Academia, Unalienated Labor, and Despair
In the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx discusses four ways in which the worker is alienated under the capitalist mode of production. In the first place, they can be alienated from the product towards which their labor is directed: the worker spends 8 hours a day making widgets for the factory owner, and when that time is up, no widgets stay with them. Rather, the widgets are either advanced to the next step in production (they become a part of some further product down the line) or are sent to the market as goods. In either case, the worker then encounters them not as products of their labor, but as objects with independent value belonging to the owner of the means of production. The product appears to the worker as something set apart from them with its own autonomous and independent life.
In the second place, the worker is also alienated from the very act of production. The worker engages in producing widgets not because they want to, but because they must if they want to survive another day. Furthermore, in the process of producing, they have no say in what is produced or how the process of production operates. Rather, all of this is dictated by the owner of the means of production, who, in turn, takes their cues from that which will bring them the most profit.
In the third (related) place, the capitalist mode of production alienates the worker from their species-being or human nature. Human beings naturally want to employ their labor power to producing things that have some further overarching purpose or goal, or which serve the needs of society in some way. However, under the capitalist mode of production and as a consequence of the compulsive nature of wage labor, the worker must labor in whatever way the owner dictates, regardless of whether the final product of this laboring is at all socially necessary. The capitalist, too, is alienated in this respect since they direct the employment of the labor power of their workers towards the generation of profit regardless of whether that is socially necessary (and, of course, what’s profitable is decisively not what is socially necessary).
And finally, due to the sharp distinctions in the class structure, the worker is also alienated from their fellow humans. First, they are alienated from those who own the means of production, who dictate how labor power is to be employed, and in whose service they labor. And second, they are (often) alienated from their fellow workers, with whom they have to compete in order to secure their livelihood.
If these characteristics are what marks alienated labor, then the question can be raised about what unalienated labor is. Reasonably, we can stipulate that unalienated labor is labor under a mode of production that does not have the four features described above. Namely, it is work in which the worker is not alienated from: 1) the product of their labor (i.e. they retain ownership of their product); 2) the act of producing it (i.e. they do not labor under compulsion, but do so freely); 3) their species being (i.e. the purpose for which they labor is in line with human nature); and 4) other workers (i.e. there is no strict division between those who labor and those who employ that labor).
If this is correct, then it’s reasonable to say that academic work comes very close to being unalienated labor. Take philosophy, for example. The primary bulk of the work that the academic philosopher is involved in is in writing (articles or monographs) and in teaching. When it comes to the former, philosophers are decisively not alienated from the product of their laboring: papers and books go out with the author’s name, carrying the mark of their author—when the philosopher encounters their work (even when they no longer agree with what they said), they encounter it as theirs and not as the thoughts and words of someone else.
Generally speaking, such work is also not done under compulsion in the same way that a factor worker manufacturing widgets is under compulsion. It’s true, the pressure to “publish or perish” is substantial, and something has to be produced in exchange for the salary that academics receive, but no institution requires something like a daily quota of writing in order to be paid.
Likewise, the purpose towards which such work is done is not at odds with one’s species-being. Although it is not the case that everyone feels this way (I know I certainly don’t always feel that this is the case), on the whole, philosophers feel that their work is providing something socially necessary and important for others and is not simply done as a means to some personal or arbitrary end.
And finally, although most academic philosophical work is done solo and there is an almost palpable difference between tenure and non-tenure track faculty, it is not by virtue of the fact that the former own the means of production and the latter do not. Generally speaking, everyone has equal access to the means by which academic work is produced even if it is true that time pressures, career trajectory, and other academic obligations makes a big difference here.
All of this is perhaps even clearer when it comes to teaching. On the whole, philosophers have great leniency in what they teach and how they teach it; teaching is not (usually) done under compulsion or with the expectation of meeting a certain kind of quota; it is generally seen as a meaningful and socially necessary activity to engage in; and the process itself doesn’t lead to stratification or alienation between fellow teachers.
In putting the matter in this way I don’t mean to imply that work in the academy is decisively an example of nonalienated labor. I realize that the situation is very different when we talk about this kind of labor from the perspective of an adjunct lecturer in a teaching university as compared to that of a tenured senior faculty at an R1 institution. I don’t think we should paper over those differences, and we should be very much sensitive to both the extent to which the privilege of laboring in this kind of way is not extended to all academics, and the extent to which those privileges are being constantly eroded by state legislatures and university administrations.
