2-6 When Working Harder is Not the Solution: Addressing Work-Related Distress with Marx’s Theory of Alienated Labor

2-6 When Working Harder is Not the Solution: Addressing Work-Related Distress with Marx’s Theory of Alienated Labor

2-6 When Working Harder is Not the Solution: Addressing Work-Related Distress with Marx’s Theory of Alienated Labor

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Kay Yu Yuan Chai

“I will work harder,” says the hardworking and obedient horse, Boxer, from Orwell’s Animal Farm. Boxer’s belief that working harder will solve all problems may strike us as clearly naïve, but we might not notice the ways in which we are Boxers in our own work. As psychotherapists working with Boxers, we might even collude in this belief by unquestioningly treating occupational functioning as a marker of ego strength and neglecting the effects of the work environment itself on our patients’ psychological health. In Young Man Luther, Erikson (1958) lamented that, “Probably the most neglected problem in psychoanalysis is the problem of work, both in theory as well as in practice” (p. 17). He noted that, “Decades of case histories have omitted the work histories of patients or have treated their occupation as a seemingly irrelevant area of their life in which data could be disguised with the greatest impunity” (pp.17-18). More than a decade later, this concern was echoed by Kohn and Schooler (1973, p.1) who observed that the impact of work experiences on a person’s psychological health has never quite been studied by social scientists. About a century since Erikson, clinical psychology seems to have continued to be stagnant in this respect: occupational functioning continues to be seen as the indicator and goal of good mental health. Given that an average nine-to-five work schedule spent at work consumes one-third of the day, five or six days a week, it should alarm us that the impact of work on psychological health is a sparsely addressed issue in the therapy room. In this paper, I will briefly survey existing literature in organizational and occupational psychology, and then introduce Marx’s theory of alienated labor. I hope to show how Marx’s contributions could help psychotherapists be better-equipped to address work-related issues brought up by patients.

Most of the literature that address issues of work are found in occupational and organizational psychology, especially with regards to employee satisfaction in the service of greater productivity. Psychologists who take a more social psychological approach study topics such as interpersonal dynamics at the workplace. For example, human relations management theory is based on the premise that workers are fundamentally different from other commodities because they seek out self-fulfillment in their work. Employees are expected to rebel when they feel that their autonomy is being constrained, resulting in tensions between employees and managers. The theory aims at optimizing interpersonal dynamics between employees and managers by “manipulating workplace relations” and using “techniques that involve them in the organization and regulation of work” to increase employees’ sense of belongingness and autonomy (Abott, 2006, p. 192). Another theory, the Effort-Reward Imbalance theory proposed by Siegrist (1996), simply posits that when employees perceive a lack of corresponding reward with the amount of effort they put in, they become discouraged with their work (Lewis and Zibarras, 2013, p.233). On the other hand, those who place a greater premium on the worker’s personal idiosyncrasies maximize work satisfaction by matching an individual’s personality, strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles with the right work and work environment. For instance, Holland’s (1959) theory of vocational choice, or the theory of congruence, proposed that individuals vary on a spectrum in terms of how intellectual, persuasive, supportive, aesthetic, conforming, or motoric they are and how these variations account for how well a particular job and work environment fit a particular person. For example, someone who is highly conforming and intellectual might find it difficult and unsatisfying to work as a freelance artist, because of the lack of external structure and opportunities to work on analytical problems. On a more systemic level, Systems Theory examines how an organization is like an organism with interdependent parts that work together as a larger system. These interdependent parts include the organization’s employers and employees, rules and policies, common beliefs and goals, and so on. As a system, problems and successes in one part can affect other parts and consequently the system as a whole.

As a whole, we can see from the above theories concerning work that there is an emphasis in much of the literature on how to make systems and organizations function optimally. However, as much as the worker’s humanity may be admitted by these theories, the worker is still viewed as a means to an end, as the employer’s workhorse. Here, the goal of optimizing employer-employee relationships, for instance, is to avoid internal conflicts that may destabilize the system of the organization. Michaels et al. (2001) noted that since the arrival of the information age, a War for Talent—especially for managerial talent—has broken out and is predicted to continue for a few decades (as cited in Lewis and Zibarris, 2013, p. 9). The skillful worker is a commodity to be fought for using recruitment strategies and promises of ample compensation. The more skillful the worker, the more valuable and commoditized he or she becomes. Work is seen as a way to accumulate wealth, prestige, and status. In the case of unhappy workers, there is—according to this perspective—a perceived asymmetry between effort and compensation.

