Matthew Syed in the Times gives us a wonderful example of Marxist thinking. He asks why marathon running is so popular, and says it's because it satisfies a desire for self-improvement which we cannot get from paid labour:
We live in a world where the connection between effort and reward is fragmenting. In our past, we hunted, gathered and built...We could observe, track and consume the fruits of our labour. We could see the connection between our sweat and toil, and the value we derived from them. In today's globally dispersed capitalist machine, this sense is disappearing.
Labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself.
Jon Elster claims that Marx "condemned capitalism mainly because it frustrated human development and self-actualization."
Marx was right. The fact that we spend our leisure time doing things that others might call work - gardening, DIY, baking, blogging, playing musical instruments - demonstrates our urge for self-actualization. And yet capitalist work doesn't fulfill this need. As the Smith Institute said (pdf):
Not only do we have widespread problems with productivity and pay, as well as growing insecurity at work, but also a significant minority of employees suffer from poor management, lack of meaningful voice and injustice at work. For too many workers, their talent, skills and potential go unrealised, leaving them less fulfilled and the economy failing to fire on all cylinders.
This poses the question: why isn't there more demand at the political level for fulfilling work?
The question gains force from two facts. First, autonomy at work is a big factor in life-satisfation. Politicians who want to improve well-being - as Cameron once claimed to - should therefore take an interest in working conditions. Secondly, workers who are happy - less alienated - are more productive. Less alienation should therefore help to close the productivity gap between the UK and other rich nations, which in turn should raise real wages.
Despite all this, working conditions are barely on the agenda at all in this election. Politically, the workplace is, as Marx said, a "hidden abode."
One reason for this is that politics has largely ceased to be a vehicle for improving lives. It is instead a form of narcissistic tribalism and low-grade celebrity tittle-tattle: when will Cameron resign? Who'll replace him? What does Miliband's kitchen look like?
And in this way, politics serves the interests of the boss class and not workers. Capitalist power is exercised not just consciously and explicitly, but by determining what becomes a political demand and what doesn't. Here's Steven Lukes:
Is it not the supreme exercise of power to get another or others to have the desires you want them to have - that is, to secure their compliance by controlling their thoughts and desires?...Is it not the supreme and most insidious use of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things?
* His ideas are explained here by Gillian Anderson. I might be gone some time...