Andrew Barnes
Andrew Barnes 8 April 2016

Work and Advertising – Did Marx Foresee This

Karl Marx’s theories are back in fashion. Many talk about the failure of capitalism and more recently the failure of markets. If you don’t see the problem inherent in the fact that 62 people have the same wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population you deserve the social turmoil that will surely result from this in time.

But that is not my point. While seeking a new road ahead that guards against the weaknesses of capitalism - an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people – the theories of Karl Marx have come back into fashion and they talk directly to how we work and how we consume.

Marx was not right about everything, but he may have been right about some things. He was one of the first to study the nature of work writing at length about it. Importantly he argued that work creates meaning. Work provides links to family and community and these links add meaning to our existence. The modern idea that real meaning is found through pop psychology, laughter therapy, drugs, yoga, consumerism, or free sex is a fallacy. It’s a deception. These pursuits, as well as the modern fascination with trying to connect with one’s inner self and blossom as an artist, is indicative of the extent to which our work fails to provide meaning and “agency”.

Yes, that is the point made by Marx. He argued that capitalist industrialisation distances people from their productive output. Through this loss of “agency”, Marx claimed workers are alienated not only from themselves and their workplace but from their communities and society too. Work therefore provides the basis for relevance and meaning. It creates the context in which we relate to people and the world around us.

Later, Christopher Lasch took Marx’s thinking further exploring how a loss of worker agency impacts at a societal level. He saw two contrasting dynamics emerging amongst individuals: 1) a narcissistic personality crippled by a fragile sense of self seeking solace in consumerist identifiers (wearing the right brands, etc.) and 2) an alienated mind-set seeking therapeutic self-help and pop psychology.

The post WWII global industrial boom has driven a loss of worker agency and an alienation from means of production. Corporate growth, globalisation, financialisation and cosmopolitanism have spearheaded this trend of task granulation. And the growing nation-state interventionist bureaucracy only aggravates matters. You can’t do anything without explaining it, accounting for it, apologising for it, and paying for it, either to a corporation (often domiciled outside SA) or the government. It is against this back-drop that we have seen the burgeoning self-help industry. Alpha courses, motivational speakers, centering, confidence building, how to win friends, positive thinking, and a raft of other commoditised self-deifying diversions, are products of our time and reflect our alienation from work and self.

But nothing happens in a straight line. The computer revolution, starting in the eighties and really gaining traction after 2000 is changing the world for the better in ways we least expect. Notably, computers are enabling some of us to recover agency over our work. Computers and digital communications are fracturing the traditional workplace. Increasingly work is neither location nor work-hour dependent. Many people have greater control over their output and can produce far more, both at a task and volume level. In many instances computer technology allows a reclaim of labour pricing. Cost of production is falling and networks are adding exponential value. A knowledge economy is emerging and it lies outside of the walls of traditional business. At its heart is worker agency.

Marx neither predicted the technology revolution nor a networked economy, yet some of its benefits speak directly to his critique of capitalism.

In support of an emerging new “agency” over work a few interesting facts from Forbes are:

  • Millennials will force companies to be transparent. Transparency is one of the top four qualities that millennials look for in leaders. They don’t trust CEOs and politicians because they don’t feel like they are honest, especially how they are portrayed in the media.
  • Millennials will choose corporate culture and meaningful work above everything else.  30% of millennials say that meaningful work is important versus only 12% of managers. Furthermore, only 28% of millennials feel that high pay is important versus 50% of managers.
  • Millennials want to build a collaborative organization. Millennials like to work in teams, on projects to accomplish goals. They are used to using wiki’s, social networks and other technologies to share ideas and innovate.
  • Millennials will make working from home the norm. In the next 9 years, 41% of the workforce will be working from home and currently over 13.4 million people work from home in America alone.
  • Millennials will encourage generosity and community support. While millennials are often stereotyped as being selfish and narcissistic, the story that goes untold is their involved in supporting their communities. 60% of college students aren’t considering a career in business. They view corporations as being greedy, having no equality (especially at the CEO level where only 5% of CEOs are women), and at fault for causing the financial crisis. Deloitte found that 92% of millennials believe that business should be measured by more than just profit and should focus on a societal purpose and 83% of millennials gave to charities in 2012 (up from 75% in 2011).

It’s not only the youth that are impacted by the current techno revolution. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation says:

  • Seniorpreneurship is a growing trend in many countries including the UK, Australia and the USA where nearly a quarter of new ventures in 2013 were started by those aged 55-64.

The facts above are all predicated on modern computer technology.

If one agrees that there has been a long term decline in worker agency post WWII then it’s not hard to see the link with rampant growth in modern narcissism and the elevation of “self” to the level of cultural keystone. These manifest in the obsessive seeking of instant gratification, the need to support a failing self-image, the absence of personal social relevance, and the need for material markers and debt-based lifestyle funding.

And a lot of advertising is contingent to this … all in the spirit of rampant capitalism and the seeking of a great fortune. The ad messages of old corroborate the spirit: the brand is the hero, be cool, seek joy and endless nirvana, reward extravagance, stop for nothing. Money is the enabler and consumption is the resolve.

Will this change? With a new youth culture emerging on the back of new technology maybe worker agency is strengthened prompting a renewed sense of authentic self-worth. Will ad messages and brand values change too? Will we talk about the world in terms of preservation, talk about self in terms of purpose, and talk about society in terms of cause and caring? Will we find hero’s outside of the ego and away from brands?

That, I think, is the challenge.


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