Marx200: Why do working class people get swept up in the orchestrated, costly drama of a Royal wedding? The answer lies in Marx’s theory of alienation.
It is a mistake to think that Marxism speaks only to the economic organization of society. Marxism gives us the tools to understand how every aspect of our lives is shaped by the capitalist organization of production – even love. As Christopher Caudwell wrote in the 1930s:
To-day love could prepare an appalling indictment of the wrongs and privations that bourgeois social relations have inflicted upon it. The misery of the world is economic, but that does not mean that it is cash. That is a bourgeois error. Just because they are economic, they involve the tenderest and most valued feelings of social man. For the satisfaction of all rich emotional capabilities and social tenderness which bourgeois relations have deprived him, he turns vainly to religion, hate, patriotism, fascism, the sentimentality of films and novels, which paint in imagination loves he cannot experience in life. Because of this he is neurotic, unhappy, sick, liable to the mass-hatreds of war and anti-semitism, to absurd and yet pathetic Royal Jubilee or Funeral enthusiasms to mad impossible loyalties to Hitlers and to mad Aryan grandmothers. Because of this life seems to him empty, stale, and unprofitable. Man delights him not, nor woman neither.[i]
We live in a world where technological achievements unimaginable in previous societies are within our grasp yet the fruits of our labour threaten our very existence with nuclear war and environmental destruction. For the first time in history we can produce enough to satisfy the needs of everyone on the planet yet millions of lives are stunted by poverty and destroyed by disease. The more densely populated our cities become, the more our lives are characterised by feelings of isolation and loneliness. To Karl Marx these contradictions were apparent when the system was still young:
On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors of the Roman Empire. In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want’.[ii]
For Marx, alienation was not rooted in the mind or in religion but in the material world. Alienation meant loss of control, specifically the loss of control over labour. Marx opposed the common-sense idea that humans have a fixed nature which exists independently of the society they live in. However, Marx did not reject the idea of human nature itself. He argued that the need to labour on nature to satisfy human needs was the only consistent feature of all human societies, the 'ever-lasting nature-imposed condition of human existence'.[iii] The labour of humans, however, was distinguished from that of animals because human beings developed consciousness. Marx described this in Capital:
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.[iv]
Working on nature alters the natural world, but also the labourer who, ‘develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.'[v] Labour is a social process as people have to enter into relationships to get what they need to live. Humanity relates to the physical world through labour; through labour humanity itself develops and labour is the source of human beings' relationships with each other. What happens to the process of work, therefore, has a decisive influence on the whole of society.
In feudal society land was the source of production and ownership of land was dependent on inheritance: your 'birth' determined your destiny. In an early work Marx described how 'the aristocracy's pride in their blood, their descent, in short the genealogy of the body...has its appropriate science in heraldry. The secret of the aristocracy is zoology'.[vi] It was this zoology that the British monarchy harks back to in order to justify its parasitical existence.
Capitalism depended on the brutal enclosures of the common land and the creation of a class of landless labourers. Workers became separated from the product of their labour. Production no longer took place in the home, but in factories where new systems of discipline operated. The worker was alienated from what they produced because it was owned and disposed of by the capitalist, who owned the means of producing. Thus workers produce cash crops for the market when they are malnourished, build houses in which they will never live, make cars they can never buy, etc. Workers are paid less than the value they create so are exploited. They also put creative labour into the object they produce, but they cannot be given creative labour to replace it. This creativity is lost to the worker forever, which is why under capitalism work burns up our energies and leaves us feeling exhausted.
Most jobs look quite different to the factory production of Marx’s day, but the class relations have not changed. There is increasing evidence that common workplace practices, including stress, insecurity, long hours, sedentary jobs and lack of control are as bad for our health as the factory system.[vii] Many work in huge bureaucratic organisations which are completely unresponsive to human needs and in which productivity is endlessly monitored. Intellectual activity takes place within, in isolation from society as a whole and is subordinated to competition. The very structure of capitalist society condemns our intellectual developments to the chasing of facts in blind isolation from the real movements of society.
We are alienated from our fellow human beings because we are connected to others only through the buying and selling of what we produce. The commodities of each individual producer appear in depersonalised form, regardless of who produced them, where, or in what specific conditions. The domination of commodities is so pervasive that it seems to be an inevitable and natural. Marx argued that, 'a commodity is an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind'.[viii] In capitalist society our many different human needs can only be met through the purchase of commodities: to eat we have to buy food in a shop, to travel we have to buy a car or a bus ticket, to have access to knowledge we have to buy books, computers or have smart phones.
Multimillion pound industries have developed around commodities which are said to make us look thin or young, our desire to play games, to experience nature or enjoy art. The very fact that we have the 'leisure industry' and the 'entertainment industry' points to the fact that the separation of work from leisure has left a void in our free hours. The family and the home have become leisure activities in and of themselves; they have also become subject to the priorities of the market. All the commodities which could increase our free time simply reinforce the family as a unit of consumption, so we work to buy the things that mean we could work less.
The creation of exchange values and the circulation of commodities requires a commodity which can represent all other commodities, through which all other commodities can be compared – money. Marx called money the 'universal pimp', mediating between men and their desires. Money takes on the value of the objects it represents, it appears to be the force which can create value itself. All our human desires and abilities contract into what Marx called a sense of having:
Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when we directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc, in short, when we use it.[ix]
Marx described the power that money bestows on individuals:
The stronger the power of my money, the stronger I am. The properties of money are my, the possessors', properties and essential powers. Therefore what I am and what I can do is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy the most beautiful women. Which means to say that I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness, its repelling power, is destroyed by money. As an individual I am lame, but money procures me 24 legs. Consequently, I am not lame. I am a wicked, dishonest, unscrupulous individual, but money is respected, and so also is its owner...through money I can have anything the human heart desires. Do I not therefore possess all human abilities? Does not money therefore transform all my incapacities into their opposite?[x]
The transformative power of wealth is highly relevant to the Royal family who depend upon it in order to appear interesting and attractive. In The Holy Family Marx gives a brilliant description of the situation of the ruling class:
The possessing class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class feels at home in this self-alienation, it finds confirmation of itself and recognises in alienation its own power; it has in it a semblance of human existence, while the class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees therein its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence.[xi]
As alienation is rooted in capitalist society, only the collective struggle against that society carries the potential to eradicate alienation, to bring our vast, developing powers under our conscious control and reinstitute work as the central aspect of life. As Marx wrote in Capital:
The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life process, ie the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men and stands under their conscious and planned control.[xii]
In such a society, people would be enjoying their own relationships, not celebrating the weddings of the rich and famous.
[i] Christopher Caudwell, Further Studies in a Dying Culture, published 1949.
[ii] K Marx, 'Speech at the Anniversary of the Peoples' Paper' quoted in E Lunn, Marxism and Modernism (University of California Press, 1984), p31.
[iii] Quoted in E Fischer, How to Read Karl Marx (Monthly Review Press, 1996), p53.
[iv] Quoted in Fischer, p52.
[v] K Marx, Capital, p198
[vi] Quoted in P Walton and A Gamble, From Alienation to Surplus Value (Sheed and Ward, 1972), p20.
[vii] BBC report, ‘How your workplace is killing you’, 3 May 2018
[viii] K Marx, Capital, op cit, p1.
[ix] K Marx, Early Writings, op cit, p351.
[x] K Marx, Early Writings, p377.
[xi] K Marx, The Holy Family, quoted in F Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism (Pluto, 1990), p87.
[xii] K Marx, The Holy Family, quoted in F Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism (Pluto, 1990), p87.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.
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