ALIENATION: From Karl Marx to Merle Travis and beyond…

Originally published at Strangetimes.lastsuperpower on November 27, 2009

Sixteen tons
Whadaya get?
Another day older
And deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me
‘coz I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.

‘Sixteen tons’ is one of many songs about alienation under capitalism. The song was recorded in the USA in 1946 by Merle Travis, whose father had worked in the mines of Kentucky. Merle’s father often used the phrase “another day older and deeper in debt” around the house. The song has been covered by many country artists, as well as blues and rock performers – my favourite version is by Eric Burdon.

Merle Travis’ version is here:

Check out Eric’s too:

The ‘sixteen tons’ refers to work, specifically in the coal mines during the era of the ‘truck system’ (under which workers in company towns were paid with vouchers recognized only by the local store rather than paid in cash). This may seem to date the song, even make it irrelevant to the current time. However, I think ‘sixteen tons’ can mean any kind of work people do for wages under a system in which wealth is socially produced yet privately appropriated. It’s certainly true that mechanization and automation continue to reduce the numbers of people doing such work; the kind of toil that my father always referred to in my youth as ‘dirty work’. (He worked in factories and used to nag me: “Son, study hard and go to uni and then you’ll be able to become a school teacher. Don’t end up in a dirty job.”).

There’s nothing romantic about working in the dirty jobs and, as technological changes continue to reduce many of the more mind-numbing tasks, then it becomes more likely that more people will seek even greater freedom to decide what they do and how and why they do it. Multi-skilling is another example. The more it occurs, so too the greater the likelihood that workers will start wondering why they can’t strive to fully develop their many interests and desires. We are rarely these days just a machinist, just a waitress or just a teacher, and within a lifetime we can be all the above and more. But this multi-skilling occurs within the framework of capitalist social relations: we are multi-skilled in the interests of a capitalist class. But were the producers to one day control production, why would there need to be social limits to what we want to be and, indeed, to our satisfaction in striving toward achieving our goals and desires? This would be free enterprise in the best possible sense.

Capitalist enterprises that experiment with ‘worker participation’ seek to create a sense of ‘belonging’ yet cannot reduce alienation because it is rooted in the very economic system that allows the capitalist class to appropriate socially produced wealth. But, again, such experiments raise the question: why can’t the workers take over for ourselves? Why can’t we be the ‘board of directors’ and the owners? Do we really need ‘them’ to do it for us?

When I was in the communist party during the 1970s, the old veterans often talked about the ‘big one’ coming; that is, that one day, there would be a major global crisis for capitalism that would be so severe the system would not survive. They seemed to believe that without such a crisis, there would be no revolution. Later, after I quit the party and started thinking more for myself, I started to wonder why a revolution should occur from a crisis like the one experienced in the 1930s. Economic depressions hardly create optimism. Why shouldn’t people, as they did, mostly just want the system to work again as it had when they were in jobs? Of course, communist activists back then succeeded, to a point, in linking the economic crisis to its root cause, capitalism, but capitalism has clearly not continued a downward spiral in terms of living conditions and working conditions for most people. In absolute terms, working conditions and living conditions have improved since the 1930s in the advanced industrial societies. So, is it really about inevitable economic crisis? Is there any other fundamental reason for wanting to overthrow capitalism and replace it with social ownership?

I think there is. And, while I’m no expert when it comes to theory, I think it’s clear that, regardless of the condition of the economy, an excellent reason for wanting fundamental change in the social relations is because our human potential is so undermined by the wages system. We are alienated from the basic process of production (because we have no control over it as workers) and from other important aspects of our humanity. In his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx argued that in addition to being alienated from the process of production, the workers are also alienated from its product (as this is owned by the owner of the means of production, the capitalist) and we are alienated from one another, our fellow workers (as labour becomes a commodity rather than a social relationship because we are only an extension of the means of production that the owners of capital buy).

Of particular importance, in my opinion, is Marx’s notion that the worker is also alienated from his or her individual humanity or ‘species essence’. It’s worth quoting Marx on this:

“In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.

“It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him”.

While technologies, management techniques and living standards have changed since Marx’s time and since the end of World War Two, capitalism itself hasn’t changed in any fundamental sense. It remains a socio-economic system where social relations are based on commodities for exchange, in particular private ownership of the means of production and on the exploitation of wage labour.

So the ‘sixteen tons’, the symbol of production based on the exploitation of wage labour, remains as relevant as ever. The song is also valid today when it suggests drudgery – we work, we get older, we generally go deeper into debt. Our greatest achievement in countries like Australia is paying off the house. Yet we spend the better part of our lives doing so. And even in Australia, with comparatively high home-ownership rates, most of us do not own our own homes outright.

In ‘Sixteen Tons’, Merle Travis was referring to the ‘store system’ in the geographically isolated mining towns of Kentucky whereby the company – the owners of the mines – also owned the stores which had a monopoly over the provision of goods and services. Workers frequently went into debt to the company store and were thereafter ‘trapped’ into working at the particular place to pay off their debts. The truck system ensured they could not save cash. Today, for ‘company store’, I suppose one can substitute the word ‘bank’.

The ‘company store’ is also very important to an understanding of alienation because it symbolizes, in the song, the physical expression of the wages system as experienced by the workers. Workers in any industry rarely see the real boss – the owners of the company. We talk often about ‘the bosses’ – the boss did this, or the boss said that – but usually this refers to those we see and meet and experience at work each day. These are managers rather than bosses and, despite their high salaries, are usually as dependent as the rest of us on the wages system. When trade union leaders urge the ‘bosses’ to be fairer or speak angrily against unfair bosses, they are missing the point unless these bosses are linked directly back to the owners of whatever the means of production happens to be. Invariably, such militant rhetoric merely seeks longer chains and bigger cages for the workers, and is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The company store might be pressured into lowering some prices, giving more credit or deferring some repayments, it might replace stern and impersonal counter staff with the happy smiling faces of staff with diplomas in ‘human relations’ – but still the source of exploitation will exist. Once the truck system was abolished, workers were paid in cash – but no less exploited, no less alienated from their work.

