Monday, 22 December 2008

The Alienation of Labour

In a review of “The Russian Revolution in retreat, 1920-24: Soviet workers and the new communist elite” by Simon Pirani, Hillel Ticktin, in Weekly Worker 750, refers to the alienation of Labour in terms of the alienation of the surplus product of Labour. This is a common use of the term alienation of Labour, but I believe it to be wrong. It is important, because the concept of the alienation of Labour lies at the heart of Marxist views on the nature of class society, and of the potential of a future Communist society. So, although I have written to the WW taking up this issue, I am replicating that here, because of the importance I believe this issue has for Marxists, and how we go about creating the future society.

I want to deal with this issue of the alienation of the surplus product by dealing initially with that in terms of our current society i.e. Capitalist society, because that is consistent with the Marxist method, to look at concepts within their specificity. The truth is always concrete. That means to look at this product in its specifically capitalist form – surplus value. I want to argue that what is alienated from Labour, from the worker, is not Surplus Value, and, therefore, not the Surplus product, but is the Use Value that the worker embodies in the product, and specifically under Capitalism that means in the Commodity. I wish also to argue that because this is the true nature of alienation it cannot end simply with the ending of Capitalism or class society. It can only fully end with the establishment of the higher stage of Communist society.

Something can only be alienated if it was originally a part of the thing from which it is alienated. For Surplus Value to be alienated from Labour it is then necessary for it to have been a part of Labour. But, quite clearly that is not the case. Marx tells us that Labour – the worker – sells not his Labour, but his Labour Power. In doing so Marx tells us that what the worker does is to give up something, which does not have Use Value to him, but which does possess an Exchange Value. What does not have Use Value for the worker DOES have Use Value for the capitalist. The Capitalist does not buy Labour Power for its Exchange Value, but for its Use Value, its ability to create new value, and thereby the potential of creating surplus value. The point is that the Use Value of Labour-Power is its ability to do precisely that to create new, and, therefore, surplus value, but it is a Use Value only for the Capitalist NOT for the worker. Labour-power is a Use value owned by the worker, and in the process of its sale the worker alienates it from himself, separates it from him. He does not alienate an Exchange Value, but receives an Exchange Value in the form of wages in return for the sale of his Use Value.

Moreover, what the worker sells to the Capitalist in selling his labour-power is that Use Value. The worker does not sell the Capitalist a particular amount of Exchange Value. It would make no sense for an Exchange Value to be exchanged for the same Exchange Value. What is exchanged in every commercial exchange is an Exchange Value for a Use Value. At the point of exchange Use values cease being Use values for those that possess them, and become Exchange Values, and instantaneously become Use Values for those that buy them. But Surplus Value, is Surplus Exchange Value. Consequently, because what the worker gives up to the Capitalist in return for a given quantity of Exchange Value i.e. wages, is not Exchange Value, but Use Value, the worker cannot have given up, alienated from himself, that Exchange Value and certainly not Surplus Exchange Value. What he has alienated from himself is a given quantity of Use Value, just as what the Capitalist has alienated from himself – in the form of wages paid to the worker - is a given quantity of Use Value that for him had no Use Value, but did have Exchange Value.

This is immensely important. At one time I was self-employed. Consequently, I did have control over the surplus value created. Yet, I would argue that my Labour was still alienated. I would argue that it was alienated because the product of my Labour was alienated to some other in the process of commercial exchange. Not to a Capitalist, but to the consumer who to me was an anonymous other – even if in reality I knew and met with that other. They had no link to me other than that of pure cash nexus. As far as I was concerned, then, my interest was not in Labour as an end in itself, but still purely as a means to an end. My interest like that of a worker working for a capitalist remained to give up as little time and effort as possible in return for as much money as possible. We should not assume then that just because workers become the owners of the means of production that the alienation of their labour ceases. It will not. It can only cease when every individual ceases to see themselves as an individual and instead sees themselves as simply a part of a collective whole. When, therefore, the product of their Labour is not alienated to some other, but is simply consumed by what each views as part of itself, and itself a part of.

