From a work in progress by Michael Yates

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 23 08:15:21 MDT 1999

        Working to Live, Living to Work


I.  Introduction

The writer, William Burroughs, made the theme of "control" central to his
work.  He spent most of his life obsessed with the idea that he was under
the insidious control of outside forces and by extension so were we all.
His life can be seen as a quest to free himself from control, through
drugs, through scientology, and, most of all, through writing.  There is no
doubt that one reason why his works resonate with readers is that Burroughs
was on to something important.  Unfortunately, however, his diagnosis of
the source of control was badly mistaken.  Like the American libertarian he
was, Burroughs believed that it was the government, which to him
represented the forces of collectivization out to subordinate the free
individual, which was trying to control us.  Thus he was repelled by the
socialism of the Soviet Union and even the social democracy of the
Scandinavian countries.  He feared that the more government there was, the
closer we were to the kind of total control represented by fascism.

What Burroughs failed to grasp was that it is the organization of the
economy in a capitalist form which is the fountainhead of the control which
is being exerted over us and which is the source of our foreboding, our
alienation.  I have argued throughout this book that what makes us human is
our self-conscious interaction with non-human nature and with other people
who are, of course, a part of nature, as we go about producing that which
satisfies our needs and dreams.   This production, what I have called work,
is fundamental to our being and is the source of our remarkably complex
social organization.  Our understanding of what we are doing, our grasp
that we alone can reshape the world around us and imagine ever more diverse
and sophisticated productive activity, gives us joy and is the source of
our art, our literature, our science.  Burroughs was lucky to be able to
create his art, though he struggled mightily to do so, because in creation
he was acting like a full human being.  In contemporary society, human
consciousness and activity have made it possible to produce enough output
for every person to live in material comfort and also have enough time to
develop his and her creativity as fully as possible.  Yet, as we have seen,
those few who control most of the world's productive forces secured this
control and maintain it by systematically denying it to everyone else.

Their most basic control is over access to employment, which means
essentially access to the property of others.  Here capitalism is far worse
than gathering and hunting or feudalism.  So called primitive peoples
naturally combine themselves with the world around them to produce the
means of their own existence, and even serfs had the right to use part of
the land of the estate.  Now there is no right to use the land or tools or
machines and buildings unless you own them; otherwise you have to depend on
the willingness of some employer to hire you.  It is incredible that in
societies capable of producing goods in abundance, people have no guarantee
whatsoever that they will get any part of the output or be able to develop
and use their skills.  Once employment is secured, control over our
capacity to labor is owned by the employer; our labor power is the
employer's property.  We have no right to work as we see fit; if the way we
work is not pleasing to the employer we can be fired without recourse.  We
have already examined the myriad ways in which employers tighten the screws
at work; suffice it to say here that, while employers do not always succeed
in implementing the various control mechanisms and workers often resist, it
is inevitable that the bosses will try mightily to make work as
machine-like as possible and their workers appendages to those machines.
The result is, as Adam Smith put it (with no grasp at all of the fact that
he was describing work in capitalism rather than work in general), work
requires the laborer to give up "his tranquillity, his freedom, and his

One consequence of the absence of freedom at work is that workers seek
freedom elsewhere.  For the vast majority of workers, this is a futile
search because the grotesque material, creative, or moral poverty which
they suffer precludes much enjoyment of any kind.  For the rest, it has
become increasingly difficult to be free of the market and wage labor
outside  the sphere of direct employment.  Every nook and cranny of family
and community life has been invaded by the market and made subservient to
it.  We are left only with the impersonal buying of consumer goods, which
has implicitly become the sole purpose of life itself.  As the late
capitalist Malcolm Forbes put it,  "whoever dies with the most toys wins."

This final chapter contains no "Reprise and Analysis."  I simply conclude
the book with two essays.  The first one is a lamentation on the sadness
and tragedy of a society in which it is only possible to "work to live."
The second one is a cry for the creation of a world in which people see the
necessity and desirability of "living to work."

II.  Working to Live : A Lamentation

Consider the automobile worker, Ben Hamper, who describes a visit to the
plant to see what his father does.  He says,

We stood there for forty minutes or so, a miniature lifetime, and the
pattern never changed.  Car, windshield.  Car, windshield.  Drudgery piled
atop drudgery.  Cigarette to cigarette.  Decades rolling through the
rafters, bones turning to dust, stubborn clocks gagging down flesh, another
windshield, another cigarette, wars blinking on and off, thunderstorms
muttering the alphabet, crows on power lines asleep or dead, that
mechanical octopus squirming against nothing, nothing, nothingness.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider Mira, a child prostitute in Bombay, at age 13 sent by her parents
from her village in Nepal to work, they thought, as a domestic servant.
There are at least 20,000 child prostitutes in Bombay, "displayed in row
after row of zoo-like animal cages."  We are told,
When Mira, a sweet-faced virgin with golden brown skin, refused to have
sex, she was dragged into a torture chamber in a dark alley used for
"breaking in" new girls.  She was locked in a narrow, windowless room
without food or water.  On the fourth day, when she had still refused to
work, one of the madam's thugs, called a goonda, wrestled her to the floor
and banged her head against the concrete until she passed out.  When she
awoke, she was naked; a rattan cane smeared with pureed red chili peppers
had been shoved up her vagina.  Later, she was raped by the goonda.  "They
torture you until you say yes," Mira recently recounted during an interview
here.  "Nobody hears your cries."

