Marxist Eye on the Contemporary, Commercialized Corporate 'I'"
Karl Marx, although famously, personally ignorant of his own wife's domestic suffering while he labored in the British Library, still provides an ideologically coherent model to examine how materialism, commercialism, and the oppression of women and other ideologically (though not always economically) marginalized groups invisibly occurs within our class-bound society. One of Marx's most basic claims, and one particularly dear to post-modernists, was that although ideas are historically changing and in flux, these ideologies invariably reflect or are a material product of their time and the dominant political economy.
For instance, during the time period when Marx was writing in Victorian England, the ideological products of the bourgeois society included as one of its virtues, the value of 'hard work' or the 'deserving poor' as morally superior to the non-deserving poor. Thus, the exploitation of workers by, for instance, a factory owner, was not viewed, in its ideological context, as an individual profiting off of the enslavement of laborers at subsistence wages. Rather, the laborers were supposed to accept their conditions, even to be thankful for them. Proof of their moral excellence and wisdom came from not challenging the ruling authority but from falling into bed at night with little food and even less money for their efforts, grateful for what they had earned and secure in their ideological superiority to those poor individuals whom did not work for daily bread. The ideology of the 'deserving poor' versus the 'undeserving poor' suggests that the deserving poor works, but never rises above its station. The bourgeois provides a subsistence donation to the poor during, perhaps Christmas bonus time, or through charity. These monetary confirmations of the impoverished individuals' status as deserving helped to quash any immediate discontent or whispers of revolution. The 'undeserving poor' provides an ideological template for the 'deserving poor' to feel superior to. The undeserving poor refuses to work, because of inadequate monetary compensation, engages in more personally profitable petty criminal enterprises, and threatens the ideological and personal safety of the bourgeois. But because the undeserving poor are not virtuous, the virtuous poor are supposed to take moral and even religious comfort from this situation.
Although members of the underprivileged, poorer classes and the bourgeois might genuinely believe, on a surface level, the ideological lie of the value of hard work, and how hard work confers moral virtue to the impoverished, Marx's famous declaration that "the ruling ideas of ever epoch...are the ideas of the ruling class," is confirmed by this state of affairs. Only the bourgeois materially benefit from the impoverished individual's deserving, hard work. The factory owner, in Marx's view, does not really work hard, yet he values hard work. Moreover, an aristocrat may value hard work in his servants, but many not work at all. The factory owner may hold himself superior to the aristocrat, but not to his employees who work with his hands. Also, the owner's wife who does not work, she does not gain the status of 'undeserving' because of her designated class, even if servants perform her household work.
In terms of the undeserving poor, both the bourgeois factory owner and his deserving poor laborers may disdain crime, but crime actually benefits, albeit imperfectly, the poor in material ways, unlike the bourgeois class, who are often materially threatened by it. Thus, "law, morality, religion are...so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests."
Gender provides a particularly interesting illustration of the paradoxical nature of moral ideology. After all, what of poor women? Do they 'work,' given that according to the hegemonic ideology of the bourgeois, women are not supposed to work, women simply 'exist' as child-bearers and caretakers of the home, as angels of the hearth? Many poor women did work -- else why would women and children's hours have to have been limited by specific acts of the English Parliament? The most insidious side of the ideology of the 'hard working poor' is seen here, as the fact that women supposedly should not have to work (except at home, and not for pay) justifies regarding actual working women as invisible. The invisibility and the supposed nonexistence of women as worker, particularly in laborious professions, justifies women receiving less pay and less advancement then their male counterparts, as well as less societal recognition and approval. Yet, despite this self-serving ideological fiction, women were still engaged in heavy labor in Marx's day, labor women are supposedly not fit for, and continue to labor in such occupations today, including maids and nannies.
This type of ideological contradiction is quite evident in our own society. Recently, there has been a current media debate as to whether women during their childbearing years can or should work to their full potential and climb the corporate ladder. However, there has also been a corresponding, and curiously disconnected debate regarding working mothers and welfare. Poor women receiving public assistance, often without the personal and economic resources to provide for childcare, are condemned for not working, and are even forced to work or go to worker's training programs, yet middle-class women are condemned for working and threatening the intellectual and physical future of their progeny. Even during Marx's time, women were viewed both as less capable then men, and less able to work and deserving of lower pay, yet working class women were employed as cleaners, cooks, and nannies, which were physically demanding occupations as opposed to the male and bourgeois pursuits of government, law, and the church. Although women's ultimate destiny was supposed to be childbearing, women of the serving class in Marx's time were often fired upon marriage, forfeiting their right to cook and clean and perform wifely duties for the wife of a bourgeois or aristocratic household, as if, by marrying, they had engaged in some betrayal to their employer of their proper 'hard working' status as a deserving member of the poorer class. (Even though to be such a deserving member they had to sacrifice their status as a female, sexed through marriage and children.)
Marx's argument that dominant "culture" of any epoch is "for the enormous majority" a "mere training to act as a machine," thus seems to be valid in light of how ideological circumstances reflect the material needs of the economically dominant class -- and one should add, the ideologically dominant class, as a non-working bourgeois female lacks the economic security of financial savings outside of her husband's domain. According to the contemporary hegemonic ideology: work for women is good, if performed by poor women. Work for men is good, but only if it profits the elite. Not working for women is good, but only if the woman is not of the 'working class.' Today, just as before, the needs of the working class and their relationship with their children is discussed in an entirely different language of economics and gender, than it is for members of the intellectually and materially privileged classes. Women are not supposed to 'have it all,' and sometimes, it is suggested, they do not want 'it all,' even though what 'it' is -- usually a very hierarchical climb up the corporate ladder, securing the right to oppress others through economic means, etc. -- is quite culturally bound and was created and rendered into a desirable fetish by the very male-created ideology feminists once purported to despise. Women who know that their economic circumstances mean that they cannot have it all, who must go on welfare, are condemned for not working, often in quite racially coded terms, such as the creation of the myth of the 'welfare queen,' which statistically speaking, is inaccurately 'color coded' as African-American by the popular media. (Most individuals on welfare are white.)
It is easy to think that one is above becoming 'sucked into' such levels of economic discourse. However, they occur even on the smallest of scales, such as individuals in franchised jobs being encouraged to smile, to be friendly to customers, and to always be 'doing something' when on the corporate payroll at work. The machine-like generation of an individual's ideological training at work might be most obviously manifest on Henry-Ford like assembly lines. But the mere act of having to wear a uniform to work in a Wal-Mart store shows the importance of immersion into a status of sameness, when being a poorly paid worker requires one to conform to a particular code of dress, ethics, and behavior that dominates even the body. The corporate executive or the ideological head of any hierarchy always sets the 'tone' of the company, whether it be the informality of Bill Gates in Silicone Valley, or the structured formality of the wigs worn today by barristers in an English court of law. The issue is not the style of dress or costume, but the obedience to a pre-set form of uniformity. Even the fact that to work for so many businesses today at the lower levels of the corporate totem pool,…