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Alienation and meaningful work

N.B. This is work-in-progress for my dissertation and so may be inaccurate or misleading!

I propose that the Marxian theories of alienation are a good candidate for such a framework. In dealing with relations between the worker and his labour, the worker and his product, and the worker and other people it presents a unified theory with a common language. This allows me to overcome the discursive chasm between Himanen's and Stallman's accounts of the Hacker Ethic whilst retaining both the spirit and language of each. And in focussing on relations of production and creation it addresses the central concerns of the Hacker Ethic: how we work and what we do with the products of our labour.

Marx, with whose theory of alienation I begin, identified four kinds or aspects of alienation, which I shall analyse in turn: alienation from labour, from products, from society and from our species essence. For Marx, alienation is not a matter of psychology; we cannot make our activities meaningful by changing our attitudes towards the activity nor our perspective on the context of the activity. Rather, alienation arises from the material conditions of our labour, and the relations those conditions set up between ourselves and our product, between ourselves and the activity, between ourselves and others, and finally between ourselves and our species being. To overcome alienation, then, requires that we change the way we work such that these relations become more healthy.

Alienation from the product

A product is the embodiment of a worker's labour, it's "objectification", it's "realisation" (Marx 1992, p.324). There is a relationship between the worker and his product that is socially constructed, which will have both concrete and abstract components. The concrete is between the worker and the product itself with its own specific and unique qualities. The abstract is based on a perception of the product's generality, ignoring many of the specific qualities but appreciating its uses and its status as the realisation of the worker's creative powers. "The full and productive relatedness to an object comprises this polarity" (Fromm 1963, pp.113-114).

Under capitalism, the product is a commodity that is traded on a market, rather than remaining a product for the worker's own consumption. A commodity is produced according to the needs of the buyer rather than the self-sustaining needs of the worker, and so the worker's labour becomes subordinate to the division of labour within society (Marx 1960, p.71). "The worker's needs, no matter how desperate, do not give him a license to lay hands on what these same hands have produced" (Ollman 1980, p.143). Thus by losing any concrete relationship with the product, the worker suffers a loss of reality.

When the product becomes a commodity, the abstract relationship is transformed, and the generality of the product becomes one of market value rather than one related to the concrete product. The worker loses his abstract relationship with the product and gains a relationship with congealed market value. That value is determined as much by the market as by the efforts of the worker and the abstract and concrete qualities of the product. When the commodity is sold the worker is left with money, and so the worker loses the abstract relationship with the product representing a further loss of reality. "In exchange for his creative power the worker receives a wage or a salary, namely a sum of money, and in exchange for this money he can purchase products of labour, but he cannot purchase creative power. In exchange for his creative power, the worker gets things" (Rubin 1975, p.xxv). This is more than a matter of the worker losing control over the product; rather than being experienced as a result of his creative power, the product is experienced by means of the other commodities bought with the product's market value. By contrast, a relationship whereby the worker experiences his labour as the results of his creative power, where he can use the product and value it not as a means to an end but for its own sake, is one in which the reality of the product is preserved. And a product that increases the worker's creative power would be a gain in reality.

Marx says that the relationship under capitalism, with its unhealthy concrete and abstract components that no longer relate to the product at all, causes alienation (Marx 1992, p.324). He goes on to say that the product takes on an "external existence" that confronts the worker as "hostile". One can understand this in one of two ways. According to the first, not only is there no guarantee that an increase in productivity will improve your living conditions, but it is likely to increase the power of the hostile system that keeps them in these conditions by giving the capitalist more than the worker receives. The devaluation of the worker increases in proportion to his productivity (Cox 1998). According to the second, the unhealthy relationships directly diminish the reality that the worker created and so are hostile, as opposed to relationships that increase the reality or those that are neutral in this respect.

Elster raises a problem relating to the objectivity of this kind of alienation: is the worker in fact external to and in a hostile standing with the product, or does he feel external? If it is the former then an individual can overcome alienation only by changing the mode(s) of production that give rise to the alienated relationship, whereas if it were the latter the worker could overcome alienation by changing his state of mind, either by replacing it with positive feelings or by accustoming himself to them such that they no longer made him feel miserable (Elster 1985, pp.74-76). I would suggest that Marx be opposed to the psychological explanation, and that the worker cannot give meaning to his product when he has no real connection to it, concrete or abstract. This disconnection gives rise to the feelings Elster describes.

