I referred in the episode to a number of lectures on Marx that helped me to put the German Ideology into perspective with Marx’s other texts and filled me in on few of the Young Hegelians that he criticized. These were from Yale’s Foundations of Modern Social Theory course by Iván Szelényi. (Get them from iTunes U.) Lectures 9-13 are all on Marx, and the series starts off with some words on Hegel, Bruno Bauer, and Feuerbach, and gets into Marx’s biography and the ways in which we’re alienated:
Watch on YouTube.
Here’s his outline re. the dimensions of alienation:
1. We’re alienated from the objects we produce (if our job, as many of them are, does not result in a finished product that you can feel a sense of authorship for)
2. We’re alienated in the act of production (if your job involves your boss micromanaging your every action)
3. We’re alienated from “species being” (our essence is to create things according to our own plans)
4. We’re alienated from other people (we treat each other as objects, as a means to achieve our economic goals)
Numbers 1-3 here are all of a piece, and address job satisfaction on an individual level. I deny the “essence” comment of #3: while it feels good to create something and call it yours, that’s not sufficient for satisfaction, and I don’t think it’s necessary either. In general, we need to feel what we’re doing is meaningful: that the end which we’re pursuing is a good one and that our work as individuals has been vital to accomplishing it. Whether or not this is possible within the confines of capitalism, or whether a communist alternative would actually help to address this need is an open question. For me, farming for my own food or making shoes that I can sell my neighbors and see them enjoy does not sound fun. What sort of work counts as meaningful is a moving target, so the society needs to be flexible enough to give people room to figure this out and pursue it.
#4 offers its own set of challenges. Certainly we don’t think that buying something from a clerk at a store is immorally using that clerk, and I don’t buy the “let’s have more community” alternative that says that I should be all chummy with the clerks; I just don’t need that much human contact and rather like the fact that I don’t have to make chit-chat with everyone I interact with. By extension, yes, employers should consider their employees as individuals with families/problems/etc. (and good bosses certainly do), but is the employment relationship itself immoral, in that employers are just using their employees regardless of how friendly they are?
Perhaps morality isn’t the right way to think about this. The question is, is an employee working 40+ hours a week in a typical job (meaning it will involve some amount alienation #1-3 or otherwise meaningless work), having some vital needs left unmet, and should we as a society be concerned with trying to address that? To me, the answers are an obvious “yes” and “yes.” Since the majority of us are in that situation, then given appropriate publicity for the issue (which is in itself a problem), then an appropriately functioning democracy should be able to address this (becoming such a democracy is also a problem). Given those problems, individual bosses can only do their best to recognize the inherent harshness of their position and mitigate this ongoing crippling of the human animal as much as possible: by not micromanaging, by offering flexibility wherever possible, and by shaping jobs to give individuals maximum ownership over projects/products and the satisfaction that goes this. It won’t make up for the fundamental fucked-up nature of the relationship, but it’ll help.