Marx at Wal-Mart
Karl Marx is a name either famous or infamous, but all can at least agree that his thought is both provoking and polarizing. He is famed for his scathing criticism of capitalism and the suggestion of alternative political systems. He analyzes capitalism as a system divided into two simple classes: the bourgeoisie, the class who owns the means of production, and the proletariat, the class who does not. One of Marx’s most renowned critiques on this system is his idea that capitalism is fundamentally alienating, outlined in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. The overall philosophy of this idea is simple: something is alienating when something naturally familiar becomes estranged and foreign. In his work, Marx exemplifies this alienation in four instances: 1.) alienation from the product of work, 2.) alienation from the process of working, 3.) alienation from the “species-being,” and 4.) alienation from fellow man. In this essay, I will outline two of these cases and discuss them in the context of Wal-Mart, to put Marx’s philosophy through a modern-day lens. In considering the analysis of capitalism as alienating the worker from both the process of working and fellow man, it is clear that Marx is correct in his assessment and these forms of alienation do exist under the capitalist system.
Marx makes his assertion that the alienation of the worker from the process of working occurs under capitalism. In the capitalist mode of production, the bourgeoisie owns the means of production, and therefore, the work that the worker performs, Marx claims, does not belong to the worker who performs it. Instead, it is a mere means of survival that the proletariat is forced to perform for an external entity. The process of working under capitalism is carried out through monotonous, insignificant motions that leave the worker unsatisfied. Thus, the worker “feels at ease only outside work, and during work he is outside himself” (Marx 62). The proletariat is therefore disassociated with the process of working and “labor is external to the laborer” (Marx 61).
Marx makes an additional assertion that the alienation of man from fellow man occurs under capitalism. Because, as stated in the last point, the worker’s product and labor is owned externally, the laborer views this externality- the capitalist- as hostile and foreign. Marx asserts that the capitalist exploits both the laborer and sense of identity all for the purpose of the capitalist’s own benefit. He reasons that, because of all types of alienation, the laborer feels antagonistic toward the root of his alienation: the capitalist and his system of private property. He therefore cannot maintain non-resentful relationships with the capitalist, the system, or even fellow laborers. In addition, the alienation from labor makes the proletariat so financially insecure that an immense competition arises between the laborers, which makes the connective gap between man and man much more distant (Marx 63).
In the contemporary day, the bright blue and yellow colors of corporate Wal-Mart pervade every American life on an almost daily basis. In this example, I will discuss the exemplified forms of alienated labor in the context of the modern-day Wal-Mart cashier and bagger. Indeed, these both fit the first explained alienation between the laborer and the process of his labor. The cashier’s activity of scanning item after item, stating the price, swiping the card, and directing the next customer to begin is quite monotonous and disengaged. The task for the bagger is solely bagging the groceries, often without saying a word. Both the cashier and bagger can no longer engage in creative labor and have no attachment to the process itself under the capitalist Wal-Mart system. Thus, they are alienated from the process of their labor. So too, the cashier and bagger are alienated from each other as they are competing for their salaries out of the necessity of their livelihood. They feel alienated from their manager, and more, founder Sam Walton for perpetuating the system of alienation. The Wal-Mart proletariat, then, is estranged from his fellow man and can sustain no stable relationship.
How does Marx propose that the proletariat can escape alienation from the product, act of labor, species being, and fellow man? Since the problem is connected by Marx to division of classes and private property, his solution is the abolition of the capitalist system of private property, and therefore, well, communism. Marx suggests that the solution of this immense problem of estrangement is for the proletariat class to seize from the bourgeoisie class the means of production. Since, according to Marx, the system of capitalism is sustained by division of classes and private property, and these are the source of the alienated man, his natural solution is the abolishment of the system entirely. Only through communism can the proletariat return himself to a social being who may express himself through the product he produces and the process of production.
Is Marx’s philosophy of alienation under capitalism relevant only to the industrial era proletariat? My application of this concept to the modern corporation of Wal-Mart suggests that this alienation still holds in the capitalist system, or at the very least some remnant of it. Capitalism is a system that requires some version of cogs, and this is the role given to the working class, not the bourgeoisie. The system as it stands engenders a natural procession of alienation of the proletariat from the product, process of labor, species-being, and fellow human; it is clear to me that this occurs in the current era, at least on some level. Whether or not the solution is the dissolvement of capitalism, well that is a more complicated question: the answer may not be communism. More, alienation might be a product of the function of any political system. But nonetheless, we must decide as a society which system to adopt, as “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it” (Marx 101).
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