Understanding Labor through Marx, Hegel and Smith Essay

            Karl Marx, Adam Smith and Friedrich Hegel conceptualized labor as a measure and locus for either freedom or otherwise - Understanding Labor through Marx, Hegel and Smith Essay introduction. For the most part, Hegel’s work The Phenomenology of Spirit raises the critical proposition regarding the dialectic between the slave and the master that every individual, in order to truly become self-conscious, should enter into a struggle between life and death. In his work The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argues that labor is paramount and that the attainment of an overwhelming increase in production can be achieved through the division of labor. On the other hand, Karl Marx offers us ‘historical materialism’ which points the idea that the developments in modes of production ultimately lead to communism in connection to his labor theory of value.

            Hegel espouses the idea that a bondsman can reach self-consciousness through his mortal fear even if he is placed under subjugation. In order to better understand Hegel’s slave and master dialectic, it is important to note that Hegel provides us his idea of how we think about others using our ‘self’ as basis. As Hegel puts it, “consciousness simultaneously distinguishes itself from something (Hegel, p. 52).” That is, whenever we think of another person we barely know, we tend to make use of the behaviors of that person that we observe. Through that observed behavior, we then tend to use our personal understanding in interpreting the behavior of the person. For instance, whenever my head aches, I scratch my head. I observe person B scratching his head, then it must be the case that person B’s head aches based on my personal understanding. The opposite can also be true, such that person B interprets my behavior depending on that person’s personal understanding. Thus, two individuals become two ‘others’ and two ‘selves’ both at the same time.

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            In terms of the master and the slave, it can also be said that each thinks about the other in terms of the self. The process between the two is that one person reflects the other in terms of the self, the other reflects the person in terms of the other’s self, and so forth. Apparently, the situation turns into a loop or a cycle, and the only way to end this, as Hegel suggests, is for the two individuals to fight. Eventually, there would have to be a winner and a loser, and the winning individual becomes the master while the loser becomes the slave. Yet it does not completely end at the point where there is now a master and a slave. Rather, the loophole is finally broken when the two self-conscious individuals, the master and the slave, work together in a situation of cooperation and that, in a larger sense, economic cooperation supersedes the primitive relationship of slave and master. In the end, the objects created by the laborer or the slave, or the fruits of his labor, guarantees his self-conscious existence.

            While Hegel treats labor as an integral part of the affirmation of the self-conscious existence of the laborer, Adam Smith treats labor more in economic terms, especially in the maximizing the products of labor. Smith further captures the value of labor with respect to the source of value of certain objects such as diamonds. Thus, labor is truly paramount to the production of certain goods. Perhaps the crux of the work of Smith revolves around his emphasis not only on labor but more importantly on the division of labor which is the result of “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another (Smith, p. 14).” Equally significant is his treatment of the number of hours of labor in terms of exchanging the goods as the source of the goods’ value.

            Thus, it can be seen that Adam Smith treats labor as the core of the value of goods and that the division of labor creates a corresponding increase in the production of goods. The essence of Smith’s treatment of labor is impressed more in economic terms whereas Hegel places labor in the context of the objects produced by the laborer as one which verifies the self-conscious existence of the slave or the laborer. This is apparent especially because Hegel appears to be more concerned with the study of the consciousness from the point of view of the person.

            Karl Marx, apart from Smith and Hegel, views labor in the context of history such that there are means of production like technology and natural resources which are needed for the production of goods. Marx also espouses the idea that there are relations of production or the relations people engage themselves into as these people acquire and eventually make use of such resources. When the means of production and the relations of production are taken together, Marx argues that the result is that of the modes of production and that through time these modes of production change, such as the changes from the feudal mode to the capitalist mode.

            In essence, the labor of man in the capitalist setting is alienated from man in the sense that a capitalist mode of production gives focus on the value of the object produced from labor and not on labor itself or the human qualities involved in the production of the object. Thus, the capitalist setting actually denies rather than affirms man, and that the more man produces goods out of his labor the more he is alienated precisely because value is given not to the qualities needed for the production of the object but on the object itself. This is perhaps one of the many points where a distinction can be made among Marx, Hegel and Smith.

            Thus, according to Marx, in order to remove the alienation of man from his labor, there should be a “renewed commitment to excellence, character and fundamentals (Marx and Engels, p. 344).” It is hence safe to assume that Marx admits that there is an inherent flaw in the mode of production, and that the change to a communist mode of production requires an active change, one which is led by the proletariats or the working class. Indeed, Marx is aiming at a communist society and that, eventually, the society will have to transform into one. On the other hand, Smith may very well argue that division of labor should all the more be established in order to increase the goods produced since man basically dwells in a society of constant exchanges, trades or purchases. The argument of Smith may very well stand in contrast to that of Marx in the sense that, while Smith argues that there ought to be division of labor in increasing the production of goods, there is the implication that Smith is giving more focus on the number of goods that are to be produced. This focus on the goods may go against the belief of Marx that the focus should be on the labor power and labor of man instead on the objects produced.

            As for Hegel, his phenomenology regarding the master and slave gives us the impression that labor and laborers are consequences of a struggle for self-consciousness, and that objects produced in the laboring of a laborer for a master as a matter of economic cooperation affirms the existence or self-consciousness of the laborer instead of the belief of Marx that it alienates him from his labor in the end. While Hegel believes that the economic relation between the master and slave is a product of a struggle, Marx believes that the struggle goes beyond mere masters and slaves. That struggle for Marx is one which is a class struggle which will ultimately result to the victory of the working class and, hence, the establishment of a communist society. As for Smith, it can be argued that a division of labor may also be present in a communist society, only that the distinction rests on the fact that Smith is more inclined to give more attention to the valuation of the goods although, to a certain extent, he also gives his insights on how certain objects acquire their worth through labor.

            In general, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Friedrich Hegel treat labor as parts and parcels of their philosophies. Much of their thoughts remain a critical point of discussion in today’s standards precisely because the ways in which they tackle labor provide informative insights on how to have a wider understanding of the concept of labor and the other concepts related to it.

Works cited

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Consciousness.”  Trans. A. V. Miller. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 52.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Capital, Volume One.”  The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. 344.

Smith, Adam. “On the Principle Which Gives Occassion to the Division of Labour.”  The Wealth of Nations. New ed. New York: Modern Library, 2000. 14.


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