"We often associate the notion of work with drudgery – with a set of tasks that we want to minimize and if possible escape from altogether. " (Giddens, 2001: 375) Many of today's working class would probably agree, however Karl Marx views work as the means through which individual creativity may be expressed and explored. Seeing as Marx felt so strongly about work, his theory of capitalism recognized and thus criticized the dehumanizing effects and exploitative nature of work in capitalist societies.
His theory is generally applicable to the understanding of work today, however after having thoroughly studied and understood his theory, I felt that he overemphasized the effect of a society's economic structure on social life. Nevertheless Marx's theory on capitalism applies to many major aspects of work today and appreciates, more than other theorists, problems faced by today's society and its labour at work. The change in the occupational structure in society today is based on the phenomenon of the division of labour.
Marx, unlike Durkheim, appreciates the negative as well as the positive aspects that the division of labour imposes on work. Although it maximises productivity, Marx argues that it leads to the separation of individuals and the generation of power struggles. "Thus the existence of the division of labour means the dislocation of the human essence, the division of humanity against itself. " (Cuff, 1998: 17) As Marx explained, the problem that arises due to the division of labour is the division between those who do the physical work and those who engage in 'speculative thinking'.
(Cuff, 1998) Those who do the thinking appear to be doing the valuable work while the workers doing the physical production are ignored. Consequently, the former group, portraying themselves as more important, gain larger proceeds than those who do the physical work. It's important to note, however, that Marx does not argue that thinking is not important. He agrees that it is involved in the labour process however he argues that ultimately, the physical part is less valued. This appears to be occurring in work today. Workers who engage in the exhausting physical production rarely earn half of what the 'thinkers' earn.
Therefore the transformation to a capitalist society (one similar to the society we live in today), as Marx believed it would, has distorted many aspects of society, including the notion of freedom. It is said that capitalism provides workers with the choice of work but this is an illusion because people are controlled by money. Increasingly, our lives revolve around money as very little is possible without it. Thus workers may legally be free but due to their desperate need for work, they are coerced by the owners of the 'means of production' into exploitative work.
As Marx argued, although capitalism is said to be mutually beneficial to the worker and the owner, in reality it isn't. Owners earn more than the workers performing the physical tasks and this is what appears to be occurring in the world today. (Noble, 2000) Marx argues against those who do not work saying their 'achievements and privileges are acquired at the expense of other human beings. ' (Cuff, 1998: 18) This is true of owners of large firms today who simply enjoy the profits, but do little or no work in reality.
This issue of inequality arouses conflicts due to opposition between different social groups. The capitalist class (or the owners of the means of production), as Marx refers to them, and the working class have different economic interests. (Cuff, 1998) While an employee is concerned with earning to make a living, the employer is simply concerned with employing cheap labour to minimise costs and thus maximise profits, and with achieving a powerful position in society. Therefore workers and owners will never reconcile this conflict of interests. Work today has taken on a different meaning than in the past.
Marx helps us understand it more clearly using the labour theory of value developed by British economists. The theory states that 'all forms of wealth, created for purposes of exchange, get their value from the work put into producing them' (Kettle, 1963: 32). It distinguishes between use (or intrinsic)-value and exchange-value. In the past use-value was important. People simply exchanged objects or used money to exchange goods however, in capitalist societies, exchange value is prioritised. Capitalists aim to turn commodities into money. In other words, owners are generating wealth out of human labour.
For example, production by labour is exchanged for an unequal exchange of wages. Capitalists made workers work more than they (the workers) received in return, in the form of wages. The needs of people are downgraded in favour of the desires of consumers and the desires of consumers are satisfied based on the amount of money the consumers are willing to pay. This is displayed in societies today where dominance lies with those with the most money. Hence Marx argues that exchange value is dangerous and increasingly, everything will become dominated by exchange value, even morality.