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider Irfana, a Pakistani girl sold to the owner of a brick kiln at age
six.  Here is how she described her life:

My master bought, sold, and traded us like livestock, and sometimes he
shipped us great distances.  The boys were beaten frequently to make them
work long hours.  The girls were often violated.  My best friend got ill
after she was raped, and when she couldn't work, the master sold her to a
friend of his in a village a thousand kilometers away.  Her family was
never told where she was sent, and they never saw her again.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the lace maker, Mary Anne Walkley, immortalized by Karl Marx in
his book, Capital.  Mary Anne died 135 years ago, but her story could be
told today and not just of child workers like Mira and Irfana, but by
hundreds of thousands of garment workers laboring in sweatshops every bit
as bad as that of Ms. Walkley, and not only in Pakistan and India but right
here in the United States.  If you look up from the streets of Manhattan's
Chinatown, you see the steam from hundreds of sweatshops where today's Mary
Anne Walkleys work away their lives. Marx tells us that

In the last week of June, 1863, all the London daily papers published a
paragraph with the "sensational" heading, "Death from simple over-work."
It dealt with the death of the milliner, Mary Anne Walkley, 20 years of
age, employed in a highly respectable dressmaking establishment, exploited
by a lady with the pleasant name of Elise.  The old, oft-told story, was
once more recounted.  The girl worked, on an average, 16½ hours, during the
season often 30 hours, without a break, whilst her failing labor power was
revived by occasional supplies of sherry, port, or coffee.  It was just now
the height of the season.  It is necessary to conjure up in the twinkling
of an eye the gorgeous dresses for the noble ladies bidden to the ball in
honor of the newly-imported Princess of Wales.  Mary Anne Walkley had
worked without intermission for 26½ hours, with 60 other girls, 30 in one
room, that only afforded 1/3 of the cubic feet of air required for them.
At night, they slept in pairs in one of the stifling holes into which the
bedroom was divided by a partition of board.  And this was one of the best
millinery establishments in London.  Mary Anne Walkley fell ill on the
Friday, died on Sunday, without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise,
having previously completed the work in hand....

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the restaurant worker, Mr. Zheng.  In Manhattan, restaurant
workers often toil for upwards of 100 hours per week for as little as $2.00
per hour.  Here is how a reporter describes Mr. Zheng's life:

Three years after arriving in this country from the coastal province of
Fujian [in China], Mr. Zheng, 35, is still working off a $30,000 debt to
the smugglers who secured him passage on a series of ships.  He can devote
very little of his meager busboy's salary to rent, so he has 11 roommates.
They share a studio bracketed by triple-tiered bunk beds, with a narrow
passage like a gangplank between them.  One bachelor household among two
dozen others in a complex of three low-rise buildings on Allen Street, they
split a rent of $650 a month, paying about $54 each.

Like the others, Mr. Zheng keeps his scant belongings in a plastic bag
above his mattress, nailed beside the herbal-medicine pouches and girlie
pictures that decorate his rectangle of a wall.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the New York City cab driver, Koffee, an African living here for
20 years.  Here is an interview with him, conducted by the newsletter,
Punching the Clock (PTC):

PTC: So what kind of hours do you drive?
Koffee: Twelve hours, five to five.
PTC: Do you mind working a twelve hour shift?
Koffee: That's how the industry, you know, they do it.  In less than twelve
hours you don't make nothing....Sometimes you can work twelve hours and go
home with about $20 in your pocket.
PTC: What do you do with your free time?
Koffee: Free time?  I relax.  With this job, after twelve hours you can't
do nothing.  It's a killing job.  Sitting here driving for twelve hours.
You get home, you are exhausted.  You don't want to do anything anymore.  I
get home, I go to sleep.  When I get up I just have time to get something
to eat.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the voice of a worker unemployed during this nation's first great
depression, in the 1870s.  What he says could be said, with appropriate
variations, by nearly anyone who has experienced the brutality of long-term
unemployment, from the dust bowl farmers of the 1930s to the victims of the
massive plant closings of the past two decades to the miserable jobless
millions of the poorest countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America..
Just ask the next homeless person begging you for money.

Twelve months ago, left penniless by misfortune, I started from New York in
search of employment.  I am a mechanic, and am regarded as competent in my
business.  During this year I have traversed seventeen States and obtained
in that time six weeks' work.  I have faced starvation; been months at a
time without a bed, when the thermometer was 30 degrees below zero.  Last
winter I slept in the woods, and while honestly seeking employment I have
been two and three days without food.  When, in God's name, I asked to keep
body and soul together, I have been repulsed as a "tramp and vagabond."

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the farm laborers, everywhere among the lowest paid and most
overworked.  Bending over the crops, in terrible heat and cold, working
alongside of their children, without enough to eat, like the coffee
plantation workers who cannot afford to buy the crop they pick.  In Mexico,
just south of Arizona and California, here is what "free trade" has wrought:

In the fields, a single portable bathroom might serve a whole crew of
several hundred, with a metal drum on wheels providing the drinking
water....Toddlers wander among the seated workers, some of them nursing on
baby bottles and others, their faces smeared with dirt, chewing on the
onions.  A few sleep in the rows, or in little makeshift beds of blankets
in the vegetable bins....As the morning sun illuminates the faces of the
workers, it reveals dozens of young girls and boys.  By rough count,
perhaps a quarter of the workers here are anywhere from 6 or 7 years old to
15 or 16....Honorina Ruiz is 6.  She sits in front of a pile of green
onions.... She lines up eight or nine onions, straightening out their roots
and tails.  Then she knocks the dirt off, puts a rubber band around them
and adds the bunch to those already in the box beside her.  She's too shy
to say more than her name, but she seems proud to be able to do what her
brother Rigoberto, at 13, is very good at....These are Mexico's forgotten

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the workers in our packing houses, preparing meat for our tables.
Before the advent of modern production technology, the very names of these
workers conjure up a vision of hell: Stockhandlers, knockers, shacklers,
stickers, beheaders, hide removers, skinners, leg-breakers, foot-skinners,
backers, rumpers, hide-droppers, butchers, gut-snatchers, gutters,
splitters, and luggers.  Then the work was done by European immigrants and
African Americans.  Today it is done by new arrivals from Latin America and
Asia, but while the job titles have changed, the work is still dirty and

Beef, pork and poultry packers have been aggressively recruiting the most
vulnerable of foreign workers to relocate to the U.S. plains in exchange
for $6-an-hour jobs in the country's most dangerous industry.  Since
permanence is hardly a requirement for these jobs, the concepts of
promotion and significant salary increases have as much as disappeared.
That as many as half of these new immigrants lack legal residence seems no
obstacle to an industry now thriving on a docile, disempowered work force
with an astronomical turnover.