Such perspectives differ immensely from that of Marx, who viewed work as formative for the development of not only the individual but also for humankind (Fromm, 1951, p. 48). Marx argued that labor ought to be a means for self-expression and growth, as well as a way to serve others, and not just for the benefit of a powerful select few (Burston & Frie, p. 55). He believed that our human nature is recognizable from our inherent psychological need for objectification. By objectification, he meant turning the product of one’s physical labor into a physical thing, such that in the product we can recognize and appreciate our own individuality. In addition to this self-affirmation, we also receive external affirmation of ourselves when the product of our labor is enjoyed by other people and serves their needs. In Marx’s own words, “our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature” (as cited in Burston & Frie, 2006, p. 55).

In this respect, Marx has a lot to offer to us in explaining how a societal structure built on capitalism generates dissatisfaction at work: according to him, the worker’s work fails to meet his or her need for self-expression and development. To appreciate how Marx came to those conclusions, it is necessary to understand his methodology, “historical materialism,” which studies the historical development of a society by examining how individuals collectively produce commodities. Marx was heavily influenced by Hegel, who wrote that “the world is an estranged and untrue world so long as man does not destroy its dead objectivity and recognize himself and his own life ‘behind’ the fixed form of things and laws” (as cited in Fromm, 1961, p.26). In other words, the world is not some indifferent, objective state of affairs but a reflection of us and of what we have done. Only by recognizing this truth can we make the world our own. For Marx, labor or production is what changes our relationship to the natural world, and that relationship in turn feeds into who we become. Hence, the underlying premise of historical materialism is that our mode of production shapes what we collectively think and desire – a position in stark contrast to that of capitalist philosophers like Adam Smith who argued that the desire for maximal material gains and the need for competition are intrinsic to human nature, best served by capitalism. Marx posited that the desire for maximal material gain is a product of producing in a capitalistic society, not the other way round. Here, the distinction that he drew between “fixed” drives and “relative drives” can help us understand his position better. Fixed drives are constant, “exist under all social circumstances” and “can be changed by social conditions only as far as form and direction are concerned”, whereas relative drives are given rise to by social circumstances (as cited in Fromm, 1961 p.13). Physiological drives like sex and hunger are “fixed”, whereas the desire for money and maximal material gain are “relative drives” resulting the conditions in a capitalistic society. Therefore, there is nothing inherent or natural about our greed for material goods, and if social circumstances shift, these drives will also cease. In fact, as we will see later, Marx was highly critical of this state of affairs because it “compels people to meet their basic material needs in ways that conflict with their fundamental nature” (Burston and Frie, p.58). This fundamental nature, as we have seen earlier, consists of the existential need for self-objectification through labor. His ideal of a socialist state was “precisely that of a society in which this material interest would cease to be the dominant one” (as cited in Fromm, 1961, p. 13).

So what makes us miserable as workers? Marx explains that the capitalistic mode of production promotes alienated labor – labor that not only fails to meet our need for self-objectification but also alienates us from other people and the natural world. For instance, under a capitalist framework, the value of commodities is a function of their rarity. The more products we create the less valuable they become. Furthermore, our value as human beings sinks to the level of commodities because our labor is bought and sold as though it were a commodity. In other words, we are only as valuable as we are productive. However, because the fruits of our hard work belong not to us but to capitalists, our value also decreases as a function of how much we create: the more we create the less we are needed. Marx described this situation as one in which the product of the labor has more power than the laborer. The laborer is essentially in a double-bind: to sustain physical existence, the worker must labor, but the more the effort he expends, the cheaper the labor and its product become. Consider the following quote from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx, 1844):

The lowest and the only necessary wage rate is that providing for the subsistence of the worker for the duration of his work and as much more as is necessary for him to support a family and for the race of laborers not to die out. The ordinary wage, according to Smith, is the lowest compatible with common humanity, that is, with cattle-like existence. (p.3)

