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Friday, February 10, 2012

Marx on Alienated Labor: A Response

You are right to point out the essential disagreement between Kant and Marx when it comes to conscience versus wealth. Kant wants to distinguish moral action from immoral action because in the normal course of things we commonly confuse the two. What makes an action moral or "right" is that it be done as if it were a natural law willed by God, and that it not be self contradictory. Thus, every moral act is evaluated in terms of its general use in society. For example, I am starving. If I don't have any money, is it alright for me to steal food from my neighbor in order to stay alive? Kant would say that you must first imagine the consequences of stealing if it were done by everyone. Clearly, if everyone stole food from their neighbor, then society would break down. Each person cannot decide on their own to steal or not to steal as if they were somehow above the law. For laws to have any meaning, they must be enforced. For a particular law to be just, it must apply to everyone, both wealthy and poor. The moral value of every action, according to Kant, depends on its universality. Thus, the moral law-- "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is an expression of this universality. It applies to everyone at all times, not just a few people now and then. You do not steal your neighbor's food because you would not want him to steal your food. Therefore, it is immoral.

Marx, however, is talking about morality in a world without God or where natural justice is subverted. He argues that employers and workers are never equal in power and therefore normal rules of morality do not apply. In capitalism, Marx observes that the owner of the factory has all the power because he owns the means of production. He sets the wage of the employee. If the employee is unwilling to work for the wage he is offered, he may go elsewhere. But what happens if the worker is hungry, without money to buy food, and there is nowhere else to go for employment? Then he must accept the owner's wage or starve. According to Marx, it is always in the owner's best interest if wages are kept low and the worker is hungry. On the other hand, the worker desires to obtain the highest wage he can get. Therefore, the owner and the worker are always in conflict. One desires that wages be as low as possible; the other wants wages to be as high as possible. How is the conflict to be resolved?

Normally, the conflict between labor and money (or wages) is resolved in the open market where competition determines price. The wages that a worker earns should, in theory, settle at the point where demand meets supply. If many people are seeking the same job at the same time, the wage for that job will fall because the supply of labor (equivalent to the number of applicants for the job) exceeds the demand. In a free market, other openings for other jobs will exist to sustain a minimum level of wage for the worker. But what happens when the market is not balanced? For example, if the pool of labor exceeds the number of jobs. This often occurs in small towns where there is only one large employer. Of course, people can always move and find jobs in other parts of the world. But what if you move to another city and are unable to find work? Just how free is the "free" market?

It turns out that it's not free at all. Moving one's family is not a simple thing. You have to leave your home and your neighborhood, take your children out of school, leave your friends behind, and take off for a new place. It takes money to relocate. What happens when you get to the new place and there is no job? Now you are stuck in a strange place where you do not know anyone, where you have no family or friends, and no one to help you. When your money runs out, who will feed your family?

This is the plight of the worker in a market where the owner controls all the conditions of employment. If you are a coal miner, then you have to go to a coal mine to find employment. If there is only one coal mine in your area, then you must accept whatever wage is offered to you, or go elsewhere. Prior to the age of collective bargaining, the owner of the factory had all the leverage in labor relations. If there happened to be other factories in the area, then the owners of these different factories simply agreed among themselves not to raise wages. If the workers went out on strike, the owners simply went out and rounded up other poor people and brought them in to replace the striking workers.

When people are starving, they become desperate and often resort to violence. This situation leads to the breakdown of society. It is meaningless to say to a starving man that he is breaking the law when he steals food. But law always yields to nature. Where is the morality of this arrangement? You tell a starving man that he must not steal food, but the owner of a factory can ruin an entire neighborhood when he refuses to pay a higher wage. Marx analyzed this relationship of labor to management and decided that the existing arrangement was not merely unjust but despicable. When an owner builds a factory and hires people to work for him, he assumes a moral obligation to his employees that he will pay them an honest wage and they will give him an honest day's work. Marx felt that people are more than just a commodity. They are not a lump of clay to be molded into a particular job and then thrown away when cheaper clay is available elsewhere. In Marx's time, people were not as mobile. They could not travel all over the world seeking the highest wage for their labor. Even today, when a Ford or GM plant closes down and relocates to Mexico, the employees cannot simply leave their homes and neighborhoods and follow the owner to his new factory in Juarez.

So where do the unemployed go when they lose their jobs? This is a question that Kant does not ask. He is concerned about universal rules of moral behavior, not about the welfare of individuals. The problems of society cannot be solved by invoking a simple moral calculus like the golden rule. Of course, if everyone lived by the golden rule and treated others as they would like to be treated, the world would be a friendlier place. But that is not the world we live in. Marx's criticism of capitalism is based on his observation that the struggle between labor and money is dehumanizing. Under the old feudal system, the peasant worked in the fields which belonged to his master. As long as the work was done, his time was his own. With the collapse of feudalism, the worker had to find other means of employment. Lacking money, he could not buy land of his own or even a house to live in. He could find employment as a migrant worker or go to the city and work in a factory. Although the life of a migrant worker was hard, he was able to feed his family (except in times of drought), and worked only according to the season. With the rise of industrialism, the factory worker becomes a slave to the clock. He works all through the year, rain or shine, and, if necessary, all through the night. He is paid the lowest wage that the owner can give him. There is no time off for sickness and no vacations. The worker is free to quit his job if he chooses. But his options are limited. If he goes to another factory, he will find a similar arrangement.

Marx sees that this relationship between owner and worker is unequal. Unless the worker has a unique skill that is needed by the owner, he will be easily replaced. He is exploited because he has no bargaining power. But this unequal distribution of power will change. In time, the grueling conditions of their labor cause men to join together and confront the owner with a new strategy: the threat of work stoppage.


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