The dehumanization of work under capitalism


The comparison of men and animals found in Marx’s Capital is by now famous:

“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality”

The work of a worker, be him an engineer, an artisan or what not, is conscious and permeated with purpose. While a bee participates in the construction of a beehive because of its inborn, inflexible instincts, a human builds a house under the direction of conceptual thought, the cornerstone of our understanding of the world.

Caterpillars are another example. A caterpillar will continue to construct a cocoon even if the first half of it was destroyed by an unforeseen source. On the other hand, an engineer would clearly stop any given project if a fire destroyed it. Humans have the ability to recognize the futility of continuing to work on the second phase of a continuous project (e.g., building a house) if the first phase has been destroyed. This ability to conceptualize and analyze the situation at hand differentiates humans from other animals.

Moreover, the complexity of the human brain gives humans the ability not only to manipulate objects, but also other, less complex animals, utilizing their peculiarities for human purposes. Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been using animals for many laborious tasks in order to relax their own workloads. This took the form of horses drawing carriages, oxen working on farms, etc. Animals, however, are not the only living beings that humans have subjected to their own needs. With the advent of class society, humans have started utilizing the manpower of other humans to accomplish their own goals, introducing a logic of class manipulation that equates fellow humans with other working animals used in production.

There is a natural and clear distinction between humans and other animals, however this distinction is fading away with the introduction of strict management and mass production in workplaces, which subject the workers to an environment which degrades workers below their human condition, detaching them from their species-being.

Capitalism is the highest form of class manipulation to have existed so far. Built on mass production and the factory system, it has increased the demand for managers in the workplace substantially. The struggle for profits in the market requires labor to be disciplined by skilled managers in order to produce relative surplus value.

According to Frederick Taylor, a leading capitalist class warrior, it is hard to find a worker in a factory “who does not devote a considerable part of his time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.”

For this reason, agglomerations of workers in factories required an increase in management personnel for the disciplining of labor. Workers were and are highly regimented in their robotic performances by management in order to ensure the extraction of the most surplus value possible from them, making managerial oversight become a critical element in the more effective production processes. This new method of production, usually associated with the rise of Fordism, conspicuously increased profits for the capitalist class with its less wasteful use of resources.

Before Ford and Taylor, teams of workers could build a car working together at one time, resulting in products they could see as their own accomplishment. At the end of the workday, workers could see a complete car and know they were the ones who build it. However, the logic of capital accumulation compels capitalists to reduce costs of production. A way to do this is the breakdown of complex processes into simple tasks performed by workers whose knowledge isn’t relevant, who are only briefly trained, and who are treated as inter-changeable parts in a larger mechanism dominated by capital. In this way, the requirements of production are satisfied by the simplest form of labor. Thus the tendency of capitalism is the incessant breakdown of labor into simple operations which take the form of tasks, which converts labor from a deep and conceptual application of human skills to a mechanical and shallow waste of them for the sake of profits, which takes away with it the skill, knowledge and understanding of the process of production. The more science is incorporated into production, the less science the worker possesses, and the more machinery that has been developed as an aid to labor, the more labor becomes a servant of machinery.

Under the new regime of mass production, every worker’s work is separate from every other’s, leaving them only a part of an engine to work with that would then go somewhere in the car. Workers will put a seemingly unimportant piece in the car, never really seeing the results of their own works. Unlike the previously skilled mechanics and engineers, these dumbed down workers are not able to locate their contribution to the product they created. The workers have been reduced to a level of performance that any machine or animal could perform, resulting in many sociological effects on the human worker’s mind.

This is reflected in the lingo of economics, where we are forced to see the laborers become a “labor force”, a “factor of production” and “variable capital”, as capitalists start using other humans as any other resource ias a bridge to the highest profit possible. Human workers are reduced to a sub-class on par with animals and machinery. The capitalists locate the strength that the worker has and utilizes that ability into a repetitive action that will result in the fastest and most efficient method of producing products that will result in money.

The worker does not have to think to perform his task, but rather continues to follow the monotonous motions instructed from the management. Working under these types of demeaning work conditions easily results in dissatisfaction with the job. Over the last decade, job satisfaction has markedly continued to drop. Blue collar workers have come to desire and demand more fulfillment in their job settings.

Though workers have seen an increase in wages, they have also become subject to a steep increase in job stress and working hours. Expanding workload expectations imposed by capitalist management tend to amplify the experience of degradation felt by workers. Younger generations of employees who have witnessed this transition first hand risk becoming increasingly fed up with the seemingly endless accumulations of stress in work environments. Subjecting workers to work below their capabilities increases dissatisfaction in the workplace because many workers begin to feel unimportant and fear being easily replaced because of the minimal effort and skill required for them to perform their job.

Indeed, the capitalist system is an important improvement in efficiency when compared to previous modes of production, but it remains socially degrading. Workers, not satisfied with their work, are forced to gain fulfillment and satisfaction outside of their working environment in the form of consumer goods, effectively seeing the 8-hours of work they engage in daily as wasted and alienated chasing the dream of someone else who isn’t them.


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