Marxism & Alienation in the 21st Century
But some may think that this is an outdated principle. Sure, they shrug, back when workers did not have labor unions and actual living wages, Marx may have been correct … but now?! Surely the middle class has no right to be alienated from whatever it is we call our “true nature” — because life is just so good.
We have smartphones, books, good coffee shops around every corner, and Netflix … so how are people alienated?
Well, they are! And they have good reason to be!
I don’t want to get into an exhaustive explanation for why alienation is a valid concern — that is for another place. And I am pretty sure that most of you would agree with me, the world is necessary an alienating place; we exchange wages for things we don’t really need like fancy watches, better phones, and clothing.
There is a reinforcing mechanism that tells us that the bigger our house is, the happier we are. But researchers are increasingly showing that this is a false reward mechanism. Indeed, our cultural desires change according to the norms and customs of the day.
In this post, I want to explore a case study from China.
Alienated Workers in China
The release of a new book titled Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China’s Workers has once again put into public attention the prevalence of suicides, excessive overtime, and abuse many factory workers experience on a daily basis in China.
Many have now been exposed to the reality that over one million workers who manufacture Apple and Foxconn products live in immoral conditions on a daily basis.
In 2010 alone, 18 workers committed suicide by jumping from Foxconn buildings. Suicides continue to surpass expectations from outside observers.
Workers do not only have to struggle with physical and verbal abuse, however. There are also concerns over the inhumane ambition for profit by overworking and underpaying workers. Recent reports state that the percentage of profits shared between CEO and employee is decreasing from 61% in 1990 to 53% in 2007.
This inadvertent “alienation” of workers is precisely what Marx emphasized in his critique of capitalism. The active reporting on slave labor in China helps in confronting the way capitalism can enslave workers, especially in the world’s largest manufacturer, China.
Marx On Capitalism
Karl Marx had already highlighted some of the problems with capitalism, from its abuse of workers for profit to the way social status became the most important factor in determining our worth to society. Accordingly, a Marxist analysis of social events primarily focuses on the different class systems and the way society oppresses lower classes.
In Marx’s Manifesto, for example, Marx argues that “human self-alienation” results from the competition of “two hostile groups”: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
A Marxist analysis would stress that “all separations are problematic” and that the primary means of making workers feel connected is to share the profits and make the separation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie smaller.
Undeniably, this is an important analysis! It would be hard to disagree with its wisdom.
The Mistakes of Past Thinkers
I find it interesting that many are so quick to disagree with Marx. In society, many narratives about thinkers overcome some of the more important views they had.
If we were this selective about our thinkers, we would deny ourselves reading Socrates and Plato for their pedophilia, Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his blatant sexism, Mary Wollstonecraft for her racism, Hegel for his justifications of colonialism, and so forth.
Thinkers are rarely without their faults. That does not mean that we can benefit from the areas where they actually contributed to progress.
Dying for an iPhone helps in highlighting the alienation these workers feel and explains why they deserve to live in conditions that allow for prospering ‒ not merely survival.
Let’s strive to pour more light on similar situations in today’s world.
This short blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Origins of Inequality
A Brief Analysis of “Discourse on Inequality”
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