Sunday, February 26, 2012

Prostitution and the Alienation of Wage Labor

Do most people only ever do things out of love? Must that be the immediate cause of everything we do?

I have been trying to figure out the Marxist arguments against wage employment, which they claim alienates a person from their work and what that work produces. With this as their ultimate argument, this is what has to be addressed -- economic arguments are ultimately irrelevant to them.

I think I have figured out the answer. It came a few nights ago in a discussion my wife and I were having about prostitution after watching John Stossel on Fox News. The issue was not whether or not prostitution should be legal -- we both agree it should -- but rather whether or not it should be considered acceptable. My argument was that if one considers having sex without love acceptable, then whether or not there is a money transaction is irrelevant. Anyone who believes one should never have sex without love is being consistent in their opposition to prostitution; anyone who believes sex without love is acceptable is being inconsistent if they then persist in opposing prostitution. Why is having sex with a different person every night for free better than having sex with a person every night for money? Is it because we consider sex to be a gift?

A startling conclusion! Yet, it fits into our attitudes regarding gifts and the gift economy. Suppose you offered someone a gift, and they offered to pay you for it? Would you not feel offended? The person who does something out of love -- who creates gifts -- feels morally superior to those who do something out of a profit motive. We consider the gift-giver to have higher status than the profit-maker ; the gift-giver, too, is in fact doing what they are doing for status. This is inherent in the fact that the gift economy is precisely about gaining status; this is its currency -- and its danger. The danger lies in the development of the potlatch, where the participants try to outdo each other, even at their own detriment. Promiscuous men and women have high status -- they are popular -- and are participants in a kind of sexual potlatch. This occurs when the gift-giving is separated from love. Yet, that original motivation is often assumed, so the gift-giver gains status despite the lack of love.

We see this attitude at work in all areas of the gift economy. We respect poets who publish for free in literary journals, but not those who work for Hallmark. We respect (and trust) university scientists over corporate scientists. The philanthropic organization (or even the government in its role in the gift economy) is considered purer in purpose than corporate givers. Those who (at least appear to) create and give out of love are believed superior to those who create and give out of a desire for profit. Many consider charity-givers to be better than job-givers, though it is only the latter that creation wealth.

This brings me back to the alienation argument. The Marxist believes all work out to be in the gift economy. All work ought to be out of love. And if it's not, it's alienating. To the Marxist, all age labor is prostitution, and ought to have the same stigma attached to it. Thus they declare wage labor to be immoral and something which ought to be prohibited -- for the wage laborer's own good. Indeed, this is the most common justification for keeping prostitution illegal: that it is for the prostitutes' own good. Further, you often hear arguments that prostitution is "alienating," etc. for the prostitutes -- the same arguments Marxists make against wage labor, prostitution opponents make against prostitution.

Ultimately, if you agree that prostitution is "alienating" for the prostitute, you agree with the Marxist analysis of wage labor. But if wage labor is not alienating, then neither is prostitution. Ultimately, those who oppose prostitution believe sex should be freely given away, as though that transaction is good in and of itself, but making it a money transaction sullies it. The question those who oppose prostitution and/or wage labor need to answer is: what is it about money that makes its use (in making transactions easier and more rational) immoral? With the understanding that the first preference is a loving relationship, if that's an option, why would people prefer their daughters (or sons) to be poor sluts rather than rich prostitutes? Why is it better to not be paid to do what I love than to be paid? And why should I not be allowed to be paid to do things I don't love?

The ultimate question, then, is: must everything we do necessarily be done out of love? Is that the only legitimate motivation? Or, specifically, the only legitimate immediate motivation? I think mistaking the immediate for the ultimate is where the problems lie.

I write poems and plays and do scholarly work because I do have an immediate love for doing those things; however, I want a job in which I earn a wage because I have an ultimate love for my wife and children, and I care for their (and my own) material comforts. My love for my family and for myself (self-preservation) drives my desire for working for a wage so I can provide for those I love. I do not need to love everything I do to earn that wage (it would probably be best if I did not hate what I do; but I could be neutral, which would include some balance of liking and not liking) for me to have a fulfilling life. My life and work is alienated only if I work only (or primarily) for unknown others rather than for my loved ones. If most of my wages are taxed away so others may benefit, that would cause me to feel alienated from my wage labor. The same is not true if I reap all the benefits for my loved ones. Ironically, then, Marx's heavily graduated income tax (in The Communist Manifesto) would in fact create alienation among the workers, not their wage labor.

It is a lovely idea to think that everyone ought to be able to do only what they love. But that is what those in the gift economy do. And not everyone could or should be in the gift economy. Even in the poorest places, gift economies exist -- but it is only when there is widespread wealth that the gift economy can come into full fruition and spread its benefits. Science, the arts, and philanthropy find their fullest fruition in wealthy countries. And the wealthiest countries are those with the freest economies. Wealth-creating profit-making is the foundation for a healthy, robust gift economy. But the two are not the same thing, and should not be considered the same thing. Wage labor is not alienating just because it's not in the gift economy. It's not supposed to be. We are judging market activities with foreign values, and when we judge one system with the values of another, we are prone to make mistakes in judgment.

In the end, Marxists want people to have nothing but personal, loving relationships, to all be as close as we all, as a species, once were in primitive tribal conditions. But that's not a realistic option in such a complex society as ours. Thus, spontaneous orders emerge which allow us to interact with a wide variety of unknown others in such a way that we are able to coordinate, cooperate, and otherwise get along. Those who hate the market in fact hate the social relationships which both cause and emerge in spontaneous orders. We cannot all love each other; sometimes, we just have to tolerate each other. Not all of our relationships can be personal; sometimes we have to cooperate on a single project, then part. The Marxist dream that we will all know each other in a personal fashion is impossible.
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