Modern societies are, if anything, capitalist; indeed, an argument can be made that what distinguishes modernity from pre-modern times is the emergence of capitalism. The pre-eminent theorist (and opponent) of capitalism, Karl Marx, identified the key characteristics of labour under capitalism as alienation and exploitation. These describe not only the economic system that came into being from the late 18th century onwards, but also the new kinds of social experience and selfhood that characterised western modernity. In this seminar we will focus on the core readings to gain a thorough understanding of what Marx meant by these concepts, what historical, economic and social structures determined them, and how they might have changed since Marx was writing over 150 years ago.
Karl Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’ in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), pp. 28-35.
Karl Marx, ‘The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value’ in Capital: a Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, Part 3 (first published 1867), pp. 126-218.
• What is Marx’s theory of alienation?
• What is Marx’s theory of exploitation?
• What is specifically ‘modern’ about them as both economic structures and social experiences? E.g. what historical, economic and social structures gave rise to them?
• To what extent can these theories be applied to labour under capitalism today? E.g. how have they been adapted to/challenged by the changing shape of capitalism since the 19th century?
Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848) [This is a relatively quick and easy read giving an overview of the Marxist theory of revolution and analysis of capitalist society – if you haven’t already read it I strongly suggest that you do so.]
Nancy Holmstrom, ‘Exploitation’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7:2 (June 1977), 353-369. [For a useful examination of Marx’s theory of exploitation and its various interpretations over the 20th century.]
Ben Trott, ‘Affective Labour and Alienation: Spinoza’s Materialism and the Sad Passions of Post-Fordist Work’, Emotion, Space and Society 25 (November 2017), 119-126. [For an analysis of alienation in some 21st-century forms of work (often referred to as ‘post-Fordist’) that look in some ways very different from the ‘productive’/factory labour that Marx focused on.]
Katie Cruz, ‘Beyond Liberalism: Marxist Feminism, Migrant Sex Work, and Labour Unfreedom’, Feminist Legal Studies 26:1 (April 2018), 65-92. Open access.
[This article focuses on sex work, and some of the specific debates arising from it, but it very usefully locates these within a Marxist feminist analysis of exploitation that seeks to incorporate ‘re-productive labour’ (rather than just ‘productive labour’) into theories of exploitation. Part 1 of the article is directly relevant to our discussion.]