Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Worker’s Alienation and the Desolate, Lonesome Greed on Wall Street

A view from above a glass elevator
I have been following some of the latest developments on the current global crisis out of necessity. Although economics is not my favorite field, I must say that understanding some of the basic principles is paramount for survival in our modern capitalist world. Economics affects all of us, and almost every part of our lives is influenced by economic decisions; at the same, it also powers a feeling of helplessness and alienation.

One becomes a pawn in a complex and confusing game, where only few profit, and the rest of us simply have to suffer. Seeing the market plunge or the cost of basic products rise, I cannot do anything but accept those facts, though I feel completely left out and alienated from the process. It seems that I, and that includes probably most of us, am just a plaything caught up in a capricious whirlwind of economic disaster.

Marx, building on Hegel's concept, claims that modern labor has an alienating effect on each worker for various reasons, especially when it comes to the worker's relationship with the product. First of all, the worker does not feel any particular identification with the finished product as they have been involved in only part of the process. Specialization in one area and the use of technology usually limit us to see the product as our own creation. In today's auto industry few people can claim “authorship” of the manufacturing process, since the workers are often used in the same way as the machinery, as commodity.

Furthermore, few of us are our own bosses, so our work is “owned” by others who use and dispose of them at their own caprice and will. In other words, we turn over all the “copyrights” to the owner, and all we get in return is a salary as a form of compensation. Yet often enough this salary is low so that it does not seem like a fair deal; we have not only put work and effort into the production but also used up precious time.

“Time is money” has been the motto of several people in the modern world. Yet it seems that we are not the owners of our own time since its principal value represents making money; this activity is not emotionally or spiritually fulfilling although we claim and often insist that it will bring us happiness.

I am using terms of creative writing because I think that as a writer the relationship to one's work is the best manner for me to explain the concept of alienation. When I write a story that I believe reflects my own creativity, feelings, philosophical convictions, I see it not only as an extension of myself, but also as my mirror image. If it is written as an honest, intellectual and artistic endeavor, as opposed to commercial writing where the end is making money, then my work is worthy of the person I am and becomes a true representation of who I am. Often this kind of identification would fill the artist with pride and a sense of accomplishment. Something that I believe Karl Marx must have felt after finishing up his Das Kapital or James Joyce with his masterpiece Finnegan's Wake that had almost two decades in the making.

So far I have looked at alienation in terms of the ordinary worker, but it also applies to the capital-owning people. In particular, I am thinking of Wall Street brokers whose principal objective is to make money off money and whose only “work” is the act of buying and selling stocks. How could they consider themselves productive at all? What would they possibly contribute to society? Perhaps one day all the money they have made will not console them for the void in their lives and all the time spent looking for something that eventually would alienate them not only from society, but worse, from themselves.

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