What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?
First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him – that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.
– Estranged Labour, in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 by Karl Marx
All the people trying to tell us that we should find a labor we love, that makes us happy, need to read this passage again.
I don’t work for the love of it and earn something on the side, as if by lucky accident. I do it for the money.
And when I work, I do the things I don’t want to do and when I’m at home, I do the things I want to do. And to think that I should want to do the things I do for the love of it, that is to think along the lines of Big Brother in 1984 by George Orwell. You don’t only get punished but you must want it, too.
Now, of course I am happy to have found a job that seems better to me than all the others given the money I earn, the people I work with, the flexibilities I am granted – but I am still alienated. This is not me.
My current answer is to simple work as little as possible. My job allows me to work 60% over the year and while that isn’t close to Keynes’ 15h, my 24h work week is pretty good already. Not everybody can afford that, of course, but I think that’s what we as a society should want. Except for the substitution effect where rich people are more likely to work longer hours. 🙄
@megfault suggested I also read The Abolition of Work by Bob Black but I didn’t find it very convincing. It argues convincingly that we work too much (bullshit jobs and all of that), and that part I agree with. But «we have to take what useful work remains and transform it into a pleasing variety of game-like and craft-like pastimes, indistinguishable from other pleasurable pastimes» has to work for so much of civil society! I’m thinking dentists, doctors, insurance, building – I want to benefit of the fruit of increased productivity, I don’t want to go back to an agricultural society. That’s why I’d like to focus more on small, incremental changes. Let us start by reducing working hours. Let us start handing out a universal basic income in order to share the fruits of our labor more fairly.
In a different context, I also had a conversation with @ckeen regarding work. It all started with the question of “wasting time online.” Where does this idea come from? I think it was born out of the invention of wage labor. Now, suddenly, it is possible to “waste” time. We no longer dare to slack off. Whenever I talk with people about working only 60% I see echoes of that. They don’t know what to do. They feel like they’re mooching off of society. Like they’re not giving their all for their children. As if they had decided that given that they’re in a rat race, and knowing that they can’t quit, they want to at least do well. The conversation ended with “I really recommend David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs to you, it resonates a lot with me and gave some new angles and articulation s for this rather vague feeling I have about this.”