marx alienation labour-power false consciousness capital 

Marxian concepts were conceived in the 1800s, yet its lasting usefulness is seen up till today, particularly in its ability to identify the problems of capitalism in a logical fashion. However, the attempt to apply these concepts to the modern, contemporary world has revealed several aspects which were neglected by Marx which will be elaborated in this essay. While it is acknowledged that Marx’s concepts has its limitations, it is precisely these shortcomings which prompts us to reflect on the workings of the current society. Therefore, I argue that Marx’s concepts enable us to contemplate how our society operates. By analysing One Faber Group (OFG), this essay will focus on the exploitation of the proletariat, one that is undergirded by the false consciousness of the bourgeoisie. However, we must note that Marxian concepts which cannot be singled out and analysed exclusively – concepts such as exploitation would require the notion of labour-power to be engaged as well.

OFG is an organisation with brands ranging from attractions, restaurants and gift shops – namely Singapore’s Cable Car, Good Old Days restaurant, Sentosa Fun Shop and Wings of Time show (One Faber Group [OFG], n.d.). I was employed by OFG as a customer service associate during the holidays, where I was tasked with selling tickets for cable car rides and attraction packages. According to Marx (1994), the bourgeoisie are the capitalists who own the means of production (MOP) and hires wage-labour, while the proletariat are the workers in the modern industrial society who lacks the MOPs and are forced to sell their labour-power. In this context, the bourgeoisie is the Managing Director of OFG (referred to as “OFG” in this essay) and the proletarians refer to all the remaining staff of OFG. It is pertinent to note that within the proletarians themselves exists a hierarchy (which Marx disagrees with in “The Communist Manifesto”), that will be expounded on later in the essay.

The Marxian concept of exploitation enlightens us to a similar phenomenon occurring in the current working conditions of the OFG staff. Exploitation occurs when the proletarians are only paid a small portion of the value they have produced in a day (the exchange-value of labour), in the form of a daily wage which is equivalent to the cost needed for a worker to get by daily (Marx, 1867). Meanwhile, the larger, more significant surplus value is pocketed by the capitalist for free, while the OFG staff are denied their fruits of labour. Thus, exploitation of the OFG staff by the OFG is observed from the contractual sale of labour between the staff and OFG. The staff are only paid their means of subsistence, instead of the full value of their labour-power. For example, my stint at OFG paid me an hourly rate of $8, which is equivalent to a daily wage of $64 for a normal eight-hour shift. I was pleased with the pay as I found it decent in comparison to other part time jobs with lower returns ($6 to $7 per hour). However, Marx’s conception of exploitation provides a perspective which exposes the fact that I, along with my colleagues and supervisors, were necessarily deprived the true value of my labour-power. If we only look at the sale of attraction packages such as the Triple Attraction package, OFG earns $133 and $101 from every adult and child ticket sold respectively (OFG, n.d.). On an average day, I sell at least five adult and child packages each. The daily product of my labour-power is worth at least $1170, of which the surplus-value of $1160 is appropriated by the OFG for free (as I only bring home $64). Thus, Marx’s concept of exploitation enables us to delve into the problems of capitalism rooted in the daily aspects of our life, which would otherwise be dismissed.

Exploitation of the OFG staff is a persistent problem of capitalism due to the underlying issue of false consciousness. In The German Ideology, Marx (1970) unpacks the Materialist approach, which he uses to criticise the false consciousness of the bourgeois. Since the Managing Director of OFG does not engage in the act of material production, the material basis of his life does not involve producing material things. The OFG instead, is aligned to what Marx denotes as Idealism, subscribing to ideas such as ‘the Market’ rather than being cognizant of the production of material products. For example, we end our daily operations by compiling a sales report which tallies the total number of tickets and attraction packages we sold in the day. This report is then sent to OFG’s headquarters and received by other OFG staffs with higher corporate statuses and eventually, presented to the Managing Director himself. In this situation, the Managing Director often have little to no relations with the staff at Harbourfront station (where I was based). Instead, the OFG tends to only focus on how to increase profits. This lifestyle causes the OFG to ignore the material aspect of reality, the circumstances of how a product is being produced and by extension, the plight of the OFG staff who are producing the products. Hence, the mode of life of the OFG’s Managing Director gives him a false consciousness of reality.

In view of the OFG’s false consciousness, do the proletarians have false consciousness too? I argue that Marx’s conception of the bourgeois’ false consciousness allows us to observe the same phenomenon in the case of the proletarians. Unlike the OFG bourgeois, the OFG staff experiences a different kind of false consciousness. Besides being exploited by the capitalist, the OFG staff also fail to realise the alienation they will face when working. Hence, the OFG staff approach the contractual basis of which they sell their labour as something positive. For example, my colleagues adopted an enthusiastic attitude towards working and I was personally satisfied with finding a job and earning a salary. Thus, we are facing a higher risk of being exploited and alienated, yet the rosy outlook of the job gives us a false consciousness. By applying the concept of false consciousness to today’s context, the reason behind the persistence of capitalism is revealed to be contributed by not only the bourgeois’ false consciousness, but the proletarians’ as well.

Marx’s prediction of a communist revolution did not actualise, despite exposing the vile nature of capitalism. Besides the false consciousness of the proletarians mentioned above, what else could have possibly hindered the communist revolution? Marx (1994) argued that the bourgeoise era is special, as class conflicts are simplified into two sides – between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. However, Marx failed to explicate the extent to which the true nature of class struggle is revealed. While a contractual monetary relationship is still the main basis of relations between OFG staff and OFG, the nature of class struggle is not completely revealed due to the existing hierarchies within the proletariat. This hierarchy ranges from supervisors and senior managers to the lowly part-time staff. As a result of this hierarchy, my relationships with other OFG staff of different standings in the hierarchies disguise the nature of the class struggle. For example, the relationships with my supervisors and colleagues were similar to the familial relationships back at home, as they treated me like their own daughter or sister. Majority of the staff and supervisors at Harbourfront station were in their mid- to late- 60s and often insist I address them as Auntie or Uncle. Informal work culture also played a part, one of the supervisors – Uncle Philip, often treats us lunch to celebrate days with good sales performance. With such a warm and close relationship with my supervisors and colleagues, it is difficult to imagine that I was being exploited. Hence, while Marx’s concept about the exploitation of the proletarians is evident, the veil over class conflict is not completely removed. There still exist these familial values held by OFG staff which shrouds the true nature of class struggle. Perhaps Marx’s prediction of a communist revolution did not materialise as he overlooked the false consciousness of the bourgeois and the proletarians, as well as how work culture could have evolved in a contemporary world.

In conclusion, we must acknowledge the usefulness of Marx’s concepts – particularly exploitation and false consciousness – in providing a critical analysis of capitalism and the tensions between the OFG staff proletarians and OFG bourgeoisie. However, upon applying his concepts to the modern OFG institution, we see that Marx failed to account for how the nature of the class struggle continues to be disguised, as well as the proletarians’ false consciousness, both of which perpetuates exploitation. Marxian concepts are ultimately useful as they allow us to compare between the capitalistic societies of the past and present, providing a window to understand how society and capitalism has evolved over time.

References

  1. Karl Marx, Selected Writings, edited by Lawrence H. Simon (1994)
  2. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, edited by CJ Arthur (1970[1846])
  3. Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1(1867)
  4. One Faber Group. (n.d.) One Faber Group Singapore. https://www.onefabergroup.com/
  5. One Faber Group. (n.d.) Triple Attractions Package. https://www.onefabergroup.com/triple-attractions-package-1