Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Thinking about life, work and Marx

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Karl Marx the philosopher argued that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

When I first became aware of this philosophical explanation of the world and our place in it, it really hit home. It made sense to me and still does.

Marx put it in even simpler terms when he wrote that “The way people get their living determines their social outlook.”  

And “their living” means how they produce the necessities of life, what part they play in this process.  All human existence has been about the production of life’s necessities, food, shelter, security etc. Without production there is no life at all and there have been different ways of accomplishing this task. One thing is that human beings figured out that as individuals we were relatively weak and at the mercy of our surroundings and that production of our needs, especially food, was more efficient when organized collectively. That’s how society came about.

In tribal society people had different roles and our needs were the product of the group as a whole. The “social product” was not privately owned, nor was the means of producing it and it was shared. We produced for our immediate needs.

In our society, a class based society we call capitalism, different groups of people play different roles but not in the same way. The means of producing our needs, the machines, the factories, the mines, and the land and other aspects of the natural world, are privately owned.  One group of people, a minority in society, has accumulated great wealth through their ownership of these productive forces.

The majority of us do not own these things. What we do is sell our labor power, our life activity if you like, to these owners, we call them capitalists.  By owning our life activity for a period of time, they have the right to direct its use, determine what sort of activity we engage in.  During the time period that we call work, that the capitalist owns our labor power, if we choose to use some of that time to read a book, do some homework for night school or chat to a friend on the phone about the weekend’s activities, we are stealing from the capitalist, stealing his time. We are violating his/her rights.

If it’s an auto repair shop or a private hospital, different workers, nurses, porters or mechanics and office staff do the work. But the other group that is hidden from this process we call work is the people that own the buildings, plant, equipment and every other object that workers need to fulfill their particular tasks. In small places where production takes place the owner may work alongside us or be present.

But in the major production centers, most of these people are faceless, will be investors who put up the money and they don’t call this process they are involved in with us, work; we are not equal partners. For one thing, they, not us, own the end result, own the product that our labor power creates and it is their right in a capitalist society to do with it what they will.

They do not only “legally” own the thing produced, cars say, they own the person’s functions during that time, they own the machines, the land, the buildings involved with the production of things. In other words, they own what we call the labor process. And they own the labor process as capitalists because it is through the labor process that wealth is created. And more specifically, through the use of a human being’s labor power.  We produce more value than they pay us for. Profits have their source in the unpaid labor of the worker. This is how wealth is accumulated so capital in the first place is not theirs to own, or allocate socially, it’s a collective product. That’s why we have the saying that labor creates all wealth because it does.

It is not the end product, its useful qualities or a social need that motivates the capitalist, it is the wealth, the value created above their outlay that they are interested in that is contained within the product. That’s why the obsession with selling-----the object has to be sold for the capitalist to free the value contained within it.

Understanding this is important because not only does “being” determine consciousness as an individual, how we earn a living determine our personal outlook, but our role in the production of life’s necessities which is a collective process as we all work together, produces mass consciousness.  Mass consciousness is class-consciousness.

Identity politics, particularly in the US where it’s so prevalent, is also used to obscure this reality because it ignores or diverts our attention from the commonality of our existence, our desires and social condition as workers, it is an attempt to obscure the most important division in society, the real “us and them”, and that is the class division. That’s why they scream about class warfare whenever it’s brought up. How can one be free if there are classes in society?

There is a reason that those who sell their labor power to live, in other words, are wage laborers, call what we do “work” and that’s because we do it. The capitalist has a different language, a different way of expressing what they do because what they do is different, it’s not work as we see it.

They buy labor power, we sell it. 

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