ALIENATION: from Karl Marx to Merle Travis and beyond

Sixteen tons
Whadaya get?
Another day older
And deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me
‘coz I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.

‘Sixteen tons’ is one of many songs about alienation under capitalism. The song was recorded in the USA in 1946 by Merle Travis , whose father had worked in the mines of Kentucky. Merle’s father often used the phrase “another day older and deeper in debt” around the house. The song has been covered by many country artists, as well as blues and rock performers – my favourite version is by Eric Burdon. (Merle Travis’ version is here:

Check out Eric’s too:

The ‘sixteen tons’ refers to work, specifically in the coal mines during the era of the ‘truck system’ (under which workers in company towns were paid with vouchers recognized only by the local store rather than paid in cash). This may seem to date the song, even make it irrelevant to the current time. However, I think ‘sixteen tons’ can mean any kind of work people do for wages under a system in which wealth is socially produced yet privately appropriated. It’s certainly true that mechanization and automation continue to reduce the numbers of people doing such work; the kind of toil that my father always referred to in my youth as ‘dirty work’. (He worked in factories and used to nag me: “Son, study hard and go to uni and then you’ll be able to become a school teacher. Don’t end up in a dirty job.”).

There’s nothing romantic about working in the dirty jobs and, as technological changes continue to reduce many of the more mind-numbing tasks, then it becomes more likely that more people will seek even greater freedom to decide what they do and how and why they do it. Multi-skilling is another example. The more it occurs, so too the greater the likelihood that workers will start wondering why they can’t strive to fully develop their many interests and desires. We are rarely these days just a machinist, just a waitress or just a teacher, and within a lifetime we can be all the above and more. But this multi-skilling occurs within the framework of capitalist social relations: we are multi-skilled in the interests of a capitalist class. But were the producers to one day control production, why would there need to be social limits to what we want to be and, indeed, to our satisfaction in striving toward achieving our goals and desires? This would be free enterprise in the best possible sense.

Capitalist enterprises that experiment with ‘worker participation’ seek to create a sense of ‘belonging’ yet cannot reduce alienation because it is rooted in the very economic system that allows the capitalist class to appropriate socially produced wealth. But, again, such experiments raise the question: why can’t the workers take over for ourselves? Why can’t we be the ‘board of directors’ and the owners? Do we really need ‘them’ to do it for us?

When I was in the communist party during the 1970s, the old veterans often talked about the ‘big one’ coming; that is, that one day, there would be a major global crisis for capitalism that would be so severe the system would not survive. They seemed to believe that without such a crisis, there would be no revolution. Later, after I quit the party and started thinking more for myself, I started to wonder why a revolution should occur from a crisis like the one experienced in the 1930s. Economic depressions hardly create optimism. Why shouldn’t people, as they did, mostly just want the system to work again as it had when they were in jobs? Of course, communist activists back then succeeded, to a point, in linking the economic crisis to its root cause, capitalism, but capitalism has clearly not continued a downward spiral in terms of living conditions and working conditions for most people. In absolute terms, working conditions and living conditions have improved since the 1930s in the advanced industrial societies. So, is it really about inevitable economic crisis? Is there any other fundamental reason for wanting to overthrow capitalism and replace it with social ownership?

I think there is. And, while I’m no expert when it comes to theory, I think it’s clear that, regardless of the condition of the economy, an excellent reason for wanting fundamental change in the social relations is because our human potential is so undermined by the wages system. We are alienated from the basic process of production (because we have no control over it as workers) and from other important aspects of our humanity. In his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx argued that in addition to being alienated from the process of production, the workers are also alienated from its product (as this is owned by the owner of the means of production, the capitalist) and we are alienated from one another, our fellow workers (as labour becomes a commodity rather than a social relationship because we are only an extension of the means of production that the owners of capital buy).

Of particular importance, in my opinion, is Marx’s notion that the worker is also alienated from his or her individual humanity or ‘species essence’. It’s worth quoting Marx on this:

In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.

