Alienation in the Workplace

Alienation in the Workplace

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They say politics often makes strange bedfellows.  I’ve never heard it said that economics makes strange bedfellows.  But I don’t know how else to explain some of the strikingly similar language one finds in the writings of Pope John Paul II and Karl Marx.

In general, you’d be hard pressed to find two people who would serve as better examples of antagonists.  Pope John Paul II grew up under the oppressive communist regime in Poland.  He was friends with Lech Walesa, the founder of Poland’s Solidarity movement.  His 1981 encyclical On Human Work (written in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum) contains some uncompromising protests against communist ideals.  At the same time, when commenting on certain aspects of work in the modern world, the pontiff offers remarks that are strikingly similar to ones that Marx himself wrote.

I thought of these common remarks as I read Kevin Brown’s recent post on specialization.  Kevin’s thoughtful post points out the enormous benefits in efficiency (and in wealth creation) that occur as we are able to specialize.  And let me say at the outset that of course Kevin is right in what he says.  I recently bought a new spark plug for my lawnmower.  As I was purchasing it for under $2, I thought to myself that it would probably cost me weeks of labor, and tens of thousands of dollars in machinery, if I had to build that sparkplug myself from scratch.  But with specialization in our global economy, I only have to work at my job for a few minutes to earn enough to purchase that sparkplug.

So, I get it.  Specialization allows us to purchase an enormous amount of beneficial things which we could never obtain on our own.  But there’s a potential consequence of specialization that may for many people be damaging.  And it is this negative consequence to which both Marx and Pope John Paul II pointed.

Marx wrote in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.  He noted how workers in this new economy are often given repetitive, menial tasks.  Endlessly performing the same drudgery on an assembly line or at an assigned work station, a worker inevitably become an “appendage of the machine.”  The result, concluded Marx, is deep alienation.

Marx identified four aspects of this alienation a worker will feel.

  • First, the worker is alienated from the object of his production.  Many workers never get to see the finished product of their labor.  They are stuck assembling a small electrical part, or they are stuck in a room crunching accounting numbers.  And they never get a real sense for the bigger product they’re helping to produce.
  • Second, the worker is alienated from the act of production.  Unlike the artisan or inventor who uses her creativity in casting a vision for a product, many workers are simply given instructions from an elite group who do all the visionary thinking and planning.  Thus, for the mass of workers, the work they’re doing isn’t really “their own” in the sense of reflecting their own vision.  It’s instead someone else’s vision of work that they are hired to do.  No wonder, Marx commented, people can’t wait to leave work at the end of the day so that they can actually do the things that reflect their own individuality.
  • Third, people are alienated from their species.  Marx meant by this that humans uniquely possess the capacity for creative planning and implementation.  When we are forced into a role not in keeping with our humanity, it is as though we are forced into the role of another species.  We become alienated from our true humanity.
  • Lastly, Marx observed how workers can become alienated from their fellow humans.  Being part of a huge production process, most workers have no idea who it is they’re producing for.  Even when workers are producing something that is indeed very helpful to others (like a sparkplug), they never get to see others being helped, never get to see the smiles on their faces, never get to participate in exchanges of “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”  In short, specialization and global markets shut off many workers from the kind of personal bonding which is crucial to making our work meaningful to us.

Although Marx offered these penetrating insights into the effects of certain jobs in the global economy, he sadly lacked the kind of framework for understanding a true solution.  It is one thing to identify a job as potentially soul-destroying.  But it is another thing to recognize that our souls were created by God, who alone has the power to regenerate them.

And this is where Pope John Paul II offers a way forward that Marx couldn’t recognize.  His initial description of the problem uses language strikingly similar to the language Marx himself used.  In speaking of dignity in work, the pontiff declared,

The person who works desires not only due remuneration for his work; he also wishes that, within the production process, provision be made for him to be able to know that in his work…he is working “for himself.” This awareness is extinguished within him in a system…which makes the worker feel that he is just a cog in a huge machine moved from above.  

Unlike Marx, John Paul II was able to point to a true solution.  He understood that a relationship with God can answer our deepest needs to engage in creative work and to connect with our fellow humans.  The scriptures are full of characters who experienced deep alienation from others: Moses, Ruth, David, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Paul, Christ himself.  In fact, it’s difficult to name a faithful servant of God named in the Bible who didn’t experience profound alienation of some kind.

Yet, the scriptures also tell of the miraculous joy and peace found by those who experience union with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Throughout the Christian tradition, saints have found that their work—whatever it is—becomes radically reframed as they practice the presence of God while at work.*  Pastors do well when they recognize that some of their parishioners may well work in jobs that tend to produce real alienation.  And pastors do well when they offer to these parishioners the rich resources found within the Christian faith.

*For a great starting point, see: Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God



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