Why Isn’t Life More Meaningful? Thoughts on Marxist Alienation, Wage Labor and Suffering

You have a job. And you probably don’t like it. Why? The reasons are varied. Maybe you don’t make enough. Maybe you hate your boss. Maybe your benefits stink. Maybe your commute is too long. Maybe your job lacks creativity or a measure of control. Or maybe your job is just dull. Maybe you spend too many hours on spreadsheets and emails that are slowly sucking the life out of you. 

Work in today’s world is alienating. Most of us work at jobs that have little creativity, meaning, or connection to one’s values.  Most will not look back at their day jobs in 30 years and feel pride or meaning from their work. But work is a necessary evil to fund a bourgeoise lifestyle. You can’t have the nice apartment and car without selling your labor to the highest bidder. 

Almost no one questions this way of life. After all, why should they? Capitalism is the only game in town. Trading in your labor for a wage is how things are done. That it is detrimental to the mental well-being of most humans is immaterial. As long as you’re generating wealth for your company and yourself, you are making the system work. Who cares if you’re miserable and being exploited? Your well-being isn’t a concern.  

In an ideal world, we would all be doing work that is creative, interesting, and free from wage labor. In a Marxian worldview, private property and most forms of wealth would be eliminated, and we would live in a communal utopia of sorts. Work would no longer be alienating but a fulfilling experience based on one’s like and talents.  This strikes me as a fantastical, improbable delusion. I consider myself a Marxist at heart but it feels increasingly impractical to today’s economic climate. Our world is broken and messy. The last year has been one of unrest and discord. Millions are dead from disease. People are storming the United States capitol. In theory, we could see a proletariat revolution here, but the opposite seems to be happening: wealth continues to be concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, and fascism is on the rise. To fantasize about a utopian communist world seems quixotic at this point in world history.

But maybe there are alternatives. They are compromises in Marxist theory worth exploring. Capitalism forces us into wage labor, and there are no easily available choices– except for maybe worker cooperatives— to our daily working lives. Most of us will be dissatisfied with work. It’s a fact of modern life. Maybe we all need to be realistic about our expectations around work. You have a job. It’s supposed to suck a little. But perhaps we can make the suckage a little better for the working man. 

One idea is the Universal Basic Income (UBI), which is an idea peddled by many but most prominently by Andrew Yang. Essentially everyone would get a monthly check from the government as a sort of universal welfare. For example, let’s say that every adult received a monthly UBI check for $1,000. How would that change your life? I would suggest UBI would bring some dignity back to work for many. If you have a job you hate, but feel trapped by it financially, perhaps UBI gives you a little more flexibility to go back to school or even quit your job and look for something better. It would materially improve the lives of the working class. Other progressive ideas include taxing the wealthy and corporations at a higher rate to pay for a social safety net that includes universal health care, a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, and free college tuition. I support all of these ideas. 

But perhaps economic solutions can only go so far. I mostly buy a Marxist view of the world, one that views human history through historical materialism. I find this lens particularly useful because of how much class dynamics can be ignored from a traditional liberal viewpoint in favor of seeing the world through individual rights. (It was no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. moved to the Poor People’s Campaign after the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Act were passed). 

But historical materialism doesn’t do justice to the psychological and existential elements of existence. Yes, material circumstances can explain some alienation. But nothing can change the pain of ordinary life. As the Buddhas said 2500 years ago, “Life is Suffering.” We all face loss, impermanence, and death. Nothing can change this fact. Implementing a progressive social agenda in the United States will alleviate lots of unneeded suffering. I have no doubt about that. But I wonder about the spiritual work of the American populace? How do we get people to face loss and suffering with compassion and equanimity? How does human nature become a little less selfish and giving to its neighbor? How do have a world where people can find meaning in their lives?

I don’t have really have any perfect answers. But this world view informs my work as a psychotherapist. Mental health isn’t just about getting rid of so-called “negative emotions” such as depression, anxiety, and anger. It is about understanding the causes of their suffering and helping them through it. It is about helping people see not only the existential nature of their suffering but the economic and political. It is about helping people find their compassionate, spiritual nature. If I were honest, I don’t really know how much I help in the grand scheme of things. But like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill over and over, what choice do I have except to keep going. And perhaps like Camus, I can imagine Sisyphus smiling despite it all.  

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