Overcoming Alienation - a Talk

By Richard Abernethy

A presentation given at the Anarchist Bookfair, London, November 2007

I would like to start by looking at how the great philosopher Hegel analysed alienated labour in early industrial capitalism, in words which are over 200 years old, but still very relevant:

(Quotations from Hegel are from the Jena Lectures on the Philosophy of Spirit, 1803-1806).

“In the machine, Man terminates his own formal activity and lets it do all the work for him… The more mechanical labour becomes, the less value it has and the more he has to work in this manner.”

“Man no longer acquires by working what he needs, nor does he any longer need what he has produced… His labour becomes formal, abstract, universal, discrete; he restricts himself to working to satisfy one of his own needs and exchanges the product of his labour for what is necessary for the satisfaction of his other needs.”

“The satisfaction of needs is a system of universal dependence of everyone on each other”.

“There disappears for everyone all sense of security and certainty that his individual labour is immediately adequate to his needs.”

“Labour becomes more and more dead absolutely, it becomes mechanical work. The skill of the individual worker becomes all the more limited, to an infinite degree, and the consciousness of the factory worker is degraded to the ultimate state of dullness”.

   I would disagree with Hegel on that last point. In a moment we are going to hear from some workers who were anything but dull.

“A distant transaction can suddenly impede the work of a whole class of people, who satisfy their needs with it; and thus render their labour superfluous and useless.”

Hegel referred to commodity-producing society as “a vast system of solidarity and mutual dependence, a life of the dead with its own momentum; this system moves hither and thither blindly and primitively in its agitation and, like a wild animal, demands constant strict control and restraint”.

“The strength of the self consists of its rich comprehensiveness; this is lost.”

“A multitude is condemned to a brutal and stupefying condition in labour and poverty, so that others might amass wealth.”

“Currency must be honoured, but family, welfare, life etc. may all perish.”

“Masses of the population are condemned to labour in factories, manufacturing works, mines etc.; work which is totally stupefying, unhealthy, insecure and faculty-stunting.”

   Now, let’s jump from Hegel writing at the dawn of the nineteenth century, to the words of two Marxist-Humanist workers who experienced production line labour in the twentieth century.

   In “Indignant Heart”, Charles Denby describes the introduction of automation at Chrysler in Detroit in 1956:

“With the time-study, it was designed to make you work every second of every hour. You worked there, grinding your life away. What it actually meant was that you were coordinating the movements of your body to match that of the machines and the speed of the line. The machines were running the workers.
“A line I was working on moved so fast that they had a buzzer sound every time the line moved. When that buzzer sounded, you’d better move and move fast, or else you could get hurt bad. Behind me, just a few feet away, there was a water fountain. I wanted a swallow of that water so bad, and I thought maybe, if I worked as fast as I could in between the buzzer sounding, that I’d be able to jump back and get a drink of water. But no matter how much I tried, I never could get it. That swallow of water was so close, but it was like being on a desert.”

   Felix Martin wrote:
“Marx writes of two types of labour: creative labour, which combines one’s muscles with one’s mind; and alienated labour, which is forced labour, any kind of labour just to live, doing just what you are told to do until you could do it in your sleep, without thinking, just like a machine. Do you know what this kind of labour does to your nervous system and the muscular system?
“If you let your mind think only about this kind of work, it would destroy the mind. At General Motors, I kept my mind on things other than work. I studied philosophy, Hegel, Marx and Raya Dunayevskaya. I knew that this system of production had to be destroyed or it would destroy the human mind.”

   The nature of work in Britain and similar advanced capitalist countries has changed considerably during our lifetimes. Production line jobs involving endless repetition of a few physical operations have become rare. Such jobs have either been fully automated to the extent that they are done entirely by machine, or they have been shifted across the globe to New Industrialised Countries where wages are a fraction of what they are here.
The industrial job as it was known to previous generations has been replaced by other kinds of employment.

  There is a category of skilled jobs, people who maintain and utilise the technology.
One cause of stress here is being expected to absorb lots of technical information, rapidly.

   Many jobs still involve a high degree of repetitive monotony, but they also involve a certain amount of human interaction, like talking to customers. Think of baristas and waiters. Unlike a machine, a human being can cope with varied and complex situations and respond to unexpected events.

   Alienated labour has not gone away, it takes new forms. One example is work in call centres, where people have a script that they are required to follow strictly at all times.

   A different experience of alienation is when a firm or organisation restructures or downsizes or out-sources its operations and workers find themselves made redundant, or have to reapply for their own jobs, or are transferred to another employer. Even people who enjoy their work suddenly find themselves in a situation of powerlessness and uncertainty. It’s that sense of your life being affected by forces beyond your control.

   Let’s turn now to the question of what non-alienated work might be like, in a post-capitalist society. What kind of work should people do?

   Firstly (following Marx) I would reject the idea that work can be entirely abolished. Human beings in any conceivable society will need to work upon the materials provided by nature to product the necessities and amenities of life (use values). Even if the abolition of work were possible, I would argue that it would not be desirable. Without work, people would miss a sense of purpose and achievement, the satisfaction of developing skills and rising to challenges. Even our relaxation would be devalued, if we had nothing to relax from.

   In the Grundrisse, Marx wrote:
“Adam Smith conceives labour to be a curse. To him, ‘rest’ appears as the adequate state, as identical with ‘liberty’ and ‘happiness’… Certainly, the volume of labour itself appears to be externally determined by the aim to be attained… But Smith has no inkling that the overcoming of these obstacles is in itself a manifestation of freedom – and moreover, that the external aims are stripped of their character as merely external natural necessity and become posited as aims which only the individual himself posits, that they are therefore posited as self-realisation, objectification of the subject, and thus real freedom, whose action is precisely work… For work to become travail attractif, to be the realisation of the individual, in no way implies that work is pure fun, pure amusement, as in Fourier’s childishly naïve conception. Really free work, e.g. the composition of music, is also the most damnably difficult, demanding the most intensive effort.”

   In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx expresses a somewhat different view, contrasting the realm of necessity with the realm of freedom:
“The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends: it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production. This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time. Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialised man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”

   In her classic book “Marxism and Freedom”, first published 50 years ago, Raya Dunayevskaya argued the need for a far-reaching transformation of human relations:

‘“Not until the transcendence of this mediation (abolition of private property) which is nevertheless a necessary presupposition does there arise positive Humanism, beginning from itself’, said Marx. In a word, another transcendence, after the abolition of private property, is needed to achieve a truly new, human society which differs from private property not alone as an “economic system”, but as a different way of life altogether. It is as free individuals developing all their natural and acquired talents that we first leap from what Marx called the pre-history of humanity into its true history, the “leap from necessity to freedom”’.

“For Marx, as for us today, nothing short of a philosophy, a total outlook – which Marx first called not ‘Communism’ but ‘Humanism’ – can answer the manifold needs of the proletariat. Man will not again be alienated. He will not again be fragmented. He must again become whole with the reunification of mental and manual labour in the living worker whose self-activity will first then develop all his human potentialities: ‘Communism is the necessary form and the energetic principle of the immediate future, but communism is not as such the goal of human development, the form of human activity.’”