Marx says that Labour is not the only source of Value, by which he means Use Value. Nature also is a source of value. And this Value is alienated from Nature too. The consequence of the alienation of labour is the corruption of Labour, and therefore, the corruption of man. The consequence of the alienation from Nature is the corruption of Nature, and the environmental consequences we see from it. But, in fact, the alienation of Nature is the product itself of the alienation of Man from Nature. Just as the alienation of Labour can only end with the ending of the alienation of Man from Man, so can the ending of the alienation of Nature only end with the ending of the alienation of Man from Nature. The Bhagavad Ghita actually sums it up within a different context.

“The dewdrop slips into the shining sea.”

By which it means I believe that everything is part of a single whole, and yet parts such as the dewdrop can appear to and for a time do have an independent existence. The dewdrop here meaning the human ego, id, soul or whatever that achieves Nirvhana when it recognises its unity with that whole, and returns to it.

If instead of Capitalist production we thing of other forms of class society we can see the point more clearly. In slave society the slave does not give up his surplus product, he gives up all his product, and the slave owner gives back means of subsistence. Actually that is true of Capitalism too. The conditions under which the slave alienates his Labour leads to him having even less regard for his labour as labour than does the wage-slave. But, the situation in respect of the Peasant is even more revealing. The peasant who produces for his own subsistence does not alienate his Labour in respect of this production. The peasant consumes the product of his Labour. But, under some kind of Corvee system, whereby the peasant works for part of the week on the Landlord’s land that is no longer the case. The peasant will have every reason to work much less hard during this period, to work more carelessly, and so on. Even where the Peasant pays the Landlord in kind with a proportion of his production, the peasant will have an incentive in ensuring that the best of his product is consumed by himself and his family, and the poorer quality produce is handed over to the Landlord.

Compare this with two other situations. Under primitive Communism there could be no alienation of Labour, because not only Labour is a collective act, but so is consumption. Just as with the peasant producing for himself and his family, the individual hunter-gatherer acting as part of a collective effort has reason to exert himself as much as everyone else to hunt as effectively as possible, because how much, and what quality of food is available to him and his family is as dependent upon that as is that of everyone else that will collectively consume the product. Moreover, this form of society, precisely because of its collective production and consumption creates within the mind of each that they are part of the whole. Or take the work done by a Father or Mother to make something for their children. Such Labour is not seen as a burden but a labour of love. When the product is given to the child it is not alienated, because the parent makes no distinction in making the thing for themselves or for the child. Of course, there is a condition here that the parent DOES have such a bond of love with the child. If no such bond exists then instead of the work being a labour of love, it becomes just as much an inconvenience a use of their time as any other act of labour performed for any one else.

And this is the point it is this separation of man from Man, not the worker from the means of production which results in the alienation of labour. For that reason it cannot be ended simply by the worker gaining ownership of the means of production, but only by Man once again being reunited with Man. That is not something, which some State Plan can achieve, it is only something which can grow up over a considerable period of time in the relations of free Men one with another. There is no reason that workers at a Tractor factory should feel any less alienated from the tractors they produce just because the instruction they receive from the Central Planning authority of how many to produce was arrived at democratically, than if it was a bureaucratic dictat, or simply the requirement of a Capitalist Manager. The central planning decision is too remote from their actual involvement in any democratic procedure for that to be the case. The labour of workers in a Co-operative begin as just as much alienated as in any capitalist enterprise, precisely because they are alienating the product of their labour to a market. But, there is a difference. Now their success depends upon the quality as well as the price of the goods they produce. The market itself begins to discipline the workers, but in a way it never can when they sell their labour-power to a capitalist. But, in developing personal links with other co-operatives that begins to change organically. They are no longer producing for some anonymous other, but increasingly for what becomes an organic part of their own production and consumption not mediated by market relations, but by personal relations. It is another reason that I believe that it is important for workers here and now to establish co-operatives, so that on the back of their ownership of the means of production they can gain greater freedom, and begin that process of entering into free voluntary agreements with others, to begin integrating their activities, so that increasingly they see that what they produce is not some alien thing, but a product of their Labour destined for consumption by others who they increasingly see as part of their own collectivity. Only on that basis can the idiocies of planning – which would arise with a democratically formulated central plan as much as a bureaucratically formulated central plan, be avoided, and a real planning for need be developed.


