Alienating Labour I: The Version I’ve Always Learned, Jamming, 20/08/2015

I have a weird relationship with Marx. I identify with the political left, and right-wingers would (and have) insulted me by calling me a Marxist. But there’s a lot in Marxist thought (and the wider Marxist tradition) that I disagree with, and my political priorities have, for a long time, been driven primarily by environmentalist concerns. Not those of Marxism.

Marxism: A long and proud tradition of t-shirts sold on
the internet.
But one thing I do know about the history of Marxism is that the actual meaning of the term is very slippery. Karl Marx was the first one to say, “I’m no Marxist.” And that’s not apocryphal either. He said it during one of the International conferences late in his life.

It depends on what you want to emphasize in his enormous amount of writings. There was an early, more abstract and directly philosophical thinker. His political and economic research began in the cultural and historical studies that culminated in 1845’s The German Ideology

Within two years, he and Friedrich Engels had written The Communist Manifesto and Marx dove head-first into a life of revolutionary activism trying to overthrow the monarchies of Europe. His masterwork Capital was a product of the 1860s until his death in 1883, the period when he pretty much invented political economy.

And let’s face it. Practically speaking, Marx was the single most influential political philosopher in a very direct sense. You don’t hear too many governments and political parties openly call themselves Humboldtian or Feuerbachian. But at the height of Marxist political parties, billions lived under Marxist regimes.

I don’t think we really appreciate today (at least not among a lot of my generation) just how weird it was that this major trend in global governance just disappeared so fast. It’s difficult today to even think of alternatives to capitalism, and I say this as someone who generally thinks capitalist business principles are decent ideas. But every dominant culture and idea needs its critics.

I learned myself a little Marxist philosophy in school, and one of the most popular (and easily digestible in spoon-fed undergraduate programs that frequently underestimated students’ intelligence) was the concept of alienated labour. It refers to setups where the labour of workers is divorced from the end product of the work, where workers labour in such a way that they can take no ethical ownership of what they do.

The model was the privately-owned factory. So in the obvious sense, the workers were employees of factory owners. The owners didn’t work on the products the factory made, just hired the employees. But the owners got to control the product and profit from it. The workers got paid for their time and labour alone.

But this isn’t the only way a worker can become alienated from her work. Workers laboured in the factory, and in Marx’s time, they worked hours that we’d consider homicidal today, sometimes for 14-16 hour shifts in filthy, pollutant-filled buildings with no thought given to employee safety. They’d earn pittance wages and often have to live on site and become financially dependent on their employers through debts incurred in company stores. 

At the end of the day, they saw no profit from what they made. In the Ford-influenced era of factory production, working conditions and wages improved (not without lobbying and protest action by the trade unions of the day), but a worker’s distance from the end-product was even greater. In a Fordist factory, the assembly line cut up the labour into so many small and repetitive tasks that a worker would spend a full day screwing the same nut into the same bolt on hundreds of different models. 

Frederic Jameson spends a long chapter in Archaeologies of the Future examining Marxist philosophy, since the ideal of communism was a utopian ideal that inspired, and provided even blueprints for, real political revolutions.

The typical solution to alienated labour is non-alienated labour. A worker or a committee of workers controls the factory and profits from its products. The workers labour in good conditions in ways that integrate them with the entire process of production. 

But Jameson understands that this is a reactive concept without a truly original departure from the exploitive way of doing things. He says such a departure is in Marx, which means what I’ve always experienced as the standard way of teaching Marx to undergrads fundamentally gets the philosophy wrong. . . . To be continued

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