Why Work Sucks: Capitalist Alienation and Socialist Human Potential

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The pandemic has accelerated a deeply-rooted mental health crisis, particularly with young people. Social isolation from COVID is now heaped on top of intense anxieties about the future of life under capitalism. Mass shootings, war, environmental destruction, right-wing attacks on oppressed people, the opioid epidemic, and deep economic uncertainty all throw people into panic and despair. There are thousands of scholarly articles with “band-aid” proposals to deal with a festering open wound of drastically increased anxiety, depression, and trauma. 

Activists often correctly focus on the need for more mental health services that have been depleted by decades of budget cuts from both Republicans and Democrats, but often their analysis and proposals unfortunately stop there. The depth of the mental health crisis under capitalism goes far beyond the lack of adequate funding for counseling and other services. Every day, while we struggle to pay rent or mortgages with often unfulfilling jobs, we have less time to spend with family, loved ones, and friends who are often navigating their own battles with poverty and addiction in an age of capitalist disorder.

Connected to all this, people left their jobs in record numbers during the “great resignation.” Thousands of others, frustrated with their jobs, have joined ballooning “anti-work” groups on the internet. On top of this, memes expressing anger and desperation about work have become commonplace, not just from anti-capitalist activists. Most importantly for socialists, previously unorganized workers from Starbucks to Amazon and elsewhere have started forming unions to address low pay, bad working conditions, and other frustrations with workplaces that increasingly feel like dictatorships of the bosses.

What’s at the root of all these problems? Nearly 180 years ago, Karl Marx wrote the “Estranged Labor” chapter of “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” which is intensely relevant today. Marx explained his theory of alienation which describes how capitalism makes us detached from our most important life activities, warps our relationships with other people, and cuts across our connection to nature.

Work Under Capitalism

If you want stable food on your table and a roof over your head, then you have to sell your ability to work under capitalism. Companies wouldn’t hire people if they didn’t profit from using your work and paying you less than the value of your labor. Capitalism is based on theft by the billionaires on a grand scale. Explaining how they do this and how it affects the economy is the subject of many other articles, but this exploitation is at the heart of capitalism and Marx’s theory of alienation.

A central idea of Marx is that working people don’t have full control over their lives while working. You might be able to decide from a few jobs you can get in your area, but when you’re actually working, you have to do basically what the company requires from you. This can be enforced by pushy managers, or at Amazon and UPS by technology designed to exploit us as much as possible, keep us from taking breaks, and make us feel dehumanized. Company profits are all they want from your work, and the whole economy revolves around this. Each company competes with each other to maximize profit and cut every corner in the process. Only the most psychopathic billionaires rise to the top while working people suffer. So, for most of our waking hours, while we’re working, we’re not making decisions for ourselves and are only a productivity number for the capitalists. 

In Marx’s time and place, the vast majority of working people were employed in factories doing repetitive tasks. While over 12 million people in the U.S. still work similar jobs today, we also have over 100 million workers in the service sector. This brings on another form of alienation at work: constantly pretending to be happy and docile as we feel the pressure of a dysfunctional world weighing down on us. At every store, restaurant, coffee shop, or call center, we’re forced to put on a smile and take a pleasant tone when confronted with absurd situations created by the companies we work for. Internet memes are everywhere on this topic, frustrated with the insult that capitalism adds to our exploitation.

Most working people acknowledge Marx’s basic premise underlying his theory of alienation: our real life doesn’t happen at work. This is even acknowledged in “management-speak” of a “work/life balance.” By the very existence of this common term, bosses acknowledge that we’re not fully living while we labor. While the central aspect of Marx’s theory is obvious to millions, the deep implications are often obscured by our daily realities.

Virtually everything in society is created by this alienating work in the blind pursuit of profits. The products we buy, the experiences we pay for, the buildings all around us, the homes we live in: nearly everything is produced through this alienating and exploitative process, keeping us “estranged” from the world around us even when we’re off the job. The bosses and corporations are the main ones benefiting from our work, not ourselves, our families, and wider working-class communities.

On top of this, we often are forced to work in jobs that are not useful to society. Over half a million people in the United States work in the medical insurance industry at jobs that wouldn’t be necessary if we had Medicare for all. Nearly a million people have jobs in the weapons manufacturing business. Many people in these industries would rather be working elsewhere given the opportunity. “Multi-level marketing” pyramid schemes that prey on working people have millions of exploited “sellers” and employees.

Even jobs extremely useful to society are warped by the profit motive. The best scientists are often forced to work on building new weapons instead of curing diseases. Construction workers build luxury condo after luxury condo instead of quality affordable housing or schools and hospitals in the communities where they live. Nurses are forced to deal with too many patients in a sick for-profit industry, and homeless shelter workers would rather see the root of the crisis addressed. The best artists often work in advertising, an industry that employs over a quarter-million people in the US. 

