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Wednesday, January 19, 2011


In the essay on estranged, or alienated, labor can be found some of the most powerful lines Marx ever penned. I will not try to summarize the entire essay. My summary would too long, and inevitably would be like a prose summary of a poem -- never a good idea. Please read it for yourself if you have not already done so. The central idea is captured in this phrase from the very beginning of the essay: "the object which labour produces -- labour's product -- confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer." Marx is here, and elsewhere throughout the essay, trying to get some conceptual clarity about one of the most puzzling aspects of the new capitalism, namely the fact that as capital becomes ever more productive, spewing out goods in enormous quantities, the workers who produce those goods remain impoverished and ever more powerless. Capital -- the factories, machines, farms, mines, and also the techniques embodied in the machines -- is, after all, brought into existence by the effort, the labor, of the workers. How can it be that they become more and more enslaved by what they themselves have produced? It had not always been this way. In previous stages of human history, an especially good harvest, a boom year, resulted in better times for all, if only momentarily. While the rich remained rich, the poor enjoyed some measure of the success of their efforts. But under capitalism, strong profits simply enlarge the power of accumulated capital to fire adult workers and substitute children, to bargain down the wage, to entrap the workers in endless penury.

Marx does not yet have a theoretical understanding of how this happens. For that we must wait for CAPITAL, twenty-three years later. But he understands perfectly the human cost of the capitalist mode of production. [Whether this cost is an inevitable consequence of industrial production, not specifically of capitalism, as John Halasz seems to suggest in one of his comments, will have to wait until later in this tutorial.]

The alienation is multi-dimensional. First of all, the worker, as we have seen, is alienated from the product of her labor, which appears to her as an enemy controlling her and depriving her of freedom. The worker is also alienated from fellow workers who are, or ought to be, colleagues and comrades in a collective undertaking. Since jobs are scarce and there is an endless pool of men and women desperately seeking jobs [the "reserve army of the unemployed," as Marx famously called them], each worker sees the others as enemies, threatening to take one of the scarce jobs. The capitalist, who is the real enemy, is misperceived as a benevolent figure graciously offering a subsistence job and allowing the worker to survive for another day. The worker is alienated, as well, from the labor process, which becomes mechanical, painful, constricting, enslaving, rather than fulfilling, graceful, natural, human. And finally, the worker is alienated from herself, from her true nature or, in the language of the day, her "species being." In what is surely one of the most moving passages in the entire socialist literature, Marx writes:

"The worker only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague."

Each time I read this passage, I am reminded of a scene in that wonderful old Peter Sellars movie, I'M ALL RIGHT JACK. Sellars plays a British communist union leader of the old school. The union has successfully protected some of its members from being fired as superfluous, and the men thus kept on spend their day sitting behind a stack of wooden pallets playing cards. At one point, Sellars calls a strike, and the men at the factory down their tools and walk off the job,. The four men playing cards suddenly realize that everyone is on strike, whereupon they drop their cards in the middle of a hand and rush off. One can only assume that when they get home they will -- play cards!

Over the next several years, Marx made several efforts to return to Germany before finally going into exile in London with his wife, Jenny, and their young family. In 1848, while still on the continent, he and Engels published the most famous political tract ever written: THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. I am going to assume that everyone reading this tutorial has read, or will now immediately read, the MANIFESTO. Like Plato's REPUBLIC and WAR AND PEACE, it is one of those documents familiarity with which is the mark of literacy. In the MANIFESTO, we see Marx beginning to develop the theories of economic development that we know as Historical Materialism. The economic theory is still rudimentary, but the theory of stages of development, and the crucial thesis that the law, politics, culture, and philosophy of an age are a reflection of the way in which the economic activities of the society are organized, is beginning to be worked out.

