehart’s gloop). Rather, it’s been taken up by white-collar workers and students destined for perpetual toil in the digital mills.

Their embrace of life hacking represents the internalisation of management practices by the managed themselves.

‘The arc of scientific management is long,’ says Saval, ‘but it bends toward self-Taylorizing.

In the mid-nineties, business gurus began urging cubicle jockeys to conceive of themselves as one-man corporations. In a characteristic 1997 piece, Tom Peters enthused about ‘The Brand called You’, urging readers to foster their personal brand as carefully as Nike and Coca Cola did, and to regularly check in with the market ‘to have a reliable read on your brand’s value.’ And, as Thomas Frank notes, Peters’ essay concluded with an overt threat: ‘Start today. Or else.’

The point’s not that workers were bullied into embracing the practices of Peters’ ‘new brand world’ (though, naturally, they were) but that, for many white collar workers, restructuring the self around a corporate logic made sense as the tech world grew ever harder, and once-elite IT jobs became proletarianised and less secure.

Again, Soylent provides a handy illustration.

Many of us do not fancy gulping down a yeasty slurry at our desk, for the simple reason we enjoy breaking bread with friends or loved ones.

But, of course, that’s not an option for the people for whom the stuff’s made.

Widdicombe describes a coterie of Soylent enthusiasts at a Caltech dorm called Ricketts House (yes, really!), which, according to the resident adviser, houses ‘a lot of very busy engineering and physics students’ who ‘don’t have time to do anything’. These kids don’t worry about the health consequences of a Soylent-only diet since, for them, Rhinehart’s brew represents a step up.

‘I think about how shitty I eat when I’m not eating Soylent,’ one says. ‘There’ve been weeks when I’ve eaten nothing but cheesy pasta.’

If you know your working life will involve crushing deadlines and an ongoing insecurity that leaves you always a dollar short and a day late, then acclimatising yourself to sucking Soylent as you cram for exams makes perfect sense.

Of course, the malnourished students of Ricketts House are an extreme example but the general tendency’s familiar for most of us. The Lifehacker site finds an audience for its tips about beating insomnia or prioritising messages in Gmail or whatever else because, actually, most of us now need that kind of information.  Saval writes:

Life-hacking wouldn’t be popular if it didn’t tap into something deeply corroded about the way work has, without much resistance, managed to invade every corner of our lives. The idea started out as a somewhat earnest response to the problem of fragmented attention and overwork—an attempt to reclaim some leisure time and autonomy from the demands of boundaryless labor. But it has since become just another hectoring paradigm of self-improvement. The proliferation of apps and gurus promising to help manage even the most basic tasks of simple existence—the “quantified self” movement does life hacking one better, turning the simple act of breathing or sleeping into something to be measured and refined—suggests that merely getting through the day has become, for many white-collar professionals, a set of problems to solve and systems to optimize. Being alive is easier, it turns out, if you treat it like a job.

But what happens when a job for life gives way to a life as a job? Let’s return Marx’s alienated worker of the nineteenth century, a fellow who, condemned to perform monotonous factory work, loathes his labour and comes alive only when ‘eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.’

We know what Soylent does to eating and drinking. But something very similar’s occurring with Marx’s other ‘animal functions’.

Take ‘dressing up’.

Marx argues that the worker, deprived of any creative fulfilment in a labour process shaped by someone else, finds an opportunity for expression in the clothes that he wears. ‘What is animal becomes human,’ he writes, ‘and what is human becomes animal.’

Note, he’s not suggesting that there’s something wrong with dressing up (or eating, etc); he’s highlighting how, barred from controlling the labour by which human society is shaped, the worker can only exercise his will in the brute activities that keep him alive.

‘Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuinely human functions,’ says Marx. ‘But taken abstractly, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.’

Now compare Widdicombe’s description of how Rhinehart life hacks his wardrobe:

In an effort to optimize the dressing process, he alternates between two pairs of jeans, and orders nylon or polyester T-shirts from Amazon, wearing them for a few weeks before donating them. When the clothes get smelly, he puts them in the freezer, to get rid of the odor. “Sometimes, during the day, a couple of hours will do it,” he told me. “I’ll wear a towel.”

Consciously eliminating any hint of self-expression from the biological necessity of keeping warm, Widdicombe’s removing from his clothing precisely the aspect Marx identifies as human. He’s turning dressing a means to an end, ‘optimising it’ in the form of the alienated labour from which it once represented an escape. The external compulsion that operates in the workplace has been internalised at home with the pleasure of adornment giving way by a grey, abstract efficiency.

What about procreation, Marx’s other ‘animal’ activity?

As it happens, you can find something similar among the life hackers’ less-respectable brethren – the so-called ‘seduction community’.

The men chronicled in Neil Strauss’ best-selling book The Game and featured in the VH1 television show The Pick Up Artist replace the clumsy happenstance of traditional romance with a Taylorised come-on system based around memorised ‘routines’. Essentially, they take the hacks out of the office and into the bedroom (or, at least, the singles bar), deploying an array of pseudo-scientific gambits to more efficiently manoeuvre women into the sack.

Now, the PUAs are ostensibly libertines. Yet in their own peculiar way, they, too, valorise productivity over eros, using a distinctively technocratic vocabulary in the ‘field reports’ in which they reduce sex to numbers (‘A blonde 10 in a two-set.’) Symptomatically, by the end of his narrative, Strauss describes himself obsessively collecting the phone numbers of girls he never calls, his carnal interests replaced by almost actuarial concern with statistics.

