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ESTRANGED LABOUR TODAY

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The Montreal Review, April, 2010

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Karl Marx

(Obama HOPET Poster Store, click on the image to buy this poster)

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In Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argues that there are two classes of people - property-owners and "propertyless" workers. There are people who possess capital and resources and there are people that possess nothing but their labour. The people who keep the resources and the capital exploit the labourers to amass more resources and more capital. The workers, the people that have nothing except their labour, submit their talents, bodies, time and life under the dictatorship of the property-owners. They work for money in order to cover their basic human needs. But they are not humans, they are like animals, says Marx, because their existence is restricted to long hours of labour and spare hours of freedom and rest. They are like animals, because they do not use their creative power. Their existence has meaning only as long as they provide cheap labour for the owners of capital and keep production intact. In this world, says Marx, they are just means for production, not end goals.

Marx argues that the workers are alienated (1) from their labour, (2) from the results of their labour (the product they produce), (3) from the wealth they create, and, eventually, (4) from their own life and individuality. The estrangement from person's own life is nothing but slavery. The worker is a slave of the capitalist (or the capital-owner); and he is an animal, because his labour "does not belong to his essential being."

Why is that?

Everyone has some talents and inclinations. Some people, for example, are interested in trucks and driving, others in writing and staging. I have a friend who is a musician by profession and who works as a part-time university teacher. He is also passionately interested in trucks; he knows everything about the heavy trucks, truck engines, truck design, and even he has knowledge of the history of truck production and business. One day, he told me, he will quit music teaching and will become a truck driver. This was his dream, a reallistic one. In his free time, he takes classes for truck driving licence and he plans starting work as a driver next summer.

I have another friend who is a nuclear physicist but who has left the laboratory a few years ago and now works as a part-time hotel valet. In his free time he writes books and plays.

These friends of mine are real people, somewhat exceptional persons who live in Canada. They are an example of almost free people, because they are ready to follow their passions and interests, their natural inclinations. The musician has a real potential to become the happiest truck driver in North America and perhaps a creator of successful truck company. The physicist, on the other hand, has the potential to become successful writer and stage plays in New York, Montreal or Toronto.

These two people have the potential to live like free men because they do not follow social prejudices, they do not fear the risk to work odd part-time jobs while chasing their dreams. They sacrifice respected "professions" for their personal passions. They fight, unconsciously, against the lure of capital that offers security in return of ceded labour and freedom. They are brave. Yet this bravery is due to the fact that they are able to live a decent life with the money they receive from their part-time job. They can use and develop their creative powers and personal ambitions because the society (or the economic system of Canada) and the wages they receive for half a day work permit this. Yet such people are not common in the Western capitalist world, and they are literally non-existent in countries such as China, Japan, etc. Only in developed, capitalist, liberal and individualistic society, one can find ordinary people with potential to fight against the "capitalist" estrangedment from their own life, labour, and product. Only in these countries the spirit of individual entrepreneurship, which is ironically the source of the capitalist development, is alive. In states with rigid, authoritarian regimes and politcal systems, with oppressive collectivist culture, and economic order based on big corporations or central government planning and control, the existence of "free" workers such as my friends is impossible.

Marx spoke about communism. We often hear that the socialist states that existed in the 20th century were based on the Marxist ideology. This was not true. The communist states were not real Marxist states, because Marx, in "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844", did not speak about the "capitalist" as the only exploiter. He spoke about a more general phenomenom - the "master of labour" (Marx, K.  (1978)  Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.  In R. C. Tucker (Ed.) p.79; The Marx - Engels reader (pp. 66-125).  New York:  Norton & Co.). "Master of labour" is a general term. Master of labour can be not only the person of the capitalist, the owner of capital. It can be also the state or the company (corporation), or any collective economic body that controls the fate and existence of its constituents. The exploiter can be a human or an organization.

In the 20th century's communist states, the state was the supreme master of labour, and the "capitalists" were the high rank state bureaucrats. The capital was in their hands. In China today, the state and the capitalists are enmeshed in one. The lack of individual freedom, the attempt for maximal central (or proxy) control over the people in China, shows exactly the conditions of Marx's "estrangement of labour" theory. Thus, while China is proclaiming herself as a "socialist" state it is not truly Marxist in its real organizational principles. In China the state, the bureaucracy, and the proxies of bureaucracy - the so-called "Chinese entrepreneurs" - are the masters of labour. The condition of Chinese workers is a condition of slavery. They have long working hours, they create products that they cannot use, they are poor, and exploited. They do not have human life, because they do not have complete human existence, i.e. freedom. The more they produce, the more enslaved they become. The more their lords receive from the forced labour, the more powerful the lords become. In an interview for Ben Wattenberg Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, expressed the popular view that when the GDP growth in a given country raise steadily and the society becomes richer this society will become also more disposed to liberalization and freedom. This is not always true. Today, China has a rigid political system that supports bureaucratic-capitalist elite that is experiencing big economic gains and enrichment, while the general population hardly can feel the effects of wealth accumulation. The population is completely subjected under the control of the masters of labour. The ordinary Chinese have higher wages and more money for consumption in comparison with the times of Mao, but these gains correspond neither to the sacrifices they made to receive this higher "standard of living", nor to the levels of their real productivity and wealth creation. The Chinese people are robbed by the masters of labour (the Communist party and its proxies). That is why the Chinese society thriftier today than the Western society is: not because it is more virtuous than its Western counterpart, but because the accumulation of Chinese wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few (state and state backed capitalists). These few possesors of capital are not able to spend all of their fortune or to invest it all. The great part of the accumulated wealth naturally stays unused, in savings, it becomes "rent-wealth" or lending capital for the foreign entrepreneurships, usually based in the Western world.

Marx noticed that the humans in contrast to the animals produce more than they are able to consume. Humans produce "universally", or they create wealth, or production surplus. Animals care only for their immediate needs, their activity is connected only with their reflex for survival. Humans are different from animals with their ability to create and invent, and to do things that are not directly connected with the immediate needs for survival. The important point here is that human creativity depends on human freedom; humans create beautiful things and intelligent machines when they are free of the immediate care for survival. In liberal and prosperous societies, humans invent more, and in fact produce more, not because of the free market and competition, but because of opportunities such as free time, intellectual and physical (mobility) freedom, relative availability of capital, and existence of a relatively effective or fair judicial system that oversees the relations between economic actors. These and other factors bring relative stillness to all individuals who want to experiment and follow their inner inclinations, interests, passions and talents. Free labour is the base of technological and economic progress. Freedom is the soil for the rise of the true, free-labour based entrepreneurship.

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related content:

MARX AND ALIENATION

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By Sean Sayers

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Alienation is a pervasive but puzzling feature of modern life. It is one of the few theoretical terms from Marxism that has entered into ordinary language. There it usually denotes a vague feeling of malaise or meaninglessness. In Marx, however, it has a precise meaning derived from Hegel's philosophy, and it plays a central role in Marx's critique of capitalism and his conception of an alternative form of society... | read |

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KARL MARX

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By Paul Thomas

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Engels's well-known keynote 'Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx' (1883) was bent upon seeing to it that the name and work of his friend and guiding spirit would 'endure through the ages.' Engels's heartfelt, distraught words - 'we are what we are because of him; without him we should still be sunk in a slough of confusion' - cannot avoid raising the question of the gap between the immediate circumstances of Marx's theorizing and the ultimate effects of the theory he produced. Marx in Sheldon Wolin's words 'founded a new conception of politics, revolutionary in intent, proletarian in concern, and international in scope and organization...'

| read |

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