Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, June 04, 2016

MARX: Alienated Labor (A Theology of Work)

Alienated Labor would be found in the Economics section on the shelves of your local public library.  This makes a lot of sense because Karl Marx begins his essay by stating that “Wages are determined by the bitter struggle between capitalist and worker.”  Wages certainly sounds like a topic for economics.  In Marx’s opinion “the normal wage is the lowest which is compatible with common humanity, that is, with a bestial existence.”  A bestial existence?  It’s here that Marx starts veering off from a discussion strictly about economics.  He has a deeper subject in mind and it disturbs him deeply.  What really troubles Marx is the human condition; specifically, how work degrades the human condition of the worker.  He says “Rising wages awake in the worker the same desire for enrichment as in the capitalist, but he can only satisfy it by the sacrifice of his body and spirit.”  Most human beings have to work for a living.  They want a better life but since they have to work for wages they sacrifice “body and spirit” in order to get ahead.  Marx’s point is this.  They don’t get ahead.  They only become more degraded “Since the worker has been reduced to a machine, the machine can compete with him.”

Workers can be replaced by machines and lose even those wages necessary for a bestial existence.  How could this happen?  Marx says “Let us not begin our explanation, as does the economist, from a legendary primordial condition.  Such a primordial condition does not explain anything; it merely removes the question into a grey and nebulous distance.  It asserts as a fact or event what it should deduce, namely, the necessary relation between two things.  For example, between the division of labor and exchange.  In the same way theology explains the origin of evil by the fall of man; that is, it asserts as a historical fact what it should explain.”  Marx has moved from economics to his real target, theology.  Why are things the way they are?  Why do we work so hard and get back so little?  The Fall of Man is no answer for Marx.  It infuriates him.  He thinks religion is “the spontaneous activity of human fantasy, of the human brain and heart” and all these stories about “alien activity of gods or devils upon the individual” are in reality just a psychological trick to keep wages low and workers subservient.  Marx rejects religious answers concerning the cause of our problems because “the gods are fundamentally not the cause but the product of confusion of human reason.”  Marx is on a quest to dispel that confusion.

The counterargument for Marx’s theology isn’t Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (GB2) but Max Weber’s The Spirit of Capitalism (GB4).  Weber speaks for those who believe religion does have answers about why we work and what we work for.  He says “Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs… it expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas.”  How is work connected with religious ideas?  Weber explains.  “For the saints everlasting rest is in the next world; on earth man must, to be certain of his state of grace, “do the works of Him who sent him, as long as it is yet day.”  Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will.  Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins… every hour lost is lost to labor for the glory of God.”  Weber goes on to say “The differentiation of men into the classes and occupations established through historical development became for Luther a direct result of the divine will.  The perseverance of the individual in the place and within the limits which God had assigned to him was a religious duty.”  This is exactly the kind of talk that infuriates Marx.  He can’t understand why workers willingly give up leisure and become reconciled to boring occupations because of some grey and nebulous “divine will.”  Our next reading (Genesis) gives the other side of the story.


Post a Comment

<< Home