The MANIFESTO, in its ebullient, aggressive optimism, is very much the statement of young men. "A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of Communism," it begins ominously. Immediately, the authors announce the central thesis of their doctrine: "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." And off they go. In my opening remarks to this tutorial, I tried to sketch the political situation in Europe when Marx and Engels were young, as a way of explaining why they were so optimistic about the near-term prospects for a communist revolution. They were not, after all, deluding themselves. In 1848, the year the MANIFESTO appeared, Europe exploded into workers' uprisings, most prominently in Paris itself. We know, with the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, that the hopes of Marx and other revolutionaries were doomed to be dashed, but it cannot have looked like that to them at the time.

The failure of the 1848 uprisings had an interesting theoretical effect on Marx, I believe. I observed earlier that there was indeed a break between the young Marx and the mature Marx. It concerns the theoretically very significant issue of mystification. Originally, Marx took the typical enlightenment position that in the Middle Ages, the real roots of clerical and monarchical power were mystified by religious superstition and the fiction of the divine right of kings, but that under capitalism, the clouds of mystery had been blown away by the cool breezes of reason, so that it was immediately apparent to nineteenth century Europeans that the power of church, state, and capital rested upon force alone. But the failure of the revolutions seems to have persuaded Marx that Capital's power was itself mystified, by the doctrines of laisser-faire and free trade, so that it was not at all easy to understand how the ever-greater productivity of industrial capital served to strengthen its ability to defeat all challenges. By contrast, feudalism was relatively transparent. It was obvious even to the peasants themselves that the wealth of their feudal masters came from the days of labor service that they were forced to provide on the lord's lands.

There is a great deal more to be said about Marx's writings in the period leading up to the production of CAPITAL. My English translation of the Complete Works of Marx and Engels runs to twenty thick volumes BEFORE the publication of Volume One of CAPITAL, for heaven's sake! But the economic theory is the heart of his entire life's work, and there are limits to how many blog posts I can get all of you to read, so I am going to stop here, and tomorrow begin my discussion of Marx's mature economic theory.


Chris said...

Have you read literally every volume the man has produced, including the infamous notebooks of surplus value...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good God, no. But I have read all three volumes of the Theories of Surplus Value, and virtually all of the letters. They were fun [which shows you what a dork I really am.]

john c. halasz said...

"[Whether this cost is an inevitable consequence of industrial production, not specifically of capitalism, as John Halasz seems to suggest in one of his comments, will have to wait until later in this tutorial.]"

Oh, dear. I'm not aware of having left any such implication. Does it derive from the "wholeness" comment or the "objectification" comment? With respect to the former, I'll just remark that the "organic"/holistic side of Marx' thought needs to be kept in mind, various objections to it notwithstanding, since otherwise it too easily reduces to a sheer functionalism, (which economic thinking tends toward anyway), which misses much of Marx' basic aims or project. With respect to the latter, it might be relevant to this particular post to remark that the notion of "objectification" is ambiguous or "contradictory". Such doubleness or two-sidedness of Marx' concepts is not a bug, but a feature, (and, when brought into relation with other concepts, they quickly can become many-sided). That's part of what "dialectics" means. So "objectification" can mean to realize oneself and one's capacities and needs by externalizing them a "work", which is the product of one's labor/activity. Or it can mean to be reduced oneself to the status of an object, which is what happens to labor and laborers under capitalism, when they become commodified, reduced to the status of just another commodity on the market, a "thing" amongst things, just another means for the production of the very means that they produce. So there is "good" objectification and "bad" objectification, but the good kind already contains the possibility of the bad kind and the bad kind the potential means of restoring the good kind.

Murfmensch said...

Does Marx feel a need to replace markets by democratic planning? Is this his answer to alienation?

Many policy analyst are looking at a Basic Income Guarantee, whereby every citizen is simply secured a grant. If that grant were large enough, it would be much easier to say no to jobs that are poorly compensated. Time between jobs would not be as rough.

I am interested in Marxist reasons to praise or skewer such a proposal. (There are more proponents than one would think and they come from the left and the right.)

john c. halasz said...

But then again the commodification of labor is "necessary" to capitalism and the increased material surpluses it generates. "Free" labor as a commodity is one of the prime historical-logical conditions of possibility for the development of the capitalist mode of production. To be sure, the expansion of impoverished misery amidst increasing plenty is also one of the prime and most obvious of those famous "contradictions" of capitalism.