Another problem is that, according to this account, the only way to overcome the two losses of reality would be to keep control of the product. But this would make productive social relations impossible; exchange of products in any form would represent a loss of control and therefore of reality. If there is nothing special about a worker being in control of his own products, and instead we worry about workers being in control of a sum total of reality that provides a sum total of creative power, then we can at least conceive of social relations based on equally valuable products, such that nobody loses any reality or creative power. But this situation is extremely unlikely, not least because of the difficult in quantifying the value and creative power of, say, a sack of potatoes and a piece of software.

I would suggest that in exchanging one product for another that increased one's creative powers, without the abstractification of money, one is at least mitigating the alienation caused by lossy exchanges. This weaker claim means that already we have to forfeit any hopes of an unalienated society, but it allows us to rescue some semblance of pragmatism whilst providing a basis for lessening alienation. This can then be applied to the Hacker Ethic.

Because hackers deal with information they can overcome alienation in both the concrete and abstract components of the relationship. In the first place, because their products are non-rivalrous they can continue to use their product whilst sharing it freely with others. So they retain a concrete relationship with the product that can increase the hacker's creative powers. Secondly, by creating the product for its own sake - i.e. for its valuable generalities such as its usefulness and intellectually challenging design - rather than as a means to an end, the hacker can continue to appreciate the product's abstract qualities. Though a hacker may sell his product, the commodification isn't absolute because the free software licenses guarantee that the hacker can retain his full and productive relatedness to the product. Commodification in this context can be thought of as orthogonal to the worker's relationship with the product, rather than hostile as in the capitalist context. It would only be relevant if, as Torvalds, Himanen and Stallman suggest, the hacker was unable to be self-sufficient and so had to treat his products primarily as commodities. In this situation the market value of his work would determine the concrete and abstract relationships.

Alienation from the activity of work

If a product is the objectification of labour, then labour is the activity that is summarised in the product. If the worker is alienated from the product, Marx claims, then it follows that labour is an activity of alienation (Marx 1992, p.326). This is dubious, since the alienation only occurs when the product is finished and becomes a loss of reality; there is nothing in the activity of production that suggests alienation takes place, according to my explanation of Marx's account of alienation so far. But Marx develops a similar terminology to explain how the relationship between worker and his labour is also alien.

Marx ascribes various attributes to alienated labour: He says it is "external", which he further defines as making the worker "feel miserable and not happy", that which "does not develop free physical and mental energy", that puts the worker in a state where he cannot "feel himself" whilst working; alienated labour is also forced labour; it is a means to an end, not satisfying in itself; and finally it is, as with the product, "directed against himself" (Marx 1992, pp.326-327). Unalienated labour involves the "free actualisation and externalisation of powers and ... abilities" (Elster 1986, p. 101). This notion can be broken down into two component parts: the freeness of the activity of labour, and the capacity of actualisation and externalisation of one's powers through labour.

Central to this list of adjectives is the idea that the labour ought to be entered into freely as a conscious activity. Men should gain freedom through labour that is free "from autonomous social forces and laws" (Gray 1986, p.178), and that allows the individual to choose both what work he does, and when and how he does it. So when the individual is unable to make these choices about his labour he becomes alienated from it, since the nature of the labour is predetermined by the autonomous social forces and laws. Marx gives the example of an individual in a capitalist society who is forced to specialise in hunting, fishing or literary criticism (Marx 1968, p.45). Unregulated market forces control not only the value of any commodity, as previously mentioned, but also therefore what labour workers can feasibly enter into if they are to sustain themselves; these forces are ultimately autonomous, in that the worker has no control over them whatsoever.

