“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
The legacy of Marx, if history achieved what it is supposed to do effectively, which is to provide a critical memory of our collective failures as humanity; would be repudiated and anathematized by any and everyone. His ideas have been a disaster on a scale that rivals and probably eclipses the holocaust. At the present moment my interest lies in the intellectual edifice of Marxist thought rather than its practical and historical achievements. There are two major criticisms that Marx raises against capitalism in the passage. Firstly, that it leads to the coercion of the proletariat (laborers) by the bourgeois (capitalists). Secondly, it causes the alienation of laborers from the product of their labour, others and themselves. All propositions are simply untenable.
3 levels of society
Marx divided society into three levels. The base, the economic structure and the superstructure. The base is the productive forces that allow society to achieve the particular level of production it can achieve. This includes the technologies, the accumulated skills and knowledge which allow society to produce goods. The second level resting on top of the productive forces is the Economic structure. This level contains the nature of how the productive forces and elements of labour and capital are structured – the relations of production. In capitalism Marx thought that the economic structure was divided into the capitalists and the labourers. The capitalists owned the means of production and the labourers owned only their labour. Through the exploitation of labourers profit is extracted and accumulated for the capitalists with the workers getting only enough to keep them alive, barely.
The superstructure is the the non-economic institutions such as the law, state, ideas and ideology, music, art and religion which are there to legitimize the capitalistic economic structure and to keep workers under the false consciousness that this is how society ought to be ordered. In Marx’s world everything becomes an instrument used by the ruling bourgeoisie class to exert their power and maintain their positions. It is easy to see what kind of a world this leads to when everything becomes politicized and instrumental in oppressing others. I would in fact say that much of the progressive politics espoused by social justice warriors and the “woke” generation is rooted in Marxist thought. Through this Marxist lens everything becomes a tool to oppress or to colonize; any differences in outcomes between races or genders is by default and without evidence a result of systemic oppression. The existing hierarchies it is assumed add no value, have no good to offer, and therefore must be brought down.
Coerced into labour
Marx thought that capitalism led to the alienation of workers because firstly their labour is coerced and no longer voluntary. Capitalists own the means of production and labourers own only their labour. Workers are forced to enter into wage contracts with capitalists in order to survive. Although the contracts are freely entered into, Marx thought this was simply a false freedom, an illusion because workers really have no choice but to sell their labour in order to survive. If they choose not enter the capitalistic system – they will not survive and therefore they are ultimately coerced into the situation.
The problem with Marx’s analysis is that he equates the absence of choice with coercion – these ideas are no the same. Suppose I live in an area with climate and soil conditions that only permit growing apples even though I prefer oranges. I clearly have no choice between growing oranges and apples because of the environmental conditions and if I want some fruits I clearly then have “no choice” but to grow apples. However we would not say I was coerced or forced by the climate conditions to eat apples. Perhaps Marx could reply that there is no coercion because environmental conditions are not persons with free will and therefore cannot coerce. But we can imagine a scenario where I live in a small village where they only sell bread. Now in this village I would have no choice but to buy bread or else I would face starvation. According to Marx then I would be coerced into buying the bread because that is the only thing I can buy in order to survive. Clearly an absurd conclusion. Yet it is precisely analogous to the argument that Marx makes and it is therefore an untenable position. (As a side note keep in mind that human action and decision making always occurs under given constraints that cannot be changed).
Alienation under division of labour
Secondly Marx argued that workers under capitalism and its division of labour are alienated from the product of their labour. This claim assumes that workers are exploited because the product of their labour belongs completely to them and capitalists expropriate their work thereby separating and alienating workers from their labour. In my previous post (Enslaved by Capital- Why Marx thought capitalism exploits workers) I demonstrated that there is simply no exploitation of workers under capitalism and therefore they are not alienated from the product of their labour (the produced goods) because it does not belong to them. A further point Marx makes is that alienation is also conditioned by the fact that workers have no control over what they produce – rather it is the capitalists who decide and plan what to make. This point is misleading and misunderstands how decision making in capitalism occurs.
It is ultimately the consumers who decide through their patronage which capitalist will continue producing and which one will not. It is the capitalist who is best able to serve the consumers what they want, who stays in business and remains a capitalist. If a capitalist through lack of knowledge, or mismanagement invests in what consumers do not value – then they cease being a capitalist. The average number of companies that go bankrupt in the US per year is 45000. This is what makes capitalism a destructive and creative process – individuals able to innovate and add value will flourish and those that miscalculate or produce what is no longer valued will be eliminated. It is a selection process where the fittest (most competent) capitalist continues to produce.
Secondly a capitalist produces the quantity and quality they produce according to what the market dictates – the market is the aggregation of the individual choices made by consumers who are primarily the workers. There is no alienation from the products of their labour because it is workers in the form of consumers dictating what must be produced. The productive power of capitalism has allowed mass production and therefore mass consumption. Goods available to almost everyone in capitalism were only available to the elites in pre-capitalistic society – and therefore in such a society alienation of the worker from the goods they produced was possible. A good historical example is in England: during the 18th century due to the growth in industrialization and the intensification of the division of labour, the price of watches fell by over 87% over 100 years. This resulted in watches being affordable for the average working man. An astonishing feat once you also consider that watches were the most complex consumer artifacts at the time. One can easily think of other examples but the point is clear – division of labour does not alienate workers from their labour products.
Workers are alienated from the activity of labouring.
Human labour is a central idea in Marx’s thought regarding human nature. Labour is an expression of our nature and is therefore a positive activity essential to us fulfilling our nature. Capitalism, argues Marx, alienates us from the activity of labour. In other words labour becomes negative, distorted and disassociated from its natural end which is an expression of human labour- rather it becomes a means to survival alone. Once again Marx stumbles in grasping the implications of capitalism. Division of labour and specialisation under capitalism allowed for an exponentially greater efficiency and production which therefore allowed people more time to dedicate towards leisure without declines in their standard of living. Historically, the empirical evidence is clear that capitalism has greatly increased the standards of living of people- in 1820, 84% of the world lived on less than $1 a day, today that number has declined to about 25%. It has also allowed a highly complex society to develop requiring complex and diverse knowledge and skills. One could possibly argue that in such a complex society, with such diverse and various opportunities to work and labour in different fields – a greater expression of human creativity has opened up.
In a society with a low level of division of labour there is less interdependence and more independence and isolation. Individuals rely on themselves and their immediate families and therefore there is less trade and less communal bonds with others. In a highly specialized society with division of labour there is a greater interdependence and therefore greater communal bonds. Because one cannot solely rely on their own knowledge for the overwhelmingly large number of goods we need and desire. We are dependent on society as a whole to produce for us the goods we need and this necessarily means we are a more integrated society. Regardless of whether we feel more integrated.
Marx’s criticism of capitalism that it leads to coercion and alienation is unfounded. Marx conflates coercion with constraints or absence of choice. Human action and decision making always occurs under a set of constraints however that is not identical to being coerced. Division of labour does not cause alienation, but actually leads to a more deeply interdependent and integrated society.
Marx was once again deeply off the mark in his analysis of how society functions and it is then not surprising that his theories have disastrous ethically, socially and economically for societies that have attempted to implement socialism and communism.