In the “Estranged Labour”, Marx argues that capitalism treats workers as slaves, their bodies used as mere machines of production, an activity in which they have no say. As such their human potential is denied and they are kept in their primal, animalistic state. As a solution, he proposes material abundance, the abolition of bourgeois property relations, reduced working time and simplified work. To an extent, these propositions have been implemented in the so called developed western societies of the 21st century where workers are treated far more humanely than they were in Marx’s time – they work for an average of eight hours a day, have paid holidays, superannuation founds, etc. As such, they are left with a decent amount of free time, which in Marx’s view is a time to exercise their humanity, to discover the skills and abilities that differentiate them from animals. However, what Marx does not address in his writing is that the greatest problem of capitalism is that it permeates all spheres of human life, not just the time spent at work.
The very concept of “free time” seems to be a myth given that even our “free time” is regimented. Under capitalism, as argued by the University of Sydney Professor Adam Morton, state organizes space in our everyday life through the streets we walk, the monuments we visit, and the places where we meet. In other words, we are conditioned to spend our free time in a particular way, perhaps shopping for products we are told we need, eating in restaurants we are told to like, spending our “free time” in a gym to chase that ideal body we are made to desire. In this system even our identity is a commodity, defined through the other’s gaze and evaluated by others. As noted by British poet Kate Tempest, capitalism has turned happiness into a brand.
Furthermore, in the “developed” western societies a number of middle class workers do indeed have jobs in which they are creatively invested, jobs they do not perform as mere machines. But these jobs that they are freely and joyously invested in are the kinds of jobs that are valued by the capitalist system – that are made desirable by this system. Workers are, in other words, educated and conditioned to seek those jobs and to find the joy and purpose in engaging in them (one example that comes to mind are very well paid and creatively satisfying jobs in marketing and design agencies). The workers’ aspirations are contaminated by capitalist values and, as a result, they support and perpetuate the system that covertly enslaves them (under the pretense of giving them unprecedented freedom).
Another solution that Marx envisioned was simplified work, a work that would be less labour intensive. This again is something that the modern progress has achieved; today most of the strenuous manual work is done by machines and digital systems. This, however, has not given us more “free time”. Instead, we are now expected to do more and do it faster, the capitalist system has put new kind of demands and stresses on the workers. What is more we are now fast approaching the robotic era, an age when most of the work (perhaps even intellectual kind of work such as teaching) will be done by robots making humans entirely redundant. Will this leave us more time to exercise our unique human potential? Will it allow us to clarify what it is to be human; what is it that makes us unique and different from robots? Perhaps there is some opportunity for such a realization but this replacement of humans with the robots has also made us aware of the joys that one can experience in manual and even mindless labour; joys that Marx, as it seems to me, has totally disregarded (interestingly as someone who has never himself been engaged in any sort of labour).
What is more, Marx had disregarded and disvalued those who find satisfaction in performing manual, machine-like, repetitive labour; people who find joy in this simplicity rather than in the intellectual, philosophical or creative kind of work. Very much like Nietzsche, Marx ridicules such people seeing them as lesser kinds of humans, a social waste. This attitude that both Marx and Nietzsche exercise gives rise to prejudices we direct towards the individuals who work in intellectually less demanding jobs such as garbage collectors, retailers, etc. This attitude gives us a license to consider ourselves superior to these people. So while he was trying to level out the society and make everyone equal, Marx has actually isolated a particular part of this society, the part that finds contentment in “lesser” aspirations.
Marx (like Hegel) sees identity as self-creation and demands from the modern individuals to use their freedom and create themselves as something better than they initially are. Political systems should enable everyone to rise up, to exercise their full potential. But as they champion freedom and exercise of this “full potential”, these systems also impose pressure on individuals. Marx, as I have noted above, wants the workers to behave in a particular way, to aspire towards certain kinds of achievements. And this they should all homogeneously desire, with no exception. As such, Marx does not really liberate the workers, even though he claims to do so.
Result of this expectation that we should become more and better than we are is a constant discontent which is, I would argue, the cause of mental health issues such as depression that we are today dealing with. In modernity we are told that we are free and thus have an unprecedented opportunity and an obligation to exceed, to do well. If we do not do well, we have wasted our human potential. And what is more, if we do not do well we have no one to blame but ourselves. The result is frustration and self-loathing. Under such a pressure our freedom is taken away from us because we have no right to be who we are or to have only small aspirations. Those who do have them are ridiculed and socially devalued, ostracized. The marketing, the God of capitalism thrives from this “dream chasing”, selling the progress as a brand. Today even the education is a market good, students the consumers. As such being educated is not really a matter of choice but something that we should do if we want to be socially valued. It is a decision that is a result of the “tyranny of the majority” to use de Tocqueville’s term and marketing uses this tyranny very cleverly to its advantage. “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, singular power of self-respect,” says Joan Didion noticing that the freedom, if anywhere, lies in our ability to resist social expectations.
Marx critiques antagonistic nature of capitalism (i.e. antagonism between the capitalist and the workers) but he also salutes its intrinsically dynamic nature; its progressive, future-orientated character. But I would argue that capitalism is the least flexible and dynamic of all the systems. Yes it is insatiable and constantly progressive but this progress happens within the firmly set and invisible (hidden) parameters. The changes are indded constantly implemented but only as a way to preserve the system, to satisfy the voters (the customers) who demand the change and convince them that their interests are being catered for. It seems to me that Hegel was right when he proclaimed “the end of history” claiming that in modernity there will be no more revolutions. He claimed that this is because of the inherent dynamism of the modern political system that is internally flexible and able to cater for requested changes. But the real reason why the revolutions have ceased to exist, in my view, is because people have come to think of themselves as fortunate, as having it well or at least as good as it gets.
With its glitter and gloss, capitalism is a charming and seductive system which we all in part enjoy and support. It wets and satisfies our appetite making us dependent on certain things that it provides, thus, making sure we don’t pay attention to its diabolical nature. As we participate in the system and benefit from what it gives us, we become complacent; we feed and strengthen it.
The complexity and durability of this system has been brought to my attention recently when young British poet Kate Tempest participated on the Australia’s TV show “ABC Q&A” and took an opportunity to speak about the tyrannical nature of capitalism, describing it as “acceptable diabolical regime” and proclaiming it as the greatest of all evils (and that amongst the speakers such as Alyan Hirshi Ali who spoke about radicalism and war on terror). “We are in the midst of the barbarous time and it’s greed that is at the root of it,” she said arguing that the capitalism is the most terrible barbarism because it is the hardest one to detect. But, as soon as she finished her insightful and inspiring thought (or as some described it, as soon as she “dropped a truth bomb”), she was lynched on social media for being a hypocrite – biting the hand that feeds her. Kate after all lives of selling her books on the market that she criticizes. And that brings me back to the fact that we all benefit from the capitalism and thus enable it. And as such we are accused as hypocritical as soon as we try to debunk it. What is more, there is no one single person, not even a group that we could direct our condemnation towards; that we could attack and throw from the throne. Perhaps this is why there are no revolutions in modernity as envisioned by Hegel for who do we revolt against? It would have to be against our own selves.
TEXT: Ira Ferris
[image credit: public art by Steve Lambert]