It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.

While technologies, management techniques and living standards have changed since Marx’s time and since the end of World War Two, capitalism itself hasn’t changed in any fundamental sense. It remains a socio-economic system where social relations are based on commodities for exchange, in particular private ownership of the means of production and on the exploitation of wage labour.

So the ‘sixteen tons’, the symbol of production based on the exploitation of wage labour, remains as relevant as ever. The song is also valid today when it suggests drudgery – we work, we get older, we generally go deeper into debt. Our greatest achievement in countries like Australia is paying off the house. Yet we spend the better part of our lives doing so. And even in Australia, with comparatively high home-ownership rates, most of us do not own our own homes outright.

In ‘Sixteen Tons’, Merle Travis was referring to the ‘store system’ in the geographically isolated mining towns of Kentucky whereby the company – the owners of the mines – also owned the stores which had a monopoly over the provision of goods and services. Workers frequently went into debt to the company store and were thereafter ‘trapped’ into working at the particular place to pay off their debts. The truck system ensured they could not save cash. Today, for ‘company store’, I suppose one can substitute the word ‘bank’.

The ‘company store’ is also very important to an understanding of alienation because it symbolizes, in the song, the physical expression of the wages system as experienced by the workers. Workers in any industry rarely see the real boss – the owners of the company. We talk often about ‘the bosses’ – the boss did this, or the boss said that – but usually this refers to those we see and meet and experience at work each day. These are managers rather than bosses and, despite their high salaries, are usually as dependent as the rest of us on the wages system. When trade union leaders urge the ‘bosses’ to be fairer or speak angrily against unfair bosses, they are missing the point unless these bosses are linked directly back to the owners of whatever the means of production happens to be. Invariably, such militant rhetoric merely seeks longer chains and bigger cages for the workers, and is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The company store might be pressured into lowering some prices, giving more credit or deferring some repayments, it might replace stern and impersonal counter staff with the happy smiling faces of staff with diplomas in ‘human relations’ – but still the source of exploitation will exist. Once the truck system was abolished, workers were paid in cash – but no less exploited, no less alienated from their work.

The worker in the advanced economies is rarely trapped into the company store system today. Indeed, the individual worker is able to leave one job in pursuit of another at any time: but the new job will still be based on the wages system. And the debts, to the bank, will still need to be repaid. Someone will own the show – ‘the mine’ and ‘the store’ – other than the workers who produce goods and/or provide services. It is true that leaving one job for another is easier in good times, when labour is in demand, but this misses the point that wherever the worker goes, they will end up working for wages, the work is not voluntarily performed but only performed because individual workers cannot survive without those wages. The entire class, the working class, is thus defined by its relationship to the owners and the wages system keeps us locked into what is in essence wage slavery.

The Marxist notion that alienation denies us our true humanity and potential, the enjoyment and fulfilment of our ‘species essence’, brings me back to the song. For, in my view, the most important lyric relates to the ‘soul’. The worker, in the song, owes not just money but pretty much EVERYTHING – the best hours of his awakened day – to the company store. Which is really saying he owes it to the company. Which means the class of owners.

I know that Marx was an atheist, and it’s not possible to embrace a materialist philosophy and also believe in God. But as an atheist myself, I do think the notion of the human ‘soul’ should not be dismissed in any discussion of alienation. No, I’m not suggesting for one moment that there’s a thing called a soul that exists independently of our sensual reaction to the material world. But there is something that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and, again, it is what Marx called our ‘species being’. Were it not for this quality of humanity, we could not feel or sense our alienation. We would just work like the spider that weaves its complex web without any sense of what else we could be doing that would be more fulfilling, more efficient, more liberating, more beautiful and useful. We would not imagine the new things and new ways of doing things that precede achievement and progress and are nurtured by it.

Given that 99% of the population don’t spend any time studying theories of alienation, it becomes something that is felt rather than understood, and expressed through a desire for greater meaning in life. In the 1960s, the counter-culture movement gained enough followers to set up experimental communes in rural areas based on the principle of self-sufficiency. This too was an expression of alienated people seeking something better, but in reality doing little more than expressing their alienation rather than seeking to change the system that causes it.

Unlike production in medieval times, self-sufficiency proved impossible in a modern industrial society and the hippies left themselves wide open to stand-up comedians who saw dependence on the dole cheque or wealthy parents or drugs – or all the above – as being necessary to the experiment. Besides, the great majority of people didn’t want to drop out; they rightly wanted the benefits and material advantages of life in an advanced industrial society. But this too has its down-side, in that people tend to seek happiness through objects. And while I will never say anything sacri-religious about my Plasma TV, I certainly want greater freedom as well as more stuff. The struggle against alienation is a quest for greater freedom and self-actualisation, regardless of whether capitalism is going through periodic economic crisis or not.

The expression of alienation that seeks greater meaning in life usually has a religious form, including the quasi-religious green outlook in which Nature is God. I’m always stumped as to why so many people support or sympathize with green ideology (by which I mean the idea that we must develop some kind of subservient harmonious and ‘sustainable’ relationship with the natural environment rather than continue to actively change it in our collective interests). But perhaps alienation offers an explanation. We all sense our ‘powerlessness’, our disconnect from the way social relations are structured, and, arising from that, many of us seek some sense of control over life. A few people go in for things like growing their own vegetables or becoming self-sufficient in domestic energy. Those who do get into this, really take it very seriously. They are not just growing their own veggies but ‘Saving the planet’ no less.

Marx certainly saw religion as an expression of alienation, with humans creating gods as a reflection of themselves but believing them to be separated from and external to themselves. Everyone knows Marx’s statement about the ‘opium of the masses’ but in the same discussion in his Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) he describes religion as “the soul of soulless conditions”, the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world”. He is not endorsing religion, but seeking to understand it. There is no suggestion that religion solves the problem of alienation – far from it – for “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions.” (read more at the site )

The solution to alienation lay not with seeking meaning somewhere other than the material conditions of existence or of making people feel better so they can cope, or new management techniques in the workplace that make us work better and happier and more effectively, but rather the solution is to change the economic basis of the problem. Anything else keeps us on a merry-go-round. But that is a bad example, for merry-go-rounds are usually fun, whereas the wages system generally isn’t. Proof of this is found in the oft-repeated expression in the workplace: “I just work here”. Or in the enthusiastic lunch-break discussions about winning the lottery. Few people who win the lotto return to work on a voluntary basis. Rather, they start doing what they want to do. They seek to make the most of their freedom from wage slavery. It’s not about ‘the money’ or waiting for ‘the big one’; it’s about freedom and fulfilment or what Marx (in The German Ideology) called “self-activity” (self-actualisation), the opposite of alienation. This self-actualization, or “development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting-off of all natural limitations” cannot possibly occur under capitalism but, to Marx, only through communism when “self-activity coincides with material life”.

Without the overthrow of capitalist social relations and their replacement by social ownership of social wealth, people will remain alienated, the best years of their lives being organised to produce someone else’s profit or servicing that system. Under a system in which the workers are the ruling class, production could be geared to social need and the desires of imagination rather than to the profit of the few.

‘Sixteen tons’ is a heavy weight but nothing compared to the creative power of human beings when freed and unleashed from the constraints of capitalist social relations.

16 Responses to “ALIENATION: from Karl Marx to Merle Travis and beyond”

  1. 1 jim sharp

    nowt endures dialectics, not even alienation
    in the meantimes some of us prolies write poerty or whatver? aboot our feeligs

    when productive
    move exploiters
    to of tears joy &
    ON THE OTHER SIDE OF alienation


    gludes as she flits between the tables
    & by virtue of dextrous hands
    serves up multiple dishes
    “the drunken chicken” being my favourite

    & with a deftly twist of th wrist
    pours the house red into mediocre crystal
    & thereinafter with such cool finesse
    blances the empty dishes upon her forearms

    nonetheless! her daily workaday grind
    shows in her deadpan dark deep eyes & YET!
    shud an appreciating diner warmly connect
    tracy xing hua’s social sociableness be striking

    and at once her brooding lustrous eyes
    become alive & dance joyously
    chanced! by the way of
    the diners sensual friendly grace

    thereinafter their esprit de corps brings forth
    a classy class-wink for instinctively they know
    within the final analysis there ain’t no boss who owns
    their know-how & life- chain experiences.

    We are different, in essence, from other folk.
    We experience something in ‘ourselves’ by organizing a demo
    We’re experiencing the long slow evolutionary /
    Revolutionary emancipation process
    Where tomorrow is living in the present
    To get there we’ll need to exercise life as is
    not as we wish practice & absorb ourselves
    in materialist dialectics – but then!
    that’s a lot of hard learning study.

    winter is nigh

    infinite atoms be drumbeating
    their ways unto new life
    in the mirror my owd face
    outside me home descendants “rumbling”

    snow drifts covers yards &
    with some difficultly one opens
    backdoors while beyond fallen flakes
    quiets mining village street whereas
    only last night drunken collier lads’
    hobnail boots kicked up one hell of a racket

    inescapably industry is abandoned
    coz of natures whiteness while
    mean-bizzness exploiters address
    nowt but melancholic fits of despair
    locking themselves away inwards
    in gated mac-mansion confinements

  2. 2 Bill Kerr

    hi barry,

    Thanks for a well crafted essay on a not easy topic.

    As you probably know there is a very confused literature about marx and alienation. Your essay motivated me to read some of it. I thought this one was good because it seems to trace a coherent thread of marx’s use of the term:
    Marx’s Conception of alienation in the Grundrisse (pdf) by Terrell Carver

    I still have to think about it some more but here are a few half baked thoughts for discussion:

    (1) Eric Burdon and Merle Travis are enjoying themselves performing that song about alienation, which is their occupation. How does this fit into the analysis?

    (2) I’ve seen the movie (Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan: Joe Versus the Volcano) featured in the Eric Burdon clip – it’s hilarious, especially the exaggerated alienation scenes at the start

    (3) You hear people say (eg. me) that they enjoy their job, that there are some bad days but that the good days are magic – in my case teaching. So, in marxist terms my labour under capitalism is both alienated labour and living labour. Following on from this some might argue that as capitalism progresses, standard of living increases, jobs become more multi skilled, more mental work and less physical work due to better technology, division of labour decreases, etc. that the ratio of living labour to alienated labour increases.

    (4) Some theories of change are based on the idea that the entrepreneur is the progressive driving force – Schumpeter’s creative destruction and other Austrian economists. That can be seen as an individualists answer to alienation.

    In the light of thesse observations / discussion points it might be better to rephrase that bit where you seem to juxtapose economic crisis with alienation. The way I read it they are not really separate in Marx’s analysis – its more that his analysis of crisis arises further down the track that begins with alienation of labour power, that it is all part of the same analysis.

  3. 3 jim sharp

    pre- the early 1960’s boners in the Oz meat industry worked their own idividual tallies & if they cracked a ton for the day they were usually very happy fellas. then the new revolutionary means of production so much luvved on this site was forced upon us, not without a huge class against class fight i might add.we lost & mechanised chain bonning was introdused.’tis true in wasn’t quite as hard, but, it was about 50% faster & low & behold bodies wore away quicker. the days were longer. from that day forth we became cloak watches bored FULL STOP OUT OF OUR BRAINS!
    the marxian scholar who speaks most to my lifes alienation experiences. you & your readers might like to susss out his stuff

    Alienation theories in an era of chronic under-employment
    and over-work more>>

  4. 4 Austin Williams

    Excellent piece as usual, Barry.