Staggering illness and injury rates-36 per 100 workers in meat-and stress
caused by difficult, repetitive work often means employment for just a few
months before a worker quits or the company forces him/her off the job.
(Government safety inspections have dropped 43 percent overall since 1994,
because of budget cuts and an increasingly pro-business slant at the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the temporary clerical workers, Kimberly and Helen, two of
millions of such workers worldwide.  Here is how they describe their work:

Minimal work.  Boredom.  And no challenging work.  I'd much rather be
fighting with a spreadsheet, trying to figure out how to set up a
spreadsheet, rather than just entering in the numbers.  A boss who treats
you like a temp and is very much, like, always checking up on you or else
totally ignoring you.  Doesn't really remember your name.  Says, "Oh, I'll
just put this here.  We'll wait till so-and-so gets back to work with it."

The isolation.  The lack of benefits.  The monotony.  The underemployment.
Your resources, your skills, your intelligence are not integrated.  I mean,
there's no change.  So I guess just the hopelessness, just the stagnation.
The fact that there's never any increase in cerebral activity.  Even when
they find out more about you, they still don't trust you to take on more.
But the loneliness.  It's really lonely.  Eating lunch by yourself every
single day.  And no one ever asking you a personal question.  Like the
secretaries never, ever, ask, "Where are you from?" or "What have you been
up to?"

How can we live in a world like this?
Consider the college teacher, Beverly Peterson, who after spending a good
part of her life in school and earning a PhD, has become a "gypsy prof,"
teaching here, there, and everywhere, under terrible conditions for little
money.  About 40 percent of all college teachers are now part-timers, and
they earn about $2,000 per course with no benefits.  By contrast I now earn
about $8,000 per course with full benefits.

Ever since she passed her comprehensive exams at the College of William and
Mary in 1992, Beverly Peterson has searched for a full-time teaching post
in American Studies.  Three years, 121 letters of inquiry and two
interviews later, she is still looking for a permanent position.  "I'm so
used to getting rejection letters saying, 'You were one of 800 applicants
for two positions,'" says the 44-year-old scholar, who once worked as a
high school English teacher.  So, while she waits to hear whether she will
win a tenure-track job at Penn State, Peterson is taking the path followed
by so many other newly minted PhD's: combining two teaching jobs to make
ends meet.

Peterson regularly commutes by car from her home in Smithfield, Va., to
jobs at Thomas Nelson Community college in Hampton, 40 minutes away, and
then to the College of William and Mary, an additional 40-minute ride.
Peterson's travels take her across the James River drawbridge en route to
the Thomas Nelson campus, and she takes a ferry back home from William and
Mary.  On the boat, she often works on lecture notes or reads class
materials-most recently, a re-examination of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Her
Chevrolet has some 97,000 miles on the odometer even though it is only four
years old.  Says Peterson, "I like my job, but I wish I could do it under
easier circumstances."

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the exceptional history teacher, Ira Solomon, teaching in East
Saint Louis, Illinois, a town extraordinary in its poverty.  This is what
he tells Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities:

"This is not by any means the worst school in the city," he reports, as we
are sitting in his classroom on the first floor of the school.  "But our
problems are severe.  I don't even know where to begin.  I have no
materials with the exception of a single textbook given to each child.  If
I bring in anything else-books or tapes or magazines-I pay for it myself.
The high school has no VCRs.  They are such a crucial tool.  So many good
things run on public television.  I can't make use of anything I see unless
I can unhook my VCR and bring it into the school.  The AV equipment in the
building is so old that we are pressured not to use it...."

"Of 33 children who begin the history classes in the standard track," he
says, "more than a quarter have dropped out by spring semester...I have
four girls right now in my senior home room who are pregnant or have just
had babies.  When I ask them why this happens, I am told, 'Well, there's no
reason not to have a baby.  There's not much for me in public school.'  The
truth is,... [a] diploma from a ghetto high school doesn't count for much
in the United States today....Ah, there's so much
bitterness-unfairness-there, you know...."

"Very little education in the school would be considered academic in the
suburbs.  Maybe 10 to 15 percent of students are in truly academic
programs.  Of the 55 percent of the students who graduate, 20 percent may
go to four-year colleges: something like 10 percent of any entering class.
Another 10 to 20 percent may get some other kind of higher education.  An
equal number join the military...."

"Sometimes I worry that I'm starting to burn out.  Still, I hate to miss a
day.  The department frequently can't find a substitute to come here, and
my kids don't like me to be absent."

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider two welfare mother, Ursula and Joy, working hard to keep their
families together but excluded from the official count of workers and
reviled by more respectable society.

Ursula: I used to feel downcast for being on welfare.  It was something I
felt low-rated about.  It felt degrading.  They want to know who is giving
you this or who is helping to send your child to school.  If I had to stop
paying the water bill this month to keep them in school the next month, I
would do that.  But that's my business.  I don't like them prying into what
somebody may give me or who is paying something for me.

Joy: When you are on public assistance, it's like you're going to pick up
someone else's money that you didn't work for.  You didn't make it
yourself.  When I got my first welfare check it felt odd, because I could
compare it to receiving my work check.  I knew what it was like to have
both.  I used to hear people say, "Well, you are taking money from people
that work and you are not working," It felt kind of funny to be a person on
the other side this time.  This is my first experience with welfare.
Nobody in my household had ever been on public assistance but me.  My
mother worked for the government and so did my grandmother.  I was the
first person that ever needed welfare.

I don't like the people who work in the welfare offices.  They are nasty to
me.  They have a bad attitude.  They act real snooty and they really don't
want to do the work.  They act like the money is coming right out of their
pockets.  I figure, if I go in there with a nice attitude, because I know
some people are nasty with them, too, then they will be different.  But it
doesn't help.  They still are nasty.
How can we live in a world like this?

