Monday, November 20, 2017

Marx on alienation and freedom - summary

     To Marx, the pursuit of profit under capitalism became associated with specialization (a result of the division of labor) .  As a result, workers lose the satisfaction from work that used to exist when most workers were craftspeople.  Since the worker does not see the result of his or her own labor, he or she loses connection with it.  This loss of psychological satisfaction from work is one meaning of what Marx called alienation.  A worker becomes alienated from his or her own labor.
     In addition, under capitalism, workers are totally dependent on capitalists in order to make a living.  It is much easier for the capitalist to withdraw the capital from the worker than it is for the worker to withdraw the labor from the capitalist.  This means that the balance of power in the relation between the capitalist and the worker is always with the capitalist.  Workers are treated as mere commodities. Companies are totally authoritarian.  This feeling of having one’s life totally under the control of others is another meaning of “alienation”. 
     To Marx, capitalism increased the alienation of workers.  But rather than show their anger in revolt, workers repressed their anger and shifted into other activities.  One is the drinking of large amounts of alcohol.  Another, to Marx, was religious practice and ritual.  This is the origin of Marx’s famous line:  “religion is the opiate of the masses”. Today, he might substitute the word television! Leadership would be needed to mobilize the alienated workers and channel their energies into political action in order to change the conditions of their lives.

     Freedom, to Marx, was also defined differently from the view propounded in Chapter 2.  That view of freedom is “freedom from government action”. I am free as long as government does not restrict me from doing as I wish. Marx accepted this but add to it that freedom also requires empowerment
     Let us take an example.  An American woman of Mexican descent works in a sweatshop in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles.  The pay is low, the work is long and hard, and the working conditions are terrible.  The woman works there because, with her personal background and with discrimination against women and against people of Mexican ancestry, she can find nothing better and she needs the money.  Is this woman free?  Traditional American thinking would answer yes; she is free because no government policy is preventing her from leaving this bad job. She is there by her own choice. Marx would answer no; she is not free because she is involuntarily restricted from being able to act in the world so as to meet her personal needs.  She is not empowered.

For more on Karl Marx and Marxism: