In classical Marxist theory surplus (economic) value and the role of the workers who both create it and have it “exploited” from them by capitalists, is central to how both capitalism and socialism work.
The process of taking surplus value from workers is akin to theft but that is not the term Marx used, he was perhaps being too polite or more likely he didn’t see capitalism as an unjust system, just unfair. Theft is unjust, exploitation unfair!
The worker works longer hours than he or she needs to, so as to ensure that surplus value is created and in doing so they develop an instrumental relationship to their work. They can’t enjoy it but they have to do it to live. The conclusion we draw from this process is that workers work too much and it is time rather than money that is the basis of 19th-century capitalisms unfairness. The industrial structures of the factory also reinforce the worker’s sense of powerlessness. They are not in control of the industrial processes that determine the pace of their working lives.
This demand for the workers surplus value and the environment within which it is created is the capitalist systems manifestation of the age-old problem of one human, generally male, and holding a superior position taking away from someone else what that someone else has worked hard to create, whilst to varying degrees controlling that person’s life. Every society since the birth of human consciousness has been discriminatory in one form or another. Underpinning this process of discrimination is control by a hierarchy, differently configured, as either tribe, feudal system or industrial hierarchy which causes the worker to feel powerless or oppressed and in the case of capitalism having external control on their work. There is in all societies a trend for control, the controls differ markedly from society to society.
The process of capitalist exploitation gives rise to another classic Marxist theory, the theory of “alienation”. Thus the surplus value taken by the capitalist from the worker is a kind of monetary reflection of the extent of the worker’s alienation.
Alienation is the physical and psychological effect of a worker being exploited. In a strange ironic twist fate for the world, the solution offered by the free market to the alienated worker is the almost limitless supply of goods. The demand for goods by workers has replaced religion as the “opium of the people”. This perhaps explains the success and survival of the free market given it has a debt-dependent and a planet-destroying legacy. People accept being alienated so long as they can purchase goods and the system will produce jobs and goods as long as the debt is available to pay for them.
Now bringing things up to date surplus value is no longer being produced by the capitalist system in sufficient quantities to be taxed by the government and thereby service the social, health, welfare and other state obligations. As a result of western capitalisms failure (it thrives elsewhere!), free market indebtedness has become the means by which the free market a remnant of the western capitalist system, is able to function and produce apparent wealth.
Workers exploitation and alienation have become markedly different since the mid 19th century. Today people have developed a taste for buying stuff made abroad and pay for it with debt that they have to work to pay off. All this in the false belief that spending overcomes alienation rather than reinforcing it, giving alienation in effect a social character. Arguably divorce rates reflect alienation’s social character, people only being concerned about themselves.
The description of capitalism based on a classical model no longer works today as it would have worked for Marx. So what has happened to exploitation, and alienation within the 21st-century free market?
Whilst the impression given by the advocates of the modern western economy is one of promoting abundant goods and services for the consumer, the reality is that it is cheap foreign manufactured goods that mask the continued existence of alienation. In a world with little actual classical capitalist exploitation, how does exploitation still exist and are workers still alienated? We think these are good questions and we will attempt to give a fuller answer here.
Whereas the Classical Marxist worker was not rich enough to get into debt, today the whole western economic model depends upon workers and government debt. What we have is what we at ABlueRevolution call deptamorphosis.
This is the process which sees the worker using their debt to promote a wealthy free-market elite. They do this working long hours often in public service organisations which are still modelled on 19th-century industrial hierarchies. Many earn money paid from government debt, to service their personal debt-dependent lifestyle. This is as alienating for the worker today as it was in the 19th century as they have no influence over their working practices (KPI’s today), nor the ability to escape the treadmill of debt. Just like in Marx’s day the worker has “freedom” to leave the workplace but has little likelihood of using it.
Thus whilst the working environment is a safer environment than in Marx’s day it is no less alienating. Today the worker may be doing work that has little or no economic value, and more controversially little social value either. A state employment system based on hierarchical industrial models and which pays its workers to blame the unemployed because their jobs have gone to China or a health service maintaining a low level of wellness in a system all paid for with debt is alienating for all. This is not an economy free of alienation. Workers don’t feel linked to the people they serve as customers or patients, they are forced to feel a closer link to the system which controls them and pays them. No difference here to the hierarchy of the industrial era and there are huge differentials in pay.
Likewise expecting the worker to become indebted to make “free marketeers” and public servants rich is a new way of exploiting workers that Karl Marx could not have identified if he had lived into the mid 20th century.
Perhaps the solution is to look at where in any modern organisation the social value is created and liberate workers at that level casting out of the organisations the people who have high wages paid to them but they offer little in the way of social value.
If Capitalism had been forced to yield to the dictatorship of the workers, as opposed to evolving into the debt-dependent planet-destroying monster the free market has become, then it is the capitalist and their exploiting hierarchy that would have been put asunder, not the work or the workers themselves. There are lessons here for operational public servants in all departments of the state and the army of 100k+ a year bosses who manage them.