For Marx, labor is the „exchange of material and intellectual goods between nature and man” and as such is a way by which nature and man are humanized. It is the creator of all social wealth; the means for transforming nature into useful objects; the means by which natural forces are mastered and used to liberate man from his dependency on natural elements; the basic existential and essential way by which sociability is created; the way through which man realizes his creative potential and creates his own world; the basic way by which man reproduces himself as an authentic and independent being; the way in which the emancipatory potential of matter and living nature is reached; the basic opportunity for a „leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom” (Engels) and the creation of a humane (communist) society… As such, labor is „life’s prime want“ (Marx) and the activity that enables man to optimize the chances of humanity’s survival.
Marx criticizes capitalist (industrial) labor because in it man is the slave of capital; because man becomes part of the (industrial) production processes based on the division of labor and the mechanical repetition of work efforts, which damages man’s physical and mental health; because work is performed under inhuman conditions; because, through labor, nature becomes alienated as man’s „anorganic body“; because it exhausts the soil by depriving it of fecundity… „Alienated labor” is possible because man is „more” than a mere instrument of labor or the hired hand to which he has been reduced. „Alienated labor” involves man’s distancing from capitalist labor, as a libertarian and universal‐creative (playing) being. Man created his own chains through labor and alienated himself from his authentic playing being; however, at the same time he developed the creative powers that enable him to obtain a libertarian‐creative consciousness. The dialectics of praxis is based on a conflict between man’s creative faculties and the impossibility of realizing them in any way that will affirm him as a human being, and will create a humane world.
One of the most important characteristics of capitalist labor is that it creates a time off from work or a potentially free‐time, when workers can improve their education, organize themselves to fight for their labor, civil or human rights. Marcuse cites Marx’s view of how free time affects man: „Free time transforms its possessor into a different subject, and, as a different subject, he enters the process of immediate production.“ (32) Here it should be added: as a potentially different subject – provided that it is really about free time and not just some putative „free time” that is used to reproduce the ruling relations and values, as is the case with the leading forms of play. Leisure time is not an abstract, but has a concrete historical nature: though non‐working time is „free” from work, it is not free from capitalism nor from the consequences for the worker: mutilation of his erotic being, physical and mental degradation of man and his interpersonal relations… Marcuse creates the psychological profile of a future man in relation to the man‐laborer, who creates use‐ values, and not in relation to the man‐destructor, who has become part of a destructive working‐consuming machine. By becoming a homo faber, man has suppressed and lost his authentic human qualities (erotic nature), which reached its peak in capitalist society, as a „technical civilization”, where man was both dehumanized and denaturalized. Marcuse fails to realize that technical progress in capitalism is not only an „instrument of domination and exploitation“, but a weapon for obliterating the living world, climate, man as a biological and human being, interpersonal relations… In addition, technical progress has created such devastating industrial plants (above all, nuclear power plants) and military facilities that can annihilate humanity in a matter of seconds.
In „consumer society”, work and non‐work time have become the constituent parts of capitalist time: time for production and time for consumption. Also, the content of non‐ work time is conditioned by class relations, by seeking to use non‐work time in the defense of the ruling order. The bourgeoisie tries to prevent non‐work time from becoming free time for the oppressed. Stadiums, designed according to the Roman Colosseum, were built at the end of the 19th century, when workers had won the right to an eight‐hour work‐day, in order to keep the „working masses” under control during non‐work hours. The predominant forms of play, which were to become the cheapest principal spiritual food for workers, occupied most of their non‐work time and as such were the „free time” imposed on workers by the bourgeoisie. Non‐work time could not be allowed to become time for the development of workers’ self‐conscious. It was, instead, to be the means by which they are drawn into the intellectual orbit of the bourgeoisie for the purposes of capital reproduction, which means it is consumer time. This is particularly important today when, due to the imposed dynamics of innovation necessary to survive in the market, instead of plants and equipment, man has become the most important „capital investment”. The force that now drives capitalism is the creative mind, suggesting the objective possibilities for a libertarian totalization of the world by a (liberated) mankind are created.
