How Small-Scale Producers Become Virtuous (Part 2)

Part 1 and Part 3

Marxist Alienation

I begin by discussing Marx and the implications of his ideas after the downfall of classical economics. The capitalist system, he argued, conceals from workers the fact that they ultimately “work for one another” (82). [1] To understand what this means, we must understand Marx’s interpretation of classical economics. Marx, following Adam Smith, argues that the true value of a product is not tied to its use-value or its exchange value, but the amount of labor-power expended to make it: “productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscle” (51). This is “abstract labor” or the “the expenditure of labor power in general” (51), labor without reference to any particular mode of production (“concrete labor”). When the products of labor reach the exchange, the products take on an exchange value equivalent to the “socially necessary labor” time put into them. For example, if some linen tookkarl_marx-adam_smith-1 one hour to weave and a coat took two hours to tailor, the exchange ratio would be 1 to 2. In exchanging a coat, one receives two pieces of linen. There is nothing unique about this formulation; it is standard classical economics.[2] But where Marx takes this is quite innovative. He argues that this exchange conceals what is actually going on in the act of exchange. The exchange of products creates a system of relations between things, yet these things contain in them the abstract labor used to produce them. He writes (83),

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total to their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour….There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.

What underlies the exchange value, and that which the exchange conceals, is the labor-power or the abstract labor exerted to make the products. Ultimately, the relationship of workers is not between things or the products of their labor, but between themselves. The exchange brings about the “estrangement of man from man.”[3] When one understands the ultimate value behind the products in exchange, he realizes that the fundamental relationship of worker to worker is not between products in exchange, but between their labor-time. Workers work for one another directly, not via the exchange of products and money. According to Marx, the realization of this concealed relationship will transform humanity’s understanding and appreciation of work.

What prevents humankind from realizing their potential in labor is a certain “Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour” (83). Feuerbach similarly used the term for the role that religion plays in holding back human potential. Just as humans project their potential for just and harmonious human relationships on the gods, so do humans project their economic relations upon the things or products of exchange. When the true nature of labor and its products are revealed—that is, when the workers gain a comprehensive class-consciousness—the workers will no longer view labor as drudgery and something to be avoided, but as something fulfilling.

In a capitalist system, a system in which social relationships are identified in the exchange of products, the laborer is bound to “put his life into the object” of his labor. The product has become the “objectification of labor.”[4] According to Marx, this brings about the “loss of realization for the workers” and a “loss of his self,”[5] because in the capitalist economy the product does not belong to him; it belongs to the capitalist. The worker is alienated from himself, for the product is objectified labor, and the worker has no right to the finished product. These are the conditions that a capitalist system creates: both an unnecessary objectification of labor (i.e., the life-infused products of labor) and the idea of ownership or private property. When private property is abolished in the next stage of human social development, there is no need to objectify labor in products, for the “mysterious” status placed on products at the exchange has vanished. The underlying reality has been revealed, and workers realize that, all along, they have been working for each other. They have been, in a sense, exchanging life one another; another’s giving of life rejuvenates your own and vise versa.

It is important to emphasize this point: the objectification of labor into products ends only upon the realization of the underlying reality, namely, that all productive activity is labor for others. The underlying reality is that the worker-to-worker relationship is not between things, but between themselves. The products are superfluous to the relationship and cover the true nature of labor.

Alienation after Classical Economics

Marx’s reliance on classical economics proves to be problematic for Marxist economic theory. The labor theory of value, which was integral to Smith’s and many of the 19th century economists’ theories, is largely rejected today. It even received serious scrutiny even in the late 19th century. Economist Thomas Sowell writes,

By the late nineteenth century, however, economists had given up the notion that it is primarily labor which determines the value of good, since capital, management and nature resources all contribute to output and must be paid for from the price of that output, if these inputs in the production process are to continue to be supplied. More fundamentally, labor, like all other source of production costs, was not longer seen as a source of value. On the contrary, it was the value of the goods to the consumers which made it worthwhile to incur the costs required to produce those good—provided that the consumer was willing to pay enough to cover those production costs….It is not costs which create value; it is value which causes purchasers to be willing to pay for the costs incurred in the production of what they want.[6]

Followers of Marx often fail to realize how revolutionary this was. Value is no longer considered to be a measure of production cost; and, therefore, labor does not create value. Value is determined by the consumers, not the producers. When a product’s value to a consumer is greater than or equal to the producer’s cost plus acceptable profit, the consumer purchases it. If value falls below the production-cost-plus-profit threshold, the product will not be produced (theoretically, at least).