Nevertheless, I think it’s not unreasonable to think of academic work as unalienated labor, or, at the very least, as less alienated than the kind of labor involved in the standard manufacturing process. For the remainder of this essay I’m going to hang on this claim and extend it to say that the work that the work that graduate students also engage in is similarly unalienated. Like the original claim, there are reasons to object to this extended claim on the grounds that, for example, there are massive differences in graduate programs not only across disciplines but within disciplines and that specific programs may allow for more unalienated labor than others. It’s also true that, on the whole, graduate students are perhaps in a much more competitive environment with each other than faculty (and certainly more than tenured faculty), and that they don’t stand in the same relation to faculty as they do to each other. However, I think the similarities are sufficiently close insofar as the primary means by which we, graduate students labor is through teaching (along with its accompanying duties) and writing papers.
With this in mind, I want to say something about the link between engaging in unalienated labor and what is a ubiquitous phenomenon among graduate students (and, I suspect faculty, too, but they’re less open about these things): anxiety and depression.
Clearly, what follows, is going to be primarily a reflection on my own experiences as a graduate worker. The following discussion, then, isn’t going to resound with all readers—I know that there must be plenty of graduate students out there who have experienced no anxiety about their work, and I’ll have very little to say to those people (other than, I guess, a very bitter “congratulations! You done it! Now, please leave me alone.”).
In general, people who have little sympathy for academic workers and who view our jobs as extraordinarily comfortable and pleasant as opposed to other kinds of work will get very little out of this. This is also fine. I recognize that in the grand scheme of things, delving into the psychology of academics is not the most important thing to do, and that the fact that they have psychological problems is perhaps even less important when contrasted with the rest of the horrors of the world. This sentiment is common on both the far right and the far left.
Nevertheless, at least to those of us on the left, I do think that there’s something important to be gleaned in examining the psychology of those who do in fact engage in as close to unalienated labor as possible. This is primarily because many of us take ourselves to be engaged in a project whose end involves everyone’s engagement in such labor. Consequently, it’s worth examining what the conditions we’re aiming for actually entail and how they appear to those who meet them (while, at the same time keeping in mind the fact that as they appear to us now, they are still the conditions of unalienated labor under capitalism).
With all that behind us, the question on which I think I can shed some light today is precisely that of why there is so much anxiety and depression among people who are ostensibly engaging in unalienated labor.
At first glance, this might appear to be puzzling. The conditions of alienated labor seem to be precisely the conditions that make laboring under the capitalist mode of production a miserable process. Indeed, one of the grounds on which we leftists object to capitalism is precisely on the grounds that it makes virtually all laboring alienated. By contrast, there also seem to be lots of other examples of unalienated labor (hobbies, playing a musical instrument, restoring an old car, knitting, etc.) that present themselves to us as those laboring activities which restore us, make us feel human again, and in which we engage in once we’re done with our jobs. It is often in reference to those instances of laboring that we are able to find what makes our lives meaningful and worthwhile. In other words, it appears that while engaging in alienated labor makes us miserable, engaging in unalienated labor should have the opposite effect. Yet, here we have a population of people (let’s limit it to just philosophy graduate students) who I claim do engage in such labor (or as close to it as possible), and who are nevertheless plagued by constant psychological ailments. And this is puzzling.
We can attempt to resolve the puzzle in a number of different ways. The first, which I’ve already bracketed, is that graduate students do not engage in unalienated labor and that “almost” engaging in it is still a ways off from actually being free to do so. As such, if graduate students were to engage in genuine unalienated labor that is not within the context of the capitalist mode of production, they wouldn’t be as psychologically afflicted as they are.
There’s something to this suggestion, but, in general, it strikes me as a kind of utopian vision mixed with a ‘no-true-Scotsman’ claim. It smacks of the latter insofar as it seems to stipulate that if you’re miserable while engaging in unalienated labor, then it must be because what you think you’re engaging in is not actually unalienated labor but something else. And it’s utopian for much the same reason insofar is it simply postulates that no one will be miserable while engaging in unalienated labor once it’s reached. Such a claim also seems to rely on something like the dubious assumption that all psychological problems are simply the result of the laboring process. Now, there may be some super hardcore historical materialists who would take that route, but I don’t know many and much more would need to be said to make that view plausible (to me in my current state anyway).
Another way to get out of it is to reverse the causal explanation here: it’s not that normal people enter into academic work and then they become riddled with anxiety and depression as a result of engaging in that kind of work. Rather, it’s the other way around—people who are already disposed to have a host of psychological problems self-select to go into this kind of work for a number of different reasons. Consequently, it’s not a surprise that they continue to have such problems even if they get as close as possible to unalienated labor.
This resolution strikes me as more plausible than the first, but it serves to raise a further question: supposing that this analysis is correct, what effect does engaging in unalienated labor have on people’s psychology?
Right now, the assumption is that even if engaging in unalienated labor has some salutary effect on the individual, it is not enough to turn them from miserable to content. We’ll return to this point in just a minute because I think it is correct. Before we get there, however, we should consider that based on what has already been said, there obviously has to be some connection between psychology—if there weren’t then objecting to capitalism on the ground that it makes people engage in alienated labor wouldn’t make sense. After all, it’s the fact that doing so makes people miserable and that that misery is a sign of something fundamentally going wrong that we object to (at least partially).
Still, that fact doesn’t entail that engaging in unalienated labor is not sufficient for not being miserable in other cases. The pain in your side makes you miserable, but the absence of that pain does not prevent you from being miserable in other ways. This is a rather obvious point, but it serves to draw our attention that unalienated labor is not the only thing that our psychological well-being rests on even if we grant that not doing so is a major impediment in being well.
How should we think of unalienated labor then? My suggestion (which I make no pretense in claiming to be an original one) is that we should think of it much in the same way that Freud described the purpose of psychotherapy—i.e. “to turn neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness.” Just as psychotherapy doesn’t promise happiness, so we shouldn’t think of engaging in unalienated labor as doing so either, but as merely removing the barriers that keep us miserable and which allow for the possibility of that happiness, or, if it should turn out to be the case, to unhappiness.
This, I believe, is something that engaging in the kind of unalienated labor of the academy does provide. However, once we take away the assumption that engaging in unalienated labor is not sufficient for happiness, well-being, or satisfaction all things considered, we are free to see the other ways in which that happiness might be frustrated.
Crucially, we are free to see what other psychological impact engaging in that kind of labor can have. In particular, it’s worth reminding ourselves that given what has been said, the products of unalienated labor are, in a very real sense, reflections of us—their producer. Unlike the alienated worker, the product of the unalienated worker appears to them as theirs and not as something foreign to them with its own life. Furthermore, they have dictated its production and have done so as part of fulfilling their species-being. Not only have they not produced under duress, but they have done so freely. Consequently, what is produced is something that is identifiable with their producer. This is Nitchovski’s Essay, it represents what he has contributed to the world and not because someone made him write it this way or that way, but because he chose to. It is as good or as bad as it is because it was how capable he was of making it; i.e. the product is as good or bad as he is.
Already one can feel the psychological weight of such free laboring! It’s one thing to say that the production of good or bad widgets has nothing to do with who I am if I’m forced to make widgets under conditions that go to serve some purpose in which I have no say—it’s an entirely different thing to say that of the work that one does freely and for reasons that resonate with that person. In the former case, the distinction between the producer and the product is easy to make (in fact, it is a necessary distinction!); in the latter, it can only be done by falling into bad faith—by denying that the product is a reflection of oneself produced under such circumstances.
The problem, then is this: because I have produced freely, the product that I have made is one that reflects my capabilities—it will remain a reflection of me even when it is out of my control. Others will encounter it and their judgments of it will be judgments of me because if the production of the work has been truly unalienated, then we cannot be separated.
That this should be a source of anxiety for at least some people should not be surprising. That the expression of this anxiety should take form in the all-too-common academic “perfectionism” should be equally unsurprising. The thought comes naturally: if what I have produced is a reflection of me, and if it is stupid, pretentious, careless, or obvious, then so am I; and if I don’t want to be stupid, pretentious, careless, or obvious, but clever, insightful, careful and subtle, then the work must be made to exhibit only these characteristics. And that, of course, means that it must be perfect.
This is one way that we attempt to avoid the way in which the product of our unalienated labor confronts us. We delay, refine, rework, and so on. We do so because we are sensitive to the fact that given how the work has been produced, it will necessarily reflect who we are. We stall in this way because we know that as long as the work is still being produced then it is not yet a reflection of us; rather, it is like unfocused lens that still has to be fine-tuned to really represent its subject.