Consider the following memorandum sent by a supervisor to a group of
workers in a daycare center.  Remember that these workers, all with
considerable experience and many child raising skills, are paid less than
parking lot attendants:

Now, more than ever, we as a business are under scrutiny by our clients.
They will be watching us, and questioning us to reassure themselves that
their children are safe and secure in our care.  Your role is to do the
best you can when it comes to customer service.  They have made a choice as
to where they want their child to be.  And we need to reassure them that
they have made the proper choice.  We need to give them what they pay for
every minute of the day.  Parents and children must be greeted by name when
they arrive in the morning and when they leave at the end of the day.  You
need to be working with the children, using your AM and PM lesson plans at
the beginning and the end of the day.  You are not permitted to sit on
tables, chat with other staff people, or be cleaning or doing anything but
interacting with the children....Remember, the customer always comes first
and we always need to do what's best for children....A pre-school classroom
is a special place.  It takes a special person to make great things happen
for children.  Always remember that we are tank fillers for the children.
And that we owe it to the little people!

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider prisoner, Dino Navarrete, one of tens of thousands of prison
workers now laboring in the "prison-industrial" complex, helping private
businesses to make super profits.  Could there be a more debased form of
labor outside outright slavery?  But as a matter of fact, this is a growth
industry. The United States leads the world in number of prisoners, now
approaching 1.5 million, and these convicts are overwhelmingly people of

Convicted kidnapper Dino Navarrete doesn't smile much as he surveys the
sewing machines at Soledad prison's sprawling workshop.  The short, stocky
man with tattoos rippling his muscled forearms earns 45 cents an hour
making blue work shirts in a medium-security prison near Monterey,
California.  After deductions, he earns about $60 for an entire month of
nine-hour days.

"They put you on a machine and expect you to put out for them," says
Navarrete.  "Nobody wants to do that.  These jobs are jokes to most inmates
here."  California long ago stopped claiming that prison labor
rehabilitates inmates.  Wardens just want to keep them occupied.  If
prisoners refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose
canteen privileges.  Most importantly, they lose "good time" credit that
reduces their sentences.

Navarrete was surprised to learn that California has been exporting
prison-made clothing to Asia.  He and the other prisoners had no idea that
California, along with Oregon, was doing exactly what the U.S. has been
lambasting China for-exporting prison-made goods.  "You might just as well
call this slave labor, then," says Navarrete.  "If they're selling it
overseas, you know they're making money.  Where's the money going to?  It
ain't going to us."

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider Larry McAfee, who became a quadriplegic after a motorcycle
accident.  Like tens of millions of other disabled persons, he wanted to
work and could have if society had seen fit to provide him with the means
to do so.  Instead it sent him straight into the nightmarish and ugly world
of health "care," whose main assumption was that making Larry able to work
was too costly.  Larry got to the point at which he petitioned the courts
to let him die, something which the courts, the doctors, and the insurance
companies, following in the footsteps of the adherents of social Darwinism,
seem to be encouraging.

McAfee told Joseph Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report that he hated losing
control of his body but that losing control of his life was worse.  McAfee
had hoped to remain a valued participant in society, but found his way
blocked at every turn by catch-22's.  The lack of PAS [personal assistance
services] meant that McAfee had to be institutionalized;
institutionalization meant that McAfee could not respond to want ads or
take computer courses; no job retraining meant no chance for employment;
and employment itself could mean that work disincentives built into
disability policy would risk the very support he needed to survive.
Wouldn't any motivated person become despondent over such overwhelming

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider Mike Lefevre, a "common" laborer.  Here is what he said to Studs
Terkel, author of the exceptional book, Working:

I'm a dying breed.  A laborer.  Strictly muscle work...pick it up, put it
down.  We handle between forty and fifty thousand pounds of steel a day.  I
know this is hard to believe-from four hundred pounds to three- and
four-pound pieces.  It's dying....

It's hard to take pride in a bridge you're never gonna cross.  In a door
you're never gonna open.  You're mass-producing things and you never see
the end result.  I worked for a trucker one time.  And I got this tiny
satisfaction when I loaded a truck.  In a steel mill, forget it.  You don't
see where nothing goes.

I got chewed out by my foreman once.  He said, "Mike, you're a good worker
but you have a bad attitude."  My attitude is that I don't get excited
about my job.  I do my work but I don't say whoopee-doo.  The day I get
excited about my job is the day I go to a head shrinker.  How are you gonna
get excited about pullin' steel?  How are you gonna get excited when you're
tired and want to sit down?

It's not just the work.  Somebody built the pyramids.  Somebody's going to
build something.  Pyramids, Empire State Building-these things just don't
happen.  There's hard work behind it.  I would like to see a building, say,
the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip
from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, every electrician,
with all the names.  So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and
say, "See, that's me over there on the forty-fifth floor.  I put the steel
beam in."  Picasso can point to a painting.  What can I point to?  A writer
can point to a book.  Everybody should have something to point to.

How can we live in a world like this?

Consider finally this chorus of pained voices:

For the many, there is a hardly concealed discontent.  The blue-collar
blues is no more bitterly sung than the white-collar moan.  "I'm a
machine," says the spot welder.  "I'm caged," says the bank teller, and
echoes the hotel clerk.  "I'm a mule," says the steelworker.  "A monkey can
do what I do," says the receptionist.  "I'm less than a farm implement,"
says the migrant worker.  "I'm an object," says the high-fashion model.
Blue collar and white collar call upon the identical phrase: "I'm a robot."
 "There is nothing to talk about," the young accountant despairingly
enunciates.  It was some time ago that John Henry sang, "A man ain't
nothing but a man."  The hard, unromantic fact is: he died with his hammer
in his hand, while the machine pumped on.  Nonetheless, he found
immortality.  He is remembered.

How can we live in a world like this?