Where Marx’s workers find solace in the body, the tendency of life hacking is to eliminate biology altogether – not because it’s too animalistic but because it’s too human. As Philip Mirowski says: ‘this is the true terminus of the neoliberal self: […] to shrug off the surly bond rating of earth; to transform yourself at the drop of a hat or the swallow of a pill, to be beholden to no other body but only to the incorporeal market.’

Yet Soylent also illustrates one way that the fundamentally anti-human ideology of neoliberalism can find a modicum of popular support.

In Labour and Monopoly Capitalism, Harry Braverman explains that scientific management is, first and foremost, about stripping all control of the labour process from the workforce and concentrating that control with the management. ‘[Taylor],’ he writes, ‘asserted as an absolute necessity for adequate management the dictation to the worker of the precise manner in which work is to be performed.’

In precapitalist society, artisans might take pride in a job that required the utmost skill, with functionality combining with creativity in everyday activities. As Rob Black notes, the Grecian urns we today showcase in museums were constructed for the entirely mundane purpose of storing olive oil. The production of such an object certainly involved labour – but a labour that allowed the maker to express something of himself in his work.

Quite consciously, the Taylorite managers destroyed whatever craft skills that had survived the onset of industrialisation, reducing creative work into a series of routine task that were meaningless for those who performed them.

That’s why, today, creative labour generally takes place on the weekends, with huge numbers of us devoting our spare time to projects that give satisfaction precisely because they’re arduous. Think of the so-called Maker Movement – the enthusiasts who use their own time and money to handcraft all manner of weird and complex objects, simple for the pleasure it brings them.

Perversely, there’s an element of this in life hacking.

Rhinehart, for instance, apparently spends his spare time hanging out in Soylent discussion sites, forums where he and other aficionados debate the merits of this or that formula for ridding the world of food. The DIY Soylent enthusiasts are, in that respect, operating like Makers or other backyard hobbyists. They share tips, they argue theories, they conduct experiments – basically, they engage in precisely the artisanal tinkering that scientific management eliminated.

This, then, is the strange paradox of life hacking: simply, in the era of neoliberalism, we can feel most human by eroding our humanity. We creatively derive chemical recipes to remove the need for recipes; we find pleasure in the ingenuity with which we eliminate pleasure from our wardrobe.

In his discussion of Soylent, the leftwing writer Bhaskar Sunkar notes that ‘the line between dystopia and utopia is a thin one’ – and, certainly, in the Reddit forums where ordinary folks discuss their food replacment formulas, we can glimpse something of the human desire for an unalienated life.

Yet that doesn’t alter the profoundly alienated reality from which this self-Taylorism stems, which is why Sunkar’s mistaken to identify Soylent as a product with ‘a radically egalitarian core’.

His argument – that Soylent might ‘facilitate human flourishing and freedom’ and ‘provide a way out of backbreaking farm work for the first time since the Neolithic revolution’ – replicates the error that led Lenin to enthuse about Taylor’s work as a resource for socialism.

In reality, Taylorism does not ensure efficiency in general (a meaningless concept) so much as efficiency within the contours of the capitalist mode of production it buttresses. Indeed, Braverman points out that the ‘science’ of ‘scientific management’ is largely bogus:

It lacks the characteristics of a true science because its assumptions reflect nothing more than the outlook of the capitalist with regard to the conditions of the production. It starts, despite occasional protestations to the contrary, not from the human point of view but from the capitalist point of view, from the point of view of the management of a refractory work force in a setting of antagonistic social relations. It does not attempt to discover and confront the cause of this condition, but accepts it as an inexorable given, a “natural” conition. It investigates not labor in general but the adaption of labor to the needs of capital. It enters the workplace not as the representative of science, but as the representative of management masquerading in the trappings of science.

Or, as he puts it elsewhere, Taylorism is not ‘science of work’ but rather

a science of the management of others’ work under capitalist conditions. It is not the ‘best way’ to do work ‘in general’ that Taylor was seeking … but an answer to the specific problem of how best to control alienated labor – that is to say, labor power that is bought and sold.

Exactly the same can be said of Soylent, a product designed not to feed people but to feed people under capitalist conditions, something entirely different.

It’s not simply that no genuine nutritionist has ever suggested that humans could or should subsist entirely on blended mush. It’s also that Soylent presumes and promotes an order in which working people possess no agency whatsoever but simply embody a labour power to be grudgingly replenished with spoonfuls of sludge.

The socialist answer to world hunger begins not with protein powder but with the working class creativity that the Taylorist project seeks to eliminate, using that tremendous resource to reshape the planet.

In a more libertarian moment, Lenin illustrated how a new world might function by declaring that every cook could learn to govern. It’s a symptomatic example, echoing Marx’s point about alienation. What would happen, we might ask, if the creativity now expressed in private activities like cooking found a public and social expression? What possibilities would open up if, instead of replacing meals, we replaced social structures; if, instead of hacking our lives, we hacked our society?

In the 1973 SF movie Soylent Green, Charlton Heston eventually discovers that his world subsists on recycled human flesh, that, as he puts it, ‘Soylent Green is people!’ Rhinehart’s ability to appropriate that slogan exemplifies the brazenness of a twenty-first century capitalism that increasingly no longer bothers to hide the Gothic horrors on which it depends.

It’s not food we need to replace. It’s the entire rotten system.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.