The ad industry bombards us with thousands of commercials every day that are specifically designed to make us feel insecure so that we’ll be desperate to buy a product to fix this situation. More than this, workers never make conscious decisions on what to produce or how it’s produced. In this way, we relate to virtually everything around us in an alienated way, including other people, according to Marx’s theory in “Estranged Labor.” The chapter is worth a read if you can wade through the dense language. If you prefer video, check out a recording of the introductory speeches at a well-attended session on alienation at International Socialist Alternative’s Virtual Marxist University.

Does It Have To Be Like This?

Marx argues that work should be a uniquely human life-affirming activity. Many readers will say “whoa Karl, that’s quite a stretch, bro.” Some redditors in the “anti-work” group would likely laugh at this ridiculous idea by the bearded guy. Well, in order to see Marx’s point, let’s look at what we do for fun outside of work.

Many of people’s most treasured hobbies were forms of work in pre-capitalist societies. Do you like gardening? Knitting? Fishing? Hunting? Cooking? Making crafts? All these were jobs at some point, and they satisfy our innate need to manipulate the world into something useful for ourselves and people around us. OK, maybe these aren’t your favorite things to do. Video games often connect us to millions of people working together for common goals and social interaction. 

There’s another way to look at how work could be more fulfilling. Academics in management schools have spent decades trying to figure out what motivates us to work hard. They do this to figure out how to maximize profits and productivity, but their findings support Marx’s theory.

In an extensive study, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Management School (hardly a bastion of socialist ideas) found that two main things motivate people to work hard. One factor above all else was control over your work! The other main factor that motivates us? Feeling like your work is doing something important to help others in society. Good pay and benefits don’t hurt either! The findings of this study were turned into an excellent animated video.

Unfortunately for these management gurus, they can’t deliver on what they know would motivate us to work harder. This system is controlled by the blind alley of profit, not by working people. We don’t control our individual workplaces or the wider economy which results in so few of our jobs feeling like we’re making a meaningful contribution to society even when we know our skills could be put to better use. Some companies, like Valve in video games, try to create “bossless” workplaces to foster innovation. This is an indictment of their system, and many studies show that bosses kill innovation rather than create it while management’s egos built by capitalism leave them clueless about the situation.

Innovation should be used to make workers’ lives easier with decreased working hours and no loss of pay. Instead, new technology is used to spy on workers, speed up our work, and threaten layoffs. This is a crucial issue in the Amazon union organizing drives, and the upcoming Teamster / UPS contract battle. In addition, new technology is often used to “deskill” workers, make them feel expendable, and kick people out of their jobs which is obviously a dehumanizing and degrading experience in capitalism on top of creating poverty.

Social Decay From Capitalist Alienation

Ever since socialist ideas emerged, capitalists and their bootlickers have said that “human nature” is the reason we can’t have equality and liberty. This is nonsense. Humans are a collective species, and workers are always going out of their way to help each other, showing deep reserves of self-sacrifice and compassion in struggle. At the same time, socialists do recognize the deep ways that class society has affected our behavior. Marx said that the ruling ideas of any time are the ideas of the ruling class. These ideas are borne from material relations, and capitalism’s central relationship is exploitation. This has an impact on all of us, but no species has a purely fixed “nature,” and the struggle for socialism will require a mass collective struggle that would bring with it a moral regeneration of our species. For now though, we need to recognize and analyze the way alienation affects all our relationships.

Alienation outside the workplace goes far beyond worries about layoffs, insecurity created by advertisements, and our physical surroundings being created by a system of exploitation. For instance, if you want to save money, you have to deny yourself enjoyment. If you want to enjoy things, then you have to deny yourself the stability of saving money. Marx sums this up, “The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theater or to balls, or to the pub, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt—your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being.” Sadly, social isolation helps people save money.

In addition, the constant push for “productivity” (in the service of corporate profits) spills over outside of work. We are often exhausted when we have a chance to enjoy ourselves, and we can put undue pressure on ourselves in social environments, spilling over from the stress of work and the wider economy. This obviously affects our social relationships with those close to us. The lack of control we have over the main aspects of life can be both internalized and reflected in various ways in our social lives. “Losing control” is a phrase synonymous with scary, unhinged behavior, but it is a life constant under this system.

Capitalism turns our main life activity into a commodity; we are treated as cogs in a machine. We have less time than we should to develop meaningful relationships with our loved ones, create wider communities, or to investigate and explore new experiences. This viewing of other people as commodities spills over into our daily lives, intensified today by objectification of people in commercials, entertainment, and the most exploitative industries.