III.  Living to Work

If we do not want to live in a world "like this," we must make changes.  We
need to reintegrate work and, at the same time, reintegrate the worker.
The separation of conception from execution, the division of labor into
mental and manual, must be abolished, which implies, of course, that the
detailed division of labor so universal in our society, must also be ended.
 In other words, human beings must gain complete "self-control," domination
of their humanity, by controlling their own work.  The problem in achieving
these things is that our social system requires, as we have seen, that they
not be achieved.  The various types of alienation described in this book
are a part and parcel of the nature of capitalism.  Therefore, to say that
human beings must become wholly human by gaining control over their labor
is really to say that our society must be completely reconstructed.  Not
only must the mode of production be changed, but all of the elements of
society which derive from it and support it must also be revolutionized.
Our alienated family lives, our pitifully narrow and inadequate schools,
our politics, our exploitive relationship with the rest of nature, our
sexual and racial relationships, all will have to undergo very significant
changes if we are to be in a position to attain happiness.  The question,
then, is, are such transformations possible?

Critics will offer an array of objections to the above formulations.  Some
will say that it is human nature to live the way we do, that our society is
but a reflection of the natural human tendency to seek material gain.
People are by temperament selfish, and capitalism gives full rein to this
immutable fact of nature.  This sort of argument cannot be taken seriously
for two reasons.  First, for nearly all of human existence, we did not live
in the way we now do.  Gatherers and hunters may not have had the
consciousness of human life that we do, but they certainly did not
subdivide their labor so that the majority of people are condemned to
performing minute and meaningless detail work.  And by most accounts, they
do not appear to have lived lives of empty loneliness and consumption of
unneeded goods. When nature was bountiful, they did not work especially
hard.   Their way of producing and distributing output lasted for so long
that it is reasonable to ask: if people are by nature selfish and
acquisitive, why did it take so long for this temperament to assert itself?
 Second, the proposition that our way of working is but a reflection of the
way we are ignores the sordid history of violence which brought this system
into existence in the first place.  Peasants had to be driven from their
land and craft  workers had to be forced into the factories.  Were these
poor souls just being irrational when they resisted their transformation
into wage laborers?

 Another argument made by supporters of capitalism, somewhat related to the
first, is that, while capitalism does exhibit certain negative features,
these are the price we must pay for its wonderful creation of wealth.  If
we did not have this system, we could not achieve the standards of living
most people now take for granted. This proposition, too, cannot withstand
close scrutiny.  For one thing, while this economic system is fantastically
"productive" (if we do include its failure to produce full human beings as
a part of society's production), it has never shown any tendency to allow
the output to be shared so that all people can enjoy this abundance.  This
is because the logic of capitalism dictates poles of rich and poor.
Without the poor, how would the economy elicit the necessary work effort?
So even if we admit that the system produces enormous wealth, this wealth
can never be enjoyed by the majority of persons in the world.  Second,
since those few who own most of the world's riches are not themselves
productive, it does not seem to be the case that we need them to continue
to generate large volumes of output. The billions of dollars of wealth
owned by a few hundred persons equals that of more than a billion of the
world's poorest inhabitants, yet the labor of the billionaires is in no way
necessary for production; their wealth could therefore be confiscated by
the majority with no loss of output at all. It is the machinery of the rich
and not them personally which helps us to increase the productiveness of
our labor.

The question, then, is must we have a complex vertical and horizontal
division of labor with very rich and very poor for the economy to be
sufficiently productive?  Certainly any factory or shop needs direction,
that is, management of production is not the issue.  But who will do the
managing and how the labor will be done are the issues.  Surely it is
possible to imagine a system of planned production in which the planning is
as democratic as possible at all levels, from the individual enterprise to
the society as a whole.  Coherent theoretical models of planned economies
have been worked out for many years, and several nations have actually
planned their economies over extended periods of time.  The results were
impressive in terms of production; the Soviet Union advanced to become one
of the world's most powerful countries in a span of 60 years.  The problem
was, and still is in the few nations still practicing planning, that while
private ownership was abolished, the nature of work inherent in capitalism
was not.

The history of capitalism, itself, demonstrates that a much lesser
separation between the planning and the execution of work is compatible
with large output and with rapid technological development.  For much of
the nineteenth century in the United States, manufacturing was
characterized, in both the small and large firms, by a system of "inside
contracting."  Skilled craftsmen contracted directly with the owners of the
factories or their hired superintendents to produce a quantity of final or
intermediate outputs.  These skilled workers then hired a production team
which carried out the work.  The team consisted of other skilled workers,
who in turn might hire unskilled helpers.  There was no centralized and
layered managerial bureaucracy, yet production was marked by impressive
magnitude and growth and great technical change.  Interchangeable parts,
requiring exceptionally precise work, were produced under this type of
management, without the appearance of an assembly line and with much less
detail labor than has been common ever since the days of Frederick Taylor.
Of course, there were still unskilled workers and the system cannot be
described as particularly democratic.  But it does show the possibility of
sophisticated production without rigid hierarchical management.  Today,
technology could allow for the complete eradication of managerial
hierarchy.  As Harry Braverman put it in his famous chapter on machinery,

In reality, machinery embraces a host of possibilities, many of which are
systematically thwarted, rather than developed, by capital.  An automatic
system of machinery opens up the possibility of the true control over a
highly productive factory by a relatively small corps of workers, providing
these workers attain the level of mastery over the machinery offered by
engineering knowledge, and providing that they then share out among
themselves the routines of the operation, from the most technically
advanced to the most routine.  This tendency to socialize labor, and to
make of it an engineering enterprise on a high level of technical
accomplishment, is, considered abstractly, a far more striking
characteristic of machinery in its fully developed state than any other.
Yet this promise, which has been repeatedly held out with every technical
advance since the Industrial Revolution, is frustrated by the capitalist
effort to reconstitute and even deepen the division of labor in all its
worst aspects, despite the fact that this division of labor becomes more
archaic with every passing day.  This observation may easily be verified by
the fact that workers in each industry today are far less capable of
operating that industry than were the workers of a half-century ago, and
even less than those of a hundred years ago.  The "progress" of capitalism
seems only to deepen the gulf between worker and machine and to subordinate
the worker ever more decisively to the yoke of the machine.

