The chapter on alienated labor clarifies the moral case against capitalism, at least as Marx saw it at this time. This has been touched on in a couple of earlier posts here but I wanted to highlight one piece of the argument.
Marx's point here is that alienation is prior to private property and to such quantitative expressions of private property as exploitation, wage inequality, etc. “The alienation of the product of labour merely summarizes the alienation in the work activity itself.” In other words, how much of the product of alienated labor is available to the worker to consume is a secondary, and ultimately unimportant, issue compared with the fact of alienation itself. A couple pages later he makes this point even more emphatically: “An enforced increase in wages … would be nothing more than a better remuneration of slaves, and would not restore, either to the worker or to the work, their human significance and worth.” The claim that the level of wages is politically and morally irrelevant is very different from mainstream and even many Marxist approaches that see questions of wellbeing in terms of consumption and justice in terms of distribution of income, and don't consider the qualitative character of work at all.
Marx characterizes alienation of labor in various ways:
- “the work is external to the worker”;
- “he does no fulfill himself in his work”;
- the worker “has a feeling of misery rather than wellbeing”;
- the worker “does not develop freely his mental and physical energies”;
- “the worker feels at home only during his leisure time, at work he feels homeless”;
- “work is not voluntary, but imposed, forced labour”;
- work “is not the satisfaction of a need, but a means for satisfying other needs”;
- the worker “does not belong to himself but to another person.”
To me, this is clear and compelling, but it does raise some questions. Does the concept of alienated labor assume an absolute human nature that finds fulfillment in creative, productive work, rather than analyzing human beings historically? What are the specific characteristics of labor under capitalism that cause it to be more or less alienated? And the question Joao raised – is it really possible that society could function on the basis of unalienated labor, or can (some? most? all?) productive activity only be undertaken to satisfy some other need? Is the best we can hope for from work intrinsically meaningless tasks imposed on us from the outside, but for shorter hours and better pay?
At the risk of being reductive, we can think of unalienated labor in something like the following terms. 1. Absence of direct external coercion, i.e. the pace and content of the work are under our own control. 2. Direct relation to the product of the the work – we understand the place of our work in the larger production process and feel an active connection with that process. 3. Development of physical and mental capacities – the work requires active engagement, develops a distinct skill, etc. 4. The work is worth doing on its own, we would choose to do it even without any compensation or other external inducement.
One might then say that there will always be alienated labor because these conditions can't always be met. Isn't some alienation necessary with all work that requires a highly developed division of labor, since the activity of tens of thousands of individuals can only be coordinated with some external authority? And is it really possible that everyone involved in such large-scale production can have a full understanding of it, let alone a voice in it? Or on the other hand, isn't there work that is necessary but intrinsically tedious or unpleasant? – no external authority compels you to clean your bathroom and the production process is transparent, but it's hard to argue that it develops any physical or mental capacities or that anyone would do it except in the expectation of satisfying the need for a clean bathroom later on.
Needless to say, these questions have been extensively debated, and we won't resolve them here. What does seem clear is that for Marx, the essential question about work was not wages or hours but its qualitative character as human or alienated, and that he believed it was indeed possible for all productive activity to take the form of free, intrinsically rewarding, unalienated labor.