Alienated Labor and the Verizon Strike
Issue #53, January 2001
Few philosophers viscerally strike a chord with their readers, regardless of the subject in question. Yet there is something within Marx's essay, Alienated Labor, that is able to communicate directly to working people laboring even over one-hundred and fifty years subsequent to its publication. There is good reason for this: Marx elucidated a theory of labor in which workers become subservient to the objects they produce, a theory where people are not exalted by their labor, but devalued by it. Marx's concept of alienated labor describes the internal conflict and disparity of workers, be they from the 19th or 21st century, when their existence is contingent upon fulfilling the desires and wants of another and neglecting their own.
An understanding of the etymological origin of the word alien is requisite to understanding Marx's essay. Alien stems from the Latin adjective (sometimes used as a pronoun) alienus, aliena, alienum, denoting that the noun being modified by alienus, a, um, belongs 'of or to another.' When thought of in this context, Marx not only suggests that human labor is hostile, indifferent and estranged, but that it also does not belong to the one who is laboring. That is, the ownership of one's labor is transferred, not through due course of law or any other such institution, to another person by the act of laboring itself.
Exponentials of Alienation
Marx commences his essay by maintaining that workers' miseries are directly proportional to their level of production; the more value workers attribute to their product, by virtue of their labor, the more miserable they become. Workers themselves are a commodity and the greater the value of their production, the cheaper a commodity they become. "The increase in the value of the world of things is directly proportional to the decrease in value of the human world." The end result of labor is its objectification into a thing, and the value of labor lies only in its objectification.
However, the product of labor is in opposition of labor itself; it is an alien thing. Laborers, then, have no relation to the end result of their labors. Herein lies Marx's first classification of the alienation of labor. A product of labor is only created by virtue of laborers placing their lives, through work, into an object. It follows from this that laborers then are no longer in possession of the life which they have imbued their products and that it now belongs solely to the product. The greater the amount of life a workers place into an object, the less life left to them. The object therefore is given an external existence outside of the worker solely on account of the life, usurped from laborers, with which it was created. The object's life then confronts the laborer, and is 'hostile and alien.'
Many workers have empirical reasons to validate Marx's claim. Whether one labors in a coal mine or in a cubicle, the product of one's labor is set off against those who had a part in its production. Neither the mined coal nor the software programmed belongs in the least to those responsible for its existence and value. In addition, the more coal one mines or the more efficient the program, the greater the value of the product and consequently the greater the degradation of the value of its creators. In each scenario, the product of labor is alien to laborers and serves only to attenuate the life of its creators.
Marx describes the labor whose products are alien to its creators as a parasitic force attached to the life of laborers. No longer is nature required for one's physical sustenance — it has been replaced by labor. Workers are given objects to labor upon, the end results of which are vitalized and made significant with the life of the worker, and the results belong to others than the workers. Instead of directly receiving the fruit or product of one's labor, one receives a 'means of subsistence' whereby one is able to exist as a physical being. This places workers in a deplorable state of servitude where one can only exist physically so long as one is a worker.
Not only are workers alienated from the product of their labors in the sense that it exists externally, but workers are also alienated through the act of production itself. Marx summarizes his point in a question. "How could the worker stand in an alien relationship to the product of his activity if he did not alienate himself from himself in the very act of production?" Labor, Marx contends, is an act that is not part of one's being; it is an act that is external, unnatural and yet necessary to the laborer. One does not labor in order to fulfill oneself: it is an act that produces unhappiness, lacks mental energy, and 'mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind.' Only when you are not laboring are you able to be content with yourself; during labor you live outside yourself.
Two points illustrate the external quality of labor. First, as we have mentioned before, the end product of labor belongs to another. Second, during labor your motions, exertions and activity are not your own; all functions and energies are expended as a means to accomplish another's desires. In short, while laboring, you do not belong to yourself.
Labor requires such an extreme amount of time that the result of labor is that one acts for oneself only in animalistic and physical activities, such eating, sleeping and procreating. The human being, says Marx, becomes animalistic insofar as the human is allotted time only enough for physical sustenance and desires. In this sense, workers are alienated from themselves in that labor precludes any self-fulfilling activity and allows existence only as a means to another's end.
The third form of labor alienation Marx derives from the previous two: the alienation of the product and alienation in the act of producing, is the alienation of humankind from its own humanity. Marx contends that it is the life activity of a species that determines a species' entire nature. "The animal is immediately one with its life activity, not distinct from it. The animal is its life activity." Consciousness, that is 'free conscious activity,' he claims, is the human species-character; free conscious activity is what separates humankind from animals. Marx's conception of conscious activity smells of Hegelian influence; that is, a freely conscious life has itself as its own object, and only when life is its own object is one free.
The alienation of humankind from nature, in the sense that labor and not nature represents sustenance, together with alienation from productive activities, leads people into alienation from other people and from the entire human species-character. These two consequences of alienated labor force human activity, the characteristic of the species and essence, to cease from conscious and free self-conception; in short, one's entire character and essence serve merely to sustain physical existence.
When people do act freely, their labor is capable of creating products that reproduce the human character intellectually, spiritually, and in actuality. Thus humanity can view itself in a world it creates; in this sense, life becomes its own object. Alienated labor prevents people from making the object of their labor their own product and replaces it with that of another; it is able to inhibit people to the extent that it strips them of their own species-life.
From these types of alienation, from the alienation of external labor, from the alienation of humankind from its humanity, and from the alienation of people from their fellows, the consequence of private property can be deduced. Although, Marx contends, it appears that private property is the catalyst of alienated labor, it is the economic alienation of private property which is its result. This fact can be realized only in the final stages of a political economy founded on the principles of private property.