Braverman's words also suggest that the detailed division of labor could
also be eliminated.  There is no compelling reason why workers have to be
confined to detail labor.  A machinist could surely be trained to program
the numerically controlled machines.  Mechanization could eliminate a great
deal of menial labor.  For example, computers make much clerical labor
unnecessary; I can now do nearly all of this work myself.  Robots and other
advanced machinery could reduce the need for the more onerous types of
manual labor.  The education system could provide the kind of all-round
instruction which would train people to understand and operate the most
complex production systems.  And in the meantime, burdensome work could be
shared out, and workers at all levels could participate in the management
of their enterprises.  Hours of work could be significantly reduced and
work made available to those now without it.  Gradually the labor saved by
machinery could allow us to redefine work to include every sort of
intellectual and mechanical pursuit.  As it is, there are all types of
projects which would be both useful and interesting to pursue, from
developing smaller-scale agriculture to redesigning and rebuilding cities
to providing adequate social services such as health, child care, and
schooling to incorporating sound ecological principles into all productive

As changes are made toward eliminating the debilitating capitalist division
of labor, and as the social nature of all labor becomes apparent--both
through work itself and a thoroughly revamped practice of education-- then
it will begin to strike people that work is the most fulfilling of all
human activities, precisely because it will be the expression of our
humanity.  And as we become aware that we exist to work, to continually
recreate ourselves and the world around us, the desire to "live to work"
will become commonplace.  This will greatly reduce our "need" to consume
things beyond what is necessary to live.  It will seem foolish then to want
a world in which everyone owns as much as the average well-off citizen of
the United States.  We will be content in our creativity, in our work.
Once at a conference which I had helped to organize, a speaker in awe of
the wonders of capitalism, no doubt because she was one of its privileged
progeny, waxed enthusiastic about the day in which each person would fly
his or her very own private airplane.  In the world of my dreams, such a
goal would be unworthy of the name "human," and a person advocating it
would sound insane.

Naturally, it is one thing to envision a world free of alienation and
therefore truly free, and it is another to get to there from the alienated
world of the present.  If one thing is definite, it is that our present
mode of production will not reform itself into its opposite. To get there,
we need to make fundamental change so that we no longer abuse labor, so
that we can aspire to more than merely working to live, so that when we say
someone lives well we will mean far more than the amount that person
consumes.  Millions of words have been written advocating radical reforms
of education, but the results have been remarkably inadequate to the
development of well-educated human beings.  As the slow and painful
development of the world's labor movements show us, the only thing which
capital respects is power, the brute force necessary to bring it to its
knees.  We will never exist in a world in which people live to work unless
we are prepared to fight for it.   Are we willing to do this?  If we are,
how should we go about it?

A look at the history of the past century or so gives us ample indication
that millions of people have been and are unhappy about the way our system
of work is organized.  If people were happy with the status quo, it would
be difficult to explain the daily individual sabotage and the myriad social
movements which have tried to change it.  On the small scale, workers
resist working flat out, abuse sick leave, use work time as personal time
and in countless ways demonstrate a less than full commitment to work. On a
larger, more communal scale, revolutions, labor movements, civil rights
struggles, demonstrations by the unemployed, hundreds of thousands of local
organizations, and many others have tried repeatedly to change work in one
way or another. Their efforts have been on making employment available to
all, changing wage rates and working conditions, giving workers control
over work organization, forming new types of work organization.

Today in the United States, there are numerous efforts being mounted to
change work directly or our relationship to it.  All of these reflect a
deep dissatisfaction with the way things are.  Even conservative pro-family
movements are rooted in the unhappiness people endure when work for others
takes up so much of their time that they have no time left for their
families.  In fact, much of religion, reactionary as it often is,
represents to its practitioners a turning away from the pursuit of money
and the view of labor as a mere instrumentality for the making of money.
The environmental movement, too, represents a strong rejection of the
notion that the natural world is just an object to be plundered to make
money.  And although the efforts by employers and some unions to forge
cooperative relationships are both ill-conceived and doomed to failure,
they do offer evidence that both employers and employees know that
something is radically wrong with the current work arrangements.  The
positive response of so many workers, at least initially, to these schemes
is a sad commentary on the alienation of work and on how little people
expect from it.  In any event, there is plenty of dissatisfaction about
work and the system of production of which it forms the basis, so there is
good reason to believe there are ample shock troops available to wage war
against work as we know it.

I have argued throughout this book that the root cause of human unhappiness
is the alienation generated by the forced sale of our ability to work to
those who see it merely as an end to making money, that is, as property.
If we live in a society in which our own labor power is objectified and the
products of our labor appear alien to us, how is it possible that we can
have a  positive view of ourselves much less our fellow human beings and
the natural world? Everything seems to be just a means to an end, and
nothing is an end unto itself except the most impersonal thing of
all-money.  Therefore, if we want to "change the world," we must start with
the root cause of what makes us feel this way, namely work.

The struggle to change work will have short-term and long-term components.
Goals for the short-term should include a guarantee of work for the
hundreds of millions of unemployed and underemployed around the globe; much
higher minimum wages; significant reductions in the hours of work;
universal health and child care; generous paid family leaves; paid study
and training leaves; and assurances of the right to form unions without
employer or government interference.  Over the long haul, these goals must
be tied to workers' gaining complete control over every aspect of work,
controlling production and distribution and reorganizing the society to
eliminate, as much as possible, the vertical and horizontal divisions of
labor.  We should strive to make the potential of each individual as much
in accord with the potential of human beings in general as we can.

