Life can be incredibly unfulfilling. I hate to be a downer, but it’s true. So many resign themselves to a familiar, gray routine: wake up, go to work, go home, wake up, go to work, go home, repeat forever until you die. Sometimes you get to sneak in little social outings, or periods of intense stress trying to make ends meet.
A hefty portion of life is spent at work. If you’re not one of the few lucky ones that get to pursue their passion and make a living off of it, then that work is often soul-sucking, meaningless and devoid of excitement. It feels like what you’re doing just doesn’t matter beyond the subsistence wage that gets written on your paycheck at the end of the week.
Alienation. That’s the term, stemming from some of the earliest works of Karl Marx, that describes this feeling of detachment from work, of feeling like you yourself are being devalued by it. Marx, in his “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” writes that “the worker sinks to the level of a commodity” in a capitalist mode of production.
People are devalued and treated as utterly expendable. Most work in post-industrial society is totally divorced from any sort of intrinsic value. Put one screw into an engine block on a production line, over and over, never seeing the vehicle it ends up in. Make coffee for the rudest dude in the ugliest suit. Move heavy boxes around. Clean up after someone else. Make a spreadsheet about how much money other people get to spend.
There’s no joy in modern work. Much of it stems from never seeing the full crystallization of that work, whether that be the end product itself or the profit that comes after. In “Karl Marx From Alienation to Exploitation,” T. R. Sharma speaks on this present situation, calling it “the phenomenon of forced labor and the appropriation by the capitalist of the product of worker’s labor, which ultimately leads to separation of worker from the product of his labor.”
We work to line the pockets of others, to prop up a ruling class of incredibly wealthy people who get to live out their dreams and yours to their hearts’ content. And we gain nothing from it but the means to feed and house ourselves so that we can continue to work.
This sense of alienation wasn’t nearly as strong in the past. Back when people were more often craftsmen or had trades, they could see themselves and their self-improvement in their work. A glassblower, for insistence, could make a vase and see himself in it, knowing that he has created something, that he’s gotten better at creating that thing, and that it’ll go on to be used and appreciated by someone.
Marx writes about this in his “Notes on James Mill,” saying “I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and, therefore, enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also, when looking at the object, I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses.”
Work, especially craftwork, allowed for self-expression, for imbuing your end product with some part of yourself. I’m sure there’s a line cook somewhere that takes great pride in how they gingerly place the third piece of bread in a Big Mac, but I think most of them aren’t the biggest fan of their work.
Ownership of your work is what’s missing, and that goes beyond just what is being produced. Most workers have zero say in how their workplace is run. In a country that prides itself on being a “democracy,” the place we spend much of our lives is sorely lacking said democracy.
For the duration of your working hours, your life is under the control of whichever billionaire owns your labor. In the past, unions served to help ameliorate this and give workers a voice and a way to bargain for better conditions.
If you want to be treated fairly and with human dignity by your employer, you have to bargain for it. They’re not just going to do it, their existence and continued prosperity hinges on them squeezing you dry for every last cent they can make out of you. Unions existed to make this bargaining possible.
Unions are responsible for turning the common 14-hour work day of the 19th century to an 8-hour work day, for the 5-day work week, for the abolishment of child labor, for regulations regarding workplace safety, and much, much more.
While unions continue to do good work, they’re not nearly as prominent as they once were. According to Reuters, the union membership rate in America dropped to an all-time low last year, despite growing efforts to organize unions in places like Amazon warehouses and Starbucks cafes.
Companies have become increasingly focused on fighting unions. Amazon spent $14.2 million last year on “labor consultants” in its efforts to crush unions. That involved holding mandatory anti-union meetings, plastering walls with anti-union posters, threatening to withhold wage increases, the list goes on.
It’s in the best interest of corporations to block union-organizing efforts. Treating people like people is bad for their bottom line, and the efforts they go through to fight unions shows just how important those unions are. In the absence of true, complete ownership of the workplace by the workers, unions are the next best thing.
Beyond unionizing, what are we to do with the current situation? The revolution isn’t going to happen tomorrow, or next year, or the year after, so we can’t just wait for that.
I think it’s important to find some source of joy, some color in a sea of gray. Whether it’s music, art, writing, friends, a special someone, we all need something to make having to work worth it since modern, post-industrial labor so often has no intrinsic value.
And it sucks. It sucks that most of us don’t have the privilege to live the life we want and take pride in the work we do. But if we have to live with it, the best we can do is try to find those rare places where the clouds part and a sliver of sunlight shines through.