    It’s fundamentally important to restate the reality of capitalist relations, especially at a time when we regularly hear the mantra that: “we are all capitalists now”.

    Whether in periods of decline or of boom, the exploitative social relations of capitalism persist. And for those who argue that such exploitation is more obvious in recessionary times, they need to remember that our alienation sometimes allows social iniquities to be mystified and thus transposed onto others. For example, it is sometimes easier to see our exploitation as the result of fellow workers than it is to lay the blame at the door of the “system”.

    I think that the reclaiming of a belief of something better is essential… and this means challenging those who think that belief, in itself is either: naive, irrationally religious or non-scientific. Ironically, the environmentalists who proclaim that they are making a better world, by demanding restraint in the present, have a human instinct to improvement (good) but are completely mistaken in their premise and politics (bad).

    One thing to also bear in mind too, is Marx’s quote that “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness”. We have to be aware of the creeping “Happiness Agenda” which is rapidly becoming the cri-de-couer of the austerity-apologists. “Happiness” today, is a codeword for the culture of contentment, ie, be happy with your lot. A sentiment that “Sixteen Tons” would have had no truck with.


  5. 5 barry

    Jim, No matter how strongly you yearn for a return to the past – “pre-early 1960s” – ways of doing things, there is no way that it can (or should) happen. Your fellow workers in the meat industry under the individual tally system back then were not just “happy fellas” but happy wage-slaves. This is the essence of the capitalist social relations of production and the source of alienation (as I understand it).

    The fact that the trade union bosses usually try to oppose new technologies that increase production and allow more people to buy more stuff more cheaply merely confirms that the trade unions are reactionary. These struggles are never won, and cannot be won, but they do result in workers continuing to leave the unions in droves.

    Once upon a time, the left made sense to a significant number of workers. This was a time when it enthusiastically advocated the unleashing of the productive forces. This kind of left-wing outlook also points out that the problem with capitalism is not that it is ‘revolutionary’ in coming up with new means of production but, on the contrary, holds back creativity, science and inventiveness by exploiting wage labour and constraining production to the pursuit of profit. The left-wing commitment to ‘Abundance for all!’ needs urgent reviving in the face of pseudo-left angst about ‘too much consumption’.

    Engels got it right, spot on in fact, in ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’. He looked at the pre-Industrial Revolution, pre-factory system, way of life and noted how for the home-based producer, life was much more simple, less alienating – their healthy children grew up in “fresh country air”. Further, “They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to do, and yet earned what they needed. They had leisure for healthful work in garden or field, work which, in itself, was recreation for them, and they could take part besides in the recreations and games of their neighbours”.

    It was, said Engels, “cosily romantic”. The ‘only’ problem, for Engels and Marx was that “It was not a life worthy of human beings”!

    People living like that were “intellectually dead; lived only for their petty, private interest, for their looms and gardens, and knew nothing of the mighty movement which, beyond their horizon, was sweeping through mankind. They were comfortable in their silent vegetation, and but for the industrial revolution they would never have emerged from this existence”.

    There are always people who want to hold back progress, and those who support it.

    What is truly remarkable today is that overt opposition to progress is regarded as a left-wing position!

    More Engels on this here:

  6. 6 jim sharp

    how you cud read into my stuff about how we were doubly exploited by the intro of new means of production in the early 1960’s &
    that i hanker for the past is beyond my prolie comprehension.

    any oz historian worth a dialog with must at least a smattering first up the history of our union the AMIEU; especially the qld branch. coz then s/he wud know that our union didn’t have union bosses until the intro of the federal MPA award which centralised all the state branches into one central body.

    it don’t take an einstein to known that axomatically pyramids of power-authority & domination P.A.D. follow quickly in the train of centralism, beit within unions, churches or thelastsuperpower boffins who try to put down all & sundry by their self proclaimed “genuine authoritiveness”

    for the readers info every “shed”[meatworks] before the federal award in qld had its “own regularly elected local-board of control” & the elected paid state officials cud only come onto the job, if the local board of control or the shed members at a mass meeting request their attendence. comrades it wud help your cred,if before you shoot your elitist mouths off aboot union bosses. that youse yourselves knew nothing aboot our own oz working class history.