The achievement of even the short-term objectives will be a daunting task,
while the realization of the long-term aims will necessitate a revolution.
What organizations might be  agencies to achieve these momentous events?
Despite their manifold problems and weaknesses, labor movements of the
world must be at the forefront of the battle to revolutionize work.  No
other existing organizations can even hope to begin the war, much less win
it.  The reality is that no other organizations have had as their
historical mission the emancipation of the majority of people in the world.
  It is only to state the obvious that the planet's labor movements are the
largest and richest, the most widespread, the most diverse, and the most
experienced opposition movements now in operation, and therefore, they
afford us the best opportunity to build the forces necessary to win our war
of liberation.

Labor organizations cannot, however, undertake this task alone.  The labor
movement of the future must make common cause with most of the
organizations striving for a better world and must consider itself as
acting with them as integral parts of a mass movement of working people to
control their lives, from the natural environment to the schools to the

Having said this, I must add that labor movements as presently composed are
not at all adequate for the tasks at hand.  They must, themselves, be
radically reconstituted.  At this point, I can simply sketch out the
necessary changes.  It will be up to the world's working men and women to
deepen the analysis and carry out the struggle.

The first change needed in the world's labor movements is that they must
become deeply democratic.  The situation in the United Farm Workers may be
extreme, but the internal structure of that union is not at all dissimilar
from that of most other unions in the United States and around the world.
If working people are to take control of their lives, they must govern
their own  organizations.  Even now, unions are the only institution in our
society in which individuals can live democracy, not just learn the theory
of democracy. Only by having this empowering experience and by having a
living example can workers have the confidence and blueprint for
transforming the world.  If unions are structured as top-down
bureaucracies, they just recreate in the workers' own associations and in
the workers' consciousness the features of the work world which engender
alienation.  True democracy fosters the egalitarian spirit which must be
central to any labor movement if it hopes to unite the working class given
all of the diversity within it.  Democracy is a radical concept, which is
why it is so seldom practiced.  Therefore, the fight for union democracy is
a precondition for any efforts to democratize the workplaces.
A democratic movement of workers must then confront employers in the most
important battle, the control of work.  Since at least the end of the
Second World War, U.S. employers and workers have fought on the terrain of
the labor market.  The ideology which has motivated this struggle has been
a sort of "populism," which, while criticizing employer excesses and
extolling the virtues of the working population, shies away from a direct
attack upon capital.  For example, in AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney's,
widely-publicized pamphlet and book, America Need a Raise, much is made of
the long-term decline in real wages and the growing inequality in income
and wealth.  He decries the destruction of our social safety net and
exorbitant CEO pay.   The problem is that Sweeney's focus is all wrong.  He
examines the distribution of income rather than the production of that
income (through work), and makes his argument in terms of fairness rather
than right.

What underlies Sweeney's arguments is unions' long-standing acceptance of
the management's right to run the workplaces as it sees fit.  The job of
the union is limited to getting workers a bigger share of the economic pie.
 The fight, then, is merely to win higher wages and benefits, while
yielding to employers the absolute right to manage work.  This "division of
labor" between employers and their employees has been labeled the "accord"
between labor and capital.  Unfortunately this "accord" is an insufficient
basis for the labor movement's existence for at least three reasons.
First, capitalist accumulation places definite limits on wage increases,
even in periods of rapid capital accumulation and high profit.  As wages
rise, they help to accelerate the development of forces which create a
relative surplus population or reserve army of labor, that is, high
unemployment.  These forces are, as we have seen, the detailed division of
labor and mechanization.  Thus we have witnessed a striking decline in the
share of the labor force made up of workers who produce goods, not
coincidentally those workers whose wages and rates of unionization have
been the highest.  Rapid technological innovation has allowed an immense
increase in productivity in the goods-producing sector, which, in turn has
allowed fewer workers to produce vastly more output.  The workers sloughed
off by this process, as well as large numbers of women workers, find
employment in the labor-intensive and low-wage services-producing sector of
the economy and act as possible strikebreakers in both goods- and
services-producing sectors.  The point is that long before rising wages can
really threaten capital, capital accumulation itself places limits on
further wage increases.

Second, the historical record demonstrates that rapid capital accumulation
cannot continue indefinitely; periods of crisis always intervene.
Throughout the long post-World War Two boom, employers were busy with the
further alienation of their workforces, dividing up the labor and
mechanizing, in other words, increasing their control of the labor process,
and not meeting much resistance even in organized workplaces.  When the
long period of stagnation commenced in the early 1970s,  capital went on
the offensive to restore its profit rates, enforcing the program now known
as neoliberalism.  In the face of this corporate onslaught, strengthened by
capital's now increased control of the labor process, organized labor soon
discovered that it could not make wages rise anymore, and bereft of any
kind of analysis of how capitalism really worked, it capitulated into an
abyss of wage concessions and acquiescence to the labor-management
cooperation schemes being promoted by employers to camouflage the nakedness
of their anti-labor attack.  So bad had the situation become by the end of
the 1980s and so disillusioned  the rank-and-file that a revolt within the
AFL-CIO's leadership occurred, resulting in the ascendance of the "New
Voice" leaders to power.  This revolt has also taken place within most
labor unions in the U.S.-REAP in the United Food and Commercial Workers
Union, New Directions in the UAW, and To Make the Best Better in the SEIU.
These new AFL-CIO officers are doing many good things.  Yet, the terrain of
the class struggle, as conceived by "New Voice," is still that of the labor
market and distribution.  Our capitalists are especially greedy and our
workers deserve more.   The weaknesses of their analysis and focus becomes
clear if we ask whether the lower salaries of Japanese CEOs have anything
to do with the accumulation of capital and its effects upon working people
in Japan. The simple fact is that workers deserve a bigger share of the
pie.   After all, workers are the ones who produced the pie to begin with,
and capitalists are not,  any of them, absolutely necessary for the
existence of a human-centered system of production.   Why are the labor
unions paying deference  to the idea that  labor and capital  should
cooperate, and that the purpose of that cooperation should mainly be to
insure that the United States can continue to gobble up the lion's share of
the world's output?  It is suicidal for unions to behave as if employers
care at all who consumes their goods or who produces them and would not, at
the first chance, move their facilities to the ends of the earth in search
of more profit. It makes no sense to ignore that in the rest of the world
also deserve the fruits of their own labors.

