‘The worker feels himself at home only outside his work and feels absent from himself in his work. He feels at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His work is not freely consented to, but is a constrained, forced labour. Work is thus not a satisfaction of a need, but only a means to satisfy needs outside of work.’
In these terms Marx analysed work relations over a century ago, at a time when the physical conditions of work were, almost everywhere brutal and dehumanizing. From a contemporary perspective, this description of work during the Industrial Revolution cannot fail to ring true: forced labour was indeed the condition of the working class. But it is hardly necessary to recall that Marx was not engaged solely in a description of working conditions in his time; the purpose of his critique was to pierce the opaqueness of the capitalist system and to reveal those aspects—including the relations and purpose of work—that were fundamental to it.
In our epoch of the so-called second Industrial Revolution, when ‘human relations engineering’ is said to have resolved such problems, it is critically important to enlarge our knowledge of the experience and meaning of work. Have work relations changed significantly, is the worker now ‘at home’ in his work, has work become a free, creative activity? Or is it still a means to satisfy needs outside of work, a forced activity whose purpose (and product) lies beyond the worker in a system he does not control?
Rather than try to provide the answers in an analytical study of work relations in neo-capitalist society, we are proposing to publish a series of personal accounts of work, written specially for nlr, over several issues. These accounts are expressly subjective in form, for we are concerned here with the feeling of work, work as it modifies and shapes people’s experience of life, their relations with others, their leisure, their aspirations and assumptions. These accounts will, of course, differ widely. Some contributors, as our first article shows, experience their work as a life wasted; others find satisfactions which make their work rewarding, the job interesting. But whatever the differences, one fact remains fundamental; even in an ‘affluent’ society, work is the primary activity by which not only society but man is produced.
Whether these accounts answer the major human questions will remain for the reader to judge. It is however, worth noting, that capitalism has engendered the view that work is ‘only a means to satisfy needs outside work’. But the truth is that the satisfaction of these needs does not take place in a vacuum divorced from the productive system) these needs, and the means of their satisfaction, are moulded by that system. Consumer and producer are one person. And it is in the producer, whose role it reduced to passive participation, that capitalism is largely able to create the passive consumer it requires to buy whatever is most profitable to produce. This passivity does not, of course, preclude the individual from deriving a sense of satisfaction from the use of his skills; it points rather to a contradiction between the active creativity of work and the purpose which is assigned to it.
A great deal has been written about the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the working class; very little by contrast about the ‘proletarianization’ of the middle class. White collar work appears increasingly to be becoming part of a process over which the white collar worker has no control, in which he is equally divorced from what is produced, in which he is aware of his work as alien to him and his needs. It is to explore this field more fully that we are devoting a part of this work series to the experiences of white collar workers.
Finally, the experiences of the capitalist are worth noting; his anxieties, frustrations and satisfactions are as revealing of the condition and purpose of work as many others.