The worker in the advanced economies is rarely trapped into the company store system today. Indeed, the individual worker is able to leave one job in pursuit of another at any time: but the new job will still be based on the wages system. And the debts, to the bank, will still need to be repaid. Someone will own the show – ‘the mine’ and ‘the store’ – other than the workers who produce goods and/or provide services. It is true that leaving one job for another is easier in good times, when labour is in demand, but this misses the point that wherever the worker goes, they will end up working for wages, the work is not voluntarily performed but only performed because individual workers cannot survive without those wages. The entire class, the working class, is thus defined by its relationship to the owners and the wages system keeps us locked into what is in essence wage slavery.

The Marxist notion that alienation denies us our true humanity and potential, the enjoyment and fulfilment of our ‘species essence’, brings me back to the song. For, in my view, the most important lyric relates to the ‘soul’. The worker, in the song, owes not just money but pretty much EVERYTHING – the best hours of his awakened day – to the company store. Which is really saying he owes it to the company. Which means the class of owners.

I know that Marx was an atheist, and it’s not possible to embrace a materialist philosophy and also believe in God. But as an atheist myself, I do think the notion of the human ‘soul’ should not be dismissed in any discussion of alienation. No, I’m not suggesting for one moment that there’s a thing called a soul that exists independently of our sensual reaction to the material world. But there is something that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and, again, it is what Marx called our ‘species being’. Were it not for this quality of humanity, we could not feel or sense our alienation. We would just work like the spider that weaves its complex web without any sense of what else we could be doing that would be more fulfilling, more efficient, more liberating, more beautiful and useful. We would not imagine the new things and new ways of doing things that precede achievement and progress and are nurtured by it.

Given that 99% of the population don’t spend any time studying theories of alienation, it becomes something that is felt rather than understood, and expressed through a desire for greater meaning in life. In the 1960s, the counter-culture movement gained enough followers to set up experimental communes in rural areas based on the principle of self-sufficiency. This too was an expression of alienated people seeking something better, but in reality doing little more than expressing their alienation rather than seeking to change the system that causes it.

Unlike production in medieval times, self-sufficiency proved impossible in a modern industrial society and the hippies left themselves wide open to stand-up comedians who saw dependence on the dole cheque or wealthy parents or drugs – or all the above – as being necessary to the experiment. Besides, the great majority of people didn’t want to drop out; they rightly wanted the benefits and material advantages of life in an advanced industrial society. But this too has its down-side, in that people tend to seek happiness through objects. And while I will never say anything sacri-religious about my Plasma TV, I certainly want greater freedom as well as more stuff. The struggle against alienation is a quest for greater freedom and self-actualisation, regardless of whether capitalism is going through periodic economic crisis or not.

The expression of alienation that seeks greater meaning in life usually has a religious form, including the quasi-religious green outlook in which Nature is God. I’m always stumped as to why so many people support or sympathize with green ideology (by which I mean the idea that we must develop some kind of subservient harmonious and ‘sustainable’ relationship with the natural environment rather than continue to actively change it in our collective interests). But perhaps alienation offers an explanation. We all sense our ‘powerlessness’, our disconnect from the way social relations are structured, and, arising from that, many of us seek some sense of control over life. A few people go in for things like growing their own vegetables or becoming self-sufficient in domestic energy. Those who do get into this, really take it very seriously. They are not just growing their own veggies but ‘Saving the planet’ no less.

Marx certainly saw religion as an expression of alienation, with humans creating gods as a reflection of themselves but believing them to be separated from and external to themselves. Everyone knows Marx’s statement about the ‘opium of the masses’ but in the same discussion in his Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) he describes religion as “the soul of soulless conditions”, the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world”. He is not endorsing religion, but seeking to understand it. There is no suggestion that religion solves the problem of alienation – far from it – for “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions.”

The solution to alienation lay not with seeking meaning somewhere other than the material conditions of existence or of making people feel better so they can cope, or new management techniques in the workplace that make us work better and happier and more effectively, but rather the solution is to change the economic basis of the problem. Anything else keeps us on a merry-go-round. But that is a bad example, for merry-go-rounds are usually fun, whereas the wages system generally isn’t. Proof of this is found in the oft-repeated expression in the workplace: “I just work here”. Or in the enthusiastic lunch-break discussions about winning the lottery. Few people who win the lotto return to work on a voluntary basis. Rather, they start doing what they want to do. They seek to make the most of their freedom from wage slavery. It’s not about ‘the money’ or waiting for ‘the big one’; it’s about freedom and fulfilment or what Marx (in The German Ideology) called “self-activity” (self-actualisation), the opposite of alienation. This self-actualization, or “development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting-off of all natural limitations” cannot possibly occur under capitalism but, to Marx, only through communism when “self-activity coincides with material life”.

Without the overthrow of capitalist social relations and their replacement by social ownership of social wealth, people will remain alienated, the best years of their lives being organised to produce someone else’s profit or servicing that system. Under a system in which the workers are the ruling class, production could be geared to social need and the desires of imagination rather than to the profit of the few.

‘Sixteen tons’ is a heavy weight but nothing compared to the creative power of human beings when freed and unleashed from the constraints of capitalist social relations.

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