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Introduction: Alienated Nation

Alienated Labor is an issue directed at a specific and classical Marxist concept -- alienation of labor -- in order to illuminate its relevance and uses within contemporary analysis.

Charlie Bertsch and Joe Lockard, Issue Editors

Issue #53, January 2001

Before entering into the "Alienated Labor" issue and its thinking, we would like Bad Subjects readers to notice the new publication name on this issue: Sujetos Malditos. In part this is our response to alienation caused by the English-only movement and its election victories in California, Arizona and other states. The attack on language rights is one of the most serious right-wing cultural initiatives in the United States. The answer to English-only is more-than-English.

In equal part, Bad Subjects recognizes that no contemporary progressive movement can hope to be effective and successful without multilingualism in its political practice. While we anticipate remaining an English-language political journal for most purposes, we wish to signal that Spanish-language contributions will be encouraged and welcome in this journal and at the BS website. Bad Subjects is fortunate to have several Spanish-speaking editors and we shall work to find new ways to become a meeting-ground for multilingual progressivism. As a foretaste of what a multi-lingual Bad Subjects might look like, we have included pull quotes from three articles in Spanish that use the work of Louis Althusser — from whose essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" we got our name — in interesting ways.

Last year Bad Subjects published a very successful "KMY2K" issue that examined the continuing relevance of different strands of Marxist thought and praxis at a time when that tradition has seemed increasingly marginalized. This year we return with an issue directed at a specific and classical Marxist concept — alienation of labor — in order to illuminate its relevance and uses within contemporary analysis. One friend, a progressive labor economist, remarked of the topic "I really don't use terms like that in my work." Indeed, the concept's lapse from common usage serves as a barometer of the extent to which capitalist ideologies have become the sole source of the terms of discussion. De-inventing and de-naturalizing the language of capitalism is crucial to a politics that values human needs over productivity for sheer profit. If we do not undertake this work of de-naturalization, we shall have to spend the future re-inventing past languages of anti-capitalism. Alienated labor is a straightforward concept: it means that, because labor creates all value in human societies, market capitalism operates by taking away labor's value from workers in order to create profits. Resistance to the alienation of labor remains the practical basis of socialist organizing.

The conceptual utility of the alienation of labor concept becomes clear in the opening articles of Nora Connor and Alex Urbelis. Connor uses the idea to discuss women and workfare, arguing that workfare is a paradigmatic example of exploitation that may be understood through both Marxist and recent feminist theories of labor. The classical concept of alienated labor, Connor further argues, also has contemporary limitations and inadequacies. Alexander Urbelis applies Marx's discussion to the labor alienation that nurtured the recent Verizon strike. After reviewing the theoretical foundation for the concept of alienated labor, he goes on to suggest that the elements of "ennui, distance and futility" that gave rise to the Marxist understanding of labor under nineteenth-century industrial capitalism remain equally valid in a high-tech economy where workers may no longer even see the products of their labor.

The Amateur Computerist Collective was born out of a labor education struggle at Ford's Rouge plant in the 1980s. They provide a dossier that documents that originary event, one that emphasizes the role of education in labor organizing. Lindsey Eck, one of the newest members of our Production Team, looks at the role of the Texas-Mexico border zone in shaping the US agricultural workforce, and particularly the living and health conditions these migrant workers endure. Like the piece from the Amateur Computerist Collective, Eck's makes extensive use of documentary evidence, this time in the form of conversations with migrant workers.

A series of autobiographical essays round out the issue. They reflect on the varied ways the psychological alienation we experience as a function of labor shape our lives and work choices. Tim Jackson recounts his trajectory from a rural Kentucky existence that demanded many kinds of work to life as a professor, meditating in the process on the possibilities for a "radically democratic practice of labor rights". Mike Mosher, a member of the Production Team for many years (and creator of the nude Marx a la Botticelli on the issue cover!), remembers the sense of liberation he felt when he was paid a living wage to work as a community artist. Amy Halloran, a writer living in upstate New York, tells about the sense of fear that has crept over a worklife she realizes may no longer be her own after she signs a mortgage. JC Myers, a regular contributor to Bad Subjects over the years, provides some black humor in a history of his working life in the 1980s. Finally, Kim Nicolini, another longtime member of the Production Team, returns to our pages after a "maternity leave" to discuss the difficulty she is facing in her quest for downward mobility, as she seeks employment that will leave her the time and energy she needs to be a good mother.

Copyright © 2001 by Charlie Bertsch and Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.