Using Lukes' analysis of power (1974), I understand this free activity that Marx describes as requiring three kinds of autonomy: first, the worker must be able to directly influence decisions about the work he does (this may be more or less compatible with "reasonable" social forces such as utilitarian or egalitarian considerations); second, the the worker must be able to affect the perspectives and agendas that determine the work he does, such that social laws cannot unfairly predetermine the scope of his activity; third, the worker must be able to enter into discourse that determines how society understands work and in particular the kinds of work he wants to engage in. On the second point I say unfairly because it would be absurd to posit a scenario in which an unskilled labourer could work as a neuro-surgeon, or even where a neuro-surgeon could work in a factory, without proper training. Similarly, as noted in my section on free software, we may want to account for reasonable social forces such as the relative social utility of various kinds of work.

In terms of self-realisation, Elster defines acivities that lend themselves to it by reference to "some further goal or purpose" that "can be performed more or less well", and that offer "a challenge that can be met". One can contrast self-realisation to passive consumption, suggesting that any productive activity - i.e. one in which the individual has an affect on the world external to him that is creative rather than destructive or insignificant - lends itself to self-realisation, more or less (Elster 1986, p.???).

The crucial point for Marx is that, insofar as we accept that each individual will have natural capabilities that can be developed and give the individual new productive capacities, society shouldn't limit the scope of the individual's development and productive activities. Alienation occurs where the reverse is true, where workers are restricted either in their ability to develop their natural abilities, or to pursue a variety of productive activities. One could further object that there may be individuals who wish to pursue productive activities that have no social utility whatsoever, or even negative utility. For example, an scientist might want to build a nuclear weapon that could misfire and destroy an entire city. It wouldn't seem acceptable in this situation to allow the scientist to fulfil his natural capabilities. I will look at this tension in more detail later in the essay.

One consequence of modern capitalism makes this kind of alienation particularly stark, namely that "the lives of millions of people are reduced to the narrow limits of their undemanding work. Fantasy, rather than creative effort, then becomes the vehicle through which they escape it, and fantasy itself, packaged as accessible pleasures to be bought in the market place, is relentlessly commoditized" (Williamson 1997). The essence of the capitalist division of labour is deskilling, an economic and political process whereby the workers' tasks are reduced to "mechanical routines that can be quickly learned". The worker has no control over his tools and "becomes a mere appendage to an already existing material condition of production", resulting in a kind of "operational autonomy" akin to the autonomous social forces and laws posited by Gray. The worker, meanwhile, suffers a "knowledge defecit" and a "solidarity deficit, defined with respect to the levels of understanding and community required for self-rule" (Feenberg 1991, pp.27-28).

In the context of this essay -- that of computer hackers -- one might balk at the notion that highly qualified software engineers are engaged in "mechanical routines" that provide little or no scope for the development of skills and a growth in knowledge. Many in the industry, however, think that this is the case. Scott Adams' wildly popular comic Dilbert satirises a software engineer's life inside a cubical, churning out code according to the wishes of the clueless managers. Alan Kay, a legendary computer scientist, thinks that computer science degrees in the US are becoming little more than "vocational training". Deskilling needn't be as extreme as forcing a worker to manage an operationally autonomous machine, and software engineers may be afforded more scope for developing their skills that many other workers, but they are nontheless susceptible to deskilling and a loss of operational autonomy. The absence of deskilling and a total operational autonomy in a workplace wouldn't invalidate the place of these factors in a theory of alienation; rather, it would suggest a division of labour that has overcome alienation to some extent.

Thus the worker is alienated both in the division of labour and in the division of himself. The former forces him to engage in productive activities that preclude him from using his productive capabilities, leading to miserable and unfulfilled feelings, whilst the latter precludes him from being able to develop his nascent productive and social capabilities through his work. The alien character of labour under capitalism is demonstrated, Marx says, by the fact that if we weren't forced we would avoid work "like the plague" (Marx 1992, p.326).

