By contributor Jennifer Cox
I love everything about Christmas: the bright lights that my neighbours string along rooflines and in hedges, the nativity scenes and inflatable Santas that fill the yards, the carols in the shopping malls, and the blitz of parties and cookie exchanges around my community. But every year, as I flip my calendar to December, I have to brace myself against the pressure to open up my wallet and swap my limited resources for the elusive perfect gift. As malls ramp up for the season with Black Friday sales and holiday displays, the pressure mounts and my feelings turn to bitterness.
As a student, not only is my income limited, but so are the hours I have available to work. As we head into the holiday season, with all of its excess demands on my bank account, I wonder how much I’m willing to sell my labour for? This is a question Karl Marx poses when he argues that an individual’s connection to self and society is thwarted by alienating labour and property ownership.
According to Marx, the social self is determined by the mode of production in which the self exists. He writes about overcoming the alienation that is caused by the relationship to labour and property. He also raises important ideas that have not lost their relevance in over 150 years. For instance, his idea that labour alienates man from his spiritual nature—his human essence—is well worth looking at, especially the question, “If my own activity does not belong to me, if it is an alien and forced activity, to whom does it belong?”
As I consider this question, I take a special interest in his comments about overcoming self-alienation, hoping for clarification around his theory that, “Communism is ultimately the positive expression of private property as overcome.” The question at the forefront of my mind is, “How is this overcome?” The answer I find in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts isn’t satisfying. I can’t wrap my head around the idea of universal property ownership. Contrary to Marx’s utopian vision, the reality remains that a certain degree of unsatisfying labour is required to survive.
Is it really possible to be free from alienated labour? Is it possible for a person’s activity to truly belong to them? Marx’s concern with overcoming alienation is never fully realized because he is too caught up in finding a communal answer, a solution where the immediate activity of a person’s individuality is only found in his existence for other men. Adopting Marx’s system trades one form of alienation for another, as a person always owes their existence to outside forces.
As I pull my Christmas boxes from under the stairs I am surprised to find answers in the pages of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This story, written in Marx’s era, demonstrates how Scrooge’s selfishness and greed ultimately lead to his alienation. By the time he is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, he is alienated from himself and everyone he comes into contact with. As Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, he undergoes a lasting transformation from a crotchety old miser to a benevolent friend.
In Marx’s system of universal property, Scrooge’s free expression of love and goodwill to his fellow man would not be possible. The true freedom from alienation is not in a society that forces individuals to share their resources. Alienation can only be truly overcome by a society that encourages each to love their neighbour as themselves, changing individuals and ultimately the world with one act of love at a time.
Scrooge was determined to alter his life, and in this promise he “was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more.” By earnestly putting aside his selfish, “bah humbug” ways, Scrooge freed himself from alienation. This freed Bob Cratchit from the oppression he’d been living under in Scrooge’s previous tyranny, and created room for a deep and lasting friendship—the best gift any of us could give or get.