A common political distortion claims that socialists are lazy and want to live off other people’s labor. Never mind that this description best applies to those who do not work but live off rents, dividends, and tax breaks. A bigger problem with the idea lies in its definition of “work,” conflating labor-for-hire with labor for a purpose. In Karl Marx’s theories, work occupies a central position as a human value. We all want to work, he thought. We are not born, however, wanting to maximize shareholder value.
Marx believed that “work, at its best, is what makes us human,” X‑Files star Gillian Anderson tells us in the BBC Radio 4 animation above. “‘It fulfills our species essence,’ as he put it. Work allows us “to live, to be creative, to flourish.” Work in the industrial 19th century, however, did nothing of the kind. You only need to imagine for a moment the soot-filled factories, child labor, complete lack of worker protections and benefits to see the kinds of conditions to which Marx wrote in response. “Work,” says Anderson, in brief, “destroyed workers.”
Under capitalism, Marx maintained, workers are “alienated” from their labor, a concept that does not just mean emotionally depressed or creatively unfulfilled. As early as 1844, over twenty years before the first volume of Capital appeared, Marx would elaborate the concept of “estranged labor” in an essay of the same name:
The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity.
In an economy where things matter more than people, people become devalued things: the “realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” Workers are not only spiritually dissatisfied under capitalism, they are alienated from the fruit of their labor “to the point of starving to death.” To be an alienated worker means to be literally kept from things one needs to live.
This is the kind of work Marxists and socialists have opposed, that which grossly enriches a few at the expense of most everyone else. Whether or not we are content with Marxist solutions or feel a need for new theories, every serious student of history, economy, and culture has to come to grips with Marx’s formidable critiques. In the video above, Alain de Botton’s School of Life, a self-described “pro-Capitalist institution,” attempts to do so in ten minutes or less.
“Most people agree that we need to improve our economic system somehow,” says de Botton. “It threatens our planet through excessive consumption, distracts us with irrelevant advertising, leaves people hungry and without healthcare, and fuels unnecessary wars.” It perpetuates, in other words, profound alienation on a massive scale. Of course it does, Marx might respond. That’s exactly what the system is designed to do. Or as he actually wrote, “the only wheels which political economy sets in motion are greed, and the war amongst the greedy — competition.”