As with the worker's relation with his product, it is difficult to see how the relation with production could be entirely unalienated, as conceived by Marx. In the first place, Marx's conception of a perfect, unalienated individual involved a bewildering diversity of productive activities, all combining to satisfy every creative and productive potential. He wrote that:

[In capitalism man] is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. (Marx 1968, p.45)

Elster rightly criticises this vision as "fanciful", accusing Marx of "wishful thinking". It would impose huge burdens on workers to know about all of his creative and productive capabilities, to have the resources required to fulfil them and to be able to pursue each of them whilst guaranteeing self-sufficiency. Even the most self-indulgent worker bent on total self-realisation would have a difficult time achieving it. However, even if one cannot posit a system that completely overcomes alienation, one can suggests systems that provide more possibilities for "autonomy, creativity and community" that can mitigate alieation (Elster 1985, pp. 89-92).

Unalienated labour, then, requires operational autonomy and a vareity of productive and creative activities that actualise the worker's capabilities. Through it the worker must meet some challenge and be able to judge how well the challenge was met. This is exactly the kind of productive activity that hackers engage in. By working to scratch an itch, with a desire to improve skills, meet an intellectual challenge and all the while increase one's productive powers, the hacker overcomes the external nature of alienated labour. Nobody would voluntarily enter into labour that made him feel miserable, or that didn't develop free mental energy. Hackers, entering voluntarily into their work with passion, cannot be charactertised as working against themselves, against their productive nature. Their only shortcoming, and one of the Hacker Ethic in general, is that though there is emphasis on a diversity of tasks, there is little emphasis on developing all of your capabilities, and in particular those not related to software. Though many hackers do engage in other creative activities it cannot be said that they all develop their full mental and physical energy. This is a result of a hesitance on the part of most hackers to advocate a perfectionist account of personal development such as Marx's; they favour a more liberal or welfarist approach that emphasises the freedom to engage in fulfilling activities as well as the virtue of engaging in these activities in general.

Because information sharing is such a powerful force in hacker communities, hackers actively help and encourage each other to develop skills. This is one instance in which the ethic takes a more proactive and perfectionist approach, both creating and promoting an environment in which hackers developer their skills fully. This is not identical with promoting the realisation of all capabilities, as Marx suggested. Instead, the Hacker Ethic emphasises the value of developing and realising capabilities in all productive activities. The onus, as Stallman suggested in the context of social obligations, is not to work but, if one is to work, to do so in a particular way. This can be seen in the importance given to "the freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs" (FSF 2004) and in emphasis on documenting everything for the benefit of nascent hackers.

Crucially, following my analysis of operational autonomy using Luke's analysis of power, we can see how hackers are able to exercise complete autonomy. There isn't a single organisational structure adopted by all hacker communities -- some adopt democratic structures, others voluntarily defer the final decision making to a benevolent dictator (with the proviso that they can always "fork" the project by taking the code and developing it in a new community with a different organisational structure), whilst many allow structures to organically develop (Brand and Chance 2005). In each of these arrangements, however, hackers can choose what code to work on; they can influence the agendas that direct their work, both by entering into the open discussions about the direction of the project(s) they work on and by simply opting out of any projects whose agendas conflict with the hacker's own priorities; and finally though it is not forced nor prevalent in every productive forum, hackers can and often do enter into discussions about work itself and what it means to engage in meaningful work.

Alienation from other people

Marx asserts that "the relationship of man to himself becomes objective and real for him only through his relationship to other men" (Marx 1992, p.331). The alienation of the worker from his product only becomes real when his product is bought by a consumer, an act that constructs the hostile standing of product to worker and also of worker to consumer. If, as is the case under capitalism according to Marx, the relationship between worker and consumer is one of domination, of the non-producer over production and its product, then we can see how the relationship becomes one of man to an alien being. This of course rests on the assumption that a healthy relationship - the opposite of an alienated relationship - is one where the parties are relatively equal and where nobody suffers a significant loss of reality, which I think is fair.

The consumer is also alienated when he receives a product that "does not belong to him", since he put none of his labour into it, making the commodity alien to him (Marx 1992, p.331). Marx refers here to his contention that value and ownership can only be bestowed by labour, and that this value and ownership is only conferred on the creator, so that the consumer cannot own nor value the product. Again for the sake of preserving exchange-based relationships, we can instead say that a product may lose value when it is exchanged as a commodity. This kind of alienation is obviously not as bad as losing your product, since the consumer may gain creative and productive power through purchasing the product. But where the product is treated entirely as a consumable (i.e. it isn't used productively), and where it doesn't contribute to the sustenance of the worker (e.g. food), then the product is neither a gain nor a loss in reality; the consumer simply gains a thing that has limited use value. Therefore at both ends of this relationship, worker and consumer, people can be alienated.

