Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, January 27, 2012

MARX: Alienated Labor (Wages) 2012

Immanuel Kant was a strong believer in the power of conscience to affect the way we live. How does that belief work out in real life? Here’s a typical scenario. Suppose I don’t have any money and I’m starving. Is it ok to steal food in order to survive? Kant says conscience is an instinct and my conscience tells me that stealing is wrong. But my instinct to survive is strong too. What would Kant advise? Let’s leave Kant for a moment and turn instead to Karl Marx for clarification. Marx would ask this question: why are you poor and starving in the first place? You don’t have any money. Why not? Either (a) you don’t have a job, or (b) you do have a job but it doesn’t pay enough to put food on the table. How can this happen? Marx’s basic theme is that wages are determined by the bitter struggle between capitalist and worker. The reason people are poor and starving is that they’re losing the struggle with capitalists (the investors and business owners who control the financial means of production). Marx begins with the notion that it’s a STRUGGLE between employers and workers rather than cooperation between them. Marx believes that the normal wage is the lowest which is compatible with common humanity, that is, with a bestial existence. Marx sees the “normal wage” as the lowest wage that an individual employer will pay rather than the highest wage the worker can get from working somewhere else. He does not see employers in a struggle between themselves to hire the best workers. A third point Marx makes is that in work, all the natural, spiritual, and social differences of individual activity appear and are differently remunerated, while dead capital maintains an unvarying performance and is indifferent to real individual activity. This seems to mean that work is a human activity and is therefore subject to human conditions. Marx sees money, on the other hand, as “dead capital” that is “indifferent” to real people. Other economic writers (such as Adam Smith) view money as a morally-neutral tool that can be used for either good or for bad. It merely keeps score on supply and demand for products and services. Our recent readings may help shed further light on the relationship between people and money. In Rothschild’s Fiddle Jacob was not a hired worker. He owned his own business. No one was exploiting him. But he was still greedy. Until near the end of his life all he thought about was how to make more money. His motto was: it’s all such a waste of money… without the hate and malice folks could get a lot of profit out of each other. For Aristotle money is obviously necessary for us to lead a happy life. But we shouldn’t let money overwhelm our primary human function, which is to pursue the good. Aristotle says as for the money-maker, his life is led under some kind of constraint: clearly wealth is not the good which we are trying to find, it is only useful as a means to something else. And in The Apology Socrates is very careful to distance himself from the notion that philosophy can be used to make money. At his trial Socrates said: If you have heard from anyone that I undertake to educate men and make money doing it, that is false… And religion as well as philosophy is often used to keep money in its proper place. In the Gospel of Luke we find this warning: Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. The story Heart of Darkness is a long meditation on the evils that money can do to people and the hardships we’re willing to endure in order to make money. Sometimes we may even go against our conscience in order to get rich. This brings us back to the original question of stealing food in order to survive. Kant seems to be counseling us to follow our conscience. Stealing is wrong, period. We must find some other way to survive. Marx seems to be saying that it’s the capitalists who are actually doing the stealing: they’re stealing money from the working-class in the form of low wages for the worker and high profits for the owner. Conscience is a just ploy to maintain the economic status quo. The subject of money is definitely a subject to which the Great Books speak.


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