Private property is not only the product of alienated labor, but also the cause of alienated labor and the 'realization of this externalization.' The concepts of private property are enshrouded within a political economy based on private property. Its laws and institutions are such that this system protects the owners of the means of production and thereby facilitates the alienation of labor. Alienated labor becomes the very lifeblood of private property; labor creates, maintains and exalts the owners of private property, yet is unable to give itself anything in return save for misery.
The workers, in exchange for their labor, receive wages. Wages and private property, Marx claims, are identical, "for when the product, the object of labor, pays for the labor itself, wages are only the necessary consequence of the alienation of labor." Labor is undertaken not for the sole purpose of laboring for oneself but for wages, and labor becomes fettered inexorably to wages. Even if one were paid wages greater than or equal to the value of one's labor, there would not be any lessening of the amount of alienation, for labor would still be tied to wages.
Alienated labor, private property, and wages are therefore intrinsically intertwined with each other; that is, alienated labor begets wages and causes private property and economic alienation. It then follows from this without alienated labor, private property would cease to exist, and without private property there would be no alienated labor.
Escaping from the vicious cycle of alienated labor and the economic alienation of private property entails human emancipation. Marx maintains that human emancipation from the servitude of alienated labor appears in the political spectrum as the emancipation of workers. Emancipation of workers begets the emancipation of the entire human species. Emancipation from alienated labor would allow human beings to regain connection with their fellow humans and the human species in general, as the entirety of human servitude is bound to the workers' relations to the products of their labor and to the owners of the means of their labor.
Alienated from Verizon
In classifying the means by which workers remain alien to and alienated by their labor, Marx made some fairly lofty and antagonistic statements. One of the best defenses and illustrations of the cogency of Marx's principles of the alienation of labor is the success and accuracy of his predictions. As Marx predicted, we see the centralization of wealth in the hands a few extremely large corporations engaging in unfair business practices and becoming horizontal monopolies. We see the elimination of small farms and the centralization and conglomeration of farms, and we either have experienced or heard of the treachery of many work environments.
But, above all other demonstrations of the cogency of Marx's theories, there is one that best illustrates the reality of the alienation of labor: the misery of modern worker. Many workers today are plagued by a sense of ennui and futility; workers laboring under capitalism today possibly are more alienated than any workers in history.
For most workers there is nothing tangible about the product of one's labor. The information age diminished the number of occupations revolving solely around physical toil, but has a created a workforce more separated from the products of their labor, more frustrated by the futility, ineffectiveness and demeaning character of their productive activity, and more isolated from their fellow workers and human beings.
One of the most recent public examples and revolts against the alienation of labor was the strike, orchestrated by members of the Communications Workers of America Union and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, against the Verizon Corporation. The Verizon Corporation was formed by the merger of two already incredibly large and powerful corporations, Bell Atlantic and GTE. After only two months of operations under Verizon's merged management, 87,000 workers from Maine to Virginia walked out on their jobs and struck for nearly one month. Services as basic as line repair and as a complicated as installing high-speed DSL and T1 connections to the Internet came to a near-halt.
The main concerns of the unions were job security, wages, pensions and, most notably, forced labor, stress, access to training, and the right to organize non-union workers in the company's wireless division. Maintaining an anti-Verizon website, my colleagues and I took to the picket lines to spread the word about our website. After talking with workers on the picket line and reading grievances posted to the website, we were appalled at the extent to which Verizon subjugates its workers.
Many workers voiced grievances about the number of hours they are forced to work. Failure to comply with management requests for overtime would result, at a mimimum, in harsh monetary sanctions, and at the extreme, in termination of employment. Many Verizon service workers were especially upset with the lack of break time during their shifts. Operators and customer service workers, we learned, are instructed to spend only eight seconds per telephone call and reprimanded for going beyond the call of duty to assist a customer. Many operator call banks are located in offices with substandard facilities, replete with nailed-shut windows, insects and no climate control.
All of these issues contribute to overall misery, but what most disturbed the workers was not their working conditions or wages, but the general abandonment that they experienced. In brief, workers felt as if they mattered only as commodities to management, and commodities that could be easily replaced.
The communications workers of Verizon were severely separated from the products of their labor. In fact, the products of most Verizon workers were entirely unknown or incomprehensible to themselves. Only in the boardrooms or meetings, where the workers were of course absent, were the products of their labor examined and lauded on bar graphs and pie charts representing such trivial data as service orders and call efficiency ratios. Work became a constant struggle between management and workers, and often resulted in a loss of worker dignity.
The workers, as Marx maintained, were alienated from their true desires and were forced, through the means of forced overtime and weekend work, to assimilate the needs and desires of the corporation. The workers' labors and productive activity, which preoccupied the better part of their lives, were not their own but belonged to an alien ownership, which in return paid little recompense to the workers.
Ennui, distance and futility do not just run rampant through Verizon's workforce; these sentiments are ubiquitous throughout any — especially modernized — capitalistic workforce. Humankind is alienated from its works and unable to produce products reflecting its humanity. The degrading and subservient notion of alienated productive activity, of alienation from oneself, which Marx posited over one hundred fifty years ago, carries even greater import in this contemporary world than it did in Marx's time. Humanity is denied the very existence and potentialities of the species on account of its degradation through alienated labor. Moreover, most workers toil their entire lives away, never truly living their own lives but only those of aliens, blinded by economic estrangement, consumerism, and an unremitting need to overwork and overproduce. Marx's concept of alienated labor, albeit not of the most optimistic nature, is a lucid description of labor relations under a profit-orientated capitalistic economy, and as our current situation and workforces inform us, quite accurate.
Alexander Urbelis is a senior at SUNY Stony Brook, majoring in English and Philosophy, and is a long-time Latin TA. He also runs an anti-Verizon website, VerizonEatsPoop.com.