There are also other relationships in which a worker stands, those in relation to his fellow workers, which are marked by competition rather than cooperation and that put the worker in a hostile and disconnected standing. Workers must compete for jobs in the first place, and then within the workplace they must compete for better positions with better wages, and even to keep their job. They only cooperate insofar as it benefits the company, i.e. for the end of capital. In general, workers have no power to change the nature of these relations; though in many contemporary workplaces workers are afforded notionally managerial positions, they must manage according to the needs and ends of the company, i.e. capital accumulation. Though this may seem an overly stark and pessimistic view of the workplace, it is the logical application of the principles of capitalism, and so any instances of cooperation - any real relationships between workers - are incidental and a sign of the worker rebelling against capitalism's constraints. There is limited space for the cooperative spirit that Stallman has tried to restore (FSF 2003).

Marx's heavy emphasis on the importance of social alienation -- suggesting that alienation only becomes real through his relationship to other men -- seems to contradict, or at least call into question the seriousness, the reality, of his claims about the other forms of alienation. It implies that alienation in the activity of production, which is a matter of the activity becoming external and unfulfilling, can only occur in a social context. This would mean that an isolated worker who produced according to his needs would always perform fulfilling work regardless of how it affected his creative powers. Or, Marx means no productive activity can be real in such an isolated context, and so whatever the worker did, it would never be real and fulfulling until placed in a social context. Both of these interpretations are flawed, if we are to take seriously his previous claims about the importance of the relationship between a worker and his product, and between a worker and the activity of his work. I would suggest that, to be consistent, placing work and products in a social context makes them more real because in the new inter-personal relationships they provide the worker with more use value, more social value, in other words more reality.

In the case of hackers, as I have already mentioned, the hacker won't lose the product to the users, and the users won't passively consume the product. This is generally true of all computer software, whether or not it is produced by hackers and released under a free license. But the license guarantees that the hacker and the user receive exactly the same rights with respect to the product, and that both are endowed with the product's full creative and productive potential. Relations between hackers as workers are based upon cooperation and the free sharing of both the workload and products; they are characterised by a positive cycle, whereby the more hackers produce and relate to one another through sharing, the more productive and communicative powers they have. Furthermore, as I mentioned in the section on alienation from the activity of work, the Hacker Ethic emphasises operational autonomy meaning that hackers have the power to change or opt out of any relationships that they don't like. Giving control to all parties, avoiding relations of domination and fostering "a community of goodwill, cooperation, and collaboration" are explicitly stated as goals of the free software movement, for example (Kuhn, Stallman 2001).

The Hacker Ethic, therefore, overcomes the alienation between producer and consumer by making such a distinction as producer and consumer invalid, and by basing the relationship upon the future potential endowed by the product. The user may simply consume the software, or at least only use it and never modify or even share it, but that is their choice. There is nothing in the relation with the product nor the person who shared it with them that forces their hand in this respect.

Resolving self-indulgent and social obligations

This raises a problem that is related to the question of social obligations I raised at the end of the section on free software. It may be the case that hackers aren't aware that a relationship is unhealthy, either because they are too altruistic or simply not sufficiently self-aware, and so may fail to change or opting out of the alienating relationship. Worse still, a hacker may feel compelled to remain in a relationship that abridges his operational autonomy because of other considerations. These could include egalitarian obligations such as to create usable software for everybody (where the hacker has to give up a proportion of his time to work on less fulfilling code), or to provide computer equipment to poor people (where the hacker has to be motivated by what will earn the most money, rather than by factors instrinsic to the product and the activity of work).

