The idea of ‘estranged labour’ simply refers to the character of work undertaken for someone else, under the pressure of coercion or force, and especially when the product of labour is acquired by your enemy. Labour under such conditions has to take on an ‘estranged’ character because it is not something pleasurable or creative, it is endured as a chore. With estranged labour, work is just a ‘means to an end’ – physical survival and reproduction of the next generation of labourers, and it is only after the working day is finished that the worker perceives his life begins, yes for those few hours of watching TV then falling asleep. This is our lives.
Estranged labour has been justified by the ruling class under capitalism in a number of ways. They’re never honest about it. The true motive for their imposition of estranged labour on the rest of the population is just to expand capital, the ruling classes’ own alien boss. If this was made transparent to everyone it is doubtful how long the system could last. However, they conjure myths about what you are working for, some idea of the ‘greater good’. In the past this has been ‘for Empire!’ or ‘for the Nation!’ Today, the justification is that we work for the ‘environment!’ Sadly, the only challenges to this symptom of estranged labour comes from people who just want to substitute one excuse for another – their new excuse is we should work for ‘Growth Growth Growth!’ To tackle estranged labour requires a far bolder critique, one which would situate necessary labour in terms of what people need, and reduce necessary labour time to the bare minimum for satisfaction of needs as technology develops (it’s already developed quite a bit, as I’m sure you’re aware!)
So firstly, the justification for estranged labour in terms of the ‘environment!’ Today we are told we are on the verge of environmental apocalypse (a lie), and that people must work to produce wealth that can be used to mitigate climate disasters, stem overpopulation (apparently Africans by virtue of their poverty reproduce too much), to fund expensive green energy projects that would be considered non-cost effective in more rational times, and in other ways to ‘preserve nature’. This lie for why we produce is bolstered by publicly funded ‘science’ that is open to question, and also structurally reinforced by rules on recycling your waste and monitoring your energy usage, as well as the fact we are bombarded with environmentalist messages all the time in the media. All of this is loosely banded together under the banner of ‘sustainable development’. There are critics of this, but as I shall argue later, they are even worse.
This situation, where the ostensible aim of production is for nature, is similar to ancient societies that thought they were working for the gods. As Karl Marx wrote of this:
“To be sure, in the earliest times the principal production (for example, the building of temples, etc., in Egypt, India and Mexico) appears to be in the service of the gods, and the product belongs to the gods. However, the gods on their own were never the lords of labor. No more was nature.” (‘Estranged Labour’, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844)
The gods, since they don’t exist, were never really the driving force for these labours, it was man’s own activity itself, just existing in an alienated form. And this alienated form emanated from the fact that you had divisions in society, e.g. with the Pharaoh on top doling out orders. When man isn’t free, you get a society of estranged labour. Society sustains this set up through the conjuring of myths. Today, with production for nature, the same thing is occurring. The great chasm between the capitalist with immense power at his disposal versus the atomised worker creates a new estranged labour and is sustained by the conjuring of the myth your work benefits ‘the planet’.
Hard environmentalists have criticised this situation because they think we are producing too much and still raping Goddess Gaia. But because no-one wants to regress to the stone age, their ideas aren’t taken seriously. A far more significant critique of sustainable development is that it is not progressive enough, with ‘progress’ here defined as mankind dominating nature even more, producing more. This attack on sustainable development that comes from both right and left political quarters holds that deifying nature comes at the expense of expanding the market and stifles growth. There is nothing humanist about this critique and do not be deceived by the occasions in which human needs are sometimes employed in the discourse to disguise the truth. The fact is you will still be suffering from estranged labour (because you work for the alien power capital), it is just that the justification for your hard work replaces ‘nature’ with ‘growth for growth’s sake’.
Marx continues: “And what a contradiction it would be if, the more man subjugated nature by his labor [whilst simultaneously deifying her] and the more miracles of the gods were rendered superfluous by the miracles of industry, the more man were to renounce the joy of production and the enjoyment of the product to please these powers.”
Here we have a clear indictment against the 21st century. Through estranged labour, we do not enjoy work in the slightest because it is not undertaken as part of a communal project, furthermore we cannot fully enjoy the products of labour. Witness today’s frenzies for calorie counting all foodstuffs, paying a penance to Gaia through recycling as if we have to apologise for consuming the products of our own labour, and the whole hoohar that we must reduce our carbon footprint – i.e. consume less, in an age where we have achieved a great plenty of goods to consume. From estranged labour flows estranged consumption – at no stage of life do we actually fully enjoy any of it.
There is a solution to all this which doesn’t fit the environmentalist critique (produce less) or the bourgeois-deviant critique (produce more). We need to change the social relations of production so that we all become equal partners in the production process. With equality, we can freely associate as autonomous beings, uncoercively producing as and when necessary (which doesn’t mean producing more), developing technology to make our lot even easier, and fully, sensuously enjoy what we produce with no estranged-based guilt trips.