Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Prostitution of Labour

The Marxist critique of private property and capitalist wage-labour appeals to the notions of exploitation and alienation, though they miss an alternative objection which I find much more compelling.

'Exploitation', in the technical Marxist sense, is when workers are not fully compensated for the value of their labour. The capitalist appropriates profit for himself, and so is said to 'exploit' the workers to whom this 'surplus value' properly belongs. But this is not necessarily unjust, especially if the workers have consented to volunteer their labour in such a way. And even if forced (e.g. due to a lack of acceptable alternatives), such transfer of surplus value may be justified if, say, part of a temporary apprenticeship that everyone must pass through. So such 'exploitation' is not intrinsically wrong. (Further, it rests on the faulty libertarian notion of absolute property rights, of which we should be skeptical. We do not want to say that redistribution to the needy 'exploits' workers in the Marxist sense!) The real injustice must rest elsewhere -- perhaps the lack of equal access to the means of production, or the power imbalances, or some other egalitarian concern. As such, it might require the redistribution of private property, but not its outright abolition.

Marxists also argue that the capitalist system 'alienates' workers from their essential human powers. They suggest that our 'species nature' (cf. Aristotle's "rational animal") is to engage in freely co-operative creative production. Much modern labour (think factory-line mass production) is a repugnant perversion of this ideal. There's no creativity involved, no craftsmanship or intimate connection with the produced object; indeed, many workers may not even see the finished product. Most importantly, wage-labour commodifies our labour-power and places it under others' control. Marxists see it as an absolute wrong to alienate us from our essential natures in such a way -- a wrong that will arise from private ownership of the means of production.

There are two main problems with this view. Firstly, the focus on 'species nature' strikes me as misplaced. As an account of human nature, it is descriptively false and ethically irrelevant. The focus should instead be on recognizing the important contribution that satisfying work can make to human well-being. Secondly - and relatedly - it ignores all competing goods. Perhaps we would be willing to suffer through some unrewarding and 'alienating' work in return for the wealth to buy luxury goods. At the very least, this possibility should not be ruled out in advance. The Marxist is unreasonable to suggest that unalienated labour is the supreme value in life!

Nevertheless, I do think there is an aspect of the 'alienation' argument that's quite compelling, and which implies that wage-labour constitutes a form of moral degradation, namely, prostitution. Just as the sex-worker prostitutes her body for economic gain, so does the worker prostitute his labour. We submit our person to the power of bosses, who can then exert almost arbitrary control over our working lives. This is morally degrading. The worker is objectified, and used merely as a means for the employer's benefit. In a more just system, people would not have to give up their humanity for forty hours (or more) a week.

Perhaps it's unavoidable, I'm not sure. At least there seems to be room for improvement -- and I would like to think that we could develop an economic system whereby socially necessary goods could be produced in a manner consistent with human dignity. I suspect most people would be willing to sacrifice some degree of material prosperity to achieve this social good. But of course the criticial question is, "how much?"

4 comments:

  1. Your argument looks like:

    Wage labor is like prostitution.
    Prostitution is degrading.
    Therefore wage labor is degrading.


    The syllogism is sound, but there are plenty of objections to the premises.

    First, COYOTE, free love types, and libertarians will deny that prostitution is per se degrading, and argue that the degradation you see is an effect of its widespread criminalization and stigmatization.

    Also, the analogy between prostitution fails, because the whole thing about prostitution is that it involves the special sex activity. No one (that I've heard) is claiming that assembling cars or digging ditches is a sacrament.

    You'd be better off sticking with

    "We submit our person to the power of bosses, who can then exert almost arbitrary control over our working lives"

    Here, you can usefully indict most, but not all, of the wage labor that gets done in the world today, and most of the non-wage labor, I bet.

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  2. > We submit our person to the power of bosses, who can then exert almost arbitrary control over our working lives. This is morally degrading.

    Surely you can exert fairly arbitrary power over your employers life - you have acess to a large amount of his stuff he has access to most probably none of your stuff.
    Fundimentally the worker is in a much more powerful position than the employer with more ability to hurt. the disadvantage of course comes when the boss is richer (which is not always true) or there are more workers in that particular area than there are businesses (quite likely but not always true). But these are variables and will always be applicable to varying degrees.

    > The worker is objectified, and used merely as a means for the employer's benefit.

    surely the employer is used only for the workers benefit - except in as far as he is somehow less rational than the employer (which is probably true).

    > In a more just system, people would not have to give up their humanity for forty hours (or more) a week.

    you give up your humanity?

    > Perhaps it's unavoidable, I'm not sure. At least there seems to be room for improvement

    at some point human labour will become obsolete so we wont ahve any problems there anymore we wont be exploited.. well at least not in that sense......

    > I suspect most people would be willing to sacrifice some degree of material prosperity to achieve this social good. But of course the criticial question is, "how much?"

    The problem is the sacrifice must be infinite as long as anyone does not sacrifice. You cant be the only country that decides not to work - or you will be out competed and eventually your system will be consumed by theirs. (even if it comes in the form of aid workers).

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  3. The idea of employers as 'bad' and employees as 'exploited' is an unfortunate tendency in political thought. Certainly these situations arise, but I know of employers who, most unexpectedly, are struggling more than their employees. And all will go down together in harder times.
    A more ideal situation would arise when the basic economic factor of property in land was treated properly. In theory wages would rise to their more accurate value, and employers would be more equal in the market place, allowing each person and type to find the best operating niche for their particular mental, physical and emotional capabilities as they were expressed in providing service or product to others.
    Some prefer, work best and are generally happy in a stolid factory like routine ... fine, so did I at one time. Others are almost violently the opposite. Creative, innovative or risk taking, .. fine, I found that too with art, though i might remark that I suspect everyone needs periods ( long periods!) of dry, drawn out effort to finally get anywhere.
    Humans also grow and change .. I think are happiest and most fullfilled when doing so. Freedom to do this is most likely to occur in such a set up as I hint at.
    I do not think it will ever happen unfortunately. There are deeply held ideas and needs that must be 'cut across' if there was to be widespread understanding of such an approach .. let alone a change to it.
    sum up .. it is not being an 'employee' as such, which could be called exploitation or prostitution, rather it CAN BE, when the power and wealth holding arrangements of economic society deprives one of the full reward of labour and reduces opportunity.
    ( end of rave!)

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