If the interests of the workers and the users "have equal weight" (Stallman 1992) then these relationships are an equal ones, not characterised by domination. If one takes Stallman's weaker social obligations and discounts the stronger obligations I posited, then this study of alienation describes the normative basis for my claim that social and personal obligations aren't in conflict in the Hacker Ethic, but rather intimately linked. Hackers maintain healthy social relationships -- Stallman's "bonds of society" (Stallman, 2004b) -- by working in communities and releasing their work under a free software license. Their doing so in no way prejudices their ability to pursue what I have characterised as healthy, unalienated work and to remain in healthy relations with their products. The Hacker Ethic, if followed properly, allows a worker to achieve our "species being", Marx's vision of the essence of and the ultimate example of mankind. A hacker is able, through his work, to strive towards his essence, his individual life (Marx 1992, p. 328).

If, however, one assumes the stronger obligations, and one takes seriously the problems that these cause for the account of productive relations and alienation, then there is no obvious way out. A strong egalitarian assumption presents the possibility of social relationships fuelling alienation in one aspect (the hacker's relation to his activity of work) whilst soothing alienation in another (the hacker's relationship to the needy users). Analysing the Hacker Ethic in terms of alienation at least provides a common framework within which these conflicts can be understood. They are not simply a matter of individual autonomy being abridged by social obligation, nor simply vice versa, but as a necessity for balance between the two demands. Improper prioritisation of one would simply shift the locus of alienation.

One possible solution lies in an aspect of Marx's conception of alienation that I haven't touched upon yet. I have ommitted it so far because it seems to contradict his emphasis on operational autonomy; this problem, and a proper explanation of the idea, need addressing before I show how it can help resolve the central conflict of personal and social obligations. Marx describes how labour ought to be "consciously regulated by [the workers] in accordance with a settled plan" (Marx, 1996, p.???). Commonsense suggests that we cannot immediately grasp what our capabilities are, and what work we will find most fulfilling; even as children in relatively cooperative environments we take time to learn what we enjoy, be it passive consumption or a childlike productive activity. The ancient Chinese philosophy Taoism understands our individual essence - our Tao - as something inexpressible, a self-defining basis for our character. When we act in accordance with our essence we find that our body and mind work "self-so", or without forcing. These ideas, despite their poetic and vague expression, can lend insight into Marx's idea of our essence. It is not something that we can rationally come to understand or discover, but rather something that we happen upon. We cannot express why we find certain activities more fulfilling, we simply do, and we understand this when we partake in them.

The most pressing objection to Marx's settled plan, then, is that no system of regulation or organisation can hope to determine each individual's appropriate activities. Instead, it should set-up conditions whereby individuals can discover and then partake in their essential activities. This might satisfy Elster, who says that Liberalism "forgets that the choice is to a large extent preempted by the social environment in which people grow up and live". Yet it must avoid the heavy-handed paternalism advocated by some Marxists lest it violate the workers' operational autonomy. "The solution", Elster continues, "must be a form of self-paternalism", whereby people can, individually or collectively, shape their choices relating to their labour (Elster 1986, p.98). We can interpret Marx's "settled plan", then, not as a kind of micro-management by some wiser beings for the benefit of the workers, but as a kind of macro-management that creates the conditions for unalienated labour.

Returning to the central conflict, then, if hacker communities can collectively shape their choices relating to their labour, then they can meet some or all of their social obligations consensually in a way that isn't alienating. A community may, for example, undertake a study to see how usable their software is. They would then identify certain shortcomings and draw up a list of tasks to resolve the usability problems. This would be exactly the kind of situation that I have, so far, identified as causing a conflict between the individual hacker's self-indulgent needs and the social obligations that the tasks represent. However, if the community were to draw up this list and then, by common consent, distribute the tasks evenly -- a "settled plan" of sorts -- then the decision would not create problems in the same way as under capitalism. If the worker were to work on a usability problem because they were paid then they would have no control over the matter, the product they create would be the realisation of somebody else's needs and the whole venture would be performed towards the goal of capital accumulation. In the hacker community, by contrast, the worker still exercises control over every aspect of the process, if not absolute; the worker can realise his capabilities to some extent, if not completely or most appropriately; and the worker is oriented towards a socially meaningful goal. This is exactly how hackers work in principle, tracking, assigning and resolving problems with public mechanisms and employing social incentives and sanctions to encourage collective action.


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