The Concept of the Employee

On the eve of Occupy Wall Street, I found it appropriate to discuss a bit about Marx and if he offers any insights into society. He is commonly thrown out as the godfather of all things extreme left and I am not sure that is an accurate representation of him. Just like Adam Smith is commonly overlooked as someone who promoted government as a solution, Marx is often overlooked as having any valuable insights into society.

The largest critique of Marx’s theories is that they resulted in a number of attempts at communism that have all either failed or changed beyond any recognizable state of communism. The most in-depth critique that focuses on this point is that Marx never developed a new economic or social construct; he only developed an ideology with no practical application in the world. Additional critiques of Marxism include the issue that gender was not discussed and that there is a human desire to consume. It seems obvious now that the role of gender in society has a large impact on how society functions, yet Marx’s theory skips the issue entirely assuming that gender does not have an effect. Similarly, race, culture, and the interaction of different societies in the world are a seemingly obvious part of the economy now. We have seen all of these involved in labor exploitation in the forms of slavery, colonization, and offshoring. It also seems obvious that if humans didn’t have some natural tendency to over-consume, capitalists wouldn’t be able to exploit this and feed off of it.

It seems that these are good critiques of Marx’s theories for how they existed at the time and what was wrong with them at the time. What is lacking is the critique of what his theories were based on in relation to their ever changing relevance. Just as Marx saw the world change from working in your own field to grow the crops that your family would eat to becoming industrialized and working meant being paid a wage to buy your food. We are seeing a change in what it means to work for a living, from working on a line or in a factory on products we don’t care about to earn money, to working out of our homes on products that we are deeply passionate about to be paid for our contribution to society. Just as we can reflect on the core sociological concepts that Marx was missing in his time in hindsight, we can look at what modern sociological concepts are missing now that the world has changed. This criticism of Marx goes both ways, it is both bringing up a flaw in his ideals (that the implementation of industrialization was flawed because of the practices of the people and not the concept of industrialization itself) and showing how his theories explain where the improvements in our society are heading (that what it means to be an employee is changing to overcome the flaws in the initial implementation of industrialism).

Using this modern perspective to critically view Marx’s theory, it is easy to see how Marx’s blame on Capitalism and Industrialization were misplaced. His distaste with the new concept of being an employee was well researched, yet where he placed the blame was misguided. As the included infographic shows, the concept of the employee that Marx defined remained a problem for years; however, in more recent years the ubiquity of the internet has begun to change how employees are thought of and interacted with despite the existence of Industrialization and capitalism. Capitalism is what is allowing this change in the concept of the employee to take place. Overcoming some of the problems that Marx originally identified and enabling people to find satisfaction in the labor they perform and the products they create.

So despite the desires of the members of society who were let down by the a system, we should be careful not to generalize how they got there or generalize Marx’s contribution to what we understand about employees. We should take the message they provide as one that matters and one that can be fixed.



Comment (1)

  1. R W R H

    I enjoyed reading this although I think that both this piece and the attached infographic are pretty limited in application to white collar knowledge based employment.

    It seemed to me that Marx was specifically most concerned with the class of society which is least likely to benefit or be positively impacted by the changes to “employee-ism” which you discuss.

    I find it hard to imagine the janitor, waiter, or factory worker seeing the workplaces as being that fundamentally different than the one which Marx viewed and railed against.

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