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Applying Marxism to contemporary issues of work and employment

Essay Topic: ,

Introduction

Marx’s extensive writings about society, economics and politics, hold that all society progresses through class struggle. He was particularly critical of capitalism. Marx argued that current society is run by the wealthy middle and upper classes purely for their own benefit and predicted this would produce internal tensions (and eventually self-destruction and the rise of a new form of society, socialism).

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Marx’s ideas of ownership of production, alienation and power relationships may play a key role in explaining contemporary issues in work and employment such as lack of job security, having a voice within the workplace and discrimination.

As stated in “The workplace and social democracy in the post-crisis age”, the financial crisis and recession have caused a change in attitudes towards employment relationships. More now than ever employees worry about job security. Marx belonged to a period of industrial society, whereby factories had thousands of employees all under one authoritative figure, the Boss or Manager. Job Security in this era was not a massive issue as it is now in contemporary times. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1999 published the results of Job Insecurity and Work Intensification survey and showed that job insecurity had steadily been rising since the second world war. The majority of job insecurity lay in the manufacturing industries and blue-collar workers during the 1970’s and 1980#s but at the beginning of the 1990’s professional and managerial workers had their first great exposure to job insecurity. The information age which we now live in has cost many civil servants their jobs, due to streamlining of systems through computer technology. White collar workers were much less prepared for the changes affecting their occupation. Because redundancy had never occurred to these workers before, the idea of unemployment caused most to experience anxiety and insecurities. Some argue this is an overreaction when compared to the bigger issue of insecurity experienced by the working classes (Giddens, 2009). Anxieties from job insecurities can lead to “loss of control” and a link has been made between job insecurity and poor overall health (Burchell et al, 1996). This feeling of helplessness against impending unemployment can be explained by Marx’s theory of alienation. Blauner (1964) argued that the introduction of automation to factories has reduced worker alienation. Automation has helped to “integrate the workforce and gave workers a sense of control over their work that had been lacking with other forms of technology”. Evidently having a sense of ownership towards your work and feeling part of a community diminishes alienation and in turn will diminish any sense of job insecurity: as workers will feel their role within the workplace is needed. Richard Sennett (1998) conducted a study of workers in a bakery which had an automated high-tech production line. Ironically none of the workers were actually bakers but workers trained in how to use the machinery, but only how to use the machinery. The “bakers” had no physical contact with the bread at any point. Computers decided every aspect of the baking process. However, despite the workers being skilled with computers, not one was trained in how to fix the computers when they broke, causing massive disruption amongst the production line. Sennett found that the workers wanted to be useful and fix the computers but did not because the automation had destroyed their autonomy. Computer technology within the workplace has not only led to an increase in workers’ skills but also a group of clerical, service and production workers who lack autonomy in their jobs, are alienated from their work, and lack job security.

Another issue concerning work and employment in the UK currently is the movement of work. In a bid for maximum profit, some companies have moved the work from its country of origin to developing countries, where the work is cheaper. Now British companies such as Primark and Matalan have been accused of exploiting workers in these other countries because of their extremely low pricing. It is widely known that transnational factories in developing countries use sweatshop conditions, child labour and pay exploitative rates of pay. Any codes of conduct put in place are either sneakily avoided or completely disregarded altogether: “research consistently revealed an inadequate, if not poor, level of integration of CSR and Code compliance responsibilities in the internal structure of MNEs and suppliers” (ILO, 2003). However, as wrong as we may think this is, it could be argued that there has just been a shift in location of exploitation. Marx argued that the bourgeoisie, or the owners of production, exploited workers during the period of feudalism. Society was divided into peasants who worked on the land and nobles who were paid in terms of both crops and labour in return for protection, during this period wages were practically unheard of. For Marx, owning land and being able to take food from peasants if fundamentally different from being a peasant working on the land. Peasants (according to Marx) were a group with shared interests and attitudes and nobles were another. This still applies to today’s world of transnational corporations (TNCs). TNCs open factories in developing countries where cheaper labour can be found. The motives between TNCs and nobles are not all that dissimilar. Although TNCs have the resources to choose where to place their factories, such as technology, money and power, whereas nobles were born into a position of power and had no desire to move as they were meant to serve a duty to protect the fundamental relationship between owner and producer are still the same. Nobles wanted to extract maximum surplus and gain power, peasants wanted to be free or at the very least have more to eat. The introduction of towns and technology created a possibility for “free” labour it actually only led to new classes such as bankers and guilders and thus created new conflicts. In modern day society Marx’s theory of class conflict and exploitation is still relevant. TNCs take the role of the nobles or the owner of production and sweatshop workers take the role of peasants, exploited for their cheap labour in order for the TNCs to gain maximum profit and inevitable more power.

