Marxian Social Theory Part V

Work, Labor and Praxis

The Sociology of Work is center point of marxian social theory. It begins with an observation that capitalism tends to commodify 'all that is sacred.' Then in a switch from empirical generalization, Marx switches over to a more political mode of social theory; he argues that capitalism should/must/will be replaced by a different mode of production. The new mode of producttion centers around the concept of 'praxis.'

In this continuation of the series on Marxian theory, I will try to explain what is going on and what progressive sociologists may do usefully, in both the study of the labor process and in evaluation of experimental forms of work and labor.

There are three 'factors of production' which are at issue: Labor, Capital, and, goods and services. We will focus on the marxian critique of the commodification of labor first.

A. Commodification of the Labor Process. One of the stronger points of critique of capitalism made by Marxists then and now center around the process of commodification. In the most simple terms possible, commodification means transforming the goods and services needed to produce social life and human culture into market commodities to be bought and sold by whomever has the price.

A major problem arises when a significant portion of a society does not have the price...the question arises what are those who have resources do about those who don't; how do those who don't have the resources to buy the necessities of life going to get them.

The solution in capitalist terms is simply to go on the labor market and sell your labor to whomever will buy it...each person is to prepare his/her labor skills and compete freely with every other person for positions open on the job market.

Marxists/socialists point out that capitalism has a tendency to produce more and more with fewer and fewer workers. Indeed, that is one of the major advantages of continues to seek to improve the Means of Production in order to reduce labor costs and to increase market share.

This tendency produces an ever growing 'surplus' population. From the point of view of the capitalist, this is good since it provides a 'reserve army of the unemployed' which tends to drive down the costs of labor [and increase profits]. From the point of view of those unemployed, this is not good since it 'separates production and distribution.' Indeed, capitalism is the only economic system in human history in which production is for profit rather than for human use. In primitive communal societies, all production was direct family/tribal/societal use. Even in slavery and feudalism, slavemasters and feudal lords could not withhold goods and services within the logics of those systems. Only capitalism creates a surplus population...surplus to the labor process...this is the first and major form of alienation in marxian theory since, for Marx, labor is the heart and soul of the process by which human beings become human.

B. Praxis and the Labor Process. Marx argued that one becomes 'species being' in the process of 'appropriating nature' and converting raw materials into cultural goods. This means that the social identity of the productive laborer [sawyer, wheel- wright, sailor, goldsmith, shepherd and such] is central to the core of self. Many argue that there are other important social identities which should be considered in any theory of alienation: religious identities, familial, ethnic and gender to name those social identities which, in my own opinion, are at least of equa importance to 'species being.'

Another form of alienation centers around the many forms of cultural goods which, according to Marx, should not be commodified: basic material resources [food, shelter, health care and such], political culture [law, governance, and economic decisions about investment and distribution] as well as ideolog- ical culture: art, music, science, religion and theater.

The concept of Praxis is an old and honorable one. In classical Greek social philosophy which Marx inherited, Techne had to do with the regulation of farm and household [ecos-onomy] affairs. It was the province of slaves and women [don't blame me; blame Socrates, Plato and Aristotle]. Praxis had to do with wisdom and judgment and dealt with those problems unresolvable by mere technical knowledge; Praxis was the province of of genius such as...well, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato...and me.

Theoria was the province of the gods and had to do with the larger, invisible principles of nature and society [our word, hypothesis means 'below-visibility].'

Marx reunited techne, praxis and theory by arguing that all three should be the province of every human being...rather than a social a social division of knowledge/labor/being, Marx held that some of the product of the economy should be 'socialized' to help every one become 'species being' in this meaning of the term. Praxis became the unification of theory and techne in marxian social psychology. This is arguable but still it is the heart of marxian theory from which all else flows.

D. Capital. For Marx, not even capital should be commodified. In a famous passage, Marx quotes Shakespeare about capital. There is a soliloquy in <Timon of Athens> in which Shakespeare/Marx voices their opinion of un-socialized wealth. I don't have it in front of me but it goes something like:

Gold, yellow, gleaming precious gold;
This is it that plucks the pillow
from the heads of stout men.
This is it that gives title, knee
and approbation to the knave.
This is it that refreshes the hoar
leper to the April Day again.

Yellow, precious glittering gold,
I will make thee do thy right nature.

There are several serious social/political problems when capital is held in private hands.

1. It tends to be concentrated in ever fewer hands...economic inequality seems to be a feature of a capitalist political economy.

2. Low profit lines are abandoned. Child care, medical services for the elderly, education and the arts are neglected in a market system even if they are profitable...when profits else- where are higher.

3. Dangerous or degrading goods and services are produced when there is a market for them; some street drugs, sexuality of men, women and children, cigarettes, guns and such are procured and sold to whomever has the price.

4. The political process becomes commodified and sold to whomever has the resources to pay; Steve Forbes can buy his way into politics; Bill Clinton can sell his office to special interest groups...such as lawyers.

E. Market Socialism. Given the failures of central planning and the socialization of all three factors of production in the USSR and elsewhere, there has been a renewed interest in a form of socialism which allows a limited market in capital as well as goods and services. Labor is excluded from free market dynamics in that work is essential not only for buying things but for its social psychological benefits mentioned above.

There are some interesting versions of market socialism around. In the USA, John Roemer and Dave Schweickart are drawing the most interest. References below. The Radical Philosophy Association recently sponsored a Symposium on the work of Schweickart. The highlights of the Schweikart plan are:

1. All firms above a given size would be funded by the state. This socializes capital to some extent. Size is also not speciified. Some say firms with 20 or fewer workers can be privatized; some say 300 workers...very important question since those workers have no reliable connection to either production or distribution of essential goods. And exploit- ation...a nasty word in marxian theory...can still occur.

2. Each firm would pay a use tax on the monies provided by the state. This is really a standardized form of interest. lots of problems when the state sets interests rates; more when banking cartels do so.

3. Each firm would be worker managed. There are lots of advan- tages to worker owned and operated firms; higher quality, less waste, better maintenance, less worker turn-over or absenteeism and higher profits.

A problem arises since solidarity begins and ends within the shop, plant, mill, store or factory. Customers and competing worker-owned firms become class enemy.

4. Each firm would buy and sell its products/services on the market.

Thus both capital and labor is, to great extent, socialized, but goods and services still commodified. Those who do not cannot work are thus excluded from life's necessities. And a free market in some goods/services might still degrade.

5. Each firm would set aside funds to replace/rebuild/expand.

Why would workers decide to reduce income now for future productive capacity??? Good question...the state would have to monitor such reserve funds...lots of problems accrue.

6. Of the net income left after use tax and set-asides, workers would decide how to share out the rest.

Lots of room for jealousy, politicing, connivance and such but it is their problem not that of the capitalist or the state.

There remains lots of problems to be worked out about just what should be socialized; how much labor, capital, and goods should be freed to market dynamics; how would collective/community needs/goods be met [roads, schools, police, fire protection and such].

There remains a tension between democracy, social justice, and individual liberties not well resolved...perhaps unresolbable. There is always the problem of corruption in state and private sectors.

But as Michael Howard/UMaine said in his critique of Schweickart, his form of market socialism is democratic, it's feminist, it's green, it's pro-labor and it's a lot more democratic than wage labor.

Whatever the case, we have not yet reached the End of History and the 'Final Triumph' of capitalism. We still have a long way to go before we solve the problems of being and praxis; of individualism and community; of enterprize and job security. Since our generation has failed to do so, your generation has challenges and opportunities to do better.

Good luck to you and your
generation in the effort.
You have a lot to do and
a lot to build on.

TR Young

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