According to Fromm (1961), Marx extended the Kantian principle of never treating a person as a means to an ends, furthering it into never treating a person’s human essence as a means for individual existence. Nowhere else can we find a greater transgression of this principle than in the capitalist manner of paying the lowest possible wage, forcing the worker to labor for physical sustenance. The worker’s relationship with his or her own labor is deformed because now he or she works solely for physical existence. Comparing humans with animals, Marx (as cited in Fromm, 1961, p.101) distinguished between human’s way of producing and that of animals. Although animals also produce things, like dams, nests, and dwellings for colonies, they only produce as much as they need. In contrast, humans can produce independent of need. They can produce more than what is needed for sustenance. Furthermore, humans are free to apply standards to their objects, such as standards of beauty, while animals can only build objects according to standards that are relevant to the survival of their species. In short, humans are humans because they can produce freely. Therefore, when a person produces freely, the product is not just a reflection of his or her own humanity and individuality but of the freedom of humanity as a whole, or what Marx called “of the species-being”. However, in the capitalistic mode of production, this freedom is taken away from workers, estranging them from their collective humanity. To make matters worse, the capitalist mode of production also alienates workers from other workers (as cited in Fromm, p. 102). By pitting workers against workers in a competition for higher wages, and capitalists against workers, workers are at variance with their own fellow men and women. Furthermore, the workers who win the competition are no less injured than the ones who lose, because their labor benefits the capitalist, not the workers. Therefore, the worker in a capitalist society is not only alienated from the products of his or her labor but also from the rest of humankind.

Another way to see the estrangement of the worker from humanity is in his or her alienation from the natural world. It is in our nature to make inorganic products using the raw organic materials of nature. Our relationship to the natural world is one in which we rely upon nature to provide us with the physical means for not just sustenance in the form of food, clothing, and shelter, but also as a source of intellectual raw materials, such as in the form of “objects of natural science and art” (as cited in Fromm, 1961, p.99) . However, because the products of a worker’s labor belong to the capitalists and not the worker, the relationship between the worker and nature is distorted into one in which nature is plundered for the benefits of the select few, not for the advantage of the worker. For the worker, nature becomes solely a means for physical sustenance. The worker appropriates the materials from nature to create products in exchange for money and other necessities for survival. Hence, the worker is further alienated from his or her own humanity because of this distorted relationship with nature.

In addition, the worker is also alienated from the act of working. According to Marx, “the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion (to work) it is avoided”, and that “the worker (therefore) feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless”, show that the act of working does not fulfill the worker’s need for self-expression and self-development (as cited in Fromm, 1961, p.47). In short, work becomes a necessary evil, not an activity that springs from a person’s human, existential need for creating and objectifying his or her individuality through the process. In relation to this, another exacerbating factor that contributes to the alienation of the worker from his or her work is the advancement of production technology. Marx posited that technology has further removed the worker—through the use of technicians and monitors of machines, instead of experts in their field—from his or her own work. He wrote that,

In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool; in the factory the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labor proceed from him; here it is the movement of the machines that he must follow. In manufacture, the workmen are parts of a living mechanism; in the factory we have a lifeless mechanism, independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage.

Interestingly, Smith (2004) himself, who advocated for the division of labor in The Wealth of Nations, wrote that as people are increasingly employed to perform jobs that are increasingly specialized and narrowly-defined, they encounter less and less opportunities to use their intellectual capacities! As a result, they become “incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation” or “forming any judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life” (p. 461).

This observation brings me to my last point on Marx’s theory, which is how ideology and “false consciousness” prevent us from seeing the inherent flaws of capitalism and lead us to instead blame our dissatisfaction at work on our lack of adaptability to the work environment, on our fellow colleagues, or on the job itself. Ideology is “a system of beliefs that misconstrues certain features of our social and historical situation as ontological givens rather than contingent historical phenomena, which can or will be superseded in due course” (Burston and Frie, 2006, p. 53). For example, within a capitalistic society, private property, competition, division of labor, and so forth are viewed as natural laws that serve our inherent human need for maximizing material gain, without it being shown in the first place how these laws are natural and how we can know that we are inherently desirous of maximal material gain. Such ideology then breeds a “false consciousness” or false ontology, in which a society operates according to these natural laws as though they were ontological givens. The danger of false consciousness lies precisely in the fact that those who are affected cannot see the falsity of their beliefs. Cosmetic industries serve as an example of how one can capitalize on the artificial production and promotion of impossible standards of physical beauty so as to generate insecurities among their customers that prompt them to purchase cosmetic products to make up for perceived physical flaws and blemishes. To the customers, their physical flaws are very real, and there is a necessity to rectify or conceal these flaws. They do not realize that their perceived needs for concealment using cosmetic products are artificial necessities generated by the industry. This blindness is well-described by Fromm (1961, p. 20), who wrote that “it is exactly the blindness of man’s conscious thought which prevents him from being aware of his true human needs, and of ideals which are rooted in them.”

