Spring 2006 - Volume 9 Number 2
|Reviews||The Tyranny of Work: Alienation and the Labour Process, 5th edition
Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2006
Central to the corporate model now dominant in college education is the view that the overriding purpose of postsecondary schooling is to produce graduates for the labour force of the postindustrial, global economythe world of high technology and the information society. So insistent are today’s educational leaders to promote the learning of marketable skills and the acquisition of personal values that conform to the expectations of a neoliberal economy that pressure is being appliednot just in colleges but throughout the educational systemto direct students toward vocationally relevant courses, even in those areas reserved for “open options” in the general education portion of the college curriculum.
The emphasis on work-related training is not universal, of course. The mere fact that many colleges continue to offer a variety of courses in language and literature, the humanities, the natural sciences and the social sciences attests to the fact that the development of the whole person, while no longer as prominent an educational goal as in the past, nonetheless merits at least a measure of lip service in the contemporary college life.
It is for this reason that a recent decision made by the College Standards and Accreditation Council in Ontario begs exploration. CSAC sets the guidelines for curricula and busied itself over the past few years with the task of reducing the range of courses to be offered to Ontario students. Psychology and Sociology were conveniently telescoped into one thematic area. Science and Technology were likewise collapsed. Aesthetic appreciation was somehow left alone; but, the category of Work and the Economy was dropped altogether.
At first glance, this seems counter-intuitive, if not utterly bizarre. In a college system eager to address the needs of business and industry, how could it make sense to avoid teaching the basic elements of what it means to work and what work means for society?
Reading James W. Rinehart’s The Tyranny of Work helps to provide the answer. This fine little volume has been around for over thirty years, and has gone through some creative updates over its publishing life. Its core, however, remains consistent. The driving concept explored in the book is alienated labour, a concept developed by Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Orthodox Marxist ideologues ignored Marx’s preoccupation with alienation for a century; however, by the 1960s, their silence became deafening and so the tactic changed to condescension and dismissal of ideas that they deemed Hegelian atavisms, and wrote off as the romantic prattlings of an immature thinker not yet developed enough to pursue the single-minded path to a genuine science of society. In time, books like Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man helped settle the matter and, among at least some Marxists, the humanistic concern about the subjective experience of work under capitalism was restored. In this tradition, books like Rinehart’s The Tyranny of Work brought new insights into the classroom.
Rinehart, like Marx, set the concept of work at the centre of his reflections on the human condition. Free, creative labour is the means whereby people not only produce their material needs, but it is also the primary means by which members of our species reproduce and develop the culture that sustains our spiritual, emotional and deeply human qualities. We are creative animals and work is endemic to our definition of ourselves, our relationships and our society.
Rinehart goes on to explain how the labour process, which ought to promote a joyful, creative exercise in personal and communal development has been distorted over time and has reached its most recent evolutionary stage in the appearance of alienated labour under capitalism.
Alienation takes several forms. We are alienated from the products of our labour because they are appropriated by our employers. We are alienated from the process of our labour because we are required to act according to the rules of a corporate agenda over which we lack control. We are alienated from ourselves in the process of commodifying our own minds and bodies, which we rent to employers for many hours a day. And we are alienated from each other because we are compelled to compete for the privilege of being exploited on the job. Class structure, technological innovation and the neoliberal ideologies of consumerism, materialism and possessive individualism combine to explain and justify our political and economic arrangements, thus legitimizing the conditions of exploitation that envelop us.
The past few decades have not been easy. The working and middle classes have seen their incomes flatten or decline. Social services and public goods have been cut down. Job security is becoming a dim memory as downsizing and outsourcing threaten the immiseration of those not settled in positions of social, economic and political power. Inequities continue unabated and, in fact, are cheered on by fans of the allegedly free market.
Rinehart goes some distance toward inspiring hope. Alienation, he stresses, is not inherent in the human condition. It is contingent upon factors of political economy. It can be altered. Strategies such as worker self-management, a democratically planned economy and social policies for the amelioration of want are far from exhausted and, although it is foolish to indulge in utopian fantasies, Rinehart provides solid analysis, a clear means of understanding and some pragmatic suggestions about how to develop in theory and in practice social arrangements that will help redeem our lives.
So, there’s the answer. Why has work and the economy now been removed from the curriculum of future workers? It is because excellent books like Rinehart’s kept finding their way into classrooms and challenging the ideological hegemony of corporate power.
When I read the first edition of The Tyranny of Work in 1975, I was charmed. It stood alongside other innovative and sometimes groundbreaking volumes, notably Harry Braverman’s Labour and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. I didn’t give it much hope for commercial success. Now, I am pleased to say that it has endured, and it has evolved and adapted to structural changes in the economy, while remaining true to its original principles. It deserves to be read widely, not least by teachers who may discover the source of their various discontents contained and expressed in plain but compelling language by a writer who has influenced a good number of students as they enter the corporate world armed, at least for a time, with the intellectual tools to understand what is happening to them.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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