But if craft labor is displaced by machinery and such workers driven into unemployment and impoverishment, they are also re-employed eventually in producing further means of both production and consumption. The expansion of proletarian immiseration is also the expansion of capital accumulation, (and rendered "necessary" by the latter), such that actual and potential material production increases. Indeed, Whiggish types will claim, not without reasons and evidence, that in 19th century England, the prime "laboratory" here, per capita output and living standards, including "real" wage-levels, rather steadily increased. But Marx' case doesn't and can't rest upon the claim of "absolute immiseration" of the working class. Rather he acknowledges the case of "relative immiseration" together with the "absolute" kind, that wages can increase, even above "value" during boom times and living-standards are relative to "culture" and can and do rise, which needs to be brought into relation to other distinctions, such as that between absolute and relative surplus-value, (i.e. increased "exploitation" by increased hours of labor of the same productivity vs. by increased productivity reducing the "necessary" hours to reproduce labor). It is only as a result of crises and ensuing depressions that absolute immiseration predominates and the "contradictions" intensify.

On the other hand, agricultural labor remains partly outside the cash-nexus and incompletely commodified, such that subsistence can be maintained, even though there is "zero marginal product" to such labor in aggregate. But that's obviously no bulwark against the expansion of the commodification of labor and the cash nexus. Rather the organization of production comes to be increasingly re-constituted in such terms and labor increasingly dependent on them. (Formal vs. real subsumption in the jargon).

john c. halasz said...

I'd also rather tend to disagree with the account of Marx' critique of ideology presented in this post. I think it's right that the "early" Marx is far more "immanentist" in his proclamations than the "later" Marx, though there is no simple and absolute "break" between the two characters. Younger Marx is keen to declare "communism" as the "end" of history, (in contradistinction to Hegel's "end", which he partly misunderstood and partly one-upped), and to distinguish his thinking from "utopian" socialism. Older Marx has settled in for the long haul and his earlier accounts become much more complicated and focused on the critique of capitalism and the prospects for a transition to socialism, (which he nonetheless only roughly adumbrates).

But there's really no change in his account of ideology. Ideology is not simply a matter of that old couplet in political thinking, force or fraud. Rather it involves a more or less "global" need to provide a legitimation for prevailing social relations, which requires disguising the elements of force and fraud behind a more-or-less convincing account of those relations. IOW ideology contains normative contents, elements of "truth", which are misrepresented and distorted in their actual conditions of application, but which also are to be "recovered" through criticism, which is what accounts for the "force" of its critique. Ideology is at once required "functionally" to maintain prevailing relations-of-production,- ( and partly actually articulates those functional requirements),- and contains claims which exceed those functional requirements, which is partly what Marx is relying upon in his critique.

It's important to recognize that Marx doesn't have or conduct a critique of religion, (as opposed to idealism), but rather critiques the critique of religion, (i.e. Feuerbach et alia). Traditional religion might have been functional and "necessary" to the feudal mode-of-production, but is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the capitalist one, which "functionally" is dissolving its basis and credibility. ("Everything solid melts into air"). Hence Marx uses religious terminology mockingly,- parodically or satirically,- in his critique of bourgeois ideology. For Marx, such terms have already become "ghostly", and are vestigial remnants, which bourgeois ideology only deploys as a patch-work, even as it instrumentally undermines and violates those terms. Religion is only professed in bad faith, even as the new secular ideals of the bourgeoisie are merely formal and short-circuited in their actual "substantive" terms of application.

In short, I don't see any basis for claiming that a complex account of ideology is not already worked out in Marx' seminal early work and applied further in his latter work. Marx might be broadly aligned with "Enlightenment" thought and its basic project, (and shared somewhat in its historical over-optimism), but he rejected much of its over-simple assumptions.

Of course, the foregoing account means that ideology is "true" and "false" at the same time. And something of the same conundrum applies to much else in Marx. That violates the dictates of analytic logic and canons of "reason" based upon it. Whether that's a "problem" or not requires further consideration.