The Centrality of the Concept of “Alienated Labour” to the Theory of Human Liberation

 

dunayevskaya-raya
Raya Dunayevskaya (1910-1987)

The patient reports certain symptoms

“Marx’s vision was one of total freedom.  He was concerned with the freedom of humanity and, against that, the inevitable misery and waste of life which characterizes contemporary society.”

  • Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, p.53

Two world wars later, the continued nuclear threat, ongoing barbarism around the world, the dull monotonous grind of work, and democracy in peril, yes it’s fair to say that contemporary society is characterised by misery and waste of life, just as it was in Marx’s day.  What has changed since then are new political realities.  Public discourse today is preoccupied with issues such as environmentalism, euthanasia and therapy, to name but three issues.  Nowadays if a worker started complaining about the state of the world they are more likely to be packed off to a counselling session where you are told, quite literally, “Don’t worry about things you cannot control.”  Any concerns about the wider world are no longer taken seriously, such is the democratic deficit.

Does this make Marx redundant?  In this blogger’s opinion, it does not.  The issues that preoccupy society, although distracting from the way in which the masses might change the world, ought to be seen as only symptoms of the continued problem of alienated labour that Marx was the first to elucidate.  We can go into the ins and outs of environmentalism, euthanasia and therapy until the cows come home.  Many experts are.  But the real solution to these issues is not to be found in endless debates about them on their own terms, but in recognising them as just the latest reflections in the human brain of alienated labour, with the added twist of what has come to be referred to as a ‘post-political epoch’.

Let’s take those three examples of topical issues in turn.  Environmentalism: the central message is to lower your carbon footprint and crazed gestures such as recycling and smart meters are coming in to create compliance.  But this is a meek existence.  It locates meaning in garbage and electrical consumption, things that should not be of concern to anyone.  It is a symptom of alienated labour in that things are depicted as beyond human control (when they are not).  Humanity has to revel in a self-imposed downtrodden condition rather than conquering the galaxy – precisely the condition workers find themselves in trapped under capitalism.  Regarding euthanasia, it appears we are nothing more than lumps of flesh waiting to be put in the ground.  Euthanasia advocates use of the language of ‘choice’ without meaning that term in any coherent way.  Should we let a 17 year old who has just split with his partner have euthanasia because they are depressed?  Of course not, most euthanasia advocates would agree.  But they would say what of the terminally ill or severely disabled?  Then it isn’t about choice, but about disposing of inconvenient problems.  No wonder disability advocates demonstrated outside Parliament when the Bill was being discussed.  They said “we want to live, not die”, and “we need help to live, not help to die.”   Quite right.  To have a state policy of bumping off inconvenient humans is abhorrent.  This is symptomatic of alienated labour in the way it makes a fetish out of miserable, unfree life and proposes death as the only solution.  Regarding therapy, psychiatrists have now expanded the definitions of mental illness to encompass virtually any emotion or character trait.  These anti-humanists want everyone on the couch, the better to rule their lives in miniscule detail.  The human subject is therefore not self-determining, but vulnerable and alienated.

Now, what would we make of a doctor who, instead of diagnosing an illness, merely addressed certain symptoms, occasionally and vaguely.  The failure to not only ignore treating the illness but not even diagnose it, or abjectly refuse to try to diagnose it, would make them a poor pharmacist, let alone a terrible doctor.  This is the case with those who discuss those three issues without digging beneath the surface to see what they are indicative of.

Of course, at this stage, it might be objected that I’m barking up the wrong tree.  To see Marxist-identified reasons lurking behind these issues is to ignore the fact that this is the new political reality and one cannot contribute to the further development of mankind unless we confront them in all their detail now and ignore what I madly think they are ‘symptomatic’ of.

Certainly they are a new political reality that must be overcome for human autonomy to begin to flourish, but it is key to this overcoming that the new political reality is recognised as a myriad of symptoms of an underlying problem: alienated labour.  Undiagnosed, alienated labour will just get worse and worse such that in my previous blog I wrote about an embryonic idea in the USA that there are now ‘airborne glutens’ that can trigger horrible reactions in coeliacs, therefore requiring that taking sandwiches to work should be banned.  How bad do things have to get before we wise up and confront the core of the problem – alienated labour?  If we fail to do this, worse and worse crazy symptoms will present themselves over time, mystifying the integral problem even more.

It is a case of what computer scientists call “GIGO” – Garbage In, Garbage Out.  If you’re worried about the garbage content of contemporary ideology, look at what is fuelling it, and to do that, you have to look at the character of our daily lives.

So what is alienated labour?  To that I now turn.

The patient receives a diagnosis

Life is experienced as miserable and human lives are clearly being wasted in factories for production’s own sake.  In one’s couple of hours of free time, we only vegetate in front of ‘Game of Thrones’ looking at someone’s flaccid wiener because our minds have been so ruined by capitalist production, that’s all we can do.  What was the point of the human race?  What was the point of those historical giants such as Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Darwin, JK Rowling, if we’re just going to waste our lives like this?  It doesn’t occur out of choice, it occurs out of compulsion: capitalism has us over a barrel, and the only road to freedom is to overthrow it.

Dunayevskaya, understanding Marx, says:

“[The labor of the worker subject to the power of capital] is still labor, but it turns out to be an alien power because the labor process which extracts his labor from him is a process that has transformed the machine into an accumulated dead weight resting upon him, the living worker….  Labor under capitalism is the very specific function of a man working at machines to which he becomes a mere appendage.  His labor, therefore, is not the self-activity, the creative function it was under primitive communism where, in mastering nature, man had also developed his own natural capacities and talents.  Labor in the factory is alienated labor. ” (p.56)

Rather than other people’s labour in the creating of machinery ostensibly to assist the worker, the machine appears as something horrible, something one is slave to.  This is because the whole experience of going to work under capitalism is unfree.  At work you cannot escape your fate because you are under the supervision of a hierarchy of officers and sergeants.  It transforms the labour process into something horrible to be endured rather than an expression of creativity to make products to satisfy the needs of one’s fellow man.  Machinery hasn’t shortened the working day (although class struggle has a little), it is just used to pump more blood out of you.