A third reason for the inadequacy of the labor market as the domain of the
class struggle is stated clearly by Harry Braverman.  He says, "In this
move [Henry Ford's payment of a $5.00 daily wage] can be seen [another]
element in the adjustment of workers to increasingly unpopular jobs.
Conceding higher relative wages for a shrinking proportion of workers in
order to guarantee uninterrupted production was to become, after the Second
World War, a widespread feature of corporate labor policy, especially after
it was adopted by union leaderships."  That is, higher wages help to
habituate workers to a system which denies them any control over their
labor power.  Implicit in this is the acceptance of the ability to buy
things as the mark of human liberation.  Naturally, I am not suggesting
that workers did not want and deserve higher wages and benefits.  But the
struggle for these was not put into a critical context that cast the fight
for more money not as an end in itself but as part of a larger battle for
control of the labor process.  Thus workers do come to see money and
consumption as the end, and we devolve into a situation in which
researchers find that steelworkers would rather continue to work long hours
of overtime now, to buy things now, knowing that this will kill them before
they can enjoy  retirement.

The labor market and all markets veil the true nature of our mode of
production.  Therefore, it is bound to be insufficient to wage the war
against alienation as a market struggle.  Instead we must look beneath the
veil, at the relations of production, which show themselves inside of the
workplace.  As Braverman has put it, " as purposive action, guided
by the intelligence, is the special product of humankind."  And further,
"Labor that transcends mere instinctual activity is thus the force which
created humankind and the force by which humankind created the world as we
know it."  Through our labor we create the world and we create ourselves.
To labor in this way, consciously and purposively, is to be human.

The whole thrust of capitalism is to alienate us from our humanity, to deny
to us that which makes us human.  We enter the workplace, having sold our
labor power, our ability to create, to the capitalist, who considers it to
be property, on a par with the other means of production.  However, we are
not happy to have sold our humanity, so we have to be forced to do the
employer's bidding.  While this force is often enough effectuated
violently, the true and perverted genius of capital is to accomplish it
indirectly by reorganizing the labor process so that it is extraordinarily
difficult for the workers to control it.  The essence of capitalist
management is control, control over the labor process and therefore control
over the worker.  First, the workers are herded into factories, then they
are watched and the divisions that they make in their own labors are turned
against them through the detailed division of labor.  Machines threaten
them with redundancy and further de-skill their work.  All of the piecemeal
efforts at control are systematized by Taylor, who makes the separation of
conception and execution the sine qua non of capitalist production.  Both
Taylorism and personnel management are reconceptualized again with lean
production and its super-systematic hiring, just-in-time inventories,
design for manufacture, team production, subcontracting, andon boards, and
constant kaizening of  work.  The constant pressure to produce in
circumstances in which the worker can exert virtually no control over the
work, is what Braverman aptly describes as "a generalized social insanity."

It is in the workplace that capitalism shows its nature and not in the
labor market.  So if we want to wage war against this system, it is in the
workplace that we must begin.  It is control that matters and it is control
that we must try to win back.  In other words, capitalism shatters human
beings, and the task is, through struggle, to put us back together again.
Marx puts this with his characteristic wit in Capital: "On leaving this
simple sphere of circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes
the 'Free-trade Vulgaris' with his views and ideas, and with the standard
by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can
perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae.  He who
before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the
possessor of labor-power follows as his laborer.  The one with an air of
importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding
back; like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to
expect but-a hiding." In my view, it is the hiding which is the issue.
Just as a woman beaten by her husband cannot be healed by virtue of the
gifts her husband gives her nor by the fact that he switches from striking
her with his fists to an open hand, so too the worker cannot be freed by
higher wages or slightly better working conditions.  Both the woman and the
workers must defeat the power of their oppressors, escape their clutches
and build new lives.

Finally, the alienation created by the sale of our ability to work radiates
outward to the entire range of social activities.  This means that a "labor
movement" must embrace the whole of society.  Capitalism is a totalizing
system, and it will take a totalizing movement to replace it.  For example,
the pillage of the natural environment is rooted in our economic system's
need to "objectify" the natural world, to consider it, like our capability
to labor as "objects," the exploitation of which is simply an adjunct to
the drive to make profit and accumulate capital.  Similarly, most of our
social ills, from our burgeoning prison population to racism, sexism,
homophobia, domestic violence, and obscene inequality and poverty are
intimately connected to the same requirements.  Instead of seeing ourselves
in other human beings and in the natural world, we see only "things" to be
used, just as we see our labor as something to be used to satisfy material
needs and not as a need in itself.

If we were not so alienated, we would be far less likely to be as
anti-social as we are.  If I saw a woman, an Indian, a black person, a
disabled person, any stranger, as a form of myself and if I in turn viewed
myself as an integrated human being, how would it be possible for me to
abuse that woman? That Indian? That black person? That man in a wheel
chair? That stranger?  There should be a natural unity among all working
people and between human beings and the nonhuman world.  It is our duty to
grasp this elementary point and act upon it.  This means that, in the end,
all of the various movements aimed at one kind of human liberation or
another must join together to form one mass movement.  I do not know
exactly how this will come to be, but I do know that it must if we are to
have the hope of creating a more just and human world.

In one of their most notable passages, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
envision a world without alienation:

...whereas in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of
activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society
regulates the general production and thus makes it possible to do one thing
today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon,
rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind,
without ever becoming

 hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.

This passage is considered wildly utopian by most people today.  But,
updated to reflect the work people now do, I believe that it should serve
as a guidepost for us.  We will be able to measure how close we have come
to creating a world without alienation by seeing how near we have come to
realizing these ideals.

Louis Proyect


More information about the Marxism mailing list