I grew up exposed to a great deal of Marxist thought, and thought I had mostly left it behind. But in the past year or so I’ve been at something of a crossroads, reconsidering my work life as I teeter between academic and non-academic work, and I have repeatedly returned to one insight of Marx’s that now strikes me as completely true: the theory of alienation. The work we do for pay is not our own. It is never our own, by definition; it is the work we do for someone else (whether employer or customer) and it is done on that someone else’s terms.
It would be nice to think that the academy was some sort of exception to this rule; but it’s anything but. People go into academic work because they love to think and read and write and teach. But in a research-oriented job where one is paid to think and read and write, one must do it according to established disciplinary boundaries that do not necessarily make sense for one’s work: in my field one writes either for “philosophers” who value only precision and logical rigour, and care little or not at all for the great ideas of the past; or for “religionists” who care only about an accurate representation of the past and not about what that past has to teach us. If one tries to cross the boundaries, one is hurt far more than helped. And even if one is comfortable with those boundaries, one cannot simply take the time to learn, understand, absorb; one must write and be published, even if one would rather take the time to read and learn more before doing so. As for that vaunted “academic freedom”: for the majority of people employed in academic positions, there is no such thing. I started this blog only once it seemed likely I would not have an academic career in the long term; for I try here to speak my mind openly, explore my passions and intellectual curiosity, in a way that all the world can see. As long as I sought an academic career, I was deathly afraid that search committee members would discover that my views were not what they wanted to hear, and promptly exercise their wide-ranging arbitrary powers to deny me a livelihood.
And then there’s teaching: often in subjects that have little to do with one’s own passion, and equally often to students who do not care. That’s not even to mention the oft-required bureaucratic committee work, work that most academics relish far less than either research or teaching. Between these three alienated commitments, an aspiring philosophy or religion professor often has less time to think about philosophy than one who is outside the academy. And to do all this, in the vast majority of cases, one must effectively abandon friends and family, move to a place to which one has no ties and may well despise – and all of this is what one does if one is lucky, if one does not join the majority of PhD graduates who teach courses for less than a living wage.
To enter the academy, to try and write or play music for a living, to sell homemade crafts – these are often failed and futile attempt to avoid alienation, one which only leads one deeper into oppression and false consciousness. As an adjunct professor, one is exploited far more ruthlessly than any unionized factory worker – and the work that one does is scarcely any more one’s own than is the product of a modern factory. Marx would not be surprised to see that colleges and universities – even now that they’re run by the Sixties generation of former radicals – are alienated capitalist shop floors like any other. We want to think that the university is a place for the free exchange of ideas, outside of alienated market labour; it is anything but. It is one more site of capitalist exploitation.
The more I experience the capitalist workplace, the more I see that Marx’s diagnosis was right. Where Marx was wrong was in his prognosis of a better system. Bart Ehrman portrays Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet – one who thought that the Day of Judgement was coming in his own lifetime. Marx thought the same: the last would be first and the first would be last, a new order would come in where justice would prevail and humans’ true ends would be fulfilled.
Jesus and Marx were wrong. There was no new order. Once they were gone, their hopes were dashed. In the 150 years since Marx wrote they have not been fulfilled; nor have they been fulfilled in the 2000 years since Jesus’s lifetime. It’s been long enough in both cases to think that if the prophecies have not yet been fulfilled, they may well never be. And to me, this is where Buddhism comes in, another reason why I find the Buddha’s thought profounder than Marx’s. What Christianity and Marxism share above all is a sense of hope – a hope that history has so far falsified. Buddhism, on the other hand, offers us a critique of hope. The world is never going to get better. What we can do is work on our own suffering, and that of those around us, in the midst of our alienation and oppression. As the bumper sticker used to say, I feel so much better ever since I’ve given up hope.
Or, if you can’t handle that kind of pessimism, at least consider this. Marx was always cagey about his vision of a future society, what a non-alienated world would look like – it was supposed to arise out of the reflection of alienated or exploited groups. And yet he did offer glimpses, especially in the early work that focuses most on alienation. In the German Ideology, Marx speaks of a better world where one could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind,” as opposed to the specialized, mechanized world of alienated capitalist labour. My father, explaining this passage, once mentioned a time he had been flying first class and discussed Marx with a wealthy heiress sitting beside him on a plane. He had mentioned this passage to her, and she replied: “I can do that right now!” The difference was just that Marx hoped to see everyone, not just the aristocracy, have such an opportunity for self-definition.
And yet here’s the thing. Thanks primarily to the work of twentieth-century labour unions – often allied with Marxists, especially in places where their gains were strongest, outside the United States – many of us now have some of our lives to ourselves, where we can define ourselves in this way, independent of our alienated careers. If we can manage to find the 40-hour work week that our grandparents fought so hard for, we can certainly hunt in the morning, fish in the evening, and be a critical critic in the evening – on the weekend. Even the rest of the week, we might have several nights on which we can do at least one of these things. Alas, these days the work week seems to be getting longer; any fights in this regard are to maintain the status quo, not to make things better or bring them any closer to a non-alienated utopia.
Still, the benefits are there if we accept them – and, I suppose, if we don’t have children. Marx didn’t seem to think much about that part: even if we all had the resources to hunt in the morning and criticize in the evening, who would raise the kids? Friedrich Engels took up that question some, but Marx himself didn’t. Still, to have children is a choice which many people undertake, and undertake for their own reasons, not as part of a bargain with an employer; whether or not children actually make them happy, people have them because they believe they do. If we don’t take that choice, and we fight to keep the rights our grandparents fought for (as so many people today do not), then we may well be able to do the things we love in life without getting paid for them, do work that is a genuine labour of love. The work I did in academia was not my own. It was alienated labour. But this blog, I am happy to say, is not. I am lucky to have the chance to do some work that is all mine.