Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, February 03, 2012

MARX: Alienated Labor, Part 2 2012

True Story. A philosophy professor goes to a major department store and buys a blanket on sale. When he gets home he finds out the blanket has a hole in it. So he takes it back to the store for an exchange. The sales clerk points to the sign: All Sales Final. But this one has a hole in it, says the professor. I just want to exchange it for one that doesn’t have a whole in it. All sales are final, the clerk insists, that means no exchanges. Then let me speak to your supervisor. She’s at lunch right now. Then I’ll go straight to the top; who’s the CEO? I don’t know, the clerk admits, you’ll have to write company headquarters. Ok, where’s the headquarters located? I have no idea. This whole exchange is not unusual. But it’s more than just a case of poor customer service. The sales clerk in this incident is “alienated” from her job. (According to Merriam-Webster’s Learners Dictionary to “alienate” means to cause (someone) to feel that she or he no longer belongs in a particular group, society, etc. For example: alienated young people = young people who do not feel that they have a part in society.) This sales clerk has a case of what Marx calls “alienated labor.” The sales clerk doesn’t feel like she has an important part in society. It’s just a boring job so she can pay her bills. That’s all. It’s not an integral part of who she is or who she wants to be. In the story about Rothschild’s Fiddle Jacob took great pride in the workmanship of the coffins he made. In The Apology Socrates knew exactly who he was; he was a philosopher. In Heart of Darkness Marlow was captain of his own ship. Well, actually it was just a little steamboat on the verge of falling apart. But still, Marlow was a captain. It gave him an identity. The sales clerk from the department store doesn’t want the identity of a sales clerk. There are sales clerks and stock clerks and custodians and cashiers all over the country who don’t feel personal identification with the work that they do. They work because they have to. This is perfectly normal in a modern economy. But according to Marx it’s not normal for human beings to feel so alienated from their work. He says that alienated labor (1) alienates nature from man; and (2) alienates man from himself, from his own active function, his life activity; so it alienates him from the species. In this case the sales clerk is not working outside in the sunshine under an open sky growing her own food or making her own clothing. She’s stuck inside a store all day long working for somebody else. So first of all she’s alienated from nature. And she’s also out on the floor all day selling things she didn’t make; things she isn’t even interested in, like blankets. So secondly she’s alienated from herself, her own preferences. Finally, when the philosophy professor comes in to exchange his blanket the sales clerk is forced to follow store policy that all sales are final. That means no refunds or exchanges. This irritates the customer and alienates the sales clerk from him too. She has become alienated first from nature, then from herself, and finally from her own species, other human beings. Something is wrong with this picture. Marx diagnoses the problem like this: The animal is one with its activity. It does not distinguish the activity from itself. It IS its activity. A cat is a cat. It doesn’t try to become a sales clerk too. But human beings are people PLUS something else. Some people become sales clerks. Others become philosophy professors. Marx puts it in these terms: Conscious life activity distinguishes man from the life activity of animals. Unlike animals most people voluntarily choose what to do with their lives. Jacob made coffins but he also played the fiddle. Socrates chose to be a philosopher. Marlow chose to be a steamboat captain. But Marx complains that this sales clerk had limited options available to her. The owners of a company can choose when and where to open or close a store. They have the money to do it. The sales clerk has to have a job right now. So she will work for low wages in a job she hates. This isn’t fair says Marx. How did the world get this way? Next reading: Genesis.


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