What this means for Marx is that there is no underlying value based on abstract labor. Workers do not work for one another in the way he suggests. The exchange does not conceal social relations. Workers do not project their ideals upon products, and avoid some higher level of being. There is no fetishism of products. There are producers and consumers, and the consumers set the value. How this value is set, is difficult to answer, but what is clear is that value is not established by labor, whether concrete or abstract. Labor is an important element in cost of production, but not in value or even price. This leaves Marx without any solution to alienated labor. Indeed, it forces a reevaluation of what is actually alienating in capitalist systems. The fall of classical economics means that this “fetishism” with products of labor is not really a fetish; for there is nothing being concealed in the exchange. Hence, people do, contrary to Marx’s claims, relate to each other through the products of their labor.

This does not, however, end any possible critique of capitalism using certain classical Marxist assumptions. My view is that even after the fall of the labor theory of value there remains a certain alienation in labor in capitalist systems. It is not alienation from the “surplus value” of one’s labor, since this relied on the discredited labor theory of value. Nor is it alienation from the product. As we will see, the fact that an employer owns the product of another’s could be problematic, but is not necessarily problematic. I propose a different understanding of alienation in capitalist systems. The alienation that arises in a mass-production oriented capitalist system is the alienation of the producer from receiving satisfaction and affirmation of the meaningfulness of his or her labor from the satisfaction that the consumer receives from consuming or using the product. When the meaningfulness of work is affirmed by the satisfaction of the consumer, the work moves from being a mere means (a wage, profit, etc.) to an end in itself.

This type of alienation might not be immediately obvious. First, I’ll explain what I mean by labor as an end in itself. Labor as an end in itself refers to a certain meaning to work beyond the wage or profit in it. The end I specifically have in mind is the end of achieving the satisfaction of the consumer, not as means to ensure future profit or competiveness of the company, but for the consumer satisfaction alone. In this sense, one works for another’s satisfaction. The consumer’s satisfaction is an affirmation of the producer having put his or her “life into the object,” as Marx stated. Marx, of course, meant this more negatively, even saying that it is a “loss of realization for the workers.”[7] But what I am arguing here is that consumer satisfaction brings about both a rejuvenation of life and realizes in the producers a certain important aspect of human potential. Put roughly, another’s enjoyment of your product makes it all worth it. Your labor is no longer about only the wage or profit, but about another’s enjoyment of the product of your labor. Since your product has been recognized as useful, enjoyable, suitable, etc., your labor has been recognized as valuable, creative, and reflects highly upon you. Another’s satisfaction has shown your labor be good in itself. Work as an end in itself is tied to the producer/consumer relationship.

If I am correct, then three conditions can be realized simultaneously, contrary to the claims of Marx. 1) The relationship between worker and worker can be objectified in products in exchange. 2) Workers ultimately work for one another. 3) Labor is an end in itself, not merely a means. The idea that consumer satisfaction affirms to the producer that his labor was good labor links all three together.

The consumer is vital, because without the consumer the producer could not be confident in the meaningfulness of his labor or the value of the product. To see this, imagine a man, living in solitary for reasons outside his control, who through labor constructs some item, say, what he perceives to be an advanced ergonomically designed hammer. Since he is solitary, there is no one to use the hammer but himself. There is no one, external to him, who can affirm the hammer’s usefulness and its quality. Of course, the man can affirm this himself, but full satisfaction relies on external confirmation. The man’s creative labor is left without any external affirmation. It is like an artist making works of art yet never having it viewed by the public, never offering it for criticism. It is only in the act of making one’s work public that one both risks rejection and can receive praise. It is the reward from the risk of judgement that provides affirmation of one’s talent. Without the product of one’s work being subject to the public, the worker cannot achieve complete realization concerning the meaningfulness the work. The solitary man who makes useful things can never achieve the realization of his potential. The exchange is absolutely necessary.

