In the 19th century, leading social theorists such as Karl Marx and Max Weber believed that because its many inherent contradictions, the capitalist system would inevitably fall into a decline.
More than a century later, however, the capitalist system is far from dead. Rather, it appears to be further entrenched, encircling the world in the stranglehold of globalization.
Despite the continued growth of capitalism, however, this paper argues that both Marx and Weber's writings remain relevant to explaining many aspects of advanced industrial capitalism. In this paper, the Marx and Weber's writings on estranged labor are explored in detail, to examine if the labor theories both men used to analyze capitalism and the plight of workers in the 19th century can also be applied to 21st century capitalism.
The first part of this paper discusses Marx's theory of estranged labor, as written in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. This section examines how Marx believed that capitalism alienates people first from the products of their labor as well as from the labor process itself.
In the next part, the paper then examines Max Weber's dissatisfaction with the Marx's reliance on economic theory to explain the corrupting forces of capitalism. Thus, Weber expanded on Marx's original writings to include the growing importance of rationalization and the bureaucracy to the sustained growth of capitalism.
The next section then applies Marx and Weber's theories to modern capitalism. Marx's writings on estranged labor are used to look at the case of the maquiladoras, female factory workers in Mexico. In this example, the extreme form of estranged labor is exported to other countries through treaties like NAFTA. As a result, maquiladoras and similar workers around the world now export their labor to other countries, manufacturing parts of products that they could never afford.
Weber's writings on rationalization and the bureaucracy are then used to analyze various examples of "corporate greed."
It shows how the growth of rationalization laid the foundations for many stunning examples of corporate crime, from the marketing of known unsafe products such as the Ford Pinto, one of the earliest examples of prosecuting a company for marketing an unsafe product.
In the conclusion, this paper argues that the exams discussed show how advanced capitalism continues to foster the growth of alienated labor, rationalization and the bureaucracy.
Marx's Alienated Labor
Marx was critical of how the system of economic production under capitalism fostered a division of labor.
Thus, those who had the economic means were thus able to acquire various means of production, such as warehouses and factory machinery. On the other hand, people who did not have capital could only sell their labor. Such an arrangement, Marx argued, was bound to breed "a conflict between labor and capital" because a capitalist economic system requires an economic gap between capitalists and the working class.
In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx wrote that the entire history of the world was borne out of the labor of humans. By using their imagination and creativity, people have devised ways to fulfill their needs, triumph over the natural world, and to use products of nature to their advantage.
Such creativity, however, is no longer possible under the present conditions of capitalism. Instead, people are increasingly divorced from their human creative essence through a process called alienation.
Marx wrote that capitalism caused people to become "estranged" or alienated from their labor in four ways. First, through capitalism, people are alienated from the products of their labor. Marx explained this concept in terms of the human's relation to the natural world. While nature provides raw materials such as trees and wood, it remains up to an individual person to transform the piece of wood into an object of value, such as a table leg. However, under capitalism, the table leg is more often associated with its raw material rather than with the worker's sill and labor.
Thus, under capitalism, a worker develops an unnatural relationship with the raw materials they obtain from nature. A worker is "bonded" to the materials like the wood or steel, because a worker depends on these objects for their salaries and by extension, their survival.
Marx described this aspect of capitalism as the alienation of workers from the products of their labor.
Marx also wrote that the task of producing an object itself is an alienating activity. Before Marx, economists such as Adam Smith have praised the specialized division of labor as a way to increase productivity, by assigning each worker a specialized task.
Smith used the example of a pin factory, noting with approval how, along a line of workers, one man draws out the wire, another pulls the wire straight, another one makes the sharp point while another one puts on the head on the pin. By dividing the task into around 18 separate operations, 10 people can make 48,000 pins daily, as opposed to perhaps only 200.
However, Marx believed that such an arrangement alienated people from productive activity, as well as from their general interests. Most labor is forced labor, mindless tasks that do not express a person's personal interest or creativity. Instead, according to Marx, these piecemeal tasks such have reduced humans to just another cog in the wheel of production. Thus, while Smith sees the specialized worker in the pin factory as a triumph of productivity, Marx would view this as another example of alienated labor.
Competition and this division of labor further heighten the effects of estranged labor, as workers compete with each other for employment. This happens becomes capitalists often keep up with one another by adapting the same machinery and techniques of their more successful counterparts. Instead of innovating through technology, Marx observed that "the division of labour is necessarily followed by greater division of labor, the application of machinery by still greater application of machinery."
Marx thus believed that by giving rise of estranged labor, capitalism underlines the natural human tendency for cooperation and creation. Instead, workers compete with one another for increasingly scarce jobs, resources and products.
Because Marx viewed the problem of estranged labor as rooted deep in capitalism, his solution calls for the development of a new economic system. His proposal thus calls for a "positive humanism," the ultimate form of communism that abolishes the private ownership of the means of production. In this utopian solution, Marx envisioned a society where the common ownership of goods abolishes destructive competition and greed. As a result, people would then be free to find tasks suited to their interests and in line with their true creative essences.
Max Weber: Rationalization and the Bureaucracy
Though critical of Marx's analysis, Max Weber did not refute Marx's writings on estranged labor per se. Rather, Weber believed Marx's inordinate focus on an economic cause yielded an incomplete picture of estranged labor.
While Marx focused on how capitalism separates the worker from the mode of production, Weber believed that a worker's estrangement was due to forces that were inherent in all forms of social organization. In addition to economic modes of production, people have also developed new methods of "rational organization." These forms of organization include the concepts of rationalization and the bureaucracy.
In hailing the productivity and efficiency of the pin factory, Adam Smith unwittingly touched on the concept of rationalization. For Weber, the workers in the pin factory would be akin to "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart." Like Marx, Weber viewed this specialized division of labor with dismay. In Weberian philosophy, the pin factory embodied the concept of rationalization, which Weber described as the "centralization of the material implements of organization in the hands of the master."
Thus, in addition to the lack of access to the means of production, workers were controlled through a series of rules and routines needed to maintain order within an organization.
Furthermore, Weber pointed out that rationalization controls not only the worker, but also all other members of the social organization. Because of the focus demanded by rationalization, people can no longer join any large organization without sacrificing their own personal goals and interests to pursue the goals of the larger organization. In essence, people give up a significant part of themselves, a voluntary form of estrangement or alienation.
For Weber, the most extreme form of rationalization is the "bureaucratic state machine." As organizations grow bigger and more complex, the need for more efficient forms of mass administration arises. In the drive for efficiency, most organizations use rationalization to create hierarchical groups and chains of command. Specialized departments are created, where each office performs specific tasks. People are assigned to specific offices based on their specialized qualifications, without regard to their other personal interests or needs.
Thus, for Weber, the bureaucracy mirrors Marx's factory assembly line, but on a much larger scale. However, while Marx saw a solution in communism, Weber feared that the bureaucracy would soon become the dominant feature of modern society.