The relevance of Marx’s theory to therapy is that it helps psychotherapists broaden their perspective beyond seeing patients as dysfunctional and failing to adapt to the demands of their jobs. As we have seen earlier, Marx’s concept of a false consciousness shows us how an ideology can become so deeply rooted in our consciousness that we take it as an ontological given, which means that many workers expectably do not realize that their dissatisfaction at work stems from a capitalist mode of production. They might blame themselves for being unproductive at work and enter therapy hoping to receive a diagnosis that explains why they cannot concentrate or perform at an optimal level. Similarly, under this false consciousness, psychologists generate and subscribe to theories of mental health that explain work-related distress as originating from a failure to adapt to the demands and conditions required by society. For example, they may believe that the individual worker is unemployed or underemployed because he or she is not competitive enough on the job market, or that the worker is unhappy at work because he or she does not have the right skills set, emotional intelligence, intellectual capacities, or personality traits suited to the work. They might even believe that one should be grateful to even have a job. As psychotherapists we communicate our beliefs unconsciously all the time, which means that as long as we still adhere to those aforementioned beliefs about work, our presence will be experienced as judgmental and punitive. These beliefs become questionable in light of Marx’s assertion that work in a capitalistic society frustrates our existential need for self-expression, self-development, and recognition, which necessarily causes unhappiness. When we are willing to inhabit a presence that questions such beliefs, it opens up a safer space for patients to make sense of their everyday unhappiness at work without the implicit goal to feel better about their work or be more functional at work. On a broader level, as noted by Burston and Frie (2006), Marx inspired both Fromm and Laing to take a critical stance towards ego psychology for “defining mental health as the extent to which the person adjusts to prevailing cultural norms and expectations” (pp.58-9), because they believed that “frictionless adaptation betokens a socially patterned defect and deficiency in the capacity to reason to create, express or affirm oneself honestly in dealing with others”. We should perhaps be more skeptical of the mental health of those who seem happily normal and well-adjusted, rather than of those who are overtly distressed.

In a way, Marx’s theory also cautions us against unwarranted optimism that our patients’ work-related unhappiness can be resolved by looking for the right job or quitting a job that they hate. Nowadays especially, young people are often advised by their parents, teachers, commencement speakers, and career counselors to “find their passion” and not settle for anything less. The assumption is that when they find what excites them, they will be able to work hard and excel at it so that it will both pay the bills and also make work meaningful. Of course, this assumption might be seen as a healthy recognition that work has to be fulfilling, but it also belies how difficult it is to find a job that one can truly feel at home with because any work can become unrewarding under a capitalist mode of production. In other words, the hope of finding some work that is meaningful and rewarding might not be easily resolved by hunting for one’s passion or changing careers. For patients who struggle to make ends meet and lack job security, quitting their jobs to “find their passion” could be a foolhardy move that jeopardizes their livelihood. Perhaps the simple recognition that they have self-actualizing needs that are not being met could relieve them of the immense guilt that they might otherwise feel for not being content with their jobs; or optimistically, it might even inspire them to carve spaces in their lives where they could be of service in a way that is more meaningful and rewarding. For some patients, this might even mean fighting work-related unhappiness in a more subversive way, such as choosing not to work and supporting themselves by homesteading or living in self-sufficient communities – a solution that a psychotherapist who has done homework on Marx will not pathologize as an unwillingness to submit to the “laws” of society.

In summary, Marx raised the possibility that our modern day work environment is an inherently toxic environment that alienates workers from their work, their products, their own humanity, and each other. Disturbances at the workplace are not just about whether people are capable of shouldering their tasks as workers, but also about whether the existing system that governs how work is defined and delegated is failing to meet the workers’ needs as human beings. It could be liberating for patients to recognize that the circumstances of their employment are not conducive to their self-actualizing drive, and that their unhappiness at work does not stem from their own weakness.

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About the author:

defected from her natural science training in a heavily quantitative psychology program at the University of Washington, after completing a failed senior research project about "mindfulness.” She then decided to stop betraying her soul and came to Duquesne in search of more experience-near understanding of what it means to be human. She is interested in how psychologists address poverty and discrimination in psychotherapy.


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