Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Alienation - Part 1

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[S1 E23] Alienation - Part 1

Prof. Harvey talks about alienation of labor and capital and their relevance in helping us understand the relationships between politics and the economy.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity. 


This is David Harvey, and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work. 

So for this week's topic I want to take up the question of alienation. Now, alienation is a concept that has a somewhat checkered history on the left. But I think there's a very good reason why today we might want to revive it and consider it in much greater detail, because I think it has great relevance to helping us understand the relationships between politics and the economy. 

Part of the reason for the checkered history is that Marx in his early years was very fond of talking about alienation, and it played a very prominent role in his thinking when he wrote the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. But at that time, the definition of alienation that Marx held to was really a sense that our daily reality was not in accord with our inner spirituality, if you want to call it that, and that Marx had a rather idealist notion of humanity. He came up with the concept of "species-being," and his argument was that capital was really preventing us from realizing the perfection of which we were capable, given our species-being. So it was an idealist concept, a utopian concept, but it played a very important role in defining the subjective sense of feelings of alienation, loss, and separation that characterized much of the working class in relationship to capital. So it was not entirely redundant as a scientific concept, but its basis lay in this rather humanist conception of what human beings were capable of, and the frustrations of that capacity by being embedded within a market system and being embedded in a system where a capitalist class held the power.

Now, this ideal of alienation that existed in these early writings was problematic, even for Marx himself. So by the time he got to the end of the 1840s, he was beginning to write a different kind of interpretation in which he did not rely upon this idealist conception of species-being, but relied more and more on historical interrogation of the concepts which would describe the relationships which existed under capitalism in an attempt to create a more kind of scientific Marxism. And for that reason, we find there was a tendency, very strong in the 1960s and 1970s, to try to erase alienation from the scientific forms of Marxism that were favored by people like Althusser, theoretically, and by the communist parties which existed in Europe at that time, very much in close relationship with the thinking of the communist governments in the Soviet Union. So in the 1960s the concept of alienation tended to be abandoned and on the grounds that it was not scientific, it was not verifiable, it was not therefore to be considered part of what socialist and communist science should be about.

But this argument that Marx abandoned the concept of alienation in the late 1840s does not fit very well with the fact that in 1857-58 he wrote a long manuscript called the Grundrisse. And in the Grundrisse, what we find is a situation in which the concept of alienation comes back into the picture, but it has a very different form, and has a very different origin, and a very different meaning. In the Grundrisse, it looks like this: that if we become separated from something which belongs to us, and we therefore lose control over it, we become alienated from it. So Marx started to argue that the very act of exchange from one person to another meant that there was an alienation of the commodity – as, I traded it away – so that the form of alienation had a technical kind of meaning. But then that meant that as you built an understanding of how the market system worked, that technical meaning took on far more, broader meanings. 

So in the Grundrisse, Marx starts talking about how the laborer is alienated from the labor process. Alienated in the following sense: that they are employed by capital, they produce a commodity, but they do not actually have any power over the commodity they have produced, nor do they have any right to the value which is embodied in that commodity. So in a sense, the labor, which the laborer can provide, is alienated from its product. But this is a technical alienation, which means that the value belongs to capital, the commodity belongs to capital. Furthermore, command over the labor process itself moves away from the laborer in the sense that the laborer, who commands tools, and skills, and so on, still has a certain power in defining how things are produced. But as time goes on, and machinery is introduced, and the factory system comes into being, what we find is that the laborer becomes an appendage of the machine, and becomes alienated from the labor process itself. So the labor process, the labor product, and the value therein – all of them are alienated from the laborer. And that loss becomes, of course, part of a political claim, which kind of says we should invent a kind of society in which laborers receive their just rewards, and that they can claim rights over the value and the commodity that they have produced.

But it's not only the laborer who experiences alienation. What Marx does is start to talk about the way in which capital experiences the same kind of problem. Now, on this side, I think we have to actually stretch ourselves a bit to recognize: Now, the capitalist begins, in terms of bourgeois theory at least, in a situation where holding property rights, they are free, and there is a certain egalitarianism in the market process with which they engage. So that the starting point for capital accumulation is one in which the capitalist is quote "free to choose," as Milton Friedman would put it. And that freedom of choice and the egalitarianism that comes from exchange and exchange, it becomes then, if you like, the basis for the capitalist system. And the big issue that Marx then has to address is: How does this system, which is based on the universality of equality and freedom, get turned into inequality and unfreedom, even for the capitalists? 