  7. 7 jim sharp

    I were born in 1933 in the don valley where english industry was revolutionized the & for a century before my time. on my mum & dads sides they were all industrial prolies i.e. colliery pit lads[hewers] & skilled steel workers who turned iron ore into the steel which then became other products as well as making thefixture & fitting of those cotton mills of Manchester which engels recorded so admirably as did ‘the ragged trousered’n a tad later & the don valley where English industry revolutionized hopefully with this poem I try
    the bounds of human dignity

    granny sharp telled us stories
    told a story how twenty six bairns
    eleven lasses & fifteen lads… aged 8 to 16 years
    drowned in the bowels of Hoylandswaine colliery.

    granny sharp telled us stories
    told a story how womenfolk … kin & comrades
    stood-by Warren Vale pit-head shaft,
    whilst loved collier lads rapt in calico were laid low.

    granny Sharp telled us stories
    told a story how the Don Valley grievously mourned
    & raged … as the masters-law decreed “an act of god”
    after five hundred Oaks colliery pit lads died.

    granny Sharp told us stories
    told a story how her god forsaken family* wept
    when her dear Eleven years old brothers head
    betwixt two coal tubs were crushed to smithereens.

    granny Sharp telld us stories
    told a story how the masters always reckon might is their right
    Yet! instinctively the labouring class is unselfish within the bounds
    of human dignity & stand-by there bereft.

    *Purseglove family

    To para engels: In spite of all this, the Oz educated boffins middle income -class, especially those whom capital allots some degree of work place autonomy[teachers ], which is enriched directly by means of the poverty in its fullest sense of the workers, despite their edification persists in ignoring this poverty. This class, feeling itself the mighty elite representative of a class of the universalisms , is ashamed to lay the sore spot of OZ bare before the eyes of the world or OZ ; will not confess, even to itself, that the workers are in distress, because it, the property-holding oligopoly class, must bear the moral responsibility for this distress. Hence the scornful smile which “intelligent” elite [erstwhiles] & they, the middle-income-class, alone are known to us you know assume when any one begins to speak of the condition of the working-class; hence the utter ignorance on the part of the whole middle-income boffins of everything which concerns the workers; hence the ridiculous blunders which ‘comrades’ of this lot, in and out of the booxh-wah massmedia, make when the position of the proletariat comes under discussion; hence the absurd freedom from anxiety, with which the middle income elite genuine boffins dwells upon a soil that is honeycombed, and may any day collapse, the speedy collapse of which is as certain as a mathematical or mechanical demonstration; hence the miracle that the genuine elite have as yet no single book upon the condition of their workers, although they have been examining and mending the old ’68 state of things no one knows how many years. Hence also the deep wrath of the whole working-class, from town & city to the bush, against the rich & their apologists, by whom they are systematically plundered and mercilessly left to their fate, a wrath which before too long a time goes by, a time almost within the power of the class to predict, must break out into a revolution in comparison with which the French Revolution, and the year 1794, will prove to have been child’s play.

  8. 8 Barry

    Jim, I’ve printed out the article on alienation, by Humphrey MacQueen, to which you linked and will read it over the next fews days.

    Bill, ditto the article by Terrell Carver.

    Jim, the “auld prole” stuff does nothing for me. I was for too many years in a communist party where one’s views and criticisms were dismissed on the grounds of class background rather than on the basis of their content. I’m interested in ideas, discussing what it means to be left-wing in the C21st, practical issues, and sometimes theoretical questions like alienation. Neither Marx nor Lenin had working-class backgrounds. And, please, don’t make assumptions about mine – you may end up with egg on your face.