Class society also affects the family structure and how we view our hobbies. Read more here about the economic and ideological role of the family under capitalism. This system creates increasing pressure to “monetize” all our most human activities. While some of our hobbies show a desire for meaningful “work,” others have been devalued on a mass scale through capitalism making a profit from everything. For instance, singing, dancing, fashion, and all sorts of other hobbies are built deeply into collective human existence. Many of these tasks were once performed (without necessarily the greatest level of talent) on a mass scale as a source of enjoyment. Today, these activities are often done as “side hustles” by workers and only valued if they show unique talents or fit a market niche. In this way, capitalism steals activities that were once nearly universal sources of human enjoyment.

Exacerbating this problem, nearly all public “space” in the US that could be used for collective activity is taken up by corporations. Want to sit down with a big group of friends? You almost always have to spend money. Unfortunately, that’s not the only way capitalism warps how we relate to the space around us.

Connection To Nature

Marx was ahead of his time in realizing a huge problem with capitalism: we’re increasingly disconnected from the natural world by this system. Hundreds of studies show that people seek out a deep connection to nature, and those who achieve it are often more healthy. Again, this can be shown in hobbies: people flock to national parks (at record numbers in recent years), beaches, mountains, and forests. 

Overwhelmingly, we falsely view “nature” as only places largely untouched by humans. More than this, we sometimes fail to recognize that we are a crucial part of the natural world, instead viewing it as an “outsider.” This shows the extent of our alienation under capitalism. This system has ushered in an entirely new geological epoch that scientists call the “Anthropocene.” This epoch is marked by environmental destruction. Due to the fact that we’re so detached from the products of our labor, we know longer view the changes capitalism has inflicted on our environment as part of the natural world.

Even the radical left is affected by this in two related ways. Many left activists, particularly in the labor movement, use the slogan “labor creates all wealth,” often wrongly thinking it originates with Marx. In truth, as Marx says, “the worker can create nothing without nature.” This is important for how we view the economy. The way the capitalists withhold, control, and exploit raw materials and other aspects of the natural world is a crucial lever for how they exert their power in the economy. Marx felt strongly enough about this that he wrote about it twice, including in detail through his polemic “Critique of the Gotha Program.” In addition to the importance of the economic points related to this slogan, Marx saw how our disconnection from nature had negative impacts on our psychological well-being.

Another mistake is also made by sections of the left in understanding the relationship between labor, capital, and the rest of the natural world. Some environmentalists wrongly argue that we can’t have any economic growth and must decrease workers living standards in a misguided critique that they see as “anti-capitalist.” Not only will this push working people away from those activists putting this forward under the guise of socialist and environmental ideas, it also vastly underestimates the way human labor could be used to benefit the rest of the natural world in a socialist society. For instance, addressing the environmental crisis and rebuilding a connection with the rest of the natural world will involve a massive increase in public transportation and renewable energy production.

By putting to use the vast technology developed by humans, we could be more in touch with our natural surroundings, even those created by human labor. If we had socialism, a society run democratically with planned workers control of production and distribution, we would feel more deeply in touch with the decisions we make that affect the rest of the natural world. This is only one of the ways that workers struggle and socialist change could improve our mental health.

Unleashing Human Potential

Over 26 million people internationally are refugees fleeing war, conflict, unrest, or disaster. On top of this, hundreds of millions more live in absolute poverty with no prospect of ever entering the formal workforce. For all its talk of “efficiency,” capitalism is wasting untold amounts of human potential to change the world for the better. And economic inequality is only one factor in how capitalism wastes our abilities.

In Leon Trotsky’s brilliant 1932 speech called “In Defense of October,” he said, “Apart from rare exceptions, the sparks of genius in the suppressed depths of the people are choked before they can burst into flame. But also because the processes of creating, developing and educating a human being have been and remain essentially a matter of chance, not illuminated by theory and practice, not subjected to consciousness and will.” 

As the management gurus begrudgingly admit, unlocking human potential would need workers control, meaningful jobs, and good pay. Capitalism is the opposite of this. Socialism, a workers’ democracy with a plan of production to meet the needs of people and the planet, is the way forward. While the environmental situation may seem dire, unlocking the abilities of our species would give us hope for a sustainable, stable future.

Marx’s “Estranged Labor” gives us an outline of capitalism’s deep dysfunction and the potential for what socialist transformation could achieve. Many concepts in Marx’s theory of alienation could be applied and updated to help us understand today’s situations of looming economic crisis, social isolation, racism, sexism, mass incarceration, war, and deep dehumanization. While understanding the depths of capitalist alienation will not solve the mental health problems we all face individually, it can give us renewed confidence in the fight to make a better world.