Apart from capitalist labor based on the principle of profit, history has known other, substantially different, images of labor. Labor has been seen as a means for the satisfaction of human needs, a realization of man’s erotic nature toward the attainment of a „higher purpose”. For Luther, labor is a „service to God”. Fourier insists on an anthropological starting point. The nature of labor is determined by man’s erotic nature: labor becomes a „festivity”. In Fromm, labor has a personal character and an artistic dimension. In Anti‐Dühring, Engels writes about the „productive labor that, instead of being a means of subordination, becomes the means for human liberation, offering to each individual a chance to improve his faculties, both physical and mental, and apply them in all spheres, thus turning labor into a gratification instead of a burden”. (33) Marx criticizes externally imposed labor, where man is a hired hand, and advocates for the labor of free people as being „life’s prime want”. Writing on the subject of labor in a socialist society, Marx concludes: „Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized men, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it, nonetheless, still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the work‐day is its basic prerequisite.“ (34) These ideas are characteristically based on an abstract anthropological picture of man as a reasonable, artistic and libertarian being. In light of the increasingly dramatic global decline, the nature of labor in the future will be conditioned by the consequences of the destructive practices of capitalism. In order to become „life’s prime want”, labor must first become an existential imperative. By destroying natural living conditions, capitalism has forced humanity to deal with the issues that threaten its survival. In other words, in order for man to realize his potential as a universal creative being of freedom, labor must first heal the consequences of capitalist „progress”. The existential challenges posed by capitalism as a destructive totalitarian order will condition the character of labor in the future, the character of man’s relation to nature and the character of his overall living and social engagement.
The true ideal of labor (in the sense of both praxis and poiesis) cannot be reached from a fragmentized world, but only from the assumption of man as a totalizing creative being, because labor appears as one of the specific forms in which man’s universal creative being is manifest. The idea that play is possible only in relation to work assumes that the starting point is play and not man as a playing being and the agent of the totalization (humanization) of social life and nature, including labor as an interpersonal relation and man’s self‐creating activity. Instead of alienated labor and play, man should be the starting point, as a universal creative being who relates to labor in the entirety of his totalizing libertarian and life‐creating practice. Then, it will not be possible to apply the mechanistic scheme of the „reciprocating effect of play on labor“, with man being solely a mediator between social spheres alienated from him. The elimination of the duality of work and play requires that man no longer be consider in the dual role of homo faber and homo ludens but becomes an emancipated homo libertas.
As for the abolition of labor, in analyzing the processes of automation, Marcuse refers to Marx’s view of labor: „In the technique of pacification, aesthetic categories would enter to the degree that the productive machinery is constructed with a view toward the free play of faculties. But against all ‘technological Eros’ and similar misconceptions, ‘labor cannot become play…’ Marx’s statement rigidly precludes all romantic interpretation of the ‘abolition of labor’. The idea of such a millennium is as ideological in advanced industrial civilization as it was in the Middle Ages, and perhaps even more so. For man’s struggle with Nature is increasingly a struggle with his society, whose powers over the individual become more ‘rational’ and therefore more necessary than ever before. However, while the realm of necessity continues, its organization with a view to qualitatively different ends would change not only the mode, but also the extent of socially necessary production. And this change in turn would affect the human agents of production and their needs…” (35) Man’s struggle with nature is no longer a „struggle with his society”, but, above all, it is a struggle with capitalism, where the ruling ratio is but a manifestation of the destructive irrationalism of capitalism. Also, alienated (destructive) labor does not result in free time, but in non‐ work time, which becomes consumer time, when man destroys goods in order to open up space in the market. Capitalism turns work and non‐work time into time for the reproduction of the dominant relations and values, which means that work and „free“ time have become ways of a totalizing capitalistic temporalisation.