  9. 9 jim sharp

    b.y says” “I’m interested in ideas”
    then can i suggest you start by reading nay better still studying old mao’s ‘where do correct ideas come from’ otherwise you maywell end up being nowt but an idealist! now that wudn’t do wud it! for a “genuine materialist”.
    for your info; Oz is awash with socially active comrades doing & discussing what it means to be politically & socially left in the C21st. youse mob don’t have a monopoly there.

  10. 10 Barry

    You might like to start with ‘On Practice’ or ‘On Contradiction’ yourself.

    Which voice told you I said we have a monopoly here?

    Being interested in ideas also means being interested in debate. Why don’t you try it?


  11. 11 jim sharp

    the very fact that youse on this site are always saying that you’re the genuine left vis-a-vis all other’lefties’
    sounds nay ‘yis very much like a voice blowing it own horn in capitals & i ain’t deaf yet! matey
    on practice & on contradiction caused berty brecht to write a brilliant poem praising old mao materialism.
    i struggle to get me owd head around the mini maoist stuff here, but i’ll take your word & reread it some appropiate day
    mistakenly i thought i were dialoging with you modern workers do amongst ourselves.
    debating it seem to me to be nowt but new lefty religio-power over stuff or aging students trying to cyber legal eagles in cyberspace. the ’68ers lost! get over it & move with the times. shoot me down in flames once more & i’ll kaput & go talk with prolie interlectuals “whom i know are active lsteners”

  12. 12 Barry

    Man, you don’t strike me as an an active listener.

    Can we go back to alienation in this thread?

  13. 13 jim sharp

    sure!alienated ’68’er

    sixteeen seisures
    & whadaysa get?
    too many days alone
    deeper in melancholia
    so mister marx don’t you call me
    coz i wain’t come coz i owe
    mesel to the oligopoies revolution

  14. 14 Barry

    Bill, I reckon Eric and Merle are happy singing that song because they’re artists doing what they love to do. They’d probably do it for nothing anyway. It kinda proves the point, I think, as most of us don’t do what we like doing (for a living) and would never do it for nothing.

    I’ve worked with people who, like you, generally enjoy their job but how common is this? If it’s the norm, then we’d better wait for ‘the big one’ to hit. I don’t have a firm view on whether the ratio of alientated to living labour increases or decreases with tehcnological changes that reduce the need for manual labour but it makes sense that people in such jobs would feel less alienated and are better off than those in process work. However, being less alienated can or might or will result in people wanting to be even less alienated.

    As I understand it (in my limited way) the alienation of labour power, the exploitation of wage-labour, is what it’s about. In that sense, it’s all part of the same analysis. And yet, the feelings of alienation must have a separate existence, too, and that is why we can discuss it/them.

    I made it clear in the article that “I’m no expert when it comes to theory”. I was probably hoping to learn more from the comments than I have thus far.

  15. 15 Bill Kerr

    still not finished but here are some notes

    1844 doc: shorthand for Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
    Marx born in 1818 (26 yo in 1844)

    there seem to be a number of problems taking the 1844 (young marx) as definitive, some of these relate to “young marx” and some are more general, relate to any marx
    – translation German to English, this is often mentioned in footnotes by the translators themselves
    – language also changes over time (eg. fetishism has sexual connotations today but according to the wikipedia page on Marx in his day meant something made by people which people believed had power over them)
    – marx was more mature when he wrote Capital (Volume one, first published 1867), he had developed his concepts further
    – his closeness to Hegel’s thought in 1844 and the potential audience influenced by Hegel (young Hegelians waned later)
    – revolutionary ferment of 1844 which ebbed later, the language used in revolutionary times tends to be more radical / polemical / urgent
    – the subsequent reforms of capitalism – in marx’s time (young or old) there was no welfare state, safety net for unemployed

    I’ve read part of the 1844 manuscript (Estranged Labour section) and reread Chapter 1-4 of Capital: The Fetishism of Commodities, also 1-3 The Form of Value and some other material as well

