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Sunday, August 9, 2020


First things first, the old phrase "wage slavery." During the time when chattel slavery existed and flourished in the United States, it was commonplace in the north to contrast the condition of slaves on southern plantations with the supposedly far superior position of wage laborers in northern factories. Socialists and other critics of capitalism coined the phrase "wage slavery" as a deliberate polemical attack. The idea, which was immediately obvious, was that the self-justifying myth of capitalist ideologists regarding the "free" marketplace concealed the reality of the bondage that industrial workers were trapped in under capitalism. The term was not an attempt to arrive at a neutral, evenhanded, objective, fair assessment of the condition of workers from what John Rawls would later call the "original position" but was intended as a slap in the face of the apologists of capitalism.

With regard to the lengthy and very helpful comment by Michael, here is his last paragraph:

" I'm not quite sure what it would look like to describe capitalism using the language of personal relationships, but I think I see it in, e.g., "Employer X is humanly decent and unobjectionable, because X demonstrates a caring attitude toward his/her/its employees"; "My boss and co-workers are family to me." I doubt this was Prof. Wolff's point, but it might be interesting nonetheless to talk about the ways in which this use of language is wrong-headed, too."

That is exactly what I had in mind in my throwaway comment at the end of my post. Marx labored long and fruitfully to disabuse his readers of this way of thinking about capitalism. Speaking technically, that is why he wrote volume 1 on the assumption that commodities exchange in proportion to their labor values. In the famous chapter "The Working Day" Marx gives us a great many examples of the ways in which capitalists seek to squeeze an extra few minutes of unpaid labor from their workers, but he is insistent that these despicable dodges play no role in the correct analysis of the structure of capitalism itself.

It is a very bad mistake to suppose that what is really wrong with America today is that not all employers are as nice as Ben and Jerry. Just as slavery cannot be understood through the lens of interpersonal relationships between slaveowners and slaves, so capitalism cannot be understood through the lens of interpersonal relationships between employers and workers.

The nice guys are also exploiters.


marcel proust said...

And marriage? As an institution, can that "be understood through the lens of interpersonal relationships between" spouses?

Can any institution?

Michael said...

Much appreciate the elaboration, thank you.

Rather off-topic: I am an ex-Republican, and still fairly new to Marx, socialism, progressive thought in general. The spirit of it resonates, but I have a lot of catching up to do, and various questions and concerns at various stages of articulation. So I'll just limit myself to this one item, which is very personal to me, and maybe less elementary and commonplace than my other concerns.

A comedian I like once joked (or half-joked), "Unemployment should be the goal!" It rang true, because in my estimation, most paid work tends to approach the description "irredeemably miserable"; I somewhat marvel at the fact that it isn't more widely viewed as, well, life-ruining. (Most people in my sphere of acquaintance know that about me, and seem to think of it as a childish eccentricity, or a sign of bad mental health, or a character flaw, or some combination of these.)

However, in my current line of work - as a support person for an adult with a developmental disability, in an arrangement I'm lucky to be a part of - I normally see it held without the least reservation that paid employment is one of the keys to a decent and dignified life, and that we should do whatever we can to secure a place in the workforce for persons with disabilities. If I'm talking to my employer and to the family and loved ones of the person I support, as well as to the person himself, my attitude has to be, "Of course it's a good thing that he gets to participate in the work experience!" - though the part of me that equates work with drudgery and exploitation quietly aches. (More-so because of the artificial, "charitable" nature of the in: From the standpoint of cold-blooded utility, the work he's tasked with is not so demanding or so high-stakes that anyone's going to "really" notice if it doesn't get done. We often wonder about his job security for that very reason.)

I console myself largely with the thought that his job (at less than half-time hours) doesn't dominate his life, and that he has genuinely good relationships with his co-workers, and doesn't have difficulty tolerating what he does... I just can't talk about the experience in the language of "well-being" and "dignity" and "authenticity" without feeling a little disingenuous! Moreover, the job is not his only or primary source of community or income, and his financial and social needs could be met without it; but of course it would sound scandalous to those involved if I insinuated that "unemployment should be the goal," all else being equal. (Though I could probably bring up something akin to retirement when the time comes.)

Sadly I don't see a better way of thinking about this than, "Capitalism makes hypocrites of us all. Just try to emphasize the good parts of the situation, don't rock any boats you can't afford to rock, and get on with things as well as you can."

Maybe someone has some recommended reading about capitalism and disability.

LFC said...

The critics of capitalism as practiced in the 19th cent North included some defenders of slavery in the South, most famously George Fitzhugh. (Or at least he's among those whose defense of slavery along these lines, i.e. that it was allegedly preferable to Northern 'wage slavery', is best remembered.)

LFC said...

