You sell your labour to the factory owner: ten hours a day, six days a week, for a pittance. The owner puts you and hundreds or thousands of your brothers and sisters to work making splendid objects of consumption that you will never touch or taste, sells these for a healthy profit and gets rich off your labour. You try to organize your fellow workers into a union to bargain for a better share of that profit, but the police beat you with clubs and threaten to arrest you because unions are illegal. So you try to organize a political party to change the law, but your boss spends a part of his vast fortune to campaign against your party, to make sure the law never changes. Across town, across the country, across the world, it is the same everywhere. You work to gain wealth, but your work just feeds the force that impoverish you. You work to maintain yourself as a human being but working turns you into beast of burden – worse, a machine. You work to be able to be part of society but your work cuts you off from those around you, makes you one more individual competitor in a remorselessly competitive labour market. Your work achieves the opposite of what you desire from it, and yet you remain compelled to work.
This is what Marx meant by the notion of contradiction. A single relationship – the relationship of alienated labour, that is, labour that is sold for a wage or salary – contains within itself diametrically opposed forces. The worker pursues wealth, fulfillment, sociality, but must accept being exploited and dehumanized. The capitalist, too, must exploit workers or cease to be a capitalist. Capitalists and workers don’t struggle simply because they are two different groups of people who have come across some great pie and must haggle for a piece of it. The relationship between them, the very thing that connects them, also pits them against each other.
In the most affluent countries on the planet, in the relatively privileged middle classes, this contradiction is considerably muted. Affluent middle-class North Americans can buy themselves an escape from the sensation of contradiction through entertainment and other lifestyle consumption. Even in their workplaces, the quality of work as temporary slavery (you have sold to someone else the right to decide what you do with your time) is muted by a gentle and benign workplace culture which simulates as closely as possible what work would look like if you could determine its conditions for yourself. But that contradiction is still there, and it is become more palpable with each passing year as the ongoing economic ‘crisis’ squeezes more working people out of this global middle class.
Even for the successful, it’s still there. It’s the reason we watch TV and play video games. It’s why we go to the movies, to concerts, to the latest distracting spectacle, why we buy iPhones and designer furniture and suburban homes where we maintain useless lawns in defiance of the local ecosystem. Anything to convince ourselves that we control our own lives. Anything to convince ourselves that we are really part of this world. Anything to overcome, in our private lives, the terrifying underlying fact of our own alienation.
And it’s also why we struggle. Why we demand justice, why we insist that the world should be fair, why we help out a stranger in the street whom we could have walked by, why we go on spiritual quests, why we volunteer at the soup kitchen. Why, sometimes, we gather in the streets in the thousands, in the tens of thousands.
Underneath our desire not to feel alienated is our desire not to be alienated. We want to be whole. And deep down we intuit the fact that we cannot be whole in a fractured world. Nothing can ever tear from us the desire to overcome our own alienation, and this desire keep burning brightly in us until we make a world that is not founded on a contradiction.
This is the sense in which Marx claimed that revolution was inevitable: because the need for it, the drive towards it, is inscribed in the order of things.