Alienation from Work

My friend Dr. Greg Scorzo interviewed me a couple weeks ago for his Culture on the Offensive podcast series, and he used my essay Liberalism Needs a Housecleaning as a discussion springboard. I greatly enjoy talking with Greg, and I hate to let him down, which I feel I might have done right off the bat. Why did I open my essay with, in particular, a comment about Adam Smith and Marx? If I remember correctly, I replied that I valued their observations, Smith’s in particular, over any prescriptions they made or might be derived from them, but I didn’t go into detail. I didn’t think even to emphasize that while I’m more of a philosophical conservative, my point wasn’t to discount Marx but merely to confess my bias.

With the benefit of time to ponder, here’s what I wish I’d said.

I was the part-time CEO of a software-development and ebook-publishing C corporation for nineteen years, and I have a huge respect for the power of the free market, though the lessons I learned were hard, and I don’t present myself as a business expert or success, by any means. Smith challenged the old protectionist, mercantilist economic model that supported both nationalism and colonialism, and the older I get, the more keenly I’m interested in freedom and cross-cultural exchange. The idea of cultural appropriation and the resulting mindset of culture-hoarding is repugnant to me, because it obscures the real issues with cultural hegemony, namely lack of respect, misrepresentation of a culture, lying about your association with a culture, and failure to acknowledge and where possible pay your debts to individuals who taught you their culture, an issue which may or may not be covered by appeal to trademark and copyright law. If you engage a culture with discipline and respect and honesty, then I see no problem taking inspiration from it. I do not think cultural transmission should be essentialized to particular ethnic groups. My hot take is that cultures are open-source, a position that makes the culture-appropriation cops howl. I stand by it, with qualification. Don’t those who live the culture best represent it? Yes, exactly, and those are often the indigenous people, but not always. A close family friend, who is white, studied the art of Pacific Northwest mask-masking under local tribal elders, who were eager to teach him. A young member of the tribe criticized him for appropriating the art of his people, to which he replied, “Well, I don’t see you doing it.” Art and commerce thrive on open trade, and there’s no sense protecting a tradition to extinction.

As for Marx, he is largely regarded as the father of brutal, failed communism, and that’s a tedious debate. Among his very poignant observations, there was a little prescriptivism I see as misguided. I read a few of his lines as too impatient for change, against democracy, and his perspective is as much aesthetic and political as scientific, whatever its scientific pretentions. Marxists rightly point out that many of them are not against regulated markets or democracy, but it’s clear some of the worst authoritarian projects in history also lay claim to his tradition. I am leery of revolutionary sentiment over incrementalism in Western democracies, and of social-constructivist arguments that precede or ignore scientific data. My bias is, as I’ve said, toward science, neo-Platonism, and Taoism. (I’m a fan of Plato’s philosophy, but not of his political recommendations.)

However, I’m not a strong capitalist, certainly not a laissez-faire one. I got into business for a very Marxian reason: to avoid being alienated from my labor. This remains one of the serious problems with capitalism that Marx pointed out: our work tends to become commodified under capitalism, and stripped of our very personal contributions to it. I don’t think this gets emphasized enough. Most people who fancy themselves capitalists are also the ones who fight hardest to avoid being alienated from their labor. My very conservative father-in-law learned woodworking, construction, welding, and wiring in order to build his own houses and cabinetry and boat trailers. He had a long career as a university maintenance engineer. And it strikes me he did all this so that he might surround himself with the fruits of his labor, what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins might call an expression of the extended phenotype (nod to Jonathan Tweet for making the connection). He wanted to impress himself on his environment, to celebrate his individuality and share his gifts with other people to the fullest extent possible. And I think he did, and I don’t think that achievement was entirely consonant with his politics.

His is a special case. The normal lot of people under capitalism is still exhaustion as anonymous laborers in warehouses and factories or bureaucracies, and with constant money insecurity. I think a lot of liberals are liberals, especially those in the arts, to escape the dehumanizing, commodifying pressures of capitalism.

On the other hand, well managed capitalism under representative democracy with a strong socialist component strikes me as the best deal for promoting freedom, and, paradoxically, fighting alienation from our labor. And “alienation from labor” is really an abstraction that’s more a mindset than a quantifiable thing. From a certain point of view, the free market is magic that potentiates and amplifies your agency in the world and your self-exploration. It takes your specialization as a longshoreman or widget maker or surgeon and returns to you the product of many hands, including wondrous technology that you can use to express yourself. Some people take rightful pride in their consumer goods as fruits of their hard work.

Most of these are hackneyed observations, I know, and maybe it’s best I didn’t make them in my discussion with Greg, but I am starting to think the issue of alienation from one’s labor needs to be promoted in these kinds of discussions. I’ve had a lot of different jobs in the past forty years, some liberating and some soul-crushing. I’ll no doubt have more to say about this.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of ElectricStory.com.
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