IT WAS a sunny day, so the foreman let us work outside, in the yard. We sat there hammering small metal discs into shape over a die for about an hour. Then Terry, another young lad who was supposed to be showing me the ropes, announced: “I’m fed up.”
I looked up. “Know what you do when you get fed up?” he said. I shook my head. “This”, he said. and he stood up, bringing his hammer down with a crash onto the die, ruining the part he was working on and scattering hundreds more onto the floor.
Terry was definitely “alienated” from his work.
The idea of “alienation” is central to Marxism, as important as notions of “class society” or “exploitation”. Most people think of it as a fancy word for being fed up or depressed, without being able to pin it down. But for Marxists it means something more precise. at the same time it helps explain the real roots of many people’s sense of drift and distance from most of their daily activities.
For thousands of years humans lived in a state of dependence on nature – even after we had separated ourselves off from other higher animals by being able to consciously use tools. We were prisoners of nature. But as we developed we were able to overturn this condition of absolute dependence and – through our labour – control it and domesticate it. Production increased; our needs diversified.
But the more we emancipated ourselves from nature the more we fell into dependence on the social relations we developed to dominate nature. as production increased the surplus and other property became controlled and owned by an elite; class society had arrived.
As human society progressed a division of labour emerged. The more advanced the society, the more detailed the division of labour. But for Karl Marx, the founder of Marxism, the division of labour – absolutely necessary from the point of view of overcoming nature’s limitations – was also the source of human alienation.
Over the centuries a majority of people have lost control over the products of their labour, the tools they use to produce things and the very process of working itself. Mental labour is separated from manual labour. Both become subordinated to machines. We work on parts of things instead of seeing the whole. In short, we have become “alienated” or estranged from the most essential part of our nature as humans – our labour.
Under capitalism alienation is at its most complete. We sell our labour to an employer. for the duration of that contract they can do with us what they will. What we produce during that time does not belong to us, but to the bosses. We become a means to someone else’s ends. our labour dehumanises us. Many of us are, literally, the servants of machines. others have their work dictated by bureaucratic office routines or by piece-work quotas.
No matter how much piped music and “teamwork” the bosses introduce to make us identify with the company and its products most workers don’t really identify with the things they produce or the services they provide. occasionally the result is sabotage, as described above, but in general the result is that we can’t wait for the workday to end. We live our “real lives” at home and, as the song says, “we don’t like Mondays”.
We are often most unhappy with what is most human about us. This is the basic form of oppression that class society imposes on us. The selling of our essential human function – labour – to another, Marx calls “the loss of self”. Many people will say that they only really feel “free” pursuing activities outside of work: in sex, eating, drinking, child-rearing, sports and hobbies.
This is not to say that everybody is happy with their sex lives, body shape or over demanding kids. But it is a recognition that in these activities people are not involved in buying or selling their labour to someone else – they are free to spend their non-work time as they see fit and within the limits of their finances and social oppression.
But as Marx notes this kind of freedom to act outside of work is no answer since: “. . . abstractly taken, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.”
The answer to alienation is to end the social conditions that gave rise to it – class society. Class societies, including capital-ism, were historically justified in that they raised the general level of material output and technological progress even at the cost of great social conflicts and general alienation. Now this is no longer true. Class society holds back further development and alienation is unnecessary.
Alienation will only be eradicated when the division of labour takes place freely and in a society where labour is not bought and sold, and not compulsory. That is why only communism can liberate humanity.
Under communism labour is freed. Workers are the masters of the process of work and the products of their labour. In collective, voluntary organisations they will choose what priorities they want for dividing up the social product. They will democratically decide on which material needs should be fulfilled and how much of these to postpone or trade-off against increased leisure time.
Of course, nature will still impose relative restrictions on what we can achieve. But once we have secured the basic needs of all humanity then the solving of material problems ceases to be an absolute priority for us. We can free ourselves from the constant preoccupation with how to squeeze ever more out of a given moment. Non-productive labour will become more and more important.
We can prioritise the development of creative activities (crafts, drama, sports), of our rich individuality, of our relationships with each other. These things will be fused with work, altering it fun-damentally. Material egoism and the aggressive competitive spirit will wither away as the social basis for it passes. alienation will be overcome and we will find pleasure and fulfilment again in that which makes us human.
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