A Marxist Theory of Crafts (Or Why There’s a Michael’s)

I do remember the Cold War. Maybe you remember it like I do:

Marx = Communism = Soviet Death Squads + Ladas+ No Toilet Paper or Bread Today. In other words, I grew up with a very typical, boiled down (and incorrect) understanding of who Karl Marx was, and what his ideas have meant for economics and sociology.

The Industrial Revolution: Child Labour, Pollution, Consumption. Bummer.

Now if you aren’t mucking about in sociology or economics, you probably don’t care about the finer points of Marx like academic types do. Nonetheless, I hope you’ll bear with me as I try to give Marx his due here by telling you a little bit about his humanism. There’s (even) a point to this: Marx has something to say about why you may or may not hate your job. Also, as I proposed in my title, Marx has something to do with why the gynormous craft store Michael’s exists.

Grumpy, There’s-Gonna-Be-A-Revolution  Marx

Marx was actually a rather hard-headed, cantankerous sort of guy. Being poor himself couldn’t have helped. And he was seriously pissed about the miserable conditions under which the urban poor lived and worked. The Industrial Revolution was in full “flower.” Capitalism seemed to be benefiting a few by sacrificing the many, and Marx didn’t see things getting any better.

This is where your communism bit came from. Marx formulated economic theories that would serve as the basis for socialist revolutions, and eventually the formation of the U.S.S.R. [1] And because, as noted above, Marx is associated with the all the Communist Evils and eventual failures of the Soviet Union, his ideas remain suspect in popular imagination.

The Lesser-Known Marx

So here’s the cool thing you should know about Marx: before the aforementioned stuff that focused largely on economic and political theories, Marx was, in his younger years more of a humanist philosopher than an economist [2]. So what, you may ask, is humanism? Basically it’s a very optimistic idea that human beings are capable of achieving progress and finding meaning without being subject to the whims and mysteries of God. Humanism is all about using science and reason and the arts to maximize human freedom and potential.

And here’s why Marx’s humanism is important: he understood that our work, our labour, is tied to our happiness, not just for what it can buy (that is, exchanging the value of our labour for material goods) but for its own sake. According to Marx, productive work is part of what it means to be human. When we are unable to fully participate in productive work, we lose out on an essential component of human fulfilment. Marx called this his theory of alienation of labour. When our jobs became broken down into component bits of production (think assembly lines), and we buy all the crap we need instead of making it or growing it ourselves, we lose something of ourselves. What we gain in convenience, we lose in creative expression, sense of accomplishment, and sense of connectedness to our material environment.

Now fortunately not all jobs are like this. I may be a broke graduate student, but I get to do really cool work, which sure helps to offset my conspicuous lack of material prosperity. But I’ve also worked my share of mind-numbing jobs with no latitude whatsoever in the learning and creativity departments. Serious unfreedom, that. Serious alienation. For many, many people, this is an ongoing reality of working life, and there’s no end in sight. Which sucks. Is it any wonder we seek other outlets? If Marx is right (and I think he is) we will be fundamentally unhappy without opportunities to learn, grow, create and make choices in our labour.

Make Your Own Soap

So a couple of years ago I’m in Michael’s Christmas shopping, because my step-kids are still in this Craft Freak stage. I’m looking at these kits and supplies for those who would Make Their Own Soap, and thinking, “Why make your own damn soap, really?” You can buy it ready made for much less money than it costs to make it, and certainly there is no shortage in the variety of soaps you can buy: all price points, all flavours.

...where you go when you've been alienated from your own labour by insidious spread of capitalism.

Such is the case for most of what one might choose to “craft:” it’s cheaper, easier and faster to buy the stuff already done for you. And most of it has relatively low utility; things that you “craft” are fall under “nice to have,” not “need to have” [3]. There is no logic to crafts. Yet there is a Michael’s – a giant craft store chain that appears to be doing very well. So here’s what I figure: Michael’s exists because so many of us are alienated from our labour. We want to make stuff we could just as easily buy because Marx is right: we want to work on things. We make soap, tinker with cars, garden, paint, and play musical instruments because to innovate and create with our own hands is essential to our humanity, and, I think, our human happiness.

I mean I’m blowing off a little about the Michael’s thing for kicks, but there’s a serious point to be made here: We think about work – about labour – almost exclusively in terms of making money, which we then use to buy stuff. I loved reading Marx’s earlier writing, and I argue here for its importance because I think we don’t pay enough attention to work for its own sake. Economic security is a critical aspect of our work, and income inequalities have serious repercussions for other forms of social in/equality. Yet when we only talk about work for money, we’re failing to recognize labour in its more holistic sense, and I do think this is well worth considering. Marx’s theory of alienation gets at the idea that there is fulfillment in creative and constructive work of a sort that cannot be bought.

Notes and References

[1] On a tangential note – that’s what endnotes are for, after all – Marx has (so far) proven pretty out of whack with his predictions that capitalism would eventually fall in the hands of state socialism. But his critiques of capitalism were brilliant; he understood the internal contradictions of capitalism, for example that increasing efficiency to increase profitability would lead to unemployment and hence decreased demand for produced goods. Again, Marx’s politics and the ways in which his ideas were politically mobilized after his death have tended to overshadow his remarkable contributions to the study of economics and sociology

[2] Further Geek Tangent for the so-inclined: see the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. These early writings didn’t see light until the 1930s. My social theory professor Ray Morrow described “two Marxes,” because these earlier writings were so different from Marx’s later, hard-headed “scientific socialism.” I’ve always remembered this bit and wanted to share it, in part because it was surprising to me that Marx had such interesting things to say about existential (not just political) freedom, and I suspect most people don’t know this. I certainly didn’t!

It’s also helpful to get that Marx was a materialist. This is best captured in his famous quote that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” In other words: Too much thinking, not enough doing. Marx was roundly annoyed with those who dwelled in the world of ideas, because he believed that what really drove human affairs was the distribution of “means of production.” Marx had his own take on the “factors of production” described in classical economic theory: “Land, labour and capital” are the raw materials through which wealth is created. Capital can be cash, but it is also the stuff that cash buys to make more stuff: factories, technology, etc. Today, labour is routinely referred to as “human capital.” Marx theorized extensively about the role of labour in production, mostly in the form of “workers who sell their labour get screwed because they never see profits.”

[3] Because no one actually needs crocheted toilet paper holders…

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting speculation. I wanted to remind you of an element of the theory of alienation: alienation of people from one another. This could be looked at in at least two ways. Human beings as alienated consumers go to Michael’s to fulfill their homo faber instincts only to unintentionally further alienate themselves from their TV watching former friends. Or…it happens that yesterday I heard an interview with a sociologist who insisted that the romanticism at the heart of some anti-globalization talk forgets the opportunities that global capitalism creates opportunities for new forms of solidarity. In this scenario, one can imagine people meeting happily at Michael’s to share macramé, popsicle stick art, and talk of the overthrow of the petit bourgeois craft store-farmer’s market complex!

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