Marx the Blogger: Alienated Labor on Wall Street

Marx the Blogger: Alienated Labor on Wall Street

Marx the Blogger: Alienation on Wall Street

IF KARL Marx was still with us today he would be posting acid comments on his blog——about the current mess with subtexts of “I told you so” and “It’s the system, stupid.” At the same time, he would no doubt be paying special attention to some stories in the New York Times about “greed” and executive bonuses that would have reminded him of some things he wrote in his younger days.

One story recounted the outrage experienced by “junior and midlevel executives” when told the “devastating news” that they would not receive their expected bonuses, which could run as high as five times their base pay. It is a “line of work in which virtually all satisfaction is paycheck dependent.” A former vice chairman at Credit Suisse First Boston explained: “Fact is that this is a terrible way to make a living except for the money. The life style is terrible—the hours, the sucking up.” A lower-level executive said, “If you just take your base home, the question becomes why not just work at a nonprofit from eight to four instead of a bank where you’re expected to work weekends and every night till ten or eleven.”

In the Our Times column, Peter Applebome reported interviews with Princeton graduates who now worked on Wall Street and juniors and seniors contemplating careers there. One graduate “found the hours long, the work uninteresting, the environment unfulfilling. After a year, she took a pay cut and left for a nonprofit….” She told him of an e-mail from a friend who worked at UBS. “I didn’t get a bonus this year, and I don’t want to be here anymore.” A junior, whose mother worked on Wall Street, says that she left at 5:30 in the morning and returned at 11. “It’s a huge number of hours. If I’m going to work those kind of hours, I expect to be paid well.”

“Alienated Labor” is one of Marx’s essays in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The worker, he wrote, doesn’t

fulfill himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than wellbeing, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies, but is physically exhausted and mentally debased…His work is not voluntary but imposed, forced labour. It is not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying other needs. Its alien character is clearly shown by the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion it is avoided like the plague…it is not his own work but work for someone else, that in work he does not belong to himself but to another person.

Marx, of course, was thinking of workers in the dark Satanic mills of Lancashire, but it is apparent that the work conditions of the Wall Street workers are essentially no different, except physically, from those Marx had in mind.

Note the striking similarity of his comment on the satisfactions of nineteenth-century factory work as “only a means for satisfying other needs” with the assessment of satisfactions made by today’s Wall Street workers as “a terrible way to make a living—except for the money.” Their complaints about hours bring home how dependent they are on the commands of their bosses. In fact, their situation may be worse than that of the “exploited proletariat” of Marxian analyses: not only are there no limits on hours, there are no set salaries. At least the nineteenth-century workers knew how much (or how little) they would earn for each hour they worked. The inescapable recognition of their dependency on the good will of their bosses accounts for the “sucking up” and the consequent “sense of misery.”

Perhaps it is misery that leads some Wall Street workers to see working for a nonprofit as a possible career where working for others would bring greater satisfaction than the promised income of their current work. Some others may have a vague sense of guilt that the main goal of their working lives is making money. And when the promise turns out to be false, they become conscious of the attractiveness of nonprofits. It is also another piece of evidence that alienated labor is an affliction of white-collar Wall Street workers as well as the blue-collar working class.

Marx, in another essay, “On Money,” explores the significance of the possession of money. It means, he wrote, that “what I am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.” Two examples among others: “I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful women. Consequently, I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness…is annulled by money…I have no intellect, but money is the true mind of all things and so how shall its possessor have no intellect?” (Surely, this is a version of the American gibe: If you are so smart, how come you’re not rich?) If we believe that Marx was on to something here, then it is possible to think that it is not greed alone that moves at least some of the masters of the universe but an attempt to overcome a lack of self-esteem.

In any event, clearly there’s life in the old boy still.

Murray Hausknecht, a member of Dissent’s editorial board, has previously written on the issues civil unions and same-sex marriage. Photo: Karl Marx in 1861.