Socialist Worker

The price of not having any control

Sally Campbell asks what's in a word: alienation

Issue No. 1836

WORK dominates our lives. Yet it is often the thing we hate the most. Why? After all, work is part of what being human is about. People have always worked on the natural world to secure the necessities of life. Work can be a pleasure too. Look at the enthusiasm with which people pursue hobbies.

But in capitalist society the experience of work is different. The socialist Karl Marx summed it up 150 years ago in a way that still rings true today: 'The worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.'

Under capitalism, argued Marx, work is 'not the satisfaction of a need, but a mere means to satisfy need outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague.'

This 'alienation' is rooted in a lack of control. We have no control over the things we produce. Workers don't decide what to produce. It is not 'theirs', either individually or collectively. We produce commodities solely to be exchanged on the marketplace in order to make a profit for the boss.

We have also lost control over the labour process. Capitalist production is based on a greater and greater division of labour-any human individuality in the process is seen as an error. Our ability to work is simply another commodity the bosses buy and we sell. Every aspect of our lives is affected by this alienation at work and the way society is organised.

Our relationships with other people are shaped by the fragmented and competitive way we live. Anyone who has travelled on the tube in the rush hour has felt this. City life brings us closer together than ever, yet we feel more isolated. The pressures of everyday life can tear families apart. Our personal relationships and sexuality are distorted. Nothing escapes the confines of the market.

The alienation rooted in capitalist production reflects itself in grotesque ways. The methods that human society has developed have created a world that now seems to be beyond our control.

Genetically modified foods, nuclear warfare and environmental crisis all threaten the world and our future, even though they are the result of human knowledge and technology that could have been used to improve our lives. One result of all this is that it tends to make people feel powerless and accept things the way they are.

This is not because we believe everything we read in the Sun, but because our daily experience is of a fragmented, competitive world, in which everything is a market relation.

There is a meat market and a car market, next to the labour market and the sex market-even my local library has been renamed 'The Ideas Store'! The 'market' appears as natural as the weather, rather than what it actually is-a human creation, fuelled every day by human labour. But this is only one side of the picture.

Labour is a commodity in the market, but in one crucial aspect it is one unlike any other. Henry Ford complained, 'Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, I get a human being?'

He was summing up the problem faced by all bosses. Workers don't just always accept things the way they are. We can fight back. In countless ways the reality of life under capitalism pushes some individuals to reject the way things are, to fight to change things.

And the way society and production are organised means that the majority of workers at some point are pushed towards resistance. Workers are living commodities, tied into an antagonistic relationship with the bosses.

This basic antagonism produces class struggle. This struggle takes place every day, in every battle over conditions and every political struggle, no matter how big or small.

Sometimes the powerlessness workers feel has the upper hand and such struggles are low key, almost hidden. But then the pressures people face can lead to wider struggles or great social upheavals.

Such large-scale collective struggle can expose the false divisions-the racism, sexism, nationalism and so on-that keep us fighting among ourselves. And it is in such struggles too that millions of people can begin to feel their collective strength and see that they have the power to make the slogan 'Another world is possible' a reality.

That world would be one in which we can really express and develop our individuality, not the fake individuality of logos and brands. It would be a world based on human need, and democracy-with workers collectively taking decisions about what we make and how we distribute it.

Only then could we start to develop relationships with each other, and with nature, based on respect and not on exploitation. And maybe we would all love Mondays too.

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Sat 1 Feb 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1836
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