Another way to avoid the anxiety that such a confrontation produces is by denying that it’s really a reflection of us. We do this in many different ways. In the first place, we can do this by pointing to the fact that that the product (whatever it may be) never fully reflects its producer. I am not this or that essay, nor am I this or that work of unalienated labor, nor their totality. I thus still encounter the products of my unalienated labor as something partially alien to me insofar as they only represent facets of who I am. This is undoubtedly true, yet, it is also true that I am also not not this or that essay either! In encountering the product of my free labor I can’t deny that I don’t encounter something familiar for which I bear responsibility and which still bears my mark.
Factory produced widgets don’t have this property. They confront us as pure alienation: the worker tries in vain to see themselves in the vast mass of widgets they’ve produced because they know they’ve had some role in their history. They know that they’ve played an integral part in their creation, but all that they are faced with is a mass of undifferentiated, identical things—they have been removed from the equation. This is one of the problems of the alienated worker. By contrast, the unalienated worker is open to the inverse problem. That is, they are plagued by the feeling that that which they do not recognize as themselves, nevertheless appears to them as them (or as part of them); they are confronted with a rather strange case of vuja de.
Of course, this vuja de itself can be denied. There’s not much that can be said against someone who sees nothing of themselves in what they have produced freely. But it is puzzling how that could really be the case. How could it be that this product here was made by you, under your direction, with no duress, and in the service of fulfilling your species-being and yet it has nothing to do with you? Perhaps this is possible for the genuine amnesiac who forgets everything as soon as they do it, but at that point it’s hard to see how they could be engaged in unalienated labor at all. Something else has to give.
Here, again, we’re usually not at a loss as to what that might be. We can, for example, deny that the product was made under one’s direction. After all, the kind of work that academics engage in involves a slew of external forces that shapes the final product: reviewers one and two, dissertation advisors, conference commentators, teaching evaluations, parents, deans, department chairs, etc. Likewise, one can produce (even academic work) under duress. It’s a well-worn bit of internal ideology that philosophers always have the goal of pursuing the truth. This may be true in some fashion, but it’s also true that much of the time we write papers not because we are concerned with getting to the truth, but because something has to be written or some class needs to be taught if we are to eat and pay rent. Not every project is a passion project—sometimes academics write because there’s a new cottage industry around a particular topic that makes for quick and easy publications. In the same vein, we can deny that we really are engaging in labor that affirms the species-being. That is, we’re not producing academic work because we think that it’s socially necessary to do so, but for some other reason (again, rent, bills, food, etc. come to mind).
In each of these cases we escape the anxiety of confronting the product of our unalienated labor by rejecting it. The clear move is that this or that essay can’t be used as a basis to judge me, because it doesn’t really reflect me. And it doesn’t reflect me either because it only partially reflects me and I am not any given part of me, or because it wasn’t produced under the conditions that would make it a full reflection of me. In the latter case we insist that the product of the labor was indeed alienated, in the former we insist that although it wasn’t alienated, it doesn’t tell the full story.
I believe some residual anxiety remains when we grant that such and such a product is a reflection of us even if we insist that it’s not the full story. This is because we are still sensitive to the fact that even a partial reflection of us, if it shows us as being bad or incompetent or stupid is still a reflection of us for which we bear responsibility (if we really aren’t bad or incompetent or stupid, then why did we produce something that makes us so?).
Escaping from anxiety is, of course, not the only way to get out of our predicament. One could also own the fact that this paper or that class really involved unalienated labor, and consequently, really does reflect who we are. But this is not an easy path to take and it certainly takes a lot of courage and a lot of self-confidence. It’s very hard to live with the responsibility that unalienated labor generates.
So what does all this have to do with graduate work?
Simply put, I think one of the reasons why there is so much misery among graduate students is because for the large part, we really are engaged in unalienated labor (or as close to possible) and we are (subconsciously or not) aware of the responsibility that engaging in this kind of work places on our shoulders. The anxiety that such a responsibility produces must be channeled in some way: either in denying it, or in owning it.
Thus, we see graduate students whose anxiety manifests in perfectionism, who are afraid to share their work, to publish, to go to conferences and so on because they are aware of the fact that if a piece of work is lazy, unpolished, or stupid, then they (or at least part of them) will rightly be judged as lazy, unpolished, or stupid. If such people are geniuses, they can be carried forward by the sheer force of their genius; if they are not, then they may slip through the cracks as one of the “unproductive” thinkers in a department.