And the answer there is that the market system is something that individuals do not control. The market system becomes – with the proliferation of market exchange it becomes – a system which actually forces capitalists into certain kinds of activities, whether they like it or not. And the phrase that Marx uses to talk about this a lot is the notion of the "coercive laws of competition." That individual capitalists are not free to choose. Individual capitalists will choose something, and then find that it's not compatible with what the market demands, and that the market then will discipline them to do this or to do that. And, of course, this is something which is a certain commonality between Marx and Adam Smith. Because Adam Smith also took the view that the market was something which was able to negotiate between all kinds of motivations, and all kinds of activities, to do it in a way in which individual motivations really didn't matter. What really mattered was the hidden hand of the market would decide what should be produced, how it should be produced, and how much it would cost, and all the rest of it. 

So this, what Marx talks about in the Grundrisse, is the way in which the capitalist starts in a situation of freedom and the like, but it turns into a situation of unfreedom. And this, of course, then meets very much with the idea that you have alienated labor, and alienated capital, which come together in the labor process, and that therefore that alienation is foundational for what the capitalist system is all about, and that alienation is therefore embedded within the capitalist system. And from this standpoint, alienation becomes as much of a scientific concept as anything else.  And while somebody like Althusser would claim that Marx went through an epistemological break in 1848, when he switched from a language in which he could talk about alienation to one where he had abandoned the concept, the revival of the concept in 1858 would suggest that there is a way of bringing back the question of alienation into our understanding of political economy.

Now, this form of alienation then suggests on both sides, both capital and labor, that there are separations, and that there are losses, which accrue. This comes out most clearly in Marx's chapter in Capital on "The Working Day." And in the chapter on the working day, what we see is that the capitalist employs the laborer for a certain period of time in which the laborer gets the value of "labor-power," and then the capital extends the length of the working day to create a surplus, and that surplus gives the surplus value to the capitalist, which gives them the profit that they seek. So surplus value is labor which really originates with the laborer, but which is appropriated by capital, and this is a loss. But the coercive laws of competition basically put a situation in which, if I employ – as a capitalist, if I employ – labor, and I only employ it for, you know, six hours a day, but somebody else is competing with me and they employ their labor for eight hours a day, then I am likely to find myself driven out of business. And very soon, all capitalists are competing with each other to extend the working day so they get more and more and more profit. So this competition between individual capitalists forces individual capitalists – no matter whether they're good people or bad people – to extend the working day to a maximum, unless there is some mechanism which is going to control that tendency. And the mechanism is, of course, legislation of some sort, which will come into being trying to counter this alienating activity of extending the working day so that it goes to, you know, more and more hours. So that you can actually control it by saying we have a 10-hour working day, or an eight-hour working day, or a 40-hour working week, or something of that kind.

So, the question of alienation, then, is there because then we ask the question: To what degree does the laborer get any kind of satisfaction out of the labor process, and any satisfaction out of the fact that they are producing the commodities that they produce? And here we come back, if you like, to the kind of subjective side of things, because when Marx starts to talk about capital being ruled by abstractions, those abstractions are the ruling ideas of the ruling class. And to the degree that the ruling ideas of the ruling class hold sway, then that does not create there an opportunity for critique. And this is something which, however, runs up against the workers' sense that they are being exploited, the workers' sense that something is unfair about the fact that they are creating all the value and they're getting very little of it. And so this is one of the points again where alienation comes back in. And so, we could ask the question: To what degree do working people feel alienated by their conditions of employment, alienated from the fact that they feel that the work they put in is not adequately remunerated, they feel alienated from the fact that they have no command whatsoever over the actual production process, that production process is regulated from outside through the use of machinery, they have no control over their time because the time regime is really dictated by conditions of work within the labor process? So then in all those respects, we would argue that the condition of alienation is latent within any workforce and is likely politically to be expressed. 

And at this point, the subjectivity of alienation, which is described back in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, comes back into the picture. But it's no longer an alienation from a kind of the perfection of which we are capable. It's really an alienation from the realities of the daily grind of going to work every day, and working those hours, and receiving only that form of remuneration. So the conditions of labor, then, are likely to give rise to a sense of alienation, and a sense of alienation has a number of subjective consequences. One of the first consequences is that it's very difficult to imagine a labor force which is deeply engaged with what is going on if it feels alienated. And the subjective condition of alienation tends to create what you might call sort of a distance between the labor process itself and a sense of satisfaction that can be derived from it.

