Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Summer Of Marx And The Modern Worker


I covered a conference last weekend called Socialism 2012 for Gapers Block, where I noted the following:
But subject matter wasn't the only diverse aspect of the conference. Throughout the weekend, there were nearly a thousand people of different ages, races, and nationalities sharing stories and debating ideas on how to approach social problems both local and global in scope. A wide variety, including people with hijabs and jean shorts, dreadlocks and bald spots, Birkenstocks and Converse All-Stars. People with name tags listing locations from Portland to Paraguay, Corpus Christi to Rochester. College-aged Occupy activists and union activists twice (and thrice) their age. Self-identified Marxists, socialists, anarchists, leftists along with people learning what those words meant for the very first time.
Coincidentally, a Marxism 2012 conference in London began today:
I ask Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal, a 22 year-old English and drama student at Goldsmiths College, London, who has just finished her BA course in English and Drama, why she considers Marxist thought still relevant. “The point is that younger people weren’t around when Thatcher was in power or when Marxism was associated with the Soviet Union,” she says. “We tend to see it more as a way of understanding what we’re going through now. Think of what’s happening in Egypt. When Mubarak fell it was so inspiring. It broke so many stereotypes – democracy wasn’t supposed to be something that people would fight for in the Muslim world. It vindicates revolution as a process, not as an event. So there was a revolution in Egypt, and a counter-revolution and a counter-counter revolution. What we learned from it was the importance of organisation.” 
This, surely is the key to understanding Marxism’s renaissance in the west: for younger people, it is untainted by association with Stalinist gulags. For younger people too, Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalism in his 1992 book The End of History – in which capitalism seemed incontrovertible, its overthrow impossible to imagine – exercises less of a choke-hold on their imaginations than it does on those of their elders.
And while we're on the subject of class consciousness and worker solidarity, Crooked Timber has an interesting critique of libertarianism, specifically about private sector oppression on personal liberty.
Outside a unionized workplace or the public sector, what most workers are agreeing to when they sign an employment contract is the alienation of many of their basic rights (speech, privacy, association, and so on) in exchange for pay and benefits. They may think they’re only agreeing to do a specific job, but what they are actually agreeing to do is to obey the commands and orders of their boss. It’s close to a version of Hobbesian contract theory—“The end of obedience is protection”—in which the worker gets money, benefits, and perhaps security in exchange for a radical alienation of her will.

At least the Hobbesian contract specifies this alienation of the will. Few employment contracts do. If they specify anything, it is the performance of labor—and often indeterminate labor at that—in return for a wage. What they don’t specify is the rules of bathroom access, employer prerogatives over speech onsite and offsite, dress codes, and more. That is why many workers are surprised to learn, for example, that they have no freedom of speech or right to privacy on the job: no one—least of all their employer—ever told them. It may also be why, according to the most systematic meta-study of this issue, most Americans believe that “employers should have good reasons [i.e., just cause] for discharging their employees.” Again, no one told them otherwise.
If anything, we're definitely going to see some fierce debates in the United States over the nature of personal freedom and worker's rights in the coming years. Whether Marx stays a taboo topic in mainstream political discourse remains to be seen.

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