Relatedly, we also have those people who are genuinely victims of circumstance—illness, death in the family, bankruptcy, divorce, etc.—the severity of which prevents them from producing much of anything. Such people rarely escape the feeling of anxiety and dejection, although, if they’re sober enough in their approach they can spot the difference between the intrinsic failure of laboring freely and producing something bad, and that of being prevented from producing because of some external circumstance. In Bernard Williams’ terms, the former has fallen victim to intrinsic moral luck—they have freely engaged in unalienated labor and they couldn’t cut it; the latter is a victim to extrinsic luck—something outside of their control has happened that has prevented them from even finding out if they could cut it. Both situations are miserable ones, but the cases of extrinsic luck don’t quite have the same psychic weight as the ones of intrinsic failure (one can always retreat to a valid hypothetical in which they succeed—such a hypothetical may be plausible, but its truth usually provides only minimal comfort).
A bit further out are those students who deny that they really are engaged in unalienated labor in one of the ways specified above. They may (justifiably!) reference the duress they’re under to feed and support their family, the pressures from their advisors, and so on, to explain why their work is not to be used as a measure of their worth. Some such people will be the very same who are victims of circumstance insofar as these conditions really do prevent them from engaging in much of any labor at all. A few (perhaps very few) will appeal to these circumstances in bad faith because the difference between the two categories is hard to tell from the outside.
Likewise, some will deny that they are engaged in unalienated labor because they do not (or no longer) feel that the aim towards which academic labor has been directed in in line with realizing one’s species-being. These are the people who will insist on the uselessness of a particular discipline, of how unnecessary it is for people to live well, and so on and so on. Such critiques usually conflate many different things at once and I won’t go into what is good and bad about them, but I only bring them up here to flag that this way of looking at the situation is just another way of denying that academic work is unalienated labor. On this view one can easily say: “don’t judge me on the basis of my work because this work does not reflect unalienated labor. Rather, it reflects the work of someone who no longer has the ends towards which such labor would be employed. It is the work of someone who, like the factory worker making widgets, finds themselves working towards some end they didn’t set themselves, and which they no longer see as providing anything that satisfies human nature.” This may very well be true! I’ve certainly met people who have had such a transition through their graduate career, and I don’t think they’re always wrong to think it. But it is a position that is only available once one gets rid of the notion that one is actually engaging in unalienated labor. As long as one really is engaged in such labor, then this move is made in bad faith (and that’s something that can only be known by the individual who has made it).
And finally, there are those people who are happy to accept their predicament, who see themselves as engaging in unalienated labor, and who are able to say “yes, even if this is stupid, it still represents me to the best of my abilities. I take myself as I am.” Such people are few and far between—I’m certainly not one of them. In my experience they are (perhaps non-incidentally) those people who are otherwise materially secure and who are aware that regardless of how anyone else views them or their work, they’ll continue to live comfortably and do the kinds of things that make them happy.
The thrust of this paper has been to make the suggestion that at least some of the psychic ills that plague graduate students are due to the fact that, for the most part, we are engaged in unalienated labor. Unalienated labor is better than alienated labor in many respects, but it does not suffice for happiness. Indeed, it comes with its own psychological burdens, the primary one of which is the responsibility that one bears for what is produced under this way of laboring. This, I have suggested, is why graduate students are so prone to so many psychological troubles.
I want to close out by returning to a point that I’ve purposefully kept to the side: namely, although graduate students may engage in as close to unalienated labor as is possible, they still do so in the framework of capitalism. Thus, one is not merely judged by the quality of one’s freely produced work, but that judgment is also used to justify or decide whether this particular person will be allowed to continue engaging in such work. Thus, one is not only confronted with the responsibility that free unalienated labor imposes on them, but is also burdened with the operations of the market which (except for in the heads of the most ideologically skewed liberals) is not a measure of individual worth.
In essence the story we are told is this: you are allowed to do something that few other people are ever allowed to do—you can engage in unalienated labor. The product of this labor will be a reflection of who you are fundamentally. If you want to continue to do this privileged thing, you will have to be judged on the basis of how the work that represents you does on the market. If you satisfy the needs of the market (which is not necessarily a matter of being sensitive to the work that is used as a metric), then you can continue being responsible. Otherwise, you’ll likely return to the much worse condition of engaging in alienated labor until you die (unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy).
This is an absurd situation. By virtue of the judgment of the work, one is fundamentally judged about who they are; by virtue of the fact that that judgment is a function of the needs of the market, one is not judged about who they are. If one is attentive enough one senses that one is being pulled in two separate directions…
Okay, I’ve written too much for too long. I need a break.