Furthermore, the more one works, the more one is subject to the domination of the very thing that is oppressing him: capital.  Alienated labour creates more and more capital, and your wages only exist to keep you going at a socially acceptable level in order to extract more labour from you the very next day, the next day, and the next day after that, and evermore.  Your wages also ensure you are able to reproduce the next generation of labourers.  The more you work, the poorer you become in relation to the mass of capital that is now dominating the entire globe.

This is the objective basis for much of life’s misery, and it gives rise to miserabilism in our ideology – the way we think.  Our diagnosis of what is wrong in our heads has therefore led us to look at what is wrong in our real, material lives.  Looking at what is wrong at the heart of reality will now lead us to some radical treatment options.

 

The patient is recommended a certain treatment

We will now look at three treatment options.  The first two don’t work, and been proven so historically.  The third is the most radical, and our best hope.

  • Redistribution of wealth. This has been proposed by the Pope of all people.  Good luck convincing your paymaster of that from your position of bondage, but it won’t work anyway.  The central problem causing your misery is alienated labour.  Will a few extra quid make that go away?  Of course not, you are still in the factory.  The only way redistribution of wealth could possibly tackle alienated labour is if everyone became a billionaire and didn’t have to work, but then nothing would get done.  If nothing’s being produced, there’s nothing to consume.  Your billion would become worthless.  And so you return to bondage.
  • Voting for a socialist. No socialist politician has ever done away with alienated labour, indeed it’s not the kind of thing that can happen from on-high.  In the USSR, the bureaucratic regime actually intensified alienated labour with camps all over the place.  A left-of-centre politician such as Jeremy Corbyn’s beefiest concern is to nationalise the railways.  So what?  What difference does it make to the alienated workers if their master is a Fat Controller or Jeremy Corbyn, the character of their work will still be the same.  (I for one am for the abolition of train drivers and station staff as I think the whole thing will be automated in the future).  But worse still, what do we gain with a ‘socialist’ government?  The workers are still in the factories, indeed that is the condition of the faux socialist’s rule, no matter how principled they are.
  • Overthrow capitalism. We need to be clear about what we mean by this.  Firstly it is necessary to grasp that the capitalist system is based on having two main classes – the capitalists who are propertied, and the proletariat who are propertyless.  (By property we’re not interested in TV’s, cars, etc., but the big stuff – ownership of the means of production).  The only way the proletariat can survive in this situation is to sell their labour to a capitalist, but as we have seen this only leads to alienation and a furthering of the initial class divide.  This has led some Marxists in the past to claim “the abolition of private property” is the answer, and structuring a communist regime around this principle.  Sadly, this is not a radical enough demand.  What happened in the USSR with this approach was the state came to resemble a giant capitalist – alienated labour still existed under this ‘socialised’ property arrangement, indeed it got worse.  But if we understand private property as a consequence of alienated labour, a different solution presents itself.  Private property is itself the form taken by the products of labour at a historical point where man is not yet in control of himself.  It is not enough to abolish private property and then magically all problems vanish.  The ongoing quest is for man to gain full control of himself and organise new relations of production, relations that are freely determined by confident individuals who only work because they value the human race, yet mutually decide to reduce the necessary length of the working day to a minimum.  Therefore, private property isn’t an inevitable consequence of any labour – the idea that every object needs an owner is specific to our times, not forever – private property is a consequence of specifically alienated labour.  It is a defect in the current character of the labour process (chiefly that it is policed) that produces private property.  Only workers that are objectively degraded as a proletarian class rather than members of a freely associating human race, can produce the alienated form of private property.  As Dunayevskaya says:

“Private property arises not because the products of labor are alienated from the laborers.  That is only the consequence of the fact that his very activity is an alien activity…When the division of labour…has reached the monstrous proportions where all science, all intellect, all skill goes into the machine, while the labor of man becomes a simple, monotonous grind, then the labor of man can produce nothing but its opposite, capital.  All concrete labours have been reduced to one abstract, congealed mass.  Dead, accumulated, materialized labor now turns to oppress the living labourer.  This mastery of dead over living labor is a class relationship.” (p.56)

Therefore, the abolition of private property has to co-exist with an abolition of all objective class divisions and humanity re-emerging in a free, unfettered, and equal condition.  Dunayevskaya goes on:

“’Not until the transcendence of this mediation (abolition of private property) which is nevertheless a necessary presupposition does there arise positive Humanism, beginning from itself,’” said Marx.  In a word, another transcendence, after the abolition of private property is needed to achieve a truly new, human society which differs from private property not alone as an ‘economic system,’ but as a different way of life altogether.  It is as free individuals developing all their natural and acquired talents that we first leap from what Marx called the pre-history of humanity into its true history, the ‘leap from necessity to freedom.’”  (p.58)

And

“For Marx the abolition of private property was a means toward the abolition of alienated labor, not an end in itself…He never tired from stressing that what is of primary importance is not the form of property, but the mode of production.”  (p.61)

To overcome alienated labour, workers will have to politically associate with one another in the common goal of trying to overcome their subjugation, with the desire to fundamentally change the entire way in which work is conducted.  That will similarly alter the entire lives of everyone on the planet for the better, and fundamentally change the character of society, perfecting the human race itself.

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