Now, this doesn't mean that it's impossible for workers to feel any sense of satisfaction from the labor process, even within, under the domination of capital, because, manifestly, that labor process can be organized by workers themselves on the line in such a way as to actually be interesting, to be a sense of value attaching to it, and a sense of pride in the work that they do. So you will find labor forces employed under capital where there is some degree of contentment. And there are strategies which emerge amongst the capitalists to try to encourage what's called "X-efficiency," by developing certain relations amongst the workforce, and between the workforce and the supervisors and the capitalists, which actually can do something about the loss of alienation there was, or the loss of satisfaction. So in the 1970s, for example, there were things called "quality circles" in automobile manufacture, in which workers would get together and they would decide themselves what they would do on the shop floor and how they would do it. They would often compete with other work gangs, and so there would be a sort of friendly competition between them, and one would try to outdo the other. So there are situations which arise in which you could look at a labor process and say this is reasonably unalienated in terms of its subjective conditions, even though the underlying objective alienations still remain in place.

But for most people, on the other hand, there is a profound dissatisfaction. And when you start to look at some surveys of satisfaction in the labor process, you find a lot of negative results. So there are surveys which suggest that about, you know, 50 percent or 70 percent of a labor force either are not interested in their work, or don't care about it, or hate it, and that therefore there's limited work satisfaction. 

And this, then, also contracts back to the nature of the labor process. The capitalist is not free to choose any kind of labor process. If a labor process is invented which is mechanized and automated, and therefore where workers have almost no real serious creative and interesting role, and that is the most profitable form of labor process, then what will happen is the capitalist will be forced to introduce that labor process. And I think it's no accident that those work circles, and so on, which you would find in some of the auto companies in the 1970s and 1980s disappeared in the 1980s as competition heated up between the different auto companies for how well they could work. And therefore, again, capital does not freely choose what its technology shall be, doesn't freely choose the conditions of labor that it will impose upon a workforce when it comes through the factory gates.

Beyond that, of course, we also have going on the emergence of new divisions of labor, and the disappearance of many industrial jobs, and the transformation into kinds of rather meaningless service jobs, and janitorial jobs, and all the rest of it, which are jobs which have almost no real content in terms of physical satisfaction. So as the labor processes become reorchestrated around automation, and these days around artificial intelligence, it's unlikely that you're going to find more and more job structures which have some satisfaction attached to them. In fact, we could divide roughly what goes on in society into two categories of labor: One is the sort of mental labor. And the other is the routine, manual labor both in industry, and the routine labor in many of the service industries, like banking and so on. 

So what we need to look at today are: What are the conditions of labor? How much alienation is there? Is there a widespread and increasing sense of alienation – with employment structures, and with a loss of regularity of work, and increasing precarity of work, and temporariness of work? Is there something going on in that area which will say that there's less and less satisfaction in the labor process today than there was many years ago? And in what sense would we argue that the advent of a socialist economy will be an attempt to so minimize alienating labor that the alienating labor is reduced to something that is automated – artificial intelligence takes it all over, and therefore we don't need people to do that anymore – which would free up time for everybody to be able to do what they want? The idea of a socialist society – in many cases, people will say one of the big signs of a socialist society – is one where there's an abundance of free time for everybody, where people are emancipated from wants, needs, and find themselves able to live in that world that Marx described when he said, "The realm of freedom begins when the realm of necessity is left behind." That if we can take care of all the necessities, do all of the alienating jobs through automation, and reduce the alienating jobs to just a few hours a week or something of that kind, then the rest of the time we can do very much what we want, and in a way that we want it.

So alienation in the labor process, then, comes back into Marx's argument in the Grundrisse in that kind of fashion. And while the word "alienation" does not actually crop up very much in Marx's Capital, the fact of alienation is all over the place. Because Marx is talking about the way in which workers get turned into the appendage of a machine, that they move from a situation being in control of the means of production to being controlled by the means of production. Marx also talks about the alienation that attaches to the extent, the way in which the working day is set up. He talks about alienation in terms of the decision-making of the labor process. And what he does, in effect, is to actually resurrect the categories that he described in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, which is: The laborer is not in control of the value they produce, and has no right to the value they produce. They're never in control of the commodity they produce, which belongs to capital. They're not in control of the labor process, and therefore the alienation which exists there is important. And beyond that there is an alienation in relationship to nature, and the metabolic relation to nature, because we're increasingly forced to extract value, extract raw materials, from nature at an increasing rate. So all of these forms of alienation, which are described in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, come back, but they're now embedded in a scientific understanding of the accumulation of capital and how the laborer is alienated. But also, the capitalist is also alienated and forced into alienating ways of activity because the capitalist is not in control. They have been driven by abstractions. And those abstractions are the abstractions that come from the ruling ideas of the ruling class. So that is one part of the alienation story, which I think we should recognize is important in today's world and is therefore the source of much of the discontent which exists in this world. So, let me leave it there, and then we'll come back to this question in the next blog.

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project.

Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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