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Increasing intensity of international competition, particularly from Far Eastern countries, where wages are lower, weakens unions’ bargaining power (Western, 1997). In the early development of modern industry, workers had little or no political rights and very little influence over the conditions of work in which they were employed. Unions were developed in order to restore this imbalance of power between workers and their employees. Through Unions workers influence within the workplace was considerably increased. Originally, unions were set up as defensive organizations; workers could stop any overwhelming power that employers enforced on workers’ daily lives. Now, workers have negotiating rights with employers (which means they can press for economic benefits and any problems within the workplace can be discussed). Unions have essentially enabled workers to have a voice within the workplace and in turn have helped the working classes battle through their struggle with the bourgeoisie, as Marx highlighted. “Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry, the proletariat is its special and essential product.” Marx depicted the working classes as in a constant resistance to acquire a voice/power and the introduction of Unions, especially the dramatic influence Unions gained after the second world war, has made this a possibility. However, alongside international competition, there are several other factors that have created a fall in union density within industries. High levels of unemployment due to recession in the world economic activity, particularly during the 1980s has weakened the bargaining power of labour and the introduction of right-wing governments such as Margaret Thatcher in 1979 led to an aggressive assault on unions throughout the 1980s. These attacks on unions can be seen replicated in the recent conservative coalition government as well. But possibly the most prominent of union failings was seen during the National Union of Minors strike in the UK in 1984-5. Marx believed that “the proletariat … is a revolutionary class” and that at some point the working classes would rise against the owners of production. However, this is unlikely to occur any time soon. Union membership has declined considerably in industrialized countries and right-wing governments are not the only source of blame. High unemployment and more flexible production decrease the force of unionism (unionism works well when many people work together in large factories and there is a collective atmosphere). Having considered this though, Unions are highly unlikely to disappear. Workers individually have very little say or power when it comes to their employment and rely heavily on unions to provide this type of support. The collective strength that unions give to workers enables the proletariat to carry on with their struggle against the bourgeoisie and as long as unions continue to work hard in stabilizing their position within the economic and political sphere then trade unions are likely to be here to stay. However, the chances of their ever being an uprising as Marx has suggested in his writings is dubious. Dwindling memberships to unions suggest people are losing faith in union support and this implies that workers have almost given up in their “struggle”.

One of the aims of unions is to eradicate discrimination within the workforce. Discrimination in the workplace has always been a recurring issue. Gender divisions within the workplace have never been eradicated, nor has ethnicity (not fully anyway). Divisions of labour between genders have been evident in humanity for thousands of years. Inequality in modern day society is seen as wrong. From an economic view point not making use of everyone’s maximum potential regardless of their gender, class or ethnicity is wasteful. From a Marxist perspective, societies that have inequality will suffer. But for women, it can be questionable if women are in the job market at allWomen suffer from a dual burden (Young, 2000). In modern society women are expected to maintain a job whilst dealing with domestic chores and childcare. Because of these responsibilities thrust upon women, women are more likely to be found in certain job sectors which tend to be low in status. Women are more likely to be found in “poor quality” jobs (part time, temporary, low pay, long hours, unpleasant, few benefits). Again this seems unlikely to be choice (or not “free” choice) but some have argued that these jobs reflect women’s preference for jobs compatible with home life and child care. Marxist feminists argue that men benefit from family life at the expense of women. Women as mothers are pressured by culture to have children and to take time out of the labour market to bring them up. These children become the workforce of the future at little or no expense to the capitalist class. This also benefits men, because it means that women cannot compete on a level playing field for jobs or promotion opportunities if their first priority is looking after children. But this male dominance is not universal. Some men are even discriminated against in the workforce due to their class or ethnicity. Factors such as language skills intervene causing racial preferences within the workplace. The “job application culture” we live in requires individuals to give off first impressions that dazzle, however many companies look for image or whether you would “fit” in to the company. Not having UK qualifications may make applications harder (if an employer does not recognise a level of qualification he is likely to disregard it). Ethnic minority groups come under discrimination, however not all the time and not everywhere. In some companies whereby international relations are crucial to their business, languages skills may come in useful. But still discrimination occurs, whether it is gendered or ethnic. Arguably not making full use of a persons’ skill is wasteful. Economically it should not matter who a person is or what a person looks like for a job to get done. And Marx, in this instance, is correct in stating that not making full potential of every worker will cause society to suffer. Not just at the level of the company, but also at the level of the individual.

Bibliography:

Blauner, R. (1964) Alienation and Freedom (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press)

Burchell, B. Et. al (1996) “Job Insecurity and Work intensification: Flexibility and the Changing boundaries of work” (York: YPS

ILO (2003) “Business and code of conduct implementation: how firms use management systems for social performance” (Geneva: ILO), mimeo

Jameson, H. 22 March 2011, “The Workplace and social democracy in the post-crisis age”, Policy Network, http://www.policy-network.net/articles/3981/The-workplace-and-social-democracy-in-the-post-crisis-age, Accessed 25th March 2011

Marx, K. Communist Manifesto.

Sennett, R. (1998) The corrosion of character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism (London: Norton)

Western, B. (1997) Between classes and market: Postwar Unionization in the Capitalist Democracies (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

or put poshly – appropriate the fruits of our labour

but

here is the problem

according to marx

in the evil capitalist system

the capitalist (the factory owner) pay the exchange value of labour for an individuals service

which is only enough to keep him alive

but the capitalist gets the use value of his labour (the total value of the labour)

or put poshly – appropriate the fruits of our labour

but

here is the problem

according to marx

in the evil capitalist system

the capitalist (the factory owner) pay the exchange value of labour for an individuals service

which is only enough to keep him alive

but the capitalist gets the use value of his labour (the total value of the labour)

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