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I have been wondering lately if Karl Marx would have been for or against workers having the choice to work from home.

I only have a general knowledge of who Karl Marx was and about his overall philosophy concerning worker equality and working conditions. I have not read any of his books nor have I read any books about Marxism.

Would Karl Marx have been for or against workers having the choice to work from home?

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    He worked from home... Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 13:36
  • Please clarify your specific problem or provide additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it's hard to tell exactly what you're asking.
    – Meanach
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 18:14
  • @Meanach, I edited the question to make it more clear about what I am asking for.
    – user57467
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 15:00

2 Answers 2

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I would recommend reading Das Kapital. The thesis is that employers exploit workers. So if the employer prefers employees to work at home, then it only for his own ends. Like saving a ton on office space. Historically, piece workers at home are greatly exploited. Related measures like zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment are similar exploitative scams. So, Marx would have been against it.

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In all honesty the guy died 140 years ago when industrial capitalism was an upcoming phenomena so if you were to literally interrogate the zombie Marx, he would probably misunderstand what you're talking about.

Like the concept of a "job" is pretty novel. Previously, as a worker you'd likely have worked in agriculture, either as a slave-like worker or in some sort of renting agreement where you're given a plot of land and in return give up parts of your harvest and subscribe for military service when required. If you were slightly better off you might have learned a craftsman skill and produced goods and services likely to be meant for local trade, bespoke goods and consumption. And unless you are wealthy enough to rent separate rooms for that, you'd be likely to do that at home. So you'd be "working from home".

Though with the industrial revolution things changed, massively. Instead of unique, custom made products by a local producers, first manufacturing and later mechanized production allowed for the production of products in breathtaking quantities and at comparable standards. So you had the introduction of "commodities", that is fungible products meant solely for sale and transaction.

Which Marx was near certain would push all of these artisan producers out of business rather sooner than later, because he expected that people are just interested in the functionality and they could get that to prices and in quantities that no small business owner could compete with.

And contrary to popular believe he seems to have been a huge fan of that. Increase in productivity, decrease in necessary labor to attain a useful product all sounds pretty sweet. The liberation of the workers from work and welfare for everyone through increased productivity, instead of an endless zero-sum-game over stuff that is too scarce for everyone.

The problem is that not just the products became fungible but also the work and in consequence the worker. So where an artisan craftsman took several years learning from masters to become one themselves and delivered unique forms of functional art, signed or branded with their own name. The manufacturing production is algorithmic. So compare it with a Chef and a McDonald's kitchen worker. The chef produces a unique Menu reflecting their own skill level and the restaurant likely bears their name, while McDonald's produces the same product everywhere, the restaurant bears the name/brand of the owner not the chef and the "kitchen chefs" of McDonald's don't even have the freedom to design their product but just go through a set of steps and might not even do the whole product but just a part of it.

So Marx saw an alienation of the worker from their work and a commodification of work. And also it was pretty obvious that the increased productivity largely accumulated with the capitalists, that is those with access to capital rather (bosses, factory owners etc) than with the workers despite the fact that he extended Adam Smith's labor theory of value, arguing that the jump in value between resources and products is the labor added to it (there's also a whole range of values related to exchange, supply and demand, usability etc in that theory but labor is where he argues that the value stems from while the rest relates more to the price which can fluctuate more).

And the production cycle of capital -> buying labor -> creating product -> more capital is geared towards increasing that inequality between laborer and capitalist. That is between people who can recruit people to work for them and those who have to let themselves be recruited to make a living and as they are fungible and as the amount of people required for production drops, so does the price of labor or from the perspective of the laborer: their reciprocation for their work.

And the important difference between a worker and a capitalist was technically merely the ownership of the means of production or the lack thereof. Like if the owner of McDonald's calls in sick the employees could still buy stuff, make burgers sell them and share the loot, the owner needs the workers, but the workers don't need the owner, especially if it's all reduced to low skill fungible jobs that everyone can do with little to no training.

Now as said Marx was in the beginning or the middle of that trend and thought of it as just the beginning and was kinda expecting it to go full force until there are two distinct classes (workers and owners), with the inequality so staggering that it becomes unbearable and then a revolution would happen the masses of workers would obviously be victorious because there are way more and they are essential for things to work so if they just perform a general strike that alone would be a revolution bringing any system relying on their productivity to it's knees.

Things turned out differently though. Before the staggering inequality and the collapse even conservative capitalists had to adopt some level of welfare (social security, retirement, healthcare, etc.) workers organized in unions demanded better working conditions and so on. So rather than the pipe bursting from all the social pressure, it released steam in an often more controlled manner, thus as a consequence also keeping a lot of these sources of social tension. Also democracy improved considerably from a pass time for the rich, barely more inclusive than a regular hereditary aristocracy, to actual universal, active and passive suffrage. Though being rich is still more likely to be well known and thus elected. Also "The party" that Marx described was likely a mass movement dedicated to the cause of the workers (to get ownership of the means of production), yet under Lenin returned back to a previously floated idea of a vanguard party that has a minority with populist rhetoric make the revolution first and then gets the workers on board, which has been successful in getting to power and far less successful in doing good with that power. Also where Marx seems to have been pretty convinced that the productive economy would take over the agricultural supremacy in the make up of the economy but nowadays both fell behind the service sector and where agricultural and industrial societies can sustain themselves by themselves a service economy is reliant on those. And not all work became low skill, in fact new jobs with a higher skill level emerged so you still have "professionals" and not the "everybody can do everything attitude" or at least "everybody can do nearly everything if you give them several years of training and education" so fungibility on a longer time scale.

So in his time he would have probably rejected the concept as a relic of the past and would have been more geared towards industrial production. Though when it's not about division of labor and organized production but just where you do it and where it really doesn't actually matter where you do it. He would likely not have cared that much about it or would have never thought about it at all given how utopian that would have sounded in his time.

Like on the one hand it allows agency to the worker to structure their own work day rather than having their labor be consumed by their boss. On the other hand they could still apply a strict supervision model where you have an even more radical invasion of the private sphere (though not sure that was that much of a thing in marx's time anyway at least for the poor that is a pretty novel luxury, like think of how much private space a homeless person can enjoy for example). Also the lack of contact with other workers in a similar situation as yourself makes it more difficult to organize and to see one's struggles as unique and unimportant when you might actually be part of a majority that remains silent as everyone only sees themselves.

So I'm skeptical Marx would even have a distinct answer given that he decidedly focused on the problem of his time and while some of them still exist in our time, that is likely not a case of that.

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    This answer helps me better understand the issues, and how much things have changed since Marx's time. Just the change and reduction of agriculture alone would pretty much invalidate a lot of his perspective.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 0:52

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