Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: Alienated Labor

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.


JW Mason said...

A few external points of references on (un)alienated labor, relegated to comments because they are wandering away from Marx and because the post was more than long enough.

1. Some folks will have seen the fascinating documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China, which follows the plastic beads thrown at Mardi Gras from New Orleans to the Chinese factory that manufactures them. The factory owner is much more forthcoming than one imagines any American would be and we get his frank thoughts on factory discipline as well as a sense of how regimented, repetitive and tedious the work is. What comes through clearly is precisely the coerced nature of the work – that everything the girls do (the workers are almost all young women) is forced on them from the outside. The owner himself makes a point of how much he must “punish” the workers for any little infraction. Watching this makes it clear why Marx regarded alienation as prior to exploitation defined in terms of pay.

2. Harry Braverman and Barbara Garson of course wrote classic books about alienation and the labor process. I haven't read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickeled and Dimed but I've heard it's also very good on what is specifically degrading and inhuman about work under capitalism.

JW Mason said...

3. On the other hand, for a wonderful example of unalienated labor there is the stonemason who is the third interview in Studs Terkel's Working. (The book itself begins, “This book, being about work, is by its nature about violence.”) The whole interview is worth reading but here's an excerpt: “There's not a house in this country that I built that I don't look at every time I go by. I can set here now and actually in my mind see so many you wouldn't believe. If there's one stone in there crooked, I know where it's at and I never forget it. Maybe 30 years, I'll know a place where I should have took that stone out and redone it but I didn't. I still notice it. The people who live there might not notice it, but I notice it. I never pass that house that I don't think of it …. My work, I can see what I did the first day I started. All my work is set right out there in the open and I can look at it as I go by. It's something I can see the rest of my life. Forty years ago, the first blocks I ever laid in my life, when I was 17 years old. I never go through Eureka that I don't look thataway. It's always there. Immortality as far as we're concerned.” (Just before this he describes a job where he had to hand-mix cement and soot to match the color of the mortar on an old stone fireplace, which certainly would be degrading and tedious work in isolation. He says, “That's the best job I ever done.”)

4. I thought of that interview as soon as I read Marx's line in the Manuscripts that as a result of productive labor, “[man] sees his own reflection in a world which he has constructed.” I also thought of this bit from William Dean Howell's Letters from an Altrurian Traveller. (Of course Howells was a Tolstoyan utopian, not a Marxist, but there are obviously points of overlap.) Here the eponymous traveller is visiting the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which impresses him as a vast collective undertaking with no commercial motives. “What I lament in America at every moment, what I lament even here in the presence of a work so largely Altrurian in conception and execution as this, is the wholesale effacement, the heartbreaking obliteration of individuality. I know very well that you can give me the names of the munificent millionaires whose largesse made this splendor possible … but what of the artisans of every kind and degree whose patience and skill realized their ideals? Where will you find their names?” The Altrurian is speaking to an American banker, who replies, “My dear fellow, you are very easily answered. You will find their names on the pay-rolls, where I've no doubt, they preferred to have them. ...” “In Altruria,” the traveller replies, “every man who drove a nail, or stretched a line, or laid a trowel upon such a work, would have had his name somehow inscribed upon it, where he could find it, and point it out to those dear to him and proud of him. … This whole mighty display is in so far dehumanized; and yet you talk of individuality as one of your animating principles.” What I like here is the idea that under socialism, workers would continue to experience a direct and a social connection with the products of our labor. It's also interesting how Howells has his banker explicitly say that the cash nexus not only replaces that direct connection, but is preferred by the worker. Finally, the bit about individualism (there's much more in that vein) is similar to Oscar Wilde's The Soul of Man Under Socialism, which also evokes the difference between alienated and unalienated labor very clearly.