Mankind’s capacity for creative work is what distinguishes us from the animals. People through history have created great works of art, literature and technological achievements as a means of self-actualisation. But what is labour without self-expression?
While we may aspire to create art or technology as expressions of ourselves, most of us are stuck earning a wage in the market. This places us in not just a contractual relationship with an employer, but also in one of power. Our work cannot be our own self-expression, but is instead dictated by the demands of our bosses and those of the market society in which we live. An artist may aspire to create abstract paintings, but be forced by the demands of the market and his employer to create Minions memes. This power relationship causes all of us workers to be alienated from the products of our labour.
What we produce is not an affirming expression of ourselves, but instead is some cruel twisted bastard, dictated to us by outside forces. By extension, the very process of working to create these bastard products is itself alienating. We cannot decide where, when and how we wish to work, as our bosses and the market society dictate terms. The products of our work are alien from us, as they are not ours to enjoy, but instead sold to the highest bidder. In the case of the worker building luxury cars or palatial houses, we may not even be able to experience what we produce.
The true, creative form of labour is everywhere run down and derided as amateur, a mere hobby. Indeed, the worker is forced by both the extraction of rents and the enforcement of societal norms to spend the bulk of his waking hours in alienated work, and so cannot devote much time or effort to their hobby. Those owners of private property use their power to sideline the amateur who works merely for the joy of creative labour, disclaiming their credentials or experience. If this fails they attempt to commodify the amateur’s work to turn self-expression into mere artisanal craft.
Everybody who works for a wage or salary, or who sells their products on the market is alienated in some respect from the products of their labour. While some vocations allow for more self-expression than others (a writer compared with a factory worker for instance), we are all trapped together under this yoke. Bullshit jobs shuffling paperwork are but a post-modern expression of a classic form, labour power thrown to the wind instead of serving a useful purpose.
In this alienation from our essence as creators, we dull our own capabilities. We are restricted to the particular forms which the market and our employers demand. We produce copies of the same product for mass consumption rather than expressing ourselves in each one. The alienation beats us down as we struggle to inject a forbidden touch of personality.
It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back into barbarous types of labor and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
We tell ourselves stories about the purposefulness of our work, just as we strive to better contort our essences to the roles inflicted upon us. But the soul resists. The bastard is not our creation.
I’ve come to realise that these bonds chafe particularly tightly on me. The signs can be seen back to my university days, where I couldn’t wait to get out and do real concrete work after years of scribbling on paper under the direction of professors. In the dissatisfaction I felt with profit-centric management in the building services industry. As a captive to the whims of the market in software development. And now the alienation is blatant as a consultant whose only labour product is digital drawings and specifications in a field that I care nothing for.
What is to be done about it? I’ll keep scribbling and shooting here, as a proud amateur. But beyond that, there is no simple cure.