Anonymous said...

Im new to this site, so I tend to read the new stuff first and make my way back. Hence the belated comment to this article.

“Something can only be alienated if it was originally a part of the thing from which it is alienated”

By creating surplus value, the worker has had to work extra hours for this, so he has given something up in this. ( ie Value and all that entails, socially and politically.) By your definition the surplus value is alienated from the worker.

I would agree that alienation can only be entirely eliminated by the higher stage of communism but I tend to think alienation extends beyond the parameters you set.

Boffy said...

No, my definition is that what the worker alienates from himself is his Labour-power, and that Labour-power is a Use Value. In return he recieves an exchange Value - wages. This is the posiiton Marx states in Capital, in fact all exchanges of commodities he says are of this form.

It is not just in the hours that the worker produces Surplus Value that the worker has given something up. He has given something up in the TOTAL hours he has worked i.e. he has given up his Labour Power during the whole of that period. As Marx says, this Labour Power is a commodity, and like all commodities has an Exchange Value - wages. That Exchange Value is determined as for all commodities by the Labour-time required for its production i.e. the time required to produce workers, their requirement for food, shelter, clothing etc. Without this understanding we end up with the Smithian concepts of Exchange Value, which places us in an impossible ckicken and egg situation in trying to explain the origin of Surplus Value.

You'd have to elaborate on how far alienation extends beyond the parameters set here for me to be able to comment. I think in fact the parameters I have set here are in fact much wider than those usually adopted by the Left, which is why they have a utopian view of how that alienation can simply be ended with the ending of the appropriation of the surplus product by Capitalists or other exploitative classes.

Anonymous said...

I understand your concept of the worker giving up his labour power and agree with your analysis. I was trying to get to grips with surplus value itself, as more than just a use value that the capitalist owns.

Surplus value is a use value to the capitalist but isn’t it also a social product?
Hasn’t the worker, by creating surplus value, alienated himself from power, self reliance, that sort of thing? Maybe this isn’t alienation in terms that you would recognise. I suppose I’m trying to point out the significance of surplus value, which this article seemed to ignore, but I accept that was probably because of the context it was written in.

Boffy said...

“I understand your concept of the worker giving up his labour power and agree with your analysis. I was trying to get to grips with surplus value itself, as more than just a use value that the capitalist owns.

Surplus value is a use value to the capitalist but isn’t it also a social product?”

This is wrong. What is a Use Value? A use value is something, which has usefulness or utility to someone. What is an Exchange Value? An Exchange Value is the Quantity of one commodity that has to be given up in a free market in order to obtain a given quantity of other commodities. What determines this proportion? The amount of average socially necessary labour-time contained in each. What is price? The monetary form of this Exchange Value. I am talking here of pre-capitalist or simple commodity production as opposed to proper capitalist commodity production under which prices are modified, and on which I have written a number of blogs.

The worker owns his Labour Power as a USE Value. But it is not a Use Value for the worker. Why? Because it can only produce if it is combined with the means of production. The worker does not own the means of production the Capitalist does. It is then a Use Value for the Capitalist, but owned by the worker. The worker alienates that Use Value through sale to the Capitalist. The Capitalist now owns that Use Value to dispose of as he chooses. The worker now possesses an Exchange Value – the Exchange Value of his Labour Power – which in turn he exchanges for other Use Values, the other commodities he requires for his subsistence – food, clothing shelter. He now owns these Use Values, and the Capitalists who he buys them from now own the Exchange Value he has given up for them.

So for the worker we have the following circuit C-M-C. In other words he begins by owning a Commodity – Labour Power – exchanges it for an Exchange Value - Money – and finally exchanges that for other commodities. At that point where those commodities are consumed the circuit for the worker is closed. Of course, for all those Capitalists from whom he has bought commodities that is only a moment within other circuits of Capital.