In order to make this type of exchange possible, there must be private property in at least the following way: the producer has exclusive rights to the product of his labor. The reason for this is that the producer, in offering the product of his labor in exchange, is inviting others to be satisfied in the product of his labor and thereby have the meaning of his labor affirmed. This invitation for consumption has the condition of the other’s potential satisfaction. Therefore, the producer must have a certain exclusivity of rights to the product, including the ability to withhold the product from a consumer with whom the producer will not receive sufficient affirmation. To abolish private property is to abolish the invitation or, at least, force upon the producer an unconditional invitation to consume. Furthermore, the product is, as Marx said, “objectified labor.” One’s life is put into it, and as such the producer has a right to it. Being an extension of himself (of sorts), the product is the producer’s possession, not simply because of the extension of life to it, but because the rejuvenation of life that I discussed above is tied to the conditions of the invitations for exchange. Abolishing private property allows products with the imprint of human care to be tossed for unconditioned consumption. Humans have conditions for use; so should their products.

Furthermore, there must be private property because the only with private property can there be the type of exchange that opens laborers and their products to judgment. In order to be affirmed, one must take a risk of rejection. One of must bring his product, as something embodying his labor for judgment. In the least, having private property allows the best mechanism to permit the type of risk that brings satisfying rewards. Private property, then, is crucial to the affirmation of the meaningfulness of labor as an end in itself.

As we see below, capitalist systems do not always produce the conditions for this producer/consumer relationship. But this is not the fault only of the “capitalists”; the demanders, the general public, must take responsibility as well.

In Large-scale production, the workers often have simple tasks, repeatedly performed. Little thought or creativity is necessary. The managers and owners have every reason to want to give their workers simple labor: it reduces variability in outcomes. That is, it ensures consistency in production. Low variability ensures higher quality assurance. The result is a workforce that has little reason to think of their labor as being anything other than a means to an end—a wage. They have few obvious reasons to care for the products. Indeed, many would not care that consumers bought the product and immediately dumped it in the trash. Furthermore, consumer satisfaction has no meaning other than to ensure consistent employment in a profitable company. This makes affirmation of the meaning of one’s labor impossible, for the products do not contain such meaning to these producers. There is nothing objectified in the product for which the worker can be proud.

One should not exaggerate by calling this labor meaningless or a wasting of one’s life. For many workers, the means to the end is not simply the wage but a wage to support a family. It does having meaning, and a worker can be proud for working to ensure the livelihood of his or her family. But it remains the case that the worker is separated or alienated in a sense from the consumer’s satisfaction of the product. In this arrangement, the consumer’s satisfaction of the product does not make the productive activity an end in itself. The work remains a means to a wage. And as worthy as it is to earn a living, the worker remains alienated from the fullest potential of work, namely, work as an end in itself.

One can imagine a worker in such a setting being conscious of his work and what it is accomplishing. Perhaps a worker in an assembly line making well-made and inexpensive cars can put his repetitive labor in perspective by viewing it as a service. In this way, he can find meaning in his labor as an end in itself. His reasoning could be that his labor contributes to the mobility of the underprivileged, or something of that sort. But even though he has put his work in a perspective that affirms to a degree the meaning of his work as an end in itself, the product of his labor is not necessarily the fullest expression of the worker’s potential. While his labor is the “productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscle” that became “embodied in” the product, it is not necessarily an expression of his creative potential. Of course, it might be. Perhaps being on an assembly line is the right place for some people, given varying degrees of creative potential. But for many it would stifle potential. So there can be, even in simple labor, consciousness of the meaningfulness of one’s work as an end in itself, but this is limited.

If there is any Feuerbachian projection occurring in these large-scale settings, it is in the workers’ fear of public judgment when their labor is presented to the public for public scrutiny. Of course, many workers have no choice but to take the type of job I’ve discussed. But if I am correct in arguing the meaningfulness labor is tied to the public presentation of the product for scrutiny, then there is risk associated with putting a “face” to a product; and risk produces fear. Human potential is then projected onto the managers and owners, who then take on the responsibility of designing and presenting the product. With this potential comes assuming the responsibility for the success of the product. That is, someone other than the workers takes on the meaning of the product. The worker is left with nothing but the wage; work is only a means to a wage, nothing more.

[1] Karl Marx Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Trans. by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: Charles H. Herr & Company, 1906). I cite the text parenthetically.

[2] See Chapter 5 of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

[3] Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 32.

[4] Ibid, 29.

[5] Ibid, 30.

[6] Thomas Sowell Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 286-287.

[7] Ibid, 29.


2 thoughts on “How Small-Scale Producers Become Virtuous (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: How Small-Scale Producers Become Virtuous (Part 1) | Lovely Country

  2. Pingback: How Small-Scale Producers become Virtuous (Part 3) | Lovely Country

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