by Ellie Peters
One occupational hazard of teaching great books is the number of small personal crises that come to punctuate everyday life. My most recent such moment happened in the toy aisle at my local Target. I was combing through Barbies, Lego sets, and the latest versions of Monopoly in search of something to give my two-year old for Christmas. Nothing particularly excited me, and there was nothing I could think of that he actually needed. My limited parenting experience told me he would get more entertainment out of the box and wrapping paper than the actual item anyway. But it seemed bad form simply not to buy my child a Christmas gift. So there I stood. I had just settled on a few matchbox cars when my thoughts were interrupted by Karl Marx. “Alienated Labor,” which had sparked such lively discussion in one of my classes, now seemed to cast a cloud over my previously uncomplicated Target excursion, as I was struck by how alienated the process of giving Christmas gifts had become for me.
Whatever you think of his other ideas, Marx’s main point in this essay still resonates. Workers across all trades and professions often seem alienated from their labor. That is to say, the work that a person does while at his job is “not his own.” Rather, it belongs to his employer and customers, those who directly benefit from his work. If you have ever punched a time-card or found yourself counting the hours until the weekend, perhaps you can relate. According to Marx, this kind of alienation exists in multiple aspects of the worker’s life. Most immediately, he is alienated both from the activity of labor and from the things his labor creates. Think of an employee in a restaurant kitchen. The main activity of his work is cooking, and the product of his efforts is the restaurant’s food. But neither of these really belong to him. He doesn’t eat what he cooks. The restaurant’s customers do. Moreover, he doesn’t cook out of his own culinary inspiration or even to meet his own basic nutritional needs. He does it because the restaurant’s success (and his paycheck) depend upon it. In fact, if asked whether or not he would want to do an extra, unpaid shift at the restaurant or stay home and do what he liked, he would almost certainly pick the latter. This is because in a very real way, his actions while on the job and the products of those actions are not really his. They don’t belong to his unique personhood. They belong to someone else.
This alienation from his actions and products ultimately causes the worker to become alienated from other people as well. For example, consider his relationships with his employer and customers. He does not stand on equal footing with them. They are the people who “own” his actions and who take the products that he makes. In a very real way, they are the masters and he is the servant. He does not, therefore, view them as fellow members of the human race, but as alien forces that hinder his ability to fulfill his own wants and needs. Rather than existing in harmony with them, he exists in opposition to them.
Though our culture accepts exhaustion, constraints on freedom and lack of personal fulfillment as a nearly inevitable part of working life, Marx argues that being estranged from one’s work in this way actually leads to far graver consequences. For him, the thing that makes humans special is our self-consciousness. Unlike animals, we are not ignorant of ourselves. We have a distinct sense of who we are, what we want, and how we ought to be. We can make choices and intentionally shape our lives. Rather than simply surviving, we can pursue things such as excellence, beauty, and wisdom. To borrow Marx’s language, we are capable of going beyond mere existence and achieving true being. But when we do not belong to ourselves—that is, when someone else owns and benefits from our activity—we lose this uniquely human capability. And while the wages that we get in exchange for our work may give us the means to exist, they cannot enable us to truly be. A life of alienated labor is therefore a counterfeit. A person goes about the actions of a true human life without inhabiting what it means to truly be human.
As insightful as these ideas are in the area of working life, I have realized that they also describe my recent experience with Christmas presents. Gift-giving has the potential to be a very meaningful activity. When someone invests their resources, efforts, and creativity into giving a particular thing to a particular person, they are in a way, giving themselves. The gift ceases to be an inanimate object and becomes incarnate with the spirit of the giver. The result can be a powerful gesture of appreciation, affirmation, or even love. But this practice quickly loses its meaning when the givers fail to put themselves into their gifts. And just as Marx describes several ways in which people can be alienated from their work, so I have found that there are multiple ways in which gift-giving has become an alienated experience for me.
On one hand, I often feel alienated from the activity of buying presents. Perhaps this is partly because giving Christmas gifts feel like a cultural requirement rather than something that flows from my own spontaneous motives. Perhaps in the midst of the busyness of the winter season, I just find it difficult to put extensive thought and intentionality into Christmas shopping. Whatever the reason, I find that I easily lapse into an automatic and disinterested attitude when selecting gifts. I end up half-heartedly wandering Target aisles and Amazon pages, more interested in having the task done than I am in finding something meaningful for the people I love. This emotional indifference easily bleeds into my manner of actually giving the gift. Convenience makes it so easy to cut corners on things like a card, a carefully-done wrapping job, or even a brief verbal explanation for why I chose what I did. Stripped of these personal touches, my presents begin to feel less and less as if they really come from me.
This sense of alienation often extends to the items that I give. For example, I recently asked my mom for some Christmas gift ideas for herself. She promptly emailed me a link to a waffle iron that she had her eye on. Three clicks of a mouse, and her present was purchased, shipped, and crossed off my list. Since I did this without any intentional thought or attachment to that particular thing, I couldn’t help but wonder who was giving the gift to whom. Technically, I was the giver and my mother was the recipient. But it seemed like there was more of her personhood wrapped up in it than mine.
Unsurprisingly, I find that gifts chosen with such a sense of detachment have little, if any, relational power to them. As much as thoughtful gifts have the potential to communicate love to the recipient, this potential is diluted when the giver is alienated from the gift. To return to the anecdote about my mom and the waffle iron, I realized in retrospect that it would be obvious to her that I had bought the first thing that she had suggested. And while she may in the end be pleased with the waffle iron, it would not express any of the unique things that I appreciate about her and about our relationship. Rather than being a meaningful gesture, it would just be an inanimate thing wrapped up in paper. It was a counterfeit, having all of the external features of a true gift without embodying what it means to truly give.
At this point, a qualification is probably in order. At the end of the day, I do not think that it is realistic to expect every gift we give to achieve the height of meaningfulness. I don’t believe that buying things is of the devil or that it is wrong to ask people for gift suggestions. I am not yet ready to abandon the tradition of giving and receiving presents on Christmas. But nor can I escape the growing conviction that for this tradition to do what it is supposed to, I must find a way to reclaim it for myself as an invested and integrated activity. Christmas, after all, is our celebration of the Incarnation, the moment in history when the living God chose to inhabit what it means to be human in the most complete way and, in doing so, set into motion the restoring of all things. What a loss if I marked this moment of embodiment and reconciliation with a practice of detachment and alienation. Last week, my family and I finished up a package of presents for my in-laws. They live hundreds of miles away, and due to the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 we will once again be spending this major holiday apart from them. The things that we bought could easily have been sent directly to their house and gift-wrapped for us by Amazon. But I instead had them shipped to us. We wrapped them ourselves, re-packed them into a new box, and added a Christmas card that our son had colored and a few dozen homemade cookies. I then loaded the package into the car with my two small children and took it to the post office to mail. This was not the most convenient way to do it. But I had the sense that, this year especially, it was important that the presents really came from us.
Ellie Peters is a teacher from St. Paul, Minnesota. She is passionate about life-giving conversations and attempts to foster them both in her classrooms and at her dining room table. When not spending time with her husband and son, she can be found developing new culinary skills, enjoying a good book, or tackling the occasional knitting project.
header image: “Antique Mall Santa,” 2018 © Jon Balsbaugh