Now let’s return to the worker and the original Capitalist. The Capitalist has given up Exchange Value in return for the purchase of the Use Value Labour Power, alongside a lot of other Use Values in the form of materials and machines etc. Why are these USE Values for the Capitalist? Because they are useful for the production of some new commodity. All of these Use Values themselves disappear in the same way that the commodities consumed by the worker disappear. They are consumed in the production process. In fact, as Marx demonstrates in the Grundrisse within this process it is impossible to separate production and consumption. I’ll come back to this later so as not to distract from the process at hand. So all of these Use Values are productively consumed in the making of some new commodity. At this point what does the Capitalist own what is his situation? It is, in fact, the same situation that the worker found himself in at the beginning. The Capitalist owns a Use Value – in fact, of course thousands of Use Values all the same – but they are not Use Values for the Capitalist just as the worker’s Labour Power was not a Use Value for him. Why? Because the Capitalist has no use for them. The Capitalist does not produce for his own consumption. He doesn’t want a thousand Minis, for instance. He only produces them, because he believes that they are Use Values for others, for potential consumers. So, he exchanges these Use Values, for Exchange Values, for Money. So, the circuit for this Capitalist is the opposite of that for the worker. It is.

M – C – M1, or more correctly M – C – P – C1 – M1.

That is. He begins with an Exchange Value, Money. He exchanges this Money for Commodities, Labour Power, Raw Material etc. Production takes place in which these commodities are consumed. A new commodity is produced which has an Exchange Value greater than the Exchange Value of the Commodities used up in its production. This commodity is sold for its Exchange Value, and thereby returns to the Capitalist a greater amount of Money than he began with. What is important here, and why is your original statement wrong.

The reason that the new commodity has greater Exchange Value is because a Surplus Value has been created in the process of production. How? Because, the worker is paid an amount of wages equal to the Exchange Value of his Labour Power, which is equivalent to say 4 hours labour-time. However, the worker works for 8 hours, and thereby creates a new value of 8 hours, having only been paid 4. A surplus value equal to 4 hours has been created. BUT, this Surplus Value, which is owned by the Capitalist is not a USE Value. It is an EXCHANGE Value. In fact, Surplus Value is really a shorthand for Surplus Exchange Value. It can only be for the Capitalist an Exchange Value, for the simple reason that it is embodied in commodities which are themselves not Use Values for the Capitalist. It is only when the Capitalist exchanges this Surplus Value for other commodities – either for his own consumption or to expand his business – that it is again transformed into Use Values.

Now let me come back to the bit about production and consumption. As Marx says, the worker when he consumes commodities is at the same time engaged in production. He is producing his Labour-power, or the Labour-power embodied in the next generation of workers. And as stated above in the act of production the workers Labour-power power and the other commodities are themselves consumed. Production and consumption are dialectically intertwined.

”Hasn’t the worker, by creating surplus value, alienated himself from power, self reliance, that sort of thing? Maybe this isn’t alienation in terms that you would recognise. I suppose I’m trying to point out the significance of surplus value, which this article seemed to ignore, but I accept that was probably because of the context it was written in.”

No, I think you raise an excellent point, which probably I should have dealt with, and which is I think the point that the original article was making. Of course, you are right that in creating Surplus Value, which in turn becomes Capital which stands over Labour as some alien power the worker continually recreates the conditions of his separation from the means of production, and thereby further recreates the conditions under which his Labour is alienated from him. But, to put that in the context of my post here, the question would arise to what extent would this change simply on the basis of an end to Capitalist rule? As Marx demonstrates it is not the Capitalist that stands as an alien force in relation to the worker, but Capital itself. Modern Capitalism has long ago abolished the social function of the Capitalist, Capitalism could continue without Capitalists. If market relations continue then commodity production continues, and Capital continues to be reproduced as an alien force as against Labour. Herein lies the importance of the letter to the Co-operative movement from Ernest Jones I have referred to previously. Whilst, the main concern for Marxists should be the transfer of ownership of the means of production into the hands of the workers as opposed to the plan fetishism that most of the Statist Left has been guilty of, that social revolution is an insufficient condition. It requires that that Co-operative production be also developed on the basis of a continuous replacement of market relations by conscious personal relations between workers throughout the Co-operative sector, increasingly co-ordinating their activities and production, and thereby organically replacing market relations with consciously, and democratically planned relations.

But, as I stated in the blog, simply replacing market relations with planned relations – even democratically planned relations is not sufficient either – because it is only the personal relations between workers, the ending of the alienation of Man from Man that can end the Alienation of Labour.