The development of automation is capitalism’s greatest contribution to the abolition of labor as an exhausting physical activity and to the creation of technical possibilities for a radical reduction of labor time. However, in the current state of capitalist reproduction, automation in itself, rather than doing away with it, makes repression more impersonal and efficient. The limitless potential of scientific and technological advances is not based on the limitless potential of the development of capitalism, but on the limitless potential of the development of man’s creative faculties. Capitalism has set those faculties into motion and has directed the effects of their evolution toward the destruction of life. The „power of technology” has become capitalistically degenerated man’s creative power. The real value of technological development is not in the creation of „material wealth”, but in the development of the creative powers that enable man to preserve and humanize life. In this context, genuine play becomes possible. Man’s playing being can be optimally developed only when work becomes a form of the free expression of man’s universal creative powers. Then play will not be opposed to work, as some activity compensating for a lack of humanity, but a creative activity complementary to work, the highest form of man’s spontaneous realization as a creative being. The more man is capable of freely expressing his creative personality through his labor, the more freely and completely will his playing being express itself in play – and this will be a new incentive to a humanistic innovation of the working process. The fact that work is a purposeful and rational activity does not mean that the way by which its goals are reached cannot contribute to man’s humanization, but that work should acquire an increasingly artistic character. Even work that involves the possibility of man’s creative expression can be playing, but it will not be as complete and spontaneous as play in which man fully affirms his playing being – as in the play of love making that is the creation of the human being in the purest sense.
A radical shortening of working time is inevitable if work is no longer the means for capitalist reproduction, but the means for developing and meeting genuine human needs. The establishment of production for human needs eliminates the production of the unnecessary and the superfluous and introduces the production of the necessary, the main qualities of which are functionality and endurance. It enables a radical shortening of the time necessary to produce the goods and services needed for a normal life. Man, as an emancipated creative being, and society, as the community of free people, are the sources of genuine human needs.
In view of capitalism becoming a totalitarian destructive order, labor can become an authentic creative activity only as part of man’s struggle for freedom and with the increased likelihood of humanity’s survival. With this in mind, Marx’s ideas in Capital about the freedom of labor in a socialist society gain their concrete emancipatory value. Capitalist development of the productive forces has been dilatory to the development of workers’ creative powers as well as to their ability to take control of social life. The emancipatory potential of the productive forces should be „shifted” from the sphere of material production to the sphere of a political practice that seeks to prevent the destruction of life and create a new world. The most important form of life‐creating practice is no longer labor, but a struggle to eradicate the causes of the imminent destruction of life. Only through a political struggle against capitalism can workers acquire a modern class, with an emancipated and ecological self‐consciousness, without its being reduced to an instrument for the destruction of humanity and nature. In capitalism, the worker putatively produces social goods. What he actually produces is the destruction of life. Contemporary agriculture does not produce healthy food, but poison in the form of agricultural products, while, at the same time, ruining the soil; medicine and pharmaceutics, rather than curing people, produce more sick people and genetically degenerate man; education does not create reasonable people, but specialty‐idiots; sport does not lead to human achievements, but rather destroys man as a human and biological being; „information media” do not bother to provide information about the most important issues, but rather conceal the important data and create mass idiocy…
Contemporary capitalism has „unified” the existential and the essential spheres: the fight for freedom becomes an existential necessity, and the struggle for survival becomes the basic libertarian challenge. The spheres of labor, art and play are no longer the starting points for libertarian practice. Instead, the starting point is man as a totalizing life‐creating being, who perceives his entire life at the existential‐essential level, that is, in the context of the fight against capitalism, which has transformed natural laws, social institutions and man into a vehicle for the destruction of life. In that context, labor, through which man’s life‐ creative powers are being realized and a genuine human world created, becomes an essential activity. As the present day production of commodities (goods) concomitantly brings on the destruction of life, in that very same way, in a future society, production of commodities will mean production of healthy living conditions and the creation of a healthy man. In the future, the basic task of humanity will be to re‐establish environmental balance and, thus, create living conditions in which man can survive. The development of productive forces, labor processes, themselves, leisure time activities ‐ practically all of life ‐ will be subordinated to it. The fight for survival has at once become the contemporary „realm of necessity”, and man will come out of it as a totalized life‐creating being.