I see that Prof Wolff implies the above in the post, but thought Fitzhugh's name was perhaps worth mentioning as an example of the varied polemical uses to which the phrase "wage slavery" could be put.

Eric C said...

@Michael, if you haven't listened to Prof Wolff's lecture series on Marx, this is a great opportunity to do so. Lecture 2 directly examines Marx's views on the issue you ask about ("that paid employment is one of the keys to a decent and dignified life"); specifically on how capitalism perverts the role of work in a fulfilling life.

At ~36:18 in the youtube video, Wolff discusses a passage from Marx's "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844":

"What the capitalist confronts is just capital as an abstract capitalist. And against that the worker is powerless because all of this labor over centuries that the worker has done has simply created the capital that now oppresses him....

This alienation is so complete that the workers identify with it and attempt to transform themselves into perfect embodiments of it. So that a worker feels proud of being somebody who can work steadily for eight or ten hours without taking time off for bathroom breaks, without sometimes working faster, sometimes working slower.

And if someone protests against that, everybody--including his or her own family!--will say, 'Don't be like that, don't be a screwoff. You must work this way because that's what good people do!' Children are brought up to believe that the way to be is to be a good worker, where a good worker means the embodiment of abstract labor, not an actual human being who is externalizing himself or herself and reappropriating the product of that externalization.

This is the ultimate alienation--[in which] it is impossible for workers to even conceive of an alternative...."

s. wallerstein said...

What do you reply to someone who says that their boss and co-workers are family to them?

That's their experience. Unless they're hallucinating, it's seems to me that everyone is the best judge of what their experience means to them.

You can tell them that their boss is exploiting them, but what if they answer, that their boss is more considerate than their family, that he or she came to see them when they were in the hospital and brought them flowers and no one else brought them flowers. What if they say, sure, my boss exploits me, but so do my children and my spouse.

You can reply that Marx says that the real exploitation is that which occurs at work, but why should Marx convince them? You can smile in a superior manner because having understood Marxism, you're out of the cave and they're still in it, but that turns people off even more.

The above are serious questions and I ask them, more or less convinced myself that Marxism
is the best tool around for understanding capitalism.

Michael said...

Holy smokes, what a good clip! I had not watched that lecture series, but I clearly need to. It'll be a nice accompaniment to Allen Wood's work on Marx (his own book, called Karl Marx; as well as a separate compilation of Marx's writings).

Thanks for pointing that out, Eric! Exciting stuff.

Eric C said...

@Michael, the thanks go to Dr Wolff. I'm just glad he is still around and willing to share his insights with us.

@SWallerstein, I'd start by asking the worker to consider how good his boss really is if the boss is asking him to do things that a good father would never ask his own son or daughter to do. (Kind of like with Trump supporters. Trump says we must open the schools, but his own son won't be going to school because the school officials have concluded the risk of reopening at this moment during the pandemic remains unacceptably high. Or the case with the executives of New York's Mount Sinai hospital, who were widely criticized for expecting their frontline hospital workers to show up every day to care for critically ill COVID-19 patients, often without adequate personal protective equipment, while the executives stayed holed up in the safety of their ocean-front vacation homes in Florida.)

How good is the employer if he is paying himself and the other owners of the business lavishly while asking employees to go without raises or to take retirement benefits cuts "for the good of the team"? A good parent would make sure his children were well fed before taking second helpings for himself.

How good is the employer if he is not honest in his communications with his employees? Loving relationships are built on honesty. A good husband does not tell his wife self-serving lies about important matters. Remember the executives who were running Enron? They were telling their employees to buy more shares of the company while they themselves were selling shares because they knew that disaster was coming.

The employee who says his boss treats him better than his spouse and children needs help recognizing that he has set his expectations far too low. He may be stuck with his family, although I would argue that even there he could surely work to improve the relationships, but why should he accept any mistreatment from his employer? If he is a valued part of the business, as the employer claims, he deserves to be treated as such.

One of the challenges we face in the US is that we don't get to hear about other ways of organizing the workplace or the wider economy. We don't hear about the successes of unionized workers in Spain or Germany. We don't even get to hear much, nowadays, about the successes of organized workers in our own past. (How many Americans today learn about the Haymarket Affair in school? Or know why many countries celebrate International Workers' Day on May 1st?) We certainly aren't taught about them in elementary or secondary school, where the main goal seems to be to turn out obedient workers. Nor do we get much exposure to them from mainstream news sources or much of popular culture. If anything, we are constantly propagandized with the ideas that America is a meritocracy where we are all free to be whatever we want to be if we work hard enough; that the people who are wealthy, who are the owners ("the job-creators"), are so by dint of their superior intelligence and their hard work; and that capitalism is the only answer, all else leads to authoritarianism, rampant human rights abuses, and grinding poverty for all but a tiny few who control the government and economy.

s. wallerstein said...

