Sunday, February 23, 2014

Labor and Appearance

            In keeping with the suggestion to carefully analyze passages of “appearance” within Marx’s writing, I am struck by own naivety in terms of the appearance of my labor. The relationship that Marx (with the help of others) portrays between wage laborers and slave laborers resulted in a bout of self-loathing.
            The combination of Marx’s thought with quotes from T.R Edmonds and J. Steuart reveal the persuasiveness of appearance in regards to labor—a concept which, in my mind, should have received greater attention and space. While Edmonds provides a distinction between “free” laborers and slaves by pointing out the ability of “changing [the free labourer’s] master,” it is when he comments on the “erroneous” tendency of the free labourer to “think himself free” that Edmonds enters the discourse of appearance (1027). Though Edmond goes on to point out other distinctions, it is Steuart that provides another key factor in this discussion by suggesting “Men were then forced to labour, because they were slaves to others; men are now forced to labour because they are slaves of their own wants” (1028). The idea is rather obvious when taking these points into consideration, yet labor (at least in my opinion) is masked by “sticking it to the Man” or working for a boss who you flip off when they exit the room. This concept, then, seems to contribute to the “mysterious” element of capital by creating this illusionary scapegoat for our angst, while the whole time we were simply imagining ourselves to have freely chosen to work.   
            Marx’s contribution comes in the form of the social question, which raises more differences between free laborers and slaves while simultaneously complicating the distinction. According to Marx, though the slave is kept in his situation by “direct compulsion,” the “free worker” must stay in his role due to the dependence of his family (1031). By continuously requiring the sale of his labor power, the laborer becomes a slave to his own wants and needs in accordance with the social relationships surrounding him. Marx goes on to suggest that “the capitalist relationship appears to be an improvement in one’s position in the social scale”, but “it is otherwise when the independent peasant or artisan becomes a wage-labourer” (1033). Once again we encounter an easily understood relationship—that of a serf/slave to a wage labourer—and realize the hidden, negative elements that are overlooked. By transitioning to a wage-labourer, Marx argues, the artisan becomes indifferent to his work; an idea that could be read as a nod to Hegel, where the self-consciousness of the slave exists due to the realization that he shapes the world around him through his work. If the slave ceases to care about his work, does this alter the dialectic? While wages, “versatility,” etc. may create a disparate understanding between the two forms of labor, Marx and co. create a similar turn to that of Hegel by presented an obviously skewed reality before understanding a negative conception of it through analysis.
             I was wondering if anyone else had thoughts on this segment of Capital in terms of contesting how we might typically view our own labor, or if we can understand our reasons for working beyond commodity fetishism as a middle ground between wage labor and slavery.


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  2. I have no answer to Chandler’s question, but I too thought this was an interesting, if frustrating, aspect to Marx’ overall argument. Any time I hear the word appearance, I think about Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. To paraphrase, Franklin’s advice to industrious American’s is that it isn’t enough to work as hard as you can, you also need to look like you are working as hard as you can—hence, the need to flip off the boss as soon as he (or she) walks out the door. Until I was able to come back to school, I labored in the misery of the American workplace with the naïve notion that education was something altogether different. I thought that attaining some level of mastery (getting a master’s degree, becoming a master, whatever) was akin to the process described by Marx: “he has to pass through the proscribed stages of apprentice and journeyman and even produce his own masterpiece” (1030). The good news is that higher education has completely obliterated such notions because I read sentence like the following, “In teaching institutions the teachers can be no more than wage-labourers for the entrepreneur of the learning factory” (1048).

    I think that Chandler is on to something with the comments about angst being a distraction, a part of the system that allows the system to continue—something like a safety valve. Idealism—maybe the flip side of the angst coin—works in much the same way. However, I think that Marx believes in knowledge. He is at his core an idealist. So, this idealistic dualism becomes the problem for me. Idealism can be a distraction, but consciousness-raising is an idealistic enterprise. Marx wants the proletariat to recognize that capital has found new and more efficient ways to exploit a certain class of people—namely, by stealing the very thing that separates them from the animal species (their labour-power) in a manner that makes them complicit in the theft of their neighbors’.

    The one aspect of Marx’ formulation that I did not know and surprised me is the fact that capital is social. How else can is have so many mysterious components like the one identified in the post above? Furthermore, Marx argues that “the growth of capital and the increase in the proletariat appear, therefore, as interconnected—if opposed—products of the same process” (1062). I believe that knowledge and education are key to consciousness-raising—in many forms. I believe that education is also subsumed into capitalism. At the very least, universities are improving the instruments of production. We are also producing more social distractions, more of Chandler’s scapegoats. If Marx is right that there is no more “outside” to capitalism, then how are the social relations reconfigured to recognize the modes of exploitation?

  3. Chandler,

    I also found myself thinking about my (hopefully future?) labor in the tenure track. It was difficult yet enlightening to read through Marx’s discussion of the artisans and others seeming to escape “wage labor” but fundamentally still perpetuating and participating in the system. The mystification of capitalism runs deep in academia today, despite Marx claiming many teachers have not been affected by the capitalist mindset.

    Specifically, my mind explored the way research plays into the assessment of tenure. As a marketplace, it is expected that workers (professors) crank out an average of publications a year, of course depending on the general category of their school (R1, LA, etc). Anything above and beyond is celebrated and everything under is untenable. Putting arguments about public scholarship aside, the more tangible & direct profit-making activities for a professor would be those for teaching and service. However, professors are judged on the number of publications they have secured without looking at the process, without allowing space for failure. This emphasis on the quantitative hides the labor that is expected of workers & minimizes the struggles facing scholars, especially the finite number of spaces available for publication.

    Though it seems small, would taking actions like listing out your manuscript rejections on your CV shed important, slightly subversive light on the means of production? In what other ways can we as readers & scholars of Marx put his warnings into action in the academy? Do we need to ‘Angela Davis’ it? It seems quite problematic that we tell ourselves that we love research while trying our hardest to minimize the “appearance” of failure. It seems the strong system of domination is indeed within ourselves as laborers.


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