    Capital is much more grounded in a thorough analysis of commodities (use value, exchange value and value) and the different forms of value – commodities are not clearly identified and analysed in 1844 (just products of labour)

    Some of the extreme statements in the 1844 document about the conditions of workers are not found in these sections of Capital – (I haven’t read all of Capital yet so they maybe there in later sections), statements like these, read original for context :
    XXII para 7: the worker becomes poorer the more he produces (repeated in para 9)
    XXII para 9: to the point of starving to death

    XXIII para 6: deformed worker, barbarous worker
    XXIII para 7: hovels, deformity, stupidity

    These descriptions would have been true for that time but Marx’s later analysis was a more generalised analytical critique of capitalism, not so much the specialised case of early capitalism which ground workers down in a uniform, barbaric fashion

    In Capital the word alienation can be read as “sale” (as in sale of labour power) whereas in the 1844 doc it can be read as psychological alienation.

    Well, does sale of labour power lead to psychological alienation? Yes, as can other aspects of a weird system. Although this is true the way I read it is that that is not the main point of Marx’s later writings, rather he systematically unravels all the contradictions of capitalism and where they lead to.

    1844 doc has a 4 part summary of alienation:
    1) alienation from object,
    2) alienation from the act of labor,
    3) alienation from speciesbeing (man qua man), and
    4) alienation from others (man from man).

    In Capital this 4 part summary is replaced by : the social relations between workers takes the form of social relations between products. This is repeated in many different ways some of them poetic. My shorthand for this is “commodity rhetoric”, need further elaboration and reading of the original in full carefully.

    On the other hand the religious analogy or metaphor of 1844 is repeated in Capital. ie. man creates gods in his imagination which have relations with each other (like greek gods) and people; commodities are like that too

    I read that the 1844 doc was not actually published until 1932, ie. after Marx died Engels did not see it as a priority to publish, nor did Marx in his lifetime

    At this stage my guess is that the 1844 doc ought to be treated as rough formative document that was more fully worked out later by Marx and there was a change in emphasis from something akin to psychological alienation to a more materialist analysis of the commodity and its forms

    My analysis is incomplete at this stage but this might be useful for discussion

  16. 16 Jayjee

    Marx himself may well have been an atheist, but his entire ouevre is soaked in Judeo-Xian eschataology; a psychological tic he was weened on by the implications of his father’s conversion to Xianity (from Judaism) in order to join the bourgeois as a lawyer in the anti-semitic German civil service.

    One of my oldest and bestest mates in the world remains a Commie from our uni days. He even still works in a far-left trade-union. I am not, despite writing a very sincere and – dare I say – brilliant honours thesis on Marxist economics. Though I still believe very much in the importance of class-struggle and other cognate Marxian concerns.

    But about ten years ago, I tweaked as to where my mate and I took different roads. I do not see “exploitation” in the same wicked way that Marx – and my mate – do. I see it more neutrally as “leverage” that can benefit both parties. Sure, as the examples above attest, Kist “exploitation” can still enrage, but it is not necessary to the system keep on keeping on.

    Where my mate had a big draw in of breath, a skull of the schooner, and a shake of the head was when I followed with I don’t think that extracting surplus value necessarily has any ethical/moral import. Sure, it CAN; but it needn’t, and again Kism can funtion without this understanding of the extraction of surplus value.

    One of the most telling aspects of Marx’s Judeo-Xian metaphysics is this fear of change – expressed in his notion of constant crisis. Marx, like John Donne, longs for the tranquility “in the fullness of time”, and employs all sorts of theory and social agents to bring on the Second Coming. Perhaps he wanted to stop the cry of the lambs ringing in his ears? We read this Judeo-Xian eschatology now in the bourgeois-left critiques of the so-called GFC, by the likes of John Quiggin. A few huge banks failed, there was a weekend or so of drama, but nothing big really happened, and even it did, who wants life to be a constantly self-replicating version of Groundhog Day?

    Give me colour, movement, and dynamism, or give me death!

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