Eric C.,

Thanks. I appreciate your lengthy explanation.

One criticism: the person we're talking to most probably does not manage the concept of loving father or good parent or loving relationship that you and I both do. He or she hasn't read Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving (and it's noteworthy that Fromm was a Marxist) or assimilated similar ideas from other sources nor was he or she raised in a loving family.

marcel proust said...

@swallerstein wrote @ Aug 9, 2020, 2:55 PM:

You can tell them that their boss is exploiting them, but ...

You can reply that Marx says that the real exploitation but ...

&/or you can recall Joan Robinson's line that The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.

Michael said...

In response to S. Wallerstein's earlier comment:

"What do you reply to someone who says that their boss and co-workers are family to them? That's their experience. Unless they're hallucinating, it's seems to me that everyone is the best judge of what their experience means to them."

I wasn't expecting this, but just now happened to be struck by a sentence in Dermot Moran's Introduction to Phenomenology (p. 44): "In line with the Cartesian tradition, Brentano believes that something can be PERCEIVED without being explicitly NOTICED."

Moran illustrates this with the example of a musical chord and its individual notes. Anyone can hear a chord - and it would be preposterous to tell the listener, "You're not really hearing a chord; I'm a better judge of your experience than you yourself." However, it takes a trained or gifted ear to recognize all the notes that make up the chord, and there's no absurdity in presuming to instruct the untrained ear.

(We could also use Descartes's famous example of the chiliagon* and its thousand sides.)

So, going back to the statement about employers' and employees' experience of one another as "family" - we could say they might PERCEIVE some incidental elements of their relationship (i.e. their natural, quasi-familial good-will toward one another), while nevertheless failing to NOTICE its fundamentally exploitative and inegalitarian character; just as I can perceive a chord without noticing its individual notes, or perceive a chiliagon without noticing its thousand sides.


(Turns out Descartes is good for something!)

Eric C said...

@SWallerstein, that could be a tough case. But don't all of us have an innate sense of fairness, even those who have grown up in abusive homes or in orphanages? (I believe some studies have suggested that indications of a sense of fairness can be observed in a number of animal species, the implication being that the tendency to value fairness may be an innate trait inherited from a distant common ancestor, predating the appearance of primates.) I think my inclination would probably be to try to get the employee to agree that a good employer is one who tries to ensure that employees are treated fairly, and that judgments of fair treatment must weigh how the owners and managers of the business are treated against how the workers are. An employer who demands many sacrifices on the part of the workers yet few or none from himself or the other owners cannot be considered a good employer.

Michael said...

Bah! I screwed up in that last paragraph. It was probably clear enough what I was driving at the first time, but here's what it should've said: "They might PERCEIVE the employer-employee relationship as a whole, in a manner that includes NOTICING its incidental aspect of quasi-familial goodwill, while nevertheless FAILING to notice its fundamentally exploitative and inegalitarian character; just as I can [etc.]."

Now, an anti-capitalist philosopher who wants to weigh in on this case should NOT say, "The goodwill they notice in their relationship is in no way real," but instead might say, "There is something more, and more important, to be noticed in the relationship, namely..."

I feel a bit silly to have been struck by such a simple point, but I think the "perceiving-noticing" distinction offers a way to acknowledge a certain incorrigibility in people's outlook on their own experience, while yet allowing that their outlook may be incomplete - without adopting the posture of Plato's liberated cave-dweller, returning to enlighten his fellows.

P.S. Sorry for the all-caps; I don't know how to italicize.

s. wallerstein said...

Eric C.

We may all have an innate sense of fairness, but we also have innate senses of many more selfish drives.

From what I can observe, a whole lot of (I'm not going to say "most") people just don't factor fairness as an relevant variable in their daily life.

I think that comes from the family and while most families are not technically "abusive", they are ruled by non-democratic, patriarchal, competitive, alienated, non-caring structures of behavior (all in the name of "love"). After all, why would you expect people who compete all day to survive in a capitalist system arriving home after a long commute in which only he or she with sharp elbows and pushes harder has breathing room to be loving and caring in the Erich Fromm sense with their families? Sure, they call it "love" , but when your father or your mother slaps you "for your own good", they are reproducing the physical or psychological slaps they receive on the job.

So the family reproduces capitalism and capitalism reproduces the family. Gimme shelter!

LFC said...

@Eric C.
A minor side point: it looks as if T's son may be going to school in person in the fall or have the option. There is a conflict betw state and local officials re private school reopenings in the Md county where T's son's school is located, but the state officials will prevail over the local ones, it appears. (I'm not following it that closely but that's my impression from the reporting.)