Saturday, January 18, 2014

Egghead Saturday: Marx's Theory of Alienation

Franz Kafka
Though I freely identify as a socialist -- eschewing communism not as a failed ideology but one corrupted by the totalitarianism into which it devolved in the Russian and Chinese expressions of it -- I've left Karl Marx alone because of the "trick" he used to get past his acknowledgement that the proletariat was too uneducated to lead itself, needing an "enlightened bourgeoisie" to help guide it as it lifted itself to the point of grabbing the means of production. A weak spot, I felt.

But I never abandoned Marx's philosophy of history, as, indeed, mankind's experience is one of continual class struggle. We only need to look at America today to see the fruits of that struggle.

What got me thinking about it this morning was an examination of the life of Franz Kafka (no, I don't usually spend Saturday mornings in esoteric academic pursuits). A link in the Wikipedia piece about Kafka's political views led to an article about Marx's theory of alienation, something I hadn't before stumbled upon. Here is the graph that struck me as relevant for today:
Alienation (Entfremdung) is the systemic result of living in a socially stratified society, because being a mechanistic part of a social class alienates a person from his and her humanity. The theoretic basis of alienation within the capitalist mode of production is that the worker invariably loses the ability to determine his or her life and destiny, when deprived of the right to think (conceive) of himself as the director of his actions; to determine the character of said actions; to define their relationship with other people; and to own the things and use the value of the goods and services, produced with their labour. Although the worker is an autonomous, self-realised human being, as an economic entity, he or she is directed to goals and diverted to activities that are dictated by the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, in order to extract from the worker the maximal amount of surplus value, in the course of business competition among industrialists.
Karl Marx
Marx said a mouthful there. And just get past the "communist manifesto" rhetoric. There's an essential truth at the core of his description of the alienation brought on by not sharing in the "means of production" as capitalists "extract from the worker the maximal amount of surplus value." This is real stuff Marx is talking about, not merely theoretical.

Here's its relevance for today: Data clearly show that workers have not been accorded incomes that adequately track the large increases in productivity companies have enjoyed over the last 35 years. While one can claim that innovators deserve to benefit from the fruits of their creativity -- there's a reason Bill Gates is the richest man in the world -- that's small comfort to a workforce that suffers deeply from "alienation," in more ways than one, not the least of which is they don't have enough money to live a life, well, worth living.

This is what conservatives and libertarians miss, and it's astounding that conservatives want to celebrate this failure to grapple with income inequality, as if it's a victory for the moneyed class, thus showing that "taking personal responsibility for your lives" reaps rewards that the lower classes have no claim to. Talk about "picking winners and losers." The right not only picks them but celebrates them.

Magic moment most closely illustrating this:

This is the smoking gun of the conservative set, this contempt for the loser class. It's so deeply rooted in the Puritan Work Ethic -- based quite obviously on the religious notion of predestination, that God has already assigned to souls at the creation those who are destined for Heaven and those earmarked for eternal damnation -- that it's not surprising that Rick Santorum epitomizes this contempt for those destined to fail. It's as it should be.

That's why every effort on the right, from politicians to pundits, to make any headway on claiming they also wish to solve poverty always devolves into a moral condemnation of the poor, for their innate failures, their having too many babies without being married, for dropping out of school, for not having a job, for doing drugs or generally just being the no-good layabouts they are. They deserve to suffer.

Raise the minimum wage? That doesn't deal with the real issues -- which are the moral failings of course -- that David Brooks rails on about. What the poor need is education! goddamit, says Eric Cantor and declares school vouchers and charter schools are the answer, ignoring that these efforts clearly undermine public education -- why else would a conservative like them? Others decry the decline of marriage, an undisguised slap to the African-American community.

In the end, it comes down to alienation. Marx -- as a political and historical philosopher -- has it exactly right. When workers don't benefit from the fruits of their labor, they become alienated from life itself, with all the sufferings and failures such alienation brings on its subjects. When African-Americans suffer not only from outright, prolonged discrimination (it continues even today in our faux post-racial era) but also from unabated lack of opportunity, institutionalized deprivation of opportunity.

There is a growing movement that's not confined to the left -- centrists often get it, too -- that income inequality is the core issue of current times. I share that view and believe in cash transfers from the wealthiest to the poorest. Today Matt Yglesias finds more proof that it works. Here he talks about how the Mother's Pension in the 1920s had measurable results:
Since the eligibility criteria were vague and inconsistently implemented, the pool of families that applied for and got pensions turns out to be quite demographically similar to the pool of families that were rejected. As a result, Mothers’ Pension programs ended up with overlapping pools of accepted and rejected applicants. On average, the rejects were better off financially than people who were accepted—but only very slightly so. The economic similarities between the two groups allow for meaningful comparisons to be made between long-term outcomes for the sons of accepted mothers and those of rejected mothers. (Daughters are harder to track because of post-marital name-changing.) Using 1940 census records, draft records, and county-level death records, the researchers determined that the sons of the accepted had early adult incomes that were 20 percent higher than those of rejected mothers; these sons were also 35 percent less likely to be underweight as adults, lived a year longer, and had about a third of a year of additional schooling.
Since the rejected sons’ families were, on average, somewhat better off, these figures should somewhat understate the real impact of the pensions. The benefits weren’t gigantic—but the sums of money involved were pretty modest as well. Benefit levels varied from state to state, but averaged out to about $260 a month (adjusted for inflation), or around half of a modern-day TANF check.
There are plenty of studies that prove this and demonstrate that the War on Poverty accomplished a lot. Don't try convincing the right wing of that. It's not in their DNA to admit that helping the unfortunate is good, when deriding them is so satisfying.

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