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WORK WITHOUT ALIENATION? March 6, 2013

Posted by wmmbb in Social Environment, US Politics.
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The United States, which by its own exertion makes its the specimen for examination under the laboratory slide, is a land of overriding ideologies, since its inception as a democracy institutionalized in the form of the classical architecture of slavery.

The ideologies of the ruling classes, with their regional settlement histories, were given common expression in the Constitution seen through a lens of the Enlightenment and Common Law. As it happened a judge had declared that slavery had no standing in England, possibly as much a source of friction as imperial corporate profiteering. Yet the political and religious emigrants from Europe, including England, brought over to the distant shore a democratic tradition that was mostly unwanted in their homelands, and one hopes continues if forced into an subterranean existence by the repression and threats from the Obama Administration, which was going to be a government of dreams but which has transmogrified into a security state nightmare at home and drone murders and perpetual war abroad.

Now it is not clear to identify when precisely when such perpetual hostilities began, let alone to imagine when they might finally cease. Thus to imprison “to the end of hostilities” is to engage in sadistic terrorism. Despite the murder of their putative leader – do small decentralized organizations have an executive and do they need them? – and in the graphic parlance of chich’e, the expenditure of blood and treasure, fear stalks the land of the free. The accounting has been on both counts of blood and treasure has been somewhat wonky. However, war is good for profits, and for its’ participants it is the ultimate alienation.

Nowadays, unlike during the Cold War, the stock puppets of the ruling interests, probably then as now, Wall Street and the international bankers and fossil fuel, eco-cide criminals, are not beating the drum against the bloke who was holed up in British Library in London in mid-Nineteenth Century. Things have changed since the Cold War and the inquisition of  HUAC: “Are you now, or have you ever been a member  of, or affiliated with the Communist Party?” So why is Marx now so relevant?

Karl Marx and the semantics of a

(Karl Marx (1818-1883) on 100 Mark 1975 Banknote from East Germany. (Credit: iStock/GeorgiosArt)) {via Salon.com}

Ross Douthat in The New York Times:

IMAGINE, as 19th-century utopians often did, a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work — a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.

If such a utopia were possible, one might expect that it would be achieved first among the upper classes, and then gradually spread down the social ladder. First the wealthy would work shorter hours, then the middle class, and finally even high school dropouts would be able to sleep late and take four-day weekends and choose their own adventures — “to hunt in the morning,” as Karl Marx once prophesied, “fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner …”

Yet the decline of work isn’t actually some wild Marxist scenario. It’s a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn’t unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can’t find it. It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.

Of course, nobody is hailing this trend as the sign of civilizational progress. Instead, the decline in blue-collar work is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms — on the left as the economy’s failure to supply good-paying jobs, and on the right as a depressing sign that government dependency is killing the American work ethic.

The Romney Tape of his address to rich backers was of interest because it highlighted the resentment of those who work long hours against those that do not work at all. Who knows it may be a psychological undergirding for the politics of Austerity – as punishment for the indolent. So much for the inherent contradictions of capitalism.

Apparently, this brought aresponse from sociologist, Peter Farce, The Politics of Getting a Life:

Work in a capitalist society is a conflicted and contradictory phenomenon, never more so than in hard times. We simultaneously work not enough and too much; a labor famine for some means feast for others. The United States has allegedly been in economic “recovery” for over two years, and yet 15 million people cannot find work, or cannot find as much work as they say they would like. At the same time, up to two thirds of workers report in surveys that they would like to work fewer hours than they do now, even if doing so would require a loss of income. The pain of unemployment is well-documented, but the pain of the employed only occasionally sees the light, whether it’s Amazon warehouse employees working at a breakneck pace in sweltering heat, or Foxconn workers risking injury and death to build hip electronics for Apple.

When work is scarce, political horizons tend to narrow, as critiques of the quality of work give way to the desperate search for work of any kind. And work, of any kind, seems to be all that politicians can offer; right and left differ only on who is to blame for the scarcity of it. Go to the web site of the Barack Obama campaign, and you will be told at the top of the “Issues” page that “The President is taking aggressive steps to put Americans back to work and create an economy where hard work pays and responsibility is rewarded.” Likewise the site of the AFL-CIO labor federation, where a man in overalls grins behind the words “work connects us all”. This is how the virtuous working class appears in the liberal imagination: hard-working, responsible, defined, and redeemed by work, but failed by an economy that cannot create the necessary wage labor into which this responsibility can be invested.

When the Right rejects this romanticism of workers as ascetic toilers, it is only to better shift the blame for a weak economy from capital to labor. University of Chicago economist and sometime New York Times contributor Casey Mulligan tried to define the recession out of existence by insisting that collapsing employment reflected only a diminished desire to work, rather than a shortfall in demand. Meanwhile, the more culturally-minded reactionaries fret about the waning of the work ethic as a herald of civilizational decline. Charles Murray, who made his name promoting pseudoscientific accounts of the shiftlessness and mental inferiority of African-Americans, has recently returned with dire warnings about the decay of the white working class. White men, he says, have lost their “industriousness,” as demonstrated by declining labor force participation rates and shorter average work weeks among the employed.

Good to know that slavery is not forgotten, least of all by the righteous. The critics as usual provide at best qualified charity to spokesman for the Upper Class. What was Marx on about?

According to Evan Burger:

For Marx, to be human is to work. Following Hegel, he argues that freely and intentionally altering the physical world we find ourselves in is quintessentially human. In a passage that could be called the universalization of the Protestant work ethic and the essentialization of the human, among other epithets, Marx declares that “free, conscious activity is man’s species-character.” In other words, humanity subsists in unalienated labor.

The problem, for Marx, is that labor in its form as wage labor is necessarily estranged labor: shortly after the line quoted above, he writes that, “in degrading spontaneous activity, free activity, to a means, estranged labor makes man’s species life a means to his physical existence.”

Marx’s problem with living under capitalism is not, as some might understand Frase to be saying, too much work. Rather, it is the fact that work is something totally foreign to one’s existence; that too many people must spend 40 hours (or more) every week doing something stupid and meaningless simply to earn enough to do what we actually want to do.

When Frase, a better reader of Marx than I could hope to be, uses the term “work” he means wage labor, rather than the Marxian definition of free, productive activity. But the semantic simplification that he undertakes is not a merely theoretical question — rather, it has immense pragmatic consequences for the struggle towards a better world.

The reserve army of the unemployed has been consigned to the Nineteenth Century. And drones are symptomatic of the robotization or perpetual warfare, which are to be concealed by secrecy rather than filtered through the public relations process. Still one images there are problems because how can the many be distracted by performing their patriotic duty to go shopping when they have little or no discretionary income?

At a time when inalienable rights are been discarded as inconvenient to perpetual war, it would be a supreme irony should unaliened labor be realized within the economic framework.

When George W Bush as the time of the 911 attacks set off on the campaign of international revenge and suggested people go shopping, he might have done well apparently to have understood what that meant, even in Disneyland:

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