Feb 052013
 

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.

-Mark Linsenmayer

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  5 Responses to “Iván Szelényi Lectures on Marx & Alienation”

Comments (5)
  1. Hi Mark, Bertell Ollman (CUNY) has written a rather deep book about alienation (and a newer one on Dialectics).
    I’m half through the Dialectics Book. Didn’t (yet) read the alienation book. You might be interested on those two. Thanks for the podcast and greetings from Switzerland.

  2. 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.

    Really though what you’re proposing is that corporate ownership take the moral high road by slashing their own profits and deliberately putting themselves out of competition. It’s easy to tell some middle manager of a cubicle farm to lighten up, it’s more difficult to tell entire developing nations to cut back on 14+ hour work days performing menial tasks.

  3. http://www.againstthegrain.org/program/588/coming-mon-81312-tues-81412
    “So what did Marx mean by alienation? In this first part of a two-part interview, Richard Lichtman explains Marx’s ideas and comments on human consciousness and potential in an era of intensifying social control.”

  4. Reformist!! (just kidding… sort of) In all seriousness though, I think looking at the issue from an individual perspective like this misses Marx’s point, which is that as scarcity becomes less and less important as technology develops, it becomes less and less necessary for people to spend the majority of their time performing alienated labor just in order to survive; and that the only reason why they have to is because of the way in which capitalism is structured. When you talk about “farming for my own food or making shoes that I can sell my neighbors and see them enjoy” that’s not Marx’s vision at all. That sounds closer to a Luddite version of communism that Marx would have opposed, or similar to what he called “primitive communism.”

  5. I’ve studied Marx in depth and I second Tim’s comments.

    The interpretations of the third and fourth types of alienation here (presumably Szelényi’s?) are rather contentious. They are certainly not found in Marx or Engels in such a clear way, rather, the text is open to quite a wide range of interpretations (at once). I’ve written an exegesis and a defence of Marx here: http://vibrantbliss.wordpress.com/2011/12/23/marx-on-alienation/

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